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In Old Testament times, a proselyte was a foreign resident (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14). In the New Testament, a proselyte was a person of Gentile (non-Jewish) origin who had accepted the Jewish religion, whether living in Palestine or elsewhere (Matt. 23:15; Acts 2:10; 6:5; 13:43).

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Proselyte is used in the LXX. for "stranger" (1 Chr. 22:2), i.e., a comer to Palestine; a sojourner in the land (Ex. 12: 48; 20:10; 22:21), and in the New Testament for a convert to Judaism. There were such converts from early times (Isa. 56:3; Neh. 10:28; Esther 8:17). The law of Moses made specific regulations regarding the admission into the Jewish church of such as were not born Israelites (Ex. 20: 10; 23:12; 12:19, 48; Deut. 5:14; 16; 11, 14, etc.).

The Kenites, the Gibeonites, the Cherethites, and the Pelethites were thus admitted to the privileges of Israelites. Thus also we hear of individual proselytes who rose to positions of prominence in Israel, as of Doeg the Edomite, Uriah the Hittite, Araunah the Jebusite, Zelek the Ammonite, Ithmah and Ebedmelech the Ethiopians. In the time of Solomon there were one hundred and fifty-three thousand six hundred strangers in the land of Israel (1 Chr. 22:2; 2 Chr. 2:17, 18).

And the prophets speak of the time as coming when the strangers shall share in all the privileges of Israel (Ezek. 47:22; Isa. 2:2; 11:10; 56: 3-6; Micah 4:1). Accordingly, in New Testament times, we read of proselytes in the synagogues, (Acts 10:2, 7; 13:42, 43, 50; 17:4; 18:7; Luke 7:5). The "religious proselytes" here spoken of were proselytes of righteousness, as distinguished from proselytes of the gate. The distinction between "proselytes of the gate" (Ex. 20:10) and "proselytes of righteousness" originated only with the rabbis. According to them, the "proselytes of the gate" (half proselytes) were not required to be circumcised nor to comply with the Mosaic ceremonial law. They were bound only to conform to the so-called seven precepts of Noah, viz., to abstain from idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, uncleaness, the eating of blood, theft, and to yield obedience to the authorities. Besides these laws, however, they were required to abstain from work on the Sabbath, and to refrain from the use of leavened bread during the time of the Passover.

The "proselytes of righteousness", religious of devout proselytes (Acts 13:43), were bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Jewish economy, and were members of the synagogue in full communion. The name "proselyte" occurs in the New Testament only in Matt. 23:15; Acts 2: 10; 6:5; 13:43. The name by which they are commonly designated is that of "devout men," or men "fearing God" or "worshipping God."

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

The Baptism of Proselytes

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(from Appendix XII From Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
by Alfred Edersheim, 1886)

(See vol. i. Book II. ch. xi. p. 273.) ONLY those who have made study of it can have any idea how large, and sometimes bewildering, is the literature on the subject of Jewish Proselytes and their Baptism. Our present remarks will be confined to the Baptism of Proselytes.

1. Generally, as regards proselytes (Gerim) we have to distinguish between the Ger ha-Shaar (proselyte of the gate) and Ger Toshabh ('sojourner,' settled among Israel), and again the Ger hatstsedeq (proselyte of righteousness) and Ger habberith (proselyte of the covenant). The former are referred to by Josephus (Ant. xiv. 7. 2), and frequently in the New Testament, in the Authorised Version under the designation of those who 'fear God,' Acts xiii. 16, 26; are 'religious,' Acts xiii. 43; 'devout,' Acts xiii. 50; xvii. 4, 17; 'worship God,' Acts xvi. 14; xviii. 7.

Whether the expression 'devout' and 'feared God' in Acts x. 2, 7 refers to proselytes of the gates is doubtful. As the 'proselytes of the gate' only professed their faith in the God of Israel, and merely bound themselves to the observance of theso-called seven Noachic commandments (on which in another place), the question of 'baptism' need not be discussed in connection with them, since they did not even undergo circumcision.

2. It was otherwise with 'the proselytes of righteousness,' who became 'children of the covenant,' 'perfect Israelites,' Israelites in every respect, both as regarded duties and privileges. All writers are agreed that three things were required for the admission of such proselytes: Circumcision (Milah), Baptism (Tebhilah), and a Sacrifice (Qorban, in the case of women: baptism and sacrifice), the latter consisting of a burnt-offering of a heifer, or of a pair of turtle doves or of young doves (Maimonides, Hilkh. Iss. Biah xiii. 5).

