By April 18, 2016 Read More →

Shaye J.D. Cohen. “Did Ancient Jews Missionize.” Bible Review 19, 4, (2003).

Jewish War illustration

Was ancient Judaism a missionary religion? Well, it depends on what you mean by “missionary.”

In one sense—say, in contrast to Christianity—Judaism, with one exception of short duration, never was. From earliest times Christianity saw the propagation of its faith as one of its central tenets. Early Christians taught that paganism was empty and worthless and that only through Christianity could humanity be saved. When the imperial government became Christian in the fourth century C.E., the emperors of Rome embarked on a policy to eradicate paganism. And, indeed, paganism was eradicated. This policy was inherited and implemented by the various European states that succeeded the Roman Empire in the West. Missionaries were sent to the darkest corners of the world to illuminate them with the light of Christ.

At only one point in its history did Judaism adopt this stance. In their conquests in the second century B.C.E., the Maccabees “judaized” at least some of their new subjects. The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the Maccabees circumcised the Idumeans and Itureans against their will.(1) The Roman historian Strabo (c. 64 B.C.E.–24 C.E.), however, has a different account. Strabo tells us that the Maccabees created a confederation of nationalities based on the common link of circumcision.(2) This account seems far more plausible than that of Josephus. But whichever account is true, the Maccabees clearly were following an aggressive policy of bringing “Judaism” to their subjects and allies.

Aside from this important but brief period, however, Judaism has never been a missionary religion like Christianity. Neither the priests of the Temple, nor the sectarian Jews of the first century C.E., nor the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud—none of them, as far as we know—organized missions to the gentiles or created institutions to foster the conversion of gentiles.

Nevertheless, the standard scholarly view of Greek-speaking Judaism of the diaspora (that is, Jews living outside Judea) from the second century B.C.E. to the end of the first century C.E.—often called Hellenistic Judaism—has been that Judaism was a missionary religion in another sense: namely, by maintaining an attitude of openness to outsiders and being eager to accept gentiles who expressed an interest in things Jewish. While Judaism did not sponsor missionary journeys, various individuals tried to teach Judaism to outsiders and Jewish authors wrote literary works in order to attract gentiles to Judaism. It is in this sense that, according to the most widely accepted scholarship, Judaism in this period was a missionary religion.

This view received its classic description in Salo Baron’s 18-volume Social and Religious History of the Jews:

Although there were no professional missionaries, uninterrupted religious propaganda seems to have gone on throughout the dispersion. There must have been Jews among the itinerant preachers and rhetoricians who voyaged from city to city, propagandizing for one or another idea. To this extent the well known denunciation of the Pharisees by Jesus—“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves” (Matthew 23:15)—reflects reality. To be sure, there is not the slightest evidence that the official Pharisaic leaders ever made an organized attempt to spread Judaism among the nations, but at least in that period they did not discourage individual efforts.(3)

My own view is a little more subtle. We must be wary of simplistic generalizations. There were many varieties of Judaism in antiquity and no single one of them was “normative” or “orthodox.” Moreover, Judaism changed radically from the mid-second century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. There is no reason to believe that Judaism’s attitude towards conversion and missions remained uniform or unchanged during this entire period. A review of the evidence indicates that there may have been missionary trends among some segments of diaspora and even Judean Jewry in the first century C.E. But for most of the time and for most segments of Judaism the most that can be said is that Judaism was open to converts and did nothing to raise obstacles in their path. With a few notable exceptions it also did little or nothing to solicit them. To my mind, this stance does not make Judaism a missionary religion.

Let us look first at the literary evidence. It is sufficiently scanty to allow us to examine most of it here.

The most famous passage is the text from Matthew already quoted above by Baron in a rather archaic gospel translation. Whether Pharisees “compass [that is, traverse] sea and land” to snare a single proselyte is understood literally—that is, the Pharisees actually traveled great distances in order to make proselytes—or metaphorically—that is, the Pharisees simply went to great lengths to make proselytes—is not clear. Since no other text, either in the New Testament or elsewhere, ascribes missionary zeal to the Pharisees (or to the rabbis), the historical value of this verse is difficult to assess. But even if it is somewhat exaggerated, the verse is important as the only ancient source that explicitly ascribes a missionary policy to a Jewish group.

