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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Proselyte (2)


1. Derivation of the name.προσήλυτος (from προσέρχομαι) means lit. ‘one who has arrived at a place,’ hence ‘a stranger,’ ‘a sojourner.’ In the LXX Septuagint it is frequently used as the equivalent of the Heb. נֵּר (see Expos. iv. x. [1894] p. 264). By NT times it had acquired the technical meaning of ‘one who was a convert to Judaism from heathendom,’ without any indication of place of residence being involved. This special meaning had also been gradually acquired by נֵּר (see W. R. Smith, OTJC [Note: TJC The Old Test, in the Jewish Church] 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 342 n. [Note: note.] ; also Oxford Heb. Lex. s.v. נֵּר), and also by the Aramaic נִּיוֹרָא (LXX Septuagint γειώρας).

2. Classes of proselytes.—In the time of Christ many foreigners had fully embraced Judaism, and were called ‘proselytes’; there were also others, far more numerous, who had partially adopted Jewish doctrines and customs. The latter are indicated in the NT by σεβόμενοι (Acts 13:43; Acts 16:14; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:17; Acts 18:7) and φοβούμενοι [τὸν θεόν] (Acts 10:2, Acts 13:16; Acts 13:26). These words indicate that they reverenced Israel’s God and in part obeyed the Law, but had not fully entered into the fellowship of Israel. These divisions correspond to those of the Mishna, where נֵּר is a fully admitted proselyte, and the term נֵּר תּוֹשָׁב (lit. a resident alien) is applied to those who were more loosely attached to the Jewish worship. Later Rabbis expressed the same distinction by the phrases ‘proselyte of Righteousness’ (נֵּר הַצֶּדָק), as contrasted with ‘proselyte of the Gate’ (נֵּר הַשַּׁעַר).

(a) Proselytes properly so called (NT προσήλυτος; Mishna נֵּר; Rabbinic name נֵּר הַצֶּדֶק). These were heathen by birth, who had been admitted to full fellowship in Jewish worship. Three observances were required for their admission: (1) Circumcision. (2) Baptism, which was analogous to the ceremonial purifications so frequently required of the Jews (Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 321; also Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] ii. 745). Some have maintained that the baptism of proselytes did not originate so early as the time of Christ, but the Mishna incidentally refers to it as if it had been long in use. (3) The offering of a sacrifice, by which atonement was made for the sins of the proselyte. Those thus admitted undertook to observe the whole Law (cf. Galatians 5:3), and they were granted privileges almost equal to those of an Israelite. Such are referred to in Matthew 23:15, John 12:20, Acts 2:10; Acts 6:5; Acts 13:43.

(b) Those denominated in the NT σεβόμενοι or φοβούμενοι (Mishna נֵּר תּוֹשָׁב; by the Rabbis נֵּר הַשָׁעֵר). The Talmud represents these as keeping what were denominated ‘the seven precepts of Noah’—comprising the duties which were considered incumbent upon all men, even outside Israel (Aboda Zara, 64b). These precepts were: (1) obedience to those in authority; (2) reverence to the name of God; (3) abstinence from idolatry, (4) from fornication, (5) from stealing, (6) from murder, (7) from flesh with the blood in it (Sanh. 56b). [The decision respecting the obligations incumbent upon Gentile converts (Acts 15:29) shows some agreement with these precepts].

Since נֵּר תּוֹשָׁב means one permanently dwelling in the country of Israel, the Talmud involves that all who were allowed to dwell in Palestine were required to keep the precepts of Noah; but this was never actually enforced—it was theoretical only.

Persons who, without becoming full ‘proselytes of Righteousness,’ inclined to a greater or less extent towards Jewish doctrines and practices are referred to in the NT, Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10:2; Acts 13:16; Acts 13:26; Acts 13:43; Acts 13:50; Acts 16:14; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:17; Acts 18:7.

