Conversion in Early Judaism

Project-JudaismThere is a common misconception, particularly within the Messianic Jewish blogosphere, that conversion to Judaism is a post-biblical, and rather late “rabbinic invention.”

However, very few people have really taken the time to trace the development of conversion (גיור‎, giyur), and particularly its widespread existence already by the time of the Second Temple period (i.e. before the development of what we commonly understand as ‘Rabbinic Judaism’).

This blog post is an expansion of my comment to a particular discussion on Rabbi Derek Leman’s blog, Messianic Jewish Musings.

The Torah

We should acknowledge that the Torah and earliest portions of the Tanakh do not clearly define conversion, or describe a specific process. With that said, however, the question of how to include non-Jews fully into the community of Israel has always been an issue of discussion.

The Torah actually recognizes the participation of Gentiles within the community life of Israel, alludes to various types of “sojourners” (gerim), and even specifies certain requirements for levels of participation for each of these different types of non-Jews. So although non-Jews were included in many respects, there were also noted differences.

For example, non-Jews may not have been allowed to offer certain sacrifices on the altar in the Mishkan. Another example is the laws of Kashrut. According to Deuteronomy 14:21:

“You shall not eat anything that dies naturally, you may give it to the ger who is within your gates, that he may eat of it … “

We have always valued the participation of non-Jews. This has been true even to the point that there has been an evolving understanding of how to fully include non-Jews, not only as fellow partakers (as gerim), but as full participants in the social and religious life of the Jewish people. As a result, we do get glimpses of the beginnings of some type of conversion in order to bring someone into full inclusion into the community, even in the Torah.

The first glimpse of this is with gerim and Passover. Gerim were not allowed to participate in the eating of the Passover lamb, unless they underwent circumcision (which in later times, would be one of the prerequisites for conversion). This is an example where a religious practice was forbidden for non-Jews, unless they chose to conform to a specific religious rite:

And when a ger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover of the L-rd, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it, and he shall be as native-born (Exodus 12:48).”

In this way, the ger was brought into the peoplehood of Israel. Through circumcision one became “as native-born.” Therefore, there was indeed a process for inclusion even if not yet fully developed. Another example that may be relevant to a process of conversion involves non-Jewish women captured in war who could be adopted forcibly as wives (see Deut. 21:10-14).

Tanakh

By the last centuries BCE, there was certainly some sort of recognized conversion process in place. This is supported most clearly in Esther 8:17:

“And in every province and city, wherever the king’s command and decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a holiday. Then many of the people of the land became Jews (מתיהדים), because fear of the Jews fell upon them.”

The term מתיהדים means “became Jewish/to make oneself Jewish.” The Septuagint (c. 2nd cent. BCE) interprets מתיהדים as “circumcised themselves.” The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 1st cent. CE) recounts that “Many of other nations circumcised themselves for fear of the Jews” (Antiquities 11.6.13).

In both rabbinic and scholarly understanding of this period, circumcision is clearly a reference to some type of conversion.

The first century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, also discusses proselytes in his work, Special Laws I. In speaking of proselytes, Philo enjoins his own people to treat them respectfully and to guard themselves from jealousy:

“After they have given the proselytes an equal share in their laws, and privileges, and immunities, on their forsaking the pride of their fathers and forefathers, they must not give a license to their jealous language and unbridled tongues … lest the proselytes should be exasperated at such treatment and in return utter impious language against the true and holy G-d” (IX, 51-53).

Thus, it seems clear that conversion is not a “later rabbinic invention,” as we already see it in the Hebrew Scriptures and contemporaneous sources. Additionally, there are even references to proselytes in some of the Apocryphal and pseudopygraphic literature of the Second Temple period.

But what about the B’rit Chadasha? What do the Apostolic Writings have to say about conversion to Judaism?

The New Testament

According to Strongs Concordance, the term proselyte(s) is mentioned four times in the New Testament alone.

Here are just two examples:

-“And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven … both Jews (by birth) and proselytes” (Acts 2:5,10).

-“Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of G-d” (Acts 13:43).

There is an additional reference in Acts 6:5 to Nicolas from Antioch, “a proselyte to Judaism,” who was among a handful of others chosen by the Jerusalem Council to serve among the Greek speaking Jews.

By the Second Temple period, the concept of proselytes to Judaism was already well-established. These references demonstrate that there was a category beyond that of Godfearers, who were full converts – Jews in every sense of the word.

And the Apostle Luke does not make any judgement against these “Jews by choice.” Rather, he places them in high regard by not only mentioning them, but mentioning them in three places within the book of Acts.

The only seemingly negative use of the term proselyte in the entire NT is Yeshua’s reference to particular Pharisees and scribes who go to great lengths to bring proselytes into the faith, but lead them down the wrong path. In this context, it is not the proselytes who are the problem, but the specific group of scribes and Pharisees he is addressing:

Woe to you, teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” (Mt 23:15)

There is even some interesting scholarship on Acts 16 that supports a theory that Paul had Timothy undergo a type of conversion “because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek (16:3).”

