Conversion and Baptism

A cross cultural perspective in the light of the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism

William Loader
Professor on New Testament
Murdoch University

In November and early December 1999 I was privileged to spend 5 weeks in India at the invitation of Revd Dr Somen Das, former Principal of Bishop's College, Calcutta. He asked me to prepare myself to offer a seminar paper on Baptism and Conversion from the perspective of a New Testament scholar. The present paper is the fruit of my response. I set out for India with a deliberately incomplete paper, in fact, only some notes, because I was aware that much that would inform my paper would come not just from reading but also from listening to and experiencing the situation in India.1 The paper has gone through a number of stages, from its presentation first in Calcutta, then to Chennai at Gurukul College, and finally to United Theological College, Bangalore. Only now is it finding written form.

'Conversion and baptism' would evoke in Australia issues of whether adults who had once been baptised as infants and been converted later in life should be baptised again, to which there is a clear theological answer and a practical pastoral response. This is not the issue in India where conversion is seen by some as a threat to local culture,2 or to Indianness,3 a strategy based on intolerance and ignorance of other religions,4 or a manipulative device designed to enhance the numbers of a religion foreign to India.5 Should Christianity resolve to refrain from conversion in the light of these concerns,6 rather than seek to plant the cross more firmly in Asia, as Pope John Paul declared in his visit to Delhi (in the first week of my stay)?

I want to take a step back and consider the matter of conversion in a broader cultural context. What is going on in conversion? Who is converting whom? What are the alternatives to conversion? Does conversion always entail conversion from another religion or way of life? I want therefore to consider conversion within the framework of cultural influence. This is appropriate especially because issues of cultural integrity frequently become part of the discussion and rightly belong.

I want also to ask the question: to what are people to be converted, where conversion is affirmed? This inevitably raises questions about alternative goals. It also draws our attention to matters which might impede conversion because they alienate those to whom the challenge to convert is addressed because of their cultural particularity or might make conversion into something destructive, especially because of their exclusivity.

In this paper I shall argue that Christianity needs to be seen as a creative compromise which evolved within the context of the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism, as Judaism faced the alternatives of being converted by or converting the Hellenistic world or withdrawing from the issue by some form of denial.7 I shall argue that Christianity exhibited a response, primarily from within Judaism, in which universals were given emphasis and particulars played down, but in which new forms of particularism evolved which enhanced exclusivism and gave conversion distinctive features.

Judaism and Hellenism

When the great billy goat, Alexander the Great, leapt across the earth, without touching the ground, as Daniel 9:5 puts it, reaching as far as the Indus valley, a new stage in Greek influence in western Asia began. The Hellenistic regimes which emerges in Egypt and Syria would, in turn, impact strongly on Jewish communities in Palestine.8 It would not be the first time that Israel's faith stood under foreign influence. This had happened during the Babylonian exile and before. It was also a feature of Israel's wisdom tradition that it reflected international learning. Jewish communities scattered beyond Palestine lived constantly in cross cultural contexts.

Greek communities had also made their own responses to such exposure. New philosophies such as Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans, as well as popularised Platonism, helped people come to terms with being part of a world in which local cultures were seen as diverse manifestations which needed a universal explanation. Sometimes the local was abandoned; sometimes it was upheld as the local variant of the universal order,9 much as in some streams of Hinduism. Such unifying thoughts were well suited to a Judaism which however promoted strict monotheism and a universal law which it designated as God's Torah and wisdom. Already in Sirach, but more strongly in Wisdom and in Philo, we see the fruit of such encounter.10 Right order in community and household begins to look similar in learned literatures of the time and leaves a legacy reflected later in Christianity (Col 3:18 - 4:1; Eph 5:21 - 6:9).

Many in Judaism embraced Hellenism positively. For some it had to be achieved by a kind of sponsorship in which Moses was shown to be the inspiration of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato (so: Aristobulus in Eusebius PE 13.12.1; 13.13.4; also Artapanus in Eusebius PE 9.27.3), and Abraham, such sciences as astrology (so: Artapanus in Eusebius PE 9.18.1). Others worked hard to explain to their own constituents living in a critical world that biblical prescriptions about clean and unclean animals or about rites and rituals were to be upheld because they contained deeper symbolic meaning which kept them safe from perverse thoughts and influence (so Aristeas 139-171; see also Aristobulus in Eusebius 13.12.9-160). Rarely we do we read of abandonment of biblical law and conversion to Hellenism. Philo berates a group who were prepared to abandon such prescriptions and uphold only their symbolic meaning (On Abraham 90-95).

