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Bible Encyclopedias

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Proselyte

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pros´ḗ - lı̄t ( προσήλυτος , prosḗlutos , from prosérchomai , "I approach"): Found 4 times in the New Testament. In the Septuagint it often occurs as the translation of גּר , gēr . The Hebrew verb gūr means "to sojourn"; gēr accordingly means a stranger who has come to settle in the land, as distinguished on the one hand from 'ezrāḥ , "a homeborn" or "native," and on the other from nokhrı̄ or ben - nēkhār , which means a stranger who is only passing through the country. Yet it is to be noted that in 2 Chronicles 2:17 those of the native tribes still living in the land as Amorites, Hittites, etc., are also called gērı̄m . In two places, (Exodus 12:19; Isaiah 14:1 ) the Septuagint uses , g (e )iṓras , which is derived from gı̄yōr , the Aramaic equivalent for gēr . Septuagint uses pároikos (the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew tōshābh , "a settler") for gēr when Israel or the triarchs are indicated (Genesis 15:13; Genesis 23:4; Exodus 2:22; Exodus 18:3; Deuteronomy 23:7; 1 Chronicles 29:15; Psalm 39:12; Psalm 119:19; Jeremiah 14:8 ), and in a few other cases. In Talmudical literature gēr always stands for proselyte in the New Testament sense, i.e. a Gentile who has been converted to Judaism. Onkelos, who was himself a proselyte, always translates the word in this way.

1. Ger in the Old Testament:

No difficulties were put in the way of those strangers who wished to settle down in the land of Israel. All strangers, the third generation of Egyptians and Edomites included, and only Ammonites and Moabites excluded, could enter "the congregation of God" without circumcision and without the obligation to keep the ceremonial law.

'The stranger within the gate' was free to eat meat which was prohibited to the Israelite (Deuteronomy 14:21 ). If, however, the stranger wished to take part in the Passover, a feast permeated with national ideals, he must be circumcised. The keeping of the Sabbath and other feasts was regarded rather as a privilege than as a duty (Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 16:11 , Deuteronomy 16:14 ); but according to Leviticus 16:29 the gēr was obliged to keep the fast of Atonement. He was forbidden on pain of death to blaspheme (Leviticus 24:16 ) or to offer children to Molech (Leviticus 20:2 ). If he desired to bring a burnt offering, the same law applied to him as to the Israelites (Leviticus 17:8; Leviticus 22:18 ). Though the law of circumcision was not forced upon the gēr , it seems that the Mosaic Law endeavored to bring him nearer to the cult of Israel, not from any proselytizing motives, but in order to preserve theocracy from admixture of foreign elements, which would speedily have proved fatal to its existence.

Though the God of Israel, when He is thought of only as such, ceases to be God; though Israel was chosen before all nations for all nations; though Israel had been again and again reminded that the Messiah would bring a blessing to all nations; and though there were instances of pagans coming to believe in Yahweh, yet it did not belong to the economy of Old Testament religion to spread the knowledge of God directly among the Gentiles (the Book of Jonah is an exception to this). There was certainly no active propagandism. Though we read in Nehemiah 10:28 of those who "separated themselves from the peoples of the lands unto the law of God" (compare Isaiah 56:3 , "the foreigner, that hath joined himself to Yahweh" - the only and exact description of a proselyte proper in the Old Testament), the spirit of exclusiveness prevailed; the doubtful elements were separated (Ezra 4:3 ): mixed marriages were prohibited by the chiefs, and were afterward disapproved of by the people (Ezra 9:1-15; 10; Nehemiah 13:23 ff). Direct proselytism did not begin till about a century later.

