BMCR 1995.01.03

1995.01.03, Goodman, Mission and Conversion

, Mission and conversion : proselytizing in the religious history of the Roman Empire. Wilde lectures in natural and comparative religion ; 1922. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. xiv, 194 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780198149415 $39.95.

Martin Goodman proposes a number of novel and interesting views of Judaism, Christianity and polytheism in this lucid and intelligent book. Although his principal contention will remain controversial, the book as a whole rates as one of the best works on religion in the Roman empire to be published in recent years. Goodman’s main contention is that active proselytism was not a feature of Judaism before the second/third centuries AD, and that the roots of Christian proselytism lie in the peculiar nature of the Christian community immediately after the crucifixion.

Goodman’s view is argued with admirable clarity and intelligence through eight chapters. The first concerns the general nature of missionary activity (or lack of it) in classical polytheism. Goodman suggests that active proselytism, the determined effort to convince people to participate in one’s own form of worship, is a very rare religious phenomenon. Three more typical forms of missionary activity are the informative, letting people know what a marvelous thing a particular divinity has done; the educational, making sure that people have the correct information about a particular divinity; and the apologetic, the request of others that they acknowledge the importance of one’s own divinity. In the second chapter Goodman discusses the diffusion of cults and philosophies throughout the Mediterranean in such a way as to suggest that in neither case can it be shown that people were actively interested in acquiring converts from amongst the unenlightened, and that “no pagan seriously dreamed of bringing all humankind to give worship in one body to one deity” (p. 32).

In the chapters three and four Goodman turns to the Jews. He argues that no non-Christian Jew is known to have believed that gentile renunciation of polytheism “would hasten the arrival of future bliss” (p. 55). Thus it was unlikely that many Jews objected to the practice of polytheism outside of the Holy Land, and that there was no inherent pressure from within the faith to convert them. Goodman builds upon this conclusion in an effort to demonstrate that the texts that are generally taken to reflect active proselytism by Jews in the period before the destruction of the temple cannot bear the weight that is placed on them.

In the following chapters Goodman traces what he sees to be the Christian attachment to “a proselytizing mission that was a shocking novelty in the ancient world” (p. 105); and then suggests (chapter six) that it was precisely in the second century AD that a new attitude towards gentiles becomes evident in Judaism. Broadening the argument to be found in his important article on Jews and the fiscus Judaicus ( JRS 79 (1989), 40-44) and elsewhere, Goodman suggests that a new Jewish identity emerged after 96 AD that was the result of the Roman interest in defining who was a practicing Jew for tax purposes. Since the Roman state had decided to define Jews in terms of religious behavior, many Jews adopted this definition for themselves. The notion that Jews should therefore be hostile to other forms of religious behavior was adopted by Jews themselves, and it manifested itself in the revolt of 115-117. Motivated in part by this new feeling towards polytheism, and in part by rivalry with Christianity, Jews subsequently became more interested in attracting converts (p. 152, and the theme of chapter seven in general). This manifests itself, among other things, “in the common Rabbinic depiction of Abraham as a missionary” (p. 144). In the final chapter Goodman explores the implications of his thesis for our understanding of the rise of Christianity.

In his discussion of missionary behaviors Goodman seems to be defining the issue in terms of Judaism and Christianity, where participation in the cult involved renunciation of others, and contrasting this simply with civic cult. His point is that, since the decision to worship a new divinity within the framework of classical polytheism did not mean that one stopped worshipping the divinities whom one had formerly worshipped, proselytism of the Judaeo-Christian sort could not exist. Certainly the celebrants of the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis did not feel impelled to run around the Aegean trying to attract new initiates, but they were evidently quite pleased when new people sought initiation; the search for new worshippers does not seem to be a feature of normal civic cult, but the point of these cults was to commemorate an existing relationship between a divinity and a community. The question however remains: is the distinction between “crossing over” and leaving something behind as opposed to “adding on” really a valid one? Should we not be talking about the provision of information with the aim of behavior modification as opposed to the provision of information for its own sake? For Goodman the answer is clearly no. But is there not more to be said on the other side than he allows?

