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Jewish missionary activity in the Roman Empire
with lessons for the contemporary church

Dan Poenaru
Mentor: Stephen D. Morad
Module 2A Research Paper
June 27, 2011

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...Judaism, with its experience and success in gaining converts, paved

the way for Christianity's later efforts (Feldman 1993, 19). This succinct
statement by Louis Feldman makes two significant assertions: that Judaism is
(or at least was) a proselytising religion, and that this proselytism has
somehow influenced and facilitated the growth of early Christianity. Ralph
Winter points out that both redemptive structures used by God in the
history of Christianity are, in fact, directly derived from the equivalent Jewish
structures of the time: thus the Church (which he calls the modality) was
essentially built along Jewish synagogue lines, and Pauls missionary band
(the sodality) was patterned after the Jewish evangelistic pattern (Winter
1974, 121-2).
Given the extremely close proximity between Judaism and Christianity
and that early Christianity started spreading at the very time of a significant
numerical growth in Judaism, it may be very useful for Christian evangelism
and mission to examine the issue of Jewish proselytism, particularly around
the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. This paper aims to explore
the topic of Jewish proselytism in the Roman Empire in light of the birth of
Christianity in the same locus, and to apply this knowledge to contemporary
Christian evangelism and missions. To accomplish this we shall discuss the
theological basis for Jewish evangelism, the sociological underpinnings for
the spread of Judaism (and Christianity) within the Roman Empire, and the
actual practice and impact of Jewish proselytism. Finally, we hope to draw
several useful lessons, both positive and negative, for todays missions.

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Theological basis
The fact that the Jewish nation was called to be a light to the gentiles CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
and to carry out God's mission to the entire world is beyond doubt. The universal context of
Israel's relationship with her God is evident throughout her history, from Abraham and his
descendants called to be a blessing for all nations CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , to prophecies directed to the
Gentile nations and promising the salvation of all nations through YHWH (Schnabel 2002, 35).
The universal dimension is particularly apparent in Israel's psalmody (liturgy), with psalms
exhorting the nations to praise, serve and fear YHWH CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 (Schnabel 2002, 35).
Moreover, the Mosaic law has detailed stipulations regarding the respect and care of the nonIsraelite alien CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , and Israel certainly welcomed foreigners who turned to YHWH
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Isaiah 42:6; 49:6, NIV
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
While many see in Genesis 3:15 a proto-evangelium (Parker 2006,
131), the climax of early biblical missions occurs in Genesis 12 (Parker 2006,
133-4). Here in the Abrahamic covenant we see clearly the intentional call to
the Abrahams people to have a worldwide impact for God: I will make you
into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you
will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I
will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
Genesis 12:2-3 (NIV, emphasis mine).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
For instance Pss. 47:2, 66:8, 72:11, 96:7, 102:16,23, 117:1.
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Most stipulations in Exodus and Deuteronomy apply to
( ger), the
resident alien.
( nakri) and
( zar) refer to the non-resident aliens such as

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such as Rahab (Josh. 2:8-13) and the inhabitants of Gibeon (Joshua 9). Scriptures often connect
the blessing of God's people to the fulfilment of God's mission: May God be gracious to us and
bless us and make his face shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your
salvation among all nations. Psalm 67:1-2 (NIV, emphasis mine).
As Jonathan Lewis explained, there are two forces at work in the
fulfilment of Israel's missionary obligation: an attractive / centripetal one
(drawing foreigners to Israel), and an expansive / centrifugal one (sending
God's message beyond the borders of Israel (Lewis 1994, 2.15-16).
Examples of the attractive force are Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 1:4ff) and
Naaman the Syrian (2Kings 5:15ff). Instances of the expansive force include
captives (e.g. Joseph) and exiles (Daniel, Esther), as well as actual
missionaries (Jonah, Jeremiah CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 ). The well-known fact of the
Jews historical reluctance to be instruments of mission is illustrated by the
relative paucity of expansive efforts CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , and God's use of
captivity, exile and Diaspora to achieve his purposes CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
merchants and soldiers.
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Jeremiah was specifically appointed to be a prophet to the nations
(Jer. 1:5).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Paget notes that the motivation for conversion nearly always came
from the Gentiles, not from the Jews (Paget 1996, 68).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
As Lewis states, volunteerism has never been the deciding factor in
furthering God's mission. God will use His people to spread His message,

