This lesson must begin with a specific understanding. The people in the New Testament called "proselytes" were not born as Israelites. They had neither one nor two Jewish parents. They had no ancestral roots in Israel, yet they adopted Judaism as their religion.
If you wish to do an in-depth study of proselytes, an excellent beginning point is Everett Ferguson's Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition, published by William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan [which includes footnotes and bibliography].
Some people who were not Israelites were attracted to Jewish synagogues. This was particularly true outside of Palestine. From the time of Judah's Babylonian exile experiences [the exiles occurred between 609 and 597 B.C.] until today, more Jews [Israelites] lived [live] outside Palestine than inside Palestine. Before Jesus' birth, Jewish people were scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. Jews living outside Palestine were known as the dispersed ones. Anywhere enough Jews lived to maintain it, a synagogue existed. Just as the Jews had a presence throughout the Roman world, synagogues had a presence throughout the Roman world. In fact, some Jews outside Palestine maintained synagogues in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9).
Jewish synagogues were the foundation for Judaism's cultural and religious preservation outside of Palestine. Anywhere synagogues existed, they were the social centers and weekly gathering places of local Jewish communities. The local synagogue served many purposes: worship; educating people in the law; teaching children the faith; applying faith to personal conduct; serving as a hospitality haven for traveling Jews; and educating the local area in Judaism.
Some Christians conclude the existence of proselytes demonstrated an "evangelistic outreach" in first century Judaism. In the Christian concept of evangelism, that is an incorrect conclusion. Most Jews did not oppose religious interest expressed by or inquiries from people who were not Israelites. While no official policy to evangelize such people existed, serious expressions of interest were accepted. However, not all Jews felt people who were not born Jews should be accepted into Judaism. Jesus' statement that scribes and Pharisees used great effort to make one proselyte probably did not indicate evangelistic endeavors. It probably verifies their determination to indoctrinate proselytes in a proper understanding of and respect for Jewish laws and customs.
The synagogue held a significant attraction for some who were not Israelites. The appeal included (a) the worship of one God, (b) high standards of personal conduct, (c) its type of worship [that centered in thinking and understanding, not in offering sacrifices], (d) the fact that it preserved and advanced a sense of community, and (e) the fact that it honored ancient, inspired writings.
The process for becoming a proselyte in the first century is not clear. Jewish writings provide evidence that not all Jews accepted proselytes as full members of the Jewish community. Jewish attitudes toward proselytes varied. Information from a period after the first century indicates three requirements for men who became proselytes: circumcision, an immersion similar to Christian baptism, and a gift to the temple.
Circumcision was a prerequisite rite for acceptance into Israel even for Jews. This rite began as a faith response to God's covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). An uncircumcised Israelite was not to be a part of Israel. A man without a Jewish parent who entered the Jewish community must be circumcised. The importance of circumcision in the Jewish community was unquestionable (see Acts 16:1-3). This requirement did not apply to women proselytes.
The role of cleansing in establishing purification before God was an ancient understanding in Judaism. In first century Judaism, cleansing by immersion was a common practice. Numerous first century Jewish cleansing pools have been discovered. Such pools were used for a variety of cleansing purposes. The cleansing of a proselyte was just one. The fact that this rite used immersion is beyond question. While the person immersed himself or herself, it occurred in the presence of Jewish witnesses as they instructed the proselyte in Judaism's commandments.
The gift to the temple predated the destruction of the temple in AD 70. This may have been no more than exercising the privilege and responsibility of being a part of the Jewish community.
New Testament references to proselytes:
Advantages of a proselyte when hearing the gospel: (a) he/she knew the living God; (b) he/she knew scripture; (c) he/she understood something about God's will; (d) he/she had an improved definition of evil and godliness; (e) he/she was exposed to the prophesies about the Messiah.
Disadvantages of the proselyte in responding to the gospel: (a) he/she may have been indoctrinated in Jewish prejudices that opposed the gospel; (b) he/she could resent people who were not Jews but who became God's people through grace [grace made it much easier to be God's child than did the Jewish process of becoming a proselyte].
Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 1, Lesson 5
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