God-fearers (Greek: φοβούμενος τὸν Θεόν, Phoboumenos ton Theon) or God-worshipers (Greek: θεοσεβής, Theosebes) were a numerous class of gentile sympathizers to Hellenistic Judaism that existed in the Greco-Roman world, which observed certain Jewish religious rites and traditions without becoming full converts to Judaism. The concept has precedents in the proselytes of the Hebrew Bible.
History, status and diffusion
Over the last 50 years a growing number of scholars of Judaic studies and history of Judaism became interested in the subject of God-fearers and their relationship with Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity. According to the most common assumption, Jews that lived in the Greco-Roman world during the Hellenistic and Roman period were not involved in active missionary efforts of mass conversion among Pagans, although many historians disagree.
As Jews emigrated and settled in the Roman provinces of the Empire, Judaism became an appealing religion to a large number of Pagans, for many reasons; God-fearers and proselytes that underwent full conversion were Greeks or Romans, and came from all social classes: they were mostly women and freedmen (liberti), but there were also artisans, soldiers and few people of high status, like patricians and senators.
The class of God-fearers existed between the 1st and the 3rd century CE. They are mentioned in Latin and Greek literature, Flavius Josephus' and Philo's historical works, rabbinic literature, early Christian writings, and other contemporary sources such as synagogue inscriptions from Diaspora communities (Palestine, Rome and Asia Minor).
In the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), there is some recognition of gentile monotheistic worship as being directed toward the God of the Jews. This forms the category of yir’ei HaShem/yir’ei Shamayim (Hebrew: יראי השם, meaning "Fearers of the Name"/"Fearers of Heaven", "the Name" being a Jewish euphemism for Yahweh, cf. Psalm 115:11). This was developed by later rabbinic literature into the concept of Noahides, gentiles that follow the seven laws of Noah, which rabbinic writings assigned to the Noahic Covenant.
In inscriptions, texts and papyri
The Greek terms that refer to God-fearers (theosebeis, sebomenoi, phoboumenoi, metuentes) are found in ancient literature (Greek, Roman, and Jewish) and synagogue inscriptions discovered in Aphrodisias, Panticapaeum, Tralles, Sardis, Venosa, Lorium (in Rome), Rhodes, Deliler (Philadelphia) and Miletus.
Judging from the distinctions in the Acts of the Apostles it is thought that they did not become gerim tzedekim, which required circumcision, although 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 practiced Sabbath and which many scholars see as sympathizers with Judaism related to God-fearers.
In early Christian writings
God-fearers is used of those pagans who attached themselves in varying degrees to Judaism without becoming total converts, and are referred to in the Christian New Testament's Acts of the Apostles, which describes the Apostolic Age of the 1st century.
So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: "Men of Israel, and you that fear God (οἱ φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν), listen".— Acts 13:16
Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God (ἐν ὑμῖν φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν), to us has been sent the message of this salvation.— Acts 13:26 (RSV)
Role in Pauline Christianity
God-fearers are considered to be of significant importance to the growth of early Christianity. They represented a group of gentiles who shared religious ideas and practices with Jews, to one degree or another. However, they were not converts, but a separate gentile community, engaged in certain Jewish religious rites and traditions. Actual conversion to Judaism would require adherence to all of the Laws of Moses, which includes various prohibitions (kashrut, circumcision, Shabbat observance etc.) that were generally unattractive to would-be gentile (largely Greek) converts. The rite of circumcision was especially unappealing and execrable in Classical civilization because it was the custom to spend an hour a day or so exercising nude in the gymnasium and in Roman baths, therefore Jewish men did not want to be seen in public deprived of their foreskins. Hellenistic and Roman culture both found circumcision to be cruel and repulsive.
