Volume 32 - Issue 2
Mission in the Bible: Non-existent in the Old Testament but ubiquitous in the New?By Craig L. Blomberg
A review article
Eckhard J. Schnabel
Early Christian Mission
2 volumes, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press; Leicester: Apollos, 2004, $90.00, xliii + 1928 pages
Not since Adolf von Harnack, at the end of the nineteenth century, has so monumental a survey of the data bearing on the history of the missionary enterprise during the time spanned by both testaments, even been attempted, much less executed with such a high level of expertise. There might be no one else in the world today so qualified for the task than Eckhard Schnabel, who teaches New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Prior to coming to the Chicago area he had taught at the Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, the Philippines, and the Freie Theologische Akademie in Giessen, Germany. Flawlessly bilingual in German and English, Schnabel has canvassed primary sources, along with secondary literature in both languages (with a smattering of French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch thrown in) that occupies a 147 page bibliography (and footnotes occasionally include more ‘minor’ sources that do not even qualify for the bibliography)! In fact, Schnabel first wrote this work in German (Urchristliche Mission [Wuppertal: Brockhaus, 2002]) and then translated it himself into English.
Schnabel’s definition of mission(s) proves crucial:
the activity of a community of faith that distinguishes itself from its environment in terms of both religious belief (theology) and social behavior (ethics), that is convinced of the truth claims of its faith, and that actively works to win other people to the content of faith and to the way of life of whose truth and necessity the members of that community are convinced (11).
Given this definition, Schnabel’s thesis, though nowhere stated in so many words, amounts to the consistent conclusion that Old Testament Israelites, like intertestamental Jews, did not engage in missions per se, but that early Christians did so everywhere. The absence in pre-Christian times of similar ventures makes the authenticity of the New Testament portrait of the pervasiveness of Christian missions that much more probable. This theme further demonstrates this fledgling religion, like its distinctive Scriptures, to have been missional at its core. The missionary mandate remains as incumbent as ever on believers today, despite (or perhaps especially because of) the rampant pluralism that so frequently calls for a moratorium on formal evangelism or proselytizing efforts.
Doubtless the most controversial portion of Schnabel’s tome is his unrelenting rejection of studies that find missionary efforts in the Old Testament or in Second Temple Judaism. Of course, Yahweh as monotheistic creator of the heavens and the earth has a universal scope to all his plans. Certainly, Genesis 12:1–3 remains programmatic for those plans. But:
the blessing for the nations is a promise, not a command. Abraham does not receive an assignment to carry Yhwh’s blessing to the nations; rather, the nations are promised divine blessing if and when they see Abraham’s faith in Yhwh and if and when they establish contact with his descendants (cf. Gen. 22:16–18), (p. 63).
Exodus 19 does not form Israel’s ‘great commission’; the election of the nation created a kingdom of priests uniquely close to God. Nowhere do the Laws of the Torah stipulate that the Israelites must evangelize the nations, even as those nations on their own interact with Israel. Of course, Gentiles are welcome to join Israel or become Jews (witness, for example, Rahab and Ruth, the Gibeonites and Uriah the Hittite). Solomon prays for the foreigners who come to the temple to be able to see the uniqueness of Yahweh, while Elijah and Elisha occasionally work miracles for Gentiles. The Ninevites do repent when Jonah preaches to them, but he had been sent merely to announce their coming judgement.
In a similar way evidence of the Psalms, Schnabel argues, does not add up to any formal concept of missions. Like the recurring motif in the prophets of a coming, eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to Israel, the Wisdom literature does envision a future, divinely initiated desire by many individuals from many people groups to worship Yahweh, but not because of any necessarily Jewish mission explicitly targeting them, then or later. To the extent that this steady stream of new believers in the Lord flows from the mission of the suffering servant, one can recognize the foreshadowing of the Christian missionary mandate (see esp. Isaiah 66:19), but not a distinctively Jewish, pre-Christian pattern of proselytizing. In the pseudepigrapha, 1 Enoch 90:38 situates salvation for the nations explicitly in the context of the Messiah’s ministry. The testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs contain numerous similar texts, if not with direct reference to a Messiah, then at least in the context of a new, eschatological age to come.
