The God-fearers were in the congregations alongside of the Jews. The Hebrew term for these non-Jews was “Yiray Shamayim” meaning “Fearers of Heaven. In Greek, the God-fearers are described in the Scriptures by two terms. The first term is “the Phoubemenoi ton Theon” or “Fearers of God.” The other term was “Sebemenoi” meaning “devout ones or worshipers.” You will see these terms in the Book of Acts especially. These God-fearers attended synagogues and followed the Torah as it applied and in varying degrees, and they were on the way to full conversion. According to the Book of Acts Paul addressed both Jews and God-fearers in every synagogue he preached in.
Shortly before the time of Yeshua there were two very famous Rabbis. Hillel was President (Nasi) of the Sanhedrin and Shammai was the Vice-President (Av Beit Din). Both were Pharisees but they each had their own “school of thought” about being a Pharisee and they collected their own students around them. As a result, these groups were called “Beit (house/school) Shammai and Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai was more strict in their observance than was Beit Hillel. The APostle Paul was a Pharisee from Beit Hillel, and remained so after he became a believer (Acts 23.6).
It was Beit Shammai that issued what is known as the 18 Edicts in 20 B.C. For more information of Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai and the 18 Edicts see our 16 part study series called “Torah and New Testament Foundations-The Pharisees, Sadducees and Yeshua” on this site. These edicts restricted any interaction with non-Jews including the God-fearers and were Jewish law. They could not eat with them, visit their homes or do business with them. However, Beit Hillel was strongly against these edicts.
In the synagogues, the God-fearers were second class citizens. They could not hold any offices within the synagogue and they had to stand in the back (no seats). The Jews in that synagogue would not have any interaction with them. That was the atmosphere throughout the “Judaisms” of the day, including among believers in Yeshua at first. But once we get to Acts 10.1-29 everything will change. Let’s look at a couple of examples of the 18 Edicts in Scripture.
What we find in Acts 10 is that the Roman Centurion Cornelius was a God-fearer. He was a devout God-fearer and believes in the one, true God of Israel. He is looking for the Messiah, he gave alms and prayed at the various hours of prayer. He has a vision during afternoon prayers and is told to send for a man called Peter who is in Joppa. Cornelius is in Caesarea, the home base for the Tenth Roman Legion.
Peter has a dream where he sees all kinds of unclean animals being lowered on a four-cornered sheet (meaning the four corners of the earth where the non-Jews were). He is told to arise, slay and eat them. But Peter says he can’t because he doesn’t eat unclean animals. Peter was keeping kosher and is horrified by this prospect. Evidently, Yeshua has never told him he can eat forbidden animals or that he was “free from the Law!” That’s because Yeshua never taught that and it is a false doctrine of Christianity.
He sees this vision three times. A voice tells him that “What God has cleansed let no man consider unholy.” Then three men arrive (saw the vision three times) and Peter goes with them to the house of Cornelius. Peter says to Cornelius and his house in Acts 10.28-29, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore, I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?” They tell him, and while Peter is telling them about Yeshua the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spoke in tongues. This amazed the Jews who were there (10.45).
This has nothing to do with the teaching that says God was saying that all these unclean animals can now be eaten. Peter tells us what the dream meant in Acts 10.28. Then he says in v 34-35 that God shows no partiality, but in every nation the man who fears him and works righteousness is accepted by him. God accepts the God-fearers who believe in him. But the God-fearers were a part of Israel in the synagogues, obeyed the Torah as it applied, kept the Sabbath, ate kosher and so on.
In Acts 11.1-3 we have another example of the 18 Edicts of Beit Shammai. After hearing that Cornelius the God-fearer was saved, filled by the Ruach Ha Kodesh and spoke in tongues and wasn’t even circumcised to be a Jew yet, some of the Apostles and brethren talked with Peter about it. Certain Jewish believers who were traditionalists were contending with him saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (even though they were God-fearers). But Peter told them the whole story about his vision (11.4-17) and when they heard it, they quieted down and glorified God saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance unto life.” Now, the Apostles and brethren had a problem with this because of the 18 Edicts of Shammai. From that point the God-fearers who believed in Yeshua had a place in the kingdom of God.