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While the missiological responsibility of Israel is generally accepted, particularly in

Christian evangelical circles, it is far from taken for granted in other circles. Schnabel articulates
emphatically this alternate position: neither the Torah nor the prophets contain any hint that
Israel has a historical mission to bring members of other nations to a saving knowledge of
YHWH. (Schnabel 2002, 38), and he relegates any deliberate missionary outreach to prophetic
eschatology CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . Despite such extreme positions, the theological evidence for a
distinct role of the people of Israel in God's universal mission seems difficult to reject.
Insights from anthropology and sociology
If Scriptures exhort the Jewish people to be a light to the Gentiles and to share the
blessing they have received, what insights can we draw from anthropology and sociology on
Jewish evangelism in the specific context and time period of this paper?
When one considers Second Temple Judaism around the time of Jesus, the key qualifier
typically added is hellenistic. This reflects the significant Greco-Roman influence on Judaism,
both in Palestine but especially in the Diaspora. Much has been written on the subject of
Hellenism, but it remains beyond the scope of this paper. Of relevance to our subject however are
the range of Jewish responses to the pagan influences in the Roman Empire. Scot McKnight
broadly classifies the relationship between Jew and Gentile under either integrating or
resisting tendencies (McKnight 2000, 838-40). Among integrating tendencies he lists growing
Jewish universalism CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , friendliness towards Gentiles and permission granted to
them to participate in Jewish events, integration in to the culture, participation in hellenistic
whether they are willing agents or not (Lewis 1994, 2.16).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
The integration of foreigners into the people of God is therefore seen
as exclusively centripetal, both in terms of initiative and of geographic
movement. The task of Israel seems to consist in being Israel in a
consistent matter, as apparent in Isa. 40:1-5 (Schnabel 2002, 41).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
This is strongly reflected in Philo, who states that ... all created things
are brothers to one another, inasmuch as they are created, since the Father
of them all is one, the Creator of the Universe (Decalogue, XIV, 64).

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education, and intermarriage. On the other side, resisting tendencies included social
separation CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , restricting access to the Temple, polemics against idolatry,
prohibition of intermarriage, and, in the extreme, military uprisings and wars. Such divergent
tendencies often coexisted side-by-side, and also characterized cycles of isolation and outreach
in Jewish history (Seltzer 1990, 231).
But beyond mere survival through either integrating or resisting tendencies, it is worth
noting that the Jews themselves had a significant impact on the dominant Greco-Roman culture.
While the true extent of this reverse impact is difficult to ascertain, Kurinsky posits
passionately and eloquently that many positive ideas and advances in Hellenism are, in fact, the
result of Jewish influence (Kurinsky 1994) CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
A key issue for the historical sociologist has been dealing with the size of the Jewish
population in the Roman Empire, and then accounting for any significant growth in this
population over time. The original conundrum was probably formulated by Prof. Baron in the
early part of the 20th century. As explained by Feldman, Baron estimated the size of the world
Jewish population at around 150,000 in 56 BC, and to more than eight million by 100 AD
(Feldman 1993, 14-5). This phenomenal growth appears, on the surface, only possible as the
result of mass conversion therefore prompting the search for Jewish evangelistic efforts to
account for it. The assumption that such growth must be due to external means has been
perpetuated by many others even McKnight, who outright rejects the idea of Jewish
proselytism, could only refer to inaccurate estimates and unknown survival and migration rates
in order to address the challenge (McKnight 2000, 836-7). The solution to the riddle is, in fact,
much easier but it requires either a sociologist or an inter-disciplinary scholar. Thus Winter
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
The apocryphal Epistle of Aristeas claims that [Moses] fenced us
about with impregnable palisades and walls of iron to the end that we should
mingle in no way with any of the other nations, remaining pure in body and
in spirit (Tcherikover 1958, 79).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Kurinsky cites multiple examples of Jewish influence on Greek
philosophy and science, including such precious albeit clearly subjective assertions from antiquity as ...what is Plato but Moses speaking in Attic and
Pythagoras, when speaking of the Deity, followed Jewish books.

