A Biblical Basis for Mission Agencies (1st of 4): Jewish Mission Societies in the New Testament

The Hebrew word for Jewish mission societies is hevrah.

The reader is familiar with Jewish synagogues; they feature prominently in the New Testament. But the reader is probably not familiar with the Jewish hevrah. A hevrah [1] was a brotherhood of Jewish men who felt called by God to make a difference in the world by their deeds. Israel Goldman, in his superb book, Life-long Learning Among Jews, writes:

In every Jewish community, from Bible times to the 20th century, the hevrah—a duly constituted society for the promotion of certain specific occupational, charitable, religious, or educational purposes—was the most significant unit of voluntary association. These Havurot were founded wherever there were Jews.[2]

Pharisees, a Jewish Hevrah. The most prominent hevrah in the Bible is the Pharisees. Jesus said to them, “You travel over land and sea to make converts worse than yourselves.” The Pharisees were a brotherhood of Jewish men who felt called by God to make a difference in the world. They were on the wrong path, but it is important to remember that Paul had been a Pharisee. Paul formed a hevrah, a conversionary brotherhood of men “patterned after the Jewish Pharisees which he knew about earlier as Saul the Pharisee.”[5] Alfred Edersheim, a 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, 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 [4].” I will discuss the Pharisees in in a later blog post.

Another hevrah in the New Testament were the Zealots. The Essenes were another. We don’t know much about the Jewish band of exorcists in Acts 19, but guess what? They were on a mission to cast out demons, and they called themselves “the sons of Sceva.” Thus, the existence of Jewish hevrah in the New Testament is “hidden in plain sight.” What about John the Baptist’s group of disciples? Did they comprise a hevrah? It would seem that they did. What about Jesus our Lord and the twelve men he organized to be the apostles? If Jesus and the apostles arrive in, say, Capernaum, everyone in town would probably say, “Here comes a rabbi with his hevrah.”

Thus, Jews in the Bible organized themselves in two ways. They synagogues where the faithful assembled on the Sabbath for the reading of the Bible, for teaching, and for worship. Second, they organized hevrahs for a missionary purpose that was important to its members. A synagogue was like a lighthouse. But a hevrah organized to go out “into the darkness” and change the world. The hevrah was mobile; the synagogue is stable. The synagogue and hevrah are the prototypes for Christian congregations and the missionary bands. Congregations and missionary bands are the two structures of God’s redemptive mission. Ralph Winter wrote:

It is very important to note that neither of these two structures was, as it were, “let down from heaven” in a special way. It may be shocking at first to think that God made use of either a Jewish synagogue pattern or a Jewish evangelistic pattern. But this must not be more surprising than the fact that God employed the use of the pagan Greek language to lay hold of such terms as kurios (originally a pagan term), and pound them into shape to carry the Christian revelation. In fact, the profound missiological implication of all this is that the New Testament is trying to show us how to borrow effective patterns. It is trying to free all future missionaries from the need to follow the precise forms of the Jewish synagogue or Jewish missionary band, and yet to allow missionaries to choose comparable indigenous structures in the countless new situations across history and around the world. [6]

Next: A Biblical Basis for Mission Agencies (2nd of 4). Jesus Christ and His Missionary Band as a Type of Jewish Hevrah. (2nd 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] Other spellings of חֶבְרָה are chevrah, chevre, khevre, hevra, khevra, khevrah, chabura

[2] Israel M. Goldman, Lifelong Learning among Jews: Adult Education in Judaism from Biblical Times to the Twentieth Century (New York: Ktav Pub. House, 1975).

[3] Ibid. We have records of hundreds of havurot which existed in eastern Europe in the last 600 years. For example, the Holy Brotherhood of Tailors, the Holy Brotherhood of Woodchoppers, the Holy Brotherhood for the Study of Torah, the Holy Brotherhood for Visiting the Sick and the Holy Brotherhood for Lovingkindness.173

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

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

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