Romans 11: Particularist Universalism
If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.…For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.
This is a passage truly astonishing in its richness which I think has been underused in readings of Paul on “the Jews.”  It seems to me to contain—“contain,” in several senses—all of the ambiguity of Paul's understanding of the ratio between the historical, genealogical Israel and the new believers in Christ from the gentiles. Ultimately, what we must remember as we read these verses, clearly intended as a stirring call to gentile Christians not to despise Jews, is that the Jewish root which supports them has been continued solely in the Jewish Christians. The branches which have been lopped off—for all Paul's hope and confidence that they may be rejoined some day—are those Jews who remain faithful to the ancestral faith and practice and who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. We thus see the peculiar logic of supersession at work here. Because Israel has not been superseded, therefore most Jews have been superseded. Let me unpack the paradox some more. The issue is not whether ethnic Jews have been displaced from significance within the Christian community but whether a community of faith (= grace) has replaced a community of flesh (= genealogy and circumcision) as Israel. Precisely because the signifier Israel is and remains central for Paul, it has been transformed in its signification into another meaning, an allegory for which the referent is the new community of the faithful Christians, including both those faithful Jews (as a privileged part) and the faithful gentiles but excluding the Jews who do not accept Christ. Of course, Paul does not argue that the term Israel refers only to gentile Christians! How could he have done so, since in so doing he would have left himself, Barnabas, Peter, and even Jesus out? As he himself says, “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1). This, however, is not proof that Paul's theology is not supersessionist, for the historical understanding of Israel has been entirely superseded in the new, allegorical interpretation (pace Campbell 1992, 143). Indeed, I am convinced that the main point of Paul's argument is precisely to persuade gentile Christians of the invalidity of a certain notion of supersession, one found for instance in the gospel of John, to the effect that God has rejected the Jews tout court and that the new Israel is entirely gentile Christians (Campbell 1992, 170–75). As I have already argued, supersession can be understood in two ways. Although Paul argues against one version of supersession, I will suggest yet again on the basis of Romans 11 that from a Jewish perspective his theology is nevertheless supersessionist. At the very site of Paul's main argument for tolerance of Jews, I find the focal point of his ultimate and unintended devaluation of Jewish difference.
In the beginning of the passage, Paul writes: “If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump.” The ceremony of the dough offering involves the separation of a small portion of the dough before baking and offering it to a priest as holy food. Paul suggests that if the portion separated is holy, then since it is of the same substance as all of the dough, all the lump must be holy as well. “First fruits” is a commonly used prophetic metaphor for Israel. The metaphor, however, has been transvalued in Paul. The relation of first fruits is no longer of Israel to humanity but of Christian Jews to Jews as a whole. Now the crux of Paul's argument is for the continuing significance of the Jewish People. If the Christian part is holy, so is the rest. Paul, however, subtly shifts the ground upon which he is standing. On the one hand, he argues that the Christian Jews are merely a saving remnant, such as the one that the same prophetic texts would speak of from Elijah to Jeremiah. Here, however, is where the shift comes in, for the saving remnant is no longer, as it was in the prophets, those Jews who are faithful to the commandments, the works of the Torah, but is now defined by grace alone. For the prophets as well, it was clear that a remnant would persist through history that would guarantee the salvation of all Israel at the end-time, so in a sense Paul has changed nothing, but for those very prophets the remnant was defined by faithfulness to works—all works, circumcision and charity—while for Paul the ground has explicitly shifted from works to a new, arbitrary election of some of Israel who have been chosen to have faith in Christ now. A new, if temporary, election has been added to the original one. Although ultimately God has not abandoned the original election by grace of Israel, a new act of grace has taken place which replaces those who are faithful to the original covenant with those who have faith in Christ as the remnant of Israel. Surely, those left behind will in the end be gathered into this community of faith, so God's honesty has not been impugned, but for the moment at least, Jews who have not accepted Christ are simply left by the wayside. Precisely, however, as that moment stretched into millennia, this doctrine became inevitably one of supersession even without—indeed, as it may have stood against—the sectarian formulation and violence of a community such as the one that later would produce John's gospel.
Paul's second metaphor in the chapter makes this even clearer. The metaphor is based on the practice of the grafting of fruit trees. Branches of different sub-species and indeed even of different species can be attached to root-stock such that they form effectively one plant. To perform this operation, however, existing branches often have to be pruned in order to make room for the new ones and also to give them a fair chance at the vitality and nutrients of the root. This is Paul's metaphor, then, for his new formation. The root remains Israel, and just as in the case of a graft, the root-stock defines what the plant, in some sense, is and gives it nutriment, so also the new plant of Christians remain defined as Israel. Branches, however, have been lopped off to make room for the new grafted ones. The branches that have been removed are, of course, those Jews who “refuse” to believe in Christ; that is, those Jews who constituted what used to be called Israel. It follows that the grafted Israel—including both Jewish and gentile believers in Christ—is now the true, living Israel, and the rejected branches are at best vestiges, at worst simply dead. The Old Israel has been superseded and replaced with a New Israel, precisely, as claimed, because Israel itself has not been superseded. The claim of some scholars, therefore, that the notion of the Church as a New Israel that superseded the old first appears in Justin Martyr seems to me falsified by this passage (Gager 1983, 228, citing P. Richardson 1969, 9–14; see also Campbell 1992, 49 and 74–75). Paul holds out to the Jews the possibility of reinclusion in the community of faith by renouncing their “difference” and becoming the same and one with the grafted Israel of gentile and Jewish believers in Christ, but if they do not, they can only be figured as the dead and discarded branches of the original olive tree. There is, on the one hand, what I take to be a genuine, sincere passion for human (re)-unification and certainly a valid critique of “Jewish particularism,” but on the other hand, since the unification of humankind is predicated on sameness through faith in Christ, those humans who choose difference end up effectively non-human (Shell 1991).