2. Proselytizing:

The preaching of the gospel was preceded and prepared for by the dispersion of the Jews, and a world-wide propagandism of Judaism. In the 5th century BC the Jews had a temple of their own at Syene. Alexander the Great settled 8,000 Jews in the Thebais, and Jews formed a third of the population of Alexandria. Large numbers were brought from Palestine by Ptolemy I (320 BC), and they gradually spread from Egypt along the whole Mediterranean coast of Africa. After the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (170 BC) they scattered themselves in every direction, and, in the words of the Sibylline Oracles (circa 160 BC), "crowded with their numbers every ocean and country." There was hardly a seaport or a commercial center in Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, or the Islands of the AEgean, in which Jewish communities were not to be found. Josephus ( Ant. , XIV , vii, 2) quotes Strabo as saying: "It is hard to find a place in the habitable earth that hath not admitted this tribe of men, and is not possessed by them." Thus, in spite of the hatred and contempt which Judaism everywhere excited, its lofty, austere and spiritual religious aspirations and conceptions became known to the pagan world and exercised a profound attraction upon many souls that were deeply dissatisfied with contemporary religions. Judaism was at that period filled with missionary zeal and aspired to world-mastery. Many books on Judaism (e.g. the Sibylline Oracles) were written anonymously by Jews in order to influence pagan readers. The synagogue, which had become the center of Jewish worship, now opened its doors widely to the pagan world (compare Acts 15:21 ), and many of the sermons delivered there were directly aimed at the conversion of pagans. The Jews began to feel that they were "a guide of the blind, a fight of them that are in darkness" (Romans 2:19 ).

Not only Josephus ( Apion , II; BJ , VII, iii, 3), but also Seneca ( Apud Aug. De Civit . Dei vi. 11), Dio Cassius (xxxvii. 17), Tacitus ( Ann . ii. 85; Hist . Nehemiah 10:5 ), Horace (Sat . i. 4, 142), Juvenal (Sat. xiv. 96 ff), and other Greek and Roman writers testify to the widespread effects of the proselytizing propaganda of the Jews.

Many gladly frequented the synagogues and kept some of the Jewish laws and customs. Among those were to be found the "men who feared God," spoken of in Acts. They were so called to distinguish them from full proselytes; and it was probably for this class that tablets of warning in the temple were inscribed in Greek and Latin

Another class kept practically all the Jewish laws and customs, but were not circumcised. Some again, though not circumcised, had their children circumcised (Juvenal Sat . xiv. 96 ff). Such Jewish customs as fasting, cleansings, abstaining from pork, lighting the candles on Friday evening, and keeping the Sabbath (Josephus, Apion , II, 29, etc.) were observed by these Gentile sympathizers. Schurer holds that there were congregations of Greeks and Romans in Asia Minor, and probably in Rome, which, though they had no connection with the synagogue, formed themselves into gatherings after the pattern of the synagogue, and observed some of the Jewish customs. Among the converts to Judaism there were probably few who were circumcised, and most of those who were circumcised submitted to the rite in order to marry Jewesses, or to enjoy the rights and privileges granted to the Jews by Syrian, Egyptian and Roman rulers (Josephus, Ant. , XIV , vii, 2; XX, vii, 1; compare XVI , vii, 6). It would appear from Christ's words (Matthew 23:15 , "one proselyte") that the number of full proselytes was not large. Hyrcanus forced the Edomites to adopt Judaism by circumcision (129 BC); and on other occasions the same policy of propagandism by force was followed. Josephus tells an interesting story (Ant. , XX, ii, 1) of the conversion of Queen Helena of Adiabene and her two sons. The conversion of the sons was due to the teaching of a merchant called Ananias, who did not insist on circumcision. Later, another Jew, Eliezer of Galilee, told the young princes that it was not enough to read the Law, but that they must keep it too, with the result that both were circumcised. From this it is evident that Jewish teachers of the Gentileconverts varied in the strictness of their teaching.

3. Proselytes in the New Testament:

The word "proselyte" occurs 4 times in the New Testament; once in Mt (Matthew 23:15 ), where our Lord refers to the proselytizing zeal of the Pharisees, and to the pernicious influence which they exerted on their converts; and 3 times in Acts. Proselytes were present at Pentecost (Acts 2:10 ); Nicolas, one of the deacons appointed by the primitive church at Jerusalem, was a proselyte (Acts 6:5 ); and after Paul had spoken in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia, many devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:43 ). It is to be noted in this last case that the proselytes are called sebómenoi , a word generally reserved for another class. Certain people are spoken of in Acts as phoboúmenoi tón theón , "fearing God" (Acts 10:2 , Acts 10:22 , Acts 10:35; Acts 13:16 , Acts 13:26 ), and as sebómenoi tón theón , "reverencing God," or simply sebómenoi (Acts 13:50; Acts 16:14; Acts 17:4 , Acts 17:17; Acts 18:7 ). These seem (as against Bertholet and EB ) to have been sympathizers with Judaism, who attended the worship of the synagogue, but were not circumcised. It was among this class that the gospel made its first converts among the Gentiles. Those who were fully proselytes were probably as fanatical opponents of Christianity as were the Jews.

