Describing the Jew-Gentile relationship of the first-century is not as simple as saying there was a division between them. This division was as varied as their views of the Messiah or the interpretation of the law among various groups. The animosity toward the Gentiles was lessening among the Jews by the end of the Old Testament period.1 The two primary views towards Gentiles ran parallel to each other: a desire to win Gentiles over to Judaism was tempered by strong separatist movement and disdain for the Gentiles. This disdain wasn’t primarily racial or cultural, rather its fuel was religious. The Gentiles were viewed as being outside God’s covenant while Israel was the recipients of God’s special favor.2 Israel didn’t think she had earned it, but realized she was chosen to receive it, thus had a cause for self-elevation.
There were some who thought the Gentiles were so depraved that their apparent attempts to convert to Judaism was fueled by self-preservation and self-serving motives thus they should be shunned completely and no attempts to proselytize them should be made.3 This view was not shared by all Jews. Some thought the Gentiles should be proselytized, as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day.4 When a Gentile became a proselyte (a convert) he accepted every aspect of Jewish life and culture from the law to national allegiance. He became a “naturalized Jew”.5 The God-fearer differed from the proselyte in the area of circumcision. They stopped short of becoming full-fledged naturalized Jews.6 They were given limited privileges in Jewish worship. A God-fearer did not observe all of Jewish culture and custom.
There are things Christians can learn from the Jew/Gentile distinction when coupled with the fact that Jesus has obliterated that distinction. One must stress that God has not forsaken His people, as this sometimes seems to be held by those who say there is now no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Scripture is clear that the Gentile believer does not replace the child of Abraham but becomes one.7 All believers are joined by faith to the True Israel – Jesus Christ. He is the seed of Abraham. 8 The defining factor that marks out God’s people is not circumcision or loyalty to a particular culture but faith in the Messiah and obedience to the law of Christ. We can also learn from the Jews arrogance. They stayed clear of Gentiles as they saw the Gentiles as pagan and ill-favored of God. Jesus came and obliterated that line of thinking showing that Jew and Gentile are loved of God and desire all to be saved through His Messiah.9 Nor should we exclude our brothers and sisters in Jesus who do not adopt the same denominational affiliations as we do. For my Presbyterian brother to not be a “proselyte” of the Baptist denomination doesn’t mean that he is a pseudo-believer. We may have differing views on some issues but both of us are grafted into the Messiah and are family.10
1Scott Jr., J. Julius Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, Baker Academic, 1995, 336.
5Scott Jr., J. Julius Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, Baker Academic, 1995, 342.