To the extent that intertestamental literature frequently reflected a narrowing of Jewish horizons, one expects and finds even less explicit evangelism than in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Dead Sea Scrolls represent the zenith of this sectarian nationalism. But even in the wealth of later rabbinic literature, frequent attempts to define Judaism for the outsider still do not add up to a ‘great commission’. ‘The question is not whether non-Jews can join Israel, but whether Jews believe they have been given the assignment to prompt non-Jews, through active propaganda for their faith and for the way of life, to join the Jewish commonwealth’ (120). Much more aggressive were the Judaizers that Paul had to combat on several occasions, but these were professing Jewish Christians, so their activity in no way changes the picture of ordinary Jewish practice that has otherwise been building up. By the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era, rabbinic literature discloses more assertive attitudes to missions, which Martin Goodman explains as the result of the growing success of Christianity. This literature, however, cannot easily be read back into first-century times.
There is no doubt that an older era of missiological works exaggerated the amount of formal missionary activity that occurred in Old Testament and intertestamental times. Scot McKnight’s A Light to the Nations has convincingly shown that Jesus’ reference to Pharisees and scribes travelling over land and sea to make a single convert (Matthew 23:15) incorporates a metaphor based on the extent to which some Jews went to encourage God-fearing Gentiles, already worshipping in the synagogues, to become full-fledged proselytes, rather than proving the existence of a broadly based evangelistic strategy to pagans uninterested in or hostile to Judaism. But it is telling that, after listing six reasons why many have seen an implicit mandate for missions in the Psalms:
- the nations are called on to praise, serve and fear the Lord;
- the worship of Yahweh by the nations is expected in the present as well as promised for the future;
- Israelites worship God among the nations;
- Israel is challenged to proclaim the Lord’s mighty acts among the nations;
- the nations are said to belong to the Lord in the future; and
- Yahweh will one day judge all the peoples of the world
All Schnabel does by way of reply is to look briefly at four psalms that present certain ambiguities (Psalms 47, 102, 96, 98), even while he acknowledges in his footnotes numerous additional Psalms that cut against the grain of his thesis. A large portion of Schnabel’s rejection of pre-Christian Jewish missions stems directly from his terminology. If missionary activity must be as explicit as his definition makes it, then there is very little sign of this before the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, though even then it would appear that Schnabel has exaggerated its paucity a little. But if one may speak of an implicit missionary mandate, then a considerably larger body of Jewish texts may prove relevant. Moreover, if Old Testament models were exclusively centripetal, then from where did the idea even come to Jesus and the apostles of an exclusively centrifugal mission?
In the second major part of this magnum opus, Schnabel turns to first-century verities and remains there for the bulk of his work. A lengthy, opening chapter surveys ‘historical and social realities in Palestine’, presenting a vast array of information about geography, population, economics, politics, religion, communication, languages, education, travel and domestic space. (A similar survey will later extend to the entire Roman empire.) Next comes a study of the gospels with reference to Jesus’ mission to Israel. Key, overarching themes that are unpacked include the kingdom of God, Son of man, the One sent by his Father, healing and salvation, authority to forgive sins, controversies with the Jewish rulers, the incident in the temple, and Jesus’ suffering and death in fulfillment of the Scriptures. More explicitly setting the stage for a missionary mandate are Jesus’ calls for faith, his appointment of his disciples as followers, and his own itinerant ministry, not least during the period often dubbed his ‘withdrawal from Galilee’ (when he sojourns within Gentile territory). Setting the stage even more directly for the Great Commission are the sendings of the twelve and the seventy(-two). Here Schnabel struggles valiantly, though not always persuasively, with which portions of the instructions to these groups remain timeless advice and which were situation-specific.
