Romans 11: The Olive Tree’s Root

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Paul spoke about Israel as a “cultivated olive tree” whose rootage was in the Patriarchs, particularly Abraham. Some Bible commentators, however, interpreted the root of the olive tree as Christ or his messianic program.

Revised: 20-Apr-2013

The apostle Paul asserted in Romans 11:1 that God had not rejected his people. Speaking metaphorically, he went on to compare the people of Israel to a cultivated olive tree. Because of unbelief, some, but not all, of the tree’s branches had been broken off, and a wild olive branch had been grafted to the stock.[1] Paul emphasized, however, that grafting the original branches back to the stock of the cultivated tree would be a much simpler task than grafting a wild olive to it.

Olive branches. Illustration by Janet Frankovic.

Paul spoke about Israel as a “cultivated olive tree” whose rootage was in the Patriarchs, particularly Abraham.[2] Some Bible commentators, however, interpreted the root of the olive tree as Christ or his messianic program.[3] When making that claim, they came dangerously close to endorsing an old, rotten idea: the root represents the New Israel, that is, the Church.

Once an exegete has identified the root of Paul’s metaphor with the Church, he or she cannot easily escape a subsequent and more pernicious conclusion: Israel of the flesh ceased to exist long ago. Rejecting carnal Israel, God gave her place of distinction to another. That other is the Church.

There are two reasons that the olive tree’s root has been wrongly interpreted as symbolizing the Messiah. First, the Greek word ῥίζα (ridza, root) appears in Romans 11:16. There ridza seems to parallel the Greek word ἀπαρχή (aparxe, firstfruits), which calls to mind 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23. There Paul referred to Jesus, whom he regarded as Messiah, as “the aparxe (the firstfruits) of those who have fallen asleep.”

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The olive trees in Zechariah’s vision as depicted in the Bíblia de Cervera. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

  • [1] “The two beautiful sprigs which God engrafted into Abraham are Ruth and Naomi [sic, Naamah], who let themselves be planted into Israel as proselytes,” Christian Maurer, referring to Rabbi Eleazar’s saying preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 63a (entry ῥίζα [ridza] in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [ed. Gerhard Friedrich; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968], 6:987): “What is the meaning of, ‘And in you will all the families of the earth be blessed’ [Gen. 12:3]? The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Abraham: ‘I have two branches to engraft upon you: Ruth the Moabitess and Naamah the Ammonitess.’ ‘All the families of the earth.’ [This scriptural phrase means that] even the other families who dwell on the earth are not blessed except for Israel’s sake….” According to Joseph Shulam, the apostle Paul “uses the metaphor of ‘grafting in’ to graphically demonstrate God’s plan to bless all the nations of the world through Abraham” (A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans [Baltimore, MD: Lederer, 1997], 363, 370).
  • [2] Maurer, TDNT, 6:989; Shulam, Romans, 363, 371-73. Rom. 11:28 helps to confirm that Paul had the Patriarchs in mind.
  • [3] E.g., in ancient times, the church fathers; in this century, Karl Barth: Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. 2: Die Lehre von Gott, part 2 (1942), 314 (English trans.: Church Dogmatics [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957], 285f.).

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  • David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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