Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 3)

In the previous instalments of this short series, we critiqued two views pertaining to the restoration of Israel. We first saw that the restoration has nothing to do with the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948. We then saw, through Paul’s theology, that the Church does not replace Israel. Rather, ‘Israel’ continues into the Church. I now want to draw the threads together and argue for a third option, namely that Israel is restored through the apostolic testimony about Jesus, as attested in the book of Acts. This option is, I believe, more in line with the Bible as a whole.

Let’s return, then, to the question that the Apostles posed to the risen Jesus (Acts 1.6). When does he restore the kingdom to Israel? We observed how Jesus doesn’t repudiate the notion of Israel’s kingdom being restored. He simply tells his apostles, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority.” (Acts 1.7) This sets up the expectation that Jesus will indeed restore the kingdom of Israel, albeit according to the timing determined by the Father. Yet Jesus does not leave the issue there. He goes on to say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8) This is not some random prediction unrelated to the Apostles’ question. Rather, Jesus is clearly linking the restoration of Israel to the apostolic witness of him in the three classic loci of the nation of Israel: Jerusalem (the royal capital), Judea (that is, the southern kingdom of Judah), and Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel).

As we read on through the first eight chapters of Acts, that is precisely what we see happen. Starting with Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2), we see the Apostles testifying about Jesus in Jerusalem and, after being scattered by persecution (Acts 8.1), throughout Judea and Samaria as well. As this occurs, people from the disparate parts of Israel hear their testimony and come to acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. In other words, in the first eight chapters of Acts, we witness the reunification of Israel under its Davidic king. What the prophets of old had looked forward to now becomes reality as Jews and Samaritans both put their faith in Jesus as ruler, saviour, and Messiah, for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 5.31, 42). Here, then, is the beginning of Israel’s restoration. What’s more, this occurs with a fullness never before experienced, as those who would otherwise have been excluded from the inner ranks of Israel, such as the lame (Acts 3) and the eunuch (Acts 8), are enabled to become full citizens of restored Israel (cf. Isa 56). Only once the restoration of Israel under its rightful king, Jesus, is truly underway do we then observe the gospel going out to the Gentiles. In fact, the rest of the story of Acts (chs. 9–28) is the story about how the king of Israel, Jesus, becomes the king of the world, as the gospel eventually reaches the imperial capital, Rome.

The leaders of Israel at this time were the Jewish Sanhedrin. Luke describes them as ‘the full senate of the sons of Israel’ (Acts 5.21). They, however, fail to recognise Jesus, the one they had executed, as ruler, saviour, and Messiah (Acts 5.29–32). By this rejection of the apostolic testimony they are seen to be illegitimate rulers. Ironically, one of their number, Gamaliel, convinces the Sanhedrin to release the Apostles after their arrest, arguing that if their message was merely ‘the work of men’, it would die out, as many other movements within Israel had (Acts 5.38). The tragic irony here is that it was not the apostolic movement that died out, but the Sanhedrin itself. In rejecting Jesus, the Sanhedrin revealed itself as ‘the work of men’. When Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, it went the way of the other failed movements within Israel.

The implication of this is that the portions of Israel that failed to recognise Jesus’ kingship forfeited their status as ‘Israel’. Indeed, this idea seems to be behind Paul’s important statement in Romans 9.6 that ‘not all who are descended from Israel are Israel’. Paul views only those in Israel who have believed (or will believe) in Jesus as members of the true Israel. As such, when Paul states in Romans 11.26 that ‘all Israel will be saved’, he is not talking about everyone descended from Abraham. Rather, he is implying that only those ethnic Jews who believe in Jesus (following the example of Gentiles who do the same) are true Israel.

There are a number of implications that arise from our considerations.

Firstly, true Israel is no longer defined by geography or politics. If we take Paul’s view, true Israel is defined as those of Jewish ethnicity who believe in Jesus as Messiah. That being the case, we must conclude that the modern state of Israel has no particularly special place in the grand scheme of things. It should not be privileged above any other state entity. It should, rather, be treated as any other modern nation state.

Secondly, we should not be expecting a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity marking the last days of history as we know it. Paul was not envisioning such a thing in Romans 11.26. Rather, Paul was pointing out that because many Jews rejected the apostolic testimony about Jesus, the gospel was able to go to the Gentiles. And as Gentiles believed in Israel’s Messiah, Paul hoped that these Gentiles would then take the gospel back to the Jews. In other words, Paul was not predicting a sudden eschatological conversion of Jews against all previous expectations, but was rather advocating some good old evangelism. The entire gospel message is, after all, native to Israel—it is for the Jews first, and then also for the Greek (Rom 1.16).

