God-fearers (Koinē Greek: φοβούμενοι τὸν Θεόν, phoboumenoi ton Theon) or God-worshippers (Koinē Greek: θεοσεβεῖς, Theosebeis) were a numerous class of Gentile sympathizers to Hellenistic Judaism that existed in the Greco-Roman world, which observed certain Jewish religious rites and traditions without becoming full converts to Judaism. The concept has precedents in the proselytes of the Hebrew Bible.
Many of these Greco-Roman sympathizers to Hellenistic Judaism, which had a monotheistic or henotheistic Pagan background, were worshippers of Caelus (the Roman name/equivalent to Yahweh). Some modern scholars of Judaic studies, such as A. Thomas Kraabel, believe the God-fearers named in the New Testament (such as Cornelius the Centurion) to be a fictional invention of the Acts of the Apostles. More generally, God-fearing has come to mean someone who is honestly religious.
Since the mid-1980s, a growing number of scholars of Judaic studies and history of Judaism became interested in the subject of God-fearers and their relationship with Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity. According to the popular opinion, Jews that lived in the Greco-Roman world during the Hellenistic and Roman period were not involved in active missionary efforts of mass conversion among Pagans, although many historians disagree.
As Jews emigrated and settled in the Roman provinces of the Empire, Judaism became an appealing religion to a number of Pagans, for many reasons; God-fearers and proselytes that underwent full conversion were Greeks or Romans, and came from all social classes: they were mostly women and freedmen (liberti), but there were also artisans, soldiers and few people of high status, like patricians and senators. Despite their allegiance to Judaism, the God-fearers were exempted from paying the "Jewish tax" (fiscus Judaicus).
The class of God-fearers existed between the 1st and the 3rd century CE. They are mentioned in Latin and Greek literature, Flavius Josephus' and Philo's historical works, rabbinic literature, early Christian writings, and other contemporary sources such as synagogue inscriptions from Diaspora communities (Palestine, Rome, and Asia Minor).
In the Ancient Greek theatre of Miletus, some sitting places seem to have been reserved for the God fearer.
In the Hebrew Bible, there is some recognition of Gentile monotheistic worship as being directed toward the God of the Jews. This forms the category of yir’ei HaShem/yir’ei Shamayim (Hebrew: יראי השם, meaning "Fearers of the Name"/"Fearers of Heaven", "the Name" being a Jewish euphemism for Yahweh, cf. Psalm 115:11). This was developed by later rabbinic literature into the concept of Noahides, i. e. Gentiles that follow the Seven Laws of Noah, which rabbinic writings assigned to the Noahic Covenant.
The Greek and Latin terms that refer to God-fearers (theosebeis, sebomenoi, phoboumenoi, metuentes) are found in ancient literature (Greek, Roman, and Jewish) and synagogue inscriptions discovered in Aphrodisias, Panticapaeum, Tralles, Sardis, Venosa, Lorium (in Rome), Rhodes, Deliler (Philadelphia) and Miletus.
Judging from the distinctions in the Acts of the Apostles, it is thought that they did not become gerim tzedekim, which required circumcision, although the evidence across the centuries varies widely and the meaning of the term may have included all kinds of sympathetic Gentiles, proselytes or not. There are also around 300 text references (4th century BCE to 3rd century CE) to a sect of Hypsistarians, some of whom practiced Sabbath and which many scholars see as sympathizers with Judaism related to God-fearers.
In the New Testament and early Christian writings, the Greek terms God-fearers and God-worshippers are used to indicate those Pagans who attached themselves in varying degrees to Hellenistic Judaism without becoming full converts, and are referred to primarily in the Gospel of Luke (7:1–10) and more extensively in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the Apostolic Age of the 1st century.
So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: "Men of Israel, and you that fear God (οἱ φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν), listen".
Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God (ἐν ὑμῖν φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν), to us has been sent the message of this salvation.
Judaizing Gentiles and God-fearers are considered by modern scholars to be of significant importance to the growth of early Christianity; they represented a group of Gentiles who shared religious ideas and practices with Jews, to one degree or another. However, the God-fearers were only "partial" converts, engaged in certain Jewish rites and traditions without taking a step further to actual conversion to Judaism, which would have required full adherence to the 613 Mitzvot (including various prohibitions such as kashrut, circumcision, Shabbat observance, etc.) that were generally unattractive to would-be Gentile (largely Greek) converts. The rite of circumcision was especially unappealing and execrable in Classical civilization because it was the custom to spend an hour a day or so exercising nude in the gymnasium and in Roman baths, therefore Jewish men did not want to be seen in public deprived of their foreskins. Hellenistic and Roman culture both found circumcision to be cruel and repulsive.
The Apostle Paul in his letters fiercely criticized the Judaizers that demanded circumcision for Gentile converts, and opposed them; he stressed instead that faith in Christ constituted a New Covenant with God, a covenant which essentially provides the justification and salvation for Gentiles from the harsh edicts of the Mosaic Law, a New Covenant that didn't require circumcision (see also Justification by faith, Pauline passages supporting antinomianism, Abrogation of Old Covenant laws). Lydia of Thyatira, who became Paul's first convert to Christianity in Europe, is described in the New Testament as "a worshipper of God" (Acts 16:14); the Roman soldier Cornelius and the Ethiopian eunuch are also considered by modern scholars as God-fearers who converted to Christianity.
