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“Gentiles for Moses”: The Debate about the Nature and Intensity of Jewish Proselytizing Efforts in Ancient Judaism

Second Temple Judaism did attract proselytes and facilitate the conversion of Gentiles that wanted to convert to Judaism, much to the ire and contempt of some Greek and Latin authors, but it was not self-conscious missionary since the role of Israel, the Torah, and the synagogue was never directed unequivocally towards Gentile recruitment.

See Also: Crossing over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (Hendrickson Publishers, 2010).

Michael F. Bird
Crossway College, Brisbane, Australia
August 2010

We have probably all heard about "Jews for Jesus" which is the name of a messianic Jewish group that attempts to convert other Jews to faith in Jesus as the Messiah of their ancestral religion. Then there is the counter-missionary group "Jews for Judaism" that strives to prevent and win back Jewish converts to Christianity. And then there is the group called "Jews for Allah" who, courageously I have to say, try to convert Jews to Islam. Those of us in the West mostly live in liberal democracies where we thankfully have the freedom to speak openly about religion, to practice religion in the public square, and to propagate religion (or a religion) if so inclined. Of course, not every religious group is a conversionist group. Some groups are obviously more active in their efforts at recruitment than others. Some relatively new religious movements such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Church of Scientology are well known for their proselytizing efforts. Even more mainstream groups like Evangelical churches and the Catholic lay organization Regnum Dei also consider evangelism a significant part of their raison d'etre.

Conversion to Judaism, in its various denominational expressions, are not unheard of these days, though they do seem somewhat rare as far I can tell. I haven't done a sociological inventory of shifts in religious affiliations in any demographic, but I'll wager you a piece of brisket that you won't find many Jewish equivalents to the travelling Mormon missionaries or even a Jewish version of Billy Graham. Amidst the modern market place of religions that one can encounter with banners, pamphlets, DVDs, and speakers ready to entice inquiring minds, Judaism does not come across as an aggressive proselytizing religion these days. In an address at the Lambeth Conference in England in July, 2008, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks answered some questions and made reference to the spread of Christianity in contrast to Judaism. Sacks said: "We did not take it to the world [i.e., a message of God's forgiveness]. We are few. You are many. You took it to the world. In fact, we are so few I have the numbers of Jews from all of the countries in the world. That is part of my job now and I travel to see them. We have 5 Jews in China. You can bet that they have 6 synagogues and someone is saying that the Jews are running the country."[1]

I wouldn't bother Googling "Gentiles for Moses" or "Gentiles for YHWH" (actually I tried it and found nothing) because modern Judaism is for the most part not as missionary oriented as other contemporary religious movements. But was there ever a time when Judaism was a missionary religion? That leads to the topic of my discussion here.

It is widely accepted in scholarship that early Christianity was a missionary religion that actively sought to gain converts to its faith. In the words of the Martin Goodman: "Christianity spread primarily because many Christians believed that it was positively desirable for non-Christians to join their faith and accrete to their congregations."[2] There are obviously debates about the methods, precise numbers, and the sociology behind it all. But no one doubts that Christianity took off fairly quickly and experienced spurts of growth and decline in various regions of the Mediterranean and in the near east. But where did it start from? Where did the impetus for outreach and conversion derive from? Did Christianity win over the Roman Empire by using Jewish weapons? Did Christianity simply represent a more inclusive brand of Judaism or was it a more attractive form of ethical monotheism? A cursory glance at Paul's epistles and Acts indicates that Christianity spread largely through the network of Diaspora synagogues in the eastern Mediterranean with their clientele of adherents ("God-fearers") and converts ("proselytes"). So we must ultimately look to Judaism to see how missionesque it was in order to understand the continuity and discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity when it comes to conversionist attitudes and practices towards Gentiles. Therein the debate lies.

