THE OLIVE TREE
The Hebrew prophets, like Paul, spoke to power to discipline power! They were the collective conscience of Israel. The olive tree metaphor appears to express such conscience. Using the administrative, Abrahamic and anachronistic lenses-which assume that the Holy Scriptures written by Israelite prophets to discipline Israelite men in authority-I will attempt to penetrate the meaning of Paul's metaphor. Because power tends to be the most neglected dimension of interpretation, the administrative lens will be generously utilized throughout the following discussion. This paper is a work in progress, so please expect revisions.
ROMANS CHAPTER 11
12 Now if their fall [is] riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! 13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy [those who are] my flesh and save some of them. 15 For if their being cast away [is] the reconciling of the world, what [will] their acceptance [be] but life from the dead? 16 For if the firstfruit [is] holy, the lump [is] also [holy;] and if the root [is] holy, so [are] the branches. 17 And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, 18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, [remember that] you do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in." 20 Well [said.] Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. 22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in [His] goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who [are] natural [branches,] be grafted into their own olive tree? NKJV
In his olive tree metaphor Paul appears to have had the Judean Establishment in mind. Collectively, it was comprised of priests, rabbis, and older men-custodians of the covenant promises. The “cultivated” olive tree would thus picture Judaism's divinely constituted teaching community centered in Jerusalem and expressed through the synagogue system to which Paul had recourse in the Book of Acts.SYNOPSISThrough the synagogue system the Leadership expressed its gatekeeper function-safeguarding the identity, privilege, and status of the nation. Formerly estranged Israelites from “the nations” were grafted into the rabbinical [teaching] system. Judean Rabbis disobedient to the “good news” were disqualified. Paul expressed hope in his metaphor about their re-instatement as legitimate teachers.The Roman congregation or school of Jesus appeared to consist of Judeans and Israelites of the Diaspora-the former were more deeply entrenched in the Mosaic religion; the latter did not observe the Law or the customs [e.g., circumcision]. Paul likens the Israelites of the Diaspora-the Greeks- to an “uncultivated” olive tree. A modern analogy might be to call university graduates new to a company “uneducated” and their experienced counterparts without academic qualifications “educated.” The analogy would be especially salient for the firm's management.Paul's purpose in giving the olive tree metaphor seems to have been: 1) to instill humility in the non-Judean Israelite teachers [Romans 2:17-24] 2) to unite the Greek Israelites and Judean Israelites within one collective rabbinical community 3) to correct pessimism regarding the rehabilitation of many within the Jewish Establishment.
While most commentaries teach that the olive tree symbolizes “Israel,” I am inclined to think that Paul was using the metaphor more specifically. I suggest that Paul may have been alluding to the Sanhedrin and synagogue teachers throughout the Roman Empire. That is, the olive tree metaphor seems to focus on the Jewish Establishment, comprised of Sadducees and Pharisees, priests and orthodox rabbis. That body of older men was the only legitimate conduit of divine truth for ancient Israel. Boughs-main branches-rather than twigs appear to be in view. Zechariah Chapter 4 supports the notion that an olive tree can picture something other than a nation where two “anointed” leaders funnel oil to the nation. Israel was evidently like an olive tree rooted in the messianic hope.
The Law and Prophets, the Priesthood and Administration preserved and perpetuated that hope. At the end of its life as a nation, only Judeans [Malina and Pilch, 2006], or more specifically, Judean teachers, represented that olive tree. As long as they remained rooted in the messianic hope they enjoyed a privileged position. But with the coming of Jesus, all that changed. The new legitimating criterion was commitment to him. With Jesus' appearance as the promised savior of the nation retention in the pedagogical [pertaining to teaching] “olive tree” depended entirely on commitment to him. Those who refused to believe were “broken off” or pruned. Those, like Paul [albeit after a special divine intervention], who committed to Jesus remained in the tree, as it were. Nevertheless, the garden “olive tree” was “their own olive tree”-- (v. 24) the Judean pedagogical olive tree.Israelites scattered among the nations [the Diaspora] were like a “wild olive tree”-they were not as keen for the ancient customs as their Judean kin. However, Paul would help them to eventually recover their vitality and usefulness to their brothers in the Roman Empire.
