One of the most difficult set of verses in the Bible to understand is found in Romans 11:25-26a:
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved….(ESV).
There is a lot going on in these verses, so in this post I would like to focus on the meaning of two words, found in verse 26: “all Israel.” This is a crucial part of the Bible as this passage comes near the end of Romans 9-11, where Paul is making an extensive argument, trying to explain why so few Jews in his day were accepting Jesus as their Messiah. Paul is demonstrating that God has indeed kept his promises to Israel, and in these key verses, he is drawing his argument to a conclusion.
However, there are very different views as to who is meant by this “all Israel.” What does Paul mean by this? Let us examine the views and see if some sense can be made about this question.
Different Views of “All Israel”
Here are the different views:1
- Some say that “all Israel” means every single Jew who has ever lived. It is a very literal reading of the text, but it would then imply that every single Jew who has ever lived will be saved. The problem with this view is that we know that not every Jewish person throughout history has accepted Jesus as their Messiah. That being the case, the reader could conclude that there are two paths of salvation: one for the Christian, through faith in Jesus Christ, and a separate path for the Jewish person, apart from Jesus. However, this view creates a major conflict with the rest of the Bible. For example, Acts 4:12 is very emphatic that there is “no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Salvation is only through Jesus Christ. There can be no separate path, doing an end run around Jesus, that gets anyone to God. Not only that, it would really seem strange for Paul to have such anguish in his heart as to how lost his fellow Jews were without Christ (Romans 9:1-5, 11:1-2), only to eventually conclude that having Christ for the Jew was not really such a big deal after all. So, this viewpoint should be easily dismissed as nonsensical.
- Others say that “all Israel” means all Jews in Paul’s day. So, he is not talking about Jews across the entirety of time. This narrows the scope of “all,” but it still creates some of the same problems you get with the first view. This view, then, is highly unlikely to be correct as well.
- One of the most common views is that “all Israel” must be understood in the context of the End Times. In other words, “all Israel” would indicate that there will be great, mass conversion of unbelieving Jews who come to know Jesus as their Messiah, particularly when the Messiah returns for the Second Coming. Paul’s teaching about the olive tree in Romans 11 lends support to this view, as it indicates that the unbelieving Jews, as the cut off branches of the tree, can be grafted, and probably will be grafted, back into the one olive tree, when they finally believe. Furthermore, verse 25 provides the right context, suggesting that the “partial hardening” on Israel is temporary. Once “the fullness of the Gentiles have come in” is completed, then this would provide the opportunity for God to finish the work and bring in a large wave of believing Jews, to have faith in Jesus as their Messiah. Verse 26, the “and in this way all Israel will be saved” phrasing serves as a way of summarizing what is being aimed at from the previous verse (verse 25).
- Others view “all Israel” as being the church. This view suggests that Paul is redefining Israel to mean the New Testament church. Some go so far as suggesting that the church will be predominately Gentile. Therefore, this would indicate some type of replacement of the Jews with believing Gentiles.
- However, others view this above approach as being unwarranted and extreme, while still understanding that Israel has been redefined. Instead, the church must be understood as being made up of both Gentiles and Jews, together. In this sense, unbelieving Jews are pruned off of Paul’s olive tree, in Romans 11, and then believing Gentiles are grafted in. This is then followed by still more unbelieving Jews who do convert and become believers after all. Some advocates of this view say, as with an earlier view, that this signals a great mass conversion of Jews at the end of times to Jesus Christ, whereas others simply believe that both Jews and Gentiles share the same faith together in Christ when they experience salvation, with no indication of a special time of mass conversion that happens in the future.
- Nevertheless, the “all” part of “all Israel” is still a sticky point, particularly if Israel is the same as the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles. Some propose that “all” is not meant to be taken literally, but that it should rather be understood as being “many.” Otherwise, the “all” part might be misconstrued as an argument for universalism, meaning that every human person gets saved in the end, which is pretty difficult to imagine as something that Paul would endorse. That is a completely different discussion!!
That is a pretty diverse set of viewpoints. How do you sort through the various arguments to find the right one?
The fact that a number of serious evangelical Bible scholars do not completely agree on how to understand “all Israel” can be discouraging, but it only makes a difference if your whole theology hinges on the interpretation of this one verse. Scripture is very clear about a lot of things, but Scripture is not clear about everything. Take a look again at verse 25. Even Paul admits that there is a certain mystery here, that defies clear explanation.
But in case you might be tempted to throw up your hands in despair at so many conflicting interpretations, I would argue that there is hope. We can make some headway in understanding Paul’s identification of who is “all Israel.” I hope what follows might be helpful to you, just as it has been helpful to me.
