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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Proselyte

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1. Meaning of the term.-The word προσήλυτος is not found in classical Greek. It is still an open question whether those who formed the word from προσέρχομαι thought of the verb in its primary sense of ‘advenio,’ or in its religious sense of ‘(deum) adeo’ (cf. Hebrews 7:25, τοὺς προσερχομένους διʼ αὐτοῦ τῷ Θεῷ). In the former case, προσήλυτος originally meant advena, ‘new-comer’ (for which the classical equivalent is ἔπηλυς); in the latter, it meant ‘proselyte’ in the sense of ‘one who comes or draws near to God.’ In his exhaustive study of προσήλυτος in the LXX_ (Exp_, 4th ser., x. 264 ff.), W. C. Allen argues from the fact that the word is correctly used in a majority of cases for the ðÌÅø to whom certain rights were conceded in Israel (Oxf. Heb. Lex., s.v. ðÌÅø 2 [p. 158a]), that its meaning was from the first that of ‘proselyte’-the meaning of ‘stranger’ being secondary, and arising from the proselyte’s having his home ‘in a strange land’ (like the Israelites themselves in Egypt: hence they are called προσήλυτοι, Exodus 22:21; Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19): The statement of Philo (de Monarch. 1. 7, τούτους δὲ καλεῖ προσηλύτους ἀπὸ τοῦ προσεληλυθέναι καινῇ καὶ φιλοθέῳ πολιτείᾳ), and also the words of Josephus (Ant. XVIII. iii. 5, νομίμοις προσεληλυθυῖα τοῖς Ἰουδαικοῖς), are in favour of this view. What prevents us, however, from giving it our full adhesion is that the LXX_ does not use προσήλυτος in all the passages where ðÌÅø seems to mean or to approximate in meaning to ‘proselyte,’ but has sometimes πάροικος. This, of course, may be due to different hands having been employed in the work of translation. Valuable for guidance is W. R. Smith’s note (OTJC_2, p. 342): ‘In the Levitical legislation the word Gêr is already on the way to assume the later technical sense of proselyte’ (cf. Driver, ICC_, ‘Deuteronomy,’ p. 165).

The distinction drawn between ‘the proselyte of the gate’ , who accepted the ‘Seven Noachian Laws’ (ERE_ iv. 245a), and ‘the proselyte of righteousness’, who by complete adoption of Israel’s laws became incorporated with the covenant people (HDB_ ii. 157a), belongs to Rabbinical Judaism (ERE_ vii. 592b), and is not found in Scripture. It had its precedents, however, in the differences of religious standing observable among the in Israel; while the σεβόμενοι τὸν θεόν mentioned by Josephus (Ant. XIV. vii. 2), and frequently in Acts, may roughly represent the ‘proselytes of the gate’ of the Gemârâ. It has been suggested that the of Psalms 22:23; Psalms 115:11; Psalms 115:13; Psalms 118:4; Psalms 135:20 are identical with the φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν of Acts 13:16; Acts 13:26, but A. B. Davidson has shown that the general usage of the OT is against the identification (ExpT_ iii. 491). While Bertholet and others maintain that προσήλυτοι, οἱ φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν and οἱ σεβόμενοι τὸν θεόν are synonymous (EBi_ iii. 3904), the view of Schürer (HJP_ II. ii. 314 ff.) that the first term means proselytes in the technical sense, and the other two those who, without having submitted to the rite of circumcision, joined in Jewish worship, has gained a wider acceptance. The adherence of Gentiles to Judaism in the centuries immediately preceding and following the fall of Jerusalem ‘ranged over the entire gamut of possible degrees,’ depending upon ‘the different degrees in which the ceremonial precepts of the Law were observed’ (Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity2, i. 12, 10). The following passage from Theodore Reinach well illustrates this:

‘Judaism possessed the prudence and tact not to exact from its adepts [converts] at the outset full and complete adoption of the Jewish Law. The neophyte was at first simply a “friend” to the Jewish customs, observing the least enthralling ones-the Sabbath and the lighting of a fire on the previous evening; certain fast-days; abstention from pork. His sons frequented the synagogues and deserted the temples, studied the Law, and contributed their oboli to the treasury of Jerusalem [cf. Nehemiah 10:32 f., ERE_ vii. 592a]. By degrees habit accomplished the rest. At last the proselyte took the decisive step: he received the rite of circumcision, took the hath of purity …, and offered, doubtless in money, the sacrifice which signalized his definitive entrance into the bosom of Israel. Occasionally, in order to accentuate his conversion, he even adopted a Hebraic name.… In the third generation, according to Deuteronomy 23:8, there existed no distinction between the Jew by race and the Jew by adoption’ (JE_ iv. 570).

‘The bath of purity’ here spoken of refers to the baptism of proselytes. This is described by W. Brandt (ERE_ ii. 408) as ‘a practice of ceremonial ablution altogether new,’ which ‘we may safely assume … was not of later origin than Christian baptism.’ It is not mentioned in the OT, and the traces of it found by Talmudic scholars in Genesis 35:2, Exodus 19:10 are quite imaginary. It is referred to by Epictetus (who taught till a.d. 94) in his conversations as a matter of common knowledge: ‘When a man,’ he says, ‘takes upon himself the arduous life of the baptized and the elect (τοῦ βεβαμμένου καὶ ᾑρημένου), then he is really what he calls himself, a Jew’ (Arrian, Diss. Epicteti, ii. 9). The Babylonian Talmud reports that about the end of the 1st cent. two famous Rabbis disputed with one another as to its necessity, which shows that at that period it was not universally regarded as indispensable. It was designated in later times ‘the immersion of proselytism,’ and the manner of its administration was as follows: ‘The individual who desired to become a Jew was conducted to the bath, and there immersed himself in the presence of the Rabbis, who recited to him portions of the Law’ (cf. Plummer, art._ ‘Baptism,’ HDB_ i. 239 f. for other references).

2. NT passages referring to proselytes.-(1) Matthew 23:15. Grätz’s conjecture that this verse refers to an actual incident, the voyage of R. Gamaliel, R. Eliezer, R. Joshua, and R. Akiba to Rome, where they converted Flavius Clemens, the cousin of Domitian (cf. ERE_ vii. 592b), would imply that the saying is not justly attributed to our Lord. It is probable, as Adolf Jellinek, the famous Austrian Rabbi and scholar (1821-1893), suggested, that what is here condemned is the Pharisees’ practice of winning over every year at least one proselyte each (E. G. Hirsch, JE_ x. 221). (2) There were proselytes among the multitude who witnessed the miracle of Pentecost (Acts 2:10), some of whom may have been added to the Church; the selection of ‘Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch’ (Acts 6:5) as one of the seven deacons indicates that there was a certain proportion of men of his class in the primitive Christian community. (3) In Acts 13:43 τῶν σεβομένων προσηλύτων is perhaps a conflate reading (EBi_ iii. 3902), but the phrase appears to be a popular designation of ‘God-fearing proselytes’-the same whom St. Paul twice appeals to (Acts 13:16; Acts 13:26) as οἱ φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν. (4) Acts 8:27. The chamberlain of Candace is included by Reinach among the ‘distinguished recruits’ of the Jewish faith (JE_ iv. 570b). (5) Cornelius was one of the φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν (Acts 10:2; Acts 10:22; Acts 10:35); note that in v. 35 St. Peter’s words have not the breadth often assigned to them-he only goes the length of recognizing the manifest signs of God’s acceptance of a Gentile who ‘feareth him, and worketh righteousness.’ (6) Lydia (Acts 16:14), Titus Justus (Acts 18:7), and the σεβόμενοι of Thessalonica and Athens (Acts 17:4; Acts 17:17) illustrate the important aid that members of this class gave to St. Paul in his travels. He did not, however, always find the σεβόμεναι γυναῖκες favourable to the gospel (Acts 13:50). It was partly owing to the fact of the Christian faith having found so many adherents among the σεβόμενοι τὸν θεόν that the class of ‘half-proselytes’ or ‘half-converts’ came to be regarded by Rabbinical teachers with doubtful approval.