Let’s now summarise. In the revelation of Christ and the granting of the Spirit, we see the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament fulfilled: the Messiah had come and God had poured out his Spirit, resulting in the restoration and, indeed, the transformation of his people, Israel. Yet, so monumental is this salvation that it affects all of humanity. Salvation occurs within Israel, but not just for Israel. The gospel breaks out beyond the confines of Israel and spills out to the nations. As the apostolic testimony of Jesus goes forth, the Church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, is built. The Church is not Israel renovated with an extra room out the back for Gentiles, for Gentiles are not called to become a part of Israel. Nor does the Church do away with Israel, for Jesus is the King of Israel, and the gospel is for the Jew first. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles together form one body, the Church, and together have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit (Eph 2.18). The Church is a truly international entity.

The scene that John depicts in Revelation 7 is perhaps a fitting way to wrap things up. In that scene John sees the multitude of the saved gathered around the divine throne. There are people there from every people group and language—so many that they cannot be counted. But at the forefront of this multitude John sees 144,000 people from Israel. This is a symbolic number, indicating both numerical size as well as the fullness of Israel (there are twelve tribes in Israel, and multiples of twelve abound in the symbolic number). In other words, we see what Paul describes as ‘all Israel’ (Rom 11.26). Here, then, is a magnificent picture of the Church: the fullness of restored Israel standing alongside a multitude of Gentiles before the throne of the Lamb who was slain for them all.

Can we date biblical texts on linguistic grounds?

It’s an interesting question: Do the linguistic features of Biblical Hebrew allow us to figure out the date of biblical texts? Traditionally, the answer has been ‘yes’. And so Hebrew has been divided into ‘Early Biblical Hebrew’ (‘EBH’ — a.k.a. ‘Standard Biblical Hebrew’, or ‘SBH’) and ‘Late Biblical Hebrew (‘LBH’). As the terms suggest, EBH was viewed as an earlier stage of the language, usually dated to the pre-exilic era (i.e. before 587 BC), while LBH became more prevalent after this time.

Recently, however, a two-volume study, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008), by Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd, has called this hypothesis into question.

The hypothesis of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd is that the data usually shown as evidence for a linguistic transition from an early form of Hebrew to a later form can and should be reinterpreted. They argue that instead of being a linear development, both EBH and LBH were concurrent ‘styles’ of Hebrew that coexisted. As a result of this, biblical texts can’t really be dated in the manner previously done. In other words, it is a mistake to think that a text written in EBH is necessarily earlier than a text written in LBH. That would have to be established on other grounds beyond linguistics.

The ramifications of this for our study of Hebrew language and biblical texts are actually quite significant. For starters, if Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd are correct, then we would need to privilege non-linguistic data in determining (or at least trying to determine) the date of particular texts.

But are they correct?

Significant debate has ensued since the publication of LDBT in 2008. Some of it has been carried out in journals and academic conferences. But some of it has been conducted through online forums and blogs. You can find one such exchange being carried out between the authors of LDBT and two critics of their new take, John Cook and Robert Holmstedt. You will find the exchange on the Ancient Hebrew Grammar blog of John Cook and Robert Holmstedt, here:

Cook and Holmstedt disagree with the method and conclusions in LDBT. The discussion is quite heated at times, but that at least makes for interesting reading. You’ll also find John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry weighing critically into the debate.

For my part, let me lay my cards on the table in this debate. I was one of the proof readers for LDBT, and I have to say I found the arguments logically convincing. The critique of the linguistic approach of Avi Hurvitz was, especially, quite persuasive. I agree with Young (who was my PhD supervisor), Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd that too much has been made of linguistic data in the past, and that we cannot really date biblical texts based solely on linguistic grounds. I also agree that building a history of the language based on biblical texts is seriously undermined by the difficulties of thinking about redaction and scribal transmission.

However, there are numerous other questions that arise. If EBH and LBH are not successive stages of the Hebrew language, but rather concurrent ‘styles’, what exactly do they represent? Are they purely dialectal? Was ancient Israel/Judah/Samaria/Yehud a place where diglossia occurred? Is the linguistic divide between LBH and EBH based on geographic, social, or literary grounds—or even other grounds entirely? Do we need new terms to describe these two ‘styles’ of Hebrew?

It will be interesting to see how discussion develops.