By March 31, 2016 Read More →

Louis H. Feldman. “The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers.” Biblical Archaeology Review 12, 5 (1986).

Register of donors or founders inscribed in Greek from a third-century A.D. building at Aphrodisias

Reverend MacLennan and Dean Kraabel have performed a real service by questioning the view, so commonly held, that in antiquity there was a large class of gentiles, the so-called God-fearers, who stood somewhere between paganism and Judaism.(1)

What we call God-fearers, as MacLennan and Kraabel recognize, actually refers to several Greek terms. In the Book of Acts we find phoboumenoi (“those fearing”) and sebomenoi ton theon (“those reverencing God”). Elsewhere in classical literature we find such terms as theosebeis (“God worshippers”) and metuentes (“those who fear”).

That such terms existed is undeniable. For convenience, we may refer collectively to these (and similar) terms as God-fearers.

The variety of terms used contemporaneously for this phenomenon—whatever it is—suggests that the terms are not technical terms—at least, they were not in the first century A.D. If the terms were technical, why would Luke change so abruptly from one to the other?(2) To this extent, I agree with MacLennan and Kraabel.

The next question is, to what did these terms refer? Did they refer to a group who stood somewhere between paganism and Judaism, so-called semiproselytes, who were sympathetic to Judaism, but who had not taken the final step of formal conversion (which, in the case of males, would include circumcision)?

The fact is that, at least in the first century A.D., these terms were not limited to the “sympathizers” I have described above. These terms also referred to Jews by birth or to full converts.(3) This is clear from an inscription found at Miletus in Asia Minor, dating from Roman times, that speaks of the “place of the Jews who are also God-fearers.”(4) (Acts itself [13:43] mentions “God-fearing proselytes.”) Similarly, at the beginning of the second century, people who are clearly Jewish, named Levi, Benjamin and Joseph, are called theosebeis, “God worshippers” in the pseudepigraphic work Joseph and Asenath.(5)
The fact that these terms do not necessarily imply the existence of a class or group of “sympathizers,” does not, however, mean that such a class or group did not exist.

The central question is not whether these terms are technical terms or whether they apply only to “half-way” Jews, but whether a significant group of “sympathizers” existed for whom early Christianity might have had a special appeal.

MacLennan and Kraabel are surely right when they declare that we must be cautious in utilizing Acts as a historical source, especially when conclusions from Acts are not independently supported by other evidence. They are likewise right in stating that the other evidence concerning “sympathizers” is almost always explained by scholars with reference to Acts.(6)

What I propose to do here is to examine this other evidence independently of Acts, to see whether it demonstrates the existence of a substantial group of “sympathizers” or semi-Jews. I believe, contrary to MacLennan and Kraabel, that the evidence does indicate the existence of such “sympathizers” in rather large numbers. Whether such people are called “God-fearers” or “sympathizers” or “semi-Jews” is relatively unimportant. The fact is they existed, and nontechnical terms for God-fearers were applied to them, as well as to natural born Jews and full proselytes.

The evidence is circumstantial, literary and epigraphic.

During the Hellenistic and early Roman period (323 B.C. to 70 A.D.), the Jews were apparently extraordinarily successful in winning converts. Natural increase alone can hardly account for the vast growth in Jewish population, since there is no evidence that the population of the world at large had increased significantly during this period or that health conditions had improved or that Jews had previously been practicing birth control. On the basis of Biblical and archaeological data, Salo estimates that Judea, which contained the major part of the Jewish population at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C., had no more than 150,000 Jews. By the middle of the first century A.D. he estimates(8) that the world Jewish population had risen to about eight million. In the Roman empire, he suggests, every tenth inhabitant was a Jew. The most likely explanation of this increase is proselytism, as alluded to by numerous references in Philo, Josephus, the New Testament, Greek and Roman writers and the Talmud.(9) One may cite as samples the statements that “We are much more numerous, and like the Jews we shall force you to join our throng” (Horace, Satires 1.4.142–143), and “The Holy One, blessed be He, sent Israel into exile among the nations only for the purpose of acquiring converts” (Talmud, Pesahim 87b).(10)

A proselytizing movement of such scope, if we may judge from parallel movements in the growth of Christianity and Islam, for example, would seem necessarily to imply the existence of intermediate classes of those at a half-way point or other sympathizers who tried to effect a syncretism of the old religion with the new one. Examples from earlier periods are to be found in the Bible itself. In 2 Kings 5:15–18 we learn about Naaman, a Syrian captain, who, despite his realization that there is no God but Israel’s, continues to bow down in the house of Rimmon with his master, the king of Syria.
Even in periods when Jews were not active missionaries, we hear about “Judaizers,” non-Jews who practiced some Jewish customs or observed some Jewish laws. This charge was made against Albigensians in the 12th century, against Hussites in the 15th century and against Protestants generally in the 16th century because they had adopted certain Jewish practices, such as abstention from certain foods or observance of the seventh-day Sabbath.

Hence, it would seem reasonable to assume on the basis of circumstantial evidence that there were half-way movements between Judaism and other religions 2,000 years ago. But there is other evidence as well. The circumstantial case is fully supported by references in pagan as well as Christian and Jewish literature.

