Robert Sungenis has insisted that the "root" written of by St. Paul in Romans 11 must be Christ alone. In his CASB 2 (p. 149), he claimed this was "the constant teaching of the Fathers."
Here are two other examples:
This is certainly a novel interpretation. Unfortunately for Moss, it totally distorts the words of Romans 11:17-20… Moss believes that the “root” of Romans 11 is Israel, not Christ, and that as the Gentiles are saved as they are grafted into Israel. This is wrong. The root is Christ, not Israel.….It is as if Moss is saying, “You Gentiles are only saved because of us Jews, and in order to appreciate that fact, you should practice these Jewish rituals.”
And more recently, Sungenis wrote:
Paul does not say 'root of Israel.' He refers to Israel as a 'branch,' not the 'root.' One cannot be both a branch and a root, which means that someone else is the root, which is Christ...the Church does not draw nourishment from the 'root of Israel' for Israel is not the root in Paul’s analogy. Christ is the root, and Israel is merely a branch...Whatever else Benedict XVI believed about the relationship between Christians and Jews, he never says “Israel is the root” in Paul’s analogy.
The “Moss” that Sungenis refers to above David Moss, president of the Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC). Sungenis seemed clearly irritated at what he perceived as David Moss’ Jewish arrogance (“You Gentiles are only saved because of us Jews…”). But as we'll see below, it seems to be Sungenis's long standing anti-Jewish predispositions that are coloring his interpretation of what Moss wrote.
Sungenis almost treats this passage as though the meaning of it has been dogmatically defined in the way he interprets it and thus Moss or anyone else is dangerous heretic for contradicting that interpretation. But there are two problems with this strong criticism. The first is that David Moss has never said that “the root is Israel, not Christ.” Here Bob puts words into Moss’s mouth that make the case look more ominous, more absolute. In fact, I have confirmed with Moss that he has no issue with seeing the root as Christ as well. He never intended to “deny” this possibility. The second problem is that there is a considerable number of Catholic authorities who disagree with Sungenis's interpretation -- including, ironically, Benedict XVI.
To make matters worse, Ben Douglass, who was Sungenis's own vice president at the time, has stated that Sungenis selectively cropped quotes to make the Church Fathers appear to say the exact opposite of what they actually said about Israel as the "Olive Tree" in Romans 11. This is all documented in The Theologyof Prejudice, which is well worth reading.
So let's take a look at the passage in question.
In Romans 11, St. Paul writes at length about God’s relationship with the Israelite people. In particular he focuses on understanding the fact that so many of his Jewish brethren have not accepted the promised Messiah. Did this mean that the children of Israel were rejected by God? And what implications did this have for the Gentiles?
St. Paul then writes:
For if their (the Jews’) rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the firstfruits are holy, so is the whole batch of dough; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place and have come to share in the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. If you do boast, consider that you do not support the root; the root supports you. Indeed you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is so. They were broken off because of unbelief, but you are there because of faith. So do not become haughty, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you either. (Rom. 11: 15-22)
So, who or what exactly is the “root” to which St. Paul refers? Contrary to Sungenis's insistence, it would seem that a very common answer is the Patriarchs of Israel. Although, there is certainly solid evidence that “root” may also refer to Jesus Christ, the Israelite par excellence. And there is some evidence that it may also be considered to refer to Israel itself, including a statement by our current pontiff.
So what do we make of these apparent discrepancies? I would argue that these varying interpretations reveal a deeper truth, not a contradiction. To be grafted onto the Patriarchs of Israel, Israel itself or Jesus Christ (the Israelite par excellence) essentially amounts the same thing in the imagery St. Paul chose. It is God’s life-giving grace that flows through the roots and trunk of the tree, grace which is mediated to the branches. In human terms, the life-giving grace of God has been mediated to men through Abraham and the Patriarchs of Israel, Israel itself and of course Jesus Christ, the Israelite par excellence, the representative head of Israel (Galatians 3).
In Scripture, Isaiah prophesied that Christ would sprout forth from the “stump of Jesse”, the father of King David (Isaiah 11:1). Jacob/Israel and Judah are spoken of as “taking root” in Isaiah 27:6 and 37:31, respectively. The Old Testament expressly describes Israel as the olive tree itself in Jer. 11:16 and Hos 14:7 (not merely "a branch" as Sungenis insists). And Christ is clearly spoken of as the “root” in Revelation 5:5 and 22:16. God’s grace was showered upon man because of and through the faith of Abraham, and continued in this way through certain of his progeny, eventually passing through Jacob (Israel) and culminating in the Israelite par excellence, Jesus Christ.
