Martin Goodman, professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, has argued that the proselytizing mission we observe in early Christianity, and in Paul in particular, was “a shocking novelty in the ancient world.” In his important book Mission and Conversion he strongly denied that Jews before AD 100 had any interest in seeking converts. A similar conclusion has been reached by Christian scholars Scot McKnight and Eckhard Schnabel; Schnabel concludes, “There was no missionary activity by Jews in the centuries before and in the first centuries after Jesus’ and his followers ministry.”
“Chapter 24: Mission-Commitment in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament” (pg 255)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
Dickson’s chapter is meant to redefine our understanding of Jewish efforts to convert Gentiles to Judaism during and prior to Jesus, and citing author and researcher Michael L. Bird, Dickson states that some Jews did engage in some proselytizing of non-Jews,” but that’s not what captured me about the chapter. I found myself reading Dickson’s points for Jewish efforts to convert Gentiles to Judaism as something else.
It is also found in numerous postbiblical Jewish texts, including the pre-Maccabean Tobit, in which we read, “A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth; many nations will come to you from far away, the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name, bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven” (Tob 13:11).
-Dickson, pp 256-7
Of course, we don’t have to stray outside the pages of the Bible to find a similar portrait of the Messianic future.
…and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
There are numerous other prophesies that echo such a sentiment, but relative to Dickson’s chapter, do they presuppose Gentile conversion to Judaism? That is likely how some ancient (or even some modern) Jews read these texts, although in much of today’s Jewish world, the role of the Noahide would fulfill these words of scripture.
According to the unknown author of this text (T. Levi 14:1-4), Jewish disobedience threatens one of other purposes of the Law: to bring light to “every man,” which in context must include Gentiles.
-ibid pg 257
It has long been known that the Gentile nations would come to God through Israel and the Jewish people, even in the days of Solomon if not before.
…hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.
–1 Kings 8:43
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!
But something was missing that would make all the difference in the world…some light.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
It’s easy to imagine that Israel, as the light to the nations, traditionally saw Gentile conversion to Judaism as the way to bring Gentiles to knowledge of the God of the Jews, and the influx of Gentile God-fearers during and after the time of Jesus on earth, to some degree, must have seemed to confirm this. How else could such a thing be accomplished? But as I said, something was missing. The light of the world had not yet arrived. As the “first son of Israel,” Jesus was uniquely the embodiment of the nation and the people and his purpose was not only to save the lost sheep of Israel, but to pass on his light to his Jewish disciples so that they could “Let their light shine upon others,” the Gentiles, bringing them to God through Messiah.
In reading Dickson, I quite forgot about the matter of conversion of Gentiles to Judaism and was caught up in the vision of streams and streams of Gentiles flowing to Israel, seeking out the Jewish people and their King, seeking Messiah, seeking God. No one was worried about converting to Judaism and perhaps the Torah never even occurred to them as a formal set of mitzvot, since for most Gentiles, it would be a barrier standing between them and worshiping at the House of God.
As a good friend of mine has wisely taught me, “do not seek Christianity and do not seek Judaism, seek an encounter with God.”
At the founding of the temple King Solomon beseeches the Lord: “that all peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel (1 Kgs 8:43). The words “as do your own people Israel” suggest that the “knowing” and “fearing” of these foreigners refers not to enforced submission but to covenant relationship.
-ibid, pp 258-9
I have to disagree with Dickson on one point. Without faith in Jesus, we Gentiles could not be saved and come close to Israel and be grafted in to the Kingdom of Heaven. We could not be considered the (adopted) sons and daughters of the Most High God. Everything hinges on an active, caring, faithful, obedient Messiah. Converting to Judaism in order to become Israel and be justified as members of the covenants God made with Israel undoes the faith of Abraham and our faith in his seed (singular) Messiah. The words of Solomon for me summon the vision of the people from the nations to come to know and fear God “as do your own people Israel.” We do not have to convert and in order to be blessed by Messiah and Israel as people from the nations called by God’s Name.
This is who we are. Not Israel, but knowing and fearing God as does Israel, coming to them, being blessed by them, taking the fringes of their garments (Zechariah 8:23), seeking God and His ways, and desiring to follow Messiah in his paths.
This isn’t a picture of mass conversions of Gentiles to Judaism or some form of “Jewish-like” life that closely mirrors Israel as if conversion happened in all but name (and a snip of flesh). As the people of the nations we aren’t waiting to be converted to Judaism, we’re waiting for the light of the world, Messiah, so that we can bow our knees to him, so we can acknowledge the King of Israel also as the King of the nations.
“Before God we are all equally wise and equally foolish.”
Israel waits for her Messiah and we among the nations who are called by God’s Holy Name await the lamp of His Salvation.
For the conductor with the neginos, a psalm, a song. May God favor us and bless us, may He illuminate His countenance with us, Selah. To make known Your way on earth, among all the nations Your Salvation. The peoples will acknowledge You, O God; the peoples will acknowledge You — all of them. Regimes will be glad and sing for joy, because You will judge the peoples fairly and guide with fairness the regimes on earth, Selah. The peoples will acknowledge You, O God; the peoples will acknowledge You — all of them. The earth will then have yielded its produce; may God, our God bless us. May God bless us, and may all the ends of the earth fear Him.
–Psalm 67 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
To get along with other people, it is essential to be able to see things from their point of view — even if you disagree with them.
Realize that no two people view things exactly the same way. For example, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said that taking away a broken box from a child is equivalent to sinking the boat of an adult.
Being aware of how someone else perceives a matter will decrease the chances of a quarrel — even though you might disagree.