Schnabel moves on to survey all the various texts that bring Jesus into contact with Gentiles, even within Israel. He deals with parabolic material with implications for a Gentile ministry, too, helpfully debunking the view that Matthew 25:31–46 uses ‘the least of these my brothers’ to refer to all the poor of the world. Instead, Jesus had needy Christians in view, in a culture in which accepting the messenger implied acceptance of the message. He further highlights how the ‘beginning of birth-pangs’ in Mark 13:7, also known as the great tribulation, referred to the entire inter-advent period. Finally, Schnabel scrutinizes the Great Commission, in the closing verses of Matthew. He highlights how every segment of these verses coalesces to stress the universality of God’s Lordship in Christ, the need for salvation and the imperative to take the gospel to everyone everywhere. By definition this universality makes the claims of the gospel exclusive: if all need to accept it, then other alternatives must be inadequate. In the context of exegeting the Commission appears an outstanding excursus on the need for believers’ baptism, particularly in light of those who would condemn the practice for those already sprinkled with water as infants as ‘rebaptism’ (in parts of Germany sufficient to lead to clergy defrocking!). Unfortunately, Schnabel largely passes by the issue of the meaning of Mark 13:10 and parallels, at least with respect to those who claim it is equivalent to the Great Commission itself.
Parts Three through Six all treat the post-resurrection ministries of the apostles and their co-workers. Two parts thoroughly dissect the ministries of the Twelve, and their companions, first in Jerusalem and eventually ‘to the ends of the earth’. Two more analyze everything one could possibly think of to say about Paul and missions, followed by the theology of missions of the remaining New Testament authors. Space precludes continuing our already highly selective summaries with even the amount of detail thus far included. But we may at least list a number of significant findings.
- ‘The popular view is unfounded that claims that Jesus’ disciples and the Jerusalem church needed to be forced to engage in missionary outreach, which took place only after and as the result of the persecution that followed the death of Stephen’ (395).
- Koinōnia (‘fellowship’), especially in Acts 2–4 includes both unity and the communal sharing of resources, especially material ones, flowing from the intimacy that was possible only among gatherings no larger than the house churches.
- Each apostle exemplified ‘a missionary who explores new territory without any existing models, who is ready to value co-workers more than self, who is prepared to carry the cross daily’, and who thus represents far more than ‘the “head of a department” or an “office boss” ’ (429).
- The use of twelve leaders from the first day of the church’s inception, subsequently supplemented by seven more (the ‘deacons’ of Acts 6), makes it highly unlikely that this church could have ever acknowledged as legitimate the restriction of leadership to a single spiritual leader with more authority than anyone else.
- The Christian notion of conversion proved unique among the Greaco-Roman religions of the ancient world, in which one typically just added new beliefs or deities to an existing pantheon. Thus the expansive Christian missionary work and zeal would have shocked many pagans.
- ‘There is very little archaeological evidence for Greek cults of a ‘personal’ god who was interested in or connected with the individual person’ (615). Christianity would have remained equally striking in claiming precisely this for God in Christ.
- Despite common, considerably lower estimates of literacy in the empire, figures of 20–30% of the inhabitants of Hellenized cities who could read and write appear more realistic, with those percentages increasing among the Jewish populations, particularly in Egypt and Judea.
- Of the post-New Testament traditions about the missions of Jesus’ followers not highlighted in Acts, those with the strongest claims to accuracy include Thomas going to India, Matthew to Egypt and Ethiopia, Mark to Egypt, Philip to Achaia and Macedonia, Elchasai to Mesopotamia, Thaddeus to Edessa, and perhaps Peter, John and Philip to Parthia.
- After the year 41–42, elders replace the apostles as leaders in Jerusalem, which, combining with traditions like those just noted, suggests that the rest of the apostles’ lives were spent primarily in mission.
Turning to the pre-Christian Saul of Tarsus, Schnabel positions him neither on the theological left or right wings but in the centre (N. T. Wright may be a little more convincing in seeing him on the far right like a modern day ultra-Zionist terrorist). As a Christian, Paul’s approach of being all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19–23) was more than a strategy but the natural consequence of the gospel. ‘Paul goes to people wherever they are “at home” in terms of space, language or history’ (954). But this is cultural relevance, not cultural relativism. ‘Effectiveness in missionary work and in church ministry does not depend on people or on programs, nor on rhetorical techniques or elaborate methods, but is the result of God’s activity’ (981). But that does not mean that Paul has any right to ‘take it easy’; as God’s ‘slave’ he works as hard as he can for as long as he can (982).
