PROSELYTE (prŏs'ĕ-līt). The Greek word prosēlytos (from the verb proserchomai, “to come to”) is the common LXX translation of the Hebrew word gēr, which means a “foreign resident.” It is often rendered “stranger,” as in “thy stranger that is within thy gates” (
The word occurs only four times in the KJV of the NT: (1) in Jesus' denunciatory discourse (
Among the non-Israelite worshipers of the true God in the OT are Melchizedek, Job, Ruth, Rahab, Naaman, Uriah the Hittite, the Ninevites at the time of Jonah’s preaching, and the converts at the time of Esther (
The subject of Israel’s ancient mission among the Gentiles would require a far more extended study than is possible here.
This technical concept, coined by the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “sojourner,” came also to describe those “who had come over” (prosemlutos) religiously from the Hellenistic environment (cf. Matt. 23:15; Acts 2:11, etc.). In the case of males the process entailed circumcision. Proselytism was a result of active efforts of a missionary enterprise which persisted throughout the Talmudic period in spite of the changing relations with the Roman state, and over against the emergence of Christianity which carried on the activity even more vigorously while simplifying the requirements. Subsequent usage makes the terminology synonymous with “conversion,” which in the case of Judaism, under Christian domination, was often prevented, seldom pursued, but never impossible.
The original meaning of OT גֵּר, H1731.
The term was undoubtedly used at first for a resident alien, not necessarily committed to the faith of Israel, but it was also employed for Israelites living outside the land (
Since political and religious life were so interrelated, the immigrant had to participate in religious rites to have full standing in the tribe. If he were a refugee, removed from the worship of his own country, he would be expected to serve the gods of the land of his present settlement (
From early days, different elements had attached themselves to the people of Israel (
The LXX usage.
The predominant use of proselyte in the LXX is for a convert from another faith (
The change in meaning.
There were several contributing factors in the shift in meaning of proselyte:
Dispersion, a contributing cause.
After the 6th cent. b.c., most of the Jewish nation did not live in Pal. In addition to Assyria and Babylonia, Egypt became a place of their sojourn. This speeded up the process of Israel’s acculturation, whereby many Jews adopted Hel. patterns of thought and attitude while adhering to the old faith in dietary matters and chaste manner of life. The prolonged struggle between the Ptolemies and Seleucids activated some movement of population again from Pal., the center of the conflict. Josephus cites a number of instances where Jews accepted the paganism of Greece and forsook the religion of their people (Jos. Wars II. xviii. 7-8; V. i. 6; VII. ii. 3).
settled 8,000 Jews in Thebais, Egypt. One third of the population of Alexandria was Jewish. There was hardly a commercial center in Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, or the Aegean area without a Jewish community. Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XIV. vii. 2) quoted Strabo as stating: “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.” Numerous books on Judaism were written anonymously (like the ) to impress pagan readers. Many Gentiles, as a result, visited synagogues and even kept some of the Jewish customs.
Inherent mandate in Judaism.
Attractions in Judaism.
Evidence is at hand that in postexilic times many foreigners were drawn to the Jewish religion and were assimilated to it. Intermarriage also aided the process. At one time the practice had so flourished that drastic steps had to be taken to oppose it as contrary to the will of God (
The Persian period.
In the Book of Esther is the first occurrence of a term for conversion, genuine or pretended, to Judaism (
The Maccabean era.
In the wake of the successful Maccabean campaigns, compulsory conversion of subjugated peoples—largely motivated by political considerations—was adopted as a policy by the rulers of the Hasmonean dynasty (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xi. 3; xv. 4). Knowingly or unknowingly, they were following the practice of. Actually, the rabbis never approved (true today also), of compulsory conversions; in rabbinical law (Yebamoth 48b) not even a slave is to be converted by force. Because the Maccabean victories and Hasmonean rule were not supported completely by the religious Jews, the truth of universalism inherent in Jewish ethical monotheism was not hindered in its development. The family of Herod, a convert from Edom, always insisted on conversion (with circumcision included) for those they married. This tradition, it can be seen, was politically motivated. Thus to foster nationalism, the Maccabean leaders actively propagated their faith with the exercise of force. As far as the record goes, the Maccabean princes were the first to use the method of proselytizing by compulsion and duress.
The Greek world.
Jewish proselytism went on apace in the Gr. period (
The Roman period.
Jews had settled in Rome in the 2nd cent. b.c. The first immigrants to Rome were so intense in their zeal to proselytize that they incurred the fear and displeasure of the Rom. authorities, who expelled the chief participants in 139 b.c. By the early part of the 1st cent. b.c., numerous Jews were in Rome and throughout Italy. Especially had they populated Egypt and Cyrene where many non-Jews followed their mode of living. Jewish quarters sprang up in different cities where in some cases they were permitted self-rule and their own courts. When Pompey gained his victory in 63 b.c., he took many Jews captive to Rome where they were sold into slavery, later gaining their freedom and becoming Rom. citizens.
Reaction against the Jews.
