From my year of searching through the Bible after that encounter with Doug Coe, I knew that the word “convert” appears exactly ten times in the New Testament (King James version) and five times in the Old Testament. A close read of the Aramaic edition turned up several words that are normally translated into English as “convert,” one important being shalem.
Over time, the word shalem accrued a whole range of meanings, including “greeting,” “peace,” “salute,” “turn back,” “complete,” “fulfill,” “surrender,” “submit.”
Reading on, I felt my excitement growing. This was starting to make sense!
When Peter told the crowd, “Repent and be converted” (Acts 3:19), the word he used has the same meaning as shalem. His literal meaning was not, “Give up your religion and adopt our religious club instead,” but something more like, “Turn back from your sinful ways and surrender yourself in faith to God.” Continuing through the Aramaic text, I soon found another word with a meaning similar to shalem that is also translated into the King James English as “convert”: punaya, meaning “turning” or “restoring.” The term is often used in reference to “turning” Gentiles away from polytheism, and in another form, p’na, it is used especially with Jews, urging them to restore their faith or turn back to the one true God.
Thus, at the very end of the book of James, when the author speaks of “converting the sinner” and saving his soul (James 5:19–20), the Aramaic word is p’na, which translates more accurately as “be restored from error.”
James is not talking about convincing non-Jews to become Jews or non-“Christians” to become “Christians.” He is talking about helping troubled Jews return to the simplicity of submission to their faith. Repent and be converted. Submit to God. Be at peace by completing yourself. Jesus spoke of the “way” or “straight path” to God which could be discovered “through” him as the Messiah and Word of God.
It was crystal clear from the text that neither Jesus nor any of his followers ever advocated that anyone “convert” from one religion to another. Every use of the various Aramaic terms meant the same thing: “submit,” “surrender,” “return,” “be fulfilled,” “be restored.” Our insidious concept of conversion was a linguistic error, a clear mistranslation. Pure and simple: a mistake. A deadly misunderstanding.