Sorting Out Which View is Correct
I recently listened to an Internet podcast, the Naked Bible Podcast, by Michael Heiser, a Bible scholar for Logos Bible Software, who provides some great help in this area. Heiser’s argument is based on research that demonstrates how the Old Testament, the literature of the Second Temple2 period outside of the Bible, and the work of the Jewish historian, Josephus, all use the term “all Israel.” You might want to listen to his podcast to get the full picture, but I will try to summarize the highlights of this approach.
One basic rule of thumb in Bible interpretation is that we should allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. Where Scripture is unclear on a certain matter, we should go to other parts of the Bible that are clearer, and then see if those passages shed any light on the subject at hand. For example, if there is a passage from the New Testament than remains elusive to us, it might be a good idea to see if anything in the Old Testament can help us out. We can follow this rule when it comes to understanding the meaning of “all Israel.”
As it turns out, Romans 11:26 is the only place in the entire New Testament where the term “all Israel” is used. However, in the Old Testament, this terminology is used numerous times. For example, 1 Kings 5:13 is a perfect example of where the Old Testament speaks of “all Israel“:
King Solomon drafted forced labor out of all Israel, and the draft numbered 30,000 men (ESV).
In this case, “all Israel” refers to the covenant community of the people of God, namely the twelve tribes of Israel. Interestingly, once the nation of Israel gets divided into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, after Solomon’s reign, the understanding of Israel tends to vary, generally accommodating to the new political situation. For example, the Northern kingdom is often called, the house of Israel, and the Southern kingdom, the house of Judah. The Northern kingdom is made up ten of the tribes, whereas the Southern kingdom is made up of the other two tribes. But throughout the Old Testament, the writings of Josephus, and other Second Temple literature, the terminology of “all Israel” still retains its meaning of referring to the covenant community made up of the twelve tribes as a whole.
Something new happens once the Northern kingdom is defeated by the Assyrian conquest. The ten tribes of the Northern kingdom are effectively lost. We do not know what happened to them. They were probably absorbed into the Assyrian empire as slaves, but we have no definitive proof of this. This has led to all sorts of speculation as to what might have happened to these ten lost tribes.3
The Southern kingdom, however, continued on, until they were taken into captivity. This is where our English transliteration of Jew comes from. The term Jew was used as a description by outsiders, such as the Babylonians, to describe people from Judah, this Southern kingdom in exile (“Jew,” “Judah,” get it??). This outsider terminology of Jew eventually stuck, and so the ethnic descendants of Judah continued to use the term Jew to describe themselves, particularly when in conversation with non-Jews, otherwise known as Gentiles.4 In general, the term Jew is designated to refer to ethnic descendants from this surviving Southern kingdom, even into Paul’s day, and even further into our modern period.
So, when Paul is using the term Jew in his letters, such as in the Book of Romans, he specifically is thinking of Jew as an ethnic designation. But when he gets to Romans 9-11, Paul shifts to primarily use the term Israel. Eventually, he lands on using the terminology of “all Israel” in Romans 11:26, to round out his conclusion in this section of Romans.
If Heiser is right (and I think he is), it would make sense then that Paul would be thinking of “all Israel” in the same sense as it had been used in the Old Testament and other sources familiar to him, as opposed to using the ethnic specific terminology of Jew. In other words, “all Israel” is not about every single Jewish person. Rather, it is about all twelve tribes of Israel. Therefore, in Romans 11:26, Paul specifically has in mind “all Israel” as the twelve tribal structure of the ancient Old Testament people of God.
This does raise a very probing question, as it begs to ask what was Paul’s purpose by using “all Israel?” If there were no more people left from the vanquished Northern kingdom, who could easily be identified, who then belongs to those lost ten tribes? From where is Paul proposing that the people from those lost ten tribes are coming from, to make up his more inclusive “all Israel?” If in other passages, Paul is specifically using the term Jew in an ethnic sense, exclusively directed towards the survivors from the Southern kingdom, it would suggest that “all Israel” is not essentially ethnic in character. It is even possible that Paul had something different in mind when using “Israel,” by itself, with no “all,” as compared to the specific phrase of “all Israel,” only found in Romans 11:26.
It is reasonable to conclude that Paul is thinking of “all Israel” as a theological construct, and not as some ethnic identity. So then, how does one understand what Paul means by this theological construct of “all Israel?” Is Paul thinking mainly of some expansion of the remnant of Israel, yet nevertheless true believers within an ethnic Israel? Or is Paul thinking of something bigger than that?
Looking for a Clue to Identify the Lost Tribes of Israel
One big, possible clue comes in the section that leads up to this curious verse in Romans, particularly in Romans 9:25-26, where Paul is quoting from the prophet Hosea.
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
The prophet Hosea was speaking against the apostasy that had taken over the Northern kingdom, prior to its destruction by the Assyrians. Hosea was hopeful that these apostate Israelites in the North would come back to faith in the God of Abraham. It is surely possible that some indeed did come back, but the long term story is that God had raised up the Assyrians to destroy the unbelieving Northern kingdom, thus resulting in the ten lost tribes in the North.
