An essentially religious term used to describe a convert from one form of belief to another. It is more appropriate to use the term only for the period when the Jews were a religious community rather than an independent nation‐state, that is to say, from the postexilic period onward. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, rendered the Hebrew word gēr, which means “sojourner” or “resident alien” (see Alien), as prosēlytos; in later Hebrew gēr came to have a religious rather than an ethnic meaning.

The word “proselyte” is found four times in the New Testament (Matt. 23.15; Acts 2.10; 6.5; 13.43; the first and last references are translated “convert” in the NRSV). The reference in Matthew makes it clear that some Jewish groups regarded missionary work as an important part of their practice, and the presence of proselytes at the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) in Jerusalem (Acts 2) implies the success of such efforts. One of the basic requirements laid upon potential converts will have been circumcision, and some groups in the Hellenistic world condemned this as a form of mutilation incompatible with the ideal of bodily perfection. Nevertheless, the rite was almost certainly required as a means of entry to the covenant community. From roughly the first century CE (and possibly earlier) a form of water ceremony (“proselyte baptism”) was also required. Our earliest descriptions of this come from rabbinic sources, though it is possible that John the Baptist's practice was a related rite (see Baptism).

The references in Matthew and Acts support the likely hypothesis that the great majority of proselytes will have come from the Diaspora, attracted by the lifestyle of Jewish communities in different parts of the Greek and later Roman world. Synagogues, which first developed in the diaspora, will have been the natural context for the beginning of an acquaintance with Judaism.

It has often been argued that alongside proselytes there existed a further group of sympathetic gentiles known as “God‐fearers,” who were attracted to Judaism but reluctant to be circumcised. It would probably be wrong, however, to see in this a technical term; “those who feared God” is simply a way of describing those pious people who were attracted to Judaism and subsequently to Christianity (see Acts 10.2, 22; 13.16, 26).

What kind of reception might proselytes expect among those already Jews? Rabbinic texts show that they were often regarded with suspicion, as is commonly the case with converts in many religions. It is in this light that varying traditions in the Hebrew Bible relating to converts can best be understood: the story of Ruth, whatever its original point, clearly illustrates an open attitude to those who came to Judaism in adult life, whereas the concerns in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for the dangers of mixed marriage (at least insofar as it involved non‐Jewish women) show a more restrictive attitude.

See also Conversion


Richard Coggins