God-Fearers, the Sabbath, and the Book of Acts
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Over the last two weeks, we have looked at two Jewish, two Christian, and fifteen Roman/Greek sources that discussed how the Gentiles viewed the Sabbath (click here to read part 1 and click here to read part 2). What did we learn?
These sources explain that many Gentiles were attracted to the seventh-day Sabbath. As reviewed especially in last week’s article, the Sabbath had the necessary elements to spread throughout the Roman world. Many people in the Roman world, regardless of their background, were exposed to the Sabbath in some degree or another.
In this article, we will look at God fearers, the Sabbath, and the Book of Acts. Gentiles who were attracted to the moral teachings of Judaism and likely obeyed some degree of commandment keeping were called God-fearers (phoboumenos) or worshipers of God (theosebes). Josephus references the God worshipers in his work Antiquities of the Jews.
He wrote: “Let no one wonder that there was so much wealth in our temple, since all the Jews throughout the world, and those that worshipped God (Sebomenon ton theon), even in Asia and Europe, sent their contributions to it, and that from very ancient times.” (idem, 14.7.2). Poppea, Nero’s wife, is also described using this term (ibid, 20.8.11).
Jews throughout the Roman world and ‘those who worshipped God’ contributed to the wealth in the Temple. The Greek phrase refers to Gentiles who favored Jewish practices. For a grammatical explanation as to this reference, see Ralph Marcus’ 1952 article in the Bibliography at the end of this article.
Several archaeological finds confirm the existence of God-fearers and corroborate with our sources in the first two parts of this series. We will review this information and then go through the book of Acts to see if we find any God-fearers and what relationship they had to the Sabbath.
Archaeological Evidence of God-Fearers
An inscription in Panticapaeum (modern-day Crimea), which dates to the first century AD, describes freedom given to a slave. The freed person was protected against re-enslavement by Jewish people and God-fearers. The inscription reads: “the protection (of his freedom) is accepted by the community of the Jews and God-worshippers”; the Greek reads: Ioudaion kai theosebon (Trebilco, p 155).
A theater in Miletus or Miletos (modern-day western Turkey) contains some inscriptions important to this research that dates to the late second/early third century. The seats in the theater were reserved for specific people groups, usually according to their rank/class. Inscriptions were found on seats in the theater designating where people groups were allowed to sit.
One inscription reads: “the place for the Jews and God-worshippers” (Trebilco, pp 159-162). Another inscription referenced the “Jewish Blues” or the “Blue Jews”, which likely refers to Jewish people who were associated with a certain color (Spielman, p 117). A newer inscription found in 1998 mentioned the thesebion or God-worshippers without mentioning Jewish people (Baker, p 412).*
In Tralles (western Turkey), another inscription dates to the third century. A woman named Capitolina fulfilled a vow and was described as a worshiper of God. She was related to the pro-consul of Asia at that time.
“Capitolina, worthy and God-worshipping (theosebes), have made all the platform and the inlaying of the stairs in fulfillment of a vow for myself and my children and my grandchildren. Blessings.” (Trebilco, p 157). The inscription concerned a Jewish synagogue.
A stone found in the city of Deliler (near Philadelphia in western Turkey) that dates to the third century. An inscription where a man named Eustathios, who was called a Theosebes, made a dedication to the synagogue.
It reads: “To the most holy synagogue of the Hebrews. Eustatios God-fearer (or pious), in remembrance of brother Hermophilos, I have dedicated the wash-basin together with my bride (or sister-in-law)” (Levinskaya, p 60).
Among the more well-known finds pertaining to this subject is the synagogue inscriptions at Aphrodisias (southwestern Turkey). Many date them to early third century, though some have suggested a little later. At the entrance to the synagogue is an inscription which lists people who donated to the synagogue. Among them are Ioses, a proselyte and Emmonios and Antioninos, who are called theosebes or God-worshipers.
On the other face of this inscription is a list of 54 Jewish people connected to the synagogue. It also lists 50 Gentile names with the heading kai hosoi theosebis or “and those who are God-worshippers” (Bonz, pp 282-284). Another inscription, from a theatre in the city which reads, “the place of those who are complete Hebrews” or Hebreon ton teleion (Feldman, 1986).
Lastly, a synagogue in Sardis (western Turkey) which dates to the fourth century provides us with another example. Two men made a vow to help with a synagogue mosaic. They were both called God worshipers or Theosebes.
“Aurelios Eulogios, Theosebes, I have fulfilled my vow.”
“Aurelios Polyippos, Theosebes, having made a vow, I have fulfilled it” (Trebilco, pp 158-159)
Looking at the available evidence, it appears that there was a difference between those who were complete Hebrews, those Gentiles who had completely committed to Judaism (proselytes), and those who followed some Jewish practices (theosebes).