In speaking about “Israel” Paul is evidently using a figure of speech called “synecdoche.” In synecdoche the part symbolizes the whole or vice versa. For example, when we speak about the U.S. vis-à-vis Iraq we generally mean the U.S. government expressed through its military machine. Paul's use of “Israel” is likewise both inclusive and expansive in that it appears intended to unite all tribes while disciplining the leadership. Perhaps in exclaiming that the “wild olive branches [boughs]” were grafted in among the “cultivated” [ideal] olive boughs, Paul was alluding to a messianic teaching system within Judaism that was supplanting the orthodox system.
That orthodox system is seen in the Book of Acts where Paul enters the synagogues to teach about Jesus. As more men from among the “nations” [mistranslated “Gentiles”] embraced their Israelite heritage and accepted Jesus as Messiah, some would have been trained to teach-they would have become rabbis. In short, Israelites from among the nations, tutored by Paul and other orthodox rabbis, would have been “grafted in among” the divinely approved teaching community-even if they did not teach in the orthodox synagogues. But, to humble the teachers from among “the nations” who believed they were somehow superior to the Jerusalem teachers (who were notably from the priesthood) Paul reminds them that they were partaking of the “root's fatness” (Ro 11:17). What is the root?
In referencing “the root” (v.16) Paul seems to have in mind something deep and vitiating to the whole tree. Most commentators believe the root points back to Abraham. They appear to mean that the promises to Abraham became active through Jesus, much like a will becomes active following the death of the testator. Put another way, the general promises to Abraham and his progeny became specific with the coming of Israel's Anointed One. Paul reminded the teachers or rabbis from among the nations that they did not support the root, but the root supported them. This is a plausible interpretation.
However, I submit that Paul is referring to the Jewish Priesthood. Note the reference to “first fruits” and “lump” in the first verse to mention “the root”-v.16. It was “holy” in that it was the only real revealed religion on earth. It bore the branches, that is, the pedagogical [teaching] Order which claimed to express and defend the Priesthood. It was that Order which Jesus and the apostles engaged and against which they spoke. Note also the reference to “altars” in verse 3 and “table” [altar] in verse 9. Also, note the reference to “sacrifice” in verse 16 and sacrifice in Romans 12:1. In verse 4 Paul says 7,000 in Elijah's day had not repudiated true worship. The number 7,000 may have alluded to the Sanhedrin-comprised of 70 teachers and scholars-including priests! God had constituted it the collective custodian of divine knowledge, and it is clear from Paul's words in verses 26,27 that God was not entirely done with them at the time of Paul's letter. The “root” was still holy notwithstanding their treatment of the Messiah, Jesus (Ac 23:1-4).
In Ro 11:25,26 Paul says the purpose of the “nations” is to “save all Israel.” All Israel may mean 'Israel including its leadership.' The “all” may be representative rather than all encompassing. The sense seems to be 'all believing Israel, including those Israelites in authority.' In verse 14 he states that his aim is to incite them to jealousy and save some from among them. Thus, Paul seems to say that the “nations” serve to vitiate the olive tree [Israel] by becoming a dissenting voice-a collective conscience communicating the “good news” about their messiah to their estranged brothers in Orthodox Judaism-even if they do not want to hear it!
Perhaps that is why, in the very next chapter, Ro 12:3-8 speaks about their various functions within the congregation [a “called out” synagogue] such as “prophesying, teaching, exhortation”. They would thereby have been both separate from and yet inclusive in Israel. That is, though they would never be legitimated by the Jerusalem Establishment-the Sanhedrin-neither would they be a separate “religion” called “Christianity.” Their authentication as teachers would nevertheless come from God through Christ.Hence, a new order of messianic rabbis-those who embraced Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, was being 'grafted in among' the old order.
