Grafted in: why Christians are thinking about a Jewish biblical theology

Grafted in: why Christians are thinking about a Jewish biblical theology

Anna Brawley


In the exploration of the question, “Why are Christians thinking about a Jewish biblical theology?”, the opinions of two opposed representative Jewish and two opposed representative Christian scholars on the issue of a Jewish biblical theology are compared and assessed. Why, then, are Christians interested in the idea of a Jewish biblical theology in the first place? Based on a detailed analysis of Romans 11:11-24, the conclusion is that this interest has come about in part because of the unique nature of the relationships between Judaism and Christianity, and Jews and Christians, and most especially because of the unique way in which Christians regard Jews and Judaism.


Jon Levenson’s chapter, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology,” in his monograph, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Levenson 33-61), is not overly impressive. Instead of focusing on how it is that Jews and Christians differ in reading their Bibles, how the corpuses differ, how the shapes of the Jewish and Christian canons differ, he launches a cynical attack against Christian biblical theology/-ians. He seems to be angry that Christians have appropriated the Hebrew Bible for their own scripture and that they are doing Christian exegesis of it. Further, he seems to think that Christians want Jewish scholars to be doing Christian biblical theology. Obviously, one would not expect Jewish scholars to be doing biblical theology as Christians do; but the important question, one that Levenson barely touches, is this:

What is it about Judaism and the way it read its scripture that is so different from Christianity and the way it reads its scripture; and that results in the fact that Jews have not been interested in a Jewish biblical theology; and the facts that Christians are interested in doing biblical theology and, most important, that Christians are speculating about a Jewish biblical theology?

This article explores the views of two Jewish scholars on biblical theology–both Jewish and Christian endeavors in that area; the views of two Christian scholars on a Jewish biblical theology; why Christians are thinking about a Jewish biblical theology; and whether or not Christians should be pursuing investigation of a Jewish biblical theology.

Jon Levenson: No Jewish Biblical Theology

Levenson begins his essay by recounting an anecdote in which he has been asked by a Christian colleague for the “best” Jewish biblical theology. He finds that he must conclude that there is no definitive work of Jewish biblical theology (Levenson 33). He follows with an overview of the history of biblical theology, definitions of the discipline, its major works and scholars, and includes what contributions Jews have made, even though those contributions may not be considered biblical theology, per se.

In distinguishing biblical theology from the study of the history of Israelite religion, Levenson says, “The argument that Old Testament theology can maintain both an uncompromisingly historical character and its distinction from the history of Israelite religion is not valid” (Levenson 37). He then goes on to argue the need for a faith element in doing biblical theology. He agrees with Goshen-Gottstein on this point. Yet Levenson follows with the statement that it is not then possible for a Jew to have such a faith element and do a truly biblical theology. He asks, “How can self-consciously Jewish biblical theologians take a personal stand on behalf of a text that they interpret against its rabbinic exegesis?” (Levenson 38; emphasis Levenson’s). This is against Goshen-Gottstein.

Levenson includes in his argument the importance in Judaism of tradition (Levenson 38), both oral and written, an element which carries an amount of weight in some Christian circles; but nowhere in Christianity is there a non-scriptural written literature that has had so much impact on and meaning for the religion as the post-biblical writings of midrash and Talmud do Judaism. Even the Broadway stage, in the opening number of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” so aptly pinpoints the centrality of Tradition for the Jewish religion. Nonetheless, does this focus, then, necessarily eliminate the possibility for a Jewish biblical theology? Would not such a fundamental importance for extra-biblical literature make a Jewish biblical theology that much more unique and distinguishable from Christian biblical theology?

Levenson does not leave his otherwise fairly objective assessment of biblical theology at this point, however; he launches an attack on Christian biblical theology and Old Testament theology–which must necessarily be Christian–for using the New Testament and other Christian tools to interpret the Old Testament and formulate an Old Testament theology and a Christian biblical theology. He says that, if these means are necessary to frame a biblical theology, “… then by definition no Jew could ever succeed in it, and the absence of Jewish interest is hardly mysterious” (Levenson 39). However, it is mysterious that Levenson could so misunderstand that the endeavor of a Jewish biblical theology would not be formulated from the same methods of interpretation as a Christian biblical or Old Testament theology, and, most obviously, would not even be formulated from the same canon. Can it be that Levenson does not see this obvious difference between what is Christian biblical theology and what would be a Jewish biblical theology? Or does Levenson have another agenda that makes the whole enterprise distasteful to him?

There is no doubt that Levenson’s critique of Christians as historically being hateful to Jews is valid (Levenson 40-45). There is nothing the slightest bit tolerable about such attitudes and actions as the world has seen Christians commit against Jews. No blame can be attached to those Jews who are angry for the way that some Christians have treated, and unfortunately, still continue to treat Jews. However, should this anger carry over into academic biblical studies? Assuredly, Luther’s anti-Semitism is all too well known, but have academic biblical scholars not moved on from Luther’s level of critique? Again, Levenson is perfectly in the right in calling to our attention the fact that Jews have not until recently been welcomed by Christians as partners in Bible study; but it is not as if, simply because Christians have finally opened up and are willing to work with Jews, those Jews must work in the ways that Christians do and in the things that Christians find most edifying. Even among Christians themselves, there is a wide variety of academic interests and methods. Jews are not obligated to do biblical theology simply because Christians are doing it, but Levenson’s anger over Christian anti-Semitism is not a valid reason for Jews not to do biblical theology to suit their own purposes and using their own methods. Even if Christians continue to think and act in anti-Semitic ways, this does not obviate the possibility for a Jewish biblical theology.

Levenson does provide some helpful insights into why biblical theology has been more attractive to Christians than to Jews. The call of the Reformation to return to scripture and get away from tradition has definitely continued to be felt in the modern biblical theology movement. Levenson notes with due perspicacity that, “Historically, biblical theology has been not only non-Jewish, but actively Protestant” (Levenson 45). There is no doubt that the Reformed Protestant emphasis on scripture makes it far easier and more possible for those Christians to formulate a biblical theology as has been done; but, again, because this enterprise has been done (mostly) by Reformed Protestants, it has reflected that point of view. A Jewish biblical theology would not be expected to be drafted in the same manner nor to reflect the same point of view. Levenson repeatedly makes the same mistake–that Jews cannot do biblical theology because it has not been done by Jews. This is not even a circular argument: it cannot return to itself because it has gone nowhere to begin with. Levenson does note some of the Jewish sects that have historically (Karaites) and more recently (Reform Jews) placed more emphasis on scripture than other Jews have done, but the Karaites remain only a small minority, and even the Reform Jews have maintained the authority of some extra-biblical Jewish tradition (Levenson 46-48).

Levenson also points out that the Jew is more likely to identify with the history in the text and that the Christian is more likely to relate to the theology in the text (Levenson 50). This is a valid issue in understanding why there has not been the interest by Jews in (a Jewish) biblical theology that there has been by Christians. Levenson explains that many secular Jews find their identity in the history and mores of the Hebrew Bible, but that they are not interested in the clericalism that goes along with the religious function of the text (Levenson 47-49). Indeed, this would explain why many Jews are interested in studying the text, but are not interested in a theology based on that text. Levenson says, “Even among observant Jews, the tendency is to focus on the sacred text …, not on the theology that might be abstracted from it” (Levenson 49). It may be difficult for some Christians, for whom the text is always theological, to appreciate what Levenson is saying here; but it seems that his meaning is that, for religious Jews, the text itself conveys enough without trying to extract from it anything further. This, again, is a sound basis for understanding why Jews have not done biblical theology.

Another principal distinction between Christians and Jews that Levenson notes is the idea that Christianity is based on belief and that Judaism is based on practice (Levenson 52). This distinction becomes more obvious when one notices that Levenson consistently describes religious Jews as “observant” (Levenson 34 and passim; cf. paragraph above). A religious Jew is one who observes the laws and commandments, the traditions and practices of Judaism. Few would describe a religious Christian as “observant”; one might be more likely to use the word “faithful” or “pious.” This is another reason that biblical theology is more attractive to Christians than to Jews. If one already has one’s practices laid out in scripture and ensuing tradition, then it is not as appealing an undertaking to do theological interpretation on the scripture as it would be if one’s religion consists of understanding the scripture theologically and founding one’s faith on that interpretation.