In Plutarch’s life of Cicero(11) we hear of a freedman of the first century B.C. who was suspected of Judaizing (Ioudaizein). The accused man denounces Verres, the Roman governor, whereupon Cicero is said to have remarked, “What has a Jew to do with Verres?” (Verres means “pig,” a forbidden food for Jews.) The phrase “suspected of Judaizing” implies that the accused adhered to some but not all Jewish practices.(12)
In the first century A.D. we find several references to “sympathizers.” For example, Seneca,(13) after deriding the Jews for their laziness in wasting one-seventh of their lives in idleness through the observance of the Sabbath, declares that “the custom of this most accursed race has gained such influence that it has now been received throughout the world,” presumably by non-Jews who are “sympathizers.” Seneca then adds that whereas “[the Jews] are aware of the origin and meaning of their rites the greater part of the people go through a ritual not knowing why they do so.” The contrast appears to be between those who are Jews in the full sense and non-Jews who adopt the Sabbath.(14) Seneca seems to be attacking the spread of the Sabbath, which was precisely the one aspect of Judaism that was apparently most attractive to the “sympathizers.”
Contemporary with Seneca is a passage in the satirist Petronius(15) declaring that “The Jew may worship his pig-god and clamor in the ears of high heaven, but unless he also cuts back his foreskin with a knife, he shall go forth from the people and emigrate to Greek cities, and shall not tremble at the fasts of Sabbath imposed by the law.” Petronius here distinguishes between those who go part way by observing the dietary laws and the worship of the God “of high heaven” and those who become complete Jews by undergoing circumcision and by observing the Sabbath according to the law. The implication of the phrase “he shall go forth from the people” is that he will not be accepted as a full Jew unless he accepts the entire law, including circumcision. A passage like this, coming from a satirist, has force only if the situation is one that is sufficiently common to be easily recognized by the reader.
Another passage that alludes to “sympathizers” is in Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher of the latter part of the first century A.D. and the early part of the second century.(16) “Why,” asks the philosopher, “do you act the part of a Jew when you are a Greek?” Epictetus then adds: “Whenever we see a man halting between two faiths we are in the habit of saying, ‘He is not a Jew, he is only acting the part.’ But when he adopts the attitude of mind of the man who has been baptized and has made his choice, then he both is a Jew in fact and is called one.” The fact that Epictetus cites this as an example to illustrate a point in a popular exposition of philosophy would seem to indicate that he is describing a frequent occurrence, one which is actually proverbial, as his quotation of a saying indicates. He is clearly pointing out a contrast between the part-Jew and the full Jew, as seen by his adoption of the language of the stage (actors) in contrast to reality.

A similar distinction is implied in Suetonius, who, writing in the early second century,(17) declares that two classes of people were persecuted by the Roman emperor Domitian (who reigned from 81 to 96 A.D.) for evasion of the special tax on Jews, namely those who lived as Jews without acknowledging that faith (vel inprofessi Iudaicam vivenrunt vitam) and those who concealed their origin. The first group cannot be Christians, as Menahem Stem has pointed out,(18) since the Roman government was well aware of the difference between Jews and Christians from the time of Nero. Hence the first group would seem to refer to the “sympathizers” (who lived as Jews without acknowledging the faith), in contrast to those who acknowledged full adherence to Judaism.(19)

The most significant passage differentiating proselytes from “sympathizers” is to be found in the early second century A.D. satirist Juvenal:(20) “Some who have had a father who reveres (metuentem) 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 is here clearly speaking of a progression of observance: the first generation, that of the “sympathizers,” observes the Sabbath and the dietary laws, whereas the second generation becomes full-fledged Jews by undergoing circumcision and by disdaining the worship of idols. While it is true,(21) that the term “revere” (metuentem) is not necessarily(22) a technical term for “sympathizers” equivalent to the phoboumenoi and sebomenoi ton theon of Acts, the passage does differentiate between those who observe some practices of Judaism and those who are complete Jews. Moreover, the God-fearers must have been numerous if Roman satirists and popular philosophers could use them as examples, even if Juvenal may exaggerate. The cutting edge of satire, as Thomas Finn has remarked,(23) derives from the cutting edge of reality. Hence, the Sabbath-observing father can hardly be Juvenal’s invention and is surely not an isolated example.

What we find in pagan literature concerning the existence of “sympathizers” is confirmed in Jewish literature.
A clear allusion to “sympathizers” may be found in the work of the Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Philo. Commenting on a passage in Exodus,(24) Philo says that the term “proselyte” does not refer to proselytes strictly speaking, inasmuch as the Jews did not practice circumcision in Egypt; consequently, he concludes, the proselyte who, according to these verses, is not to be wronged must be one who has not undergone circumcision. Such a proselyte, says Philo, is what we would term a “sympathizer,” since he has chosen to honor the one God. This type of proselyte corresponds to what the rabbis call a ger toshab, a semi-convert who has embraced monotheism but not other commandments.(25) Perhaps other Alexandrian Jews might have considered such gentiles to be converts, but Philo insists that they are not.(26)

A number of passages in the works of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus allude directly or indirectly to “sympathizers.” In his account of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 A.D.),(27) Josephus tells of the Jewish massacre of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, noting that the Roman Metilius alone saved his life through his promise to turn Jew (Ioudaisein) and even to be circumcised (mechri peritones). Josephus’s addition of “even to be circumcised” indicates that there is probably a distinction between “turning Jew” (i.e., Judaizing) and becoming a full Jew.

Likewise, commenting on the situation in Syria at the beginning of the war, Josephus remarks(28) that each city, though believing that it had rid itself of its Jews, still had its Judaizers (Ioudaizontes), who aroused suspicion. Here is an evident distinction between Jews and Judaizers; and Josephus then proceeds to make clear the nature of these Judaizers, describing them as an equivocal (amphibolon, “doubtful, ambiguous”) and mixed (memigmenon)(29) element, whom the Syrians feared as much as proclaimed aliens (allophylon). The word “mixed” most likely alludes to the fact that these “sympathizers” mixed Jewish customs with those of the pagans.