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eloquently shows that, due to a compounding effect, a mere 1% net yearly growth rate would
have produced not 8 million, but 80 million in the given time period (Winter 2006,
174) CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
A significant growth in the Jewish population of the Roman Empire did, however, occur
and some of it very possibly took place through conversion. While addressing later the debate on
the extent of this conversion and whether it was passive (centripetal) or active (centrifugal), for
now we wish to explore further what sociology can teach us about religious conversion in the
Roman Empire. I am indebted here to Rodney Starks fresh perspective in his monograph The
rise of Christianity (Stark 1996). While his focus was clearly on the early days of the Christian
movement, I believe that much can be inferred from his work and applied to the Judaism of the
same era.
A sociologist of religion and co-author of a theory of religious economy (Stark and
Bainbridge 1996), Stark focuses on the sociology of conversion in the Roman Empire. He
successfully debunks the myth of Christianity being a lower-class movement, showing that it is
always the higher socio-economic classes who are attracted to new religious movements (Stark
1996, 31-9). He also documents the preponderance of women in the early Christian movement,
doubtlessly attracted by the significant roles they were called to play in churches, as well as the
high view of marriage in Christianity. Lastly, he positions Christian growth in the urban centres
of the empire, sites of social chaos and chronic urban misery (Stark 1996, 156).
But Stark goes beyond merely documenting the sociological profile of the nascent faith
he eloquently demonstrates how this profile urban, middle-class, female preponderance specifically helped the young movement win converts and increase in numbers. He also skilfully
points out how poverty, distress and disasters all contributed to the growth of a faith movement
which relied heavily on charity, welfare, and caring for the weak and sick CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
In fact Rodney Stark uses the same methodology to demonstrate that
the massive numerical growth in Christianity in the Roman Empire can be
explained by a steady 3% yearly growth rate, without resorting to miraculous
mass conversions (Stark 1996, 6-7).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Referring to the urban problems, Stark states: To cities filled with the
homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To
cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate

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This attitude is placed in stark contrast to the passive and indifferent attitude to such human
concerns in the prevailing pagan state religion CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . As Stark observes, the
epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenic
philosophies. In contrast, Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these
terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of
the future (Stark 1996, 74). Thus Christianity became a revitalization movement arising in a
time of crisis, revitalizing the Greco-roman society by effectively mobilizing people to attempt
collective actions (Stark 1996, 78).
It is this authors assertion that many of Starks observations on the rise of Christianity
also apply to the rise of Judaism in the same period and location. The basis of this assertion is
that Judaism shares many of Christianitys unique ethical and social values, including a concern
for the weak and the destitute CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , charity, high value of
marriage CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , and high value of human life (born and unborn). In the words of
Feldman, the laws of family purity and the prohibitions of intermarriage, abortion, and
basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity
provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic
strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced
with epidemics, fires. and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing
services (Stark 1996, 161).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Stark quotes Charles Cochrane remarking that while a deadly plague
was ravaging the empire... the sophists prattled vaguely about the
exhaustion of virtue in a world growing old (Stark 1996, 80).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Judaism is a heritage that extends the boundaries of righteousness
and justice in the world and brings holiness into that same world... Judaism
believes that one way holiness is brought into the world is when people act
with justice and compassion (Schwartz 2003, 18).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057