Levenson concludes his essay with a diatribe against Christian interpretation of Genesis 15:6, mostly directly aimed at Gerhard von Rad’s famous essay, “Faith Reckoned as Righteousness” (Levenson 56-61). There is no doubt that von Rad’s exegesis is clearly Christian, but that is what Christian exegetes do. There is also no doubt that the medieval rabbis often times had extraordinary insights into and wisdom about the text that Christian commentators have never had; nonetheless, Levenson goes too far when he says that Christian exegetes err when they suppose “that one can be well-equipped [sic] for exegesis without knowledge of the medieval Jewish commentaries” (Levenson 60).

Some sound reasons have been offered by Levenson for understanding why Jews have not been doing biblical theology as Christians have been doing, but most of Levenson’s essay does not explicate why Jews should not be doing a Jewish biblical theology. It is surprising that Levenson does not address this possibility, as it would seem to be an obvious suggestion to the problem of Jews doing a Christian biblical theology. Much of the essay is angry and unconvincing, but Levenson does contribute a few points that help to illuminate the differences between Jews and Christians, their scripture(s), and the way they read it/them.

Moshe Goshen-Gottstein: Divergent Readings of Scripture

While Levenson’s essay is full of anger against Christians for doing Christian biblical theology, Moshe Goshen-Gottstein’s article, “Tanakh Theology: the Religion of the Old Testament and the Place of Jewish Biblical Theology,” is a far more satisfying contribution to the field from a Jewish perspective. He acknowledges that what Christians are doing in the area of biblical theology is different from what Jews should be doing in the field of Tanakh theology, and it is exactly because of this that Goshen-Gottstein proposes that Jews begin a serious study of the Tanakh to formulate a Tanakh theology (Goshen-Gottstein 626). Even the name that Goshen-Gottstein proposes–“Tanakh theology”–is, at the outset, obviously and distinctively Jewish.

Goshen-Gottstein’s proposal for a theology of the Tanakh is refreshing. Immediately, he endorses the “possibility and necessity” of such a venture (Goshen-Gottstein 617). He mentions several of the important issues surrounding this question: the differences in Jewish and Christian canons, distinctions in the ways Jews and Christians study these canons, and the meaning of “theology” as it relates to Jews and Judaism, especially in view of the fact that, until now, biblical theology has remained a particularly Christian enterprise (Goshen-Gottstein 617).

Goshen-Gottstein presents a brief summary of the history of biblical theology as it has been done by Christians, including original expectations for the discipline, and problems it has encountered since its inception (Goshen-Gottstein 618-19). Fie bemoans the fact that Jews have been remiss in this area of biblical study (Goshen-Gottstein 619-20).

Goshen-Gottstein stresses the distinction between “Jewish” and “Christian” and insists that the distinction between the two is important (Goshen-Gottstein 621). For one thing, he says, the canons of the two groups are different, and therefore, the ways Christians and Jews read their scripture(s) will be divergent. Goshen-Gottstein also notes that the very profession of scholarly Jewish Bible studies is not even 100 years old, and that, for those Jews who have been doing academic study of scripture, “The whole issue of `biblical theology’ in its ups and downs was beyond their ken and interest” (Goshen-Gottstein 621). The Jews doing these sorts of studies were interested in the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, only from a secular perspective; hence, the idea of doing theology never occurred to them. Goshen-Gottstein says, “I stress the fact that there was never an issue of rejection or conscious avoidance; theology was a nonissue in an academic environment that conceived of itself as secular and objective, so that the very idea of Tanakh theology was totally unthinkable” (Goshen-Gottstein 622).

Goshen-Gottstein asks an important question: why the need for a Tanakh theology? He develops the question, devoting one entire section of his article to the endeavor, and stresses the importance of making such an inquiry. Only at the end of the following section does he answer this question. He reviews various types of biblical theology that have been done by Christians, and then asserts that, precisely because biblical theology has been done by Christians, coming from a community of faith, there needs to be a Tanakh theology done by Jews, coming from their community of faith. A Jewish point of view on this issue needs to be heard as strongly as Christian perspectives have been (Goshen-Gottstein 625).