After the destruction of the Sanctuary were restored. On this and the ordinances about circumcision it is not necessary to enter further. That baptism was absolutely necessary to make a proselyte is so frequently stated as not to be disputed (See Maimonides, u. s.; the tractate Massekheth Gerim in Kirchheim's Septem Libri Talm. Parvi, pp. 38-44 [which, however, adds little to our knowledge]; Targum on Ex. xii. 44; Ber. 47 b; Kerith. 9 a; Jer. Yebam. p. 8d; Yebam. 45 b, 46 a and b, 48 b, 76 a; Ab. Sar. 57a, 59 a, and other passages).

There was, indeed a difference between Rabbis Joshua and Eliezer, the former maintaining that baptism alone without circumcision, the latter that circumcision alone without baptism, sufficed to make a proselyte, but the sages decided in favour of the necessity of both rites (Yebam. 46 a and b). The baptism was to be performed in the presence of three witnesses, ordinarily Sanhedrists (Yebam. 47 b), but in case of necessity others might act. The person to be baptized, having cut his hair and nails, undressed completely, made fresh profession of his faith before what were 'the fathers of the baptism' (our Godfathers, Kethub. 11 a; Erub. 15 a), and then immersed completely, so that every part of the body was touched by the water. The rite would, of course, be accompanied by exhortations and benedictions (Maimonides, Hilkh. Milah iii. 4; Hilkh. Iss. Biah xiv. 6).

Baptism was not to be administered at night, nor on a Sabbath or feast-day (Yebam. 46 b). Women were attended by those of their own sex, the Rabbis standing at the door outside. Yet unborn children of proselytes did not require to be baptized, because they were born 'in holiness' (Yebam. 78 a). In regard to the little children of proselytes opinions differed. A person under age was indeed received, but not regarded as properly an Isaelite till he had attained majority. Secret baptism, or where only the mother brought a child, was not acknowledged. In general, the statements of a proselyte about his baptism required attestation by witnesses. But the children of a Jewess or of a proselyte were regarded as Jews, even if the baptism of the father was doubtful.

It was indeed a great thing when, in the words of Maimonides, a stronger sought shelter under the wings of the Shekhinah, and the change of condition which he underwent was regarded as complete. The waters of baptism were to him in very truth, though in a far different from the Christian sense, the 'bath of regeneration' (Titus iii. 5). As he stepped out of these waters he was considered as 'born anew', in the language of the Rabbis, as if he were 'a little child just born' (Yeb. 22 a; 48 b, as 'a child of one day' (Mass. Ger. c. ii.). But this new birth was not 'a birth from above' in the sense of moral or spiritual renovation, but only as implying a new relationship to God, to Israel, and to his own past, present, and future.

It was expressly enjoined that all the difficulties of his new citizenship should first be set before him, and if, after that, he took upon himself the yoke of the law, he should be told how all those sorrows and persecutions were intended to convey a greater blessing, and all those commandments to rebound to greater merit. More especially was he to regard himself as a new man in reference to his past. Country, home, habits, friends, and relation were all changed. The past, with all that had belonged to it, was past, and he was a new, man the old, with its defilements, was buried in the waters of baptism. This was carried out with such pitiless logic as not only to determine such questions as those of inheritance, but that it was declared that, except, for the sake of not bringing proselytism into contempt, as proselyte might have wedded his own mother or sister (comp. Yeb. 22 a; Sanh. 58 b).

It is a curious circumstances that marriage with a female proselyte was apparently very popular (Horay. 13 a, line 5 from bottom; see also Shem. R. 27), and the Talmud names at least three celebrated doctors who were the offspring of such unions (comp. Derenbourg, Hist. de la Palest., p. 223, note 2). The praises of proselytism are also sung in Vayy. R. 1.

If anything could have further enhanced the value of such proselytism, it would have been its supposed antiquity. Tradition traced it up to Abraham and Sarah, and the expression (Gen. xii. 5) 'the souls that they had gotten' was explained as referring to their proselytes, since 'every one that makes a proselyte is as if he made (created) him' (Ber. R. 39, comp also the Targums Pseudo-Jon. and Jerus. and Midr. on Cant. i. 3). The Talmud, differing in this from the Targumim, finds in Exod. ii. 5 a reference to the baptism of Pharaoh's daughter (Sotah 12 b, line 3; Megill. 13 a, line 11).

