The Missiology of the Pharisees

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves,” Matthew 23:15.

An article by Terry Seufferlein

  Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees comes in the middle of an entire chapter of Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus criticizes the practices of the Pharisees. Such harsh criticism merits serious attention and this attention has resulted in several different ideas concerning the passage.  One of the more radical views comes from H. J. Flowers who dismisses the passage as not from Jesus based upon three arguments:

(1) The passage is not in Luke, so he determines it is not in Q and is therefore one of the later traditions about Jesus;

(2) Such a statement cannot be true of the Pharisees as a whole for Pharisees direct the same criticisms at other groups of Pharisees;

(3) The Pharisees were not evangelistic (Flowers 1961:67, 68).  Some of the weaknesses of Flowers’ arguments are obvious (Hood 1962:211-213).

(1) It is dangerous to evaluate the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings based on synoptic theories and speculation.

(2) The fact that later rabbis criticized others in these areas does not mean those in Jesus’ day were innocent of such actions. Indeed, it seems to point to the historical probability of Jesus’ witnessing and criticizing these practices. Further, Jesus does not say every individual Pharisee was guilty of these particular sins. 

(3)  It is upon the third argument that Flower rests most of his theory; therefore, it deserves closer analysis. There were two classifications of “converts”–Gentiles who practiced Judaism–in the ancient world. The first type are those referred to as “God-fearers” (see Acts 10:2, 13, 16). A “God-fearer” was one who believed in Jewish monotheism, attended synagogue worship, and kept some of the ceremonial laws, but did not take the step of full conversion to Judaism signified by circumcision (Kuhn 1968:731). The second type of converts are the Gentiles who became full converts to Judaism, which required the offering of a sacrifice, ceremonial washing, and circumcision (Kuhn 968:738-739).  While it is true that there is little evidence of a Jewish “mission” in the Christian sense, the Jews of the Diaspora were quick to take advantage of their situation among the Gentiles and recruit converts. In fact, the purpose of the Diaspora itself was sometimes seen as a way to reach the Gentiles: “The Holy One, blessed be He, dispersed the people of Israel among the nations in order that they might acquire proselytes” (Pesachim 87b).

It was considered a goal of the Jews to bring “all men under the wings of the Shekinah” (Rosenbloom 1978:41). However, the Hellenistic Jews were not so much concerned that the Gentiles accept circumcision as they were desiring that the Gentiles believe in the one God and follow the basic cultic and ethical requirements of the Old Testament (Kuhn 1968:731, 734). There was a significant number of those who were drawn to Judaism’s high ideals and became God-fearers.

 The eagerness of the Diaspora Jews to attract converts is witnessed by the fact that Rabbis Judah and Joseph, heads of the school in Pumpeditha, rebuked certain communities for their failure to attract a sufficient number of converts. A century later, Rabbi Ashi made a similar complaint about the Jews of Mata Mahseia, a suburb of Sura on the Euphrates (Rosenbloom 1978:41). Relatively few, however, became full proselytes–likely due to the act of circumcision itself. This is supported by the fact that neither circumcision nor an offering was required for female proselytes, and there seems to have been a greater number of women who fully embraced Judaism (Kuhn 1968:733, 734).  

The situation was somewhat different in Palestine, however. Whereas the Diaspora Jews were usually content to draw a Gentile into becoming a “God-fearer,” the Palestinian Jews required converts to maintain full observance of the Old Testament law, especially concerning circumcision (Kuhn 1978:734; see also Hahn 1985:22-24).  The difference between the recruitment practices of the Hellenistic Jews and the Palestinian Jews is illustrated by Josephus (Antiquities XX, ii, 3-5). Josephus tells of Izates, King of Adiabene, who was taught by a Jewish merchant named Ananias to worship God according to the Jewish religion. Isates hesitated about circumcision, however, since he was concerned about the people’s reaction to being ruled over by a Jew. Ananias reassured Izates, saying worship of God is superior to circumcision. Later, a Jew from Palestine named Eleazar came and spoke to the king, rebuking him harshly for not keeping the entire law and not being circumcised. The king relented and was immediately circumcised. 

 So the missionary nature of the Jews during Jesus’ time can be clearly seen. Jeremias wrote, “Jesus thus came upon the scene in the midst of what was par excellence the missionary age of Jewish history” (Jeremias 1958:11-19). Moreover, the exclusivistic Pharisees, particularly the Palestinian Pharisees whom Jesus was addressing, were not likely to have been content to make a Gentile into a “God-fearer.” Rather, they would have wanted to make a Pharisee out of him. In other words, those whom Jesus addressed would likely have enforced the detailed, legalistic observance of the law for which they themselves were known, upon any Gentiles attracted to Judaism.

Jesus points out that the Gentile thus converted is likely to become so concerned with minutiae that he misses the heart of religion and becomes more zealous than the one who converted him (Lewis 1979:113; Meyer 1890:392).  Proselytizing, then, has taken on negative connotations. A sub-group of the Joint Theological Commission recently described proselytism as:

improper attitudes and behavior in the practice of Christian witness. Proselytism embraces whatever violates the right of the human person, Christian or non-Christian, to be free from external coercion in religious matters, or whatever, in the proclamation of the Gospel, does not conform to the ways God draws free men to himself in response to his calls to serve in spirit and truth (Joint Theological Commission 1971:11).

In contrast to Christian mission work, the Interpreter’s Bible says proselytism (1) is concerned with a cult or form; (2) is conducted by men well satisfied with themselves and thus is marked by self-righteousness; and (3) is subtly intent not on God or the good of the convert but on the prestige that will come to the cult and the zealot (Butterick 1951:534).  Proselytizing, then, is perceived as more concerned with the external requirement of making a convert and is insensitive to the person himself. As such, it has no place in Christian mission work. Christians are to actively pursue converts, encouraging people to exchange their system of beliefs for a Christian world view. However, the primary concern centers on the internal beliefs and motivation of the convert–not the external actions. These internal understandings cannot be forced. Growth must be strongly encouraged, yet time must be allowed for that growing process.  

BUTTERICK, George, ed. 1951 Interpreter’s Bible. New York: Abingdon Press.

FLOWERS, H. J. 1961 “Matthew 23:15,” The Expository Times 73 (December 1961), 657-669.

HAHN, Ferdinand 1985 Mission in the New Testament. Naperville, Illinois: Alec R. Allenson.

HOAD, John 1962 On Matthew 23:15: A Rejoinder.” The Expository Times 73 (April 1962) 211-212.

JEREMIAS, Joachim 1958 Jesus’ Promise to the Nations. Naperville, Illinois:

Alec R. Allenson. JOINT THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION 1971 “Common Witness and Proselytism.” The Ecumenical Review 23 (1971) 9-20.

KUHN, Karl Georg 1968 “IIroshlutoj” in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 6, Ed. Gerhard Friedrich. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

LEWIS, Jack P. 1979 The Gospel According to Matthew. Vol. 2. The Living Word Commentary Series. Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing Company.

MEYER, H. A. W. 1890 A Critical and Exegetical Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.  

ROSENBLOOM, Joseph R. 1978 Conversion to Judaism. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press. 

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