Another passage alluding to the “sympathizers” occurs where Josephus declares(30) that the Jews of Antioch were constantly attracting to their religious ceremonies a large multitude of Greeks and that they had “in some measure [tropoi tini] incorporated them with themselves.” The phrase “in some measure” apparently indicates that those whom they had won over had become not proselytes, but “sympathizers,” since they had adopted only some Jewish ways.

A key passage is the one in which Josephus describes(31) the great wealth of the Temple in Jerusalem, noting that Jews throughout the inhabited world and those who worshipped God (sebomenon ton theon), both those from Asia and from Europe, had contributed to it for a very long time.(32) The distinction Josephus is drawing is evident.

Josephus’s account(33) of the conversion of Izates, king of Adiabene in Mesopotamia, likewise illuminates the difference between full converts and “sympathizers.” The very fact that, according to Josephus,(34) Izates considered that he would not be genuinely (bebaios) a Jew unless he was circumcised implies that one might become a Jew in a lesser degree without being circumcised. That this inference is warranted is clear from what follows, since a Jewish merchant named Ananias tries to convince Izates(35) that he can worship the Divine (to theion sebein) even without being circumcised, “if indeed he had fully (pantos) decided to be a devoted adherent of Judaism.”(36)

Josephus refers to the wife of Nero as a worshipper of God (thosebes) who pleaded on behalf of the Jews.(37) This would appear to differentiate between the worshippers of God and the Jews. Indeed, she acted twice on behalf of Jewish interests, once here in persuading Nero not to tear down the wall which the Jews had built in the Temple area to block King Agrippa II (c. 60 A.D.) from viewing the sacrifices and once(38) when Josephus came to Rome to secure the freedom of some priests.(39)

Two other references to “sympathizers” may be found in Josephus’s apologetic work Against Apion. In the first,(40) Josephus remarks that many of the Jewish customs have now found their way to some cities, and, here and there, have been thought worthy of imitation. The fact that Josephus speaks of many customs that had penetrated the world indicates that we are not talking about conversion, since the convert must undertake to obey all the practices of Judaism.

A second passage,(41) after mentioning that the masses have long since shown a keen desire to adopt the Jewish religion, then singles out the abstinence from work on the Sabbath, the observance of the fast days and the lighting of the Sabbath lights as practices that are observed everywhere. That Josephus singles out specific observances and, above all, that he says that the observance of many of the laws has spread among non-Jews, shows that we are dealing not with full proselytes, who are required to observe all the laws, but with “sympathizers.”

In the Talmud,(a) the rabbis do not use the term “God-fearers” as such. Instead they substitute “Heaven” for “God,” as we find also in Daniel 4:23, 1 Maccabees 3:18 and in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 3:2). The term yirei shamayim (Heaven Fearers) is the rabbinic equivalent of God-fearers.(42) This term, however, does not appear in the earliest rabbinic works—the Mishnah or the Tosefta—which date, in all probability, to the end of the second century.(43)

In a later rabbinic work, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 70b), it is said of a certain King Lemuel, “All know that your father was a Heaven-fearing man (yirei shamayim), and therefore they will say that you inherit [your sinfulness] from your mother.” King Lemuel’s father was a non-Jew, so the reference here, to one who feared Heaven, while admittedly problematic, may well be to a “sympathizer.” The fact that the text says that “all know” that he was a “sympathizer” would indicate that such “sympathizers” were widely known.

A midrashic(b) passage(44) also uses the phrase yirei shamayim (Heaven Fearers) in what appears to be the technical sense of “sympathizers.” It describes by this language a Roman senator who committed suicide in order to delay implementation of an imperial decree that within 30 days no Jew should be left in the Roman empire. We can date the incident to approximately 95 A.D. during the reign of Domitian.(45) That the term yirei shamayim, or Heaven Fearer, does not mean merely “pious” but probably refers to a person on his way to full conversion would seem to be evidenced by the fact that the rabbis lament that the senator had committed suicide before conversion to Judaism, while his wife reveals that actually he had taken the step of full conversion, as she proves by exhibiting his foreskin.

Another Midrash,(46) containing traditional material from the second century, refers to four categories of true worshippers of God—sinless Israelites, righteous (i.e., full) proselytes, repentant sinners, and “Heaven Fearers.”(47) The juxtaposition of full proselytes and “Heaven Fearers” indicates that they are related but that they are to be distinguished from each other. Similarly the juxtaposition of sinless Israelites and “Heaven Fearers” indicates that they too are to be distinguished from each other.(48)

That the term yirei shamayim (Heaven Fearers) had become a technical term for “sympathizers” by the third century may be deduced from a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud,(49) which quotes Rabbi Eleazar, a third-century rabbi who lived in Palestine, as saying that only the gentiles who had nothing to do with the Jews during their bitter past will not be permitted to convert to Judaism in the time of the Messiah, but that those “Heaven Fearers” (yirei shamayim) who shared the tribulations of Israel would be accepted as full proselytes, with the Emperor Antoninus(50) at their head.(51)

Another passage that indicates a clear distinction between proselytes and “sympathizers” is found in a rabbinic work known as Genesis Rabbah (28.5), which quotes the third-century Palestinian rabbi Hanina as saying: “The cities of the sea are deserving of extermination, and by what merit are they delivered? By the merit of a single convert, or a single fearer of Heaven whom they produce each year.” The fact that the fearer of Heaven is paired with the convert and that the context indicates that even the slightest merit will redeem such cities would support the view that the “Heaven Fearer” is not a pious Jew but a gentile “sympathizer.”

Though other examples from Jewish literature could be cited,(52) let us turn now to Christian writers.

A passage from the mid-second-century writer Justin Martyr(53) seems rather clearly to refer to “sympathizers.” There we read the charge of the Jew Trypho that Christians neither keep the feasts or Sabbaths nor practice the rite of circumcision, whereas all God-fearing persons (phoboumenoi ton theon) do so. In this context it makes no sense to look upon the God-fearers as Jews, since the point is that Christians should know better than to disregard the commandments; the most likely interpretation is that since even God-fearers keep these commandments, certainly Christians, who claim to believe in the Scriptures, should do so.

In a late second-century A.D. work by Tertullian,(54) he attacks pagans who observe Jewish ceremonies, notably the Sabbath and Passover. The third-century Christian Latin poet Commodianus(55) likewise alludes to Judaizers who seek “to live between both ways”—that is, partaking of both Judaism and Christianity. Commodianus makes the same point(56) when he exclaims: “What! Are you half a Jew?”

In three Iranian languages—Pahlavi, New Persian and Sogdian—one of the names for Christians is derived from the Iranian root tars, which means “to fear.” Moreover, there are no other names for Christians that are derivatives of Iranian roots.(57) The most likely theory is that advanced by Pines(58)—the Christians were so designated because many of them had themselves formerly been or were the children of God-fearers or bore a similarity to God-fearers in their customs.

Let us now consider the archaeological evidence.

In their article on the disappearance of the God-fearers, MacLennan and Kraabel note that although over 100 synagogue inscriptions have been uncovered, at most only a single one refers to “sympathizers.” However, this one inscription almost certainly does refer to “sympathizers.”

This remarkable inscription discovered by Professor Kenan Erim in 1916 at Aphrodisias is of extraordinary importance for our discussion.(59) There are two separate lists of names, presumably of donors to the synagogue or other public building; an inscription alongside the first list (in a later hand) refers to ktistai, the word usually used for “founders” of or “donors” to the building.(60) The first list is clearly a register of Jews, as names such as Jacob, Manasses, Judas, Joseph and Rueben indicate. Then, after a gap in the inscription, comes the sensational phrase kai hosoi theosebeis, “and those who are God-fearers.” The names that follow are all Greek or Greco-Roman—such as Zeno, Diogenes, Antiochos, Polychronios, Chrysippos, Appianos, Eutropios, Valerianos and Athenogoras. The second group starts with the names of nine members of the city council; the professions listed for the rest—such as mason, marble worker, athlete, portrait painter, fuller, tax collector, carpenter—are of a social group that is, for the most part, distinctly higher than that of the Jews in the first group—such as vegetable seller, candymaker, bird seller, and cattle fodder purveyor. If, as Miss Joyce Reynolds, to whom the publication of these inscriptions has been entrusted, believes, they date from the third century, this would seem to confirm that by this time(61) there was a definite and recognizable class of “sympathizers” known by the name of “God-fearers.” It, of course, does not prove that the term was used with that significance in the first century A.D. in the Book of Acts, but it is clearly suggestive. We may still, it is true, ask whether the God-fearers at Aphrodisias are not simply gentiles who befriended Jews and perhaps contributed to the synagogue without adopting any Jewish practices. This question, however, is perhaps answered by an inscription found in the odeum (theater) at Aphrodisias with the words “the place of those who are complete Hebrews” (Hebreon ton teleion). If, indeed, there is any relationship between the list of synagogue donors and the inscription in the odeum, this would seem to establish the existence, at least in Aphrodisias in presumably the third century, of a class of “sympathizers,” in contrast to complete Jews.

Another inscription found at Aphrodisias alongside the lists of names mentioned above contains a list of donors that refers, first, to a number of Jews, as we can see from the names, second, to two proselytes named Samuel and Ioses, and, finally, to Emmonios and Antoninos (good pagan names), who are called theosebeis, God-fearers. Here, finally, we have in the same inscription Jews, proselytes and “sympathizers,” distinguished from one another.

Thus far, as MacLennan and Kraabel have stated, the situation at Aphrodisias seems to be unique; but the references in rabbinic literature of the same period to a separate class of “sympathizers” would lead us to expect that we should find “sympathizers” in other communities as well.

In addition, a reference to a community of “sympathizers” has been found in a second-century A.D. inscription(62) that appoints the community of Jews and the God-fearers (theon sebon) as guardians of an enfranchised slave.

The happy fact that the Roman administrators in Egypt recorded the names not only of the inhabitants but also those of their parents and grandparents enables us to reconstruct the names of whole families. The name Sambathion (apparently given to children born on the Sabbath) in 20 Egyptian papyri ranging in date from the early first century A.D. to the fifth century apparently refers to adherents of a sect of Sabbath observers, since their kinsmen seem to be non-Jewish and the papyri were found in villages that are non-Jewish so far as we know. It is striking that no other Hebrew name was ever borrowed by non-Jews; and the most likely reason for the choice of the name, consequently, is that the parents were Sabbath observers. The name Sambathion, which occurs so often in these papyri, was given by the parents of these people; hence we may consider every Sambathion as representing a whole family;(63) and the total number of Sabbath observers was consequently not inconsiderable, though, of course, we cannot be sure that all members of the families were actually Sabbath observers. The name Sambathion occurs frequently in the second century and disappears by the fourth century; hence we may deduce a decline in the number of Sabbath observers.(64)

Some inscriptions of uncertain date describe donors to synagogues in Sardis and Philadelphia and Tralles in Asia Minor as theosebeis (God-fearers). These people too are probably “sympathizers.”(65)

