Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Crossing Over Sea and Land

Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period. by Michael F. Bird. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010, xvi + 208 pp. $24.95 paper.

Michael F. Bird, lecturer in theological studies at Crossway College in Toowong, Australia, offers a densely argued and convincing case that Judaism during the Second Temple Period should not be described as a missionary religion. Bird’s work is part of the ongoing debate concerning the way scholars understand the emergence of the Christ-movement in the context of Second Temple Judaism. Bird extends the work of Scot McKnight’s A Light among the Gentiles and Martin Goodman’s Mission and Conversion, both of whom were strategic in arguing that “postexilic Judaism cannot be properly characterized as a missionary religion” (p. 9). Crossing Over Sea and Land should be of interest to those concerned with the Jewish context of the Christ-movement as well as those looking for an accessible resource for primary documents central to the scholarly discourse dealing with both internal and external perspectives on Jewish proselytizing activity during the Second Temple Period and slightly beyond.

In chapter 1, Bird takes as his point of departure the fact that Christianity was a mission-oriented movement that crossed various cultural and geographical barriers in proclaiming its message throughout the Mediterranean basin. He is interested in determining whether Judaism during this period could be described in a similar manner, and if so, whether that accounts for the mission focus of the earliest Christ-movement, or whether this focus emerges de novo as a distinctive characteristic. Bird is aware that this line of research could be seen as Christian triumphalism or supersessionism; thus he clearly notes that he is “not trying to argue for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism” (p. 7). Rather, he is interested in the varying expressions of proselytizing activity evident in these two closely related religious movements with regard to gentiles. After discussing the significance of John Dickson’s Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism, Bird lays out his argument, which is “that the Christian Gentile missions, however indebted to their Jewish background, are not directly attributable to an on-going Jewish mission”; rather they “arose principally out of a concoction of eschatology and Christology and reading the Jewish Scriptures in light of new perspectives in these areas” (p. 12).

Chapter 2 provides Bird’s definition of the terms mission and conversion. He is aware of the potential for anachronistic descriptions of these concepts; however, he provides an extensive sociologically-informed definition of conversion which he then summarizes: “conversion to Judaism involves monotheism, Torah, and synagogue” (p. 24). As one reads the book, it is clear that the conditio sine qua non of Jewish conversion, at least for men, is circumcision. This separates a convert from an adherent and also serves as the primary marker of Jewish identity. Bird defines mission as “the diverse array of activities that attempts to draw, recruit, or persuade persons into conversion consisting of ideological, axiological (ethical), and social transformation” (p. 43). Bird’s construal of conversion and mission serves as the interpretive framework by which he assesses the level of missionary activity in Second Temple Judaism.

Chapter 3 evaluates the evidence for Jewish missionary activity in Palestine. Bird examines first the phenomena of forced conversions during the Hasmonean period, concluding that these activities fall outside the parameters of his stipulated definition. Next, he assesses the evidence from Qumran, and not surprisingly he finds a lack of evidence for proselytizing activity among the Qumran sectarians. He discusses Matthew 23:15 and offers positive support for this verse referring to Pharisees who sought to “recruit God-fearers into the cause of Jewish resistance to the Roman Empire” (p. 69). Thus, he does not find evidence of a concerted effort to proselytize gentiles. Inscriptional evidence is briefly surveyed and shown to be inconclusive with regard to the presence of a significant number of proselytes in Palestine. Finally, rabbinic literature is outlined, and though there is evidence of increased openness to gentiles (e.g. Numbers Rabbah 8.3; Canticles Rabbah 1.15.2), there is still a lack of evidence for widespread proselytizing activity during the rabbinic period.

Chapter 4 provides an extensive discussion of whether or not there is evidence of Jewish missionary activity in the Diaspora. Bird begins by discussing religious pluralism in the Roman Empire and then turns to the various ways that pagans are described as being attracted to Judaism. This is important for Bird’s argument because he sees in Second Temple Judaism openness to gentiles but not necessarily an intentional program of proselytizing them. Next, Bird reviews Josephus’ writings which reinforce the idea of openness without overt religious recruitment. Philo, who presents Judaism in a manner cognizant with Greek philosophy, is likewise not seen as one seeking to do anything other than present Judaism in an attractive way. He is open to outsiders but does not seek them out (p. 109). Jewish apologetic writings in Greek are surveyed, and not surprisingly at this point, Bird finds no evidence of a sustained mission to convert gentiles in these propagandistic writings. These writings, Bird contends following Tcherikover, were actually written for Jewish audiences and were designed to address issues of enculturation and the maintenance of Jewish identity in the context of Hellenism. Finally, this chapter surveys Greco-Roman authors, some of whom discuss Jewish proselytizing activity in passing; however, these disparate references lack the level of specificity necessary to determine whether intentional proselytizing was occurring rather than simply the phenomenon of gentile attraction to the Jewish way of life.

Chapter 5 presents evidence of Jewish missional activity as found within the New Testament. Bird determines that the Colossian heresy is evidence for intentional Jewish proselytizing activity as are the Jewish Christians in Galatia who were arguing for circumcision in order to substantiate the conversion of gentiles. Next, Bird quickly outlines other canonical texts that impinge on this debate and mentions a few early Christian writings that reference Jewish proselytizing activity (e.g., Epistle to Barnabas, Ignatius, and Apocalypse of Peter). He concludes that “outright competition between Christians and Jews for Gentile converts is scant”; however, he rightly recognizes that challenges were “inevitable” as these two closely associated movements continued to develop along differing ideological lines (p. 148).

The conclusion brings together the findings of Bird’s research. He supports the contention that there is no evidence for an organized program of proselytizing gentiles within Judaism during the Second Temple Period. However, he provides a few qualifications for this finding. First, the stipulated definitions of conversion and mission are open to debate and could influence the interpretation of the findings. Second, the diversity of Judaism during this period must be kept in view. Bird concludes with thoughtful reflections on the lack of proselytizing activities within Judaism and the significance of this for the extensive mission to the gentiles evident within the emerging Christ-movement. The most useful summative concept from this section is Bird’s idea of “inclusive sectarianism,” a descriptor that warrants special scholarly attention (p. 154). Crossing Over Sea and Land concludes with an appendix that provides a generous sampling of primary sources, often with the original languages included, and extensive indices that reinforce the widespread scope of Bird’s argumentation in this thoroughly accessible introduction to the nature and extent of Jewish missionary activity in the Second Temple Period.

No comments: