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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
Proselyte, the name applied in the New Testament and the Septuagint to converts from heathenism to Judaism. In the Old Testament such persons are called strangers and settlers. For the reception and treatment of these, provision was made in the law of Moses (;; , etc.); and the whole Jewish state was considered as composed of the two classes, Jews, and strangers within their gates, or proselytes. In later years this distinction was observed even to the second generation. It has been customary to make a distinction between two classes of Jewish proselytes, the one denominated proselytes of the gate, and the other proselytes of the covenant, or of righteousness. Under the former have been included those converts from heathenism who had so far renounced idolatry as to become worshippers of the one God, and to observe, generally, what have been called the seven Noachic precepts, viz., against idolatry, profanity, incest, murder, dishonesty, eating blood, or things strangled, and allowing a murderer to live, but had not formally enrolled themselves in the Jewish state. The latter is composed of those who had submitted to circumcision, and in all respects become converts to Judaism. The accuracy of this distinction, however, has been called in question by several, especially by Lardner, whose arguments appear decisive of the question (Works, vol. vi. pp. 522-533; vol. xi. pp. 313-324, 8vo. edit. 1788). That there were, in later times especially, many among the Jews who had renounced the grosser parts of heathenism without having come over entirely to Judaism, is beyond all doubt; but that these were ever counted proselytes admits of question. Certain it is that the proselytes mentioned in the New Testament were all persons who had received circumcision, and entered the pale of the Jewish community.
The rites by which a proselyte was initiated are declared by the Rabbins to have been, in the case of a man, three, viz., circumcision, baptism, and a free-will sacrifice. In the case of a woman the first was of necessity omitted. As to the first and last of these, their claim to be regarded as accordant with the ancient practice of the Jews has been on all hands admitted without scruple; but it has been matter of keen question whether the second can be admitted to have been practiced before the Christian era. The substance of much learned discussion on this head we shall attempt summarily to state.
There is no direct evidence that this rite was practiced by the Jews before the second or third century of the Christian era; but the fact that it was practiced by them then necessitates the inquiry: when and how did such a custom arise among them? That they borrowed it from the Christians is an opinion which cannot be for a moment admitted by any who reflect on the implacable hatred with which the Jews for many centuries regarded Christianity, its ordinances, and its professors. Some learned men have adopted the notion that the custom of baptizing proselytes arose gradually out of the habit which the Jews had of purifying by ablution whatever they deemed unclean, and that, it was not formally adopted as an initiatory rite till after the destruction of the temple service, and when in consequence of imperial edicts it became difficult to circumcise converts. But as the Rabbins prescribed both baptism and circumcision as initiatory rites for proselytes, it is manifestly absurd to say that the former was instituted in consequence of the difficulty of performing the latter. And this hypothesis still leaves unremoved the master difficulty of that side of the question which it is designed to support, viz., the great improbability of the Jews adopting for the first time subsequently to the death of Christ, a religious rite which was well known to be the initiatory rite of Christianity. On the other hand we have, in favor of the hypothesis that proselyte baptism was practiced anterior to the time of our Lord, some strongly corroborative evidence. We have, in the first, place, the unanimous tradition of the Jewish Rabbins, who impute to the practice an antiquity commensurate almost with that of their nation. Secondly, we have the fact that the Baptism of John the Baptist was not regarded by the people as aught of a novelty, nor was represented by him as resting for its authority upon any special divine relation. Thirdly, we have the fact that the Pharisees looked upon the baptism both of John and Jesus as a mode of proselyting men to their religious views (), and that the dispute between the Jews and some of John's disciples about purifying was apparently a dispute as to the competing claims of John and Jesus to make proselytes (, sq.). Fourthly, we have the fact, that on the day of Pentecost Pete addressed to a multitude of persons collected from several different and distant countries, Jews and proselytes, an exhortation to 'Repent and be baptized' (), from which it may be fairly inferred that they all knew what baptism means and also its connection with repentance or a change of religious views. Fifthly, we have the fact that according to Josephus, the Essenes were in the habit, before admitting a new convert into their society, solemnly and ritually to purify him with waters of cleansing, a statement which cannot be understood of their ordinary ablutions before meals, for Josephus expressly adds, that even after this lustration two years had to elapse before the neophyte enjoyed the privilege of living with the proficients. And, Sixthly, we have the mode in which Josephus speaks of the baptism of John, when, after referring to John's having exhorted the people to virtue, righteousness, and godliness as preparatory to baptism, he adds, 'For it appeared to him that baptism was admissible no when they used it for obtaining forgiveness of some sins, but for the purification of the body when the soul had been already cleansed by righteousness' (Antiq. xviii. 5. 2); which seems to indicate the conviction of the historian that John did not introduce this rite, but only gave to it a peculiar meaning.
On these grounds we adhere to the opinion that proselyte baptism was known as a Jewish rite anterior to the birth of Christ.
From the time of the Maccabees the desire to make proselytes prevailed among the Jews to a very great extent, especially on the part of the Pharisees, whose intemperate zeal for this object our Lord pointedly rebuked (). The greater part of their converts were females, which has been ascribed to the dislike of the males to submit to circumcision. Josephus tells us that the Jews at Antioch were continually converting great numbers of the Greeks, and that nearly all the women at Damascus were attached to Judaism.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Proselyte'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/p/proselyte.html.