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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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1. The character and the history of the proselyte . The character and the history of the proselyte are somewhat obscured by the fact that the name ‘proselyte’ occurs only in the NT, and there in the final meaning of a convert to Judaism, as if he were a product of NT times alone. But the same Greek word that stands for ‘proselyte’ In the NT is very largely used in the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , where EV [Note: English Version.] has ‘ stranger .’ Even the Hebrews themselves are described by the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] as ‘proselytes’ in Egypt ( Exodus 22:21; Exodus 23:9 , Leviticus 19:34 , Deuteronomy 10:19 ). The ‘ stranger ’ of the OT becomes the ‘proselyte’ of the NT. For the history that lies behind the use of the word see art. Stranger. By the 4th cent. b.c. the ‘stranger’ had become a member of the Jewish Church a proselyte in the technical sense (Bertholet, Stellung der Israeliten , p. 178).

Other expressions are used in the NT to indicate a more or less close sympathy with Jewish religious thought and life without implying absolute identity with and inclusion in Judaism. These are ‘fearers of God ’ ( phoboumenoi ton Theon , Acts 10:2; Acts 10:22; Acts 13:16; Acts 13:26; Acts 13:50 etc.), and ‘worshippers of God’ ( sebomenoi ton Theon , Acts 16:14; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:17 etc.). They were such as were drawn from heathenism by the higher ideals and purer life of Judaism. They were dissatisfied with the religious teaching of their nation, and found in Judaism an Intellectual home and a religious power they sought in vain elsewhere. But a study of Acts 10:11 , esp. Acts 11:3 , shows that these were not proselytes; they refused to take the final step that carried them into Judaism viz. circumcision ( EGT [Note: Expositor’s Greek Testament.] vol. ii. p. 250 f.; Ramsay, Expositor , 1896, p. 200; Harnack, Expansion of Christianity , i. p. 11). They lived on the fringe of Judaism, and were, it seems ( Luke 7:5 , Acts 10:2 ), often generous henefactors to the cause that had lifted them nearer to God and truth.

2. Proselytizing activity of the Jews . Up to the time of the Exile and for some time after, the attitude of the Hebrews towards ‘strangers’ was passive: they did not invite their presence into their community, and did not encourage them to be sharers of their faith. But before the 3rd cent. b.c. a change of outlook and national purpose had taken place, which had converted them into active propagandists. There appear to have been three reasons for this change. (1) The Hebrews were no longer concentrated in one narrow land where a homogeneous life was followed, but were scattered over all parts of the civilized world, and found themselves in contact with peoples who were religiously far inferior to themselves, however otherwise they might be placed, and who excited, it may be, their disdain, but also their pity. (2) Many of those in the Gentile world who were dissatisfied with the intellectual results and the religious conditions of their time saw in Judaism, as lived and taught before their eyes, something finer and nobler than they had found elsewhere; and were drawn to its practical teaching and life without committing themselves to the ritual that offended their sense of fitness and decency (cf. Harnack, op. cit. i. 10 f.). (3) The Hebrews themselves seem to have responded to their opportunity with a quickened enthusiasm for humanity and a higher ideal of their national existence, in the providence of God, among the nations of the earth. It does not appear that the Hebrews have ever been so powerfully moved towards the peoples lying in darkness as in this time subsequent to the Exile (Harnack, op. cit. i. 11, 12). They were convinced of the claim of God to the homage of men everywhere, the universalism of their revelation of truth and duty, and their own fitness to bring the world to God. The needs of the world moved them powerfully, and the thoughts that found expression in such passages as Psalms 33:8 (‘Let all the earth fear the Lord, let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him’) Psalms 36:7-9 , Psalms 64:10 , Psalms 65:8 etc., filled them with a burning zeal to make the world their offering to God. (Bertholet, op. cit. p. 191 f.). Perhaps we may not be wrong in regarding the Septuagint as a product of, as it certainly was an aid to, this missionary effort.

This spiritual enthusiasm for God’s honour and man’s salvation continued till about the time of the Maccabees, when the tenderer springs of the Jewish spirit were dried up, and the sword became the instrument of national idealism, and whole cities and tribes were given the option of circumcision or exile, if not slaughter ( 1Ma 2:46; 1Ma 13:48; 1Ma 14:14; 1Ma 14:36; Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Ant. XIII. ix. 1, xi. 3, xv. 4). Of course, this was a means that was not available outside their hereditary home. This propaganda went on till the 1st cent. of our era, when the dissatisfaction of the Jews with the Roman supremacy culminated in insurrection. In their conflict with Rome their numbers were greatly reduced by slaughter, and their power of religious expansion was checked by the decree of Hadrian, modified later by Antoninus, in forbidding circumcision. By this time, however, Judaism had won a large following in every town of size and importance (cf. Acts 2:9-11; Jos. [Note: Josephus.] BJ VII. iii. 3, c. Apion . ii. 11, 40; Seneca, ap . August, de Civitate Dei , vi. 11; cf. ‘victi victorious leges dederunt’; Harnack, op. cit . i. 14; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 304 ff.). But now bloodshed and persecution produced the twofold result of closing and steeling the heart of Judaism to the outside world, so that proselytes were no longer sought by the Jews, and the tenets and the practices of Judaism became crystallized and less amenable to Hellenistic influences, and so less fitted to win the Gentile spirit.

3. Admission of the proselyte . The ritual conditions imposed on the proselyte on entering Judaism were three: (1) circumcision, (2) cleansing or baptism, (3) sacrifice. Baptism took place after the healing of the wound caused by circumcision. Some have sought to discover in it an imitation of Christian ritual. But there is no foundation for such a claim. Cleansing or baptism lay in the very nature of Judaism, the heathen was unclean and so had to be cleansed by washing in water before admission into Judaism. Sacrifice was both an expression of thanksgiving and an individual participation in Jewish worship. With the fall of the Temple sacrifice lapsed, though at first it was made a burden on the proselyte to lay aside enough to pay for the sacrifice, should the Temple again be restored; but even this demand was in course of time allowed to lapse, as the prospect of restoration vanished. These three conditions seem of early origin, though we may not have specific reference to them till the 2nd cent. a.d.

Among individual Jewish teachers there was difference of opinion as to the necessity of circumcision and baptism, but all early usage seems to confirm their actual observance. It is true that Izates, king of Adiahene, for a time refrained from circumcision under the guidance of his first Jewish teacher, Ananias, but this counsel was given, not because it was at the time deemed unnecessary for a proselyte to be circumcised, but because circumcision might alienate the sympathies of his people from Izates and endanger his throne. And Ananias wisely laid greater stress upon the moral than upon the ritual side of conversion. All through the Dispersion we find the same disposition to conciliate the Gentiles who were willing to share in the Jewish faith in any measure, by relaxing the ritual demands. And we cannot withhold our appreciation of the action of the Jews, for they wisely discriminated between the real and the formal side of their religion. They never did anything, however, to lower or compromise the moral demands of their faith. They rigorously insisted on the recognition of God from all their proselytes with all His claims upon their service (Harnack, op. cit. i. 72). It does not appear that conversion enhanced the reputation of the proselytes; for although they could not but win the esteem of the finer minds of their nation by their higher moral life, yet they seemed to the people to display a type of daily life lacking in domestic reverence and civic and national patriotism (Tac. Hist . v. 5. 8; Juv. Sat . xiv. 103 4).

4. Place of the proselyte in the growth of the Christian Church . Those proselytes who had embraced Judaism in its entirety seem to have accepted the attitude of the Jews generally towards Christianity. Most of them would oppose it, and those who accepted it would make the Law the necessary avenue to it, and so they acted rather as a hindrance than as a help to the progress of the gospel. If the experience of Justin be any indication of the general attitude of the proselytes to the Church, they must have deemed it a duty to their adopted faith to manifest a violence of speech and an aggressiveness of action unsurpassed by the Jews themselves; for he says, ‘the proselytes not only do not believe, but twofold more than yourselves blaspheme His name, and wish to torture and put to death us who believe in Him’ ( Dial . 122).

But the proselytes must always have formed a very small minority of those amongst the Gentiles who had lent an ear to Jewish teaching. There were many who were attracted to the synagogue by the helpfulness of its worship and the purity of its teaching, who had no sympathy with its ritual. Amongst these the gospel had a different reception; it was readily accepted and eagerly followed. They found in it all that drew them to the synagogue, and a great deal more. With historical Judaism they had nothing to do, and loyalty and nationality did not appeal to them as motives to maintain it against Christianity. Amongst the Jews both the proselyte and the devout worshipper occupied an inferior place, but here was a faith that made no distinction between Jew or Gentile, a faith whose conception of God was tenderer and whose ethical standards were higher, that made love and not law the interpreter of duty and the inspiration of service, that lived not in an evening twilight of anticipation of a glorious Messianic morning, but in warm fellowship with a Personality that was the evidence of its power and truth. It is easy to understand how quickly the gospel would be adopted by these adherents of Judaism. Every synagogue would become the seed-plot of a Christian church. And so it was specially to these that St. Paul addressed himself on his missionary journeys, and from them he formed the beginnings of many of his churches and received so much kindness (Acts 13:16; Acts 13:42; Acts 16:14; Acts 16:16 etc.). One can easily understand with what feelings of combined jealousy and hate the Jews would see these worshippers detached from the synagogue and formed into a church. But Judaism had nothing to offer the Gentile that was not better provided by the Christian Church, and so it recoiled from the attack on Christianity like the spent waves from the rock-bound coast, angry but baffled. Failure drove the Jews in sullenness upon themselves. They left the field to Christianity, restricted their vision to their own people, and left the outer world alone.

J. Gilroy.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Proselyte'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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