The Apostle Paul in his letters fiercely criticized the Judaizers that demanded circumcision for Gentile converts, and opposed them; he stressed instead that faith in Christ constituted a "New Covenant" with God, a covenant which essentially provides a "free gift" of salvation from the harsh edicts of the Mosaic Law for Gentiles that didn't require circumcision (see also Christian liberty, Pauline passages supporting antinomianism, Abrogation of Old Covenant laws). The only God-fearers known to be converted to Christianity by Paul mentioned in the New Testament were Cornelius the Centurion, Lydia of Thyatira and the Ethiopian eunuch.
In Paul's message of salvation through faith as opposed to works, many 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.
Notes and references
- Sim, David C. & MacLaren, James S. "Chapter 1, Paragraph 3: God-Fearers". Attitudes to Gentiles in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 15–23. ISBN 978-0-56763-766-6.
- Kraabel, A. T. "The Disappearance of the 'God-Fearers'". Numen. Brill. 28 (2): 113–126. JSTOR 3270014.
- Marcus, Ralph. "The Sebomenoi in Josephus". Jewish Social Studies. Indiana University Press. 14 (3): 247–250. JSTOR 4465081.
We know from Pagan, Christian and Jewish sources that during the Hellenistic and early Roman periods some Gentiles were so strongly attracted to Judaism that they became converts and undertook to observe Jewish laws and customs in the same manner as did the Jews themselves. [...] It is also commonly assumed that there were some Gentiles who did not go so far as to become converts but indicated their belief in monotheism and gave up the worship of Pagan gods. How far they went in openly dissociating themselves from Paganism and in associating themselves with Judaism we do not know. These Gentile sympathizers are commonly thought to be referred by the terms sebomenoi or phoboumenoi ton theon and metuentes in Greek and Latin sources, and yir᾿ê shamayim "fearers of Heaven" (i.e. God-fearers) in some early Rabbinic passages.
“ Proselytes ad God-fearers.-Many scholars see a parallel between the "God-fearers" in rabbinic literature and the "God-fearers" in the NT. In rabbinic literature the ger toshab was a Gentile who observed the Noachian commandments but was not considered a convert to Judaism because he did not agree to circumcision. [...] some scholars have made the mistake of calling the ger toshab a "proselyte" or "semiproselyte." But the ger toshab was really a resident alien in Israel. Some scholars have claimed that the term "those who fear God" (yir᾿ei Elohim/Shamayim) was used in rabbinic literature to denote Gentiles who were on the fringe of the synagogue. They were not converts to Judaism, although they were attracted to the Jewish religion and observed part of the law. ” — Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1986, Fully Revised Edition), p. 1010, Vol. 3, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: Michigan, ISBN 0-8028-3783-2.
- Treblico, Paul, I «Timorati di Dio» in Lewin, Ariel (editor), Gli ebrei nell'Impero romano: saggi vari, pp. 161-193, La Giuntina, Florence, 2001, ISBN 88-8057-120-6.
- Treblico, Paul; Davies, William David & Finkelstein, Louis. "Chapter 3: The Jews in Asia Minor, 66-c. 235 CE". In Katz, Steven T. The Cambridge History of Judaism: Volume 4, The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period. Cambridge University Press. pp. 80–82. ISBN 978-0-521-77248-8.
- Sand, Shlomo; Ilany, Ofri (21 March 2008). "Shattering a 'National Mythology'". Haaretz. Tel Aviv. Retrieved 26 July 2018.
The people did not spread, but the Jewish religion spread. Judaism was a converting religion. Contrary to popular opinion, in early Judaism there was a great thirst to convert others. The Hasmoneans were the first to begin to produce large numbers of Jews through mass conversion, under the influence of Hellenism. The conversions between the Hasmonean Revolt and Bar Kochba's rebellion are what prepared the ground for the subsequent, wide-spread dissemination of Christianity. After the victory of Christianity in the fourth century, the momentum of conversion was stopped in the Christian world, and there was a steep drop in the number of Jews. Presumably many of the Jews who appeared around the Mediterranean became Christians. But then Judaism started to permeate other regions - pagan regions, for example, such as Yemen and North Africa. Had Judaism not continued to advance at that stage and had it not continued to convert people in the pagan world, we would have remained a completely marginal religion, if we survived at all.
