A Biblical Basis for Mission Agencies (3rd of 4): Pharisees were a Type of Jewish Hevrah.

Pharisees Were a Type of Jewish Hevrah.

Say something instructive about the Pharisees? Oy vey. The reader will have to open his or her mind to think thoughts you may never have thought before. That is what happened to me when I learned from Jews about the two kinds of Jewish organizations in the New Testament —1) the synagogue and 2) the hevrah, or special-purpose associations.

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. Brumberg-Kraus is a Jew who teaches on Jewish subjects at Wheaton College. In 2002 he wrote a remarkable paper, “Were the Pharisees a Conversionist Sect?” You can read it here. Brumberg-Kraus explains the “conversion strategy” of the most prominent first century hevrah, the Pharisees. Brumberg-Kraus 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.[2]

Brumberg-Kraus, I am glad to say, accepts what Matthew wrote. That is, the Pharisees were missionaries who actively sought “converts,” though not Gentiles, as the Greek word “proselyte” usually implies:

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]. [3]

Thus, Brumberg-Kraus begins his explanation of a renewal mission undertaken by the Pharisees to convert fellow Jews to eat in a kosher manner, as commanded in the book of Leviticus.

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]

Therefore, 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. [8]

Blincoe: Therefore, the Pharisees were a brotherhood of Jewish men–a hevrah–Jewish men 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.” [9]

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 was 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.

Next: A Biblical Basis for Mission Agencies. Christians Adapted Jewish Synagogues and Hevrahs to Organize Churches and Missionary Bands (4th of 4)

Here are links to the four blogs on the topic “A Biblical Basis for Mission Agencies.”

Jewish Mission Societies in the New Testament

Jesus Christ and His Missionary Band as a Type of Jewish Hevrah

Pharisees were a Type of Jewish Hevrah

Early Christians Adapted the Synagogue and Hevrah to Organize Congregations and Missionary Bands

[1] Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, “Were the Pharisees a Conversionist Sect? Table Fellowship as a Strategy of Conversion,”  http://acunix.wheatonma.edu/jkraus/articles/Pharisees.htm. In this remarkable article (available only online) Brumberg-Kraus establishes the Pharisees as a “holiness movement” actively competing against the “mercy movement” of Jesus. Accessed October 2003.

[2] Ibid., 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.

[3] Brumberg-Kraus, “Were the Pharisees a Conversionist Sect? Table Fellowship as a Strategy of Conversion” 1. 1. The Pharisees resembled the Lubavitch Jews, who make every effort “to proselytize the Jews, attempting to convert the non-orthodox to a more Torah-observant way of life” (See Martin Gilbert and Josephine Bacon, The Illustrated Atlas of Jewish Civilization (London: A. Deutsch, 1990), 88.

[4] Josephus emphasized features of the Jewish religious orders which “he judged would make the greatest impression on his Gentile readers.” See F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (London: Nelson, 1969), 78. Thus, when historians read Josephus, they are led away from thinking of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes as New Testament-era Jewish havurot. J. Gresham Machen in his book The Origin of Paul’s Religion, has not a word on the origin of Paul’s missionary strategy or field-governed autonomy. Instead, relying on Josephus for his single reference to the Pharisees, Machen simply says that Josephus distinguishes three Jewish sects, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. See J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1921), 177.

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

[6] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”—Matthew 23:23

[7] Brumberg-Kraus, “Were the Pharisees a Conversionist Sect? Table Fellowship as a Strategy of Conversion” 2. 2. There are various spellings of the Hebrew word hevrah/khevra.

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

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

[9] Ibid., 3. Brumberg-Kraus here cites Scot McKnight, A Light among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 104, 52.

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