Gentiles Named Their Children After the Sabbath
In the third volume of the Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, a significant amount of space is given to Gentiles in the Roman Empire who took a name relating to the Sabbath, such as Sabatis, Sabbatatis, Sambathion, etc. In Egypt, a great number of people took on this name (idem, pp 43-45). Other cities such as Rome have evidence of this name in their burial monuments.
As part of this discussion, Tcherikover introduces a fascinating piece of evidence. An icosahedron is a polyhedron with twenty faces on it. One from ancient Alexandria has been found that dates to the time in discussion. It was likely used by children for games (similar to a dice). On each side, a number is listed with a word; most of the words are from Greek mythology.
However, the side associated with the number 6, which is represented by the Greek letter stigma, has the Greek word prosabbat(on), meaning “before Sabbath”. This is a reference to the sixth day of the week, which is the day before the Sabbath. Even on a piece of dice with mostly Greek mythology, a reference to the Sabbath can be found. A picture can be found in Perdrizet’s 1931 article Le jeu alexandrin de l’icosaèdre (see Bibliography for full reference).
These examples provide us more evidence of the wide-spread knowledge of the Sabbath and Gentile attraction to it.
The gospels do mention some material that connects to this subject. In Luke 7:1-5, the centurion’s servant needed healing. The Jewish elders asked Jesus to heal the servant because the centurion cared for them and built a synagogue. The inscriptions reviewed above dovetail with this account very well.
“4 When they came to Jesus, they urged him earnestly, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 because he loves our nation, and even built our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5, NET, emphasis mine).
In John 7, Jesus talked about going places where no one else could go. In verse 35 we read: “Then the Jewish leaders said to one another, ‘Where is he going to go that we cannot find him? He is not going to go to the Jewish people dispersed among the Greeks and teach the Greeks, is he?’” (NET; emphasis mine)
When the Jewish people wondered where Jesus would go, their first guess is that he might go to the Jewish people in the diaspora and teach Greeks. Apparently, there were Greeks among the Jewish people who would have been interested in Jesus’ teaching.
The last example from the gospels we will look at is in John 12:20-21. Jesus went up to keep Passover, and there were some Greeks who desired to speak with Him. We read: “20 Now some Greeks were among those who had gone up to worship at the feast. 21 So these approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (NET).
These few examples from the Gospels corroborate with the inscriptions and authors reviewed thus far in this series.
The Book of Acts
The book of Acts provides excellent examples of God fearers who were connected to the Jewish people of their respective cities. The Sabbath is also mentioned with them!
Acts 10:1-2a, 22a
“Now there was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort. He was a devout, God-fearing man (phobuomenos ton theon), as was all his household; he did many acts of charity for the people and prayed to God regularly… They said, “Cornelius the centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man, well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation…” (NET, emphasis mine)
Cornelius is considered the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. Of all the Gentiles that could have been chosen for this event, it was a Gentile God-fearer and devout. This explains why the Jewish people viewed him positively.
Acts 13:14-16, 42
14 But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. 15 And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.” 16 Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, “Men of Israel, and you who fear (phoboumenoi) God (ton theon)…[Paul goes on to preach about Jesus and the resurrection]…“42 So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath…” (NKJV, emphasis mine)
There were two well-known cities named Antioch in the ancient world. The first is in modern-day Syria. The second is in modern-day Turkey. Pisidia was once a district in modern-day Turkey. About 25-26 BC it was incorporated or annexed into the region of Galatia. So Paul was visiting with congregations in the region of Galatia. We have a picture below:
The Gentiles who feared God presented themselves in the synagogue to hear the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. What was their response? They wanted to hear the Word of God on the next Sabbath. Much of the city, including mostly Gentiles, came to hear the message on the Sabbath!
“43 Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. 44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God.” (NKJV, emphasis mine)
Their response to hearing about the grace of God was to keep observing the Sabbath. This is proof that grace and keeping the Sabbath are complimentary, not contradictory. The Gentiles received the message (Acts 13:48). In another nearby city, Paul found Jews and Greeks gathered together on the Sabbath (Acts 14:1-2).
In Acts chapter 15, the disciples held the Jerusalem Council. We give a full explanation of this council in a two part series (click here to read part 1 and click here to read part 2). At the end of it, the disciples decided on four minimum standards for Gentiles so that they could attend the synagogue. They also encouraged the Gentiles to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath.
“19 Wherefore my judgment is, that we trouble not them that from among the Gentiles turn to God; 20 but that we write unto them, that they abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses from generations of old hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath.” (ASV)
Notice that the Apostles even specify what they want Gentile converts to learn (Moses), where they want them to learn it (Synagogue), and when they want them to learn it (Sabbath)! Remember that the New Testament did not exist at that time. Every synagogue had at least a Torah scroll, which is the first five books of the Bible (also called the books of Moses). The apostles pointed out how Moses was taught in every city. They could learn about righteous living by hearing Moses. Recall what Philo and Josephus said in part one of this series (click here to read).