There is no reason to subscribe to the view that the 'Christian' movement was separate from Judaism. Rather, the Acts of Apostles suggests that, for Paul and others, synagogues continued to be conduits of truth for the ancient Israelites. Paul exclaimed that he would do his divine service proud [glorify] if he could provoke his brothers to passionate concern for their messianic heritage [vv 13-14]. I suggest that messianic rabbis promulgated the 'good news' to their brothers within the established teaching order, that is, through synagogues. That the “nations” in the Roman congregation were teachers and prophets disciplining the Jewish Establishment is buttressed by Paul's references to the Hebrew texts. Note Paul's use of “teacher,” instruction, and “guide” in Romans 2:17-24.
Dissenting Voices Discipline Power
In Jeremiah Chapter 11 the prophet directs condemnation at the House of Judah-its leadership-who had abandoned the covenant. John Gill's Commentary on Jeremiah 11:17 states: “and the branches of it are broken; the high and principal ones, the king, princes, and nobles, their palaces, and the house of God. The apostle seems to have respect to this passage in Ro 11:17.” Elijah (1 Kings 19:10) speaks against King Ahab and David directs his condemnation at numerous and powerful enemies (Psalm 69), for example. Further evidence that Paul had the Judean leadership in mind is found in verses 7-10. For example, verse 8 references a “deep sleep” which had afflicted the men of Judah from Isaiah's day to Paul's day. Verse 10 is a quotation from Psalm 69:22. The “table” could possibly mean altar. Gill's Commentary quotes the Jewish Targum which renders the verse "let their sacrifices be for a trap, or stumbling block.” The Judean Establishment rooted in the Temple thus appears to be in view.
That Establishment consisted of priests-who were also the nation's teachers (Mal 2:7). Observe how the “deliverer” or messianic leader comes out of [or to] Zion-the capital of the nation. If we were to say that a deliverer were to come to Washington to correct what is defective, we would understand the nation's administration to be the focus. To re-cap, the olive tree in Ro 11 appears to impeach the Sanhedrin-the legitimate teaching Order of ancient Israel-and those who rabbis who espoused its attitude toward Jesus. That establishment rejected Jesus as their Messiah, but did that mean that they were beyond hope? Not necessarily-as the reference to Elijah's day suggests (1 Kings 19). Under King Ahab, the nation had descended to an all-time theological low-its very identity and existence were in question. Yet God preserved the prophet (the nation's “conscience”) and intimated that a minority [remnant] worth saving existed. Men in power persecuted him; men in power-later anointed by the prophet-would vindicate him.
Paul, in effect, suggests that a similar pattern reproduced itself in his day: Just as a minority of Israelites were “saved” in Elijah's day-when rampant idolatry made it seem like the nation was doomed-so God would save “some” Judean Israelites within the Sanhedrin and within the synagogue circuit that represented that body, through Paul's outreach to them. In Ro 11:11 Paul also appears to suggest that God would use the reconciled Israelites from among the nations to recalibrate the thinking of their estranged Judean brothers and thereby enable them to be re-instated as legitimate teachers-principally, by accepting Jesus as their new Leader.
Let's now look at the same chapter through the Abrahamic lens. That lens assumes that the Holy Scriptures were written by and for Israelites exclusively. What was the purpose of the olive tree metaphor? Apparently to correct the superior attitude of Israelite teachers from the nations [ethne] toward their brothers in Judah. The uncultivated olive tree seems to have symbolized the Hellenic Israelites. They were Israelites immersed in “worldwide values and behaviors” (Malina and Pilch, 2006). To correct the superior attitude of the cultivated [Hellenic] Israelites toward their Judean brothers, Paul calls them “uncultivated” whereas the Israelites of Judah are called “cultivated.”