The hidden years between Saul’s conversion and the missionary travels described in Acts are best understood as occupied in ministry, beginning in Arabia-Nabatea and moving to Syria and Cilicia, including the regions most immediately in and around Damascus, Tarsus and (Syrian) Antioch. An inscription discovered at the site of Paphos in Cyprus as recently as 2000, though fragmentary, may well attest to the presence of Paul the apostle there. If so, it would be the first secure extra-biblical documentation of Christians on that island prior to the fourth century. So, too, an inscription discovered in 1965, but published only in 1994, attests to Jews in Thessalonica in the third century, the first known reference to Jews in that city, apart from Acts 17, from ancient times. When the Areopagus called Paul to explain his new teaching, believing that he was promoting foreign deities, it probably expected that he would donate money for a festival, and buy property for a shrine, to worship these new gods, which it would have to approve in order for them to be added to the Greek pantheon. Paul’s speech would then have been written as a declamation and circulated among the citizens, suggesting that Luke may well have relied on a written source for his summary of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17. If we understand ‘Scythians’ to refer to slaves, as we probably should, then the eight elements of Colossians 3:11 are neatly balanced in two ABBA structures. Paul’s three topics of discussion with Felix may correspond to three stages in communicating the gospel: affirming divine standards of righteousness or justice; showing human failure to meet them particularly with respect to self-control, and highlighting the need for a solution to this plight in light of the coming Day of Judgement. Paul’s two-year house arrest with which the book of Acts ends probably culminated with his release, given the moderating effect Seneca (and others) had on Nero until ad 64, given the much more sombre tone of 2 Timothy that suggests it was written during a later and more severe imprisonment, and given the early Christian testimony to Paul’s subsequent travels to Spain. But this additional missionary work cannot have lasted much longer than a year, to allow time for his return to the eastern half of the empire, re-arrest and execution. Perhaps his age, of about 60 years, by this time prohibited him from anything more prolonged and arduous.
A lengthy chapter on ‘Missionary Tactics and Communication’ concludes the analysis of Paul’s pioneer outreach work. Schnabel demonstrates how Paul struck a balance between following some master strategic plan on the one hand and simply asking the Spirit for daily guidance on the other. As he tried to move ever further afield, particularly to the west of Syrian Antioch, circumstances usually dictated how short or long he stayed at a given place (or whether he stopped at all). In looking for an audience in a given community, he sought out the accepted places of communicating messages like his in the Jewish and Greaco-Roman worlds—the synagogue, the private philosophical school, the public lecture hall, the private villa of a wealthy citizen, or the agora where religious and philosophical teachers regularly presented their beliefs. (The modern Western equivalents, therefore, are not normally a city centre or a shopping mall, but newspapers, radio, television, and the internet.) While Paul unleashes some forceful rhetoric and harsh polemics against pagan idolatry, he differentiates between the damning ideologies and the individuals enslaved to them. More personal attacks are saved for insiders: Christian leaders who abandon the heart of the faith and lead others astray despite knowing better.
Of the three main elements for good rhetoricians to consider (logos, ethos and pathos), Paul focuses almost exclusively on the logos—the contents and logic of his message. He does not appeal to his own moral character very often, except as it impinges on his suffering, and equally rarely milks others’ emotions to the extent that his Corinthian rivals, the Sophists, loved to do. Given their abuse in Hellenistic philosophy, Paul seems almost anti-ethos and anti-pathos. A particularly helpful segment of Schnabel’s treatment of Paul’s discourses divides them into six categories with illustrations of each discussed:
- for Jews he started with God and the Scriptures and interpreted them in light of Jesus;
- for pagans he had to begin by explaining who God himself was;
- in some cases he highly contextualizes his message in light of the specific situation;
- in others he is confrontational as he proclaims Jesus as Messiah and Lord;
- at times he uses apologetics to defend the truth of the gospel; and
- in still other Christian contexts he presents more pastoral encouragement.
In every instance, with Paul Bowers, ‘there is no restless rushing from one new opening to another but rather a methodical progress concerned both with initiating work in new areas and at the same time with bringing emergent groups in those areas to stable maturity’ (1418). An excellent, detailed description of Paul’s unusual emphasis on utilizing co-workers is followed by an analysis of when and why Paul did not accept funding from others (both so as not to burden or mislead those he was just in the process of evangelizing and to avoid the vitiating ‘strings attached’ in an age of highly entrenched expectations between patrons and their clients).
