Contend Earnestly: Discovering True Conversion: Surrendering/Discipleship Part I

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Discovering True Conversion: Surrendering/Discipleship Part I

I wanted to keep up this discussion from yesterday as I am finding it very helpful. Even if I don't respond to your comments, I am reading all of them and taking them in and taking it to God in prayer. I honestly appreciate every one of the comments given, even if I don't fully agree with them. I also want everyone to be clear, I didn't write yesterday's post. I put in the first sentence that it was a post by the website Jesus in the Quran, not myself. Sorry for the confusion. Meaning, I don't agree with all the wording in the post, but I do agree with the overall premise.

Today and tomorrow's posts are from Mark Siljander. He has been someone that has been helpful in allowing me to understand where he is coming from. While Mark and I wouldn't agree on everything, I do respect what he is doing and glad that I have started to build a friendship with him. He is one that has shown to be very humble and willing to dialogue on subjects with me "behind closed doors" and I feel like I understand him more.

Also, please understand that when you read stuff on the internet, or over comments or on email so much is "lost in translation." That's one of the reasons I have thought about closing down this blog in the past, but I think that it has helped people think more than it has hurt, so I continue. Know that dialogue about these subjects can't just happen over the internet, it must happen in real life, seeing each other face to face and seeking out each other's hearts and the truth of God's word. Be patient. Be forgiving. Be understanding. Be gracious. Be trusting in the power of God and not in your ability to prove a point. We should all be reading, writing and developing friendships for only one purpose and no other: for the glory of God. With that said, Mark Siljander emailed this paper to me and gave me permission to put it up on the blog. I am still weighing it and will continue to read it and study its content more fully. Let me know your thoughts on it as it helps me to discern. Peace.

Discovering True Conversion: Surrendering/Discipleship©
By Mark Siljander

Wars, mistrust, division, and hatred are just a few horrible results from various religions attempting to convert one to the other. What if we had the idea of conversion wrong? What if the Bible actually directs us in a different strategy? What if that strategy had the power to unite rather than divide the three Abrahamic faiths? This paper explores these distinct possibilities through a closer study of the Semitic languages of the three Holy Books, the Torah’s Hebrew, Qur’an’s Arabic and the Gospel’s Aramaic.

The lack of Christian “conversations” in Muslim countries is unmistakable. For example, there are 3000 Christian workers for 4000 converts in Turkey with a population of 70 million. In his 1999 comments on conversion, Rev. Prof. William Montgomery Watt, highlights the need for another ideal:

In the outburst of missionary activity round about the year 1800 the ideal was to go into the non-Christian parts of the world and convert everyone to Christianity; and this is still the ideal of some Christians. From Islam, however, there were very few converts. I have now come to doubt the appropriateness of conversion in many cases. (1,2)

Traditional understanding of “Conversion”

It is a wonder what Bible verses were used to legitimize the Crusades and the Inquisition that tortured people to gain conversions, as did the Pogroms in Europe against the Jews. This inflamed injunction to convert also appears in Islam under Sharia Law interpreted by Muslim fundamentalists who carry out death sentences against those “converting” from Islam to anything else. Even in modern times, those who convert are often condemned, shunned, and ostracized from family and society.

This embedded tradition to convert others is prevalent in Western culture. The dictionary defines a “convert” as “One who has been converted, especially from one religion or belief to another.”(3) The World Christian Encyclopedia agrees by defining “conversion” as when one leaves one religion and joins another. They go on to present figures that indicate some 950,000 people “convert” to Islam from some other persuasion and some 2.7 million “shift their affiliation to Christianity and presumably, their allegiance to Christ from some other religion” each year. What they don’t describe is the enormous upheaval these kinds of shifts cause in the social fabric surrounding converts.

Traditions promulgated at different times in history to address a particular situation (political or religious) then practiced over centuries become so intractably part of the belief system that when conflicts arise, can become equal or at times more authoritative and powerful than Scripture.

So is this contemporary notion of conversion as changing religions consistent with what Jesus preached? To help answer this critical question, one might consider the Eastern construct of the words behind the English translation to “convert” or “conversion.” The Aramaic language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth in Palestine 2,000 years ago is a helpful contextual link to the answer. Because all three Semitic languages originate in the same roots, studying the Aramaic is a key to understanding across all three languages.

The True Path to “Peace” & the “Great Commission”

In the first and second century believers did not see “conversion” in the same way the modern world does. There was not a new religion, or club which one could join, but a movement within Judaism. Perhaps it was Roman Emperor Constantine’s declaration making “Christianity” the official religion of the Empire in 325 A.D. that promulgated a wrong westernized idea of “conversion.” Throughout generations armies and missionaries have at times promoted or forced “conversions” based on a flawed Holy Book strategy premising the true teaching of the prophets. So what is the true meaning of “conversion”?