The early second century BCE saw the Hellenistic crisis when Antiochus sought to forcibly convert people away from Judaism. It was only thinkable because some had done so of their own accord and because he was motivated by factors which had little to do with religion, not least political economy.11 Issues of conversion are frequently enmeshed in such issues. It was not difficult to demonise Antiochus. It is all the more striking that the successors of Onias IV in Egypt were prepared almost to divinise Ptolemy Philometer and do so using the Hellenistic form of oracles of the Sibyl (Sib Or III 601-623, 652-656).

Antiochus's behaviour gave strength to a movement within Palestine which was largely resistant to the new cultural influences. Its learned, disenfranchised scholars had already produced writings, pseudepigraphically attributed to Enoch and Moses. Some who eventually stored their library on the shores of the Dead Sea treasured such works and added their own which reflect a tight knit community or a series of disciplined groups within Palestine, best identified as the Essenes. More liberal groups, who come to be identified as the Pharisees, are also part of the resistance, though more prepared to compromise. Some of both were however more militant. All appear to have in common strong belief in the corruption of the present age and the resolution to be brought by divine intervention which would reverse this. They engaged Hellenism and its influences negatively.

Among some the future vision was exclusive, with foreign (and sometimes domestic) enemies to be slain by the sword or delivered to some other calamity (Zech 14; 1 QM; 1QpHab). Among others we find a more generous vision in which foreigners would also rejoice with Israel in the presence of the one God (Sib Or III 702-731; Ps Sol 17:30-34). Life in the interim meant strict adherence to God's law, as interpreted by the scribes of the movement and also, often, its sages, who merged the riches of the wisdom tradition with the movement's perspective.12

What about conversion? I have mentioned attempts to convert people from Judaism. Our evidence for attempts to convert people to Judaism is slim.13 We read of individuals converting, sometimes under persuasion, but the only reference to any systematic attempt to convert others comes in Matthew 23:15 which speaks of Pharisees pursuing people over sea and land to make them proselytes. On the other hand, any claim to truth, when combined with caring, inevitably leads to sharing of that truth with others and we can be sure that these elements operated within Judaism. Some found Jewish claims to truth attractive. Others were more aware of the exclusivity of their claims and found both the claims and the behaviours offensive.

Antisemitism arose long before Christianity and is reflected already in writers such as Manetho in the early 3rd century BCE. Jews observed the sabbath, did not eat what others normally ate, kept to themselves. All such behaviour and the social markers with which Jews defined themselves would have evoked the common response to minorities that they are suspect and likely to be seen as subversive of society. This meant that conversion to Judaism would carry a stigma, especially where Jews were such a minority. The dynamics are recognisable today. It is interesting that even where Jews appear to embrace Hellenism very openly, as in Alexandria, their lifestyle created major problems for them and for others.

John the Baptist and Jesus

Where do John and Jesus fit within the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism? They belong clearly on the side of Judaism and clearly among those who embraced Hellenism negatively, at least in the sense that they are part of the movement that saw the present age as corrupt and in need of divine intervention to which they looked forward as a source of hope. Of John we know little. His call to repentance, represented by submitting oneself to the waters of the Jordan and so being washed on one's sins, was a call not to abandon Judaism, but to be converted to a vision. Jesus, too, called people to espouse a vision, the vision of the kingdom, and be transformed by its agenda. He frequently represented that vision with the image of an inclusive meal and his ministry lived it out in practice.

He was not converting people from Judaism but to his vision of the kingdom. My assessment of the evidence is that he did not propose that people abandon Torah.14 Rather he challenged them to approach Torah with a perspective informed by the kingdom and its values of love and compassion. In this sense he appears to have operated with a hierarchy of values which gave less emphasis to the particular and more to the universal. This should probably be seen as also a response to the cross cultural situation of his broader context. While the vision of the kingdom has much Jewish colouring, its basic values are universal. In his teaching Jesus seems very close to the sages. He uses experiences of everyday life for his theology rather than arguing from Israel's epic and legal traditions. This mode of operation lays down a tradition which will become easily transferable across cultures.