In summary, the God-fearers, referring to “sympathizers” to Judaism or semi-Jews, have not disappeared. Jewish proselytism was a movement of such scope during the Hellenistic and Roman periods that it would be difficult to suppose that it failed to lead to intermediate subgroups. And, indeed, the evidence from classical, talmudic and Christian literature, from Philo to Josephus, and finally from inscriptions and papyri, while not always clear-cut, cumulatively confirms the existence of such a class, at least from the first century A.D. and especially in the third century A.D. The fact that popular philosophers and satirists refer to “sympathizers” would confirm that they were well known. This does not mean that the references in Acts to God-fearers are to “sympathizers,” nor does it mean that there were “perhaps millions” of “sympathizers” in the first century as Hertzberg postulates.66 Surely, however, by the third century, the evidence of rabbinic literature and of the Aphrodisias inscriptions is conclusive—there was a class of gentiles in two widely separated areas—Palestine and Asia Minor—who observed some of the practices of Judaism without becoming full Jews.

(1) In one of my first published essays (Louis H. Feldman, “Jewish ‘Sympathizers’ in Classical Literature and Inscriptions,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 81 [1950], pp. 200–208) I, following Lake (Kirsopp Lake, “Proselytes and God-fearers,” in Frederick Foakes Jackson and Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity I. The Acts of The Apostles, Vol. 5 [London, 1933], pp. 74–96), questioned whether the terms in the Book of Acts, phoboumenoi and sebomenoi ton theon were necessarily references to such a class, and my conclusion was accepted by Robert (Louis Robert, Nouvelles inscriptions de Sardis [Paris, 1964], pp. 41–45), among others.

(2) Max Wilcox, “The ‘God-fearers’ in Acts—A Reconsideration,” Journal for the Study of The New Testament 13 (1981), p. 109. That the apostolic fathers are, on the whole, strangely silent about the identification of the God-fearers as “sympathizers” is, indeed a strong argument in favor of the view espoused by MacLennan and Kraabel that the term is not a technical one. (Ibid.)

(3) Neil J. McEleney, “Conversion, Circumcision and the Law,” New Testament Studies 20 (1974), p. 326.

(4) Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (London, 1927), p. 452; Jean-Baptiste Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum, II (Vatican City, 1952), no. 748.

(5) Marc Philonenko, Joseph et Asenath (Leiden, 1968), p. 142.

(6) See, for example, W. W. Gasque, A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1975), pp. 251–305.

(7) Salo W. Baron, “Population,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 13 (1971), p. 869.

(8) Baron, A Social and Religious History of The Jews I (New York, 1952), p. 170 and especially pp. 370–372, note 7.

(9) For a survey of the evidence see Feldman, “Proselytism and Syncretism” (in Hebrew) in Menahem Stern and Zvi Baras, eds., World History of the Jewish People, First Series: The Diaspora in the Hellenistic-Roman World (Jerusalem, 1984), pp. 188–207, 340–345, 378–380.

(10) For further evidence see Bernard J. Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (Cincinnati, 1939) and William G. Braude, Jewish Proselyting in the First Five Centuries of the Common Era: The Age of the Tannaim and Amoraim (Providence, 1940).

(11) Plutarch, Cicero 7.6.5.

(12) Inasmuch as the accused had been the quaestor, in effect administrative assistant, of Verres, it seems unlikely that, unless the passage in Plutarch is unhistorical, he was a Jew in the complete sense, since a Jew would have had to compromise his Jewish observance in the service of the Roman state and, ipso facto, of the state religion.

(13) As quoted by Saint Augustine (City of God, 6.11).

(14) Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, I: From Herodotus to Plutarch (Jerusalem, 1974), p. 432.

(15) Petronius, fragment 37, Ernout.

(16) As quoted by Arrian (Dissertationes 2.19–21).

(17) Suetonius, in his life of Domitian, Lives of the Caesars, 12.2.

(18) Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, II: From Tacitus to Simplicius (Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 380–381.

(19) That, indeed, this reference is to “sympathizers” would seem to be corroborated by a passage in the third-century A D. historian Dio Cassius (67.14.2), who notes that during the reign of Domitian, Flavius Clemens, the consul, and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were accused of atheism, “a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned.” The reference here, too, would seem to be to Judaism rather than to Christianity, since, as we have noted, the distinction between the two was clear in Rome in the days of Nero (and certainly by the time of Dio) and also since, as Stern notes (Greek and Latin Authors, II. Tacitus, p. 130) the ancient tradition refers to Clemens as a Christian. Moreover, it is hardly likely that a consul would have practiced Judaism fully as a proselyte and have avoided participating in the state religious celebrations which were so integrally a part of the Roman Empire. The key word here, moreover, is “drifted” (exokellontes), which is a metaphor applying to a ship. It can hardly refer to conversion, which is an absolute step; it almost surely refers to step-by-step adoption of one practice of Judaism after another.

(20) Juvenal, 14.96–99.

(21) Feldman, “Jewish ‘Sympathizers’ in Literature,” pp. 200–208.

(22) As Jakob Bernays had postulated in “Die Gottesfurchtigen bei Juvenal,” Commentationes philologicae in honorem Theodor Mommsen (Berlin, 1877), pp. 563–569.

(23) Thomas M. Finn, “The God-fearers Reconsidered,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985), p. 81.

(24) Philo, Questions on Exodus 2.2, commenting on Exodus 22:20 (21) and Exodus 23:9.

(25) Samuel Belkin, Philo and the Oral Law (Cambridge, Mass., 1940), p. 47.

(26) Finn, “The God-fearers Reconsidered,” pp. 82–83.

