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A God-fearer or Godfearer was a class of non-Jewish (gentile) sympathizers to Second Temple Judaism mentioned in the Christian New Testament and other contemporary sources such as synagogue inscriptions in diaspora Hellenistic Judaism. The concept has precedents in the proselytes of the Hebrew Bible.
In the Hebrew Bible, there is some recognition of non-Jewish monotheistic worship as being directed toward the same God. This forms the category of yirei Hashem ("יראי השם," meaning "Fearers of the Name", "the Name" being a Jewish euphemism for the Tetragrammaton, cf. Psalm 115:11). This was developed by later rabbinic literature into the concept of Noahides, Gentiles following the seven laws, which rabbinic writings assigned to the Noahic covenant.
Original Greek terms
There are various Greek forms of this term:
- the adjective theosebes
- the adjective theophobes (Greek θεοφοβείς)
- the phrase "fearers of God" (φοβουμενοι τον θεον)
The word may also be related to terms in other languages such as Neo-Persian Tarsàkàn
In inscriptions, texts and papyri
The terms are found in synagogue inscriptions in Aphrodisias. Judging from the distinctions in the Book of Acts it is thought that they did not become full Proselytes to Judaism, which required circumcision, though the evidence across the centuries varies widely and the meaning of the term may have included all kinds of sympathetic Gentiles, proselytes or not. There are also around 300 text references (4th century BCE to 3rd century CE) to a sect of Hypsistarians some of whom practised Sabbath and which many scholars see as sympathizers with Judaism related to God fearers.
In the New Testament
Godfearers is used of those who attached themselves in varying degrees to Judaism without becoming total converts, and are referred to in the Christian New Testament's Book of Acts, which describes the Apostolic Age of the 1st century.
— Acts 13:16 So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. Acts 13:26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. (ESV)
Theological significance of the Godfearers
God-fearers (or 'Fearers of God') are considered to be of significant importance to the popularity of the Early Christian movement. They represented a group of gentiles who shared religious ideas with Jews, to one degree or another. However, they were not converts, but a separate gentile community, engaged in Judaic religious ideas and practices. Noahidism would be a modern parallel. Actual conversion would require adherence to all of the Laws of Moses, which includes various prohibitions (kashrut, circumcision, Sabbath observance etc.) which were generally unattractive to would-be gentile (largely Greek) converts. The rite of circumcision was especially unpopular in Classical civilization because it was the custom to spend an hour a day or so exercising in the nude in the gymnasium and males did not want to be seen in public deprived of their foreskins.
The message of St. Paul, (see Paul of Tarsus and Judaism), stressed that faith in Jesus constituted a new covenant with God, a covenant which essentially provides a 'free gift' of salvation from the harsh edicts of the Mosaic Law, see also Christian liberty. The Law of Moses was considered therefore to have little relevance to the Pauline Christian community, (see Pauline passages supporting antinomianism), as the sacrifice of the Christ was seen as a liberation from the demand that a person follow the Law without deviation, see also Abrogation of Old Covenant laws. This message was taken up by the God-fearers, who already represented a sizable group of people. In Paul's message of salvation through faith as opposed to works, the God-fearers found an essentially Jewish group to which they could belong without the necessity of their accepting Jewish Law. Aside from earning Paul's group a wide following, this view was generalized in the eventual conclusion that converts to Christianity need not first accept all Jewish Law, (see Apostolic Decree), a fact which was indispensable to the popularity of the early Christian movement and which would eventually lead to the distinction between Judaism and Christianity as two separate religions.
- Islam and Global Dialogue: Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace. ed. Roger Boase, Hassan Bin (FRW) Talal . Ashgate. 2010 Page 203 "Nevertheless, by late biblical times Israelites realised that there were other people in the world who worshipped the one, unseen God. Such people form the category of yir'ei Hashem (God-fearers, cf. Psalm 115:11); perhaps it is to ..."
- Jeffrey M. Cohen 500 questions and answers on Chanukah 2006 "Hence the references to them in Jewish sources such as Sebomenoi or Yir'ei Hashem (God-fearers). Many of them accepted monotheism, though held back from many other basic ritual precepts."
- Talmud b. Sanhedrin 56a, 56b
- The face of New Testament studies: a survey of recent research Scot McKnight, Grant R. Osborne - 2004 "Theosebeis in the Aphrodisias Inscription" RB 2 : 418-24), who surmises that the two God-worshipers, Eummonius and Antoninus, who were studying Torah were actual God-fearers, but those listed on the other side of the pillar were ..."
- Proselytes and God-fearers Kirsopp Lake
- Todd C. Penner In praise of Christian origins: Stephen and the Hellenists p226 2004 "The category of Theosebes is notoriously difficult to delineate. It is debatable whether or not the term was ever a widely recognized technical designation of a Gentile "hanger-on," and much of the evidence is difficult to date (see "
- James D. Arvila p.29
- Journal of Biblical Studies: Godfearer, by J. Brian Tucker: "The traditional understanding of God-fearers, i.e. F.F. Bruce, “God-fearers were Gentiles who attached themselves in varying degrees to the Jewish worship and way of life without as yet becoming full proselytes.”"
- Cross, Colin Who Was Jesus? 1972
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Proselyte mentions "fearers of God"
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Fear of God
- Godfearers in the City of Love Biblical Archaeology Review