Is it possible to posit a direct influence on Jesus from Hellenism? Some would point to the greater exposure of lower Galilee to such influences, at least to other cultures.15 This may have had an impact on Jesus' development of universal values. Others draw attention to parallels between Jesus' teaching and what we know of popular Cynic preaching.16 The parallels are certainly striking: exposure of hypocrisy, emphasis on simple trust in God's providence, attacks on wealth and systems of power, counter cultural behaviour. But we have no evidence for direct contact. At most Jesus might have found their common assaults against evils of their day amenable, as did later some of the Church fathers, but Jesus is far from being one of them. He is too Jewish and in points still quite conservative.17 Nevertheless by espousing the more generous form of hope in divine intervention and developing teachings based on common life experience, Jesus created a movement which had resources which would enable a creative response to the cross cultural context.

Early Christianity

Early Christianity remained at first closely tied to Jesus' own approach, as one might expect, but with the difference that Jesus' death and resurrection added significant new aspects. On the one hand, the resurrection of the crucified functioned as vindication of his message. On the other hand, it was seen as an element of the great future hope coming into reality already. The effect then was that Jesus also became part of the future vision. The community that had learned to pray, 'Your kingdom, come', also now cried out, 'Marana tha', 'Our Lord, come!' (1 Cor 16:22). The vision, couched originally in terms which were universal, now received a particular element; christology. To the extent to which Jesus, himself, became the focus of devotion, the movement began to develop its own particularity which it had not had to the same extent during the ministry of Jesus, where it remained fundamentally theocentric. The issue of theocentricity or christocentricity would continue to be handled diversely. The breaking in of the kingdom during Jesus' ministry as a work of the Spirit through him remains a work of the Spirit in the continuing movement, but increasingly the Spirit and the being of the risen and living Jesus become conceptually merged.

Within the context of Judaism the movement which began as one of renewal within Israel changed shape as Christian groups became the centre of controversy. In the beginning they would have been as Torah observant as Jesus, but the execution of Jesus and the claim of his vindication and elevation to messianic status was divisive. As the movement came under fire and forged a tighter group identity, so what once was conversion to a vision of the kingdom with baptism as its rite, now became an act of joining a distinct sect or party and baptism a mark of that membership. That changed the nature of conversion.

Paul is our best known example of Christianity in its second and third decade. He represents however only one strand of the movement. He shares the vision of Jesus which had now become also the vision about Jesus. His understanding both of future hope and its manifestation in the present remains strikingly universal. This is because he understands salvation in terms of spheres of power and states of being. Sometimes using 'in the Spirit', sometimes using 'in Christ', he sees the Christian as participating in a new sphere of power in which people could be liberated from alienation and its manifest behaviours, in short death and sin, on the one hand, and set free in the Spirit to manifest the fruits of the Spirit, characterised in particular by love and loving behaviour. This is so strikingly universal that Paul even uses it critically as a measure of all religion, including Christianity. Using his own resources of apocalyptic thought and Hellenistic pop psychology (as in Romans 7) Paul produces a theological anthropology which is very universal in its appeal. Even Christ as the agent of change is spoken of mostly in very universal terms, especially as the risen Christ, where Paul engages the heritage which had been merging Christ and the Spirit. Conversion in the light of this might not seem like taking on a foreign culture.

By contrast, when Paul describes the means whereby this change has been made possible he engages a range of early Christian traditions most of which are very particular and have a cultic background that would make many of them difficult to transfer. Vicarious sacrifice, dying for our sins, for us, being our Passover lamb, a means of expiation, achieving redemption through his blood - these make Paul's account of the gospel difficult to transfer into cultures which do not share similar presuppositions.18 Conversion in the light of Paul's theory of the means of salvation would be for many the adoption of a new cultural mindset.