Other references in Philo are less clear. In his Life of Moses (2.4.20–24), where he declares that Jewish institutions have won the attention of the whole inhabited world, he singles out the respect which all peoples have for the Sabbath and for the Day of Atonement. We may suggest that the fact that he selects these two observances, whereas a proselyte is required to observe all the commandments, would seem to indicate that we are dealing with “sympathizers.”

Similarly, when Philo (Special Laws 2.12.42) speaks of the “blameless life of pious men who follow nature and her ordinances” and (Special Laws 2.12.44) of “all who practice wisdom either in Grecian or barbarian lands and live a blameless and irreproachable life,” Wolfson (Harry A. Wolfson, Philo, II [Cambridge, Mass., 1947], pp. 373–374) concludes that the reference is to what he terms “spiritual proselytes,” that is “sympathizers,” inasmuch as the ordinances which these pious men are said to follow include five laws which are characteristically similar to those described by the rabbis as Noachian and which are binding on non-Jews.

Finally, there seems some reason to believe that Petronius the governor of Syria under Caligula in the middle of the first century A.D. who endeavored to persuade the emperor to rescind his order to place his (the emperor’s) statue in the Temple in Jerusalem, may have been a “sympathizer,” since Philo (Embassy to Gaius 245) states that Petronius had “some rudiments of Jewish philosophy and religion acquired either in early lessons in the past through his zeal for culture or after his appointment as governor in the countries [Asia and Syria] where the Jews were very numerous in every city, or else because his soul was so disposed, being drawn to things worthy of serious effort by a nature which listened to no voice or dictation or teaching but its own.” The description of Petronius’ soul as “disposed” to Jewish religion and the statement that he had been instructed in some of the rudiments (the Greek word indicates “sparks”) of Judaism presents a picture of a “sympathizer.”

(27) Josephus, The Jewish War 2.454.

(28) Josephus, The Jewish War 2.463.

(29) Not “neutral” as rendered by H. St. J. Thackeray in his Loeb Classical Library translation of Josephus, II (London, 1927), p. 503.

(30) Josephus, The Jewish War 7.45.

(31) Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 14.110.

(32) At one time I argued (“Jewish ‘Sympathizers’ in Literature,” pp. 200–208) that the reference to those who worshipped God is to pious Jews, remarking that if Josephus were referring to “sympathizers” he would have written ton sebomenon, as required by the strict rules of grammar; but I am now convinced by Marcus’s argument (Ralph Marcus, “The Sebomenoi in Josephus,” Jewish Social Studies 14 [1952], pp. 247–250) that the reference is to the “sympathizers,” since it is hard to understand why Josephus would mention Jews throughout the habitable world and then refer to them as “even” (which would be required by this translation) coming from Asia and Europe (omitting Africa, incidentally). It seems more likely that Josephus is distinguishing between the Jews of the habitable world on the one hand and the “sympathizers” from Asia and Europe who reverence God, on the other hand. Of course, the fact that in this one case the “sympathizers” are referred to as sebomenoi ton theon, the same wording as that found in Acts, in no way proves that this is a technical phrase.

(33) Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.17–96.

(34) Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.38.

(35) Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.41.

(36) Again, the fact that the phrase for “worshipping God” is similar to Acts’ sebomenoi ton theon is hardly conclusive evidence that this is a technical term, especially inasmuch as here the active, rather than the middle, voice of the verb is used and inasmuch as the word for God is not the same, but rather “the divine.”

(37) Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.195.

(38) Josephus, Life 16.

(39) Smallwood (E. Mary Smallwood, “The Alleged Jewish Tendencies of Poppaea Sabina,” Journal of Theological Studies 10 [1959], pp. 329–335) argues that Poppaea could hardly have been attracted to a religion which forbade murder and adultery, and she asks whether a queen could have repudiated idolatry. We may, however, reply that Poppaea may have selected whatever Jewish practices appealed to her. Again, the term theosebes is at this time hardly a technical term, since it sometimes is used of pious people generally, whether Jews or non-Jews. (Wilcox, “The ‘God-Fearers’ in Acts,” p. 121, remarks that it is strange that Josephus nowhere else uses the term theosebes in reference to “sympathizers,” and suggests that he would have done so if the term had existed and had been widely understood. The reason, we may reply, why Josephus does not use it elsewhere is that there was as yet in his time no single technical term for the “sympathizers.”)

(40) Josephus, Against Apion 1.166–167.

(41) Josephus, Against Apion 2.282.

(42) Folker Siegert, “Gottesfurchtige und Sympathisanten,” Journal for The Study of Judaism 4 (1973), p. 112.

(43) Moreover, as Wilcox (“The ‘God-Fearers’ in Acts,” p. 122, note 55) asserts, though the expression appears 17 times in the Babylonian Talmud, it nowhere seems to have any meaning other than “pious” or “devout.”

(44) Deuteronomy Rabbah 2.24.

(45) Siegert, “Gottesfurchtige und Sympathisanten,” pp. 110ff.

(46) Midrash, Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael 18 (on Exodus 22:20).

(47) A similar passage is also found in Numbers Rabbah 8.2, Aboth de Rabbi Nathan A 36 (ed., Solomon Schechter, 54a), Aboth de Rabbi Nathan B 18, p. 40, and Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 18 (ed., Meir Friedmann, p. 105). Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, p. 303, has patriarchs, converts, penitents and fearers of Heaven. In some versions of the Midrash on Psalms 118.11 a statement is added that the “Heaven Fearers” are the proselytes, but Solomon Buber, in his edition, refuses to accept this reading.

