The Olive Tree Analogy
Author: Michael, Whitney
The Olive Tree analogy
played a vital role in Paul’s attempt to resolve problems in the Roman
Church. This article seeks to show the
weakness of the popularly held idea that the Gentiles were being grafted into
Why isn’t the Olive Tree argument about
Paul did not indicate specifically that he was speaking of a parable to be unraveled. Nor did the context suggest that Paul intended to show mysteries.
The Olive Tree argument in
Romans 11 was not written as a general discourse on the relationship between
Worse yet, the whole flow of
Romans 9 to 11 focused on dispelling the tension between Gentiles and
Jews. It wasn’t until the ninth chapter
that Paul felt that the audience was ready to hear the word “
With the racial tension,
the Gentile believers in
Much of the material just presented helps to show that the Roman audience would not be pleased with Paul saying that they all were Israelites.
Furthermore if Paul
actually sought to reduce tension, he would not logically sneak in an argument
that the Gentile believers were now part of
Its true there was an
effort to mix Jew and Gentile in the analogy.
And this mixing of Jew and Gentile in the Church would normally be
natural. The Church in
What does the Olive Tree analogy represent?
First note that the Olive
Tree doesn’t represent the Church because the branches could not be broken off
the Church. In this sense then a mistake
would be made to say that the Church is
Such a description of the Church would mean that Christians could barely hold onto salvation and then could loose salvation in moments where they don’t feel like they have sufficient faith anymore. (Even such deep exploration of scriptural passages would nearly be forbidden due to the temporary doubts that would arise in the student of the Bible at times where he was finding his previously held beliefs to be wrong.)
If the Olive Tree
The Olive Tree best can be
seen to be describing the rough concept of “people of God.” But of course this is what popular theology
has held anyhow yet with the added step of calling this “people of God” as
Yet once that step of
naming such group as “
The other problem of
calling this “Olive Tree” people as being “
Therefore the Olive Tree
can be identified loosely as the “people of God” with the initial group
consisting of Jews, as being the bloodline
Explanation of the Early Olive Tree
The Olive Tree analogy, in applying to the first thirty years of the first century, before the death and resurrection of Jesus, then included all Jews, all of Israel, but not cause they all were saved. Maybe the only basis of such inclusion was that their membership in this Olive Tree wasn’t challenged.
Now, after the Day of
Pentecost, the people of God, having only consisted of
[WEAK: In actual analysis,
if the Olive Tree were the true
Now some Jews who initially rejected Jesus could eventually have accepted Him and hence be grafted back in. But such explanation only hints to a little bit of logic in the analogy, not to the actual design of the analogy – cause the analogy wasn’t about salvation but was about stopping the Gentile boasting.
Paul’s intent wasn’t really to use the Olive Tree analogy to create a general model of how salvation works. The intent was to remove the Gentile boasting by showing that the most natural situation would be that Jews were followers of Christ – so the message was “don’t boast and prohibit that which is most natural.” (Note that this natural expectation for Jewish salvation, as the logical recipients, was the point of Romans 9:1-5. Paul maintained continuity of ideas from Romans 9 to 11.)
Problems with Theology made from Olive Tree
We often get bad fruit when trying to get doctrines from the Olive Tree analogy.
One of the bad fruits would be a doctrine of tentative salvation by faith that people can waiver in faith and lose salvation. But any doctrine about the nature of faith, as obtained from the Olive Tree analogy would be going beyond the purpose and reach of Paul’s analogy. The analogy wasn’t to describe how people get saved nor about the working of their faith in the process of salvation.
Some additional bad fruit would be:
that all the
b) that they then could lose salvation
c) that Gentiles could lose salvation
d) that after losing salvation, people would be able to regain salvation
We identify the tree as
The question can be asked “how is a Gentile broken off the tree?” This should leave any theologian dumbfounded. Beyond maybe some eschatological situations where apparently saved people were found not to have been of faith (for many who were among us now have left because they never really were of us -- 1John -19) but there is no reasonable explanation of how true believers can stop being true believers.
