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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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Προσηλυτος , signifies a stranger, a foreigner; the Hebrew word גר , or גכר , also denotes a stranger, one who comes from abroad, or from another place. In the language of the Jews, those were called by this name who came to dwell in their country, or who embraced their religion, being not Jews by birth. In the New Testament they are called sometimes proselytes, and sometimes Gentiles, fearing God, Acts 2:5; Acts 10:2; Acts 10:22; Acts 13:16; Acts 13:50 . The Jews distinguish two kinds of proselytes. The first, proselytes of the gate; the others, proselytes of justice or righteousness. The first dwelt in the land of Israel, or even out of that country, and, without obliging themselves to circumcision, or to any other ceremony of the law, feared and worshipped the true God, observing the rules imposed on Noah. These were, according to the rabbins,

1. To abstain from idolatry;

2. From blasphemy;

3. From murder;

4. From adultery;

5. From theft;

6. To appoint just and upright judges;

7. Not to eat the flesh of any animal cut off while it was alive.

Maimonides says, that the first six of these precepts were given to Adam, and the seventh to Noah. The privileges of proselytes of the gate were, first, that through holiness they might have hope of eternal life. Secondly, they could dwell in the land of Israel, and share in the outward prosperities of it. It is said they did not dwell in the cities, but only in the suburbs and the villages; but it is certain that the Jews often admitted into their cities, not only proselytes of habitation, but also Gentiles and idolaters, as appears by the reproaches on this account, throughout the Scriptures.

Proselytes of justice or of righteousness were those converted to Judaism, who had engaged themselves to receive circumcision, and to observe the whole law of Moses. Thus were they admitted to all the prerogatives of the people of the Lord. The rabbins inform us that, before circumcision was administered to them, and before they were admitted into the religion of the Hebrews, they were examined about the motives of their conversion; whether the change was voluntary, or whether it proceeded from interest, fear, ambition, &c. When the proselyte was well proved and instructed, they gave him circumcision; and when the wound of his circumcision healed, they gave him baptism, by plunging his whole body into a cistern of water, by only one immersion. Boys under twelve years of age, and girls under thirteen, could not become proselytes till they had obtained the consent of their parents, or, in case of refusal, the concurrence of the officers of justice. Baptism in respect of girls had the same effect as circumcision in respect of boys. Each of them, by means of this, received, as it were, a new birth, so that those who were their parents before were no longer regarded as such after this ceremony, and those who before were slaves now became free.

Many, however, are of opinion that there appears to be no ground whatever in Scripture for this distinction of proselytes of the gate, and proselytes of righteousness. "According to my idea," says Dr. Tomline, "proselytes were those, and those only, who took upon themselves the obligation of the whole Mosaic law, but retained that name till they were admitted into the congregation of the Lord as adopted children. Gentiles were allowed to worship and offer sacrifices to the God of Israel in the outer court of the temple; and some of them, persuaded of the sole and universal sovereignty of the Lord Jehovah, might renounce idolatry without embracing the Mosaic law; but such persons appear to me never to be called proselytes in Scripture, or in any ancient Christian writer." He also observes that "the term proselytes of the gate is derived from an expression frequent in the Old Testament; namely, ‘the stranger that is within thy gates;' but I think it evident that the strangers were those Gentiles who were permitted to live among the Jews under certain restrictions, and whom the Jews were forbidden ‘to vex or oppress,' so long as they live in a peaceable manner." Dr. Lardner says, "I do not believe that the notion of two sorts of Jewish proselytes can be found in any Christian writer before the fourteenth century or later." Dr. Jennings also observes that "there does not appear to be sufficient evidence in the Scripture history of the existence of such proselytes of the gate, as the rabbins mention; nor, indeed, of any who with propriety can be styled proselytes, except such as fully embraced the Jewish religion."

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Proselyte'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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