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Paul did not proselytise

Paul engaged vigorously in missionary efforts. But he didn’t proselytise. In my book, I argue that it is misleading to describe the apostle Paul’s mission in terms of “proselytism”.

I begin with an observation about the word itself:Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans

It must be noted from the outset that the modern term “proselytism” is itself misleading, because it does not really correspond with the second-temple Jewish term “proselyte.” In the scholarly literature, “proselytism” usually denotes an active effort to persuade non-Jews to become Jews. Yet when second-temple Jews use the term προσήλυτος, such active efforts are seldom in the foreground of the discussion. In the second-temple period, the term προσήλυτος tends to be reserved for direct citations or discussions of scriptural texts which describe foreigners residing in the land of Israel (Hebrew גֵּר). The Scriptures themselves are not concerned with whether or how to actively seek “proselytes,” but rather with how to treat any foreigners who happen to be in Israel. (p. 121)

However, even if we adopt the modern definition of “proselytism”–that is, “intentional activity on the part of Jews aimed at persuading non-Jews to become Jews” (p. 122)–it still does not adequately describe Paul’s ministry. I argue in detail against the thesis of Terence Donaldson that Paul viewed his Gentile converts as proselytes to a reconfigured Israel (Terence Donaldson, Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle’s Convictional World, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).

We may conclude, then, that Paul does not understand his mission to persuade Gentiles to believe in Christ as a form of Jewish “proselytism.” Although Paul speaks from a Jewish perspective, he does not regard Gentile Christ-believers as individuals who have now become “Jews.” Rather, he regards them as Gentiles who, through faith in Christ, have come to salvation alongside Jews. Indeed, if we were to view Paul’s mission in terms of Jewish “proselytism,” we would only obscure the Jew-Gentile dynamic which Paul is at pains to highlight in the outer frame of Romans. According to this dynamic, Jews and Gentiles share together in salvation, yet retain their distinct identities. (p. 125)

The full details of the argument and further references may be found in chapter 4 of the book (pp. 121-125). The chapter is available from the publisher in electronic format:

Windsor, Lionel J. Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans. BZNW 205. Berlin / Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

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