PROSELYTE (Gr. irpo^Xwos) , strictly one that has arrived ( = Lat. advena), a stranger or sojourner, a term now practically restricted to converts from one religion to another. It was originally so used of converts to Judaism, but any one who sets out to convert others to his own opinions is said to " proselytize." The word is commonly used in the Alexandrian Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) for the Hebrew word (ger) which is derived from a root (gur) denoting to sojourn. The English versions often render the word by "stranger;" but though distinguished from the home-born 'ezrah ( = one rising from the soil), the person denominated ger became the equal of the native Israelite, and, when the meaning of ger passed from a mainly civil to a religious connotation, enjoyed many rights. Like the Arabic jar (which is philologically cognate to ger), the ger attached himself as a client to an individual or as a protected settler to the community. He shared in the Sabbath rest (Exod. xx. 10), and was liable to the same duties and privileges as Israel (see references in Oxford Gesenius, p. 158). The Hebrew word later came to mean what we now understand by proselyte, a term which appears in the sense of convert to Judaism in the New Testament (Matt, xxiii. 15; Acts ii. 10).
The Rabbinic law recognized two classes: (a) the full proselyte, the stranger of righteousness (gersedeq), who was admitted after circumcision, baptism and the offering of a sacrifice (after the destruction of the Temple the first two ceremonies were alone possible); and (b) the limited proselyte, the resident alien (ger loshab) or proselyte of the gate (ger ha-sha'ar), who, without accepting Judaism, renounced idolatry and accepted Jewish jurisdiction, thereby acquiring limited citizenship in Palestine. Some authorities think that the " God-fearers " of some of the Psalms and of the New Testament were these limited proselytes. The Hebrew and Greek terms, however, lost the connotation of a change of residence, and both ger and " proselyte " came to apply to a convert without regard to his nationality.
At various periods there were proselytes to Judaism. The Maccabaeans used compulsion in some cases, but Judaism in the Diaspora was a missionary religion in the less militant sense. Heathens felt in the religion of Israel an escape from their growing scepticism, and a solution to the problem of life. Josephus testifies that there was much proselytism in Rome (Against Apion, ii. 39), and several Latin writers confirm this (Cicero, Pro Flacco, 28; Juvenal xiv. 96; cf. Reinach, Textes d'auteurs grecs et remains relatifs au Juda'isme (1895). The well-known reference in Matt. xxv. 15 supports the view that proselytes were actively sought by the Pharisees, and the famous Didache was probably in the first instance a manual for instructing proselytes in the principles of Judaism. There were, however, varying opinions as to the value to the Jewish body of these accessions. Some rabbis interpreted Israel's dispersion as divinely designed for the very purpose of proselytizing (Pesahim 876.). In the Diaspora admission of converts may have been made easy, circumcision being sometimes omitted, but the conditions became gradually more severe, until they reached their present form. It is thought that the Hadrianic persecution led to this change. The Jews seem to have suffered during the war from the treachery of half-hearted friends. Again, many who had become converts to Judaism afterwards joined the new Christian communities. Moreover, in the middle ages, it was not lawful for the Jews to admit proselytes. Various church councils prohibited it, and the Code of (Alfonso X. (1261) made conversion to the synagogue a capital crime. (In 1222 a Christian deacon was executed at Oxford for his apostasy to Judaism : Matthew Paris, ed. Luard, iii. 71.) Again, the pragmatic theory of Judaism, enunciated in Talmudic times, and raised almost to the dignity of a dogma by Maimonides (On Repentance, iii. 5, etc.), was that Judaism was not necessary for salvation, for " the pious of all nations have a share in the world to come " (Tosephta, Sanh. xiii. 2). If to these causes be added a certain exclusiveness, which refused to meet a would-be convert more than half-way, we find no difficulty in accounting for the reluctance which the medieval and modern synagogue has felt on the subject. Yet willing proselytes to Judaism are still freely received, provided that their bona fides are proven. In some reformed congregations in America proselytes are admitted without circumcision, and a similar policy is proposed (not yet adopted) by the Jewish Religious Union in London, though the male children of proselytes are to be required to undergo the rite. In 1896 the central conference of American Rabbis formulated as a proselyte Confession of faith these five principles: (l) God the Only One; (2) Man His Image; (3) Immortality of the Soul; (4) Retribution ; and (5) Israel's Mission. Most cases of conversion to Judaism at the present time are for purposes of marriage, and female proselytes are more numerous than male. Female proselytes are admitted after the total immersion in a ritual bath, though in some Reformed congregations this rite is omitted. Proselytes are still not allowed, in Orthodox circles, to become the wives of reputed descendants of the priestly families, but otherwise marriage with proselytes is altogether equal to marriage between born Jews.
See Schtirer, Geschichte des judischen Volkes, ed. 3, iii. 102-135, Bertholet, Die Stellung der Israeliten und der Juden zu den Fremden, 179-349; articles in Ency. Bib., Hastings's Diet. Bib. and the Jewish Ency. For the Jewish law of the admission of proselytes, see Shulhan 'Aruch, Yore Deah, 268. (I. A.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)