Studying the Bible, Making a Tremendous Discovery. Matthew 23:15

Pharisees Formed “Great Commission” Brotherhoods. These Apparently Had a Positive Influence on Paul.

Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

The most prominent Jewish mission associations in the New Testament were the Pharisees. Pharisees were associations of Jewish men–havurot–who pledged themselves to God and to one another to make a difference in the world. Pharisees believed God gave them a Great Commission to “be a light to the Gentiles,” as Isaiah had said: “I will make you a light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49:6). Paul understood this to be his Great Commission verse as well. Paul said:

The Lord has commanded us, saying, “I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers (Acts 14:47-48).

The Pharisees established Great Commission brotherhoods (havurot) to bring the light of God to the nations. But the Pharisees were forced to address a more immediate problem first: they had to renew the Jewish nation before it could be a light to the nations. Most Jews, it seemed to the Pharisees, were too casual, too worldly, to fulfill the holy purposes of God. The Pharisees must first be a light to the Jews, guiding them to a more faithful observance of the Torah. The mission of the Pharisees, then, was this: Revive the spiritual vitality of the Jewish nation! Only then would the Jews fulfill God’s Great Commission mission to bring light to the Gentiles!

This is a textbook definition of a Jewish hevrah. It is important to remember that Paul had been a Pharisee. Paul formed his own hevrah, a brotherhood of men “patterned after the Jewish Pharisees which he knew about earlier as Saul the Pharisee.”[1] Alfred Edersheim, a 19th century Jewish convert to Christianity, explains that “the Pharisees were avowedly a ‘Chabura’ [sic].” If we do not see them explained as such in the New Testament, Edersheim writes, “it is because the New Testament simply transports us among contemporary scenes and actors, taking the existent state of things, so to speak, for granted.”[2]

I take the opportunity here to introduce Dr. Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, professor at Wheaton College (“The other Wheaton,” he told me), a four-year liberal arts college located in Norton, Massachusetts. In 2002 he wrote a remarkable paper,”Were the Pharisees a Conversionist Sect?” You can read it here [3]. He writes:

Though early Christian literature represents the Pharisees as perhaps their greatest religious rival—in the conflict stories and other anti-Pharisee polemic in the Gospels, in Paul’s dramatic disavowal of his former life as a Pharisee—most have dismissed Matthew’s claim, that Pharisees ‘traversed sea and land to make a single proselyte’ (Mt 23:15) as polemical hyperbole.[4]

Brumberg-Kraus, I am glad to say, accepts what Matthew wrote. That is, Pharisees sent missionaries who actively sought “converts,” though not Gentile converts. Brumberg-Kraus writes:

The terms “proselyte” and “proselytism” usually refer to a conversion from one ethnic community to another. That is, proselytes to Judaism have “converted” from being Gentiles to being members of the Jewish ethnic group. Likewise in Pauline Christianity, one “converts” from being a Gentile or a Jew into a new kind of community in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile.” The Pharisees however seemed to have confined their active efforts to win new followers from among ethnic Jews [emphasis added].

Blincoe. I wrote Dr. Ralph Winter to ask his opinion on Brumberg-Kraus’ main point, that is, “The Pharisee mission was not to the Gentiles; it was a renewal mission to the Jewish nation.” Winter replied:

I think I fully agree with the man. Jesus clearly was talking about [In Matthew 23:15] making devout persons into proselytes. There is no need, as you say, to say they were going to raw pagans. Who has said they did? I didn’t. That is not my point. His words are no problem for me at all. It seems to me that they are very confirming. RDW[5]

Thus Ralph D. Winter is in agreement with Brumberg-Kraus: the mission of the Pharisees was an attempt to persuade fellow Jews to earnestly follow the way of the Lord as commanded in the Torah. Brumberg-Kraus summarizes his main point:

If one takes seriously the cumulative testimony of the historian Josephus, Paul, the Synoptic Gospels and their prior Christian traditions, one would have to agree that the Pharisees’ near contemporaries perceived them as a popular religious-philosophical movement in 1st century Judaism, whose “mission” seemed to consist of getting other Jews to participate in their distinctive practices of table fellowship, tithing, and ritual purity.[6]

Strategy of Conversion. Brumberg-Kraus then describes a fascinating “strategy of conversion.” It is so interesting, because Paul, who says he had been a Pharisee, seems to have borrowed from the Pharisees’ strategy of conversion. There were certainly similarities. The most important similarity was the forming of a mobile team, a hevrah, that would prepare to go to the synagogues. Before leaving on its mission, there would be a laying on of hands and a prayerful sending. The hevrah would go to a synagogue and ask the ruler of a synagogue for permission to address the congregation on the Sabbath. If granted permission, the Pharisees would describe their understanding of how to keep the Torah. The big difference in Paul’s mission, of course, is that the Holy Spirit spoke, telling Paul and Barnabas to go to the Gentiles and establish congregations. Paul patterned these congregations after Jewish synagogues. Paul’s message, of course, was about Jesus Christ, “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Men in Antioch laid hands on Paul and Barnabas before bidding them farewell. Paul and Barnabas went to the synagogues, and asked permission to speak, the same as the Pharisees would do. After Paul or Barnabas has spoken in the synagogue they would invite the interested Jews and god-fearing Gentiles to hear more, and, if God allowed, a new congregation of Christians would soon be organized. This is similar to the strategy that the Pharisees employed: after speaking in the synagogue, the Pharisees would invite Interested Jews and god-fearing Gentiles to a meal at which the food would be prepared according to the requirements of the Torah. The food would be “tithed” and ritual purity would be observed. Even the spices would be tithed, a practice of the Pharisees to which Jesus referred.[6] Pharisees dined together in order to ensure that every member of the community was following the dietary regulations. After the meal the guests would be invited to join the khevra. Presumably some of the newly-initiated members would participate in the mission to invite more Jews to consider the way of holiness upheld by the Pharisees. Conformity to these distinctive practices, Brumberg-Kraus states, “was the prerequisite for different levels of membership in Pharisaic ‘associations’ (khevrot).”[7]

Blincoe: Therefore, the Pharisees were a brotherhood of Jewish men–a hevrah–who made a sacred vow to bring about a change in society, a change that was important to them. Their membership as Pharisees was probably more important to them than their attendance in the synagogue. By listening to Jewish scholars we have uncovered something that is “really there” in the New Testament: two kinds of Jewish organizations, the synagogue and the mobile missionary bands. Ralph D. Winter said:

Very few Christians, casually reading the New Testament (and with only the New Testament available to them), would surmise the degree to which there had been Jewish evangelists who went before Paul all over the Roman Empire—a movement that began 100 years before Christ. Some of these were the people whom Jesus himself described as “traversing land and sea to make a single proselyte.” Saul (Paul) followed their path; Paul built on their efforts and went beyond them with the new gospel he preached among non-Jews.”[8]

A great change will take place in our understanding of Christian mission after more people understand the Biblical basis of Christian mission agencies. It has been said that they are not found in the New Testament. It has been said that “if only the church were organized as it was in the New Testament, we would not need parachurch agencies.” I hope to brighten the future for many of my readers by helping them discover what is “really there” in the Bible.

[1] Ralph D. Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” Missiology 2, no. 1 (1974). 124

[2] Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1876).


[4] Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, “Were the Pharisees a Conversionist Sect? Table Fellowship as a Strategy of Conversion,”  1. Brumberg-Kraus cites Gal 1:11-24, Phil 3:4-9, Acts 9:1-19, 22:1-21, 26:12-23 (Paul’s conversion); I Thessalonians 1:4-10, Acts 2 (success of the conversion mission). See also Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 6.

[5] Personal correspondence of 5/6/05 7:57:59 AM

[6] Brumberg-Kraus, “Were the Pharisees a Conversionist Sect? Table Fellowship as a Strategy of Conversion”.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.”