(48) Wolfson, Philo, II, p. 373, suggests that these “Heaven Fearers” are probably to be identified with “resident aliens” (gere toshab) who observe Noachian laws or with “sympathizers.” He notes that Maimonides (Mish-neh Torah, Issure Biah 14.7, Melakhim 8.10–11) identifies the “pious of the nations” with “resident aliens.” Wilcox, “The ‘God-Fearers’ in Acts,” pp. 116–117, argues that the yirei shamayim in this passage are not “sympathizers” and that the passage is, rather, referring to two kinds of Jews, proselytes and Jews by birth; but, if so, we may respond that the fact that two types of proselytes are mentioned is an indication that the members of one type were not full proselytes.

(49) Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 3.2.74a. See the discussion of this passage by Saul Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine (New York, 1942), pp. 78–80.

(50) Attempts to identify “Antoninus” with any of the Antonine or Severan emperors at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century have proven unsuccessful. See Joshua Gutmann, “Antoninus Pius,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 3 (1971), pp. 165–166.

(51) The passage clearly indicates that the yirei shamayim have been sympathetic to Judaism but have not yet been converted, since their conversion is to take place when the Messiah comes. That this conclusion is justified is apparent from the discussion which follows and which raises the question as to whether Antoninus was a proselyte or not. Those who say that he was point to the fact that he was seen walking on the Day of Atonement with a broken sandal (since it is prohibited to wear normal shoes on that day), whereupon we find the retort: “What can you deduce from that? Even fearers of Heaven (yirei shamayim) go out wearing such a sandal.” The implication is that such “sympathizers” are a degree away from complete conversion. There then follows a statement that no one who is uncircumcised may eat of the Paschal lamb, whereupon, according to one version, Antoninus proceeds to circumcise himself. The inevitable conclusion is that circumcision is what distinguishes the full proselyte from a mere “sympathizer.”

(52) A dispute (Leviticus Rabbah 3.2; cf. Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 22.29 and Psalm 31:8, ed., Buber, p. 191) between the third-century Palestinian rabbis Joshua ben Levi and Samuel bar Nahman as to whether the phrase “Ye that fear the Lord” refers to “fearers of Heaven” or proselytes would indicate that these two groups are comparable; and the most obvious point of comparison is that proselytes are full converts, whereas “fearers of Heaven” are not. It would also indicate that both disputants recognized that the phrase “fearers of Heaven” is a technical term for a group distinct from proselytes. To be sure Kuhn and Stegemann (Karl G. Kuhn and Hartmut Stegemann, “Proselyten,” in August Pauly and Georg Wissowa, eds., Realenzyklopadie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, Supplement 9 (1962), p. 1279) cite this passage to support their view that whereas originally the rabbinic term yirei shamayim was a technical term for God-fearers, by the third century, when there were no longer any “sympathizers,” the term was used of proselytes; but there is no indication in Leviticus Rabbah that the “sympathizers” had disappeared: The only question was whether the Biblical term “Ye that fear God” referred to them.

Another passage that clearly differentiates between proselytes and “sympathizers” is Pesiqta Rabbati 43, p. 180a (ed., Friedmann), which mentions a dispute as to whether the heathen children suckled by Sarah became full proselytes, as the third-century Palestinian rabbi Levi declares, or “fearers of Heaven.” Again, the contrast indicates a distinction between full proselytes and partial proselytes.

The talmudic category of ger toshab (resident alien) would seem to bear a close relationship, moreover, to that of the “sympathizer.” The second-century rabbi Meir (Avodah Zarah 64b, Jerusalem Talmud Yevamoth 8.1.8d) defines the ger toshab as a gentile who obligates himself not to worship idols, whereas others declare that the ger toshab is one who undertakes not merely to abstain from idol worship but also to observe the other six Noachian commandments; and still others define a ger toshab as one who undertakes to observe all the precepts mentioned in the Torah apart from the prohibition of eating the flesh of animals not ritually slaughtered. However, the one common denominator of these definitions is that the ger toshab is a non-Jew who observes some of the Biblical commandments and is thus part of the way on the path to full conversion. Braude (Jewish Proselyting, p. 136) contends that such a discussion has an unmistakable air of unreality, but Lieberman (Greek in Jewish Palestine, p. 81) seems to be right in declaring that the clash mirrors the facts of actual life, since apparently there were various gradations of such “sympathizers.” The very fact that the third-century rabbi Johanan bar Nappaha (Avodah Zarah 65a; cf. Jerusalem Talmud Yevamoth 8.1.8d, where the statement is put into the mouth of Rabbi Hanina bar Hama), gives a time limit of 12 months during which the ger toshab must make up his mind whether to become a full convert or to be regarded as a gentile in every respect would seem to indicate that the rabbis, confronted with a widespread phenomenon of “semi-proselytes,” had decided to clamp down. (The close connection between the ger toshab and the “sympathizer” may be deduced from the fact that there is a baraitha [Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b] which describes Naaman as a ger toshab, whereas Naaman was not a resident alien but one who accepted Jewish monotheism “in fear of heaven.” See Bamberger, Proselytism in The Talmudic Period, p. 137.) Moreover, the statement of the third-century Palestinian rabbi Simeon ben Lakish (Resh Lakish) that a gentile who rests on the Sabbath deserves capital punishment seems to be an extreme reaction against “sympathizers,” who were attracted especially to the observance of the Sabbath among the practices of Judaism, as we have seen.