If we ask, "How missionary Judaism was prior to the advent of Christianity?" we need to remember that the terms are themselves heavily freighted. Steven Mason points out the ambiguity of the question: "Judaism (which kind? represented by whom?), missionary (does mission require a central body or character?), and religion (how was ancient religion distinct from ethnic culture? from philosophy?)."[3] Previous scholarship on this topic is relatively easy to divide up into a taxonomy of views. Essentially there are those who maintained that Judaism was a missionary religion and those who argued that it was not.[4] Around the turn of the twentieth century, it was commonly maintained that Judaism was indeed a missionary religion. This view found notable expression in the works of Adolf von Harnack, Emil Schürer, Julius Wellhausen, and T. Mommsen.[5] The position was reinforced by several Jewish scholars including G.F. Moore, B.J. Bamberger, W.G. Braude, and S. Sandmel.[6] Furthermore, this perspective was virtually canonized with Karl Kuhn's article in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament and A.D. Nock's early work on conversion in antiquity.[7] Despite some occasional dissenters,[8] acceptance of widespread Jewish missionary activity remained the dominant viewpoint so that Joachim Jeremias could state: "Jesus thus came on the scene in the midst of what was par excellence the missionary age of Jewish history."[9]

However, in the last twenty-five years, this consensus has gradually been eroded. The primary contributors who have overturned the old consensus are Scot McKnight and Martin Goodman who, in works published between 1991 and 1994, have arguably convinced the majority of academics working in the field of Christian origins and ancient Judaism, that post-exilic Judaism cannot be properly characterized as a missionary religion.[10] McKnight states that, "it is my contention, contrary to a great deal of Christian and Jewish scholarship today, that Judaism was not truly a 'missionary religion' except in the most general of definitions of missionary."[11] Goodman is similar: "The missionary here in search of converts to Judaism is a phenomenon first approved by Jews well after the start of the Christian mission, not before it."[12] In the resurgence of interest in the subject, much of it stimulated by the monographs of McKnight and Goodman, there has been an abundance of publications on this topic that have endeavored to either defend[13] or reject[14] the notion of extensive pre-Christian Jewish missionary activities among Gentiles.

In what follows below I will set out both sides of the debate as it relates to two pieces of evidence: Mt. 23.15 and Josephus Antiquities 20.17-53.

A verse frequently cited from the New Testament in favor of Jewish missionary activity is Mt. 23.15: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the proselyte twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." This is normally the proof text par excellence for ascribing a missionary ethos to some Pharisees when it came to seeking converts. Many scholars take this to be a clear indication that some Pharisees sought out Gentile converts since the word that Matthew uses is prosēlytos and it is ordinarily used of Gentile converts to Judaism, i.e., proselytes. The problem is that the verse does seem rather hyperbolic. Pharisees were more usually scrupulous in their avoidance of Gentiles, and many were attached to a more zealous brand of Judaism that envisioned the cleansing of Israel from Gentiles. What is more, the word prosēlytos can be used to describe a number of persons. In the LXX, it is said that Israel shall not oppress proselytes because they were proselytes in the land of Egypt (translating ger as prosēlytos).[15] A second option then is to suggest that this saying refers to an intra-Jewish conversion, and the verse denotes the efforts of Pharisees to convert other Jews to the pharisaic halakhah. That comports with accounts from Josephus that the Pharisees were eager to transmit their traditions to other Jews in Palestine.[16] At the horizon of Matthew's Gospel, however, the saying could reflect a background of competition and rivalry between Jewish Christians associated with Matthew's audience and post-70 CE pharisaic Jewish leaders over the socio-religious allegiances of Gentile sympathizers to Judaism or Jesus-believing Gentiles. The contest is whether these Gentiles will become and/or remain "Christians" or become "pharisaic Jews." In other words, this verse seems to have Gentiles (of some kind) in the background rather than being a purely intra-Jewish debate about whose halakah Jews should follow. A third option is to assert that the saying refers to the attempt by Pharisees to turn God-fearers into full Jews. It does not refer to cold hard "evangelism" of pagans, but turning Gentile adherents of Jewish ways into fully-fledged proselytes. Yet there is no definitive proof from Mt. 23.15 itself that a shift from adherence to conversion is envisaged since we lack any reference to prior adherence to Jewish ways by these potential converts. Likewise, there is no allusion to circumcision and incorporation into Jewish communities or anything which could indicate "closing the deal," so to speak, in their socio-religious transference. While a proselyte is clearly the end product spoken of we do not know if these hypothetical missional Pharisees began with a pagan or with Jewish sympathizers; either is possible.