In Paul's message of salvation through faith in Christ as opposed to submission under the Mosaic Law, many God-fearers found an essentially Jewish group to which they could belong without the necessity of their accepting Jewish Law. Aside from earning Paul's group a wide following, this view was generalized in the eventual conclusion that converts to Christianity need not first accept all Jewish Law (see Apostolic Decree), a fact indispensable to the spread of the early Christians which would eventually lead to the distinction between Judaism and Christianity as two separate religions.
We know from Pagan, Christian, and Jewish sources that during the Hellenistic and early Roman periods some Gentiles were so strongly attracted to Judaism that they became converts and undertook to observe Jewish laws and customs in the same manner as did the Jews themselves. [...] It is also commonly assumed that there were some Gentiles who did not go so far as to become converts but indicated their belief in monotheism and gave up the worship of Pagan gods. How far they went in openly dissociating themselves from Paganism and in associating themselves with Judaism we do not know. These Gentile sympathizers are commonly thought to be referred by the terms sebomenoi or phoboumenoi ton theon and metuentes in Greek and Latin sources, and yir᾿ê shamayim "fearers of Heaven" (i.e. God-fearers) in some early Rabbinic passages.
Many scholars see a parallel between the "God-fearers" in rabbinic literature and the "God-fearers" in the New Testament (NT). In rabbinic literature the ger toshab was a Gentile who observed the Noachian commandments but was not considered a convert to Judaism because he did not agree to circumcision. [...] some scholars have made the mistake of calling the ger toshab a "proselyte" or "semiproselyte." But the ger toshab was really a resident alien in Israel. Some scholars have claimed that the term "those who fear God" (yir᾿ei Elohim/Shamayim) was used in rabbinic literature to denote Gentiles who were on the fringe of the synagogue. They were not converts to Judaism, although they were attracted to the Jewish religion and observed part of the law.
... in 1975, a large stele had actually been found in Carian Aphrodisias that does, in fact, use theosebeis as some sort of technical category, at least on one face, if not on both. After the formal publication of the inscription in 1987, the already considerable bibliography on 'Godfearers' proliferated, and many studies of the Roman period now seem regularly to presume the presence of such persons throughout the ancient Mediterranean, over a period of at least half a millennium.
The people did not spread, but the Jewish religion spread. Judaism was a converting religion. Contrary to popular opinion, in early Judaism there was a great thirst to convert others. The Hasmoneans were the first to begin to produce large numbers of Jews through mass conversion, under the influence of Hellenism. The conversions between the Hasmonean Revolt and Bar Kochba's rebellion are what prepared the ground for the subsequent, wide-spread dissemination of Christianity. After the victory of Christianity in the fourth century, the momentum of conversion was stopped in the Christian world, and there was a steep drop in the number of Jews. Presumably many of the Jews who appeared around the Mediterranean became Christians. But then Judaism started to permeate other regions – pagan regions, for example, such as Yemen and North Africa. Had Judaism not continued to advance at that stage and had it not continued to convert people in the pagan world, we would have remained a completely marginal religion, if we survived at all.
Galatians 2:14: "how is it that you compel the Gentiles to judaize?" "To judaize" was a quite familiar expression, in the sense "to live like a Jew", "to adopt a distinctively Jewish way of life"–with reference to Gentiles taking up Jewish customs like observance of the sabbath. [...] Judaism at that time was notably uninterested in evangelism, though open and accepting of Gentile God-fearers and proselytes.
In contradistinction to the ger toshab, the full proselyte was designated as "ger ha-ẓedeḳ," "ger ha-berit" (a sincere and righteous proselyte, one who has submitted to circumcision; see Mek., Mishpaṭim, 18; Gerim iii.). The common, technical term for "making a convert" in rabbinical literature is "ḳabbel" (to accept), or "ḳareb taḥat kanfe ha-Shekinah" (to bring one near, or under the wings of, the Shekinah). This phrase plainly presupposes an active propaganda for winning converts (comp. Cant. R. v. 16, where God is referred to as making propagandic efforts). In fact, that proselytes are welcome in Israel and are beloved of God is the theme of many a rabbinical homily (Ruth R. iii.; Tan., Wayiḳra [ed. Buber, 3]; see also Mek., Mishpaṭim, 18; Tosef., Demai, ii. 10; Bek. 32a).
Contact with Grecian life, especially at the games of the arena [which involved nudity], made this distinction obnoxious to the Hellenists, or antinationalists; and the consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18; Tosef., Shab. xv. 9; Yeb. 72a, b; Yer. Peah i. 16b; Yeb. viii. 9a). All the more did the law-observing Jews defy the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes prohibiting circumcision (I Macc. i. 48, 60; ii. 46); and the Jewish women showed their loyalty to the Law, even at the risk of their lives, by themselves circumcising their sons.; Hodges, Frederick M. (2001). "The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme" (PDF). Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Johns Hopkins University Press. 75 (Fall 2001): 375–405. doi:10.1353/bhm.2001.0119. PMID 11568485. S2CID 29580193. Retrieved 11 April 2020.