“12 and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. 14 Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped (sebomene) God (ton theon). The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. 15 And when she and her household were baptized…” (NKJV).
Philippi was a Roman colony. According to Smith’s Classical Dictionary, colonies were established at this time for Roman soldiers/veterans (entry: Colonia). There was no known Jewish synagogue in the city. Paul looked for people gathered on the Sabbath and found God worshippers like Lydia. She was possibly the first convert of Paul on European soil, and she was a God-fearer. This sounds like the situation with Cornelius!
“1 After they traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 Paul went to the Jews in the synagogue, as he customarily did, and on three Sabbath days he addressed them from the scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, saying, “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” 4 Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large group of God-fearing (sebomenon) Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (NET, emphasis mine).
In Thessalonica, Paul found God fearers in the synagogues who gathered with Jewish people on the Sabbath. They were among his converts. They then went to Berea and found Jewish people along with Greeks studying the Old Testament together (Acts 17:10-12).
We will conclude this chapter with some select quotes from Acts 17 and 18. Paul wen to Athens and Corinth and found God fearers!
“…16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers (tois sebomenois), and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there” (NKJV, emphasis mine).
Acts 18:1, 3b-4, 7-8
“1 After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth…he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks…7 And he departed from there and entered the house of a certain man named Justus, one who worshiped God (sebomenou ton theon), whose house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized…” (NKJV, emphasis mine)
The historical record, Jewish, Christian, and Gentile, attests to the widespread appeal that the Sabbath had to non-Jews. These sources reveal that a significant number of Gentiles observed a degree of Sabbath observance. The archaeological record discusses a classification of Gentiles who were not full proselytes but attached to the synagogue – these are called God-fearers or God-worshippers.
As the early disciples spread the gospel, they found God-fearers in the synagogue with Jewish people on the Sabbath. This group of Gentiles were ripe for evangelism. They desired characteristics of the Judaism, including the Sabbath, but were also drawn to the message of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. In some places, there were no Jewish synagogues, yet Gentile God-worshipers were still gathered for the Sabbath.
Contrary to much modern teaching, no evidence exists that the Sabbath was changed by the teachings of the early disciples. The disciples preached about the resurrection and continued to meet on the Sabbath (Acts 13:13-48, Acts 17:1-3; click here to learn more about this subject).
For the earliest believers, Judaism provided the necessary superstructure necessary for the early Christians to share the message of Jesus and still learn about holy living. This included gathering/observance of the Sabbath. The only day of Christian gathering in the New Testament and immediate post-apostolic history is the Sabbath. It was the only day of rest in the ancient world.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
American Standard Version. Public Domain.
NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Biblical Greek References:
The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Translated by Robert K. Brown and Philip W. Comfort. Edited by J.D. Douglas. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 1990.
Baker, Murray. “Who was sitting in the Threatre at Miletos?” An Epigraphical Application of a Novel Theory.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, vol. 36, no. 4, Brill, 2005, pp. p 412, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24669602.
Bonz, Marianne Palmer. “The Jewish Donor Inscriptions from Aphrodisias: Are They Both Third-Century, and Who Are the Theosebeis?” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 96, 1994, pp. 281–99, https://doi.org/10.2307/311328. Accessed 4 Apr. 2022.
Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum. Edited by Victor A. Tcherikover, Alexander Fuks, and Menahem Stern. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964. pp 43-87.
Feldman, Louis H. “The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12.5 (1986): 58–63.
Filson, Floyd V. “Ancient Greek Synagogue Inscriptions.” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 32, no. 2, The American Schools of Oriental Research, 1969, pp. 41–46, https://doi.org/10.2307/3210988.
Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews, 14.7.2, 20.8.11. Whiston’s Translation revised by Rev. A.R. Shilleto, Vol. 3, London: George Bell and Sons, York Street, 1889. pp 19, 404.
Levinskaya, Irina. The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996. pp 60-70.
Marcus, Ralph. “The Sebomenoi in Josephus.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1952, pp. 247–50, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4465081. Accessed 4 Apr. 2022.
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. “Lots of God-Fearers? ‘Theosebeis’ in the Aphrodisias Inscription.” Revue Biblique (1946-), vol. 99, no. 2, Peeters Publishers, 1992, pp. 418–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44089109.
Perdrizet, Paul. “Le jeu alexandrin de l’icosaèdre”, in Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale no. 30 (1931), pp. 1-16.
Smith, William B. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Entry: Colonia. pp 315-320.
Spielman, Loren R. Jews and Entertainment in the Ancient World. Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2020. p 117.
Trebilco, Paul R. Jewish Communities in Asia Minor. Cambridge University Press, 1991. pp 154-166.