The “Godfearers”: A Phantom in the History of Early Christianity

The "Godfearers," which are mentioned in the NT only in Luke-Acts, are often used to explain the missionary success of early Christianity. According to this scenario, many Gentile Christians had previously been "Godfearers." They readily embraced Christianity since here they found Jewish monotheism and ethics without social identity markers such as circumcision and purity rules. After a short overview of the literary and epigraphic references to "Godfearers," seven reasons are presented why the impact of "Godfearers" on the Christian mission should not be overestimated. (1) There was no Jewish monopoly on monotheism and ambitious ethics in antiquity. (2) The widespread ancient Anti-Judaism makes the existence of a large number of Godfearers very improbable. (3) There was no organized Jewish mission in antiquity. (4) The term "theosebeis" usually designates Jews, not "Godfearers." (5) Jewish inscriptions and literature use the term Godfearer" with apologetic intentions. In the Aphrodisias inscription pagan patrons are called "Godfearers" in a flattering and monopolizing way. However, "gentile Godworshippers who gave money to Jewish institutions may have done so for a variety of reasons, without approving of either Judaism or Jews" (M. Goodman). Philo and Josephus very often mention "Godfearers" to underline the attraction of Judaism to gentiles. (6) A clear theological agenda causes Luke to introduce "Godfearers" in his story; they are an important link between Israel and the gentile church. In Paul's letters and in the rest of the NT, however, they are not mentioned. Paul addresses "real" gentiles, not Godfearers. (7) The silence of the Christian apologists and the Jewish rabbis regarding "Godfearers" makes it very unlikely that they played a major part in the Christian mission. In conclusion, the existence of "Godfearers" cannot be denied, but they were not an important factor in the growth of early Christianity.