Conclusion

So, after a little reflection, it seems that the assumption that conversion to Judaism is a “late rabbinic invention” is indeed false. The beginnings of a process to fully include non-Jews into the Jewish people began very early in Jewish history, maybe as early as the Torah.

However, the solid idea of a recognized conversion was already well established by the time of Yeshua, and the Second Temple period.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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21 Responses to Conversion in Early Judaism

  1. Judah Gabriel Himango says:

    Rabbi,

    What about Galatians? >> "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all."Do you interpret Paul's words in Galatians to mean something other than conversion?My view: conversion is superfluous for gentiles in Messiah. Messiah's gentile disciples have entered into faith in the God of Israel through Messiah, and that is enough.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Judah,

    Thank you for your question.

    In quoting Gal. 5:2, you should have continued also quoting through the next two verses: "Again, I warn you: any man who undergoes b'rit milah (ritual circumcision) is obligated to observe the entire Torah! You who are trying to be declared righteous by G-d through legalism have severed yourself from the Messiah! You have fallen away from G-d! (Gal. 5:3-4).

    Paul is specifically addressing those who say that circumcision (converting to Judaism) is REQUIRED for salvation. Remember, this is the context to Acts 15. The assumption previously was that a non-Jew must convert to Judaism in order to follow Yeshua. The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 decided that it was not REQUIRED. It was not forbidden, but not required. Why? Because salvation/redemption is only through faith. An assumption that salvation hinges on conversion to Judaism is false!!! Conversion has nothing to do with salvation/redemption.

    Salvation is only through faith, and is open to all. Paul is specifically writing to the Galatians (a group of non-Jews) emphasizing what was already decided in Acts 15. He is combating an assumption that conversion is required for salvation. This is Paul's whole message to the Nations – that the message of Yeshua is for all, and that non-Jews are not required to observe the totality of Torah or convert to Judaism. So in regard to salvation, I would agree with you, Judah, that "gentile disciples have entered into faith in the God of Israel through Messiah, and that is enough."With that said, I still do not feel that conversion to Judaism is "superfluous."In my opinion, the reasons for conversion are primarily sociological. It has nothing to do with salvation! It has to do with the formal joining of a socio-historic people group. There is no clear theological reason for conversion. Because it will not make you "more saved," "less saved," or more special in the eyes of HaShem. It is simply a full right of passage into the social and religious life of a people to the fullest extent.

    There are spiritual/theological RAMIFICATIONS to circumcision, but not in relation to salvation. The ramifications are that one who has completed the conversion process has now entered into the covenant relationship between HaShem and Israel, and is now required to observe the same obligations. A convert to Judaism becomes fully obligated to the mitzvot as any other Jew. And this is NOT REQUIRED for faith or for inclusion into the community of Israel.

    However, there will be those rare individuals who should, and choose to be, included beyond that of a ger. These are individuals who choose not just to sojourn AMONG the Jewish people, but are called to BECOME PART OF the Jewish people in all it entails.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great post!

  4. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Yasher Koach on the post, Josh.

  5. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Shalom Gene,Thanks, my friend! I hope all is well.

  6. Benjamin E says:

    Rabbi Yosh,

    Thank you for the post!I have a question I wanted your thoughts about. Do you think Timothy's circumcision was a conversion, or fulfillment of a mizvah already incumbent on him as a Jew. I've always been curious about issues of matrilineal and patrineal descent regarding Jewish identity. I know you have way more knowledge of Second Temple Judaism than I. What are your insights?

  7. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Shalom Benjamin!

    Thanks for your comment and question. In my opinion, it is both, for his mother was still Jewish. But because his father was not Jewish, and at this time Jewishness was primarily patrilineal, Paul had him undergo circumcision “because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek (Acts 16:3).” What is interesting is that although Timothy had a Jewish mother, he was apparently not already circumcised. Which makes one wonder as to what level of Jewish upbringing he had prior to his mentoring by Paul. However, Paul clearly thought that his status was somehow ambiguous and had him circumcised, and we know from Paul's letters to Timothy, that afterwards he expected him to fully live a Jewish life. I hope that helps.

  8. Judah Gabriel Himango says:

    Thanks for the answer, Rabbi.

  9. Gene Shomovich says:

    Josh, if you or anyone else is curious, I've just launched my own blog. You can find it here:http://dailyminyan.wordpress.com