But the Apostle Paul does something that has startled many readers of the New Testament, just prior to his citation of Hosea:5
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea… (Romans 9:22-25a ESV)
If you read carefully, Paul specifically is applying the prophecy of Hosea to include the Gentiles as part of the people of God here. Is this the necessary clue to help us to understand the theological meaning of “all Israel?” If you follow the train of logic here, it leads you to consider that theologically speaking, “all Israel” for Paul does not just include ethnic Jews. It also includes believing Gentiles, Gentiles who effectively make up for the lost ten tribes of the Northern kingdom in God’s covenant community of Israel.
Avoiding Extreme Interpretations of “All Israel”
What type of conclusion can be drawn from this understanding of “all Israel” in Romans 11? At the very least, it effectively rules out the interpretation that says that “all Israel” does not include any ethnic Jews at all! In other words, in Paul’s mind, there can be no “replacement theology,” where ethnic Jews are replaced by ethnic Gentiles in the redefined “all Israel,” as being the New Testament church. That would completely pervert the meaning of Paul’s thought, to suggest then that God is somehow “done with the Jews,” or that the “Jews had their chance, but they blew it!” Paul will have absolutely nothing to do with such a line of thinking.
However, this approach also rules out the interpretation of “all Israel” as strictly an ethnic category. Such an interpretation introduces a confusion between the terminology of “all Israel” and “Jew” that fails to appreciate the distinction that Paul is trying to make. By conflating these terms together, such a misleading interpretation emphasizes an aspect of ethnic Jewish salvation that was never intended by the Apostle Paul. Paul is not interested in drawing lines between Jew and Gentile with respect to salvation, nor is he suggesting that ethnic Jews have a different path to God, apart from Jesus. Instead, he sees Jews and Gentiles coming together to form the one people of God.
Nevertheless, this approach does not negate the possibility of some future, mass conversion of ethnic Jews, as it appears to be taught in verse 25 of Romans 11. Paul appears to indicate that the partial hardening of national Israel will come to an end, once God has in fullness finished His work with the Gentiles, who will come in, implying that a great number of ethnic Jews will then finally recognize their Messiah. In fact, Paul’s use of the olive tree analogy (Romans 11:11-24) by itself is sufficient to make the case that a great national conversion of ethnic Israel is part of God’s “End Times” program. Unbelieving Israel is pruned off as dead branches to make a way for believing Gentiles, who in turn make unbelieving Israel jealous, who are then grafted back into the olive tree again when they believe. Nothing else in our discussion of Romans 11:25-26a needs to change this.
Is such an understanding of “all Israel,” as including both elect and believing Jews and Gentiles together, what the Apostle Paul had in mind? Granted, such analysis of this difficult verse may not convince everyone. However, I find this approach completely understandable, it fits the data, and it avoids all sorts of problems introduced by other viewpoints. It is indeed possible that Paul could have introduced a completely different meaning of “all Israel” that stands at odds with how the rest of the Bible, and other Second Temple literature uses the terminology, but it is highly unlikely.
Unfortunately, this analysis does not quite help us to sort the thorny matters like the millennium, the theological status of secular Zionism, or the fulfillment of the land promises to a future believing Israel. We would have to expand our look if we intend to handle those issues. But it does caution us to stay away from extreme views that would manipulate and misconstrue the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the hope that God has for national Israel with respect to salvation.
1. A good summary of these various arguments can be found in John Stott’s Romans: God’s Good News for the World, pp. 302-308.↩
2. Second Temple Judaism is essentially concerned about the time period after the Old Testament was written and up to the period of Jesus and Paul. Brush up on your knowledge of Second Temple Judaism here.↩
3. As an aside, a popular (and weird) hypothesis among American thinkers was championed by none other than Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The whole Book of Mormon chronicles the story of how survivors of these ten tribes under the Assyrian conquest eventually made their way by boat to the Americas, where they became the ancestors of the native American peoples. It is a pretty clever idea, but no serious historian takes such an idea seriously. See Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, Kindle location 1153ff, for more detail. Anyway, the main point here is that we do not know, for sure, where the descendants, of any of these ten tribes can be located today, assuming any still exist. They are lost to history.↩
4. In classic Jewish thought, the world is divided between two different types of people: Jews and Gentiles. This distinction is discussed at length in the New Testament, particularly in the Book of Romans.↩
5. See Hosea 2:23 and Hosea 1:6. For an excellent discussion of other Old Testament passages that make a reference to “all Israel,” such as 2 Samuel 2:8-10, 2 Samuel 5:3-5, 2 Samuel 19:11, 1 Chronicles 21:5 and 1 Kings 4:7, and how Paul uses Hosea in Romans 9, see this article by the Catholic Bible scholars at the The Sacred Page blog.↩