In Shem. R. 27 Jethro is proved to have been a convert, from the circumstances that his original name had been Jether (Exod. iv. 18), an additional letter (Jethro). as in the case of Abraham, having been added to his name when became a proselyte (comp. also Zebhach. 116 a and Targum Ps.-Jon. on Exod. xviii. 6, 27, Numb. xxiv. 21. To pass over other instances, we are pointed to Ruth (Targum on Ruth i. 10, 15). and to Nebuzaradan, who is also described as a proselyte (Sanh. 96 b, line 19 form the bottom). But is is said that in the days of David and Solomon proselytes were not admitted by the Sanhedrin because their motives were suspected (Yeb. 76 a), or that at least they were closely, watched.

But although the baptism of proselytes seems thus far beyond doubt, Christian theologians have discussed the question, whether the rite was practised at the time of Christ, or only introduced after the destruction of the Temple and its Services, to take the place of the Sacrifice previously offered. The controversy, which owed its origin chiefly to dogmatic prejudices on the part of Lutherans, Calvinists, and Baptist, has since been continued on historical or quasi-historical grounds. The silence of Josephus and Philo can scarcely be quoted in favour of the later origin of the rite. On the other hand, it may be urged that, as Baptism did not take the place of sacrifices in any other instance, it would be difficult account for the origin of such a rite in connection with the admission of proselytes.

Again, if a Jew who had become Levitically defiled, required immersion, it is difficult to suppose that a heathen would have been admitted to all the services of the Sanctuary without a similar purification. But we have also positive testimony (which the objections of Winer, Keil, and Leyrer, in my opinion do not invalidate), that the baptism of proselytes existed in the time of Hillel and Shammai. For, whereas the school of Shammai is said to have allowed a proselyte who was circumcised on the eve of the Passover, to partake after baptism of the Passover, [1 The case supposed by the school of Shammai would, however, have been impossible, since, according to Rabbinic directions, a certain time must have elapsed between circumcision and baptism.] the school of Hillel forbade it.

This controversy must be regarded as providing that at that time (previous to Christ) the baptism of proselytes was customary [2 The following notice from Josephus (Ant. xviii. 5. 2) is not only interesting in itself, but for the view which it presents of baptism. It shows what views rationalising Jews took of the work of the Baptist, and how little such were able to enter into the real meaning of his baptism. 'But to some of the Jews it appeared, that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and, indeed, as a righteous punishment on account of what had been done to John, who was surnamed the Baptist. for Herod ordered him to be killed, a good man, and who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.

For that the baptizing would be acceptable to Him, if they made use of it, not for the putting away (remission) of some sins, but for the purification of the body, after that the soul had been previously cleansed by righteousness. And when others had come in crowds, for they were exceedingly moved by hearing these words, Herod, fearing lest such influence of his over the people might lead to some rebellion, for they seemed ready to do any thing by his council, deemed it best, before anything new should happen through him, to put him to death, rather than that, when a change should arise in affairs, he might have to repent,' &c. On the credibility of this testimony see the Article on Josephus, in Smith's Dictionary of Christian Biography,' vol. iii. pp. 441-460 (see especially pp. 458, 159).] (Pes. viii. 8, Eduy. v. 2).

Author Edersheim refers to MANY reference sources in his works. As a Bibliography resource, we have created a separate Edersheim References list. All of his bracketed references indicate the page numbers in the works referenced.


Catholic Information

(proselytos, stranger or newcomer; Vulgate, advena).

The English term "proselyte" occurs only in the New Testament where it signifies a convert to the Jewish religion (Matthew 23:15; Acts 2:11; 6:5; etc.), though the same Greek word is commonly used in the Septuagint to designate a foreign sojourner in Palestine. Thus the term seems to have passed from an original local and chiefly political sense, in which it was used as early as 300 B.C., to a technical and religious meaning in the Judaism of the New Testament epoch. Besides the proselytes in the strict sense who underwent the rite of circumcision and conformed to the precepts of the Jewish Law, there was another class often referred to in the Acts as "fearers of God" (Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26), "worshippers of God" (Acts 16:14), "servers of God" (Acts 13:43; 17:4, 17). These were sympathetic adherents attracted by the Monotheism and higher ideals of the Jewish religion. St. Paul addressed himself especially to them in his missionary journeys, and from them he formed the beginning of many of his Churches.

Publication information Written by James F. Driscoll. Transcribed by Sean Hyland. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

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