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infanticide were cornerstones of Judaism (Feldman 1993, 13). Arguably all classic JudeoChristian ethics are a reflection of underlying theological values: as Stark notes, something
distinctive did come into the world with the development of Judeo-Christian thought: the linking
of a highly social ethical code with religion (Stark 1996, 86). Or, in the words of Josephus,
Moses did not make religion a part of virtue, but he saw and ordained other virtues to be part of
religion (Josephus 1811, 602). As legendary Rabbi Hillel said, when challenged by a Roman
soldier to summarize Judaism while standing on one foot (i.e. in a nutshell): What is hateful
to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary; now go and study (Schwartz 2003, 17).
What, then, attracted Gentile citizens of the Roman Empire towards Judaism? We have
already alluded to the revitalizing effect of moral and ethical monotheism in a demoralized,
decadent society. The society at the time exhibited what Stark called excessive pluralism
(Stark 1996, 197) or, in E. R. Dodds words, a bewildering mass of alternatives. There were
too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from (Dodds 1970,
133). The very surge of new cults demonstrated religious needs unmet, or not well met, by the
traditional pagan temples and shrines (Stark 1996, 199) especially among the educated elite.
As a result, Judaism made inroads in the highest levels of Roman life, including the imperial
family (Feldman 1993, 13). Monotheism was on the rise CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , and, as Wilson
noted, the monotheism and high moral standards observed by the Jewish community were
admired by many non-Jews, especially by educated people (Wilson 2000, 481). The exclusivist
claims of Judaism actually appealed to a society where client cults (nonexclusive religious
firms, as per Stark 1996, 205) abounded CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . The more exclusivist Judaism is
represented as being, the more attractive it becomes to the outsider, states Petuchowski
Feldman attributes the inroads made by Judaism among women to
their much more favourable status in Judaism than in traditional Roman
culture (Feldman 1993, 19).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
The tendency of religions to evolve towards monotheism has been
repeatedly observed (Bellah 1964).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Thomas Robbins explains this prevailing lack of exclusivism thus: one
was converted to the intolerant faiths of Judaism and Christianity while one
merely adhered to the cults of Isis, Orpheus, or Mithra (Robbins 1988, 65).

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(Petuchowski 1981, 142), exploring ways in which Judaism presented itself as a mystery
cult CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
Besides its theological uniqueness, Judaism also offered pagans a relationship with a
personal God who actually loved them and cared for them CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
There were other good apparent reasons in the Roman Empire for conversion to Judaism.
In many Hellenistic circles Jews were highly regarded, even as philosophers (Wilson 2000,
481), and being a Jew appeared to have significant economic advantages CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
Other points of attraction to Judaism, as per Salo Baron, included good reputation of Jews for
law and order, the antiquity of Judaism, its reputation for wisdom and ethical behavior, the
attraction of special foods, holidays and Sabbath rest, the music and even theatricality of
synagogue services, and the admiration for Jewish astronomers, alchemists and physicians
(Feldman 1993, 24).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
If, therefore, a would-be convert had a choice between the
taurobolium, Christian baptism or Jewish circumcision, it is no wonder that,
on the market-place of competing faiths, some Jewish spokesmen should
have referred to circumcision as a "mysterion (Petuchowski 1981, 149).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Stark writes: From the pagan viewpoint, there was nothing new in the
Jewish or Christian teachings that God makes behavioural demands upon
humans the gods have always demanded sacrifice and worship... But... the
idea that God loves those who love him was entirely new (Stark 1996, 211).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Feldman states: ...to become a Jew appeared an advantage rather
than an obstacle to an economic career, especially in view of the contacts
that one might expect with Jews, ...the solidarity of the Jewish people, their
strong communal organization, and their outstanding charitable institutions
(Feldman 1993, 18).

