- Crossing over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period
In this short and crisply written monograph, Michael Bird tackles the difficult issue of whether the early Christian impulse for outreach among non-Jews was a continuation in one form or another of earlier Jewish proselytizing efforts or if it was something altogether new? Answering that question requires grappling with just how “missionary” Judaism was before the rise of the early Christian movement and then determining, if such a missionary impulse existed, what influence that drive had on early Christians.
Bird organizes his analysis into six chapters. As one would expect, Bird’s opening chapter defines the problem addressed, offers a brief history of research, states his thesis and its expected contribution to the debate, and outlines the manner in which he will argue his thesis. Briefly stated, during most of the twentieth century, scholars held that Judaism was a missionary religion and this factor explained the missionary activity of the early Christians. During the 1990s, however, Scot McKnight (A Light Among the Gentiles [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991]) and Martin Goodman (Mission and Conversion [Oxford: Clarendon, 1994]) challenged this consensus and, in the mind of most scholars, overturned it. Bird agrees with the newer approach, seeking to nuance and update the discussion. [End Page 411]
Chapter 2 is devoted to the definition of the key terms “mission” and “conversion.” For Bird, mission within an ancient context indicates any number of organized activities that seek to persuade non-Jews to convert to Judaism. Conversion in this context entails making a commitment to monotheism, adopting the values and behaviors of the Jewish community, and undertaking Jewish ritual and rites, especially male circumcision. The final result would be full social integration into the community.
Chapters 3 and 4 examine Jewish missionary activity in Palestine and in the Diaspora respectively. Evidence exists of forced conversions in Palestine through military conquest and resettlement. Bird examines sources from Palestine such as Qumran literature, the Gospel of Matthew, the Maccabean writings, and rabbinic literature. He finds no evidence of missionary activity with the possible exception of the logion from Matthew 23:15 (“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert”), suggesting instead that more evidence of conversions exists from Diaspora literature. Here, relying on Josephus and Philo, Bird finds a consistent openness to Gentiles integrating into Jewish communities, but again, no evidence of deliberate, organized outreach.
Chapter 5 analyzes evidence from early Christian writings, primarily the New Testament. Bird recognizes two overlooked strands of evidence for his subject from these texts. First, Paul’s letters (e.g., Galatians) demonstrate the existence of Jewish Christian proselytizers who sought out Gentile converts and, unlike Paul, demanded that male converts be circumcised. Second, Bird believes the so-called “Colossian heresy” indicates a situation where mystical Jewish groups were attempting to blunt Paul’s missionary activity by recruiting Christian Gentiles into their own tradition. Bird thus believes that Colossians offers some of the best evidence for Jewish missionary work. What is puzzling in this chapter is why Bird does not recognize Paul and his fellow-workers as an example of Jewish missionary action. Bird writes, “Whereas the Jewish Christian proselytizers can legitimately be regarded as a form of Jewish missionary activity albeit with a messianic bent, this cannot be said of Paul and the like-minded associates” (p. 137). Bird’s reason for this judgment is that Paul did not require male Gentile converts to undergo circumcision. But what was the movement Paul spearheaded if it was not Jewish? Bird himself states that “the entire Christian movement at least before 70 c.e.” can be described as “Jewish Christian” (p. 134; I would prefer “Christian Judaism”). Bird’s judgment here reflects a tendency in the book to distinguish something called “Christianity” at this early date from something else called “Judaism.” I believe that distinction to be untenable.
In chapter 6, Bird summarizes his argument by concluding...