3. Proselytizing in the time of Christ.—The religious restlessness of heathenism, which favoured the introduction of Oriental creeds into the West, afforded an opportunity for Jewish proselytizing. The moral earnestness and monotheism of Judaism commended it to those who, having lost faith in heathen deities, were seeking a more rational and ethical creed. The Greek-speaking Jews, who were to be found in all the great cities of the Roman Empire, carried the Knowledge of the Mosaic Law into the midst of heathendom, and presented their faith in a form calculated to win the approval of their neighbours. This accommodation to their surroundings in the way of representing their creed was partly unconscious, through their contact with Gentile thought, and partly an intentional emphasizing of the moral side of Judaism, while merely national and ceremonial features which might repel inquirers were minimized (Schürer, ii. ii. 297). Hence, in spite of the scorn which Roman writers heaped upon the Jews (Tac. Hist. v. 2–8; Juv. Sat. vi. and xiv.; Cic. pro Flacco, 28), numerous adherents were gained, who either fully or partially accepted Judaism (Josephus c. [Note: circa, about.] Apion. ii. 40, Ant. xx. ii. 3). Many of these converts were women (Josephus BJ ii. xx. 2; also Acts 13:50; Acts 16:14; Acts 17:4).

From these proselytes a very considerable revenue was received by the Temple authorities (Josephus Ant. xiv. vii. 2). This pecuniary advantage from the spread of Judaism stimulated activity in proselytizing, such as that noticed by Christ in Matthew 23:15. Some Jews fraudulently enriched themselves from the gifts of proselytes (Josephus Ant. xviii. iii. 5). Such unworthy motives for proselytizing were condemned by Jesus (Matthew 23:15).

Illustrations of the fanatical zeal of the Jews in making proselytes are found in Josephus Life, 23, Ant. xiii. ix. 1, xi. 3, xv. 4, xx. ii. 1, BJ ii. xvi. 10, XVII. x.

The account of the Acts shows that proselytes often became converts to Christianity, and this was an important factor in the establishment of the Gentile Christian Church. The struggle between St. Paul and the Judaizers (Acts 15 and Ep. to Galatians) was an attempt on the part of Christian Pharisees to compel Gentile Christians to become ‘proselytes of Righteousness.’

4. Moral quality of Jewish proselytes.—Proselytes who had accepted Judaism from pure motives must have been men of high character; nevertheless proselytes are spoken of slightingly by the Talmud. Thus we read (Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] Middah, fol. 13. 2): ‘Proselytes and sodomites hinder the coming of the Messiah.’ This is explained to mean that proselytes often erred through ignorance of the Law. We can readily imagine that insistence upon the minutiae of Pharisaic tradition (cf. Matthew 23:4) would tend to produce a debased character such as is charged against some in Matthew 23:15. Edersheim, however, suggests (LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] ii. 412) that the word ‘proselyte’ in this passage may signify the winning of a convert to Pharisaism, rather than a convert from heathendom to Judaism.

5. Christ’s relations with proselytes.—Although the number of proselytes in Palestine must have been very great, references to them in the Gospels are few. We find: (1) The centurion (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10), who was an officer in the army of Herod Antipas. There is no reason to think of him as a ‘proselyte of Righteousness,’ for in that case (a) he need have had no hesitation in asking Jesus to go to his house, and (b) the words of Jesus (Matthew 8:11) would not be so suitable. But from the fact that he had built a synagogue (Luke 7:5), he was clearly one of the wider class of adherents to Judaism, called in later days ‘proselytes of the Gate’ (see Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] i. 546).—(2) The Greeks (John 12:20). From the fact that these came to attend the Feast, they would appear to have been ‘proselytes of Righteousness.’ (Geikie, however, Life of Christ, ii. 434, considers that they were ‘proselytes of the Gate’).—(3) On Matthew 23:15 see preceding paragraphs on ‘Proselytizing’ and ‘Moral quality.’—(4) Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19). Tradition (earliest recorded in the Gospel of Nicodemus, ch. 2) asserts that Pilate’s wife was a ‘proselyte of the Gate.’ Origen says that she became a Christian.

Literature.—Selden, de Jure Gent., Lib. ii.; Buxtorf, Lex. Talmud. et Rabbin. 8.v. נֶּר; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 291–327; Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, ii. 1–24; Hausrath, NT Times: Time of Apostles, i. 123; Allen In Expos. 4th ser. x. (1894) 264; art. ‘Proselyte’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible and in EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] .

F. E. Robinson.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Proselyte (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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