A more intriguing episode is that reported by Josephus in Antiquities 20.17-48 where he recounts the conversion of King Izates of Adiabene and his mother Helena (ca. 44-47 CE). Izates adopted Jewish customs and beliefs when a Jewish merchant called Ananias visited the king's wives and "taught them to worship God after the manner of the Jewish tradition" and "persuaded him [prince Izates], in like manner, to embrace that religion." Concurrently, Queen Helena had "likewise been instructed by another Jew and had been brought over to their laws."[17] If the details of the conversion are historically correct, in broad outline at least, (and Neusner and Schiffman think that they are),[18] then this is perhaps the clearest evidence for Jewish missionary activity in Second Temple literature.

Thereafter, Izates wanted to be circumcised in order to be "assuredly Jewish."[19] This caused alarm because Helena knew that his subjects would not take kindly to being ruled by a Jew. She solicits the aid of Ananias who advises Izates that he, "could worship God without being circumcised."[20] Ananias (or Josephus) justifies this practice by claiming that worship of God "counted more than circumcision."[21] Then, later on, a Galilean Pharisee named Eleazar came to the city and persuaded Izates to be circumcised on the grounds that "How long will you continue uncircumcised? But if you have not yet read the law about circumcision, and do not know how great impiety you are guilty of by neglecting it, read it now."[22] Do we have here an account of three missionaries: Ananias, the other Jew who instructed Helena, and Eleazar? It does look that way. J.C. Paget goes so far as to say that Ananias and Eleazar must have had some perception of themselves as Jewish missionaries.[23] But a few qualifications needed to be added. First, the conversion may have been more politically motivated than Josephus reports. The Adiabenians may have wanted to foster an anti-Roman coalition in the region and in a post-Roman Palestine possibly to lay a claim to the Judean throne since they already ruled over Jewish subjects in the city of Nisibis.[24] Second, Josephus' inclusion of the story is partly apologetic. He takes pride in the conversion of this family and presents them to his readers as righteous converts whom the Jews had accepted. The chief virtue of Izates is his trust in God alone which is a lesson that can be applied to all Gentiles regardless of which part of a religious continuum towards Judaism that they are on.[25] Third, it appears that Ananias, for political reasons, did not wish Izates to be circumcised but remain a God-worshipper. Ananias was evidently satisfied with adherence rather than conversion for Izates. It took the figure of Eleazar to urge the king to be circumcised, thereby bringing his affiliation with Judaism to a deeper level of commitment.[26] This underscores that some Jews were quite aware that explicit proselytizing was politically dangerous in Hellenistic culture, while more zealous Jews were dissatisfied with any attachment to Judaism by Gentiles less than circumcision. The story of Izates' conversion certainly attests evidence of some Jews being far more active in their recruitment of Gentiles to either adherence to the worship of Israel's God (Ananias) or becoming proselytes of Judaism (Eleazar). Yet the fact remains that this episode is exceptional rather than normative. If there were Jewish missionaries, they seemed to have been isolated and spasmodic occurrences rather than the norm.

What I've provided is a rather scant overview of two pieces of evidence in the debate. Others will want to interpret it differently. Yet the fact remains that it is rather difficult to categorize all forms of ancient Judaism under the labels "missionary" or "non-missionary." Different Jewish communities and individuals had wide-ranging views on the fate of the Gentiles, the limits of acceptable interaction with the Graeco-Roman polis, the role of the synagogue in a city, and the means and necessity of Gentiles entering into Israel. Some groups were more interested in proselytes than others. This generated a constellation of views and practices towards Gentiles. What pagans saw in Judaism would depend entirely on what they saw of it, and that would vary from Alexandria to Antioch, from Gaul to Galilee. There were indeed conscious attempts to give pagans a positive disposition to Judaism, to defend Judaism against criticism, to demonstrate the parity of the Jewish way of life with Hellenism and a willingness to receive incomers. There was also great pride in the number of Gentiles who imitated or adopted the Jewish way of life. Second Temple Judaism did attract proselytes and facilitate the conversion of Gentiles that wanted to convert to Judaism, much to the ire and contempt of some Greek and Latin authors, but it was not self-conscious missionary since the role of Israel, the Torah, and the synagogue was never directed unequivocally towards Gentile recruitment. Perhaps a better analogy of mainstream Jewish attitudes towards converts can be found in the tract Numbers Rabbah 8.3:

The Holy One loves the proselytes exceedingly. To what is the matter like? To a king who had a number of sheep and goats which went forth every morning to the pasture, and returned in the evening to the stable. One day a stag joined the flock and grazed with the sheep, and returned with them. Then the shepherd said to the king, "There is a stag which goes out with the sheep and grazes with them, and comes home with them." And the king loved the stag exceedingly. And he commanded the shepherd, saying: "Give heed unto this stag, that no man beat it"; and when the sheep returned in the evening, he would order that the stag should have food and drink. Then the shepherds said to him, "My Lord, thou hast many goats and sheep and kids, and thou givest us no directions about these, but about this stag thou givest us orders day by day." Then the king replied: "It is the custom of the sheep to graze in the pasture, but the stags dwell in the wilderness, and it is not their custom to come among men in the cultivated land. But to this stag who has come to us and lives with us, should we not be grateful that he has left the great wilderness, where many stags and gazelles feed, and has come to live among us? It behooves us to be grateful." So too spoke the Holy One: "I owe great thanks to the stranger, in that he has left his family and his father's house, and come to dwell among us; therefore I order in the law: 'Love the stranger'" (Dt. 10.19).

In the midrash on Numbers, the proselyte (stag) joins Israel at his own initiative and without any obvious attempt to draw or recruit him. The passage also assumes that proselytes are somewhat of an anomaly and regulations concerning them are ambivalent. The notion of a mission oriented towards making proselytes is nowhere in sight as the impetus falls upon the necessity of accepting proselytes who willingly attach themselves to the Jewish community. Perhaps this sums up ancient Jewish attitudes towards Gentile converts: a warm willingness to receive, but not necessarily a self-conscious need to pursue. Given the various pressures placed upon Jewish communities in the ancient world this was probably a sensible attitude to take.


[1] Chris Sugden and Chertie Wetzel, "Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sachs Answers Questions on Covenants, Jesus and Peace." Virtuosity: The Voice for Global Orthodox Anglicanism. Edited by David Virtue.
. Cited 12/04/10.

[2] Martin Goodman, "Jewish Proselytizing in the First Century," in The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, eds. J. Lieu, J. L. North and T. Rajak (London: Routledge, 1992), 53.

[3] Steve Mason, "The Contra Apionem in Social and Literary Context: An Invitation to Judean Philosophy," in Josephus' Contra Apionem: Studies in its Character and Context with a Latin Concordance to the Portions Missing in Greek, eds. Louis H. Feldman and John R. Levison (Leiden: Brill 1996), 187.

[4] See a historical survey of the debate in Rainer Riesner, "A Pre-Christian Jewish Mission," in The Mission of the Early Church to Jews and Gentiles, eds. J. Ådna and H. Kvalbein (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck 2000), 211-20.

[5] Adolf von Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (trans. James Moffatt; 2 vols.; London/New York: Williams & Norgate/G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904-5), 1.1-18; Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, (edited and revised by G. Vermes, F. Millar and M. Black; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973-87 [1886]), 3.1.150-76; T. Mommsen, Römische Geschichte V: Die Provinzen von Caesar bis Diocletian (5th edn; Leipzig: Weidmann, 1904), 492; Julius Wellhausen, Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte (2nd edn; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1895), 152.

[6] G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim (3 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927-30); B.J. Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (2nd edn; Cincinnati/New York: Hebrew Union College/Ktav, 1968); W.G. Braude, Jewish Proselytizing in the First Five Centuries of the Common Era: The Age of the Tannaim and Amoraim (Providence: Brown University Press, 1940); Samuel Sandmel, The First Christian Century in Judaism and Christianity: Certainties and Uncertainties (New York: OUP, 1969).

[7] K. G. Kuhn, "prosh & lutoj," TDNT 6.727-44; A.D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford: OUP, 1933), 61-62. See also works by Harry J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (rev. Carolyn A. Osiek; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995 [1960]), 250-56; Dieter Georgi, The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians (ed. John Riches; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1986); Peder Borgen, 'The Early Church and the Hellenistic Synagogue,' ST 37 (1983): 55-78; idem, Early Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996).

[8] Cf. e.g. Johannes Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (trans. Frank Clarke; London: SCM, 1959), 264-71; L. Goppelt, 'Der Missionar des Gesetzes. Zu Röm. 2,21f,' in Christologie und Ethik: Aufsätze zum Neuen Testament (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1968), 138-39, n. 5.

[9] Joachim Jeremias, Jesus' Promise to the Nations (trans. S.H. Hooke; SBT 24; London: SCM, 1958), 12.

[10] To this I add my own work on the subject too Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009).