Let me put this another way. I think that it is here that the moment of a “cultural reading” of the text comes in, that is, a reading informed by a different culturally defined subject position from the one that normally and normatively has read this text, and I am reading from the point of view of a member of that Jewish group that refuses to believe in Jesus and abandon our ancestral practices and commitments. On the one hand, Paul is clearly arguing against a certain kind of anti-Judaic boasting: “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you” (17–18). But on the other hand, imagine reading this from the perspective of a broken-off branch, and you will see why it is cold comfort indeed. I think that the very utilization of the sign “Israel” for Paul's discourse both enables and constrains it to be forever caught in a paradox of identity and difference. “Israel” is, almost by definition, a sign of difference (cp. Campbell 1992, 27, who makes substantially the same claim but draws almost the exact opposite conclusion). The story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible is essentially a myth of tribal identity, not entirely unlike other tribal myths of origin and identity. The appropriation of the story of a particular tribe, with all that marks it as such, as the story of all humanity would inevitably lead to paradox and even contradiction. If one olive tree among all the others has come to be the all-in-all, then any others become necessarily only so much dead wood. It is in this ambivalent symbol, then, that there begins a certain logic of exclusion by inclusion, or “particular universalism” that would characterize Christian discourse historically. In the final chapter below I will suggest that rabbinic Judaism, particularly its strategy of self-deterritorialization, constitutes an attempt to retain the discourse of the tribal myth as such, i.e., without universalizing it, even in drastically changed historical situations, and constitutes therefore the exact antithesis to Paul. To be sure, it is only the story of one olive tree, and to be sure as well, it is convinced of itself that it is the only “cultivated” one and all the others are mere wild olives, but it does leave room for those wild olives to continue living alongside it in the grove. They do not have to be grafted in.
I wish, however, to reemphasize a point that I already made in the last chapter. There is an enormous difference between the nascent Pauline doctrine of supersession, and those of some other later Christian theologies. Paul's doctrine is not anti-Judaic! It does not ascribe any inherent fault to Israel, Jews, or Judaism that led them to be replaced, superseded by Christianity, except for the very refusal to be transformed. As in 2 Corinthians 3, it is the denial on the part of most Jews that a veil has been removed and the true meaning of Torah revealed that leads them to become pruned-off branches. I treat Paul's discourse as indigenously Jewish, thereby preempting (or at least recasting) the question of the relationship between Paul and anti-Semitism. This is an inner-Jewish discourse and an inner-Jewish controversy. The only flaw in the rejected branches is their rejection. Indeed, they still retain their character as Israel, and if they will only return they are assured of a successful regrafting. The point will only be clear if we forget for a moment the subsequent history and imagine ourselves into the context of the first century. One way to do that will be through an analogous situation in our own time, where, once again, the meaning of Torah is extremely contested. Reform Jews consider Orthodoxy seriously flawed in its “refusal” to see that the Torah “intended” itself to change with the times, and Orthodox Jews see Reformers as heretics, but no one doubts the Jewishness of either group, nor considers the other “anti-Semitic”! I would argue for the analogous analysis of the situation of first-century Judaism with the Qumran covenanters, Pharisees, Sadducees, Paul, and others all on the same footing as competing and mutually exclusive claims for having the truth of Torah. They all attack each other intemperately but none can be considered anti-Judaic.
In that sense, Sanders is absolutely correct in his statement that the only flaw that Paul finds in Jews is that they are not Christians. However—and this is a very big qualification—“not being Christian” is, on my understanding, not an arbitrary, christological, or purely formalist disqualification, because I, in contrast to Sanders, understand Paul as moving from plight to solution, namely, from the theological plight of a tension between the universalistic claims of Jewish theology (particularly as reinterpreted subconsciously through the lens of Hellenistic “universalism,” as they had been for centuries by now) and the particularistic nature of its prescribed practices (Hengel 1974). This interpretation is verified by Paul's insistence that the remnant is chosen by grace (= faith) and not by works (verses 5–6). Paul had simply taken the first to be the signified of the second, and argued that in the revelation of Christ (in the world and to him individually) the true meaning of the particular practices as signifiers of the universal theology had been revealed. The consequence of refusal, however, of the lesson of that revelation was to be pruned from the branch of Israel, lopped off and left for dead by the roadside, and that was, indeed, the fate of the Jews in Christian history.Precisely because we understand “grace” and “works” as sociological markers, then we must understand Romans 11:5–6 as reflecting a replacement of the historical, physical Jewish tribe, with its cultural practices, by another kind of community, defined by grace. Indeed it has always been the case that only part of Israel are the elect, but election until now has been defined through commitment to Israel's historical practice and memory. No longer: The remnant is now defined through its graceful acceptance of Christ. No longer Israel according to the flesh, but Israel according to the spirit—that Israel signified by the physical and historical one.