An earlier blog ( July 1, Conversion Problems of Definition) mentioned the wide variety of definitions of conversion that were employed by the participants in the Conversion ‘Narratives in the Early Modern World’ conference. As Abi notes, the list of suggestions give an indication of the sheer complexity of religious experience during this period.
To get some grasp of (early modern) conceptions of conversion, the most obvious source to begin with seems to be the Bible. Yet despite the centrality of the idea of conversion in Scripture, straightforward descriptions of it are absent and Hebrew and Greek terms that have been translated as conversion are sparsely used. Moreover, scriptural evidence for the conversions of the two best known “biblical converts,” Paul of Tarsus and Mary Magdalene, is rather flimsy, or at least raises some questions. Perhaps most unsettlingly, the Gospel of Mark hints at the conversion of the least likely biblical figure, Christ himself.
Words in the original Hebrew and Greek that could be translated as “conversion” or “to convert,” often have a very specific meaning. These are the Hebrew shubh and the Greek epistrefein and metanoein. Shubh literally means “return,” but is often glossed as “repent,” for example in Jeremiah 3:14: “Turn [shubh], O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” Metanoein is most often translated as ‘to repent’, epistrefein as referring to the act of turning oneself to a person or God. Examples of both terms can be found in Acts 26: 20, which describes Paul’s efforts at converting the Gentiles after his own spiritual transformation:
But [he] shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent [metanoein] and turn to [epistrefein] God, and do works meet for repentance [metanoias].
What makes repentance dominant in Christian understandings of conversion is that it embodies the core message of the Gospel. Christ was sent to earth to save mankind from damnation and, in order to do so, incite people to repent. Indeed, many New Testament conversion stories suggest that Christ is not so much interested in those who are already righteous as in the degenerate as potential penitents. This is not only explicitly stated in the Gospels, but is also an underlying message in many conversion stories in Scripture, such as the parable of the prodigal son. The purport of this and the other well-known parables in Luke 15 is that “joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15.7). For this reason, Christ surrounded himself with sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes because he could still turn them to repentance.
This brings us to Mary Magdalene, known as a former prostitute and archetypal penitent convert, but this is only because from the early Middle Ages onwards she was identified with the nameless woman in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12, who venerates Christ by rubbing his head with expensive perfume, and the repentant sinner who wets Christ’s feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair, in Luke 7. The biblical convert Mary Magdalene, in other words, has no biblical warranty.
The problem with Paul’s conversion is that he is generally considered the first to exchange Judaism for Christianity. But as Paula Fredriksen has argued, the defining moment of Paul’s life took place in 34, so quickly after the crucifixion that instead of a “Christian” belief, there was only a “Jesus movement” consisting of Jewish adherers. It is not Paul’s own epistles, but the Gospel of Luke that portrays his sudden change of conviction as a conversion from Judaism to Christianity.
The Bible also seems to identify an implausible convert. In the first chapter of Mark, the term metanoein is used by John the Baptist to explain the meaning of baptism. This happens just before Christ submits himself to baptism by the hands of John. When Christ emerges from the water, a voice from heaven tells him that he is his beloved Son (Mark 1.4-9). Does John’s use of the word metanoien, and the fact that Christ’s experience is similar to what we typically associate with conversion, mean that we can speak of Christ’s conversion? Would that make sense? And, if so, does this in any way alter or expand the meaning of conversion?
Fredriksen P., “Paul and Augustine: Conversion Narratives, Orthodox Traditions and the Retrospective Self”, Journal of Theological Studies 37 (1986) 9.