By using the metaphor this way Paul inverts the standing of the two groups. The “Greeks” or “nations” evidently originated in the 10 tribes that were dispersed during the Assyrian invasion 150 years before. More specifically, the “cultivated” Olive Tree seems to point to the Jewish Establishment, notably Pharisees, Sadducees, priests and orthodox rabbis. They were the Jews-those from Judah who practiced Judean customs i.e., by following the Mosaic Law and practicing circumcision (Malina and Pilch, 2006) and who wielded authority over Israelites throughout the Roman Empire. As stated above, the root and first fruits apparently signifed the priesthood and the Judahite leadership who were custodians of the Law-notwithstanding their recalcitrance to the “good news” about the Messiah. They were the superior authorities discussed in Romans Chapter 13 (Allen, n/d). Without their fidelity to the promises, there would have been nothing for the Israelites from among the nations to return to-no Theocracy, no messiah.
What was the goal of Paul's letter to the Romans? I suggest that the goal was to make the 2 houses-Judah and Ephraim-one re-united nation under the leadership of their messiah, Jesus. Paul says that God would thereby save “all Israel” (Ro 11:26-27) (Allen, n/d). However, in stating that all Israel would be saved I suggest that Paul still has rabbis-men in authority-in mind. Those rabbis from “the nations” were once “disobedient” (v.30) and in need of “reconciliation” (v.15). One cannot disobey what one does not know; neither can one be reconciled if there was no prior relationship. Likewise, disobedient Jews-especially those in authority-would be shown mercy if they accepted the new “collective agreement” mediated by their messiah.
Their fall meant riches to the world, perhaps meaning a very large number of previously estranged Israelites scattered throughout the Roman Empire.Anachronistic LensPaul taught that “salvation” was “near” and that the day had “drawn near” (Ro 13:11,12). Thus, he clearly expected the fulfillment in his lifetime.
Acts 28-- An Example of Pruning
16 Now when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him. 17 And it came to pass after three days that Paul called the leaders of the Jews together. So when they had come together, he said to them: "Men [and] brethren, though I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans, 18 "who, when they had examined me, wanted to let [me] go, because there was no cause for putting me to death. 19 "But when the Jews spoke against [it,] I was compelled to appeal to Caesar, not that I had anything of which to accuse my nation. 20 "For this reason therefore I have called for you, to see [you] and speak with [you,] because for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain." 21 Then they said to him, "We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you. 22 "But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere." 23 So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at [his] lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. 24 And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved. 25 So when they did not agree among themselves, they departed after Paul had said one word: "The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, 26 "saying, 'Go to this people and say: "Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand; And seeing you will see, and not perceive; 27 For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with [their] eyes and hear with [their] ears, Lest they should understand with [their] hearts and turn, So that I should heal them." ' 28 "Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles [nations], and they will hear it!" 29 And when he had said these words, the Jews departed and had a great dispute among themselves. (NKJV) Parentheses and emphases mine.
Paul's dual purpose in giving the olive tree metaphor seems to have been: 1) to instill humility in the non-Judean Israelite teachers [Romans 2:17-24] and, 2) to promote unity among his Israelite brothers. One will observe that wild olive branches were integrated into a domestic olive tree-contrary to usual horticultural practice. However, as Stephen Allen reminds us, Paul did not say that a pear tree or an apple tree were integrated into an olive tree. Paul applied the metaphor to his Israelite contemporaries. The olive tree metaphor appears to have had the Judean Establishment in mind. That Establishment was comprised of priests, rabbis, and older men-custodians of the covenant promises. The “cultivated” olive tree would thus picture Judaism's divinely constituted teaching community centered in Jerusalem and expressed through the synagogue system to which Paul had recourse in the Book of Acts.
The Olive Tree Metaphor: It's Not What You Think. Allen, Stephen. Ha Derech.
John Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible. http://www.freegrace.net/gill/
Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Malina, Bruce J. and Pilch, John J. (2006).
Fortress PressNew King James Version (1982) http://www.ccel.org/wwsb