Aramaic and other Semitic languages often use poetic prose, especially in the Holy Books. One aspect of the poetic structure is using different words with similar meaning to get the point across. This writing style is often used in the New Testament. (4) Understanding the specific meaning and the poetic compatibility of three ancient words may help dispel the mystery around conversion and how to best carry out the edict in Matthew 28:19.

1. PEACE shalom is the Hebrew cognate of Arabic salem and Aramaic shlama. They all have essentially the same meaning with some distinction in history, context and religious application. For example, the word Yarushalem (Jerusalem) is derived from this word. (See Appendix 1 for specific Bible references using various forms of shlama)

2. LEARNER The Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew words for “peace” have a companion word with a similar meaning in the Gospel, “learner” or “disciple” which is the Aramaic word talmida. It comes from the Semitic root lmd, which means, “to learn”.(5) Both Aramaic shalem and talmida were used by Jesus and his disciples and often translated in English as “converting,” or “making learners/disciples.”(6) Many have devoted their life to this concept with the Biblical reference to “the Great Commission.”

3. TURN Acts 15:3 uses the Aramaic punaya (Gospel form: itpisen), which would better be interpreted "turned around [to serve God]." This was often used in reference to “turning” the Gentiles away from polytheism and another form p’na: means “to turn, return,” or “restore” as used primarily to the Jews, urging them to “turn back to” the notion of one God. (8,9)

Meaning of words can change drastically over time as in “gay”, “cool”, “sick”, etc. Hence, it is helpful to go back to the root meaning and the historical context of the time it was used in the original language of the speaker/writer. For example another very misunderstood idiom of Jesus is actually Aramaic poetry using two different words in a metaphorical fashion for one meaning (like an English poetic technique such as rhyming); i.e., “I have come to set the world on fire” and “I have come to bring peace on earth?, but divisions.”(10) “Set the world on fire” and “divisions” are metaphors alluding to the same meaning in Aramaic.

The history or background helps us better understand the three Semitic words for “peace” and their secondary meanings. In ancient times, cautious travelers in the East would not draw attention to themselves fearing falling prey to robbers.”(11) Opening the hands in a “surrendering” posture when meeting a person on a journey was a way of “saluting”(12) to show they had no weapons and peaceful intent. Today, we use the salute in the military and offer the open hand (handshake) as friendship. So you can see how “peace” and “surrender” became meaning of these words. (13,14)(See Appendix 2 for a comprehensive review of key related words that build a clear construct of the meaning of “shlama” as one “surrendered”).

Many lexicons and concordances of the Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic combine the three words under the same definition. (15) While there are slight differences in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, they all are defined as a greeting and later became indicative of a process (16) that leads us closer to God. It is critical to view these three words interchangeably, as Semitic cognates.

The various meanings drawn from the lexicons and the Holy Books are as follows:


Go/Turn back (17)
Complete/fulfilled (18)
Surrender/submit (19)

In Old Testament Light, Dr. George Lamsa comments on Isaiah 57:19

“Peace is a key word that is used constantly…which introduces two strangers…whenever two easterners meet they greet by saying ‘peace unto you,’ and the greeting is returned by the same words ‘to you be peace’…The term shallam (peace) means, ‘I surrender to you.’ When two strangers surrender to one another, they surrender to God.” (P.712)

No wonder the Catholics use this Eastern greeting “peace be with you” at every Mass. Israelis still use shalom and Arabs, salam, for “peace,” completing the meaning of Mu-salem as “surrendered to God.” the Bible presents making talib “learners” or disciples, and shelem/itpisen returners/surrenders to God but this is not equivalent to our modern use of “conversion.”

End Notes:

1. Bashir Maan & Alastair McIntosh, “An Interview with Rev Prof William Montgomery Watt,” 1999 ( The Rev. Watt has written over 30 books including Islamic Political Thought (1968). In Scotland he has been a member of the ecumenical Iona Community since 1960. Amongst Islamic scholars he has been held in an esteem described as “most reverential.” The Muslim press have called him “the Last Orientalist.”
2. Also see Samuel Zwemer (1867-1952) called “the Apostle to Islam” for over 30 years as a missionary. He spoke at hundreds of churches & conferences throughout the world and published over 30 books calling Christians to Muslim missions. He was able to secure one dozen ‘converts’.
3. Dictionary definition of convert from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2004, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
4. See examples in Ruach Qadim, by Andrew Gabriel Roth; p. 51-65, 131-150 & 296.
5. The Hebrew and Aramaic word for "learner" or “pupal” is also the name of the Hebrew ancient Rabbinic writings of Talmud . Interestingly it is the same as the Arabic talib. We have all heard of the radical Taliban, which also means student or learner in Arabic.
6. See Matthew 13:52 & 28:19. George Lamsa translates the Aramaic root lmd to “convert” in both verses.
7. See Acts 15:3 where punaya is translated by Dr George Lamsa as “converted.” but “turning” seems more accurate. Also see other uses of punaya (it-pisen) Matthew 13:15, Mark 4:12, Luke 22:32, John 12:40 & James 5:19.
8. Newton, Adam Zachary "Versions of Ethics; Or, The SARL of Criticism: Sonority, Arrogation, Letting-Be "American Literary History - Volume 13, Number 3, Fall 2001, pp. 603-637
9. In Hebrew “convert” means shuwb ‘to turn back, or ‘return to a starting point’; shabuw el means ‘turn back to God’ Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance word #’s 7725 and 7619 respectively.
10. See Luke 12:49 & 51 also Matthew 10:34
11. The people of the time would rarely ‘salute’ someone of another tribe or religion, preferring to look straight ahead as they passed by.
12. Lexicon to the Syriac New Testament; Jennings p. 213 & 225.
13. Semitic language scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz, internationally known scholar; reinforces the Aramaic meaning of Shalem as “surrender” in his book: The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus. p. 168-169 & 196.
14. Also see More Light on the Gospel, by Dr. George Lamsa; Doubleday 1968, p. 141 ref; John 14:27 “peace” having the meaning to “surrender.”
15. Englishman’s Hebrew & Chaldee (Aramaic) Concordance, 1972; The New Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Hebrew, Aramaic & English) by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver & G.A. Briggs, p. 1022-1024; A Complete Hebrew & Chaldee (Aramaic) Lexicon, 1882 by Benjamin Davies, p. 646-647 and others.
16. In his book Buried Treasure, Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language, Rabbi Daniel Lapin discusses shalom “peace” as “completing” a process, p.211-213.
17. I heard Dr. Darell Bock, professor of New Testament research at Dallas Theological Seminary, say on the John Ankerberg Show that “Jesus provides us a way to ‘turn back,’” further confirming the Biblical use of this construct.
18. Shalem: Aramaic for “completeness” and “fulfilled.” See Matthew 13:14, Mark 14:49, 15:28, Luke 21:22-23, 22:16, 23:46, John 13:18, 18:19, 18:32, 19:24 & James 2:23. Also see Jennings Syriac commentary p. 224.
19. Matthew 10:23, Galatians 4:25 & 5:25. (Andrew Gabriel Roth in his New Testament translation from the Aramaic p. 560 in footnote #57 deals with Galatians 5:25 and the word shlama meaning “surrender”).


SnatchedFromTheFire said...

I'm not gonna keep saying this because i'm getting bored of typing it but, for the sake of one last try at reaching you: all these guys seem to be 'contending for' is words. Not Jesus. Not the Gospel handed down once for all to the saints. Just words! "What does 'conversion' mean now and what do the three monotheistic religions say it is?" "I don't think we should use the term 'Christian b/c of all the negative conotation" etc. etc. blah blah blah. On that final DAY ... who cares what those words mean? Are you gonna be like some MMA guy who's in the rear-naked choke and too proud to tap b/c he doesn't want to say he was "converted" or now he's a "Christian"? Knowing Jesus is the Key, the Door, the Truth, the Way. And FAR more importantly, being known by Him. God doesn't say to those He sends to everlasting destruction, 'you didn't really know Me or the right things about ME', He says, "Depart from Me FOR I NEVER KNEW YOU." We are wasting so much time arguing about getting our terminology down so we don't offend people or bring up bad ideas associated with them, and missing the whole Person and message we should be contending for; what I KNOW this site was probably initially called "Contend Earnestly" for - not for words; for JEsus and the gospel! right?! Seth you GOTTA see this bro if you step back and look! Or maybe you are just too deep now to see anymore. I pray God grant you the grace to focus on what is truly saving for these men and women you love so much and leave the contending over words to someone else.
God's peace.

SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
you heard of/read this book "Son of Hamas"?

Different perspective on the same issue or right along the lines of where you're thinkning is?

Contend Earnestly said...

The article was interesting, I want to read the book. I also read some of the interview on GQ. Looks like his entire understanding of the Qur'an comes from a fundamentalist background.

I am going to talk to my buddies that are Muslims to see their thoughts on it. I am sure it will be the same as I stated above.

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