Reconceptualizing Conversion: "What’s in it for me?"

In light of recent discussions, I’m pasting below my amazon review of Zeba Crook’s Reconceptualizing Conversion, from which we learn that people like Paul converted for rather selfish reasons.

Zeba Crook’s premise is that the key to understanding ancient conversion is “benefaction”, or what is gained, as opposed to introspective soul-searching. With trademark Context-Group gusto, he undercuts cross-cultural psychology which wrongly assumes that all people share the same psychological structure underneath a veneer of cultural difference. The cultural divide between Mediterranean and Western people results in fundamental psychological differences, which have serious bearing on the question of religious conversion.

While the academic field has generally heeded Krister Stendahl’s pointer that Paul didn’t have a bad experience with Judaism and the Torah, it has not heeded his more general claim — that Paul was not introspective at all. People in antiquity converted or chose gods for the same reason they chose patrons — based on the benefits they stood to gain. The “balance sheet” was what mattered in ancient conversion: “what’s in it for me”.

Crook discusses various rhetorical conventions that occur in the context of this “balance-sheet” psychology, including: (a) the unanticipated call of the patron, who gives the client a benefaction; (b) the honoring discourse of prayer, praise, and proselytism — the last of which was expected of clients so as to publicize the generosity of the patron, in an attempt to increase the honor and reputation of the patron and attract new clients (the more clients the patron has, the more honor); (c) patronal synkrisis, by which the client feels compelled to compare his inferior past to the superior present, to the credit of the patron; and (d) the grace received by the client (though “benefaction” is a better translation than “grace”, since the latter is loaded with post-Reformation overtones; rather than abstract ideas of love and mercy, grace referred more often to a concrete item of benefaction or patronage).

The author shows that Paul’s own rhetoric of conversion (in I Cor 9:1; 9:16-17; 15:8-10; Gal 1:11-17; Philip 3:4b-11) owes precisely to these conventions of patronage and benefaction, so it’s all the more surprising that introspection and other western psychological models continue to play a role in interpreting Paul’s conversion.

Of particular interest is the way missionary activity is understood in this context. Paul’s evangelism was nothing more than client-reciprocity, reflecting his obligation to publicize Christ in return for the benefaction Christ gave him. All clients were duty-bound to publicize on behalf of a benefactor, in order to increase the benefactor’s honor — as Paul puts it, “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (I Cor 9:16) Paul wasn’t so much trying to save souls as he was trying to gain converts in order to increase his Lord’s honor.

The phenomenon of synkrisis helps us understand how Paul’s new religious convictions related to his native ones. Crook shows that in order to credit benefactors, clients almost always described their past as grim and bleak in comparison to the present — except in cases (like Paul) where the patron doesn’t change, in which case they “raise the stakes” by improving upon an already excellent past (Philip 3:4b-6) which in comparison to the present is actually worse than worthless (Philip 3:7-11). Paul’s Jewish heritage had been a source of pride for him, but in comparison with new revelations based on what Christ offered him, that heritage seemed like excrement.

This is not only a profound basis for understanding the relationship between Paul’s twin sets of convictions, but it provides a springboard for making sense of Paul’s contradictions elsewhere. Crook argues that Paul, as a result of converting while still following the same deity, maintained a tenacious loyalty to the traditions of his forefathers, subject to a strict loyalty to the Christ movement:

“[In Romans] Paul seems to be constantly making a point, then back-tracking, working himself into a corner, then fighting to get out. In each case, this has to do with the value of the law…Paul is struggling to express loyalty to God in a new way (law-free salvation) without expressing disloyalty to God for the previous gift of the law…How can Paul argue that the law was a benefaction from God but that the supersession of it was also a benefaction from the same God? These are the issues of loyalty, which are the result of a conversion that involved the same divine patron, that Paul is struggling to work out.” (p 246)

Some prefer that Paul was “called” rather than “converted”. But Crook points out the false dichotomy: by the time of Hellenistic Judaism it was possible to be called and thus converted. Paul indeed expresses his conversion in terms of a call or commission, but that’s exactly the language of patronage/benefaction. He was invoking the Greco-Roman example of the call of the divine patron-benefactor (“conversion”) and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time.

This book shows plainly that Paul’s conversion was anything but unique. He followed the general pattern of conversion found everywhere in the Mediterranean. Once again, the balance sheet was the important factor — “what’s in it for me”, certainly not vocation or inner fulfillment. My only quibble is that Crook refuses to speculate on what Paul actually gained from Christ. What was in it for Paul? What was the benefaction he received? Was it simply the revelation (vision) itself? The promise of favored status which would somehow play out in the end (as the twelve disciples are reported as being promised in places like Mt 19:28/Lk 22:30)? Perhaps Crook wanted to leave this a mystery for others to solve, but given that he devotes so much space to Paul as his chief example, I felt a bit cheated here. But quibbling aside, this is a terrific book, another accomplishment of the Context Group whose members continue to help us understand the ancients on their own terms.


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