Paul's contribution to the conversion issues is diverse: he offers a way of understanding the goal of salvation which presents no major hurdles for people of most cultures, but his explanation of how this is achieved is the opposite. With regard to relations with other cultures Paul clearly assumes that conversion is necessary. Yet we should also note that he also shares the Jewish heritage which is prepared to recognise knowledge of God outside of Israel. This is so in Romans 1, even though there he turns it into an accusation that such knowledge was not taken on board with horrendous consequences. If we stop there and fail to see the rhetorical function of this attack as seducing his Jewish hearers, we miss the strong statements on Romans 2 where he addresses Jews. For there he speaks openly of non Jews who have God's law written on their hearts and live accordingly (2:14-16). Despite what might be read as a statistical exclusion in Romans 3:23, Paul in Romans 2 appears to be saying that there are people out there who will be approved by God. Converting them could not mean turning them from their ways, or even their religion, but rather adding the knowledge of Christ.

Equally interesting is Paul's attitude towards his own religion. He would not have spoken of his call as a conversion from Judaism. He spent much of the energy of his writing trying to substantiate that his was the true interpretation of his own religion. Nevertheless his Jewish, including his Christian Jewish, opponents were right to the extent that they pointed out that Paul had done what Jews were most reluctant to do. He had not simply employed a hierarchy of values in interpreting scripture, as had Jesus and others. He had effectively set the Law aside. In his own self defence he counterclaims that he upholds the Law because the new loyalty to Christ and life in Christ produced fruit which more than fulfilled what the Law sought to achieve through ordinances. But he can do so only by discounting the fact that he has abandoned cultic and ritual law and largely retained only its ethical features. In other words he has abandoned the Law as it functioned to demarcate Jews from non Jews and retained those aspects which are universal. In doing so he has not acted alone. Others, too, had at least been willing to abandon circumcision. Paul goes much further than those who were differentiating within the Law, but retaining its prime status. Instead he gives only Christ prime status and holds to the Law only as that which can be validly said to be fulfilled by following Christ and manifesting the appropriate fruits. In doing so he has dismantled within his gospel some major factors which would have impeded conversion of non Jews. His opponents saw it as a cheap ploy (cf. Gal 1:10). But it may be seen as a creative response to the cross cultural situation which gave a distinctive character to what might be expected by conversion.

Paul is important as an example of someone who was prepared to take a risky stance on the matter of conversion. He never doubted it was necessary, but this was tempered by acknowledgment that some already had salvation without Christ, by removing 'offensive' particulars which would impede access and heighten cultural dislocation, and by radically working out a theology which draws on the vision of Jesus such that the ultimate criterion of all religion, even of Christianity, becomes love in action,. What Jesus was doing for his own religion, Paul was in this way now doing for Christianity. At the same time Paul retains Christian heritage which described Christ's salvific action in highly particularist ways and would lessen for many their access to the gospel.

Beyond Paul

Here I want to consider very briefly the gospels. Mark shares much in common with Paul and may well be situated in communities which had stood under Paul's influence. Mark draws on Jesus' image of the kingdom and portrays his ministry as one in which liberation is seen in particular as freedom from demonic oppression. He operates much more with a explicit demonology than does Paul, while sharing the underlying apocalyptic world view. His understanding of the means of salvation is different from Paul's. He portrays this very much as a work of the Spirit achieved through Jesus' ministry by confronting the powers. He knows interpretations of Jesus' death as a salvific achievement, but gives them little weight. In some sense his understanding of the means of salvation is less particularist than Paul's.

He shares with Paul the willingness to set the Law aside, but does so selectively, as in Mark 7, and on a different basis.19 Food laws are not divine law until the time of Christ; they are laws which never could make sense, because - Mark's rationalising stance reasons - 'everyone knows' that food cannot make a person unclean! Mark stands here under the influence of Hellenistic critique of the cultic. He uses it to explain why such provisions should be ignored. Ignoring them removes what Mark and others saw as impediments to conversion and inclusion. Mark does not go as far as Paul is having Jesus effectively replace the Law; rather Jesus is the best interpreter of what is central and valid in the Law which as such remains the answer to the quest for eternal life. This is interesting because Mark's understanding of conversion, as required of the rich man, is remarkably universal. Radical love is at its heart. Belief in Jesus as the bearer of the kingdom and teacher of God's will remains central, but the result is a strikingly universal form of the gospel, at least, for those who can make some sense of Mark's demonological world view.

Matthew also puts the focus on Jesus as the agent of salvation, rather than on the achievements of his death, but even more than Mark concentrates on Jesus as teacher of the Law. In Matthew Jesus does not set any part of the Law aside, even though Matthew leaves us in little doubt that compassion for human beings is the main hermeneutical key. If we just had Matthew we would understand conversion primarily in terms of teaching people to accept Jesus as the authorised interpreter of Torah and doing what he says. What he teaches is strongly universal.

Luke has a similar respect for Torah and like Matthew does not agree with Mark in this. He is however close to Mark in seeing the saving activity of Jesus as what he does by the power of the Spirit, going about 'doing good'. He, too, sees conversion as turning to what Jesus teaches. His response to the quest for eternal life is to point to the love commandments, tell a story about a Samaritan, and have Jesus declare: 'Go and do likewise!' This is very universal. What Mark, Matthew and Luke have Jesus authorise as the way of salvation, its goal and its means, is strikingly universal. Only its agency is very specific: Jesus, himself (there is no other name for salvation - Acts 4:12), but even here they operate with a christology which is far from the incarnational structure which became the dominant model. Luke pictures Paul at Athens citing with approval the Greek poet Aratus, that we are all God's children, as had the Jew, Aristobulus, two centuries earlier (Aristobulus in Eusebius, PE 13.13.6), espousing the minimal insight which enables me to say: God was in Australia before the Europeans came - absurd as it sounds, it still needs to be said! Luke is quite positive towards Gentiles such as Cornelius, so that one has the impression that in such cases the focus is conversion by addition not by subtraction, ie. abandonment of something old.

John's gospel has the developed christology of pre-existence. A favourite gospel for evangelism, it makes the biggest and boldest claims for Jesus. Jesus replaces the Law, which now serves primarily as testimony to him and as a rich source of symbolic imagery (as does the life and ministry of Jesus to a large degree). Jesus is the agent of salvation, the only way. But the means is the offer of a relationship of trust and faith rather than an achievement through Jesus' death, though John also knows such traditions. John is more interested in portraying Jesus' death as part of the process of his return and vindication and the setting off of the new stage of God's movement of salvation, through the Spirit and the sending of the disciples. Salvation remains a relationship. The vision of the historical Jesus is somewhat truncated to a vision of relational bliss between the Father, the Son and the believers, but it retains the central characteristic of love which has become almost the sole focus of Jesus' ethical instruction. The shift to a relational focus for both the means and the goal of salvation and the rich employment of symbolism drawn from elementary human experience (light, life, bread, water) makes John's account of salvation surprisingly universal, such that it is the gospel which carries most parallels to other religions and the one they frequently find most amenable.

Where John sounds most exclusive and particular, in its christology, it is, on closer inspection, perhaps rather more universal than we have previously imagined. Its christology is so 'high', that Jesus is effectively swallowed up into the life of God and has become little more than a cipher for God. The christology is radically theocentric. The imagery of revealer and envoy underlines subordination to such an extent that to see the Son is now to see the Father. Oddly enough, in employing imagery which had been used to extol Torah, the author has produced a christology which in effect returns to hailing the God of the word perhaps more than the word of the God.

This christology must surely remain a sticking point in inter-religious dialogue and is certainly a big hurdle for conversion. Only Jesus is the way to the Father. But it may just have pushed so hard and so high that it could almost become the opposite. Its ambiguities could remove the significance of the historical Jesus altogether. Or they could lead to a rehabilitation of the historical Jesus and a complex process of building safeguards of what should not be denied. Many would want to affirm about God all that the symbols, including Jesus, the symbol, say, but will baulk at the specificity of what is claimed for the historical Jesus. The latter makes conversion highly controversial. The former would open it as a possibility in which the historical Jesus may be allowed to return in more historically realistic terms.


In the context of Judaism's encounter with Hellenism Christianity may be seen as emerging from a creative compromise present initially in the teaching of Jesus. Central to this compromise is the eschatological vision of justice and peace which emerged in the context of negative engagement with the challenge of Hellenism and set an agenda for radical interpretation of Jewish tradition in the present. As it emerged Christianity, in some of its strands, was able also to take into itself insights and attitudes of the Hellenistic world. These included an awareness of God in other cultures, critique of religion, in particular, of ritual and cultic practices, and patterns of order in human life which, lie Judaism, it deemed to reflect divine will.

In general terms its understanding of the goal of salvation remained relatively constant and this informed its understanding of life here and now. The fundamental criterion for recognising the presence of salvation also remained relatively constant: love in action. Thus both the goal and the criteria retained a universal character. On the other hand, early Christian explanations about the means of salvation exhibit a striking diversity, ranging from very particularist theories rooted in notions of cultic interpretation of Jesus' death to fairly universal concepts of the work of the Spirit in acts of healing and liberation. Constant and particular is the identification of the agent of salvation, Jesus, but here, too, there is a striking diversity of models about what constituted him as agent, whether as man of the Spirit, teacher, divinely created Son of God or eternal Word. These models vary considerably in their particularity and universality.

What do these observations have to say to our theme of conversion and baptism? The first might be that our approach to the issue should be informed by the central vision of the kingdom and the criteria for recognising its fulfilment. We need to have eyes to recognise it wherever it is happening and that should include recognising its presence in other cultures and religions. The obverse should also be true: the vision and the criterion needs also to perform a critical function to enable us to recognise wherever it is not happening, whether in other cultures and religions or within our own. You cannot have the one without the other. Conversion, then, needs to be conversion to the vision of Jesus.

This may sound typical of Christian inclusivism, but I would argue that it is not as simple as that.20 My understanding of the vision is strongly theocentric, as I believe, was Jesus' own stance. These universal qualities mean that what is being affirmed is not so 'Christian', as 'Christian inclusivism' implies. On the other hand, it acknowledges that we cannot approach the multi-religious, multi-cultural situation valueless. This would be an act of deceit, or, at least, self deceit. To espouse the central vision of justice and peace, distilled for us in Jesus' Jewish cultural categories, is to take a stand. It is an open stance in which we are constantly learning what justice and peace mean. It is not, however, the kind of relativism which would deem all such values as negotiable in the interest of inter-religious tolerance, as if the latter is the primary value.

Inasmuch as bearers of Christian faith affirm that this vision is present in the complex traditions about Jesus, they will guard and interpret those traditions in a way that keeps the vision alive and accessible. Making it accessible calls for creative handling of that tradition particularly with regard to options which the tradition provides for opening up the vision and its agenda without placing unnecessary impediments or imposing unnecessary cultural baggage on others. This means, in particular, examining the diverse ways in which Christianity has spoken of the means and agency of salvation.

Conversion, as in the days of Jesus, is conversion to the vision. Much of what is offensive in attempts at conversion may well be superfluous and therefore an abuse. On the other hand, the vision of salvation and its agenda will always be offensive to those who resist its values or who see it threatening their basis of power. To espouse belief in something that really matters and to care about people necessarily engages us in sharing. Abstaining from such caring in the interests of not giving offence is ultimately not caring.

Much depends on the central vision, the understanding of salvation. Its coalescence of love and peace for all should secure it against the abuses which are too often present in systems of belief where conversion is governed by the drive to add numbers to the movement or rescue people from a future hell. The latter is informed by a theology in which love is not the last word, but a temporary phenomenon; people are expendable and will cease in the end to be loved. Christian conversion driven by this kind of belief easily lets the lovelessness of its final vision slip into its conversion strategies and means justify ends. Unfortunately Christianity has to live down (and live with) such horrifically violent value systems which it has spawned.21

In the creative reworking of our tradition we need also to avoid the approach which would espouse homogenisation of the tradition, because it is the nature of religious experience in which visions of justice largely take root and are nourished to live by myth, symbol and ritual. Diversity is important and should be encouraged. Integrity can be maintained by continuing the functions of critical theology and discussion, but this is a responsibility which belongs in the background. The same richness of diversity is also be affirmed in relation to other religious communities, but with the same strategies for integrity and critical reflection.

When however we affirm such diversity, we will be encouraging the kind of distinctiveness which does have the effect of enhancing group coherence and belonging and making it sometimes difficult for others to join the group without a sense of dislocation. This has to be carefully managed to avoid allowing our diverse expression to become solidified as the only way. Then we take ourselves too seriously and conversion is too much founded on dogmatic insistence than on invitation to an alternative way.