4. Ger in the Talmud:

From the old strict Pharisaic-Palestinian point of view, circumcision, with the addition of baptism and the offering of sacrifice, was indispensable (so to Paul every circumcised person was a Jew; compare Galatians 5:3 ); and thus their converts had to submit to the whole burden of the Mosaic and traditional Law. The rabbinic distinction between gēr tōshābh , "a settler," and gēr cedheḳ , "a proselyte of righteousness," is, according to Schurer, only theoretical, and arose at a later date (Bābhā' Mecı̄‛ā' 5 6, 9, 12; Makkōth 2 3; Neghā‛ı̄m 3 1, et al.).

While the gēr cedheḳ (or gēr ha - berı̄th , "proselyte of the covenant") was considered as being in every respect a "perfect Israelite," the gēr tōshābh (or gēr sha‛ar , "proselyte of the gate"; compare Exodus 20:10 ) only professed his faith in the God of Israel, and bound himself to the observance of the 7 Noachic precepts, abstinence from blasphemy, idolatry, homicide, fornication, robbery, eating the flesh of an animal that had died a natural death, and disobedience to (Jewish) authority (Ṣanh . 56a; compare Acts 15:20 , Acts 15:29; Acts 21:25 ). He was considered more of a Gentile than a Jew.

Three things were required for the admission of a proselyte, circumcision,. baptism, and the offering of sacrifice ( Ber . 47b; Yebhām . 45b, 46a, 48b, 76a; 'Ābhōth 57a, et al.). In the case of women only baptism and the offering of sacrifice were required; for that reason there were more women converts than men. Josephus ( BJ , II, xx, 2) tells how most of the women of Damascus were addicted to the Jewish religion. Doubt has been expressed as to the necessity of proselytes being baptized, since there is no mention of it by Paul or Philo or Josephus, but it is probable that a Gentile, who was unclean, would not be admitted to the temple without being cleansed.

The proselyte was received in the following manner. He was first asked his reason for wishing to embrace Judaism. He was told that Israel was in a state of affliction; if he replied that he was aware of the fact and felt himself unworthy to share these afflictions, he was admitted. Then he received instruction in some of the "light" and "heavy" commandments, the rules concerning gleaning and tithes, and the penalties attached to the breach of the commandments. If he was willing to submit to all this, he was circumcised, and after his recovery he was immersed without delay. At this latter ceremony two "disciples of the wise" stood by to tell him more of the "light" and "heavy" commandments. When he came up after the immersion, those assembled addressed him saying: "Unto whom hast thou given thyself? Blessed art thou, thou hast given thyself to God; the world was created for the sake of Israel, and only Israelites are called the children of God. The afflictions, of which we spoke, we mentioned only to make thy reward the greater." After his baptism he was considered to be a new man, "a little child newly born" ( Yebhām . 22a, 47a, 48b, 97b); a new name was given him; either he was named "Abraham the son of Abraham," or the Scriptures were opened at hazard, and the first name that was read was given to him. Thenceforth he had to put behind him all his past; even his marriage ties and those of kinship no longer held good (compare Yebhām . 22a; Ṣanhedrin 58b).

Although he was thus juridically considered a new man, and one whose praises were sung in the Talmudical literature, he was yet on the whole looked down on as inferior to a born Jew ( Ḳidd . 4 7; Shebhū‛ōth 10 9, et al.). Rabbi Chelbo said: "Proselytes are as injurious to Israel as a scab" ( Yebhām . 47b; Ḳidd . 70b; compare Philippians 3:5 ). See also STRANGER .

Literature.

See articles on "Proselyte" and "Ger." in EB , HDB , Jewish Encyclopedia , and RE ; Slevogt, De proselytis Judeorum , 1651; A. Bertholet, Die Stellung der Israeliten und der Juden zu den Fremden , 1896; Schurer, HJP , 1898; Huidekoper, Judaism at Rome , 1887; Harnack, Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums , 1906, English translation; Allen, "On the Meaning of proselutos in the Septuagint," The Expositor , 1894; A. B. Davidson, "They That Fear the Lord," Expository Times , 3 (1892), 491 ff.

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Proselyte'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/p/proselyte.html. 1915.

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