Writers like Tacitus, Juvenal, and Horace, and statesmen like Cicero spoke derogatorily of the Jews and their customs and defamed their religion. They were accused of being opposed to strangers, an argument they refuted by reference to the humane legislation of the Mosaic law with regard to foreigners and aliens. Anti-Jewish feelings broke into violence at times, notably in Alexandria and Damascus.
Philo and proselytes.
mingled both Jewish and Gr. cultures. In many ways he approximated Hel. thinking, but he was tireless in behalf of Judaism, always seeking to influence non-Jews to follow his faith. Since Israel had lost all political existence, he stressed the religious factors in Jewish life rather than the national. He labored to demonstrate the ethical superiority of Judaism over pagan immorality. He often praised the converts in Alexandria. It was difficult in the extreme for the proselytes to turn from their ingrained paganism to the new way of life. He asked for special treatment for them from the Jews (
Philo had an intermediate category between those born Jews and full converts. He employed the term μέτοικος for these half heathen, who were permitted to settle with limited privileges among Palestinian Jews (
The rabbinic distinction was between the full convert, גֵּ֤ר צֶדֶק (“convert of righteousness”) and the intermediate follower, גֵּ֤ר תּוֹשָׁב (“resident alien”). The latter accepted monotheism and the Jewish practices, but not the ritual of Judaism. He was uncircumcised and had no formal link to the Jewish community. The former entered into all the duties and rites of the congregation. His descendants of the third generation attained full status as Jews. Philo seems to have made no hard and fast distinctions between the two classes of proselytes, but the case is not clear.
Josephus and proselytes.
He does not use prosēlutos, but he speaks of converts as those who renounce their former way of life, follow the Jewish customs, and worship God according to the Jewish faith, whom the Jews have accepted among themselves (Jos. Antiq. XX, ii. 1, 3; Jos. Wars VII. iii. 3). For Josephus, they were Jews who kept the Mosaic laws and lived as Jews.
The spread of Judaism.
The success of Jewish missionary activity is abundantly attested. Roman writers referred repeatedly to the presence of Jews and their followers everywhere. Before the Christian era, Judaism had sympathizers and converts throughout the Rom. empire. In writing against Apion (II. xl) Josephus boasted that there was no city where Jewish customs and virtues were not observed and imitated. In Pal., as well as in Rome, proselytes were important in numbers and position. The Tannaitic rabbis would not have discussed their reception so thoroughly otherwise.
Women outnumbered by far the male converts. This is explained in large part by the fact that circumcision, which was always a formidable hindrance to a potential male convert, was not applicable to women. The famous conversion of the house of Adiabene (E of the Euphrates) through Helena, the queen mother, was one of the most significant successes of Jewish missionary effort. Loyal to Judaism, this dynasty fought with the Jews against the Romans in a.d. 67-70. Josephus speaks of the women of Damascus, who all but a few had come to the Jewish religion (Jos. Wars, II. xx. 2).
Types of converts: God-fearers and worshipers of God.
Discussing the categories of proselyte of righteousness and proselyte of the gate, W. Robertson Smith denies any such group as the second. He cites Schürer as authority that proselytes and fearers (worshipers) of God are all synonymous. His reasoning is that in his polemic against the Judaizers, Paul always assumed that circumcision was indispensable to converts to Judaism.
Proselytes in the NT.
The term prosēlutos occurs in the NT only four times (
The words of Christ (
The strong Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem, committed to the strict view of circumcision, continued the customary treatment of partial converts. Their deliberations resulted finally in the formula sent to Antioch (
Admission and standing of proselytes.
Among the rabbis there was divergence of views here as on practically all other questions. Some viewed it of merit and in God’s will to recruit proselytes. “Every one who brings a proselyte near, it is as though he had created him” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 84:4). Hillel with his liberal attitudes favored easing requirements for proselytes (Shabbath 31a), whereas Shammai, a strict constructionist, counseled vigorous testing. The process carried out for prospective proselytes was: (1) instruction by a scribe, (2) circumcision, (3) immersion (
There has been some opinion that proselytes were not required to be baptized after the destruction of the Temple. It is generally held that baptism was part of the procedure from the beginning. The baptismal ceremony indicated a new status, the beginning of a new life. In keeping with this concept, the convert took a new name. Many proselytes outstripped their teachers in zeal (
The rabbis were not agreed on the matter of circumcision. Some considered circumcision the main rite in conversion; others, baptism. In the 2nd-3rd centuries, when the polemic with the church was strong, the attitude stiffened toward the partial convert, although evidence points in the direction of acceptance in the period before Christianity.
When the prospective convert first approached a rabbi to express his desire to embrace Judaism, he was asked his reason for desiring to do so. He was informed of Israel’s abject position in the world. If he indicated he knew this fact but was unworthy to bear these burdens, he was accepted. Then followed a period of instruction, which moved from easy to difficult commandments of the law. If willing to comply with the Mosaic law, he underwent circumcision. After recovery, he was immediately immersed. Coming forth from immersion, he was addressed by the congregation in this manner: “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 baptism, as a new man he was given a new name. From that time on his past was forgotten, even ties of marriage and kinship (Sanh. 58b).