Ultimately it seems to me we need to ensure that we lay our table well, to use the central image of the eucharist which encapsulates the vision of Jesus and what its agenda means (and meant for him!). We do not need to worry about the fact that there other tables. We do not need to insist that people keep away from them; let them choose! Converting to is more important than converting from. Only let us make sure we make accessible all that we have to offer. It is not our business to polemicise against other tables. We do not know enough either to declare naively that they all offer just a variant of what we offer or that they offer nothing like what we offer. We do not need to overturn their tables. We may find ourselves overturning tables of money changers and the corruption they represent. For what we affirm must in some sense include a denial of its opposite, whether in other religions or in our own. But our main focus is people, not the interests of our movement, because we believe that is also God's main focus. Our energy should be in making sure there is room for people to come to the table.

In this paper I have approach the issue of conversion and baptism by seeing it in the broader perspective of cross cultural encounter. Conversion and being converted is one of the responses possible at the cultural interface. There are others, such as withdrawal, defence, denial, live and let live. Conversion always has strong cultural dimensions. Since cultures are always evolving as they are exposed to one another, conversions can be seen as one of the natural processes of change. Globalisation is exposing cultures of the world to such change in a way that is unprecedented. Television advertising confronts people with persuasion. In some sense Hellenism was such a globalising force. Its Coca Cola also permeated far and wide. It threatened to convert all to its way. It provoked crises for cultures which had not been exposed to such sustained influence. Conversion emerged within this context as a strategy, partly of resistance, partly as a result of new resolutions at the cultural interface which sought to attain universal relevance while sustaining the best of their culture. Christianity is the result of such a strategy.

Any attempt to make sense of diversity and diverse cultural claims will, in some sense, create its own culture and Christianity did this. To some extent it developed exclusive and particular forms of belief and practice which made conversion dramatic and dislocating. In this respect however there was and is a range of options. Christianity need not be as dramatically dislocating, especially if it learns to recognise the relativity and dispensability of some of its practices and images. It does not have to be 'British'; Jesus' vision did not make organ music essential!

In this paper I have suggested ways in which appropriate conversion might be explored, proposing that what I would see as essential to its integrity is much more universal and accessible than is usually thought. This is especially important in the context of inter-religious discussion. Many would object that I can claim this only by eliminating what they deem essential. My point is that we need to see that the nature of the diversity of witness in the New Testament invites indeed obliges us to rethink these issues. When we do, Christianity may begin to lay its table in a way that makes the nourishment available in a way that is less offensive and abusive to others who also seek to offer nourishment and so less divisive where it has no need to be divisive. Already there are many outside of Christianity who would see such Christian tables in such positive light. There are however some very exclusive tables around, bedecked with placards denouncing all others. Christians need to clean up their own temple.

Christianity was born in creative compromise. As it faces new situations or revisits old ones with new thinking, it needs to own the flexibility of its origins. Conversion remains central to Christianity inasmuch as caring and sharing are inseparable. But just as in its beginnings there was much debate about the question: to what are we needing to convert people, so today we need to ask the same question and be prepared to show the same balance of flexibility and integrity. Making Christ palatable to everyone is almost by definition to deny him. But presenting him in an image distorted by unnecessary, unhelpful and sometimes negating clutter is also to deny him - to people. The issue at stake is as fundamental as the shape of Christian life in the future. What engages people in India is in fact a global issue.


1 Among recent texts which I found most useful were R. S. Sugirtharajah, Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism. Contesting the Interpretations (New York: Orbis, 1998); R. S. Sugirtharajah, Voices from the margin. Interpreting the Bible in the third World (London/New York: SPCK/Orbis, revised edn., 1995); W. Ariarajah, Hindus and Christians. A Century of Protestant Ecumenical Thought. Currents of Encounter 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991); J. C. England and A. C. C. Lee, Doing theology with Asian resources. Ten Years in the Formation of Living Theology in Asia (Auckland: Programme for Theology and Cultures in Asia, 1993).

2 There are different kinds of argument at work here. I find it easiest to relate to those who point out that Christian missionaries have sometimes acted very destructively towards cultures other than their own. Religion and culture are so enmeshed that to reject a person's religion necessarily, it was thought (or unthinkingly assumed) implied rejection of the culture. Australian Aborigines had many such encounters. Aboriginal Christians are now making their own decisions about their own culture and religion. Christians of western culture have been slowly realising that their forms of Christianity are also culturally enmeshed, often in ways that are destructive for the gospel. The answer is not to perpetuate the myth of pristine unchanging cultures. Cultures are always in process, but we do need to be responsible for the impact we are having on both individuals and communities, whether in the spread of the gospel, or just more generally in the process of globalisation.