Goshen-Gottstein also addresses the problem of rabbinic tradition and the non-biblical oral and written laws that characterize Judaism in relation to the possibility of a Tanakh theology. He recognizes that a discipline that would deal with formulating a structure from interpreting the text could be misunderstood as trying to replace or reform a system that evolved from interpreting the text. This would not be the case, says Goshen-Gottstein. “The system of halakhic observance and the structure of Tanakh meaning have hardly anything in common…. a model of biblicistic reinterpretation of halakhah is the last thing we would be suggesting” (Goshen-Gottstein 627). So Goshen-Gottstein deals with the difficulty of the importance of tradition for the Jewish religion. He recommends that Tanakh theology be something separate from halakhic observance; the one is an academic enterprise, while the other is religious practice.

Goshen-Gottstein does not thoroughly flesh out his ideas for a Tanakh theology, but he is open about the fact that he is only proposing an idea for it, and gives possibilities about how it might proceed and what might be some probable themes (Goshen-Gottstein 628).

One section of the article deals with the question of whether or not such an endeavor should be termed properly “theology.” Goshen-Gottstein is affirmative on this point. He has discussed Stendahl’s “what it meant versus what it means” previously (Goshen-Gottstein 625). He expresses doubt about getting back to the ultimate original meaning of the text, but does support the struggle of the scholar to wrestle with the text, trying to understand it from within the community of faith. It is this, he says, that “creates the dimension of theology” (Goshen-Gottstein 629).

Goshen-Gottstein continues to emphasize the importance for the Tanakh theologian to come from within the community of faith. He asserts, “a theology developed by a member of the community of faith who totally rejects the faith would probably go astray” (Goshen-Gottstein 629) (!). This definitely complements his position that the endeavor should indeed be theology.

The discussion contains some recommendations on how the discipline should proceed and with what issues it should deal. Goshen-Gottstein suggests that the main focus of the venture should be” `what Tanakh is all about’ from a clear mainstream Jewish point of view” (Goshen-Gottstein 630). Detail on his proposals for method is not necessary in the present discussion, but he does give some clear ideas, while remaining open on the exact rendering of them. However, he remains firm on the notion that Tanakh theology is to consist of the “literal sense” (Goshen-Gottstein 632).

Goshen-Gottstein also examines some conceivable themes that might appear in a Tanakh theology. Again, he does not offer themes in particular, but instead submits recommendations for the methodology of discerning which themes should be discussed and why they merit discussion in a Tanakh theology. He gives one or two themes as concrete examples, so that the reader may apprehend more exactly what it is that he is proposing.

Goshen-Gottstein concludes the article by saying, “I can only hope that this essay will help to set the stage for a more realistic and deeply truthful atmosphere in the common work of Christians and Jews in the academic study of biblical religion” (Goshen-Gottstein 634).

There is no doubt that a contribution such as Goshen-Gottstein’s is far more positive and beneficial to the field of biblical studies than is one such as Levenson’s. Goshen-Gottstein’s article understands the issues at hand and presents a well-balanced answer to the questions posited by others and himself. It is this sort of contribution that brings about understanding between Christians and Jews: not that we will agree, but that we will understand more precisely why it is that we disagree, and how those disagreements will affect our interpretations of our common scripture and our relationships with one another. While Levenson’s article remains antagonistic to the idea of Christians doing Christian biblical and Old Testament theology, Goshen-Gottstein’s article acknowledges that, because Christians are doing Christian biblical and Old Testament theology, Jews too have a responsibility to engage in similar, but Jewish, work with the Tanakh that will be enlightening for Jews and probably for Christians, as well. It is the difference between the child who cries over spilled milk and the one who cleans it up: the first annoys her/himself and others, and does not achieve anything positive; while the second accomplishes a beneficial result, and may even gain favor from others, as well.

It is hoped that Jewish biblical scholars, especially younger ones, will take up the baton that Goshen-Gottstein has handed off and sprint forward toward the goal of a Tanakh theology, enjoining in a healthy challenge from Christian biblical theologians already some distance ahead in the next lane.

Christian Responses: James Barr and Brevard Childs

James Barr’s chapter on “Jewish Biblical Theology” in his new work, The Concept of Biblical Theology (286-311), consists mostly of reviewing the work of the scholars whose essays this discussion has evaluated on the previous pages, along with relevant works by Matitiahu Tsevat, Sara Japhet and Marvin Sweeney, which this discussion does not include in its assessment. The purpose in this discussion is not to assess Barr’s reviews of the articles, but rather to examine Barr’s own thoughts on the proposal for a Jewish biblical theology. Although the bulk of the chapter does consist of a discussion of the works of the Jewish scholars mentioned, Barr does include some of his own opinions on the subject matter.