In the mid-first century C.E., a Jewish traveling salesman named Ananias taught Prince Izates of the kingdom of Adiabene and the wives of the king “to venerate God.” At the time, Adiabene was a small kingdom within the dominant Persian Empire in the Upper Tigris region. Another Jew—he too presumably a traveling salesman—converted Izates’s mother, Helena, the queen, to Judaism. Still another Jew, this one named Eleazar from Galilee, encouraged Izates, who later succeeded his father on the throne, to take the final step in the conversion process and be circumcised.(4) Perhaps Eleazar, too, was an itinerant preacher and merchant. In any case, here is clear evidence that at least some individual Jews—itinerant merchants and teachers—took the opportunity to spread the truth of Judaism. Presumably many Adiabenian subjects followed the royal family’s example. (Incidentally, Queen Helena and her son Izates were both buried in Jerusalem in a magnificent mausoleum that she had built—today misleadingly known as the “Tomb of the Kings.”)

In one of his Satires, the first-century B.C.E. Roman poet Horace writes that, if the recipient of his poem does not forgive him his poetry, “We [poets], like the Jews, will compel you to become one of our throng.”(5) This line has often been interpreted as a reference to Jewish missionary activity, but that’s not necessarily what Horace means. He might just as easily be referring to Jewish political activity to gain supporters and protectors in Roman society—an activity alluded to by Cicero.(6)

Somewhat later, in the first century C.E., Valerius Maximus writes that the Jews had been expelled from Rome in 139 B.C.E. “because they attempted to transmit their sacred rites to the Romans” (or, in another version, “[because they] attempted to infect the Roman customs with the cult of Jupiter Sabazius”).(7) This passage does seem to refer to Jewish missionary activity of some kind, although we have no way of verifying the historicity of an account referring to the second century B.C.E. and written in the first century C.E.

In the early third century C.E., the historian Dio Cassius wrote that the Jews of Rome were expelled in 19 C.E. because “they were converting many of the natives to their ways.”(8) Several other authors mention this expulsion, but none of them gives Jewish missionary activity as its cause. However, whether or not Dio is correct as to the cause of the expulsion, he does refer to Jewish missionary activity.(9)

Just as significant as this literary evidence is the absence of evidence in other settings where we might expect it. There is absolutely no evidence whatever for missionary activity by the Jews in Egypt, Syria or Asia Minor. The only known Jewish missionaries in Syria and Asia Minor were Paul and his colleagues and competitors, but these Christian Jews cannot be said to represent either Judaism in general or diaspora Judaism in particular.

A more general argument that Judaism was a missionary religion is based on the large number of Jews in the first century C.E. There are at least two versions of this argument. I am not convinced by either of them.

The first version is that since there were many converts to Judaism in the first century B.C.E. and first century C.E., there must have been a Jewish mission. This reasoning fails for two reasons.(10)

For one thing, the existence of large numbers of converts to Judaism proves only that Jews and gentiles lived in an open society and that Jews and Judaism were prominent enough to be noticed and respected by outsiders. These conditions were no less true in the early Roman Empire than they are today in the United States. So a large number of converts does not necessarily presuppose missionary activity. The contrary argument presumably runs something like this: Since no people in their right mind would convert to Judaism on their own, a convert must have been persuaded by a missionary to do so. This argument has some logic, I admit, but not enough to justify the reinterpretation of ancient Judaism.

Also, the number of conversions to Judaism in these centuries is debatable. Various individuals converted to Judaism, but aside from the Maccabean conversions discussed above, there is no evidence for mass or group conversions. The number of “God-Fearers”(a) may well have been large, but this amorphous category includes gentiles of various sorts and we need not posit missionary activity to account for their existence.

The second version of the argument based on the large number of Jews at this time is somewhat more convincing, but not much. It is grounded simply in the percentage of Jews in the population. The most common figures are seven percent and ten percent. The first estimate was proposed by Adolf Harnack,(11) the latter by Salo Baron.(12) How could the Jews have increased their numbers to such an extent without missionary activity? Ancient population estimates are of course notoriously uncertain. In this case, the entire calculation turns on the Alexandrian philosopher Philo’s statement that the Jewish population of Egypt amounted to one million.(13) The context of that statement, however, shows that it may well have been a gross exaggeration;(14) and even if these figures are close to correct, they are not necessarily proof for the missionary character of diaspora Judaism. The single most important factor in the increase of Jewish population in antiquity must have been the conquests of the Maccabees, who by one means or another “judaized” most of Judea. These conquests, coupled with migration from Judea to the Roman diaspora and the normal flow of converts, may well suffice to account for the numerical prominence of Judaism in the first century C.E.(15)

