(§ 1). Meaning of Term. The proselytes were converts from heathenism to Judaism. The Greek original of the term, proselytos, is not found in classical authors, and was evidently borrowed from colloquial speech by the Septuagint as an equivalent for the Hebrew ger (A. V., "Stranger," q.v.). In this sense proselytos occurs seventy-eight times as the translation of ger in the Septuagint, which does not use it to render any other word. On the other hand, the Aramaic giyyora, "stranger," is sometimes retained in the Greek versions (Ex. xii. 19; Isa. xiv. 1; Aquila, Lev. xix. 34); and elsewhere, where there is no allusion to proselytes in the technical sense of the term, paroikos, "sojourner, alien," is found (e.g., Gen. xv. 13, xxiii. 4; Ex. ii. 22, xviii. 3; Deut. xiv. 21; II Sam. i. 13), as well as epelytos, "incomer, foreigner" (Job xx. 26). The Syriac version frequently paraphrases the idea of "proselyte" as "he who is converted unto me." The term "proselyte" occurs four times in the New Testament (Matt. xxiii. 15; Acts ii. 10, vi. 5, xiii. 43); but in other early Christian literature the word is seldom found.
(§ 2). "Strangers in Israel." In ancient Israel the gerim, or "strangers," were a class possessing a special status and belonging to another race which had for some reason entered the land of Israel and placed themselves under the protection of its people (see STRANGER). While there was a strongly marked and increasing tendency to make the "stranger" share in all the religious obligations and prerogatives of Israel, and even to become fully Judaized by circumcision, this was not proselytizing in the later sense of Judaism's extension beyond its boundaries, but rather marked the desire to avoid, so far as possible, any foreign elements within the bounds of Israel. A very late example of such seekers for protection is related by Josephus (Life, 23), in which the Jews made circumcision a necessary condition. In post-exilic times, however, such cases were rare; the weak Jewish community, under foreign domination, was not strong enough either to subject the numerous foreign colonists or to absorb them. Under the Maccabees, indeed, Idumeans, Itureans, and many Greco-Syrian cities were forcibly Judaized by circumcision. Nevertheless a number of Greek settlements remained in the land, and the Herodians and Romans also introduced many foreign elements into the country. It was of these aliens that the rabbis thought when they applied the laws of the Old Testament regarding the gerim in so far as these were referred, not to the proselytes, but to the "strangers in Israel." The latter were sharply distinguished from the proselytes, and were placed on a par with heathen and idolaters; and when the gerim were required to observe the seven "Noachian laws" (obedience to Jewish authority, and avoidance of blasphemy, idolatry, fornication, murder, theft, and the eating of meat not killed according to legal prescription), this was done to preserve the holiness of Israel. The Jews forgot, however, that they had to deal with their rulers, not with their supplicants, and the whole idea remained mere theory, though it seems to have influenced the rules for the association of Jewish and gentile Christians recorded in Acts xv. 20, 29, xxi. 25.
(§ 3). Early Proselytism. Entirely different from the gerim of ancient times, with their peculiar legal and social isolation, were the proselytes of later Judaism, that is to say, the following which it gained as a religious community outside its own people and its own land. The earliest proofs of this are in Neh. x. 28 and Isa. lvi. 6. While at first the post-exilic community was exclusive, the tendency toward propaganda became evident in the period of the Maccabees, as when an embassy was sent to Rome in 139 B.C., only to be expelled by the prætor Hispalus because of attempts to win converts. The chances for and against such a propaganda were about equal; everything oriental exercised a potent spell at that period; the later philosophy was attracted by monotheism; and ethics and asceticism, as well as superstition, found satisfaction in all that was strange and exotic. Judaism, enjoying many imperial privileges, had also political advantages to offer. On the other hand, a strong pan-Hellenic party nourished an aversion to everything barbarian, and the Jews were in evil repute as traders and usurers, as magicians, and procurers. Their imageless worship was regarded as atheistic, and the wildest reports were circulated regarding them. The anti-Semitic movement was systematically fostered by the gymnastic societies of the larger Greek cities. Judaism was also something strange and foreign in the world of that time, and its exclusiveness seemed misanthropy (Tacitus, Hist., v. 5). Nevertheless, the unshakeable consciousness of being the true religion that animated Judaism (cf. Rom. ii. 17 sqq.) overcame all obstacles. Its enormous success is attested by Josephus and classical authors, and was especially great among women. The reigning house of Adiabene was converted to Judaism; Helena was often in Jerusalem, as were her sons Izates and Monobazus, who also built themselves a tomb there. The Bible translators Aquila of Sinope and Theodotion of Ephesus were also believed to be proselytes. Legend even made a proselyte of the prophet Obadiah as well as of Israel's greatest enemies, and represented them as ancestors of famous families of proselytes. It was said that Shemaiah and Abtalion, the predecessors of Hillel and Shammai, were descended from such a family of Assyrian proselytes. Agrippa II., at the time of the marriage of each of his sisters, Drusilla and Berenice, required the circumcision of their husbands, Aziz of Emesa and Polemon of Cilicia.