He begins by indicating that, early on in the Old Testament theology movement, “What Jews themselves might think about all this [Old Testament theology] was seldom discussed” (Barr 286). Barr addresses some reasons for which Jews were not interested in the endeavor of Old Testament theology: the name of the discipline is clearly Christian, the idea of “theology” has distinctly Christian over-tones, Judaism does not express itself thoroughly by means of theology, and the fact that there were concerns over the intellectual value of such an endeavor for Jewish scholars (Barr 286-288). If these presuppositions were removed, wonders Barr, would Jews then be interested in the discipline? He suggests:

Suppose, therefore, that “Old Testament theology” were defined or redefined as something like a comprehensive description of implied intellectual concepts, taken within the terms and boundaries of the Hebrew Bible and seen as far as possible within its own self understandings, where would this take us?” (Barr 289).

As mentioned above, Barr engages in reviewing several articles by Jewish scholars that discuss biblical theology, both Christian and the possibility for a Jewish one. The major portion of the chapter consists of Barr’s unleashing his barbed pen (keyboard?) against Levenson (Barr 291-302). He devotes less space to the work of other scholars, and his tone with them is less acerbic. In contrast to his treatment of Levenson, Barr notes that Goshen-Gottstein’s contributions to the discipline, though they have not received wide acceptance from Jews, are for Christians “at least a highly relevant set of ideas … very stimulating to all discussions of the subject” (Barr 306). At the end of his analysis of Tsevat’s article, Barr concludes that a “negative” (as he terms it) Old Testament theology a la Tsevat:

is a sort of comprehensive intellectual history of biblical times, which brings together implications and currents of understanding which are necessary for the interpretation of all sorts of details within the text. Seen in this way, it is not a Christian subject: there is absolutely no restriction of the subject to Christians, Jewish contributions are eagerly desired, and it is not easy to see why Jews should not engage in the same operations (Barr 291).

Surprisingly, Barr makes the rare (for him) confessional statement: “I think as a Christian I am called to be with and work with Jews …” (Barr 302). Such a statement is important in light of the arena: Goshen-Gottstein and Levenson have agreed that a confessional standpoint is imperative for the biblical theologian, whether Christian or Jew (see above, page 2). Barr, by making such a statement, seems to give implicit support for this view.

In a general review of the subject, Barr says, “the very discussion of it [Jewish biblical theology] has a significant effect on the Christian conception of biblical theology” (Barr 310). He also says, “… the questions that have been approached by [Christian] Old Testament theology are perfectly within the range in which Jewish scholars can pronounce upon them” (Barr 311). Finally, Barr concludes with the idea that “Christian writers in the field have therefore to keep their minds constantly open to the question of how their judgements in biblical theology would seem to a Jewish readership” (Barr 311). Overall, Barr seems very much in favor of a Jewish biblical theology.

Brevard S. Childs argues in his Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context that the discipline of Old Testament theology “is essentially a Christian discipline, not simply because of the Christian custom of referring to the Hebrew Scriptures as the Old Testament, but on a far deeper level” (Childs 1985: 7). He cites the reasons that the Old Testament is part of the larger Christian canon, and, as such, must be read in that context; and stemming from that is the belief that there is a link between the story of the Old Testament and that of Jesus Christ; and further that the endeavor to find a central theme or focus for an Old Testament theology is essentially Christian in nature (Childs 1985: 7-8). From the other side, Childs says that, because of the way that Jews read and apply their scriptures, they do not need to formulate a biblical theology. To support this, he mentions the ever-flowing stream from biblical writings to rabbinic oral and written traditions, and the authority that those traditions have for Judaism, and the fact that, for Jews, “the heart of the Bible is Torah,” but that, for Christians, it is Jesus (Childs 1985: 8).

In his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, Childs seems to have opened the door, but only slightly. He rehearses his previous arguments, but then concedes that the issue is not as easy as it may seem. He discusses the contributions that Jewish scholars had made more recently in the way of theological reflection on scripture, but remains unsure whether or not to call it “Jewish biblical theology” (Childs 1992: 25-26).