It is true that Paul says that Jews then could have been grafted in if they didn’t continue in unbelief. When expressing this, there was no similar statement regarding the idea that Gentiles believers could become faithless again. The closest to this idea is the question whether the Gentiles continued in God’s goodness (Rom WEB translation) – which most likely had an eschatological meaning rather than application to general theology concepts. If the metaphor actually was trying to teach something about faith, the passage would have referred to the Gentiles’ situation regarding faith.
Notice also that the Jews were described here as continuing in unbelief. That is to say that the people Paul talked about had never been saved, it was the unbelief that existed before Christ and throughout His ministry.
Another problem, when extending the Olive Tree analogy to modern times, would be that of differentiating between Jew and Gentile. For, at this point in time, there would be many people among the nations who have heard the gospel and not responded. Hence, the nations, at least those nations where the gospel is well known, would be “continuing in unbelief” just as the Jews were in Paul’s time. But then also the tree analogy could not be logically extended to say that the Gentiles are part of the Olive Tree before being saved. Therefore, the Olive Tree analogy only has logic when applied to the first century. Though this last problem may apply only to our ability to apply the Olive Tree analogy today, rather than on the original implications of the analogy. (We can’t uproot the analogy and move it into modern times as a description, or differentiation, of Jew and Gentile today.)
When considering the contextual issues, as described herein, further insight into the specific perspective of the letter to the Romans are documented at www.BibleReexamined.com under the Romans Topics section.
Primarily, a problem was
found in the attempt to treat the Olive Tree analogy as a general analogy about
faith or salvation. Such problem
actually arises from the general context of Romans 9 to 11,
that Paul had spoken of
So the context of Romans 9 to 11 included the effort to show fulfillment of the promise to Jacob and his bloodline descendants. Such question of God’s faithfulness arose in Romans 9:6 “But it is not as though the word of God has come to nothing” with an additional issue of the low number of Jews being saved at that time.
The context doesn’t necessarily mean that the Olive Tree could only address the problem of boasting but merely that the analogy first and foremost was for the purpose of stopping the boasting. Other doctrines then would be at best subservient to Paul’s original purpose.
Natural Explanation of the Olive Tree
Paul provided the analogy
to dissuade boasting among the Gentile believers in
Where the analogy spoke of Jews logically being the branches to be grafted back in, this was to tell the Gentiles to stop rejecting the Jews, the natural branches, from being grafted. Such viewpoint of the analogy shows that the issue addressed wasn’t whether the Jews could have faith, but rather the issue was whether the Gentiles were decreasing the likelihood of Jews coming to faith.
Also, Paul spoke of the Gentiles as being wild branches (Rom ) being grafted in did not have as logical reason to join the tree as did the Jews.
Now looking again at the
idea of the wild branches in Rom 11:17 , the Gentiles were indeed described as olive
branches. The analogy doesn’t treat
Another point is that the wild branches, even after being grafted in, were still wild branches. There was no conversion to make these wild branches as a natural part of the tree. But when Gentiles became believers, they truly became members of Christ’s body (at least in some sense as implied by the concept of becoming members of Christ’s body). So, the distinction of wild and cultivated branches does not fit as a description of the body of Christ especially where some members could be considered natural while some as wild. Elsewhere the scriptures show that the Gentile and Jew were joined into one new man.
The Olive Tree metaphor stands in stark contrast to the analogy of Jesus as the vine with believers as the branches. He spoke of the vine without any mention of wild branches. The primary idea of the vine is that we, as believers, had to abide in the vine.
Part of the contrast also appears in the mention by John the Baptist that the axe was already being positioned at the base or root of the tree. There also were some other prophecies about branches being burned—probably from Isaiah.
The idea here was that the
analogies weren’t about the
The study of the Olive
Tree metaphor showed some major reasons why the metaphor didn’t bring Roman
Gentile believers as part of
No grounds were left for
holding on to the idea that Paul was using the metaphor to say that Gentiles
were grafted into
Common Law Copyright 2009 by Michael, Whitney.