Proselyte (a stranger, a new comer), the name given by the Jews to foreigners who adopted the Jewish religion. The dispersion of the Jews in foreign countries, which has been spoken of elsewhere [Dispersion, The], enabled them to make many converts to their faith. The converts who were thus attracted joined, with varying strictness, in the worship of the Jews. In Palestine itself, even Roman centurions learned to love the conquered nation, built synagogues for them, Luke 7:5, fasted and prayed, and gave alms after the pattern of the strictest Jews, Acts 10:2, 30, and became preachers of the new faith to the soldiers under them. Acts 10:7. Such men, drawn by what was best in Judaism, were naturally among the readiest receivers of the new truth which rose out of it, and became, in many cases, the nucleus of a Gentile Church. Proselytism had, however, its darker side. The Jews of Palestine were eager to spread their faith by the same weapons as those with which they had defended it. The Idumæans had the alternative offered them by John Hyreanus of death, exile or circumcision. The Ituræans were converted in the same way by Aristobulus. Where force was not in their power, they obtained their ends by the most unscrupulous fraud. Those who were most active in proselytizing were precisely those from whose teaching all that was most true and living had departed. The vices of the Jew were engrafted on the vices of the heathen. A repulsive casuistry released the convert from obligations which he had before recognized, while in other things he was bound hand and foot to an unhealthy superstition. It was no wonder that he became “twofold more the child of hell,” Matt. 23:15, than the Pharisees themselves. We find in the Talmud a distinction between proselytes of the gate and proselytes of righteousness.
1. The term proselytes of the gate was derived from the frequently-occurring description in the law, “the stranger that is within thy gates.” Ex. 20:10, etc. Converts of this class were not bound by circumcision and the other special laws of the Mosaic code. It is doubtful, however, whether the distinction made in the Talmud ever really existed. 2. The proselytes of righteousness, known also as proselytes of the covenant, were perfect Israelites. We learn from the Talmud that, in addition to circumcision, baptism was also required to complete their admission to the faith. The proselyte was placed in a tank or pool up to his neck in water. His teachers, who now acted as his sponsors, repeated the great commandments of the law. The baptism was followed, as long as the temple stood, by the offering or corban.