I’m a tad confused by something I read regarding the notion of a “pre-Christian Jewish mission.”
I am almost finished with C. Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. It has been a marvelous book thus far. (I aim to write a brief review soon.) Rowe navigates the false dichotomy that the Book of Acts is either pro-Rome or anti-Rome. He presents a nuanced reading wherein the church has no desire for Caesar’s throne, yet the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord of all” insinuates that any attempt by Caesar to use that title ignores the reality that Israel’s God is “Lord of all” through Jesus. Obviously there is more to the book that this, but that is the core argument in my opinion.
One peripheral point that Rowe makes is that there was no “mission” like that performed by the early church prior to the church itself. Yes, there were Hellenistic philosophers who traveled trying to convince some of their way of life, but the Christian mission was without boundaries and it was far more intense–slaves and free, Roman and barbarian, male and female. The Christian mission sought to reach all peoples.
What I found surprising was Rowe’s statement that, “…there was no pre-Christian Jewish mission (Kindle Location 3034).” He cites the work of Martin Goodman, Scot McKnight, and a few others as having overturned the previous view that there was a pre-Christian Jewish mission. I found this surprising since as recently as 2010 I know Michael Bird released a book arguing that there was a pre-Christian Jewish mission: Crossing Over Land and Sea: Jewish Mission Activity in the Second Temple Period. (Update: Apparently I am wrong about this! This is not what Bird argues in the book. See the comments for a helpful corrective.)
Maybe Rowe and Bird has different criteria for “mission.” A few pages later Rowe clarifies that, “…one should not say that ‘there never was a Jewish mission of any kind prior to Christianity’ but rather that there never was a Jewish mission of the kind we see in Acts prior to Christianity (Kindle Location 3056).” One thing Rowe emphasized when juxtaposing the “mission” of pagan philosophers to convert people to their way of life and the Christian mission is that, “…the philosophies we know of did not require any radical or substantial break with traditional religious practices (Kindle Location 3034).” But I don’t imagine that this would be true of a Jewish mission. When a non-Jew converted to Judaism there was a great change. Rowe says, “It is doubtless the case that some Jews desired the conversion of pagans to Judaism. But is was no less the case that what we see in Acts–taken as a whole–finds no counterpart anywhere in the Jewish world prior to the end of the first century (Kindle Locations 3056-3075).”
So I don’t know that Rowe would disagree with Bird. I am not familiar with the terms of the debate.
Can someone let me know what is often debated when we discuss a “pre-Christian Jewish mission?” Would Rowe disagree with Bird or do they have different criteria for what constitutes “mission?” Thoughts anyone?
I can’t give you a specific quote, but I can point you to Ekhart Schnabel’s Early Christian Mission. He discusses this issue at length–I think in volume one. I’d double check that, but my copy of the work is sitting in my parent’s basement 2000 miles away.
Awesome, thanks for the lead!
Bird doesn’t argue that there was Jewish mission. His book, to quote the blurb “asserts that no significant proselytizing activity occurred in Second Temple Palestine. He further examines the New Testament; Josephus and Philo; and Apologetic-Propagandistic, early Christian, Greek, and Latin literature and concludes that Jewish missionary activity during the Diaspora occurred only as isolated incidents”
Also there wasn’t philosophical mission. My PhD Thesis is (partly) on the concept of mission in philosophical schools and there is not one (apart from in some Epicurean groups). Often you will have it claimed that Cynics are missionaries for their philosophy, but that is not their intention. They are trying to spur people to enact correct behavior through their example (which is a different aim that philosophical pedagogy): they aren’t trying to impart any philosophical knowledge or tenets to them, or to create new adherents to Cynicism. But I will need to Rowe’s book to see his argument.
Thank you for pointing that out. I totally misunderstood the aims of Bird’s book. Oops!
Your thesis sounds interesting. Are you publishing it anywhere?
On this matter, I’d also recommend having a look at Matthew Thiessen’s intriguing little book “Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity” which makes the prospects of evangelical efforts on the part of Judaism slim.
I argue that there was no concerted effort to convert pagans into proselytes. Mostly there was willingness to receive sympathizers and converts when they presented themselves largely at their own initiative. Their were spasmodic attempts to persuade people to respect Judaism, become a sympathetic ethical monotheist, or to get God-fearers to go the full monty and become circumcised converts. But, as Rowe points out, the Jewish Christian mission (i.e., Paul, Barnabas, et al) was unique in the sense that it argued for full inclusion without circumcision. Yes, it comes down to definition, this is where I disagree with John Dickson, but I think mission in Judaism should be drawn in relation to circumcision for males, though it’s a bit more complex for women.
Thank you for clarifying your view. I aim to read your book now. If this is so it does make the Book of Acts an extremely unique document (not that it wasn’t one already)!
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