Religious institutions that were “active” in the sense that they offered new information about the divine or invited people to add a new form of worship to those in which they already indulged were features of traditional polytheism. It is plain that the priests of the god Apollo who recorded and publicized his oracles were not seeking to acquire converts who would be devotees only of Delphic Apollo. But were they truly disinterested in acquiring new clients for their oracle? Two incidents at either end of the third century BC, the epangelia of the Soteria at Delphi and the epangelia of the games in honor of Artemis Leucophryene at Magnesia on the Meander, may suggest that the desire for recognition of a divine manifestation involved seeking people who would come long distances to participate in something that they might otherwise ignore. In the second century AD, the rise of the cult of Glycon at Abonuteichos involved the dispatch of informants around the Mediterranean to acquire new clients for the oracle. These are not cases where efforts to inform were simply aimed at the education of other people: they were efforts at information that invited behavior modification. Behavior modification in this sense involves addition rather than transformation. In this sense the technical meaning of proselyte, a person who crosses over from one faith to another, is inappropriate, but so too is restriction of missionary activity that involves change of habit to acts that must involve abandoning prior convictions.

Goodman’s further argument is that information, education and apologetic were the essence of Jewish communication with outsiders before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, and that informing with the aim of acquiring converts to Judaism only became common when Christianity was perceived as a major success and rival. There are two problems with Goodman’s view. The first is the need to explain away evidence prior to 70 AD that points to proselytism with the aim to convert, and the second is the implicit assumption that Christianity was a major religion in the Roman empire prior to Constantine. The latter view is founded upon the work of Harnack at the beginning of this century, and, to my mind at least, is highly questionable. Fundamental to this position is the view that people were increasingly finding their traditional cults unsatisfactory, and were turning toward forms of worship that offered greater personal satisfaction. Half a century of work by Louis Robert seems to me to suggest that this view lacks any solid foundation, and that the conversion of Constantine was the crucial event for altering the religious balance in the Mediterranean world. The martyrdoms of Polycarp and Pionius may be adduced as evidence for particular rivalry between the Church and the Synagogue, but they both occurred in Smyrna, and there is little evidence anywhere else of Jewish participation in Christian persecution. There is also some evidence to suggest that trouble between the two faiths could be provoked by Christians seeking martyrdom rather than by Jews attempting to suppress rivals.

The specific argument that proselytism was not a feature of Judaism before 70 AD is based upon two propositions. These are that Judaism was significantly reformed after the destruction of the temple, and that four passages usually taken to prove the existence of active proselytism in pre-Flavian Judaism do not do so. One is a passage of Cassius Dio in which the historian appears to say that the reason that Jews were expelled from Rome was that they were converting Romans (Dio 57. 18.5). The second is Horace Sat. 1.4.142-3: veluti te Iudaei cogemus in hanc concedere turbam, the third is Philo, De vita Mosis 2.25-36, a description of the reasons for the translation of Jewish scripture; the fourth is Matt. 23.15: οὐαὶ δὲ ὑμῖν. γραμματεῖς καὶ φαρισαῖοι, ὑποκριταί, ὅτι περιάγετε τῆν θάλασσαν καὶ τὴν ξηρὰν ποιῆσαι ἕνα προσήλυτον, καὶ ὅταν γένηται, ποιεῖτε αὐτὸν υἱὸν γεέννης διπλότερον ὑμῶν. Goodman’s arguments are, in turn, that Dio is unreliable (his account differs from Josephus’ more detailed version in AJ 18.81.1-3); that Jewish apologetic literature was addressed to Jews and thus that Philo’s words don’t reflect a general attitude towards outsiders; and that the real meaning of Matthew is a criticism of Pharisees who are trying to convert other Jews to their way at the time that the Gospel was written in the late first century. He further suggests that προσήλυτος does not only mean “convert to Judaism” in pre-second century AD Jewish literature (p. 69-74). It is also, as Goodman observes, a word used in the Septuagint to translate terms for resident aliens. This is entirely beside the point here: the Scribes and Pharisees are not crossing land and sea to make a resident alien. So too, in his discussion of the Horace passage (p.74), Goodman suggests that the reference may be to the forced conversion of Idumaeans or to the general tendency of the “Jewish crowd” to force people to misbehave. The whole passage reads: hoc est mediocribus illis | ex vitiis unum: cui si concedere nolis, | multa poetarum veniat manus, auxilio quae sit mihi (nam multo plures sumus), ac veluti te | Iudaei cogemus in hanc concedere turbam. In the context of this poem, the reference is surely to something familiar to the Roman experience: we will force you (despite your complaints about poets) to become a poet, just as the Jews force people to become Jews. It seems to me that Goodman’s effort to remove the conversion of outsiders from Judaism before 70 AD is therefore unsuccessful, though his further caveat that Judaism should not be seen as a monolithic faith with a single doctrine is truly important. Opinion was divided on this matter, just as it was in the earliest church.

