Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
conversion, a concept whose biblical meaning is especially difficult to understand because of the many connotations associated with the term as a rallying point for various contemporary religious groups. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the realities associated with the concept in the biblical writings cannot be subsumed adequately under a single lexicographical entry. The basic meaning is that of turning, turning to, or returning, and it can be applied either to God or to human beings in relation to God (e.g., Deut. 13:17; Josh. 24:20; Pss. 51:13; 85:3; Isa. 6:10note Mark 4:12 and parallels; John 12:40; Acts 28:27Isa. 44:22; 51:11; 55:7; Jer. 3:14; 8:4-6; Ezek. 33:10-16; Acts 9:35; 15:3, 19; James 5:19-20). Implied in these passages is a change of course or direction, not merely an attitudinal change or altering of ones opinion.
Because the religion of Israel was national in scope and was hence a matter of birth, individual conversion plays a minor role in the ot. While individuals of other nationalities did occasionally become worshipers of Yahweh (e.g., Ruth 1:16-18), a large-scale conversion of Gentiles to Yahweh was anticipated only as part of end-time events (Isa. 2:2-4; 66:18-21; Zech. 14:16-17).
At least three larger complexes in the nt are important for the concept of conversion.
First are the traditions associated with John the Baptist and his call to repentance (Matt. 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-20).
Second, the Gospels as a whole present conversion as the goal of Jesus life and ministry. He summons people to repent (change direction); people accept his summons as Gods turning to them in forgiveness and healing; they respond in faith and follow in discipleship (e.g., Matt. 8:8, 10; Mark 10:46-52; 10:17-22 and parallels; Luke 7:47-50; 15:7, 10, 18-19; 19:1-10; 22:32).
The third complex is the Damascus Road conversion of Paul (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:9-18; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:13-17). While this combined form of conversion/appearance and commissioning is atypical in the nt, the life-redirection element is constitutive for the early church (e.g., Acts 2:41, 47; 3:19; 8:5-8; 11:21; 14:15-17; 26:17-29; 2 Cor. 3:16-18; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 4:1-8).
edited by Everett Ferguson (NY: Garland Publishing 1999, page 288-289)
Change from one belief, religion, or pattern of life to another. Christianity brought an innovation on the plane of world religions -- its commitment to conversion. No prior religious movement had combined renunciation of all other religious affiliations with a commitment to proselytize all people with its message...
Christianity's emphasis upon conversion may be traced back to the ministry of Jesus, who, proclaiming the imminence of God's kingdom, invited people to repent (metanoeo, to change thinking and lifestyle) and believe the good news (Mark 1:5). It was given a decisive impetus by the apostle Paul. Convinced that Jesus was Messiah and "Lord of all," Paul proceeded to implement a "universal proselytizing mission." His life work involved not only carrying the message of Jesus across the Mediterranean world; he also expressly invited non-Jews "to convert (epistrepho, to turn) to God from idols" (1 Thess. 1:9), becoming full members in communities that worshiped and followed Jesus. Paul urged his friends to seek the conversion of all people, who he was convinced would otherwise be "without hope in the world" (Eph. 2:12).
Pre-Constantinian Times. During the first three centuries of church history, most Christian communities seem to have been slow to adopt Paul's passionate commitment to missions. Between the death of Paul and the legaization of Christianity under Constantine, there are few missionaries whose names are recorded. A church leader like Cyprian, possibly out of a concern for physical safety in an era in which persecution was rife, exhorted his members to a distinctive and exemplary lifestyle but omitted any mention of proselytizing among a long list of a Christian's duties (Ad Quirinum 3) As a result, Christian communities could appear to a critic like Celsus as closed and uninterested in attracting converts (Origen, Cels. 3.9).
Nevertheless, the Christian movement grew rapidly, both through the founding of communities in a new geographical areas areas and through a steady stream of converts. Christian leaders, in the belief that the Messiah had come, saw their congregations, to whose peaceable life all nations would be drawn, as fulfillments of Isaiah 2:2-4. Members of those communities by word and example attracted their neighbors, offering them hope and practical support. Thoughtful, literate persons like Tatian and Arnobius responded to Christianity's message, which saved them from error and satisfied their longing. More frequently, as R. MacMullen has emphasized, converts responded to the healings and exorcism that, noted that exorcisms "lead many people to be converted to God, many to reform themselves, many to come to faith" (Hom. in 1 Reg. 1.10) Several writers testified that conversion to Christianity freed people from additions and compulsions, which they often attributed to demons. Justin reported (1 Apol. 14) that Christians had been set free from their former bondage to sexual adventure, accult practice, materialistic discontent, and hatred of enemies...
Post-Constantinian Times. In the years following Constantine's legalization of Christianity in 313, increasing numbers of people became converts. Even before the persecution of the mid-third century, in certain areas people were becoming "leaders of the Christian teaching for the sake of a little prestige" (Origin, Cels. 3.9) Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, as imperial blandishments and legislation favored the church, this tendency increased...
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer