Proselyte

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This article is about the biblical term "proselyte". For general "conversion", see Proselytism.

The biblical term "proselyte" is an anglicization of the Koine Greek term προσήλυτος/proselytos, as used in the Greek Old Testament for "stranger", i.e. a "newcomer to Israel";[1] a "sojourner in the land",[2] and in the Greek New Testament[3] for a first century convert to Judaism, generally from Ancient Greek religion. It is a translation of the Biblical Hebrew phrase גר תושב/ger toshav.[4] Proselyte also has the more general meaning in English of a new convert to any particular religion or doctrine.

Two kinds of proselytes in Judaism[edit]

There are two kinds of proselytes in Rabbinic Judaism; ger tzedek (righteous proselytes, proselytes of righteousness, religious proselyte, devout proselyte) and ger toshav (resident proselyte, proselytes of the gate, limited proselyte, half-proselyte)

A "righteous proselyte" is a gentile who has converted to Judaism, is bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Jewish economy, and is considered a full member of the Jewish people. They are to be circumcised as adults (different from brit milah) and immersed in a mikvah should they wish to eat of the Passover sacrifice.

A "gate proselyte"[5] is a resident alien who lives in the Land of Israel and follows some of the customs. They are not required to be circumcised nor to comply with the whole of the Torah. They are bound only to conform to the Noahide Laws (do not worship idols, do not blaspheme God's name, do not murder, do not commit fornication (immoral sexual acts), do not steal, do not tear the limb from a living animal, and do not fail to establish rule of law) to be assured of a place in the world to come.

Proselytes in early Christianity[edit]

The "religious proselytes" spoken of in Early Christian writings[6] were likely righteous proselytes rather than gate proselytes.[7] There is some debate however as to whether proselytes known as Godfearers (Phoboumenoi)[8] and/or Worshippers (Sebomenoi)[9] - who were baptized but not circumcised - into the righteous or gate category. A dispute over this subject is recorded in the Council of Jerusalem c.50, see also Circumcision in the Bible.

History of the proselyte in Israel[edit]

Proselytes have had a place in Judaism from early times.[10] The Law of Moses made specific regulations regarding the admission into Israel's community of such as were not born Israelites.[11] The Kenites, the Gibeonites, and the Cherethites and Pelethites were thus admitted to levels of Israelite privileges. Thus also we hear of individual proselytes who rose to positions of prominence in the Kingdom of Israel, as of Doeg the Edomite, Uriah the Hittite, Araunah the Jebusite, Zelek the Ammonite, Ithmah and Ebedmelech the Ethiopians. According to the Books of Chronicles, in the time of Solomon (c.971-931 BCE) there were 153,600 proselytes in the land of Israel[12] and the prophets speak of the time as coming when the proselytes shall share in all the privileges of Israel.[13] Accordingly, in New Testament times, we read of proselytes in the synagogues.[14]

The name proselyte occurs in the New Testament only in Matthew and Acts.[15] The name by which they are commonly designated is that of "devout men", or men "fearing God", or "worshipping God", or "Godfearers".

On the historical meaning of the Greek word, in chapter 2 of Acts of Pilate (roughly dated from 150 to 400 CE), Annas and Caiaphas define "proselyte" for Pilate:

"And Pilate, summoning the Jews, says to them: You know that my wife is a worshipper of God, and prefers to adhere to the Jewish religion along with you. ... Annas and Caiaphas say to Pilate: All the multitude of us cry out that he [Jesus] was born of fornication, and are not believed; these [who disagree] are proselytes, and his disciples. And Pilate, calling Annas and Caiaphas, says to them: What are proselytes? They say to him: They are by birth children of the Greeks, and have now become Jews" - Roberts Translation [1]

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