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Jewish proselytism in practice

Before exploring the practice of Jewish proselytism, we must first define the term. With
specific reference to Judaism, The Dictionary of New Testament Background defines
proselytising as active attempts on the part of Jews to recruit or evangelize Gentiles as new
religious members of Judaism (McKnight 2000, 835). The Greek word (proselutos)
appears 4 times in the NT (Mat. 23:15, Acts 2:11, 6:5, 13:43) denoting converts to Judaism,
while the Septuagint uses the word 77 times to refer to a resident alien in the land. In hellenistic
Judaism proselutos becomes a technical term, denoting a person who has fully accepted the faith
and has been circumcised (Kittel, Friedrich and Bromiley 1995, 944). Proslytoi appear to be
distinguished from God-fearers (sebmenoi, those fearing and phobomenoi tn then, those
revering God), who decide to keep some aspects of the law but are not circumcised.
The debate whether proselytes were the result of active missionizing (evangelism),
outreach, or simple passive attraction has raged for the past three decades. The older
consensus, originated in 19th century Germany, held that Judaism was a missionary religion
(McKnight 2000, 836) CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . Modifications of this view are still held by many,
including Feldman (Feldman 1993), Seltzer (Seltzer 1990) and Petuchowski (Petuchowski 1981).
Some of the significant arguments cited by them include the significant growth in the world
Jewish population (discredited however recently, see above), actual reported cases of missionary
conversions CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , the use of the Septuagint for mission (see below), the open-door
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
This view was well represented by G. F. Moore, who stated that the
belief in the future universality of the true religion... led to efforts to convert
the Gentiles to the worship of the one true God and to faith and obedience
according to the revelation he had given, and made Judaism the first great
missionary religion of the Mediterranean world (Moore 1927, 1:323-24).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
The classic example cited from antiquity is that of the royal family of
Adiabene, who converted to Judaism through the efforts of a Jewish
merchant, an amateur (tent-maker?) missionary (Feldman 1993, 16). Other
examples from outside the Mediterranean basin are the Beni Israel of India

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policy of the Jewish schools, the presence of many God-fearers or sympathizers

(semiproselytes in Barons terms, Feldman 1993, 20), and the three attempts to expel Jews
from Rome because they attempted to transmit their sacred rites to the Romans (Valerius
Maximus, quoted in Feldman 1993, 21). The counterview was probably first expressed by
Kraabel in 1981, who thoroughly investigated the evidence for Jewish missions up to his time
and found it lacking (Kraabel 1982). His position was followed by others, particularly McKnight
(McKnight 1991) CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 whose view was that the Jews... were a light among the
nations, not a light to the nations (McKnight 2000, 842; italics mine). While a significant
divergence of views still persists, many contemporary authors espouse a conciliatory,
intermediate position arguing, in Pagets words, for the existence of a missionary
consciousness among some Jews (Paget 1996, 103).
This author holds the view that, despite some significant concerns, the weight of the
historical evidence favours at least some Jewish proselytism. Certainly the traditional
interpretation of the one comment we have from Jesus about proselytism (Mathew 23:15)
supports this view.
If this was indeed the case, what methods were used for evangelism? The Septuagint most
likely served an important missionary purpose, by making the Hebrew scriptures readily
available in Greek, the lingua franca of the times CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . Certainly direct oral
persuasion also had a significant part to play, in the multitude of synagogue-related Jewish
and the now extinct Yellow Jews of Kai-fung-foo (Gordis 1958, 27).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
McKnight summarized his position thus: Judaism (1) was never a
missionary religion, (2) occasionally had persons who were involved in what
we may call missionary activity and (3) did not set the stage in any
substantial manner for early Christian missionary practice (McKnight 1991).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Philo of Alexandria stated clearly that the Greek translation was made
so that "each nation would abandon its peculiar ways and, throwing
overboard their ancestral customs, would turn to honoring our laws alone"
(De Vita Mosis, in Feldman 1993, 17). Even Scot McKnight recognized that
the Septuagint may be taken reasonably as first steps towards a missionary

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schools open to the public (Feldman 1993, 17). Other methods of less interest include
intermarriage and, rarely, force CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
We must however concur with Walter Russell that probably... the most widespread and
effective method of the Jews for proselytising Gentiles was the good deeds and lifestyle of the
Jews as they interacted with Gentiles in the broader culture (Russell 2006,
183) CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . This life-style evangelism, while not necessarily missionary activity
per se, was particularly suited for Judaism, which is much more than a set of
beliefs CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . As McKnight succinctly put it, ... for Judaism conversion was
resocialization, and that was nationalization (McKnight 2000, 842).
Once a Gentile was ready to fully accept the Mosaic faith, what was required of him?
According to Seltzer, the 3 primary elements of conversion were tevilah (ritual immersion,
baptism), milah (circumcision), and the offering of a special sacrifice at the Jerusalem temple
(Seltzer 1990, 31). Interestingly, the process was often referred to as rebirth, a reflection of the
radical, life-changing conversion experience involved CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .

religion (McKnight 1991, 60).

CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Coercion may have been involved in the conversions recorded in
Judith (Jdt. 14:10) and Esther (Esther 8:17).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
The author of the Epistle of Aristeas expresses this clearly: My belief
is that we must (also) show liberal charity to our opponents so that in this
manner we may convert them to what is proper and fitting to them (Charles
1913, 226).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Rabbi Gordis states: In Judaism, the accent is not merely upon a new
set of beliefs, but upon a new pattern of practice that requires a complete
transformation of one's way of life. (Gordis 1958, 28).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057

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The issue of levels of adherence to Judaism among the Gentiles, and specifically the issue
of the so-called God-fearers, has been at the center of much debate surrounding the missionary
nature of Judaism. In essence, the confirmed existence of many such God-fearers is good
evidence that Jewish missionary activity did take place during the second temple and vice
versa. Thus Feldman entitled his 1986 paper The omnipresence of the God-fearers (Feldman
1986), while Kraabels 1991 paper was The disappearance of the God-fearers (Kraabel 1981);
several others revisited or reconsidered the same topic (Wilcox 1981, Finn 1985, Overman
1988). While the proponents of the God-fearers existence as a result of Jewish proselytism resort
to biblical, extra-biblical CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , literary CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 and

Seltzer explains: Living Jewishly means deciding to be Jewish in some

meaningful wayparticipating in Jewish affairs, determining to create a
Jewish home, committing oneself to the acquisition of Jewish learning in a
synagogue education program or in Jewish studies courses at a university or
in some other manner. The crucial decision can occur at almost any time in
one's mature years and is not unlike an adult conversion experience
(Seltzer 1990, 234).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
For instance: "The Holy One, blessed be He, sent Israel into exile
among the nations only for the purpose of acquiring converts (Talmud,
Pesahim 87b).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
A prime historical argument comes from the satire of Juvenal: Some
who have had a father who reveres the Sabbath, worship nothing but the
clouds and the divinity of the heavens and see no difference between eating
swine's flesh, from which their father abstained, and that of man; and in time
they take to circumcision (Juvenal 14.96-99 in Finn 1985, 81)

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archeological CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 evidence for their assertions, the opponents primarily attack
Lukes historical authenticity in the Acts passages where the God-fearers are
mentioned CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 , and their discontinuous biblical record after Acts 19. Based on the
existing evidence however, this author aligns himself with the proponents of the God-fearer
theory. In the words of Finn, evangelist, satirist, apologist, and exegete alike know of some
Gentiles deeply attracted to Judaism who appear to have had some sort of bond with the Jews of
the diaspora synagogues, which they appear to have frequented and in which they may have been
enrolled (Finn 1985, 83).
Missiological implications
Having explored in some measure the topic of Jewish proselytism in the Roman Empire,
we can now turn to the challenging question, How does this knowledge inform us and assist us
in the practice of contemporary evangelism and mission? I believe that there are several lessons,
both positive and negative, which can be drawn, by way of application, from this topic.
Firstly, Jewish proselytism teaches us that personal, one-on-one, evangelism has been, and
will likely remain, the simplest and most efficient way to spread the Good News. Whether one
calls this lifestyle evangelism or friendship evangelism, the focus is on appealing to, and
transforming, the whole person (rather than just the soul), and on a close relationship as the
basis of conversion. In John Maxwells often-quoted words, people don't care how much you
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
The key artefact documenting the presence of God-fearers is a
synagogue inscription discovered in 1976 at Aphrodisias. It contains a
donors list, first with Jewish names, then, after a gap, the phrase kai hosoi
theosebeis (and those who are God-fearers), followed by exclusively Greek
or Greco-Roman names (Feldman 1986, 63).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Kraabel writes: Acts cannot be used as evidence that there were ever
[God-fearers] in the synagogues of the Roman Empire. It is a tribute to Lukes
dramatic ability that they have become so alive for the later Church, but the
evidence from Pauls own letters and now from archaeology makes their
historicity questionable in the extreme (Kraabel 1981, 120).

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know until they know how much you care (Maxwell 2011). Stark states emphatically that the
basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a
structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments. He then adds immediately the
corollary statement: most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or
semiclosed networks (Stark 1996, 20). Through a variety of social and business networks,
Hellenistic Jews interacted with the Gentiles around them, and often entered into meaningful
relationships with them. As Christians, it is only as we move outside our Christian bubble and
boldly enter into relationships with the non-Christians around us, that we will be effective in our
witness. For food to be salted, the salt must come out of the saltshaker CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 .
Secondly, Jewish proselytism reminds us that salvation is of the entire person, and that
conversion must therefore also involve the whole person. When Jews refer to conversion as
rebirth, they refer to an entire process of resocialization (so McKnight) in the words of
Rabbi Gordis, Judaism is an ethnic faith in which peoplehood is organically bound up with
religion. When a proselyte becomes a Jew, he is not merely adopting a new religion, he is also
accepting membership in a new people (Gordis 1958, 28) CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . Simply put,
Judaism is not dedicated to saving souls, but to saving lives (Shulweis 1958, 22). Does this
ring a bell? When, in some contemporary North American evangelical circles, salvation is
reduced to praying the sinners prayer and becomes a once-for-all ticket to heaven, the
gospel is cheapened and adulterated. It becomes what Bonhoeffer so aptly called cheap

CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057

Paraphrasing the title of the well-known lifestyle evangelism book by
Rebecca Pippert (Pippert 1999).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
The holistic view of Jewish conversion is contrasted to Christianity by
Shulweis: The convert to Christianity need only make theological and ritual
assent. He enters a church. The convert to Judaism enters a family. It is more
difficult for a stranger to learn to identify with a family's fate than with a
church's faith. Before Ruth speaks theology, "thy God shall be my God," she
lives her kinship, "thy people shall be my people (Shulweis 1958, 22).

Poenaru D.: Soul-winners B.C.


grace CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 in stark contrast with costly grace... costly because it call us to
follow... costly because it costs a man his life (Bonhoeffer 1995, 45).
Thirdly, Jewish proselytism reminds us that much missionary activity occurs centripetally,
and that God has used, and continues to use, human geographic displacement for his Kingdom
purposes. As a matter of fact, it appears that Jews were generally more effective in sharing their
faith when in exile than when in their home land. Nonetheless, the customary view of mission in
the OT as centripetal and in the New Testament as centrifugal is overly simplistic and not
biblical. As David Bosch reminds us, the centripetal dimension is by no means confined to the
Old Testament (Bosch 1980). Just as the Jews in the Roman Empire bloomed where they were
planted, so we are reminded that our mission can be accomplished wherever God places us.
Often outreach to closed or creative access countries can happen through international students
or refugees coming right in our back yard. This authors organization, BethanyKids, had a
significant call to reach out to Muslims through medical missions. And yet its main site of
activity, Kijabe Hospital, was situated in central Kenya, in the middle of Kikuyu territory. And
yet, through consistent quality medical care and compassion, the hospital became one of the
favourite referral centers for Somalis, some coming directly to Kijabe from Mogadishu!
Finally, Jewish proselytism offers us several important and sobering negative lessons
regarding evangelism and missionary work. Arguably, while Jewish proselytism in the Roman
Empire was significant, it did not seem to be sustained and Christianity soon took over in
numbers. What were the potential problems with the Jewish mission?
One key issue was probably intrinsic to the holistic, all-encompassing nature of conversion
to Judaism: conversion was hard. The very omnipresence of God-fearers (so Schulman), or
semiproselytes (so Baron), testifies to the difficult path before the potential convert with many
sojourners stopping along the way CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057 . The demands of true religions are often
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, as system. It
means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God
taught as the Christian conception of God. An intellectual assent to that
idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins (Bonhoeffer
1995, 44).
CITATION Col83 \p 9 \l 2057
Comparing again conversion in Judaism and Christianity, Gordis states:
the neophyte in Judaism has voluntarily taken on all the burdens of Jewish