Below are several interpretations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Church Fathers and various Catholic scripture scholars, including Benedict XVI:
1) Fr. George Leo Haydock, A Comprehensive Catholic Commentary, page 1,494.
“By the root, says St. Chysostom, he understands Abraham and the Patriarchs, from whom all the Jewish nation proceeded, as branches from that root…”
2) Moffat New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Romans, page 178.
“The ‘root’ is the patriarchs”
3) Dom Bernard Orchard, Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture 1951, page 1072 and 558, respectively:
“(St. Paul) is no renegade, and Israel…has not lost the holiness which she inherited from the Patriarchs, who are…her roots.”
“’In the days to come, Israel shall take root…’ The world’s salvation is from Israel.”
4) Fr. Richard Stack, Lectures on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, 1806, page 330:
“By the root is meant Abraham…”
5) Fr. Charles Callan, The Epistles of St. Paul, page 184:
“The firstfruit and the root mean the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc. who were holy men and faithful servants of God.”
6) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Many Religions- One Covenant, page 32:
“we must .. first ask what this view of the historical figure of Jesus means for the existence of those who know themselves to be grafted through him onto the 'olive tree Israel', the children of Abraham.” [Note: Here Benedict XVI clearly sees the Gentiles as being grafted on to Israel].
7) St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures, XX, 3) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, pg 147:
“Then, when ye were stripped, ye were anointed with exorcised oil, from the very hairs of your head to your feet, and were made partakers of the good olive-tree, Jesus Christ. For ye were cut off from the wild olive-tree, and grafted into the good one, and were made to share the fatness [abundance] of the true olive tree. The exorcised oil therefore was a symbol of the participation of the fatness of Christ, being a charm to drive away every trace of hostile influence.”
8) St. Augustine:
Sermons, XXVII, 12:
"Therefore did the Lord at once graft the wild olive into the good olive tree. He did it then when He said, 'Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”
"So then for this reason that people did not come to Him, that is by reason of pride; and the natural branches are said to be broken off from the olive tree, that is from that people founded by the Patriarchs [Israel]."
Augustine to Faustus the Manichean, Bk 9 2:
"You say that the apostle, in leaving Judaism, passed from the bitter to the sweet. But the apostle himself says that the Jews, who would not believe in Christ, were branches broken off, and that the Gentiles, a wild olive tree, were grafted into the good olive, that is, the holy stock of the Hebrews, that they might partake of the fatness of the olive."
9) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#755):
"The Church is a cultivated field, the tillage of God. On that land the ancient olive tree grows whose holy roots were the prophets."
10) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Romans), Bray (Editor), p 293:
a) Diodore: “First fruits and root both refer her to the patriarchs, the lawgiver and the prophets.”
b) Pseudo-Constantius: “The root refers to Abraham…”
c) Theodore of Mopsuestia: “by root he means, Abraham…”
d) Theodoret of Cyr; “the root is Abraham…”
e) Pelagius: “Do not rejoice in the fall of the Jews…you do not supply them with life, but they supply you.” [Here Pelagius seems to see Israel, or the Jews, as the root that mediates God’s grace.]
f) Ambrosiaster: “the Jews were not rejected for the sake of the Gentiles. Rather it was because they were rejected that they gave an opportunity for the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles. If you boast against those onto whose root you have been grafted, you insult the people who have accepted you so that you might be converted…You will not continue like that if you destroy the thing on which you stand.” (Here Ambrosiaster seems to be saying that the Gentiles “stand” on the Jews, that they have been grafted onto them.)
g) Chysostom: “if the Gentile, who was cut off from his natural fathers and come, contrary to nature, to Abraham, how much more will God be able to recover his own!”
h) Chrysostom: Ver. 16. "For if the first-fruits be holy, the lump also is holy; and if the root be holy, so are the branches;"So calling in this passage by the names of the first-fruit and root Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, the prophets, the patriarchs, all who were of note in the Old Testament; and the branches, those from them who believed.
(Homilies on Romans, Homily XIX)
i) Pseudo-Constantius: “Paul says that the Gentiles have been grafted against nature onto the root, that is, onto the faith of the Patriarchs.”
[This article was originally published in 2006.]