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Paul and the Mission of the Church: Philippians in Ancient Jewish Context

01.13.14 | Denver Journal, Mission, Scott Klingsmith | by James P. Ware

Paul and the Mission of the Church: Philippians in Ancient Jewish Context

    A Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Scott Klingsmith

    Ware, James P.  Paul and the Mission of the Church: Philippians in Ancient Jewish Context.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011, 400 pgs. $60.00  ISBN: 978-0-8010-3968-3.

    Missiologists and New Testament scholars with an interest in mission have long puzzled over why the New Testament letters contain little or no exhortation to engage in mission and evangelism.  The Great Commissions in the Gospels and the beginning of Acts clearly command Jesus’ followers to witness to his life and ministry, but the letters of Paul and the other NT writers are strangely silent as to an active involvement of Christians in mission.  This has led, until fairly recently, to a relative or complete lack of mention of mission in much of New Testament studies. More recent scholarship has recognized the extent to which Paul’s involvement in and understanding of his mission has shaped his entire theology. 

    James P. Ware, professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Evansville, wants to take the discussion a step further and to look, not just at Paul’s understanding of his mission, but at Paul’s view of the church’s mission.  Because of the lack of specific commands to evangelize, scholars have come to a variety of conclusions about the church’s role.  Some contend that mission was not the church’s responsibility.  Only those specially commissioned to mission were called to engage.  Others claim the churches were to help Paul and apostles in their mission through prayer and financial gifts, and that they were to live in ways that would attract non-Christians to Jesus (through their worship and lifestyle), but have no specific responsibility to be active in witness.  Ware here undertakes a new study of “Paul’s understanding of the role of his churches in the spread of the gospel” (8). He contrasts these views by showing, specifically through a detailed exegesis of the first part of Philippians, that Paul clearly understood the church to have an active role in participation in mission.

    In order to understand where Paul’s view of the church’s mission came from, Ware looks at various theories that have been proposed.  He first argues against the view that consciousness of mission in the early Church stemmed from Hellenistic religions, particularly that of the Cynics, the Stoics, and to a lesser extent the Epicureans. He shows that these philosophies did not exhibit a sense of personal, divine mission.  Therefore, Paul’s view must have come from a different source.  His conclusion is that it came from second temple Jewish (postexilic) views of the relationship between God’s people and the gentiles.  The servant songs of Isaiah were particularly influential for Paul.

    “This study will show how Paul’s paraenesis [exhortation], in this supposedly least Jewish of his letters, is shaped by Jewish understandings of conversion, especially from the book of Isaiah, and that understanding the way in which Paul utilizes these traditions will illumine both Paul’s own consciousness of mission, and the crucial pace of the mission of the church in his theology” (19).

    Ware’s purpose is to understand Paul’s view of the church’s role in mission. He begins by tracing Jewish understandings of mission, in order to see to what extent Paul was influenced by his Jewish heritage. In Part 1 “Conversion of Gentiles in Ancient Judaism” he examines biblical and second temple Jewish views in three chapters. Ch. 1, “The Problem of Jewish Mission,” raises the questions of whether there was such a thing as Jewish mission.  In ch. 2, “Conversion of Gentiles in Isaiah and Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible,” he studies biblical materials, focusing on Isaiah 40-55; and in ch. 3, “Conversion of Gentiles and Interpretation of Isaiah in Second Temple Judaism,” he examines eight major extrabiblical Jewish sources.  His conclusion is that there was in biblical and second Temple Judaism an intense interest in the conversion of Gentiles, but no Jewish mission to Gentiles: 

    Interest in gentiles and their conversion is widely evident in the Hebrew Scriptures, above all the book of Isaiah.  However, this did not involve the concept of a mission of Israel to the gentiles, but rather an intense expectation of an eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to Zion, linked with an interest in present day conversions as an anticipation of this future ingathering of the gentiles (157).

    In light of the Jewish concern for gentile conversion but lack of missionary activity, Ware then in Part 2 (“Mission in Philippians”) examines Paul’s understanding of mission in the book of Philippians.  Philippians is often overlooked in the study of mission, and is considered the least Jewish of all Paul’s letters.  Ware contends that Philippians is in fact deeply shaped by Paul’s Jewish background, and that in it Paul gives very clear instruction that the church should be involved in mission. This is in sharp contrast to the more or less passive approach to mission on the part of the Jews. The subtitle of the book, and the title of Part 2, are both a bit overstated, since Ware looks only at Philippians 1:12-2:18.  In three chapters he examines aspects of Paul’s understanding of mission.  Chapter 4 covers 1:12-18a (The Progress of the Gospel in Philippians; ch. 5 exegetes 1:18b-2:11 (Suffering and Mission in Philippians); and ch. 6 deals with 2:12-18 (The Mission of the Church in Philippians). He concludes that:

    Paul’s letter to the Philippians, although it has been almost entirely ignored in regard to this question in the past, is a document of foundational importance for understanding Paul’s conception of the role of his churches in mission, and the relation of this conception to Jewish understanding of gentiles and their conversion in the second temple period (171).

    By way of evaluation, on the positive side, Ware’s discovery of the importance of mission in Philippians is helpful.  In contrast to those who claim Paul’s letters are silent regarding a call to mission, he exposes a deeper degree of justification for mission activity than is often recognized.  To the view that early Christians engaged in mission as a simple living out of the gospel he adds that Paul and early church leaders also gave encouragement and exhortation to do so. In addition, Ware has done some very detailed exegetical work on Philippians, and has found support for the view that mission for Paul was crucial to the self-identity of his churches. Finally, there are regular, helpful summaries.  One can get a good view of his conclusions (without all the supporting arguments) simply by reading the preface, the introduction, and the conclusions of the chapters and the two parts.  For the non-specialist, this would be sufficient. 

    As a matter of critique, in some ways it seems Ware has really written two books. Each of the two parts could almost stand alone.  The Jewish background, while interesting, could have been summarized quite easily in one background chapter.  In addition, the book is full of technical language (I assume it was originally his Ph.D. dissertation).  One needs a competent grasp of Greek to really appreciate his exegesis and to follow his argumentation well.  Hebrew texts are transliterated, but lengthy Greek passages from Philippians are without translation or transliteration.  Given his intended audience, this may not be a negative, but it will definitely limit his readership. Finally, while his exegesis is solid and his discovery of the Jewish background to Philippians is intriguing, particularly his references to the Servant Songs of Isaiah, I found his connections were often not clearly supported in a natural reading of the texts he cites.  His final conclusion comes down to a contested reading of a Greek word (epecho) in Ph. 2:16, where modern versions are divided as to whether it should be translated “hold fast” to the word of God, or “hold forth” the word of God.  He claims his is the first extensive study of this word and his interpretation (“hold forth”) is the only possible one.

    This is a very fine and detailed study, but it’s a book for New Testament scholars, not lay people. Both the cost and the detailed exegesis probably make it prohibitive for individual purchase.  It would be a useful resource for theological libraries. 

    Scott Klingsmith, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies
    Denver Seminary
    January 2014