Some became proselytes from less than worthy motives: fear (
What was the standing of the convert in Judaism? It was an awkward position, and attitudes toward him varied from time to time. Theory and practice did not tally. Many accorded equal privileges to converts in theory only. The convert could not speak of God as the “God of our fathers,” only as “God of the fathers of Israel” (Bikkurim I. 4). This prohibition was later rescinded. Children of proselytes were considered full Jews when married to a Jew. Some rabbis were quite lenient and disposed toward them; others spoke most disparagingly of them (Yebamoth 109b). Many doubt that the proselyte ever attained to actual, rather than theoretical, equality with Jewish-born adherents to Judaism. Some rabbis considered them actually inferior to a native Jew. Rabbi Chelbo said: “Proselytes are as injurious to Israel as a scab” (Yebamoth 47b; Qiddushin 70b). It must be pointed out, however, that antipathy to proselytes, due in part to aversion for Herod who was a proselyte, was not shared by everyone in Judaism.
Decline in proselytizing.
The decline came with the increase in feeling against foreigners, resulting from the Jewish rebellions against Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the advent of Christianity. These attitudes were present in the 1st century but became pronounced in the 2nd to the 4th centuries. It appears there was a fairly high proportion of converts, full and partial, who reverted to their old way of life (’Abodah Zarah 41a). Some even blamed the delay of Messiah’s advent on proselytes who were not careful in their practices. After the revolt of a.d. 135 under Hadrian, when many proselytes forsook the ranks, missionary zeal in Israel cooled considerably. Because of the bitterness rife at the time, the rabbis decided to make conversion as difficult as possible. Roman emperors issued unfavorable laws against Gentiles who underwent circumcision, and conversions to Judaism were forbidden. On occasion, even the rabbis reported possible converts to the government. Jewish proselytizing did not stop entirely at any time. Outside the Rom. empire the process went on, and notable successes were reported. It has even been suggested that the proselyte to Judaism never formed a mediating link between Jews and Gentiles; rather, he widened the difference.
Influence on Christianity.
Judaism’s attacks on idolatry paved the way for the message of Christianity. Many credit the greater successes of Christianity to the fact that Paul announced freedom from the ritual laws including circumcision. Christianity’s proclamation of a universal Gospel not limited to any people or set of rules was the fulfillment of the message of the OT and the realization of the objective of God for which Israel was scattered among the nations. In conclusion, the proselytes surely paved the way for Christian witness to the Gentiles (as at Corinth,
IDB, III, 921-931; EB, III, 3901-3905; HDB, IV, 132-137; Jew Enc. X, 220-224; E. Schürer, History of the Jewish People in the Time of, 3 vols. (1885-1890); G. F. Moore, Judaism, 3 vols. (1927-1930); F. M. Derwachter, Preparing the Way for Paul: The Proselyte...Judaism (1930); T. J. Meek, “The Translation of GER in the Hexateuch and Its Bearing on the Documentary Hypothesis,” JBL, XLIX (1930), 172-180; L. Finkelstein, “The Institution of Baptism for Proselytes,” JBL, LII (1933), 203-221; S. H. Hook, “The Way of the Initiate,” in W. O. E. Oesterly, ed. Judaism and Christianity I (1937), 213-233; B. J. Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (1939); Samuel Belkin, Philo and the Oral Law (1940), 44-48; J. Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (1944); T. F. Torrance, “Proselyte Baptism,” NTS, I (Nov., 1954), 150-154; Reply by T. M. Taylor, II (Feb., 1956), 193-198; N. Levison, “Proselyte in Biblical and Early Post-Biblical Times,” Scottish Journal of Theology, X (Mar., 1957) 45-56; H. A. E. Sawyerr, “Was St. Paul a Jewish Missionary?” Church Quarterly Review, CLX (Oct.-Dec., 1959), 457-463; S. Zeitlin, “Who Is a Jew? A Halachic Historic Study,” JQR, XLIX (Apr., 1959), 241-270; J. Neusner, “Conversion of Adiabene to Judaism; a New Perspective,” JBL, LXXXIII (Mar., 1964), 60-66; Gerhard Friedrich, ed., TDNT, VI (1968), 727-744.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. Ger in the:
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.
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
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.
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. v.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 ("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 (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 (
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
While the ger tsedheq (or ger ha-berith, "proselyte of the covenant") was considered as being in every respect a "perfect Israelite," the ger toshabh (or ger sha`ar, "proselyte of the gate"; compare
Three things were required for the admission of a proselyte, circumcision,. baptism, and the offering of sacrifice (Ber. 47b; Yebham. 45b, 46a, 48b, 76a; ’Abhoth 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" (Yebham. 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 Yebham. 22a; Sanhedrin 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 (Kidd. 4 7; Shebhu`oth 10 9, et al.). Rabbi Chelbo said: "Proselytes are as injurious to Israel as a scab" (Yebham. 47b; Kidd. 70b; compare
See also STRANGER AND SOJOURNER.
See articles on "Proselyte" and "Ger." in EB, HDB, Jew 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, III (1892), 491 ff.