Friday, August 13, 2010

Was first-century Judaism a missionary religion?

That is the topic of Michael Bird’s latest book. Passages like Isaiah 2:2-4 and 60:1-3 suggest that Gentiles will begin to worship the true God and that Israel will be God’s servant for bringing the nations to the truth. But like much in biblical history, the simple proclamation of something does not mean necessarily that it happened. In his book, Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period, Bird examines the evidence to determine if there ever was a Jewish missionary movement. Readers of the New Testament will sometimes assume that this the case based on Matthew 23:15 where Jesus says

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

But as Bird demonstrates, this verse can be taken at least four different ways.

(1) It could refer to the proselytizing of Gentiles by Pharisees (p. 67)

(2) It could refer to Pharisees trying to convert other Jews to Pharisaism (p. 68)

(3) It could refer to Pharisees trying to turn God-fearers into full Jews (p. 68)

(4) It could refer to Pharisees trying to recruit God-fearers to the cause of Jewish resistance against Rome.

Whatever interpretation of Matthew 23:15 one chooses, the above reveals that answers about Jewish missionary efforts are not easily forthcoming.

Bird’s book is broken into four major chapters with an introduction and conclusion.

In chapter two he tackles the problem of defining “mission” and “conversion” in the ancient world. Twenty-first century Christians will often project their modern perceptions and experiences back onto the first-century. One is either a Christian or not. We rarely think about an in-between stage. But Bird demonstrates that those who converted to Judaism in antiquity cannot be easily categorized. It is not a matter of saying one is “in” or “out.” There were degrees of conversion and it seems that it could, and very often did, take a lifetime of experiences. Conversion could even be generational. A father may convert to Judaism, but it was his children who really began to secure their identity in the new religion. One thing that was certainly a part of conversion to Judaism was the act of circumcision. While Jews were not the only people group who practiced it, male circumcision was one of the distinguishing marks of being a Jew.

Chapter three examines the evidence for Jewish missionary activity in Palestine. After considering the Dead Sea Scrolls, Matthew 23:15, inscriptions, and Rabbinic Literature, Bird concludes that there is little to support wide-spread proselytizing efforts in the land of Palestine (p. 76). Much of the evidence for conversion to Judaism within the Land reflects forced conversions that took place as the Hasmoneans sought to consolidate their religious and political power. Among the Idumaeans who were forced to convert was one Antipater who became an important advisor to John Hyrcanus I and was also the father of Herod the Great (p.57). The irony here is that the Jews were eventually ruled by one of those whom they converted by force.

Chapter four examines evidence for Gentile conversion to Judaism in the Diaspora. It is this setting in which Gentiles were more likely to observe and come in context with Jews and their particular religious way of life. Bird provides sufficient evidence that Gentiles were sometimes attracted to Judaism. In addition to Philo and Josephus, Roman historians refer to the attraction that some felt towards Jewish practices. While the references in Roman literature are mostly negative, they demonstrate that there were, at some level, conversions taking place. Added to this is the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 139 BCE and 19 CE, both of which are usually associated with Jewish proselytizing activity. Nonetheless, there is little evidence to suggest that ever was an organized movement to proselytize Gentiles in the same way that we sometimes think about “missions.”

Chapter five examines the evidence from the New Testament. For much of the chapter Bird examines the kind of efforts we read about in Acts and to those groups we often refer to as Paul’s “opponents.” This means that there was an organized mission movement, but it was Jewish Christians seeking Gentile converts. And these groups did not always agree about how to go about the mission. Paul did not require circumcision for his Gentile converts, while others demanded it. One place where evidence for Jewish missionary practice in the New Testament might be found is in the letter to the Colossians. Bird argues that much of the so-called “Colossian Philosophy” reflects Jewish sensibilities that have been heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought. It is possible that Gentiles Christians who had been God-fearers were being targeted by Jews who wanted to make them full-fledged Jews.

In the end Bird concludes that the evidence for an organized Jewish mission to Gentiles is uneven. Gentiles certainly did convert to Judaism, but not as part of a “missions’ movement” by Jews to increase their ranks. On the other hand, Christian pursuit of Gentile converts does represent a transformation of Jewish perceptions about Gentile inclusion in God’s salvation (p.156). And it is this point which I think makes Bird’s book helpful. Christian mission efforts in the first-century should be set within a Jewish context. The appeal of Judaism to some laid the groundwork for their later inclusion within Christianity. The rejection of circumcision and the Jewish Law for Gentiles by Paul and his followers meant that those who stood on the edge of Judaism could become assimilated more easily. This may also explain why by the end of the first-century the church became predominantly Gentile in complexion.

Bird is to be commended for his judicious examination of the evidence. The book is an easy read and not overly technical. I don’t imagine it will be on many textbooks lists, but those who want to be brought up to speed on the topic will find that it does the job more than sufficiently.


  1. Good to see you saying nice things about Aussies John.

  2. Don't worry Marty. Although I have never been to Australia I have a warm place for it in my heart. We will get there someday.

  3. I did a proofread of the book for Mike (my doctoral father) and had to take out the word "Mate" many times....he uses it like exclamation marks :-)

  4. Danny,

    Thanks for the inside view. :)