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Romans 11:25 and the Healing of Calloused Wounds

palms of a elderly woman, isolated on black copyspace, grain addedIn spite of Paul’s explicit effort to check prideful attitudes toward Jews among the non-Jews to whom he writes in Rome, a negative characterization of Jews naturally arises from Paul’s use of πώρωσις in Romans 11:25, which is typically translated “hardening,” and thus, “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” (NRSV), or “that a partial hardening has happened to Israel” (NASB). Whether translated to indicate that only some Israelites have been hardened, as in the NRSV, or that Israel itself has been hardened to some degree, as in the NASB, commentators also regularly conflate this reference to hardness with God’s hardening of the heart of Pharaoh–although Paul does not refer to the heart of Israelites being hardened. A negative judgment of the condition of the Jewish other is thereby perpetuated, however unwittingly, within an interpretive discourse surrounded by language designed to argue against just such hostile assessments of their condition.

‘Callused,’ Not ‘Hardened’: Paul’s Revelation of Temporary Protection Until All Israel Can Be Healed (PDF), pp 1-2
by Mark D. Nanos, Rockhurst University, Paper Presented at the Central States SBL, St. Louis, March 22, 2010

I found a link to this paper at another blog a few days ago and went through Nanos’ treatment of this short section of Romans 11. I’m glad I did. I won’t go through all of the content (although I suppose I could since it’s only 34 pages), but I want to draw attention to the “hardness” of Israel as is described in most Bible translations of Romans 11:25.

As Nanos says, “commentators also regularly conflate this reference to hardness with God’s hardening of the heart of Pharaoh–although Paul does not refer to the heart of Israelites being hardened. A negative judgment of the condition of the Jewish other is thereby perpetuated…”

“Hard-hearted Israel” gets a bum rap in Nanos’ opinion and he goes out to prove it in his paper.

Πώρωσις Versus Σκληρός

Sklerōs is regularly applied to the hardening of the heart in the sense of being strengthened to express firm, stubborn resistance to God’s will, or being insensitive to it. Paul uses the verbal form, σκληρύνω, in 9:17-18, in keeping with the usage in Exodus 9:12, 16, where it metaphorically describes God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (LXX usually for Hebrew ‫ , שׁה‬also). The σκληρός word group has to do with things hard or rough to the touch, harsh sounds, or harsh or bitter tastes and smells. When used metaphorically, it generally connotes harsh or hard in the sense of austere, stern, insensitive, or stubborn. Instead of eliminating Pharaoh, God is represented as making him stubbornly resistant to God’s will so that the people of Israel would be freed. This hardening is undertaken in order to heighten the impact when Pharaoh is ultimately compelled to change his mind in the face of the inexorable suffering that his resistance provokes. In this way, God’s power and thus name are made known among the nations.

-Nanos, pg 3

Well that doesn’t sound too good if applied to Israel’s response in Romans 11:25. However, there’s hope.

But Paul does not use σκληρός or cognates to describe the state of Israelites; instead, he uses πώρωσις in 11:25 (and as a passive verb in v. 7: ἐπωρώθησαν) to describe the state of some (many) of his fellow Israelites. Πώρωσις (verb πωρόω) refers to a “callus” (verb: to callus) not to “hardness” per se.

Πώρωσις is not a word common to the Tanakh. It is used once in verbal form in the Septuagint, Job 17:7, to refer to eyes “growing dim” from anger or grief  MT: ‫ . כהה‬As will be discussed, the context indicates that it is not “hardness,” or even “blindness” per se, but “impairment” of sight that is at issue, which is better expressed by the Greek variant πεπήρωνται. Πώρωσις is not used in the Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, or Philo. It is common in medical discussions in antiquity. According to Hippocrates, De alimento 53, it has to do with a process of healing following an injury: “Marrow nutriment of bone, and through this a callus forms [Μυελὸς τροφὴ ὀστέου, διὰ τοῦτο ἐπι πωροῦται]” (Loeb; trans. W. H. S. Jones). In other words, the formation of a callus—which involves a process of hardening, to be sure—is to offer protection so that the injured area can sustain life. It promotes healing of broken bones or wounds, not harm or destruction, or metaphorical resistance. It creates an area less sensitive to touch, but that too is a positive feature versus the continuation of the sensation of pain where the injury occurred.

-Nanos, pp 3-4

broken_branchesHow interesting. First of all, it explains why the word “blindness” or some variant is sometimes used instead of “hardened” for Israel or the heart of Israel, but the more important comparison is between “hardened” and “callused” (you can find a number of different translations for Romans 11:25 at biblehub.com). If a branch is broken on a tree (a related metaphor of Paul’s in this context), that doesn’t rule out new growth at all.

If Nanos is right and the word we typically read as “hardened” is more properly rendered as “callused,” then the implication of this verse and probably this entire chapter of Paul’s letter takes a different direction. Instead of suggesting that Israel became “hard” to the good news of Messiah and so it was given to the Gentiles, it seems that part of Israel is temporarily callused until a time of healing can take place. They are “less sensitive” to the gospel for a certain period of time for the sake of self-protection (and for the sake of the Gentiles), but will eventually heal and become more sensitive again.


Oh, there’s more:

If Paul meant “callus,” that need not carry the negative valence that “harden” does. Instead, it would offer a more positive and arguably more salient choice that has to do with the healing and protecting process that takes place after an injury has occurred, such as after a branch has been broken or broken off. The translation “that a callus has happened to Israel” expresses the perfect active verb γέγονεν (“has become”) here. It allows the dative “to” or “for Israel” to be expressed. If discussing a callus in English, we would express this as “has developed” or “has formed”: “that a callus has developed/formed for Israel.” Either way, this also communicates the idea that the callus “has happened” for the benefit of some Israelites or Israel. (Of course, even the translation “callus” contains a value judgment that is at the very least patronizing, for Paul believes that his fellow Jews not joining him in declaring Christ to the nations have suffered a wound that elicits the need for this protective measure; but at the same time his point is that this is a part of the way God is working, using them, so that these Israelites are still a part of the way God is announcing the message to the nations.)

-Nanos, pp 18-19

It’s hard for me not to copy and paste large portions of the text from the Nanos paper because I find his commentary and conclusions so uplifting, but I don’t want to “reinvent the wheel,” so to speak. You can click the link I provided above and read the entire article for yourself. All I want to do is to introduce one small idea based on how a word or two is translated from the Greek into English. I also want to issue a reminder that interpretation begins at translation, not afterward. The fact that not one single translation I’m aware of uses “callused” and that they all use some variation of “hardened” or “blinded” indicates that either Nanos is a lot smarter than other Christian Bible translators, or that he doesn’t possess the specific perspective or theological bias as they do.

On the last page or so of Nanos’ paper, he offers his own translation, which I seriously recommend we consider because it paints a portrait of an Israel that has been injured and needs time to heal, not one that is permanently hardened against Messiah. Israel is temporarily insensitive to the Messiah, ironically both for its own sake and for the Gentiles. But the idea of temporary injury and healing tells us that Israel will heal and that, as Paul says, All of Israel will be saved.

When the time of the Gentiles becomes full, we are going to see some big changes. They’re starting to happen now.