3 The recent attempts to make much of 'Indian culture' are problematic because of the diversity of cultures and languages within India. It runs the danger of promulgating only one dominant culture and ostracising minority groups. It then becomes a dangerous political weapon in the hands of the powerful of one dominant cultural group, a re-emergence of the Aryan myth which sustained German fascism of the 1930s and 40s.

4 Christian arrogance and ignorance is very offensive, where it assumes that all other religions are either of the devil or, less crudely, lacking in what we see as essential to the gospel. Both the claim that all religions are basically the same as different pathways to God and the claim that no one has what we have are forms of arrogance, because, almost without exception, we lack the knowledge to substantiate such claims. In the intellectual context of postmodernism claims to uniqueness are problematic and for the same reason. They need to be seen as functioning more at a doxological than a doctrinal level.

5 Coming from outside, I was struck by how British and western much of the Indian Christianity which I encountered looked. It is understandable that the long process of cutting free from colonialism has negative implications where the church still harbours the vestiges of colonialism.

6 On 30 October, the day we arrived in Chennai, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, head of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, urged Pope John Paul II to announce a 'freeze on conversions from now on' prior to his visit to India. He argued that both Christianity and Islam were aggressive religions, reflecting their belief in eternal damnation, and their attempts at conversion an intrusion into religious privacy. Nevertheless he did see a place for 'convincing' rather than converting.

7 The Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910, which courageously faced these issues, saw parallels between Christianity's modern predicament and the relations between Christianity and Hellenism and between Christianity and Judaism. My paper takes a different tack, focusing on Christianity as itself a 'solution' which emerged in the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism.

8 The standard study remains that of M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: studies in their encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period (London: SCM Press, 1974); see also M. Hengel, The "Hellenization" of Judaea in the first century after Christ (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989); J. J. Collins Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora (New York: Crossroad, 1983); S. Talmon , Jewish civilization in the Hellenistic-Roman period (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991)

9 H. W. Attridge, "The Philosophical Critique of Religion under the Early Empire," in ANRW II.16.1, (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1978), pp. 45-78.

10 See J. J. Collins, Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).

11 This is already evident in the accounts in 1 and 2 Maccabees.

12 There is a noteworthy collection of wisdom documents among the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of which reflect the eschatology of the community. See the introduction by D. J. Harrington, Wisdom Texts from Qumran (London: Routledge, 1996).

13 See discussion in S. McKnight, A light among the Gentiles: Jewish missionary activity in the Second Temple period (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1991).

14 See my discussion in Jesus' Attitude towards the Law. A Study of the Gospels. WUNT 2.97 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997) 518-524.

15 See S. Freyne, Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).

16 B. L. Mack, The Lost Gospel. The Book of Q and Christian Origins (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993); F. G. Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992); Christ and the Cynics: Jesus and Other Radical Preachers in First-Century Tradition (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988); Jesus and the Threat of Freedom (London: SCM, 1987);

17 See W. Loader, "Challenged at the Boundaries: A Conservative Jesus in Mark's Tradition" Journal for the Study of the New Testament 63 (1996) 45-61; see also "Hellenism and the Abandonment of Particularism in Jesus and Paul" Pacifica 4 (1991) 245-256

18 This was likely to have been less of a problem in the ancient world than in many of our cultures, given that many of them also included sacrificial rites.

19 See my treatment of the gospel writers and the way they portrayed Jesus' attitude towards his own religious culture in Jesus' Attitude towards the Law.

20 K. P. Aleaz has argued strongly in recent years for inclusivist pluralism, by which he means that each religion needs to explore openly the way in which other religions may enrich what it is seeking to say and do. See most recently his Theology of Religions (SPCKI, 1997).

21 Some of the objections to conversion have their background in such practices, where benefits, both in the life beyond and concretely in the present, are promised to those who convert. We live in a world of coercion and for that reason many countries have bodies to oversee advertising, to prevent abuses. In a similar way religious persuasion needs scrutiny.

More on baptism: The Kiss of Baptism and Baptism in Context and Baptism, Water, and our World