The Jews believed that in the future large numbers of Gentiles would convert and come to worship the true God (1). There is no consensus about what the Jews of the ancient world thought they should do about the conversion of the Gentiles before then. Did the Jews believe they should go to the Gentiles as missionaries and actively and aggressively convert them or they should they take a more passive approach and let interested Gentiles come to them?
Historians one assumed that there was widespread Jewish missionary activity and active proselytism of Gentiles in the first century AD. J. Jerimias has written, “Jesus thus came upon the scene in the midst of what was par excellence the missionary age of the Jewish people.”(2)
There is little actual evidence to substantiate the assumption of widespread Jewish missionary activity. Philo and Josephus do not describe such activity, although Josephus claims many Gentiles were interested in Judaism(3). The only possible example of Jewish missionary activity in Josephus is when two Jews Ananias and Eleazer converted Izaates, king of Abiabene (4). Acts describes Paul competing with the local Jews in the synagogue, not itinerant preachers, the Jewish equivalent of himself. There is no equivalent of Acts in Jewish literature, describing the exploits of these supposed missionaries. With the possible exception of Ananias and Eleazer, we do not know any of their names (5). It is not clear what Jewish missionaries were called.
Nevertheless, there is still some evidence for Jewish proselytism. In 139 BC and 19 AD the Jews were expelled from Rome. Valerius Maximus (139 BC) and Dio Cassius (19AD) claim this was for proselytism (6). Scot McKnight argues that this only shows that the Jews attempted to proselytize in Rome, not the rest of the ancient world (7). However, Roman historians tended to focus on events in Rome and did not record everything which happened in the empire. Just because they only mentioned expulsions of Jews from Rome for proselytism does not mean they did not proselytize elsewhere.
Matthew records Jesus saying to the Pharisees, “For you cross sea and land to make a single convert (proselyton) and you make the new convert twice a child of hell as yourselves.”(8) This sounds like a reference to missionary activity by Pharisees. Instead, Martin Goodman argues that it means they were converting Jews to the Pharisees sect, not Gentiles to Judaism(9). However, there is no evidence the word proselytos was ever used to refer to a Jews converting to a Jewish sect(10). Acts contains some evidence of proseltyism by Pharisees. The insistence of the Pharisees, who joined the church, that Gentile believers should be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses, was probably based on their precedent of the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism(11). Likewise, Paul, the early church’s best known missionary to the Gentiles, was a former Pharisee who may once taught that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised(12). Although the evidence is sparse, it suggests that the Pharisees had more experience in the proselytizing of Gentiles. In contrast, “there is no evidence that the Qumran sect has any interest in converting Gentiles.”(13)
Goodman and others have shown that the assumption of widespread Jewish missionary activity cannot be substantiated. The attitude of many Jews, as illustrated by Isaiah and Tobit, seems to have been more that the Gentiles should come to the Jews, rather than the Jews go to the Gentiles. JOSEPH ASENATH Nevertheless, they can go too far. Just because Jewish missionary activity was not widespread does not mean that it did not happen at all.
This Jewish missionary activity was assumed to have been the model for the missionary activity of the early church(14). In fact, the mission of the early church seems to have been an innovation and does not owe anything to any Jewish precedent. Although Jesus told his disciples to go to the Gentiles(15), his disciples basically ignored him and stayed in Jerusalem for the next few years. Peter needed a vision for God to persuade him to go and preach to Cornelius and the Gentiles had to speak in tongues so Peter could be convinced they were saved and had the Holy Spirit (16). When Peter reported this to the church in Jerusalem, they seemed pleasantly surprised that “God has even given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”(17) This suggests that the original Christians were not familiar with any Jewish concept of going to the Gentiles and converting them.
Apart from Peter’s conversion of Cornelius, the impetus to take the gospel to the Gentiles did not come from those in Judea but from the Greek-speaking converts to Christianity in the Diaspora. Philip, a Hellenist, first took the gospel to the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch(18). Converts from Cyprus and Cyrene were the first to preach the gospel to the Greeks in Antioch(19). Paul was from Tarsus and his Barnabas, his partner in his first missionary journey, was from Cyprus (20). This would suggest that Jews in the Diaspora, living among the Gentiles, were more open to the idea of actively converting them than those in the land of Israel.
This is evident in Acts. When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, the mob was prepared to listen quietly to him speaking about Jesus, but when he said he was told to go to the Gentiles, they were offended and virtually rioted(21). Since this incident took place in the late 50s, perhaps the crowd’s reaction should be seen in the context of the tensions between the Jews and their Gentile neighbours which was one of the underlying causes of the Jewish revolt in 66. The Jews were less likely to be supportive of the conversion of the Gentiles when they were in conflict with them. Martin Goodman writes, “There is strikingly little evidence for such [Gentile] sympathizers in the evidence form Alexandria and the rest of Egypt.”(22) One of the reasons for this was presumably the long-running conflict between the Jews and Greeks in Alexandria, which meant that Greeks were less likely to be sympathetic to or interested in Judaism and the Jews were more hostile towards the Gentiles.
There are occasions in Acts when Paul preaches to both Jews and Greeks in the synagogues(23). This suggests that, in Asia Minor and Greece at least, Gentiles were allowed in the synagogues where they heard the discussions. Acts refers to Gentiles who are usually translated as “god-fearers” who are interested in Judaism and sympathetic to the Jewish God. Sometimes, they are fearing God (phoboumenos)(24). On other occasions they are worshipping God (sebomenos)(25). In Antioch in Pisidia there are “worshipping (sebomemon) proselytes”(26), which suggests that they were converts. Otherwise, it cannot be determined whether these terms refer to two levels of interested Gentiles, one of which is closer to conversion, or whether both terms refer to the same group. Acts refers to Jews and Gentiles, who fear God, and Jews and Gentiles, who worship God, but not Jews and Gentiles, who fear God, and Gentiles, who worship God, together, which would identify them as separate categories of Gentiles.
Thus, there appear to have been proselytes, Gentiles who had converted to Judaism, and further way, god-fearers or god-worshippers, who were interested, but had not yet converted to Judaism. This distinction can be seen in Acts. The early church consisted of Jews who, at first, still had Jewish attitudes to Gentiles. One of the seven selected to look after the needs of the early church was Nicolaus “a proselyte of Antioch”(27). Although Nicolaus was apparently born a Gentile and converted to Judaism, he was given a responsibility in the early church and there is nothing to suggest he was not on a par with or treated any differently than the natural Jews. In contrast, Cornelius, “who feared God” and “prayed constantly to God”(28), was a Gentile and uncircumcised(29). Peter believed it was not lawful to associate with or visit him(30).
In 1981 A.T. Kraabel dismissed the god-fearers as a literary creation of Luke which no longer appeared after Paul “withdraws from the synagogue” and stops preaching to the Jews(31). If the god-fearers were Gentiles on the fringes of the synagogue, then of course they are no longer going to be mentioned after Paul stopped preaching in the synagogue. Kraabel further claims that there is no mention of god-fearers or Gentile sympathizers in any ancient synagogue inscription(32). However, as early as 1979 it was reported that the term theosebeis had been found in an inscription which listed the members of the synagogue in Aphrodisias(33). The inscription includes two lists of names. The first is a list of “students of the law” of largely Jewish names. It included three names who are designated proselytes and two who are god-fearers (theosebes). The proselytes have Jewish names including Joseph son of Eusebios. Since his father had a Greek name, it appears that Joseph took a Jewish name upon his conversion. The two god-fearers have Greek names and they appear to have studied alongside the Jews in the synagogue. The second list contains about 50 god-fearers (theosebes) with Greek names. They were associated with the synagogue but had not become proselytes.
Josephus wrote that in Antioch, “All the time they were attracting to their worship a great number of Greeks, making them virtually members of their own community.”(34) Because these Greeks were “virtually members”, they had apparently not yet converted to Judaism. Similar to Acts, Josephus was referring to Gentiles who were interested in Judaism, but had not converted.
In the Greco-Roman world it was believed that different nations worshipped the same gods under different names. Those Gentiles, who become interests interested in Judaism, must have originally assumed that Yahweh was just another manifestation of Zeus or Jupiter. Over time their worldview must have changed from one of pagan pluralism to monotheistic exclusivism, believing that Yahweh was the only true God. Only when this transformation of their worldview had occurred could the god-fearer, sympathetic to some aspects of Judaism, covert and become a proselyte. Perhaps the two god-fearers, who studied with the Jews in the synagogue at Aphrodisias, were closer to realising this than the other god-fearers, so they were getting some more advanced teaching. Although there is little direct evidence of Jews actively seeking to convert Gentiles, this transformation of their worldview must have required some explaining and persuading by Jews to sympathetic Gentiles.
Acts suggests that proselytes had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses(35). God-fearers were presumably uncircumcised. When John Hycarnus forcibly converted the Idumeans, they had to be circumcised and obey the Law(36). Izaates wanted to be circumcised “as he supposed that he could not be thoroughly a Jews unless he were circumcised.”(37) However, Ananais persuaded him that it was unnecessary because “worship of God was superior to circumcision.” This may mean that Ananais thought it was enough for him to be a god-fearer. Later, Eleazar told Izaates he must be circumcised and he was. His mother Helena later travelled to Jerusalem “in order to worship at that temple of God”(38) and apparently did not provoke a riot like Paul did when he was accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple(39).
There were differing opinions about how far proselytes were accepted by other Jews. After all, if a proselyte was the complete equal of a natural Jew, it would seem unnecessary to designate him as a proselyte. Being a Jew had both religious and racial aspects. A Gentile could take on the religious aspects, but he had still been born a Gentile and did not have the Jewish ancestry which also defined Judaism. This is evident when the Mishnah said that a proselyte should not pray the words “god of our fathers” or “from the land you have sworn unto our fathers to give us,” since their ancestors were Gentiles(40). Although Izaates’ mother Helena could visit the temple, the Qumran’s Damascus Covenant said they should not be allowed(41), which suggests that Jews were divided about the status of proselytes.
Philo wrote that those, who had turned from their own gods and customs to the true God, should be accepted as equals(42). His emphasis seems to suggest that sometimes they were not accepted. He also wrote that Egyptians had to wait three generations before they were accepted into the assembly(43). This presumably means the Egyptian equivalent of god-fearers had to wait three generations before they could convert.
Even though the Idumeans had been circumcised, nearly 200 years later Josephus still referred to them as “half-Jews”(44). Perhaps, because their conversion and circumcision was forced, their sincerity was suspect. In Against Apion, Josephus distinguished between sincere, committed proselytes and the less sincere and less committed ones(45). In his Life of
Moses, Philo also appeared to distinguish between proselytes based on their level of commitment and sincerity(46).
(1) Isaiah 49:1-6, 56:1-8, Tobit 13:11
(2) McKnight, S., “Proselytes and Godfearers” in Evans, C.A., and Porter, S., (editors), Dictionary of New Testament Background, (Illinois: IVP, 2000), p 836
(3) Josephus, Against Apion, 2:40
(4) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:2
(5)Goodman, M., Mission and Conversion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p 85
(6) Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Words, 1:3:3, Dio Cassius, Roman History, 57:18:5
(7) McKnight, S, A Light among the Gentiles (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p 73-74
(8) Matthew 23:15
(9) Mission and Conversion, op cit., p 70-73
(10) Carleton-Paget, J., “Jewish Proselytism at the Time of Christian Origins; Chimera or Reality”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 62 (1996), p 96
(11) Acts 15:1,5
(12) Galatians 5:11
(13) A Light among the Gentiles, op cit., p 38
(14) Ibid., p 1
(15) Matthew 24:14, 28:19-20, Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8
(16) Acts 10:1-48
(17) Acts 11:18
(18) Acts 8:4-8, 26-38
(19) Acts 11:20
(20) Acts 4:36, 22:3
(21) Acts 22:21-22
(22) Mission and Conversion, op cit., p 87
(23) Acts 14:1, 17:4, 18:4
(24) Acts 10:2, 22, 35, 13:16, 26
(25) Acts 14:43, 13:50, 16:14, 17:4,17, 18:7
(26) Acts 13:43
(27) Acts 6:5
(28) Acts 10:2
(29) Acts 11:3
(30) Acts 10:28
(31) Kraabel, A.T., “The Disappearance of the ‘God-Fearers'”, Numen, Vol. 28, Fasc. 2 (Dec. 1981), p 120
(32) Ibid., p 116-117, 121
(33) Murphy-O’Connor, J., “Lots of God-Fearers? Theosebeis in the Aphrodisias Inscription”, Revue Biblique, Vol. 99 (1992), p 419
(34) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:3:3
(35) Acts 15:1,5
(36) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13:9:1
(37) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:2:4
(38) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:2:5
(39) Acts 21:28-29
(40) Cohen, S.J.D., “Crossing the Boundary and Becoming a Jew”, Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan. 1989), p 30
(41) Ibid., p 30
(42) Philo, On the Virtues, 102-104
(43) Philo, On the Virtues, 108
(44) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:15:2
(45) Josephus, Against Apion, 2:11:29
(46) A Light to the Gentiles, op cit., p 93-97
Feldman, L.H., and Reinhold, M., (editors), Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996)
Goodman, M., Mission and Conversion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)
McKnight, S., A Light among the Gentiles (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991)
Carleton-Paget, J., “Jewish Proselytism at the Time of Christian Origins: Chimera or Reality”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 62 (1996), pp 65-103
Cohen, S.J.D., “Crossing the Boundary and Becoming a Jews”, Harvard Theological
Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan. 1989), pp 13-33
Kraabel, A.T., “The Disappearance of the ‘God-Fearers'”, Numen, Vol. 28, Fasc. 2 (Dec. 1981), pp 113-126
McKnight, “Proselytes and Godfearers”, in Evans, C.A., and Porter, S. (editors), Dictionary of New Testament Background, (Illinois: IVP, 2000)
Murphy-O’Connor, J., “Lots of God-fearers? Theosebeis in the Aphrodisias Inscription,”, Revue Bibioque, Vol. 99 (1992), pp 418-424