(§ 4). Decline of Jewish Propaganda. The time of Rabbi Akiba marks in a twofold sense the end of the Jewish propaganda. Judaism, thrown back upon itself, then began its process of petrification into the Talmud (q.v.), and with the rejection of Greek civilization it renounced all spread among the Greeks. On the other hand, Hadrian's edict against circumcision was suspended under Antoninus Pius only in the case of Jewish children, otherwise remaining in force as a part of Roman law, and so rendering any propaganda impossible. Conversion to Judaism or any attempt at proselytizing was punished by confiscation and exile, if not by death. There is not much significance in the fact that, at the time of the Christian persecutions, some individuals went over to the synagogue. History and legend of later times have but little to say in regard to conversions, though there are allusions to a monk of Sinai who was circumcised and took the name Abraham. The ecclesiastical and civil laws often treat of the enforced circumcision of Christian slaves in Jewish houses. It was only outside the Roman Empire, however, that the Jewish propaganda still had considerable success, as in the conversion of the Arab tribes in the region of Medina and especially that of the Himyaritic princes and of the Chazar Prince Bulan in the Crimea.
(§ 5). Palestinian Proselytes. From the account given by Josephus of the conversion of Izates of Adiabene (Ant., XX., ii. 3-4), it is evident that Jewish proselytizers followed two distinct methods, one type requiring complete adhesion with circumcision as the sign of the covenant, and the other being satisfied with a leaning toward Judaism and the observance of certain of its usages. In like manner there were two classes of proselytes: complete converts and quasi-converts, or circumcised and uncircumcised. This distinction may be paralleled with that found in Palestino-rabbinical Judaism as contrasted with Hellenistic Judaism. The former recognized as proselytes (or, more exactly, as "proselytes of righteousness") only those who had been fully received into the religious community of Israel by means of circumcision. On this view was based the judgment of Paul when, in distinguishing between Jew and gentile, he regarded everyone who was circumcised as a Jew (Gal. v. 3); and this was also the opinion of Domitian when he ordered that the tax levied on Jews should also be collected from proselytes. The first requirement of Rabbi Trypho, in Justin, Trypho, viii., was circumcision; and the necessity of the rite is insisted upon in Talmudic anecdotes. The words of Christ in Matt. xxiii. 15, likewise refer to such circumcised proselytes, who were not originally very numerous. While Hillel made their reception easy, the sterner school of Shammai required a testing of their motives. Only after preparatory instruction imparted by three scribes did the threefold ceremony of reception take place: circumcision, immersion, and sacrifice. The instruction was continued until the immersion, which occurred when the wound was healed. The three teachers were witnesses at the ceremony, and only with this bath of purification was the rite of admission completed. It is, therefore, mentioned more often than circumcision itself, especially by the Hellenistic Jews, who renounced circumcision but not the immersion that washed away the impurity of heathenism. The relation of this rite to the Christian sacrament of baptism has given rise to much discussion, but the present tendency to derive Christian baptism from the immersion of proselytes is incorrect, especially as the existence of sacramental ideas is not certainly proved in connection either with immersion or circumcision (see BAPTISM, III., 1, § 1).
