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Is there Conversion in the Synoptic Gospels? A “Problemanzeige“

New Testament scholars typically begin discussions of conversion in the NT by pointing to the Greek words ἐπιστρέφω and ἐπιστροφή (turn; turning) as a linguistic basis. This is often supplemented by μετανοέω and μετάνοια (repent; repentance; change of mind). Yet an investigation of conversion in the NT must necessarily reach beyond occurrences of these terms, as these terms do not always point to religious conversion and not all conversions in the NT may be described with them. But, this raises a further question: how does one identify a conversion in the NT? Paula Fredriksen (SR 35.2 [2006]: 231-246) has gone so far as to argue for the complete abandonment of the term “conversion” in NT studies, making the case that its use results in misleading anachronism. She focuses instead on the actual language used in biblical texts, such as turning.

But what does a focus on the relevant language show? This paper seeks to initiate an answer to this question by looking at the synoptic gospels and investigating the very use of (ἐπι)στρέφω, μετανοέω, and their derivatives. It contends that in the context of the synoptic gospels, turning and changing of mind have not to do with interreligious conversion in the modern sense but with intrareligious (e.g. Lk 1:16) and intracommunity renewal (e.g. Lk 17:3-4). A brief glance at the Apostolic Fathers shows a similar intracommunity focus in the use of such language. That being the case, we are required to rethink how we might initiate studies of conversion in antiquity.