Gentiles and Torah and Proselytism and God-Fearers

I have four items for my write-up today of Louis Feldman’s Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World:

1.  On pages 323-324, Feldman talks about the decline of Jewish proselytism after the Bar Kokhba rebellion, which occurred because many Jews did not want to antagonize the Romans.  On page 383, Feldman refers to a penalty of death imposed on Jews for proselytism after the failures of Jewish revolts against the Romans in the first-second centuries C.E.  The Holy Roman Empire continued an anti-Jewish-proselytism sort of policy, with more laxity in some areas and greater strictness in other areas.  Yet, the policy was often not enforced, and people were attracted to Judaism, even if they did not convert and only followed certain rituals, such as the Sabbath and the dietary laws, for church fathers express concern about Christians becoming to attached to the synagogue and to Jewish rituals.

2.  On page 356, Feldman discusses different rabbinic views on Gentile observance of the Torah.  In Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 59a, the third century Rabbi Jochanan says that a Gentile studying the Torah should receive the death penalty, whereas the second century Rabbi Meir affirms “that the pagan who studies the Torah ranks higher than an ignorant high priest” (Feldman’s words).  In B.T. Shabbat 58b, Rabbi Jochanan says that an idolater who keeps the Sabbath will be forgiven, but, in B.T. Sanhedrin 58b, third century Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish says that a pagan resting on the Sabbath should be executed.  What Feldman says after this is interesting: “Indeed, the popularity of the observance of the Jewish Sabbath is further evidenced by the fact that the Church had to fight for the translation of the Jewish Sabbath into the Christian Sunday for almost a millennium.”  That contradicted what I once heard N.T. Wright say: that the early church adopted Sunday with little hesitation because it believed that Jesus rose on that day.

3. As I have gone through Feldman’s book, I have talked about the evidence he presents that Philo wanted the Gentiles to convert to Judaism and observe the Torah.  In what I read today, however, I saw something different.  On page 349, Feldman refers to things Philo says in Special Laws 2.12.42 and 2.12.44, as well as volume 2 of Harry Wolfson’s 1947 book Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (pages 373-374).  Feldman states that Wolfson concludes, “with some degree of cogency”, that Philo is talking about Gentiles who follow laws that are similar to the Noachian laws, which the rabbis say are obligatory for non-Jews.  I thought that the rabbis believed that Gentiles only had to observe the Noachian commandments, but not the entire Torah, whereas Philo wanted all Gentiles to convert to Judaism and embrace the Torah.  But there may be more nuance to this issue.  Or perhaps Philo had an ideal of what Gentiles should do, while he also recognized that there were good, virtuous Gentiles who did not obey all of the Torah.

4.  Chapter 10 is about “The Success of Jews in Winning ‘Sympathizers'”, and it is about God-fearers, Gentiles who observe Jewish customs (i.e., Sabbath, holy days, dietary laws) but are neither converts to Judaism, nor adherents to the entire Torah.  Against those who deny the existence of God-fearers, alleging that it is solely a construction by the author of Acts, Feldman looks at pagan sources, Philo, Josephus, rabbinic literature, church fathers, and epigraphical sources to argue that God-fearers did exist.  For example, Feldman refers to Dialogue with Trypho 10.2, in which Trypho tells Justin Martyr that all who fear God keep the Sabbath and feasts as well as practice circumcision, and Trypho expresses bafflement that many Christians do not do this.  Feldman concludes from this that Trypho is saying that even God-fearers observe these commandments, and so Christians should do so as well.  I’m a little puzzled here because I thought that God-fearers were not circumcised, whereas official proselytes were, so why would Trypho refer to God-fearers being circumcised?  Feldman also asserts that the people in Revelation 3:9 who say they are Jews yet are not are God-fearers.  I think this is a stretch.  But Feldman evaluates a lot more sources in this chapter, and I may need to revisit it in the future, whether I blog about it again or not.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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