A much shorter closing chapter deals, remarkably briefly in light of the length of all the other topics of these volumes, with the individual missionary theologies of New Testament authors not already treated. Identifying virtually every one of these remaining books as missions-centered at heart, as Schnabel does, may exaggerate the matter and overlook key distinctive purposes for each. As a corrective to the usually understated role of the entire New Testament as a collection of missionary documents, however, it offers a welcome perspective.
Most of Schnabel’s several final summary chapters reorganize, but rehearse, key points already well treated. Five emphases jumped out at me.
- Missionary work was and is not ‘fun’! It is physically gruelling, emotionally taxing, spiritually difficult work. But that is precisely what a ‘slave’ of Jesus should expect.
- What makes it all worthwhile is that people are won for eternal life with God. That central goal permeated Paul’s life; does it ours?
- Effective missionary service occurs most often when those communicating the gospel take their listeners seriously, understand their social, cultural, and religious backgrounds; and move them from where they are to where they need to go.
- The need today is far too great for the church to sit back and debate how ‘attractive’ or ‘open’ it is to others; it must rather ‘engage in robust evangelistic outreach among the agnostic and the apathetic, among atheists and neo-pagans, seeking to win them to faith in Jesus Christ, who alone liberates from guilt and sin and grants true and lasting meaning of life’ (1574).
This message is exclusive with respect to Jesus as the only one who has atoned for the sins of humanity; it is inclusive as it seeks to embrace people from every race, tribe, tongue and nation.
There is precious little I find myself disagreeing with in the more than 1000 pages on New Testament material. Part encyclopedia, part Forschungsbericht, part fresh analysis, there are huge portions where few reviewers could ever even know if errors had been made, short of checking every primary and secondary source reference. This includes a number that are available at only a handful of libraries in the world (Schnabel did a fair amount of his research at the University of Marburg, he told me, though the ghost of Bultmann does not appear to have skewed his research in any respect!). Reviewers feel obligated to quibble about something, though, so I suppose I could note that I do not think Schnabel has interacted with the strongest of J. D. G. Dunn’s arguments for seeing the Samaritans in Acts 8 as unconverted until Peter and John came from Jerusalem to see what was happening with Philip’s evangelism. I might suggest that some of the dates for events in the 40s and 50s seem too early—for example, Paul in Arabia in 32/33 and on his first missionary ‘journey’ from 45–47—plus we really lack enough data to date the conversion of Cornelius precisely at all. Why should the one ‘troubling’ the believers in Galatia be a specific individual, rather than generic (Galatians 5:10), especially when Paul goes on to add, ‘whoever that may be’? Why does Galatians 2:15–21 read better as the continuation of the conversation between Paul and Peter rather than Paul’s subsequent theological reflection and thesis statement for the entire epistle? Might the case for a link with idolatry make more sense of all four prohibitions in the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15 than the somewhat tenuous links needed to tie them in with prohibitions that the sojourning foreigner in Israel must obey, according to Leviticus 17–18?
When I was touring the excavations of the site of Pisidian Antioch in the spring of 1999, the curator of the archaeological museum there, himself a (Muslim) New Testament PhD(!), pointed us to the foundations of what was believed to be the Jewish synagogue (although Schnabel says this site has not yet been located). In explaining Paul’s annoyance with the demon-possessed girl in Philippi, Schnabel points to several pagan gods there that were sometimes called ‘most high gods’, so that the girl’s testimony need not have been referring to Yahweh at all. But he does not interact with Graham Twelftree’s detailed arguments that knowing the name of an opposing deity, demon or spirit often provided the key to gaining mastery over it, so that it seems more likely that the woman was referring to the God Paul served in the hope of warding him off!
