Early Christian Mission Early Christian Mission
Two Volumes

Eckhard J Schnabel
ISBN 1844749908 (9781844749904)
IVP, 2004

Category: Evangelism & Mission

'Weighty', 'Significant', 'Encyclopaedic', 'Comprehensive', 'Massive', 'Magisterial', 'Monumental', 'Materpiece'. One wonders how much editorial work had to go into ensuring that those who have commended Eckhard Schnabel's Early Christian Mission drew on a wide range of superlatives to describe the fruit of this colossal project.

In Early Christian Mission Schnabel uses both the wide-angle and zoom lenses of a New Testament scholar to address the early mission and growth of Christianity. He helpfully balances detailed engagement with the text of the New Testament (and, as appropriate, the inter-testamental literature) with a sensitivity to the grand sweep of God's dealings with his creation. Volume I [the primary concern of this review] is concerned with the mission of Jesus and the subsequent mission of the twelve following his ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Volume II, reflecting the balance of the New Testament documents, focuses its attention on the missionary work of Paul and the early church.

A number of key arguments headline Volume I. Schnabel argues that "from the beginning, Israel's faith included universalistic elements" (p.173). He sees no justification for interpreting Genesis 12:1-3 or Exodus 19:6 as calls to Israel to engage in a centripetal missionary activity. Whilst the means, from an early stage, were in place for the inclusion of proselytes into the community, Schnabel argues that the missionary ideas found throughout the Old Testament, and in particular in the prophetic literature, generated an expectation of Gentile conversions in the "last days", not the present time. Schnabel's argument continues as he considers Second Temple Judaism and the Jewish Diaspora. He contests that:

Open Quote[T]he conversion of Gentiles on a massive scale was expected for the eschaton, both in the Diaspora synagogues and in Palestine. We find positive statements about Gentiles as well as evidence for tolerant dealings with non-Jews, accepting them as God-fearers in the synagogues or as proselytes in the Jewish communities… However, this fundamentally positive stance is not synonymous with an active endeavour to convince Gentiles who worship other gods and who practice different customs that their religious convictions are wrong, Close Quotethat their behaviour is improper, that they must believe in the God of Israel and that they need to integrate into the Jewish community (p.170-171)

As such, for Schnabel the genesis of Christian missionary activity cannot be found in the practice of Judaism but must be located in the praxis of Jesus himself — in his three and a half years preaching and ministry in Galilee which would have seen him visiting 175 towns and villages at the end of which "it would have been difficult to find anyone [among the two hundred thousand people of Galilee] who had not heard about Jesus" (p.383) Schnabel makes it clear that Jesus did not initiate contact with non-Jews. His ministry was a centrifugal in character. However, in Jesus' ministry an openness to Gentiles is displayed which sees him responding readily to their approaches for healing and the Gospel writers recording his significant impact on the Gentile areas beyond the territory of Galilee. Moreover, in his action in the Temple, in his preaching of the Kingdom of God, and in his post-resurrection commission of his disciples to continue and expand his mission we find the "germinal roots" (p.384) of early Christian centripetal mission to Gentiles.

Schnabel gives a detailed account of the development of this centripetal mission as he considers the mission of the Apostles in Jerusalem and then, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Amidst the sometimes overwhelming detail a clear thread is present which presents the apostles not as "conservative men who were neither willing nor able to take missionary initiatives", but rather of men who were:

Close Quote…evidently well aware of their responsibility to carry out Jesus' missionary commission, including the directive to take the gospel to the nations. The early tradition that the Twelve left Jerusalem twelve years after Easter, each one embarking on an international missionary work, could well be historical. The lack of useful models, the diversity of religious thought patterns, the social, cultural and psychological barriers, and the organizational and Close Quotepersonal challenges did not keep the apostles from proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and among the nations. (p.554)

For such a vast work, Early Christian Mission is remarkably readable. Schnabel is a writer as well as an academic. Early Christian Mission is also beautifully presented. Both volumes are in constant danger of overwhelming all but the most determined of readers with their devastating detail (for example, Schnabel presents seven pages of text offering information about the Egyptian cities which would have served as "natural targets" for missionary work outside of Alexandria, though no evidence exists to confirm that such missionary work did definitely occur!). And yet the liberal use of reduced-sized font for the recounting of many scholarly arguments and much supporting data saves the day and enables the reader to voyage deftly through this material, choosing on a case-by-case basis whether to address the supporting discussion or to press on with the argument being presented.

Scot McKnight notes that the only major studies of this area came by way of Adolf Von Harnack's The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries and Michael Green's Evangelism in the Early Church. I hope that the price and comprehensiveness of Schnabel's work will not place it out of the reach of many who have benefited from Green's volume but who would never get near to Von Harnack's work. This is a work which will be of obvious value to New Testament scholars and academic missiologists. However, it would be a great shame, however, if its readership was limited to those reflecting and teaching the New Testament as self-conscious academics. Here is a work which has the potential to be of great value to those leading local communities of Christians in mission. Church leaders and leaders of Christian missions organisations will find in Schnabel's Early Christian Mission a resource for preaching, teaching and leadership reflection.

Andy Partington, January 2006

Andy Partington is a former tutor at London School of Theology where he taught Evangelism and Public Speaking and served as Director of Training. In 2006 he left LST to take up a pastorate at Trinity Union Church, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.


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