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?