From a quick glance, one can easily see that the views of Barr and Childs are basically opposite to one another on the idea of a Jewish biblical theology. Barr supports the endeavor, and Childs, at least in his earlier work, is flat out opposed to the idea. Barr says that, “from the Christian side,” Goshen-Gottstein’s proposals are “relevant” and “stimulating” (Barr 306). He urges Jews to begin serious work in this discipline, declaring, “Jewish contributions are eagerly desired” (Barr 291). On the other hand, Childs maintains that “it is not by accident that Jewish scholars have not participated in the writing of biblical theologies” (Childs 1985: 8), and that “Old Testament theology is essentially a Christian discipline” (Childs 1985: 7). Although he admits that “Jews continue to reflect theologically on the Bible …” (Childs 1992: 25), he still contends that “whether this reflection should be called Biblical Theology is actually a secondary issue” (Childs 1992: 25).

Yes, a quick glance shows that the opinions of these two Christian scholars are opposed to one another, and even a more careful reading will reveal the same; but do these opinions share anything in common? This question is addressed below.

Grafted in: Romans 11:11-24

At Vanderbilt Divinity School in late 1993, during a class discussion on the topic of the possibility of a Jewish biblical theology, I realized that there was (to my knowledge) only one member of the class who was, in fact, Jewish–and he had absolutely nothing to say on the subject during the discussion. Was it not somehow odd, I wondered, for a group of Christians to be sitting around discussing the possibility for a Jewish biblical theology? At first it seemed about as appropriate as a group of Jews sitting around discussing whether or not Jesus was aware of his messiahship: The topic has no relation to nor bearing on those discussing it. It was out of that discussion that this project grew, and the initial motivation for my doing this study was to argue that Christians have no real business in worrying about whether or not there is a Jewish biblical theology; but since then the pendulum has swung the other direction. Christians do have a reason for talking, writing, discussing, and otherwise wondering about a Jewish biblical theology. It is this concern that Barr and Childs share; it is this concern that is expressed by the unnamed “distinguished continental biblicist” and the “evenhanded” professor noted in the anecdotes at the beginning of Levenson’s chapter (Levenson 33-34); it is this concern that will constitute the rest of this discussion.

Since the beginnings of Christianity’s movement away from its Jewish foundation, Christians have been concerned to define accurately just what is the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and, more important, the relationship between Jews and Christians. No doubt, these relationships have changed through time as Judaism and Christianity have become more distinctly defined both in their own rights and in comparison with each other. Nonetheless, some basic elements have remained consistent, at least in the theory of, if not in the practice of these relationships.

One of the most meticulous delineations of these perplexing relationships is in the New Testament in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The central section, chapters 9-11, outlines a logical argument, complete with exegesis of Old Testament passages, that explicates what the relationships between Jews and Christians ought to be, and how God’s relationship with the Jews fits in with the Christian understanding of God’s plan for salvation. In Paul’s world, of course, the relations he was trying to define were those between Jews and Gentiles; in our world, the distinction has shifted somewhat to those between Jews and Christians. In common use, “Gentile” does not always equal “Christian,” but it was to Gentile Christians that Paul was addressing his argument; further, the basic difficulties in trying to iron out exactly what the relationship(s) should be between Jews and Christians in our world are addressed by Paul’s argument. The present discussion now turns to look in detail at Romans 11:11-24, as it relates to the question at hand.

Paul begins this section by denying that the Jews have stumbled over the stumbling block, which he identifies as Jesus Christ, so as to fall completely, but asserting that, because of that which precipitated their stumbling–again, Jesus Christ–salvation has now been obtained by those who have not had the advantage of the Jews (Rom. 11:11; cf. 3:1 ff). Even though the Jews had this advantage, some of them were jealous of that which had been given to the Gentiles because it provoked them (Jews) to stumble (11:11).

Paul then turns his address directly to the Gentiles in the Roman congregation. He emphasizes that, even though he sees himself as “an apostle to the Gentiles (v 13),” he does not give up hope of saving some of the Jews. If, by their renunciation of the Gospel, Jews promote salvation for the rest of the world, imagine what will be the effect when they accept the truth of the Gospel (v 15). Paul uses an image from the Jewish cult of offering a portion of the first fruits to God, and argues that, if that small portion which is offered is holy, then that larger portion whence it came must also be holy (v 16). That is to say that if Israel, a small portion of creation which was separated out to be chosen as holy before God, is indeed holy, then the rest of creation whence Israel was separated must also be holy before God. Then comes Paul’s enigmatic statement, which apparently should follow the same logic as the one preceding it, “and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy (NRSV, v 16).” However, this statement does not apply the same reasoning as the foregoing allusion. In fact, it is its inverse. In this case, the root is the larger portion, and the branches are its smaller manifestations; which is to say, in effect, if all of creation is holy, then Israel must be holy, too.

At verse 17, Paul begins a somewhat complex and possibly inaccurate metaphor in which he would attempt to explicate the intricate and delicate relationship between Gentile Christians and Jews as pertains to God’s plan of salvation in an historical context; that is to say, Paul is not attempting to explain an ethereal concept of relation, one which has no concrete setting in the created world and time. The metaphor of the olive tree represents events which occurred in sequence. This is to say that the Jews received salvation first only historically and not morally or ethically. On the other hand, the Gentiles are not preferred by God either; but salvation is just as much theirs as it is the Jews’. God is just and fair to both Gentiles and Jews.

Now as to the details of the metaphor itself, it seems as if Paul made the statement in verse 16, and only after he had done so did he formulate the more sophisticated metaphor spelled out in verses 17-24. This is to say that Paul came up with the image of the branches and the root, and once that image was in his mind, he determined the larger metaphor.

Verse 17 is most important to understand. What Paul is saying is that some Jews (branches) did not receive salvation; they were, in effect, cut off. They were replaced with Gentiles, branches of a different kind than the main part of the tree. Note that not all of the original branches were cut off; salvation has not become impossible for the Jews. Now, from Paul’s logic, one might infer that there are only so many spaces available for salvation, that the number is fixed and only so many will be saved. Of course, such an inference would be opposed to Paul’s later statement, “all Israel will be saved” (v 26). What Paul is saying, however, is that if those who were formerly cut off are to be saved as well as those who were first grafted in, they who were cut off must be grafted back into the original tree without cutting off any more branches. In other words, the number of those saved is not determined by the number of original branches on the tree. God can graft in more. The word translated as “to share” by the NRSV is, in fact, a noun which literally means a “partner” or “participant,” and is used for the relationship of a business partner. This word is key in appreciating Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Gentile Christians and Jews. They are partners in the “rich root of the olive tree (v 17).” So then, the original branches that were not cut off and the branches of the wild olive tree that were grafted in place of the branches that were cut off are equal partners in the rich root of the olive tree.

In verse 18 Paul begins to stress this equality. He warns the Gentile Christians not to boast of the fact that branches were cut off that they might be grafted in. For, he says, “it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you (v 18).” What, then, is this root? Is the root creation, as above in verse 16, the other nations from which Israel was separated? Is it the rich tradition that is narrated through-out the Old Testament? Or is it a much richer root, even, than that–perhaps salvation? Any of these meanings might fit in with the logic of Paul’s argument. In any case, whatever the referent for the image, Paul makes it clear that Gentile Christians and Jews are partners in it.

Verse 19 is the conjectured argument of the Gentile Christians in Rome against what Paul had just said. Nonetheless, in verses 20-24, Paul sticks to his purpose: neither Gentile Christians nor Jews are more favored by God, but both share equally in God’s gift. Paul stresses the importance of faith in verse 20. He says that it is only because of their faith that the Gentile Christians have been grafted in, and that God cut off only those Jews who were unbelieving. He admonishes the believers to “stand in awe (v 20)” instead of becoming proud of their inclusion in the sharing the rich root.

Paul next reminds those to whom he was writing of God’s justice in judgment. Whereas Paul remarked above in verse 11 that the Jews had not “stumbled so as to fall,” here in verse 22 he admits that some have fallen; and it is toward those that God’s judgment has been severe. However, for those who did not stumble, but believed, God’s judgment has been merciful. Nevertheless, Paul warns that they may still be cut off it they do not persevere in believing. Even further, Paul asserts that, for those who have already been cut off because of their unbelief, if they repent and believe, then “God has the power to graft them in again (v 23).” He continues with the olive tree metaphor in verse 24: If God was able to graft in a wild olive branch to a cultivated tree, how much easier would it be for GOd to graft back in that branch that was originally part of the tree? In other words, God has accepted Gentile Christians in the plan for salvation, and as for Jews, to whom it was originally offered, it is a much more natural endeavor to accept them once they believe.