  10. Dan Benzvi says:

    rebyosh,Thanks for reading my blog."…and you never even deal with the actual Hebrew term מתיהדים …LOL! i wrote two blogs on dealing with the word מתיהדים, I guess you just missed it. I quoted Eban Ezra saying that the מתיהדיםmade themselves to look like they are returning to the torah of Judah or are attached to Judah in order to save their lives.I also quoted the Vilna Gaon (forgot to write his name) and other as interpreting מתיהדים as "people who showed themselves as Jews, even changed their cloths, but they are not true Gerim."But here is some more for you:Since the word Ger had taken on purely religious sense as far as the Rabbis were concerned, a new verb was also constructed, התגייר -hitgayer- "to go over to Judaism," "become a proselyte" (b. Brachot 57b; b. Yevamot 47b; b. Avoda Zara 3b). Likewise an active form appears in late biblical Hebrew (and incorporated into Rabbinic Hebrew) התיהד-hityahed- "to make a Jew." the present of the verb in ester describes what took place without necessarily indicating divine sanction. The fact that the verb is reflexive gives rise to the interpretation by many scholars that the meaning is "show oneself to be sympathetic to Jews." (see the comments by Shaye cohen by no means a Messianic, "the begining of Jewishness" p. 160, n. 70.Ester 8:17, the text is clear that they did not side with the Jews out of recognition that Ester's God was the true God. Rather, the non-Jews feared the retaliation of the Jews and thus did whatever they needed to do in order to "save their necks."The fact that this single occurrence of the word is is in the hitpael (reflexive, thus "made themselves Jews") most likely means "they sided with the Jews," not that htey circumcised themselves.Nonetheless, there is no evidence in the Hebrew word for a "ritual of conversion, and the most obvious meaning is that the masses sided with the Jews in order to save their lives.hoe this help to see that you guys have no case, you are in the minority…

  11. Dan Benzvi says:

    rebyosh,

    Please read my comments on my blog here:http://fllowheirs.blogspot.com/

  12. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Dan,

    Thank you for the link. I checked out your posts (congrats on joining the blogosphere). I am sorry to say, but there are numerous problems with your argument. There is not much scholarly support for your position, and you never even deal with the actual Hebrew term מתיהדים, which means nothing other than "to make oneself Jewish/to become Jewish."In fact, the literal reading of this verse is supported by the LXX and Josephus – the opposite of the way you try to demonstrate.

    In fact, here is your quote of those sources:"The LXX interprets מתיהדים as "circumcised themselves". Josephus expounded on that and wrote "Many from other nations circumcised themselves from the fear of the Jews" ( Antiquities of the Jews 11,6,13)."Circumcision in this period is understood in both rabbinic and scholarly understanding to refer to conversion.The above quotes, from the LXX (c. 250 BCE) and from Josephus (c. 1st cent. CE) only add greater support FOR some concept of conversion by the Second Temple period and the time of Yeshua.

  13. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "You are failing miserably to prove that they circumcised themselves, let alone undergone any ritual of conversion."Dan, misery likes company – that's why I have you to discuss this with:) On your blog I posed a question for you – the ritual of baptism of John, was it approved by G-d, was it valid, was it based on Torah and the prophets, or was it an invalid post-biblical invention of the sages (or Rabbi John, in this case) since it, just like conversion to Judaism, is not explicitly described or authorized anywhere in the Torah or Tanakh?

  14. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Dan,

    Let's for a moment entertain that this is correct and that מתיהדים has nothing to do with conversion (which mind you, it still does even if done under duress, rather than true intention).Even if we throw out the Esther passage, and look at the overarching textual, social, and historical evidence – the fact remains that by the time of the Second Temple period, there was indeed some type of recognized conversion process. Does that mean there was not social stigma towards converts? Of course not. Even today, many "Jews by Choice" often are still referred to as converts. HOWEVER, the case then is the same today, ALL evidence supports that religiously they were equals. Proselytes to Judaism were religiously Jews.I would highly encourage you to browse the indexes of scholarly books on Early Judaism and New Testament Studies and look up the sections on conversion and proselytes. You'll quickly discover that conversion is taken for granted.

  15. Dan Benzvi says:

    rebyosh,

    Thanks again for the patronizing. All I did for the last two days is quoting interpretations and comments of scholarly books, yet you have not even tried to rebutt them…This shows a lot….

  16. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Dan, my friend, I was not trying to be patronizing. And if it was perceived that way, then I apologize. However, in regard to your comment that I have not "even tried to rebutt them," this entire post is an attempted rebuttal to your original claim on Derek's blog that conversion to Judaism is a post-biblical, and rather late "rabbinic invention."

  17. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Dan,

    Conversions were and are a fact of Judaism. Most, if not ALL of the biblical translators, be they Christians or Jews, interpret that Esther passage as "became Jews." Dan, it's your word against that of the multitudes of Biblical Hebrew (not Modern Hebrew) scholars. But nice try!

  18. Dan Benzvi says:

    rebyosh,

    I am preparing to go much deeper into this, but am i wasting my time since you do not respond to the evidence I put forth?

  19. Dan Benzvi says:

    Gene,

    This is precisely what we are discussing, what "became Jews" means. You are failing miserably to prove that they circumcised themselves, let alone undergone any ritual of conversion.

  20. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Dan,

    In order to better understand where you are coming from, I have a quick question: What are you currently most uncomfortable with – the overall idea of conversion dating back to the Second Temple period (or even earlier)? Or are you specifically just dealing with the issue of Esther 8:17?

  21. Dan Benzvi says:

    rebyosh,

    Ester 8:17, as the title of my blog states. But we of course cannot escape the fact that the subject is spilled to the oveall idea of conversion.I am prepared to deal with both. If you agree, we can deal with the conversion issue on your blog, and with the מתיהדים issue on mine?

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