Paul certainly cared about Gentiles; his letters are replete with signs of his intimate concern for the members of the many congregations he started, many of whose members were Gentiles. The Bible also suggests that the Lord will return after the good news has been proclaimed among all peoples (Matt 24:14), probably related to Paul’s idea about the “full number of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25).
Yet Paul also had a special concern for his own Jewish people, and he even viewed his Gentile mission as somehow also a witness to his own people. Building on a passage from the Old Testament (which he quotes in Rom 10:19), Paul explains that the conversion of the Gentiles should make his own people jealous (Rom 11:11, 14). Thus the full measure of Gentiles being saved would precipitate his own people turning to God, hence the completion of salvation history (11:25-27).
It would have made sense to Paul that his people would recognize God at work through his and others’ ministry in converting Gentiles. After all, Paul’s people knew the biblical promises about vast numbers of Gentiles coming to acknowledge Israel’s God (Isa 19:19-25; Zech 2:11); if these new followers of Israel’s God came through recognition of Jesus as Israel’s king, surely Israel itself should recognize its own king. Many scholars even believe that Paul intended his own offering from his Diaspora churches, brought for the needs of the Jerusalem church (Rom 15:26-27), as a partial fulfillment of the promised gifts from the nations (Isa 60:9).
Surely the Jewish people today can look around, see the more than two billion Christians in the world, and see how Gentiles now worship their one God and use their Scriptures because of Jesus? Surely Israelis can see all the tourists pouring into the land and see the nations streaming to Zion, as Isaiah promised, fulfilled through Jesus?
That would be nice. Through much of history, however, a large proportion of Jewish people have affirmed that regarding the Jewish teacher Jesus as Messiah is a belief suited only for Gentiles, not for their own people. Although many more Jewish people affirm Jesus as Messiah today than through most of history, the response of his people clearly did not go as Paul hoped.
Why did the proliferation of faith in Israel’s one true God among the Gentiles not serve as a witness to Israel? Largely because Gentile Christians ignored Paul’s other teachings in the same context.
Paul portrayed Gentile Christians as grafted into Israel’s heritage (Rom 11:17), as fulfillments of the promise that Abraham would be a father to many nations (4:16-18). That is, Paul viewed them as spiritual proselytes, who recognized that in accepting Jesus as Lord they were also embracing the king of Israel, the God of Israel, and the heritage and promises that belonged to Israel. He warned Gentile Christians not to boast against the Jewish people into whose heritage they had been grafted (11:18-21).
Yet this is precisely what most Gentile Christians ultimately did. Much of Christendom, through most of Christian history, viewed the church as a replacement for Israel, and viewed formal membership in the church as salvific in the same way that the Jewish community had viewed membership in Israel as salvific—the very sort of arrogance that Paul denounced.
For Paul, salvation was through faith in Christ, not through ethnicity or membership in a particular group. This was especially true when parts of the church implemented rules that excluded those practicing certain ancestral customs that were not genuinely antithetical to faith in Christ. (That is, Messianic Jews were unwelcome in both most Jewish and Christian communities, instead of being welcomed to form a bridge between them.)
Anti-Jewish sentiments were common in the Greco-Roman world, especially among Greeks; indeed, Gentiles in places like Alexandria and Caesarea genocidally slaughtered local Jewish communities in the years and decades after Paul wrote. Many converts to Christianity retained this pagan anti-Judaism when they became Christians, ignoring the Jewish heritage of their faith.
Though few went as far as Marcion (who rejected the Old Testament and the God of Israel outright), many Gentile Christians accepted Christ (the Messiah) while rejecting his people. The subsequent history of Christendom in the west is stained with the blood of vast numbers of Jewish people drowned in “baptisms,” crucified, tortured by the Inquisition, and so forth. While God’s grace is evident in much of Christian history, the Christian doctrine to which it often testifies most eloquently is human depravity. (We should pause to note that many church leaders tried to protect Jews from such pogroms; but on a more popular level anti-Jewish ways of preaching combined with indigenous human prejudice to promote violence.)
Paul’s ideal vision for his people’s salvation never succeeded because it was never really implemented. What might happen today if Gentile Christians were to show the Jewish people that we have come to faith in Israel’s God? What might happen if we expressed appreciation to the Jewish people for sharing their God with the rest of humanity, most of whom once worshiped or feared many lesser gods? If we affirmed that we embrace rather than usurp their heritage?
Whatever the response might be in our day, after so many centuries of anti-Semitism, we owe it both to the Jewish people and to our Lord Jesus to offer this recognition.
(P.S., I strongly disagree with those who use honoring our Jewish heritage as an excuse to be anti-Arab. But that is a subject different from this post.)
Craig Keener is author of a short (yes, short!) commentary on Romans (Cascade, 2009), in a commentary series he coedits with the brilliant and exceedingly humorous Michael Bird. (OK, short compared to his stuff on Acts …)