Early Christian Mission by Eckhard J. Schnabel

Early Christian Mission

Early Christian Mission

by Eckhard J. Schnabel
InterVarsity Press – IVP, 2004
xliv + 1,928 pages, English
Cloth, 6 x 9
ISBN: 0830827900
List Price: $90.00
Your Price: $62.91

This two volume set by Eckhard Schnabel is a remarkable achievement. I finished working my way through the nearly 1,600 pages of text, and despite the length found myself enjoying it immensely. Schnabel’s goal is to provide a full study of the early Christian missionary movement through the first century. The original version of the book was written in German under the title Urchristliche Mission in 2002. This English version published in 2004 by IVP “corrects mistakes, revises some arguments and expands the information at several points” (p. xxvii). It is thus a unique blend of history, exegesis, theology and praxis rolled into one.

The work is composed of an introduction and seven parts with a total of 35 chapters, which when spread over 1,588pages of text makes for some incredibly long chapters. In what follows I will try to give a very brief summary of each part.

Introduction – here Schnabel addresses methodological issues. Noteworthy in this section is the extensively detailed chronology he provides, covering the birth of Jesus (4 B.C.) to the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (113 A.D.). It may be the most detailed one I have come across yet, covering Jewish, Roman and Christian events.

Part I: Promise – Israel’s Eschatological Expectations and Jewish Expansion in the Second Temple Period – Schnabel enters the debate of whether a Jewish mission to the Gentiles existed during the STJ period. Although recognizing universal elements within the OT (esp. Isaiah), Schnabel sees no compelling evidence for an actual Jewish mission to the Gentiles. “There are no statements by Jewish or Roman authors that force us to conclude that there was an active Jewish mission among Gentiles. Judaism had neither a missionary theory nor organized missionary activity before the first century A.D.” (173).

Part II – Fulfillment – The Mission of Jesus – The ministry of Jesus himself is seen as the fountainhead of the early Christian mission. Schnabel concludes that Jesus could have easily visited the 175 towns/villages of Galilee during his ministry; as a result almost everyone of the approximately 200,000 people living in Galilee would have heard of Jesus. The same holds for most of the 500,000 Judeans, including the 100,000 inhabitants if Jerusalem. Although Jesus did not initiate contacts with non-Jews, Gentiles or polytheists, he did not avoid such contacts either. He did teach of a time when the promises of salvation to the Gentiles would come to fulfillment, which laid the foundation for the early Christian mission to the Gentiles. Jesus’ commission to his disciples began a new phase in the history of the people of God in which the universal and international dimensions of God’s promises in the OT were coming to pass.

Part III – Beginnings – The Mission of the Apostles in Jerusalem – The beginnings of the early Christian mission flow from the events of Easter and Pentecost. Jesus carries out this mission initially through the life of the Twelve in Jerusalem. The leadership of the Jerusalem church remained with the Twelve until 41 A.D. when a transition was made to a council of elders with James the brother of Jesus as first among equals. This was prompted by the persecution of Herod Agrippa I, who executed James the son of Zebedee and imprisoned Peter. At this point history suggests the Twelve dispersed in various directions for international mission work.

Part IV – Exodus – The Mission of the Twelve from Jerusalem to the Ends of the Earth – The Hellenistic, Greek speaking Jewish Christians of Jerusalem took the lead in proclaiming the consequences of the death and resurrection of Jesus for the identity of the people of God. Torah was no longer the center of Israel’s relationship to Yahweh, the temple is no longer the central place of God’s presence and the land of Judea is no more special than any other piece of land. Upon the martyrdom of Stephen these Hellenistic-Jewish Christians spread the gospel in various areas outside of Judea. Peter himself engaged in Gentile mission, and more permanently left Jerusalem in 41 A.D. to engage in further mission work. Jewish Christians also proclaimed the gospel in and around Judea as evidenced by the growth of local churches in various villages and towns.

Part V – Pioneer Missionary Work – The Mission of the Apostle Paul – After a description of Paul’s background, Schnabel deals at length with Paul’s conversion, extensive missionary work, and eventual imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome. He agrees with early tradition that Paul was released to engage in further mission work only to be re-arrested and executed in Rome in the mid to late 60s. Paul saw his primary calling as a pioneer missionary and worked with many coworkers in his efforts.

Part VI – Growth – Consolidation and Challenges of the Early Christian Churches – There appear to have been several centers of the early Christian movement: Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. By the end of the first century the church continued to grow and expand through the gradual process of personal evangelism of believers and intentional missionary efforts. The early missionaries used the spoken (and occasionally written) word to expand the reach of the gospel. After exploring 17 proposed reasons for the successful growth of Christianity, he holds that it is the work of God himself.

Part VII – Results – The Identity, Praxis and Message of the Early Christian Mission – This final section is the “payoff” of the laborious research offered in the previous six parts. Schnabel offers important insight into the self-understanding of the early Christian missionaries, their praxis and message. He concludes with a chapter of reflections on the implications of his study for missionary work in the present day.

Although few will have the time and patience to wade through the entirety of the two volumes, pastors, missionaries and scholars alike will want to have them on their shelves. The extensive bibliographies and indexes make it possible to dip into various sections with profit. Schnabel provides extensive treatment of the various cities the early Christian missionaries entered, which would serve as helpful background when doing work in Acts or on the life of Paul.

Schnabel is to be commended for this breathtaking achievement. The breadth and depth of scholarship in seemingly every area he addresses is nothing short of amazing. Early Christian Mission promises to be the standard treatment of the subject for decades to come.

2 thoughts on “Early Christian Mission by Eckhard J. Schnabel”

  1. Thanks for your concise and descriptive review of Schnabel’s tombs. Due to cost of books, shipping and customs in many countries many of us who would love to purchase these books find it prohibitive to do so.

    I would suggest to IVP to publish them in CD-ROM format. That way there they could be sold cheaper and shipped to just about anywhere in the world via standard postage and handling.

    I personally use The Essential IVP Reference Collection CD-Rom version. IVP could very well do the same with these volumes.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *