A Jewish missionary movement in Late Antiquity?

di Martin Goodman

Religious conversion was only ever in part a product of the free decision of the individual convert. The importance of the effects of tension, debate or other factors within the society from which the convert comes is obvious and has been much studied, often with the implicit assumption that a shift of religious allegiance implies dissatisfaction with the original state of the individual concerned1.Such arguments have much to recommend them, but in this article I wish to concentrate on the attitude not of the society left by the convert but on the attitude of the society to which he or she wished to migrate. The simple question I shall pose is whether Jews in late antiquity thought it desirable to encourage non-Jews to join the Jewish community as Jews2.
The capitalist metaphor that members of any religious group will always want indefinitely to increase their share of the potential human market does not seem to apply to all religions3. Thus modern orthodox Jews accept proselytes but do not see value in increasing the numbers of proselytes beyond those who happen to offer themselves as newcomers to the religious community. The situation was very similar in the early Roman empire at the time of the birth of Christianity. Polytheistic consumers were offered, as in the modern world, a wide choice of optional cults, such as the worship of Mithras or Isis, which they were free either to adopt or to ignore, but there is no evidence that existing worshippers of these divinities felt impelled to increase the number of their fellow devotees4. Ancient polytheists expected members of their own community to worship their gods but did not entice those outside their community to do so. A devotee of Demeter in Athens would expect a Greek from elsewhere to treat the goddess with respect but would have no expectation that he or she should join in the goddess's cult5.
It is my view that Jews in the early Roman empire had an attitude to mission quite similar to that of their polytheist contemporaries6. It is a striking fact that all Jews seem to have accepted by this period the notion that any non-Jew could become a Jew, albeit of a specific type (a proselyte), and with a few, minor disabilities within the Jewish commonwealth7. The fact is striking because proselytes joined not only a religious group but also a nation, and thus any individual could gain Jewish citizenship simply by self-designation, signified by adopting Jewish customs. But there is no good evidence that any Jew thought that gentiles should be encouraged to become such proselytes8. The only apparent exception is the passage in Matthew 23:15, which reads: «Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, that you go across land and sea to make one proselyte» but in my view this passage is best interpreted in context as an attack on Pharisees for their efforts to make their fellow-Jews into Pharisees: the text continues with the assertion that these «proselytes» become «twice the sons of Gehenna» that the Pharisees are themselves9. If this passage is correctly interpreted in this way, it is most reasonable to understand all the other evidence for Jewish proselytes in New Testament times as the product of the decision of the converts themselves rather than any mission by existing Jews.
Such a lack of any mission by Jews to win converts to Judaism in this period may help to explain the tolerance usually shown by the Roman state and by polytheists in general towards Jews, compared to the intolerance of the state and polytheists towards early Christians10. Josephus and Philo both taught that the polytheistic cults of gentiles should be treated by Jews with respect: Jews should not indulge in such worship, but non-Jews were entitled to do so11. By contrast at least some early Christians - most notably St. Paul - taught consistently to gentiles that God required them to give up their pagan worship12. Persecution of Christians by the Roman state and by ordinary pagans was generally aroused by this negative teaching, which led to the accusation that Christians were atheists, rather than any of the positive teachings of Christians; similarly, conversion by an individual to Christianity was just as socially visible in the early Roman empire as conversion to Judaism, but this was because of their voluntary social exclusion from those many aspects of communal life in which pagan cult was inextricably entwined rather than because of their own activities13.
This generally liberal and pluralist attitude of Jews towards the other faiths of gentiles seems to have altered in some Jewish circles later in antiquity. Thus there is evidence to suggest that some Jews began to see conversion of gentiles to Judaism as not just permissible but desirable. By the early third century C.E. some rabbis began to depict the biblical figures of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Jethro as heroic because of their success in persuading non-Jews to because proselytes14. It was also from the mid third century that there survives the earliest record of a series of theoretical regulations (the so-called Noachide laws) which stipulate that among the prohibitions incumbent on all gentiles is the avoidance of idolatry (avodazarah)15. Since all gentiles were generally presumed by the rabbis to be idolaters, these laws may only have served as a theoretical tool to explain the misfortune of gentiles while retaining the theory that the God of the Jews is both omnipotent and just16. It has been argued that the first attestation of such ideas in rabbinic literature of the third century C.E. came many years after their origination, and that this should be traced back to New Testament times or earlier, but although this suggestion is possible, it remains striking that these ideas left no clear trace in surviving literature of earlier times17.
On the other hand, the rabbis of the third century do not seem to have transferred their image of the behaviour deemed desirable for biblical heroes to contemporary Jews. Thus they never described rabbis of their own time as going out to seek converts, although teachings ascribed to the third-century sage Resh Lakish affirmed that the motive of gaining a convert justified purchase of a heathen slave (b. A.Z. 13b), even if such a purchase had to be made at a heathen fair where there was danger of immorality (y. A.Z.1.1.39b). More unsettling for the view that some Jews might have become missionary in late antiquity is the evidence from inscriptions that Jews sometimes began to give public recognition to gentiles who did not convert. An inscription commemorating a donation to an unidentified Jewish institution in Aphrodisias in Turkey in (probably) the early third century CE contained the names of 125 individuals of whom 71 were Jews, included three specified as proselytes, while another 52, with non-Jewish names, are described on the stone as «god-reverers» (theosebeis). Of these theosebeis, nine were town councillors, a position which almost certainly entailed their involvement in the pagan cults of the city18.
The view of many scholars has been that recognition by Jews of gentile polytheist godfearers in this way encouraged the eventual conversion of such individuals to Judaism. The status has been compared to that of the Christian catechumen awaiting conversion or the situation described by Juvenal (Sat. 14: 96-104), in which the reverence shown by a father to the Sabbath led to the son «admiring only the clouds... avoiding pork... getting circumcised... and despising the laws of Rome» - that is, being converted to Judaism19. But theological logic might seem to point the other way. Just as tolerance shown in Islamic society towards dhimmis discouraged conversion to Islam, so the status given to some gentiles by Jews may have discouraged conversion to Judaism. After all, rabbinic Jews also assumed that gentiles would find it easier to win the approval of the Jewish God than did Jews, since gentiles were subject to fewer divine demands, and most gentile godfearers faced with the possibility of the total social break from their previous life entailed by becoming proselytes must have asked themselves what was the point, and have decided not to take so drastic a step20.


1. See especially A. D. Nock, Conversion: the Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo, Oxford, 1933.

2. This article summarises issues discussed in much greater detail in my book Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire, Oxford, 1994.

3. The image of the market place is very common in studies of ancient religion. See, for instance, J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion, Oxford, 1979, pp. 306-7, and discussion of the metaphors used by scholars to describe the history of early Christianity in L. M. White, Adolf Harnack and the "Expansion" of Early Christianity: a reappraisal of social history, in «Second Century», 5, 2 (1985/6), pp. 97-127.

4. On optional cults, see J. A. North, The development of religious pluralism, in J. Lieu, J. North and T. Rajak, (eds.), The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, London, 1992, pp. 174-93.

5. On the lack of mission among such pagans, see Mission and Conversion, chapter 2.

6. Mission and Conversion, pp. 60-90.

7. Mission and Conversion, p. 61.

8. This crucial distinction is not sufficiently faced in the thorough discussion of proselytes by L. H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian, Princeton, 1993, chapter 9.

9. Mission and Conversion, pp. 69-74.

10. Pliny, Ep. 10.96; Origen, C. Celsum 7. 62

11. Josephus, C. Ap. 2. 237; Philo, De Spec. Leg. 1. 53; cfr. D. Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: a historical and constructive study of the Noachide Laws, New York and Toronto, 1983, pp. 121-2.

12. I. Corinthians 10:14; I. Thess. 1:19; Rom. 1:18-25; I. John 5: 21. Cfr. Mission and Conversion, pp. 96-7.

13. See W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, Oxford, 1965.

14. See for example Sifre Deut. 32 on Abraham. The texts are discussed in M. Goodman, Proselytising in Rabbinic Judaism, in «Journal of Jewish Studies» 40 (1989), pp. 175-85.

15.T. A.Z. 8 (9).4, ed. Zuckermandel, p. 473. Cfr. Novak, Image of the Non-Jew, pp. 3-51, 107-65.

16. See Mission and Conversion, pp. 114-15.

17. The argument against the view that traces of the Noachide Laws survive in earlier literature is given in full by Novak, Image of the Non-Jew, 3-51. See also Mission andConversion, pp. 53-4.

18. J. Reynolds and R. Tannenbaum, Jews and God-Fearers atAphrodisias, Cambridge, 1987.

19. See Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, chapter 10.

20. Mission and Conversion, pp. 117-28.