"Sons of Hell"
"You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Matt. 23:15
Jesus' words are shocking in the passage above, and one wonders about what kind of context he might have been speaking them in. Some interesting possibilities arise when we know more about what was going on in that time. According to Josephus, a positive attitude toward Judaism was widespread in the Roman Empire. He said,
And we know from the Gospels and the writings of Paul that there were many God-fearing Gentiles that worshipped the God of the Jews in each town's synagogue. Jesus healed the servant of the centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) and God sent Peter to Cornelius, who also was a God-fearer (Acts 10). Both these two were considered righteous, so it doesn't seem likely that Jesus was criticizing the practice of inviting Gentiles to worship the true God of Israel.
These Gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel were not considered actual "converts" or "proselytes" to Judaism because they hadn't become circumcized, which was the sign of the covenant given to Abraham. It may surprise readers today that there were some who were radically opposed to this. Hippolytus (died 236 AD) wrote that this was true of some of the Zealots:
The Zealots were violently opposed to the rule of Rome and any friendliness between Jew and Gentile. Josephus said that some would walk with short daggers and assassinate any Jews that they believed were too sympathetic to the Roman empire, or were not strict enough in their obedience to the law. They were extremely rigid and isolationistic, and wanted Jews to be entirely separate from the pagan world around them. They saw the Scripture as something only accessible by God's chosen people and no one else. From the passage above, it seems that they would have hated God-fearers and sought to either convert them entirely to their form of Judaism, or else kill them.
Is it possible that Jesus be talking to these people who forced conversions and then recruited from their ranks to make more violent defenders of Judaism? It is hard to know, but it is a possibility. It also gives an interesting background of why Paul was so persecuted by the "circumcision group" and why he had such strong feelings against them. God loves all people, not just the Jews, and he wanted the Gospel to reach all the nations.
©2006 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights
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