Now we have a difference between the believing community in Yeshua made up of believing Jews and God-fearers who believe, and the rest of the Jewish world. The believing God-fearers had a place in the kingdom and the synagogues, whereas the God-fearers in the unbelieving Jewish world and synagogues did not.
Eph 2.13-16 says that the Messiah has made both (Jews and God-fearers) one and has broken down the middle wall of separation (the 18 Edicts of Shammai) having abolished in his flesh the enmity, that is the law of commandments contained in ordinances. Christianity says this is the Torah but it is not talking about the Torah, it is talking about the 18 Edicts of Shammai at that time that are not part of the Torah. They are man made laws and ordinances. They were “unconstitutional” as we would say today. So, with that said, let’s look at the synagogues where the God-fearers attended.
Synagogues that did not believe Yeshua was the Messiah applied the 18 Edicts and God-fearers played an equal role. They observed all the commandments that applied to them, just like the Jews did. This will be within a Jewish framework. At the same time, they are learning Jewish eschatology, Jewish phrases, concepts and idioms. Eventually, the Jews themselves revoked the 18 Edicts of Shammai. We don’t have a copy of these edicts today but we have a few references to it (see Matt 8.8 for another example).
In 58 A.D. Paul is arrested. He came to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot and to offer animal and other offerings in the Temple because he was coming out of a Nazarite Vow (Acts 18.18, 21.15-26). This is nearly thirty years after Yeshua and Paul and the believers are still offering animal sacrifices. He has been accused of taking a non-Jew into the courts of the Temple (Acts 21.28) and a riot occurs. The Romans get Paul and they took him to the adjacent Antonia Fortress (21.34). Paul asks for permission to speak to the crowd in Hebrew (21.12) and he says, “Brethren, hear my defense which I now offer before you now. And when they heard that he spoke to them in Hebrew dialect, they kept all the more silent” (22.1-2).
He then goes on to explain to the crowd how he once persecuted the believers in Yeshua and how Yeshua appeared to him and how he was there when Stephen was stoned, and so on. Nobody is contesting these things with him. But in Acts 22.21-24 he tells them how God had sent him to the non-Jews, and this was against the 18 Edicts which were Jewish law at the time. They listened to him up to “this statement” (v 22) and then they cried out, tore their clothes and threw dust into the air. They said Paul should not be allowed to live.
Notice they did not have a problem with him joining the group had been persecuting and that Yeshua had appeared to him. But, when he said he was sent to the non-Jews the crowd lost it. The issue wasn’t over whether Yeshua was the Messiah or not, it was over the issue of the God-fearers coming into the Faith and the Kingdom of God, and their status. Even the Romans were shocked at their reaction (22.24).
The Kahal of God (not the Church) was composed of Jewish and non-Jewish believers. It continued to prosper until 66 A.D. when the great Jewish Revolt began. The Romans used informers disguised as God-fearers to infiltrate the synagogues and spy on the Jews to see if anyone was plotting against Rome. True believing God-fearers pulled away from the believing Jews and the Torah. The unbelieving Jews did not trust the God-fearers among them anymore, nor did they thrust the Jewish believers in Yeshua because they associated with the God-fearers. As a result, the God-fearers began to stop observing the Torah and disguised their beliefs.
By 70 A.D the God-fearers had disappeared from the Jewish synagogues, both those who believed in Yeshua and those who did not. In 70 A.D. the Romans besieged Jerusalem around Passover. The Jewish believers fled to Pella in Jordan and they were seen as traitors to the Jewish cause. But they were following what Yeshua said to do when Jerusalem was surrounded in Luke 21.20-21. They continued to flourish for another 15-20 years.
In Part 5 we will pick up here.