- Catherine Hezser, Jewish Travel in Antiquity (2011), Mohr Siebeck, p. 438, Tübingen, Germany, ISBN 978-3-16-150889-9.
- Louis H. Feldman, "The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers", Biblical Archaeology Review 12, 5 (1986), Center for Online Judaic Studies.
- Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (1989), pp. 55-59, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: Kentucky, ISBN 978-0-664-25017-1.
“ As pious gentiles, the God-fearers stood somewhere between Greco-Roman piety and Jewish piety in the synagogue. In his classic but now somewhat outdated study titled Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Harvard scholar George Foot Moore argued that the existence of the God-fearers provides evidence for the synagogue's own missionary work outside of Palestine during the first century C.E. The God-fearers were the result of this Jewish missionary movement. ” — A. T. Kraabel, J. Andrew Overman, Robert S. MacLennan, Diaspora Jews and Judaism: essays in honor of, and in dialogue with, A. Thomas Kraabel (1992), Scholars Press, ISBN 978-15-55406-96-7.
- Robert F. Tannenbaum, "Jews and God-Fearers in the Holy City of Aphrodite", Biblical Archaeology Review 12, 5 (1986), Center for Online Judaic Studies.
- 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."
- Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a, 56b.
- Pieter W. van der Horst, God-fearers (theosebeis) (2015), Oxford Classical Dictionary.
- 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 ..."
“ In contradistinction to the ger toshab, the full proselyte was designated as "ger ha-ẓedeḳ," "ger ha-berit" (a sincere and righteous proselyte, one who has submitted to circumcision; see Mek., Mishpaṭim, 18; Gerim iii.). The common, technical term for "making a convert" in rabbinical literature is "ḳabbel" (to accept), or "ḳareb taḥat kanfe ha-Shekinah" (to bring one near, or under the wings of, the Shekinah). This phrase plainly presupposes an active propaganda for winning converts (comp. Cant. R. v. 16, where God is referred to as making propagandic efforts). In fact, that proselytes are welcome in Israel and are beloved of God is the theme of many a rabbinical homily (Ruth R. iii.; Tan., Wayiḳra [ed. Buber, 3]; see also Mek., Mishpaṭim, 18; Tosef., Demai, ii. 10; Bek. 32a). ” — "Proselyte", Jewish Encyclopedia (1906).
- Proselytes and God-fearers Kirsopp Lake
- Todd C. Penner, In praise of Christian origins: Stephen and the Hellenists, p. 226, 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".
- 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.”"
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Circumcision: In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature: "Contact with Grecian life, especially at the games of the arena [which involved nudity], made this distinction obnoxious to the Hellenists, or antinationalists; and the consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18; Tosef., Shab. xv. 9; Yeb. 72a, b; Yer. Peah i. 16b; Yeb. viii. 9a). All the more did the law-observing Jews defy the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes prohibiting circumcision (I Macc. i. 48, 60; ii. 46); and the Jewish women showed their loyalty to the Law, even at the risk of their lives, by themselves circumcising their sons."; Hodges, Frederick, M. (2001). "The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme" (PDF). The Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Johns Hopkins University Press. 75 (Fall 2001): 375–405. doi:10.1353/bhm.2001.0119. PMID 11568485. Retrieved 2018-02-06.
- Acts 15:1-2, Acts 15:6-10, Gal 5:2-3, Gal 5:6-12, Gal 6:12-15, Phil 3:2-3, 1 Cor 7:17-21, Rom 2:17-29, Rom 3:9-28, Rom 5:1-11.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Proselyte mentions "fearers of God"
- Louis H. Feldman, “The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers”, Biblical Archaeology Review 12, 5 (1986), Center for Online Judaic Studies
- A. Chaniotis, "Godfearers in the City of Love", Biblical Archaeology Review 36, 3 (2010), Biblical Archaeology Society
- A. Guttmacher, "Fear of God" (1906), Jewish Encyclopedia