In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conversion

  • Introduction
  • Major Studies
  • Encyclopedias and Handbooks
  • Summaries of Scholarship
  • The Greco-Roman World
  • The New Testament
  • Apostasy
  • Conversion and the Spread of Christianity
  • Faction, Sect, or Cult in Earliest Christianity
  • Women and Conversion

Biblical Studies Conversion
Zeba Crook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0155


Conversion is the sort of phenomenon that every person seems intuitively to understand, and yet an intuitive definition eludes us all. This applies as much to the study of religious conversion in general as it does to the study of conversion in the ancient world. The study of conversion by modern scholars of religion guides how scholars of Antiquity approach their subject, as is abundantly clear from the history of “biblical conversion.” Thus, it is extremely important to understand the challenges in defining conversion; it is not the sort of term that should be left undefined. Is conversion a primarily theological experience? Psychological and emotional? Social and communal? Anthropological and cultural? Is conversion best approached as a transcendent experience or as a rational, mundane experience? Is a forced conversion really conversion? Is a conversion absent of deep, tumultuous emotion really a conversion? How much of a change is required for a change in religious community to be considered a conversion? Presumably all agree that the move from Christianity to Sikhism qualifies as conversion, but does one “convert” when one moves from a Southern Baptist form of Christianity to an Eastern Orthodox form? From an evangelical to a progressive congregation? The challenge of defining conversion in modernity, likely owing to the personal and experiential nature of the phenomenon, is compounded when we look at conversion in Mediterranean Antiquity: Did Greeks, Romans, Judeans, and Christians all view conversion the same way? Did they understand it similarly? Did they convert at all? Did they seek out converts (proselytes) aggressively? Did they accept converts at all and, if so, how did they view them? How did they view outgoing converts (apostates)? How did Gentiles convert to Judaism? Wholly only, or could conversion to Judaism be partial (God fearers)? What about Paul of Tarsus, likely Christianity’s most famous convert? Was he converted at all? Or was he “called”? How does he talk about his own experience? Why did Paul convert at all? And finally, while clearly conversion accounts for the spread and growth of Christianity from the 1st to 4th centuries CE, what accounted for these conversions? Necessarily we return to where we started: Are these conversions accounted for theologically, sociologically, or psychologically? This article starts with the study of conversion in religious studies, before quickly focusing on conversion in the ancient world, with the majority of studies relating to conversion in biblical studies.

Major Studies

Conversion holds a central position in the study of religion and religious experience, perhaps owing to its personal and often emotionally intense nature. This latter quality made conversion an obvious topic of psychological approaches to the study of religion, the most (in)famous of which is Freud 1964, which also famously includes Leuba 1896 and James 1902. Others were less inclined to rely solely on psychology for their theoretical framework when analyzing conversion. Conversion, after all, is not an exclusively introspective experience: it is also an experience of community and society. One converts into a community, and communities welcome and often recruit converts (Lofland 1966). Starbuck 1899 went against the grain earlier than most studies in acknowledging both the psychological and the sociological aspects of conversion, a trend that carries on into the modern studies of conversion (Lofland and Stark 1965, Gooren 2010, Rambo 1993).

  • Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1964.

    Volume 12, The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works (1911–1913), contains Freud’s thoughts on religion and conversion, particularly that conversion is a pathological response to internal conflicts and tensions. Republished as recently as 2001 (London: Vintage).

  • Gooren, Henri. Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230113039

    Constructs slightly different stages of conversion from those in Rambo 1993: preaffiliation (one is aware of a particular religious group), affiliation (one identifies with this group), conversion (more than joining, entails a sharp change in religious worldview), confession (membership develops into mission), and disaffiliation (leaving).

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Penguin, 1902.

    DOI: 10.1037/10004-000

    Conversion is the process by which a divided, unhappy, unhealthy self is made whole, healthy, and happy. Conversion is grounded in crisis and is deeply emotional and reparative. James will carry more influence than anyone in the study of conversion in Antiquity (see Nock 1933, cited under Greco-Roman World). Republished as recently as 1994 (New York: Modern Library).

  • Leuba, James H. “A Study in the Psychology of Religious Phenomena.” American Journal of Psychology 7.3 (1896): 309–385.

    DOI: 10.2307/1411387

    Article (the length of a short book) analyzes components of conversion to Christianity, such as self-deprecation, justification, joy, and surrender, and critically relates these to Christian doctrine (grace, faith, free will). Article ends with fifteen pages of conversion narratives. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Lofland, John. Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966.

    This work is sociological, focusing on the characteristics of modern millenarian movements (particularly missionizing and recruitment). Republished as an enlarged edition as recently as 1981 (New York: Irvington).

  • Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.” American Sociological Review 30.6 (1965): 862–875.

    DOI: 10.2307/2090965

    Looking at white, middle-class Americans converting to millenarian cults, the authors see two contributing factors: predisposing conditions (convert happened to be in the right state of mind to hear a new message) and situational contingencies (convert happened to be in the right place). Rambo 1993 avers that this leaves the convert too passive. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Rambo, Lewis R. Understanding Religious Conversion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    Builds a seven-stage model of conversion: context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, and consequences. He considers this approach holistic, in that it combines the psychoanalytic, the behaviorist (environment), the transpersonal (experience), and many sociological elements as well (community, networking, belonging, etc.).

  • Starbuck, Edwin Diller. The Psychology of Religion. Contemporary Science. New York: Scribner’s, 1899.

    Despite the title, Starbuck emphasized sociological factors (social pressure, persuasion, examples) as much as psychological factors (fear, remorse) in religious conversion.

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