In dealing with Romans 11:26, Schnabel appears to endorse an N. T. Wright-like doctrine of supersessionism. He properly rejects the two-covenants theory that finds Jesus as Messiah unnecessary for Jews faithful to the Mosaic covenant and any Sonderweg that has Jews saved mysteriously and directly by God’s power at the last minute, before his return. He, however, does not discuss the common, evangelical conviction that there will be a large outpouring of faith in Jesus as Messiah among those ethnically Jewish shortly before the Parousia, even if this does not necessitate every last Jew in the final days believing nor any Jews having to live in a restored state of Israel. Schnabel likewise quite rightly eschews every approach to interfaith dialogue that rejects ultimate truth, that finds salvific efficacy in other religions, or that encourages Christians to converse with adherents of other religions to learn truths lacking in Christianity (even if non-salvific). But again, he seems to overreact in rejecting ‘dialogue’ altogether, when he proclaims that ‘Paul, as a missionary, does not engage in a dialogue with pagans about religious convictions, sentiments and practices’ (1342–43). Acts 17:17 would suggest that was exactly what he did as he ‘reasoned … in the marketplace day by day’ with philosophers and laypeople alike. The verb in this clause comes from dialegomai, which means to converse, discuss, instruct, debate, argue. It was, in short, to engage in a verbal give-and-take over elements central to Paul’s vision of true and false religion. In light of the frequent use of this verb in Acts, particularly in chapter 17, one can easily imagine dialogue as one of Paul’s most common modes of operation, especially while he made tents and conversed with customers. Opportunities for formal sermons or discourses opened up periodically; conversing about Christ with convicted civility probably dominated the rest of his interactions with people.
Interspersed within the exegesis of texts, evaluations of interpretations, and presentations of relevant historical information, there appears a wealth of material not strictly necessary for Schnabel’s overall case, but immensely valuable nevertheless. Among these digressions are a detailed, possible chronology of key events from 4 BC to AD 111, countless segments ranging from a short paragraph to pages on end of information—geographical, political, religious—that can be compiled about every city Jesus or the apostles ever entered, travelled near or possibly travelled near. In addition, there is everything we can know about the apostles and other named followers of Jesus at every location in which they appear in Scripture or more reliable early church tradition. Discussions of the historicity of countless texts punctuate these narrative asides. Many of these excursuses appear in small print, interrupting the overall narrative flow and visual presentation of the text. Many more such excursuses deal with the views of individual scholars on a particular topic, often from a perspective that Schnabel rejects (and itemizes his reasons for rejecting). Occasionally, the fine print presents scholars’ arguments that bolster Schnabel’s conclusions and occasionally, too, the identical kind of interaction with individual scholars’ approaches to the issue at hand blends right in with the main text, leaving the reader to wonder why this material was not chosen for smaller fonts. Also, on a number of exegetical controversies, one wonders which view Schnabel favours when he merely lists options and then resumes the ‘big print’.
One is not surprised to find the occasional grammatical or typographical mistake whenever an author writes in a second language. It is more surprising when so many fail to catch the editors’ eyes: ‘It is this love and care … that is motivated’ (70); ‘Cooch argued similarly when he suggests.’ (147); ‘immanent retribution’ (200); ‘he is singled out as powerful and influential preacher’ (428); ‘the lowers classes in the Greek and Roman cities’ (648); ‘consequences for the temple and for the cultic practiced in the temple’ (668); the growing number of Gentiles Christians’ (764); ‘Luke reports this event Acts 11:19–26’ (786); ‘concordate’ (999); ‘as new discoveries has shown’ (1075); ‘whether it is subversive of not’ (1086); ‘might by supported’ (1088); ‘missioaries’ (1111); ‘wants to asserts’ (1148); ‘perhaps can explained’ (1177); ‘the legal basis for his governorship were’ (1193); ‘[ET 198]’ (1194, n. 564); and ‘the hypothetical speculation about the redactional motives of Luke are more problematic’ (1200). In addition, the enumeration of points on page 673 skips from (5) to (7); a crucial ‘not’ appears to be missing on page 1296 from the sentence, ‘This does mean, however, that he saw himself as the only missionary in the northern regions of the Mediterranean’; and the word ‘time’ seems absent on page 1420—‘At the same he does not understand his mission’. And I read rapidly enough that I am sure I have missed some other mistakes.
Any one interested in the mission of the early church, however, will remain indebted for a long time to Schnabel for this treasure trove of information. What it lacks in exciting narrative flow is more than compensated for by its encyclopedic usefulness. Many, many thanks, Eckhard, for a labour of love that to me appears to have been just about as gruelling as the missionary labours of fledgling Christianity themselves!
Craig L. Blomberg
Craig L. Blomberg
Denver, Colorado, USA