In addition to the passages cited above, Goodman suggests that the view of Abraham as a convert rather than a proselyte was typical of the Hellenistic world, and that the view of Abraham as the archtypical proselyte was characteristic of the new world of the Talmud (p. 89; 144-48). The Hellenistic evidence, as Erich Gruen has shown, is rather more ambivalent on this point than Goodman admits: both Abraham and Moses appear in traditions connecting the Jews with Greeks and others at very early periods in their history ( TAPA 123 (1993), 10-12). This may not be quite the same thing as the active proselytism, but the evolution of this kind of interpretatio Judaica suggests an interest in convincing outsiders of the superiority of the Jewish tradition. On a more problematic level, Goodman cites an unpublished oracular text from Oxyrhyncus as evidence for hostility to impious Jews who are interested in destroying pagan temples as being from the period around 115 AD (p. 127). This has been the prevailing view in modern scholarship, as it appears that the papyrus was copied in the second century AD. But copying and composition are not the same thing. A re-examination of the contents of the oracle by Gideon Bohak shows that it was written in the Ptolemaic period ( Journal for the Study of Judaism [forthcoming, 1996]). Thus two features of Judaism that Goodman suggests are developments of the period after 70 appear to be options within Judaism before the birth of Christ.

In the final chapter of his book, Goodman deals with the implication of his earlier argument: if proselytism to gain active converts was extremely rare, and not a feature of Judaism, whence came the Christian urge to acquire converts? It is well known that this was not an inevitable development, and that Paul appears to have been the crucial figure in setting this path for the church. But where did he get the idea? Goodman suggests that:

eschatological fervour, the peculiar personality of Paul, and the gradual disappointment of early Christians waiting in vain for the Parousia, all contributed to the enthusiasm of those believers to do something; in such conditions lack of action might too easily lead to depression and loss of faith. But some extra factor was needed to ensure that the direction taken by these enthusiasts was the mission to the gentiles (pp.167-168).

This extra factor was a Christian reaction to “hostility inside their own ranks to the indiscriminate acceptance of gentiles by declaring that this was not only permitted, but positively desirable.” The Christians reached this decision because it was characteristic of Jews to argue about God’s will in a way that polytheists did not, and that, “it was a further characteristic of some elements of Judaism at least that fierce polemic might sometimes result in one side positively urging an action which they logically only wished to insist was permitted” (p. 170-71). This is very persuasive, and, to my mind, all the more so, if it is allowed that the active search for gentile converts was already established as a point of discussion within the framework of Judaism.

Despite obvious disagreement on several important points, I should stress that this book is an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of important issues in the religious history of the Roman world.