Poenaru D.: Soul-winners B.C.


great, but the issue here is that Judaism added a multitude of cultural burdens to the already
existent demands of a loving, jealous God. This is the simple, common understanding of Mathew
23:15, where Jesus acknowledges the evangelistic zeal of the Pharisees, but condemns them for
being bearers of burdensome external Rabbinical traditions, rather than bearers of the good news.
More probably than any other religion, Christianity has fostered a unique freedom from culture
and from cultural burdens the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) bears witness to that. Steven
Hawthorne exhorts us: ... we must do all that we can to welcome people to Christ through [the]
door of faith, helping them follow Christ without carrying a greater burden (15:28) of other
biblically-founded traditions which are not the essentials of obeying Christ in faith (Hawthorne
1999, 124). And yet, how often is our message in cross-cultural settings a gospel plus the
living gospel plus Western values, denominational minutia, or ethnocentric ideas?
Conversion to Judaism was not just hard it involved the required adoption of a totally
new ethnic identity. It is this fundamental national, ethnic nature of Judaism that probably stood
most in the way of its wider spread in the Roman Empire and it is the essential non-ethnic
character of Christianity which facilitated its massive spread across the globe.
The other, related, lesson from Jewish proselytism in the Roman Empire is the challenge of
being in the world but not of it (Jn. 15:19, 17:14). Some of the fore-mentioned integrating
tendencies in hellenistic Judaism easily slipped into assimilation, and therefore the potential loss
of witness CITATION Gor58 \p 28 \l 2057 . How similar are our challenges of contemporary Christianity in
the post-modern world to those of the Jews in the Roman Empire! If the culture has so absorbed
modern evangelical Protestantism that divorce rates are similar inside and outside the church,
what voice do Christians still have in the market place?

life... discrimination and persecution... anti-semitism is by no means dead

(Gordis 1958, 28).
CITATION Gor58 \p 28 \l 2057
Stark calls the Hellenized Jews relatively worldly, accommodated, and
secular (Stark 1996, 60), and Collins suggests that the allegorical
interpretation of scripture by Philo and others is an evident method of
reducing the dissonance between the Jewish scriptures and philosophical
religion (Colllins 1983, 9).

Poenaru D.: Soul-winners B.C.


A variety of biblical, anthropological and sociological sources suggest

the existence of significant Jewish proselytism in the Roman Empire. This
missionary activity is primarily centripetal, based on personal attraction,
direct witness, and social networks. Conversion to Judaism involved a total
change in life, practice, culture, and social network; in many instances this
process was incomplete, leading to partial converts or God-fearers.
This exploration of Jewish proselytism in the Roman Empire carries
significant lessons for the practice of Christian missions, primarily in the
areas of lifestyle evangelism, holistic conversion, centripetal missions, and
the risks of cultural and ethnic burdens and spiritual accommodation.
Winston Churchills words, those that fail to learn from history, are doomed
to repeat it (Churchill 2011) remind us that history is His story - God has
used the history of mankind to achieve His redemptive purposes, and we as
missionaries have much to learn from the past.

Poenaru D.: Soul-winners B.C.


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