For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. (Rom 9:3, NRSV translation)
In his longest letter, written to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints”, Paul mounts a long and detailed case about God’s righteous-justice, made available to those who believe through the faithfulness of Jesus (see Rom 1:16-17, 3:21-26, 4:22-5:2, 5:18-21, 6:17-18, 8:10, 38-39).
The argument is developed, step by step, through the first eight chapters. This argument of the letter comes to a climax in chapters 9-11, from which excerpts are heard in worship this coming week and the two following weeks. In these chapters, Paul develops a tightly–packed argument concerning the place of Israel, and the Gentiles, within the people of God.
Paul placed a focus on the priestly role, that of intercessor, which he was undertaking, when he declared, concerning Israel, that “my heart’s desire and prayer for them is that they may be saved” (10:1). This prayer summed up the central thrust of his extended, and at times convoluted, argument, throughout these three chapters.
What Paul dictates to Tertius (the scribe who writes down what Paul says—Rom 16:22) in these three chapters comes straight from the heart—a heart that yearns to see the full scope of God’s gracious inclusion of people of faith into the kingdom.
Paul is clear about what this means. He believes that “the word of God has not failed” (9:6) and “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29), so he prays for God to realise the promise that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26, citing psalms and prophetic oracles in support). That’s the universal scope for which he yearns: “all Israel”!
Paul grapples further with this question. Can it be that “God has rejected his people”? (11:1). Paul’s answer is definitive and unequivocal: “By no means!” (11:1).
Is it possible that “they have stumbled so as to fall”? (11:11). Once again, Paul cries out, “By no means!” (11:11), looking to the time of the “full inclusion” of Israel in the eschatological vision (11:12).
Since Israel, the “natural branches” of the olive tree, have been cut off because of their “unbelief” (11:20), their “disobedient and contrary” nature (10:21), are they doomed to remain “cut off” forever? “God has the power to graft them in(these natural branches will be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:23-24).
And so, the “mystery” which was known to Paul is declared publicly at the climax of his three-chapter argument: “all Israel will be saved” (11:26), “they too may now receive [God’s] mercy” (11:31).
This whole section of Romans is introduced with an astonishingly impassioned petition, I was praying for me, myself, to be separated from the chosen one by means of a curse, for the sake of my own people (9:3). This is my own translation, which differs from the familiar modern English translations at three points.
*** Warning: technical discussion of Greek syntax and translation options ahead ***
First, the phrase “accursed and cut off from Christ” (NRSV, NIV) states more than the Greek text includes; there is no verb “cut off” in the sentence. The NEB offers the concise translation, “outcast from Christ”, which provides three English words for the three corresponding Greek words. However, this ignores the curious order of words in the Greek sentence, which separates anathema, “outcast”, or “accursed”, from the phrase “from Christ”, and places the emphasis squarely on the intervening words, “me, myself, to be”.
Furthermore, the simple preposition apo (from) in the phrase “from Christ” has a force all of its own in this phrase [BAGD 86, meaning I.5, calls this a “pregnant construction”, presumably because there is no verb and the preposition seems to function as both verb and preposition simultaneously, as “separated from”]. Thus, I translate (rather inelegantly) for me, myself, to be separated from Christ by means of a curse.
Second, some modern English translations obscure the reference to prayer in this verse, preferring to use the secondary meaning of the verb euchomai, namely, “wish” (NRSV, NIV, NAB, GNB).
However, the basic sense of the verb is “pray”, and this translation is found in NEB, REB, NJB (cf. JB, “I would willingly be condemned”). This gives the sentence a much more straightforward, direct feel—this is my “prayer”—than the alternative, this is my “wish”—which implies some degree of conditional or hypothetical quality about the content of what is “wished”.
Here, I would argue, Paul was not being tentative, for the context was one of great fervour and passion (“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”, 9:2). He spoke with a high degree of commitment and directness (“I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit”, 9:1). Paul here expresses, not a hesitant, possible wish, but a clear, unequivocal prayer to God. Paul was clearly praying for God to cast him aside, if his desire for his people to be saved is to be achieved.
Third, the imperfect indicative form of the verb euchomai confirms that this was not a hypothetical statement, but a clear expression of a recurrent activity undertaken by Paul in the past. The verb is not in the subjunctive; there is nothing hypothetical here; this is a clear, direct statement. This is what Paul prays for. Repeatedly. Consistently.
Thus, the plain sense of the verse is that, on many occasions prior to writing this letter, Paul had offered a prayer that he might be “anathema from Christ”, that is, regarded as separated from Christ by means of the cursed placed on him, for the sake of securing the salvation of his own people, Israel.
This is a strikingly partisan act, pleading for a desired result and volunteering his own life as a means to that end. It is a description of Paul that figures rarely, if ever, in scholarly analyses of his missionary work; and yet, like the prophetic and priestly functions which we have seen Paul performing, this partisan dimension is an equally valid element to factor into any consideration of Paul’s role, at least as he might have perceived that role.
That he is prepared to be, not with Christ, but to be cursed by Christ, for the sake of his people, Israel, shows a remarkable commitment to, and alignment with, his fellow Jews. He yearns for them to be saved, to be welcomed in the kingdom. He prays to God for this outcome. Paul writes passionately, as a partisan for the cause.