What fruit can we harvest then from Paul’s olive tree, with its natural branches next to branches grafted in, sharing together in the nourishment provided by the rich root? Does Paul’s metaphor have anything substantive to tell us in our quest for understanding between Christians and Jews at this time so remote from Paul’s? Yes, it does; most emphatically, it does.

As stated above, the metaphor represents events which occurred in sequence, in created time and space. As that was a time past for Paul, it is a time past for the present: hence, the conclusions still hold true. Jews are the branches of the original cultivated olive tree, feasting on that rich root provided by the One who brings bread from the earth and creates the fruit of the vine. Christians are the wild olive branches, who were grafted in to share in that rich root provided by the One who sows the seed and prunes the branches of the vine. Christians and Jews share their rich heritage, not only in scripture, but by gathering to worship the same GOd. As Paul says, “the same Lord is Lord of all (10:12).”

This is the view of Paul as explicated in Romans. It is a Christian biblical and theological response to the question of the relationship between Christians and Jews, and, although Christians certainly have not always lived according to this biblical teaching, it has been a part of that Christian tradition since Christians began to try to delineate these complicated issues.


But is this a Jewish view? No doubt, it is not. This view comes from the New Testament, the uniquely Christian canon. While it may contain some philosophies and teachings that some Jews may recognize as valid, it is not their canon. The relationship between Christians and Jews as seen from the Christian perspective is not complete! The conviction that Christians and Jews are sharing in the rich root is a characteristically Christian idea. Even the belief that Christians and Jews worship the same God is not accepted by all Jews. During the one brief discussion about the nature of God that I had with a good friend of mine in high school who was Jewish, I promoted the idea that we worshipped the same God. Her response was, “No, we don’t. You have three-in-one, or something weird like that.” Paul’s logical argument to the Gentile Christians in Rome was meant for a specific audience, and though perhaps the wider audience of Christians throughout history will be able to glean from Paul an understanding of their relationship with Jews, it is not an argument that is likely to appeal to most Jews.

How then does this apply to the question asked above about whether or not Christians should be wondering about a Jewish biblical theology? It has been indicated that, so far, Jews have not been terribly interested in biblical theology, Jewish or Christian. What is it, then, about Christians–and Christianity–that makes them speculate about not only a Christian, but indeed a Jewish biblical theology?

It is simply this: Christians recognize in Judaism some things in which they share–scripture, tradition, God, law, salvation, election, covenant, creation, holy land–things that concern a biblical theology; and because they share in this rich root, they have a concern about that which the Jews are doing in their Bible study. Whether or not whatever Christians do affects Jews, that which Jews do and that which affects Jews, affects Christians. The relationship is not a two-way street–Christians and Jews will not pass each other along the way; but the very nature of the uniqueness of the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and the uniqueness with which Christians regard Jews is that which compels them to consider with attention that which concerns and affects the Jews as something in which they believe they have an investment, that in which they are rooted.

Works Cited

Barr, James. 1999. The Concept of Biblical Theology. London, UK: SCM.

Childs, Brevard S. 1992. Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.

1985. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress.

Goshen-Gottstein, Moshe. 1987. Tanakh Theology: the Religion of the Old Testament and the Place of a Jewish Biblical Theology, in ANCIENT ISRAELITE RELIGION, edited by Miller, Hanson, & McBride. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress.

Levenson, Jon D. 1993. THE OLD TESTAMENT, THE HEBREW BIBLE, AND HISTORICAL CRITICISM. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox.

Anna Brawley, Ph.D. (Vanderbilt University) is Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Pacific Theological College, Private Mail Bag, Suva, Fiji Islands. E-mail: Her dissertation title is “Translating the Unknown: the Case for Emending Semantically Disputed Forms in the Hebrew Bible” (1999). Her ongoing research is in the linguistic study (semantics and phonology) of Biblical Hebrew.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Biblical Theology Bulletin, Inc

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group