A final argument often raised in an effort to show that Judaism was a missionary religion is based on Greco-Jewish literature generally. Many scholars even today persist in seeing all Jewish literature of antiquity written in Greek as both apology and propaganda. It was apologetic in the sense that it was designed to make Judaism look attractive according to the cultural standards of the time and to respond to the anti-Jewish views of Judaism that were in circulation. It was propaganda in the sense that it was ostensibly designed to bring gentiles closer to Judaism if not through outright conversion then at least through recognition of monotheism or the adoption of an ethical way of life. But this Greco-Jewish literature was oriented primarily to Jews and served the needs of the Jewish community. Even its apologetic function was intended to persuade not gentiles but Jews, to show them that loyalty to Judaism did not necessarily mean a denial of their surrounding culture. Greco-Jewish literature that focuses on ethics and monotheism had an educational function within Judaism, as the Jews of the diaspora struggled to erect and maintain the boundary that separated them from their neighbors. (Perhaps more to the point, even if Greek Jewish literature was missionary in character and designed for a pagan audience, it failed miserably. Pagans did not read Jewish literature.)

It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that Judaism in the first century B.C.E. and first century C.E., in both the land of Israel and the diaspora, was not a missionary religion. Even after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., which effectively brought the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.) to an end, and after the bloody suppression of the Alexandrian Jewish riots of 115–117 C.E., and after the equally unsuccessful Second Jewish Revolt against Rome in 132–135 C.E., and during the rise of Christianity, Judaism retained its attractiveness for many pagans and Christians. But for all of its continued vitality, Judaism did not engage in missionary activity. Nowhere do Christian missionaries or saints have to battle Jewish missionaries in order to capture the souls of the pagan world. The abundant anti-Jewish legislation of the fourth through sixth century C.E. does not refer even once to Jewish missionary activity.(16) The fourth-century church father John Chrysostom worries that members of his flock are “judaizing,” but nowhere does he accuse the Jews of deliberately tempting the Christians to stray. Whether Judaism even welcomed converts in the fourth to sixth century is a question, but it certainly was not a missionary religion.(17)

(1) Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13.9.1, 13.11.3.

(2) Strabo as cited by Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13.319.

(3) Salo Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia, 1952), p. 173.

(4) On this episode, see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.2.3–4.

(5) Horace, Satires 1.4.143.

(6) Cicero, Pro Flacco 28.66.

(7) Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 1.3.3.

(8) Dio Cassius 57.18.5a.

(9) In his discussion of the expulsion from Rome in 19 C.E., Dieter Georgi (The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians: A Study of Religious Propaganda in Late Antiquity [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986]) forgets to cite Dio, the only source that actually supports his thesis.

(10) The only references to large groups of converts (not mass conversions) are Josephus, Jewish War 2.20.2 and 7.3.3, but the first of these, at least, probably refers to “adherents.” See Shaye Cohen, “Respect for Judaism by Gentiles According to Josephus,” Harvard Theological Review 80 (1987), p. 417.

(11) Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, 2nd ed., trans. James D. Moffat (New York: Putnam’s, 1908), p. 8. Harnack’s argument is developed by Georgi, Opponents of Paul, pp. 83–84.

(12) Baron, Social and Religious History, vol. 1, pp. 170–171.

(13) Philo, Against Flaccus 6.43.

(14) P.M. Fraser calls Philo’s statement “very imprecise, but there is no better figure” (Ptolemaic Alexandria, vol. 2 [Oxford: Clarendon, 1972], p. 164, n. 315).

(15) Migration is the explanation for the growth of the diaspora according to Philo (Life of Moses 2.232.; Embassy to Gaius 36.281–283 [a letter to Agrippa]). According to Josephus (Jewish War 7.3.3), the Jewish community of Antioch grew through the influx of converts.

(16) For the legislation against the Jews, see Amnon Linder, The Jews in Roman Imperial Legislation (Detroit: Wayne State, 1987). The laws frequently prohibit the Jewish ownership and conversion of non-Jewish slaves, but otherwise say nothing about the seeking of proselytes. For prohibitions of Manichees (and others) from seeking converts, see Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio 15.3.4 (302 C.E.?) and Theodosian Code 16.5.11 (383 C.E.).

(17) The argument of this article is spelled out in greater detail in Shaye Cohen, “Was Judaism in Antiquity a Missionary Religion?” in Jewish Assimilation, Acculturation, and Accommodation, ed. Menahem Mor (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992), pp. 14–23. Readers interested in this question may wish to read Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994) and Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993). Readers will see that in the debate between Goodman and Feldman, I believe that Goodman is the winner.

(a) God-Fearers” are gentiles who befriend Jews, or who observe Jewish ways, or who support the Jewish community, to a degree unusual for a gentile. The name derives from Acts 16:14 and 18:7 and other texts. See Louis H. Feldman, “The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers,” BAR 12:05.

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