Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities: The Shape, Extent and Background of Early Christian Mission

By McKnight, Scot | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities: The Shape, Extent and Background of Early Christian Mission


McKnight, Scot, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities: The Shape, Extent and Background of Early Christian Mission. By John P. Dickson. WUNT 2/159. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003. xiii + 413 pp., euro 64.00 paper.

Comprehending the early church as a missionary movement is once again coming to the fore of academic discussion, as witnessed especially in Eckhard Schnabel's exhaustive and exceptional Urchristliche Mission (Wuppertal: Brockhaus, 2002; now available in ET: Early Christian Mission [IVP, 2004]). Because some have made more extravagant claims than the NT actually supports, John P. Dickson, an Anglican minister in Sydney, suggests a theory about how "evangelism" actually worked in the Pauline churches, and on top of that, he offers valuable insights on the meaning of specific terms in his Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities.

Dickson follows the Louis Feldman line (Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993]) in arguing that Judaism did have an active mission. Paul's mission, in fact, was rooted in how missionary activity was done by Jews among the Gentiles. This argument re-activates an older scholarship that, through the research of scholars like Martin Goodman (Mission and Conversion [Oxford: Clarendon, 1994]) and myself (A Light Among the Gentiles [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992]), was thought to be overturned.

The gravity of Dickson's study, however, is on Paul, and he makes the following claims about the missionary efforts of the earliest Pauline Christians: (1) Because the "gospel" is the eschatological declaration of salvation in Christ, the term is more appropriate for describing Paul's own God-given task; (2) Paul had some "co-workers" or "partners" who labored with him in the mission of bringing the gospel to others; (3) it is historically inaccurate and biblical unjustified to think that there is anything such as a general mandate for Christians to be "evangelists" or "proclaimers of the gospel"; (4) there were appointed in each community those who had the gift of "evangelism" and whose task it was to evangelize; but (5) all Christians were to "support" missionary work and evangelism through financial assistance and through prayer; and (6) when the occasion arose these early Christians, whose lives were an ethical apologetic, were to witness to the saving presence of God in Christ.

In general, Dickson's book is bibliographically aware, though there are some unfortunate omissions, including Gottfried Schille's Urchristliche Kollegialmission (Zurich: Zwingli, 1967), which in some ways argues a similar case. It is too bad he has not made use of recent sociological studies, especially the consensus-shaping study of L. R. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). Some of the points he makes would have been sharpened by these sociological studies, most notably by relating his understandings of various sorts of missionary activities to "kind" of conversion. In my judgment, the most noticeable omission is any serious engagement with Michael Green's Evangelism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970). It boggles the mind that he can dismiss this work in a footnote as a book from "popular church culture" (p. 4). I have to wonder if Dickson has seen Green's study, for it is a front-ranking (and until Schnabel's work was the front-ranking) study of missionary activity in the earliest churches.

The book is clear, and he is one of those dissertation writers who provides sufficient summaries that a professor can skim the book's conclusions and then probe here and there to follow up points of interest. My agreements are many: it is likely that the argument that all Christians were expected to take up the task of evangelism is not with as much foundation as many would like; the definition of "gospel" is important and Dickson along with N. T. Wright is arguing that this term carries more freight and specificity than biblical scholarship often lets on; the role of "co-workers" and local churches in the task of evangelism and mission is complex and perhaps more organized than general swipes through the evidence permit; the role that supporting activities play in mission is important to recognize and, in fact, enables a church to grasp its larger mission more completely. …

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