Studying the Bible, Making a Further Discovery from Matthew 23:15

Eckhard J. Schnabel, professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, meticulously describes Ralph D. Winter’s “two structures” theory (which we are promoting in this blog). Schnabel writes:

Eckhard J. Schnabel

Ralph Winter argues that the church always has two structures that are legitimate and that contribute to the fulfillment of the Great Commission: the church or local congregation, which uses the model of the Jewish synagogue, and the mission society, which uses the model of Jewish and early Christian teams of missionaries.

Schnabel correctly explains Winter’s pair of terms, modality and sodality: “The church is a modality,” the entire population of believers, “while the missionary team is a sodality, in which membership is determined by a second decision.”[1]

However, Schnabel believes that Ralph Winter is wrong. In Schnabel’s opinion there were no Jewish teams of missionaries in the first century. Schnabel writes, “The early Christian missionary teams did not adopt the form of similar Jewish “teams” of missionaries, as there is no evidence for a missionary movement in Second Temple Judaism.”[2]

Support for Ralph Winter’s theory comes from the words of Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:15, where Jesus said, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes so, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Sadly, Schnabel does not take the words of Jesus at face value. Schnabel writes:

The polemical tone of Mt 23 and the hyperbolic formulation­ scribes and Pharisees travel across “sea and land” to win “a single convert” ­suggest that Mt 23:15 cannot be easily or directly evaluated in terms of the extent or the intensity of a Pharisaic proselytizing propaganda.[3] Nothing in this com­ment forces us to interpret in terms of a “burning zeal of the Pharisaic mis­sion,”[4] since no Jewish, Greek or Roman texts unambiguously prove the exis­tence of Jewish missionary work among Gentiles. Assertions such as that of Walter Grundmann, who states that Jewish missionary activity “reached its cli­max at the time of Jesus and the apostles,”[5] are sheer inventions.[6]

Dear Reader, this is a textbook example of how one’s point of view could have been changed by listening to Jewish experts. I take this opportunity to re-introduce the reader to Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, professor of Jewish studies at Wheaton College in Massachusetts (“the other Wheaton”), he wrote me. Brumberg-Kraus wrote an article, “Were the Pharisees a Conversionary Sect?[7] It is likely that Brumberg-Kraus was familiar with Schnabel’s opinion, as seems evident by placing their writings side by side:

The polemical tone of Mt 23 and the hyperbolic formulation—scribes and Pharisees travel across “sea and land” to win “a single convert”—suggest that Mt 23:15 cannot be easily or directly evaluated in terms of the extent or the intensity of a Pharisaic proselytizing propaganda.[8] Eckhard J. SchnabelThough 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.[9] Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus

I draw the readers’ attention to Schnabel’s phrase, “The polemical tone of Matthew 23 and the hyperbolic formation . . .” Compare this to Brumberg-Kraus’s similar phrase, when he expresses his awareness that most experts in early Christian literature “have dismissed Matthew’s claim” in 23:15 “as polemical hyperbole.” Brumberg-Kraus, I am glad to say, accepts what Matthew wrote. That is, Pharisees actually 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].[10]

Brumberg-Kraus continues:

Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus

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.[11]

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[12]

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

Did the Pharisees traverse land and sea to make converts? Schnabel says “no.” Brumberg-Kraus seems to be aware of Schnabels’ opinion and repeats Schnabel’s phrase “polemical hyperbole.” Did the Pharisees traverse land and see to make converts? Brumberg-Kraus says “yes.” Other Jewish writers agree. 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.”[14]. Brumberg-Kraus makes this same point:

Scholars suppose that both the Gospels and Josephus reflect their own Tendenzen (their own familiar customs) rather than the real “historical Pharisees.” Hence, other critics, especially Christians, cannot imagine a proselytizing campaign on the part of Pharisees that targets only ethnic Jews.

Blincoe: Therefore, the Pharisees were a brotherhood of Jewish men–a hevrah. They 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. [15]

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.

[1] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 vols. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004). 1578

[2] Ibid. 1578

[3] Thus H. Kuhli, “proselutos”who believes that “this passage presupposes the Pharisaic movement’s generally positive posture regarding missionary activity.”

[4] Thus Schlatter, Mt, 674. For a critique of this traditional interpretation see Will and Orrieux1992, 115-36; M. Goodman 1994, 69-72; McKnight 1991.

[5] Grundmann, Mt, 490.

[6] Schnabel, Early Christian Mission. 163-164


[8] Schnabel, Early Christian Mission. 163

[9] 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.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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

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

[14] Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ.

[15] Winter, Ralph D. “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.” Missiology 2, no. 1 (January 1974): 121-39.