Are the Gentiles included in Israel?

Μὴ γένοιτο! No way! Gentiles don’t need to be included in Israel. In fact, the opposite is true; we Gentiles are saved by faith in Christ without being included in Israel. That’s one of the apostle Paul’s big points in Romans and Galatians.

We are, of course, included in the promises given to Abraham (Rom 4:11, 16; Gal 3:7). But being a child of Abraham is not the same as being a member of Israel. That’s why Paul says that Abraham is the Father of many nations (Rom 4:17-18), not that Abraham is the father of one nation, Israel, that has somehow been redefined or expanded to include other nations. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are united, not in Israel, but in the promises to Abraham and ultimately in Christ.

The idea that the Gentiles are included in Israel is one of the (if not the) fundamental exegetical mistakes of the New Perspective on Paul.

PS that’s probably why Paul almost always speaks of the church using familial terms, such as “children” and “sons”, rather than political terms (i.e. as a “people”, which is a political word).

Gadenz, Pablo T. Called from the Jews and from the Gentiles: Pauline Ecclesiology in Romans 9–11. Edited by Jörg Frey, WUNT II.267. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009, esp. page 82.

9 responses to “Are the Gentiles included in Israel?”

  1. But what about the olive tree? Or of the application of very Israel-dominant images to gentiles (such as Ex 19)?

    I know there are many exegetical points to check, but that’s not really what I have in mind.

    ISTM supercessionism has been well and truly called out for doing away with the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. That’s good news.

    But I also feel that there’s a swing too far, at times. That some have prematurely ruled out the possibility that, occasionally, the NT will say that gentiles ARE included in Israel.

    IOW, I am happy to say that the dominant images assert Jew-gentile distinctiveness. But I’m not (yet) confident that ‘dominant’ equals ‘exclusive’.

    Does that make sense?

    • Hi Chris. Yep, your point does make sense. But I just disagree. Three things.

      1) We need to strongly affirm that the Gentiles are included in the promises to Abraham, while simultaneously (IMO) denying that the Gentiles are included in Israel. This is (IMO) what Paul does in Galatians. This simultaneous affirmation and denial is what is going to prevent any “swing” going too far. More importantly, this simultaneous affirmation and denial is really important; Paul thought it was so important that he called down curses on people who didn’t engage in it.

      2) Yes, there are a number of exegetical points to check, and I’m becoming more convinced that when they are checked, you won’t find that they say that the Gentiles are included in Israel. The olive tree affirms that the Gentiles share in the promises to Abraham (the root), not that the Gentiles are included in Israel (the reference at the end of my post makes this point at very great length). The application of very Israel-dominant images to Gentiles (if that is what’s happening in these allusions and quotations of Exodus 19) simply affirms that many of the privileges that are said to belong to Israel in the OT can be said to belong to Gentiles, because they share in the promises to Abraham, which is more fundamental than belonging to Israel.

      3) Actually, I think that the dominant images and statement in the NT (especially Paul) assert Jew-Gentile equality – because Abraham and Christ are more fundamental than Israel. So I have to say that I also disagree with the paragraph where you thought you were agreeing with me 😉

  2. Thanks L

    Yes, ‘dominant’ is not right. I was tired of writing using my index finger on a ‘phone, so abbreviated a few thoughts into a single word! The main Jew-gentile reality is indeed equality in Christ.

    But I am far from convinced that you’ve proved a negative (‘denying that the Gentiles are included in Israel’). Admittedly, proving a negative is very hard to do. But we can’t simply switch it to a positive – which I thnk you have done in 2) (‘that Gentiles are included in Israel’).

    I want to be careful in drawing conclusions, also, because the options are not always either-or. So if Paul makes the denial in Galatians that you suggest, we cannot thereby conclude that this is the only exegetical – or even theological – truth. It could be that gentiles are both included and not included in Israel.

    Now I am not doing the text & theological work on all this, of course. And you are! Hence the preponderance of ‘could be’. But I am reflecting on the strength of the arguments I hear from time to time. I sense some conclusions go a little further than the evidence as presented allows.

    • [Note on editing: I expanded this comment a few minutes after first writing it]

      Thanks Chris! I agree it’s right to analyse the logic and not move from a lack of affirmation to a denial. But I don’t think that’s what I’m doing.

      In some texts, like Galatians and Romans 4, where the issue is being treated directly, I think that Paul is denying that the Gentiles are not included in Israel, and that he is telling his readers that this is a very important gospel issue. In other texts which people often point to as examples to show that the Gentiles are included in Israel, like the olive tree of Romans 11, I think that the affirmation that the Gentiles are included in Israel cannot be found.

      I haven’t, in this post, proved that Paul denies that the Gentiles are included in Israel. In this post I simply asserted that this denial was present. If you want me to try to convince you, my proof w.r.t. Galatians 4 can be found in this series of posts:

      Romans 4 has a similar kind of logic, although it is dealing with slightly different issues.

      Hence I can find a number of strenuous denials that the Gentiles are included in Israel, and I cannot find any affirmations of this statement, particularly in the texts that people commonly point to. I can, of course, find a number of strong affirmations that the Gentiles are included in the promises to Abraham, which people sometimes assume mean that the Gentiles are included in Israel. But I can’t find any texts that say that the Gentiles are included in Israel. Hence, while of course I concede that it’s theoretically possible that “gentiles are both included and not included in Israel”, I can’t see any text which argues for the former. I’m not ruling out the possibility, just saying that it’s not to be found.

      Having said that, most of my exegetical work is limited to Paul. It’s true that there’s even more work to be done in books like 1 Peter, and even more in Revelation, which contains the most striking Israel imagery, but so far as I read these books I can’t see any affirmations that the Gentiles are included in Israel either.

      Cheers, Lionel

  3. Yeah, sounds like plenty to do. I was thinking of 1 Peter, and Rev. Then also of if there’s room for theological development (a la trinity) that has fewer immediate exegetical pointers …

    Anyway, I’m way out of my depth.

    Thanks for the chat! Regards to you and the good lady of yours from the Little people.

  4. What do you think Paul means by his expression “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16? Certainly Calvin thought that it meant both Jews and Gentiles – “The same manner of speaking we find in Galatians 6:16. The Israel of God is what he calls the Church, gathered alike from Jews and Gentiles;” (from his commentary on Romans 11:26).

    • Hi Andrew. I love Calvin, but I think he’s wrong on this one. I’m becoming more and more persuaded that Galatians 6:16 is also a reference to ethnic Israel. It’s either the true Christian Jews who are qualified to teach Gentiles in opposition to the false brothers, i.e. Christian Jews who were leading the Galatians astray (according to an article written decades ago by Donald Robinson), or an invocation of mercy on unbelieving Israel (according to an article written very recently by Susan Eastman, in New Testament Studies 56 (2010), 367-395). At the moment, I prefer Donald Robinson’s idea, but that might just be my own prejudice.