Bertholet (Alfred Bertholet, Die Stellung der Israeliten und der Juden zu den Fremden [Freiburg and Leipzig, 1896], pp. 331–334) has gone so far as to deny the existence of God-fearers in the talmudic period; but this view has been challenged by Levi (Israel Levi, “Le proselytisme juif,” Revue des Etudes juives 50 [1905], pp. 1–9; 53 [1907], pp. 56–61), and it may be of value to present the evidence, as I have tried to do here, systematically. True, the term is not common in rabbinic literature, perhaps because as Strack and Billerbeck have suggested (Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar-zum neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, II [Munich, 1924], pp. 716–721), the “sympathizers” were found not so much in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, which are the central foci of the rabbis’ interest, as in the Diaspora. In any event, there are, as I have tried to show, considerable references to “sympathizers.”

(53) Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 10.2.

(54) Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1.13.

(55) Commodianus, Instructiones 1.24.11ff.

(56) Commodianus, Instructiones 1.37.

(57) Likewise in the Mandaean Christian book Ginza (Shlomo Pines, “The Iranian Name for Christians and the God-Fearers,” Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 2.71 [1968], p. 151), one of the designations for Christians is identical in meaning with the Pahlavi term for “Fearers.”

(58) Pines, “The Iranian Name for Christians,” p. 143.

(59) I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Glen W. Bowersock for allowing me to read his unpublished lecture on “The Jews of Aphrodisias.”

(60) Baruch Lifshitz, Donateurs et Fondateurs dans les Synagogues Juives Repertoire des dedicaces grecques relatives a la construction et a la refection des synagogues (Paris, 1967), p. 72.

(61) As we see from the definite references by the rabbis of that era to yirei shamayim.

(62) Lifshitz, reprint of Jean-Baptiste Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum I (New York, 1975), Prolegomenon, pp. 65–66, note 683a.

(63) Victor Tcherikover, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum III (Cambridge, Mass., 1964) pp. 54–55.

(64) After the year 117, when the Jewish revolt against Trajan had been suppressed, Sabbath observance on the part of a non-Jew must have been fraught with danger, since the Romans had prohibited proselytizing; and this may explain why in the second century only old people and women bear the name Sambathion. (Cf. Tcherikover, Corpus Papyrorum Iudaicarum, p. 54: “If the Russian Subbotniki [non-Jews who observed the Sabbath according to the Bible, but not according to the Talmud] could profess Judaism in nineteenth-century Russia, when severe punishments were permanently threatening them, why not in Egypt in a world not yet accustomed to religious persecutions?”)

(65) Lifshitz, Donateurs et Fondateurs, pp. 24–26, 31, 32. A number of other inscriptions appear to refer to this class of semi-Jews. An undated inscription, found in a Jewish setting (Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum [Vatican City, 1936], no. 228), refers to a woman Eparchia as theosebes; another (see Lifshitz, “Les Juifs a Venosa,” Rivista di Filologia 40 [1962], p. 368) refers to Marcus theuseves, likewise in Latin letters. These may be epitaphs of pious Jews, but more likely they are “sympathizers.” The fact that though these inscriptions are in Latin, yet the Greek word theosebes is transcribed in Latin letters would seem to indicate that the term is by this time a technical one. The goddess of the Sabbath, Sambathis, or the Jewish Sibyl, a semimythical prophetess called Sambethe or Sabbe (Tcherikover, “The Sambathions,” Corpus Papyrorum Iudaicarum III, pp. 49–52), was worshipped by a syncretistic association of Sabbath observers. It is easy to understand why newborn girls were named after the patron goddess. The name of the Jewish Sibyl, Sambathis, is definitely derived from the Sabbath (Tcherikover, “The Sambathions,” p. 51). No ancient Oriental goddess was ever associated with Sambathis, and consequently the only reason for pagans worshipping her must be sought in her name. It is precisely at Karanis in Egypt (where we find ostraca referring to the goddess of the Sabbath and to the Jewish Sabbatian Sibyl) where we also find a large number of people named Sambathion. Moreover, the fact that we find an inscription at Naukratis in Egypt, for example, referring to a Sabbatarian (Sambatike) association (sunodos) would indicate that the “sympathizers” were not merely individuals but were organized as a group.

We may also cite an inscription from Cilicia in Asia Minor (Wilhelm von Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae [Leipzig, 1903–1905], p. 573), apparently dating from the reign of Augustus, which speaks of an “association of the Sambatistae” (hetairea ton Sambatiston) worshipping a god called Sabbatistes. They cannot be Jews, since, as Tcherikover (“The Sambathions,” p. 84) has correctly remarked, Jews would never refer to their God as “the God of the Sabbath,” and hence they are most likely “sympathizers.” Moreover, an inscription from Lydia (Tcherikover, “The Sambathions,” p. 85) in Asia Minor speaks of a woman named Ammias who offers a prayer to Sabathikos, who presumably is the deity of the Sabbath. We have likewise found in Italy inscriptions with the Sabbath-associated names of Junia Sabatis, Aurelia Sabbatia and Claudia Sabbathis (Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum, I, Appendix, nos. 63, 68, 71). The fact that the first was found on a columbarium and hence that the person had been cremated and that the last two inscriptions start with the heathen formula D.M. (Dis Manibus, “to the divine shades”), indicating a dedication to the deified souls of the dead, would show that they are the inscriptions of pagans and that they are most probably Sabbath-observing “sympathizers” or their children.

(66) Arthur Hertzberg, “Jewish Identity,” Encyclopedia Judaica 10 (1971), p. 55.

(a) The Talmud is the body of Jewish civil and religious law which, according to tradition, was transmitted orally by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It was codified in Palestine about 400 A.D. and in Babylonia about 500 A.D.

(b) The Midrash is the homiletic exposition of the Bible in a number of rabbinic works dating from [between] approximately 400 to 1500 A.D.

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