(§ 6). Status of the Proselyte. It was in agreement with a legalistic, not with a sacramental, conception that, in the doctrine of the Rabbis, circumcision was looked upon as breaking all earlier ties and changing the very personality of the convert, as was usually typified by the assumption of a new name. A marriage was considered dissolved if the other party was not converted; and by the abrogation of blood-relationship the laws in regard to incest no longer applied. Children born before conversion did not inherit; the community inherited in their place. The harsh isolation of the proselytes was keenly felt by the heathen (Tacitus, Hist., V., 5; Juvenal, Satir, xiv. 96 sqq.). While all old ties were severed for the proselyte and he was entirely absorbed in the Jewish community, he was not regarded as an equal; he could not say: "our fathers," but "God of the fathers of Israel" or "your fathers." This rule was later abolished, and it was forbidden to remind the proselyte of his origin, since it was shown that the Scriptures spoke of the proselytes in the same way as of Israel. They are alluded to in the thirteenth petition of the daily prayer. Many proselytes seem to have displayed the convert's zeal, and were fanatical toward those of another faith, especially the Christians (Justin, Trypho, cxx.). For this reason, many rabbis were particularly fond of the proselytes; others, however, did not favor them, but called them a leprosy, a hindrance to the coming of the Messiah, especially as numerous conversions were due to ulterior motives.
(§ 7). Hellenistic Proselytes. The Hellenistic proselytes should be clearly distinguished from these circumcised proselytes, and they constitute a more important phenomenon, both historically and numerically. Everywhere in the empire groups of the "God-fearing" gathered about the synagogues. They attended the services and assumed some of the obligations, but did not wish to become Jews. This form of proselytism presupposes that weakening of national and legalistic Judaism which obtained in the dispersion, where it appeared as the universal religion of enlightenment, or as a philosophy based on a primeval revelation with sublime ethics and a sure hope of eternal life. Sacrificial rites were abandoned and the prohibitions of meats, etc., were taken in an allegorical sense, only a few being retained in an ascetic and superstitious spirit. This propaganda was served not only by the Greek version of the Old Testament, but also by numerous pseudepigraphic writings such as the Sibylline Books (q.v.) or pseudo-Phocylides. This kind of proselytism must have enjoyed a success not easily over-estimated, and it lasted beyond the time of Hadrian. It admitted, moreover, of innumerable gradations. The most zealous were like Jews, only without circumcision; their children were probably circumcised (Juvenal, Satir, xiv. 96 sqq.). Many visited the synagogue regularly, others observed only certain customs, such as the lighting of the Sabbath lamp. The Hypsistarii, or "worshipers of the highest God," formed societies of their own after the pattern of the synagogues. These differences show the adaptability of Judaism; at the same time no concessions were made in monotheistic faith or in moral requirements, but solely in liturgical matters. Only the Palestinian rabbis, however, were really consistent; the others allowed themselves to be guided by opportunist considerations. For them the important thing was to gain personal influence, which they won in direct proportion as they required less of their adepts and themselves stood higher above them.
(§ 8). Significance for Early Christianity. While Palestinian proselytism generally made itself felt as a hindrance to the extension of Christianity, and, as a Jewish propaganda in the Gentile communities of Paul, vainly strove to bring the Gospel into subjection to the Law and to circumcision, Hellenistic proselytism, with its widening and weakening of Judaism, did essential preparatory work for the new faith. The "God-fearers," accustomed to monotheistic ideas, morally trained, and familiar with the promises of the Old Testament, offered fertile soil for the propagation of Christianity, which proffered all that was valuable in Judaism, and, in addition, offered fulfilment in place of promise, and inspiring preaching in place of dry doctrine. It had also done away with all that was narrowly Jewish and barbarian, and gave the same rights to the Greeks as to the Jews. The former Jewish proselytes formed the nucleus of the new communities, which soon spread independently among the heathen and left their original Judaism further and further behind. This rivalry in propaganda was the chief reason for the bitter hatred with which early Christianity was pursued by the Jews, and this enmity was, unfortunately, reciprocated by the Christians. In spite of its political privileges, Judaism was overcome and soon abandoned the unequal struggle. Hellenistic Judaism was absorbed by Christianity, and Rabbinical Judaism withdrew within itself, while Christianity evolved a world-embracing missionary activity.
E. VON DOBSCHÜTZ.