3. Outline of the history of proselytism.-Conversions to Judaism went on unimpeded in NT times, both before and after the Jewish war (Parting of the Roads, pp. 285, 305). The chief source of our information on this point is Josephus, whose historical accuracy is now generally admitted (HDB_ v. 466). Some of the proselytes whom he mentions by name were acquisitions of very doubtful value, as the kings Azizus of Emesa and Polemo of Cilicia, who were prompted to embrace Judaism by the desire to contract advantageous marriages with Herodian princesses (Ant. xx. vii. 1, 3), and the Empress Poppaea, whom he calls θεοσεβής (ib. XX. viii. 11). On the other hand, the conversions of Helena, queen of Adiabene, and her son, Izates, seem to have been due to sincere conviction, and the chapters in which the historian records their life and virtuous deeds are some of the most attractive of his great work (ib. XX. ii-iv).

The bitterness engendered by the persecution which followed the failure of the rising against Hadrian (a.d. 132-135), and the growth of the Christian Church, were joint causes which led the Rabbis to make conversion to Judaism more difficult. ‘Qualified conversions to Judaism’ were ‘regarded with increasing disfavor,’ R. Joḥanan declaring ‘that if after a probation of twelve months the ger toshab did not submit to the rite of circumcision, he was to be regarded as a heathen’ (E. G. Hirsch, JE_ x. 222a). But the ðÌÅø öÆåÆ-he who, in St. Paul’s words, ‘by receiving circumcision, became a debtor to do the whole law’ (Galatians 5:3)-was always admitted with fervour. ‘That proselytes are welcome in Israel and are beloved of God is the theme of many a rabbinical homily’ (Hirsch, loc. cit.).

It should be mentioned that in two passages of the LXX_ where a proselyte proper is meant (Exodus 12:19, Isaiah 14:1) ðÌÅø is rendered, not by προσήλυτος but by γειώρας, an Aramaic word derived from ðÌÅø (HDB_ iv. 133a; Exp_, 4th ser., x. 269; cf. HDB_ ii. 157a).

Literature.-W. C. Allen, ‘On the meaning of προσήλυτος in the Septuagint,’ in Exp_, 4th ser., x. [1894] 264 ff.; Arrian, Dissertationes Epicteti, ii. 9; Oxf. Heb. Lex., s.v. ðÌÅø, p. 158; A. B. Davidson, ‘They that fear the Lord,’ in ExpT_ iii. [1891-92] 491; HDB_ v. 466; S. R. Driver, ICC_, ‘Deuteronomy’2, Edinburgh, 1896, p. 165; W. Brandt, art._ ‘Baptism (Jewish),’ in ERE_ ii. 408; H. Hirschfeld, art._ ‘Creeds (Jewish),’ ib. iv. 245; H. Lcewe, art._ ‘Judaism,’ ib. vii. 592; H. Grätz, Die jüdischen Proselyten im Römerreiche, Breslau, 1884, p. 30; A. Harnack, Mission and Expansion of Christianity2, London, 1908, pp. 10, 12; T. Reinach, art._ ‘Diaspora,’ in JE_ iv. 570; E. G. Hirsch, art._ ‘Proselyte,’ ib. x. 221, 222; A. Jellinek, Beth-ha-Midrasch, Vienna, 1853-78, pt. v. p. xlvi; A. Plummer, art._ ‘Baptism,’ in HDB_ i. 239, 240; F. C. Porter, art._ ‘Proselyte,’ ib. iv. 132 f.; W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, London, 1895, p. 43; E. Schürer, HJP_ II. ii. [Edinburgh, 1885] 311 f., 315; J. A. Selbie, art._ ‘Ger,’ in HDB_ ii. 157a; W. R. Smith, OTJC_2, London, 1892, p. 342; W. R. Smith and W. H. Bennett, art._ ‘Proselyte,’ in EBi_ iii. 3902, 3904; The Parting of the Roads, ed. F. J. Foakes Jackson, London, 1912, pp. 286, 305.

James Donald.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Proselyte'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/proselyte.html. 1906-1918.

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