[11] Scot McKnight, A Light Among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 117.

[12] Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 90.

[13] Louis H. Feldman, "Was Judaism a Missionary Religion in Ancient Times?" in Jewish Assimilation, Acculturation and Accommodation, ed. M. Mor (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992), 24-37; Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Peder Borgen, "Proselytes, Conquest, And Mission," in Recruitment, Conquest, And Conflict, eds. Peder Borgen, Vernon K. Robbins and David B. Gowler (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998), 57-77; Reidar Hvalvik, The Struggle for Scripture and Covenant: The Purpose of the Epistle of Barnabas and Jewish-Christian Competition in the Second Century (WUNT 2.92; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1996), 268-318; David Rokéah, "Ancient Jewish Proselytism in Theory and Practice," TZ 52 (1996): 206-24; Clifford H. Bedell, "Mission in Intertestamental Judaism," in Mission in the New Testament: An Evangelical Approach, eds. William J. Larkin Jr. and Joel F. Williams (New York: Marynoll, 1998), 21-29; James Carleton Paget, "Jewish Proselytism at the Time of Christian Origins: Chimera or Reality?" JSNT 62 (1996): 65-103; John P. Dickson, Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities (WUNT 2.159; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2003), 11-85; Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 52; idem, Cities of God, 5-7.

[14] Martin Goodman, "Proselytising in Rabbinic Judaism," JJS 40 (1989): 175-85; idem, Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 60-90 (Martin Goodman, "Jewish Proselytizing in the First Century," in J. Lieu, J.L. North and T. Rajak [eds.], The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire [London: Routledge, 1992], 53-78); Scot McKnight, A Light Among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991); E. Will and C. Orrieux, "Prosélytisme Juif'? Histoire d'une erreur"Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1993); A.T. Kraabel, "The Roman Diaspora: Six Questionable Assumptions," JJS 33 (1982): 445-64; idem, "Immigrants, Exiles, Expatriates, and Missionaries,' in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament World: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi, eds. L. Bormann, K. Eel Tredici and A. Standhartinger (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 71-88; S.J.D. Cohen, "Crossing the Boundary and Becoming a Jew," HTR 82 (1989): 13-33; idem, "Was Judaism in Antiquity a Missionary Religion?" in Jewish Assimilation, Acculturation and Accommodation, ed. M. Mor (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992), 14-23; Paula Fredriksen, "Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2," JTS 42 (1991): 532-64; Lester L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian (London: SCM, 1992), 534-35; I. Levinskaya, The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting 5: The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); Riesner, "A Pre-Christian Jewish Mission," 211-50; Paul Barnett, "Jewish mission in the era of the New Testament and the apostle Paul," in The Gospel to the Nations, eds. Peter Bolt and Mark Thompson (Festschrift Peter T. O'Brien; Sydney: Apollos, 2000), 263-83; Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter T. O'Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (NSBT 11; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 55-71; Eckhard J. Schnabel, Urchristliche Mission (Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus, 2002), 174 (The Early Christian Mission [2 vols.; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004], 1.172); Donaldson, Judaism and the Gentiles, 491-92, 512-13; James Patrick Ware, The Mission of the Church in Paul's Letter to the Philippians in the Context of Ancient Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

[15] Cf. further Goodman, Mission and Conversion, 73.

[16] Josephus, Ant. 13.197; 17.41; 18.15; and implicitly in Mk. 7.1-13.

[17] Josephus, Ant. 20.34-35.

[18] Josephus may have been acquainted personally with the Adiabenians as they had homes in Jerusalem, participated in the Jewish war, and when their princes were captured they were sent to Rome as hostages (War 2.520; 5.474-75; 6.356-57). See Jacob Neusner, "The Conversion of Adiabene to Judaism: A New Perspective," JBL 83 (1964): 60; Schiffman, "The Conversion of the Royal House of Adiabene," 293-97.

[19] Josephus, Ant. 20.38.

[20] Josephus, Ant. 20.41.

[21] Josephus, Ant. 20.41.

[22] Josephus, Ant. 20.45.

[23] Paget, "Jewish Proselytism," 91.

[24] Neusner, "The Conversion of Adiabene to Judaism," 63-66; Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, 330.

[25] Schiffman, "The Conversion of the Royal House of Adiabene," 308; Donaldson, Judaism and the Gentiles, 337-38.

[26] Josephus, Ant. 20.43-47.

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