Q278 : Did Gentiles Become Jews in the Old Testament?

Home  •  Questions  •  Subscribe  •  Previous  •  Next

Q278 : Did Gentiles Become Jews in the Old Testament?

I just read Question 174a on your website and your response. I agree with it in totality.

However, I recently stumbled on a very troubling passage of Scripture in Esther 8:17 which says “...many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.” I had always believed that even when Gentiles converted to Judaism, they were called proselytes and not Jews. But this passage seems to rock that understanding. Should the definition of Jew then be extended to cover Gentiles who convert to Judaism, as in Esther 8:17?

I would appreciate any insight you may have on the issue.

A278 : by Tony Garland

In Esther 8:17, the Hebrew participle translated as the phrase “became Jews” (NKJV, KJV, NASB95) is מִתְיַהֲדִים [miṯyahăḏîm] from יָהַד [yāhaḏ]:

to join the Jewish faith and society by declaring and acting in a certain manner to join a socio-religious group (Est 8:17+), note: this conversion may have been a pretense or genuine. The translation of “fear” as “terror,” or as a “repenting reverence” is crucial1

to embrace the Jewish religion2

to pose as a Jew3

The context of the passage indicates these people identified themselves with the Jews primarily out of fear for their own lives. The genuineness of this identification is open to question, as some translations indicate.

And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them. (ESV)4

Many of the resident peoples pretended to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had overcome them. (NET)5

And many of the ethnic groups of the land professed themselves to be Jews because fear of the Jews had overcome them. (HCSB)6

The NET Bible includes an interesting footnote concerning the passage:

Heb “were becoming Jews”; NAB “embraced Judaism.” However, the Hitpael stem of the verb is sometimes used of a feigning action rather than a genuine one (see, e.g., 2 Sam 13:5, 6), which is the way the present translation understands the use of the word here (cf. NEB “professed themselves Jews”; NRSV “professed to be Jews”). This is the only occurrence of this verb in the Hebrew Bible, so there are no exact parallels. However, in the context of v. 17 the motivation of their conversion (Heb “the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them”) should not be overlooked. The LXX apparently understood the conversion described here to be genuine, since it adds the words “they were being circumcised and” before “they became Jews.”7

We can’t be certain of the genuineness of their identification with the Jews, but it would seem to be suspect since their motivation was sudden and in light of what might befall them otherwise.

Regardless of their motivation, I don’t think this passage is teaching anything more than that these Gentiles may have become Jewish proselytes.8 There is no indication in Scripture that any Gentile ever “become a Jew” in the sense that they were fully considered as a Jew. There were always distinctions made such that Gentiles that identified with the Jewish faith were distinguished from the Jews themselves, for example as “god-fearers” or “proselytes” (Acts 6:5; 8:27; 10:2; 13:4). A Gentile could never be a full Jew in any real sense—as is clear from the commotion that Jews raised when they accused Paul of having brought a Gentile follower of God into the temple where he would not have been allowed (Acts 21:28-29).

I don’t see the passage in Esther teaching anything beyond what we see in other passages: that there were times were non-Jews identified with the Jewish faith and followed the God of the Jews. But there is every indication in Scripture that Gentiles were never considered full Jews—since they lacked the physical line of descent from Jacob.


1.Ref-0618, #3366
2.Ref-0384, 336
3.Ref-0425, יהד [yhḏ]
4.Ref-1397, Esther 8:17
5.Ref-0316, Esther 8:17
6.Ref-0304, Esther 8:17
7.Ref-0316, Esther 8:17, n18
8.“Their rise to power caused many Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes.” Ref-0038, 1:712


Ref-0038John Walvoord and Roy. B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1983).
Ref-0304The Holy Bible : Holman Christian Standard Version (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003).
Ref-0316New English Translation, electronic edition (Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 1998).
Ref-0384Gesenius, W., & Tregelles, S. P., Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2003).
Ref-0425Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M., & Stamm, J. J., The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (New York, NY: E.J. Brill, 1999, c1994-1996).
Ref-0618James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
Ref-1397The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society, 2016).

Search Website
Related Topics

Home  •  Questions  •  Subscribe  •  Previous  •  Next

Copyright © 2023 by www.SpiritAndTruth.org
(Content generated on Sat Dec 2 20:49:15 2023)