Photograph of Olive Tree in Jerusalem.
Bible Reference: Romans 11:16-24; Before you start to read this entry, please read the Bible reference.
Overview: Despite Jewish Christians starting the Christian Church in Rome, Gentile Christians resisted accepting Jewish Christians into their fellowship. Paul’s letter to the Romans (about 71 AD) included a parable using cultivated olive and wild olive trees to illustrate Gentile’s proper response to their Jewish Christian brethren.
Historical Context: Initially, the church in Rome was composed of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. The Church in Rome wasn’t started by an apostle, but by Jews who returned from Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2). Almost immediately, Jewish believers evangelized Gentiles. Then, Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from Rome. For 12 years the Christian church in Rome consisted of only Gentiles. When Nero became Emperor, he invited the Jews back to Rome, noting that they were good for business and trade. The problem was that Gentiles refused to allow Jewish Christians back into the Christian church in Rome. Perhaps, Gentile Christians concluded that Emperor Claudius’s rejection of the Jewish Christians meant that God also rejected them. Because Rome was the capital city of the Roman Empire, this discriminatory attitude had the potential to spread beyond Rome.
Paul focused his evangelistic efforts on the Gentiles, that is, individuals who weren’t Jews. He named himself the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul spent years journeying throughout the Roman Empire converting Gentiles and strengthening their commitment to Jesus as Christ (the Messiah, the son of God). In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Paul made it clear that the current parable was designed for Gentile believers (Romans 11:13). He wrote it to counter Roman Gentile’s arrogant belief that they were better than Jewish Christians. One basis for Gentile arrogance was that unlike Jews, Gentiles didn’t reject Jesus and lobby for his crucifixion. Further, the Gentile converts never denied that Christ rose from the dead as many Jerusalem Jewish leaders denied the resurrection.
Olive Tree Grafting: In the parable of the in-grafted wild olive branch, Paul identified a) a root and branches (boughs) of a cultivated olive tree, b) a branch (bough) of a wild olive tree, and c) grafting a wild olive branch onto a cultivated olive tree. The original cultivated olive tree with its root and branches is the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their offspring, the Jews. This root was solid and sure. Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah were the original root and branches of the early Christian church. Branches broken off from the cultivated olive tree were Jews who refused to believe that Jesus was the long looked for Messiah. This was the majority of Jews who lived in Palestine and throughout the Roman Empire at the time. The wild olive branch equated to Gentile Christians who believed that Jesus was the son of God and followed his teachings. The interpretation of Paul’s parable in the eleventh chapter of Romans is that the Gentile believers were grafted into—became an integral, productive off shoot—of the Jewish faith.
Although Paul’s parable seems easy to interpret, it has nuances that are only made clear by understanding characteristics of both cultivated and wild olive trees and the grafting process in olive trees. Paul identified that a wild olive branch was grafted onto the root of the cultivated olive tree; however, olive growers rarely graft wild olive branches onto cultivated olive trees. In reality, just the opposite occurs: growers graft cultivated olive tree branches onto wild olive tree roots. Paul was aware of this normal grafting procedure; he wrote that his parable was contrary to nature (Romans 11:24). Perhaps, Paul believed that making his point was more important than technical accuracy about olive tree grafting.
Horticulturists identify three reasons for tree grafting: 1) to propagate trees that don’t root well by cutting a shoot from the poorly growing tree and grafting it onto a healthy tree; 2) to obtain a stronger root system, and 3) to grow plants faster. Importantly, the root sustains the newly grafted branch; the newly grafted branch doesn’t sustain the root.
Interpretation: In Paul’s parable, all three reasons support grafting the newly converted Gentile believers into the roots of Judaism. Gentiles used the structures and traditions of the established Jewish faith as roots for their worship of Jesus. An example is the Jewish tradition of meeting weekly to hear and study God’s word. Using this Jewish tradition, new Christian church members fellow-shipped regularly and became more knowledgeable about their faith. Further, the Jews had sacred God-inspired writings. Knowing about and hearing Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) facilitated more ready acceptance of the New Testament gospel and letters. In these ways, the Christian faith grew stronger and faster and became a deeper part of Gentile convert’s lives. The new Gentile believers and churches acquired spiritual richness and fertility by being grafted into the deeply rooted, cultivated olive tree.
Although the cultivated olive tree formed the root and some branches of the olive tree in Paul’s parable, the in-grafted wild olive tree branch resonates with most of us. We are the wild olive branch. Today, Gentile believers form most of the body of believers in churches in westernized countries.
Wild olive trees are multi-trunked and often grow as wide as tall. Wild olive trees grow almost everywhere, e.g., brackish water and river bottoms where water level is seldom more than two feet below ground surface. They are drought tolerant and indifferent to wind and heat. The spreading growth pattern and diversity of growth sites of wild olive trees mirrored the growth of the new Christian church. Gentiles (non-Jewish) were almost everywhere in the Roman Empire. The Christian church appeared and thrived even in the most inhospitable environments.
The wild olive tree has deep taproot (central root) and well-developed lateral roots. As it looks for water, the wild olive sinks it main root deep into the soil, while spreading horizontal in search of nutrients. This diverse root system adds to the stability of the wild olive tree. About 80% of the United States population self-identifies as Christians. Like the wild olive tree, many have a root deep in their Christian faith. At the same time, they aren’t necessarily tied to one religious denomination. They spread horizontal roots in search of an optimal church family.
Like the cultivated olive tree, the wild olive produces a drupe-like fruit; however, fruit is smaller than and not as tasty as olives from cultivated olive trees. In most countries, wild olives aren’t eaten. Generally, the fruit isn’t used to make olive oil. In Paul’s parable, a wild olive branch was grafted onto a cultivated olive tree; however, the wild olive branch would never produce the same olive that grows on a cultivated olive tree. Similarly, Christianity is a unique religion and doesn’t produce the same fruit as Judaism.
Despite the seeming lesser value of wild olive tree products than cultivated olive tree products, Paul’s parable didn’t mean that Jewish Christians were more valuable than Gentile Christians. Similarly, although Jewish Christians were represented by branches (more than one) and Gentile Christians by a single branch didn’t mean that there were more Jews than Gentiles in the Christian church at Rome. Probably, the opposite was true. Data aren’t available for the number of Jews who became believers in the early centuries after Christ’s death; but, by the early 21st century, the vast majority of Christians were Gentiles. Globally, less than one half percent of Jews self-identify as Messianic Jews; that is Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah.
Summary: Paul’s purpose in writing the parable of the in-grafted wild olive branch was to remind Gentile believers that the root of the Christian faith was in God’s covenants with the Jews, i.e., God promised to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed. When he reminded the Rome church about God’s promise, Paul’s wanted to encourage a fully integrated church. Paul wasn’t attempting to make the Christian church in Rome a sect of Judaism, nor was he advocating that Gentile Christians replaced the Jews in God’s favor.
Reflections: Is Christianity an inclusive or exclusive faith? In your church do you have tiers of individuals, i.e., some who are more important than others?
I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright: June 12, 2016; Carolyn A. Roth