Chaim Urbach - Messianic Pastor, Yeshuat Tzion
Congregation, Denver, Colorado
The question "Should Gentile believers convert to
Judaism?" sounds at first blush, well, so academic.
You might picture a roomful of Messianic mavens, arguing
over finer points of Messianic Halachah. Conversion of
Gentile believers to Judaism is by no means an
ivory-tower issue-- it often comes connected with
tremendous emotional and spiritual freight. All of us
know Gentile believers who have struggled with this
issue. Much rides on a balanced understanding of
Scripture, which will steer us through this potential
Let us define the issues. In this article I take for
granted two basic assumptions:
1. Conversion of Gentile believers cannot be mandatory,
either for the sake of relationship with the Lord or
fellowship with fellow believers. Acts 15 (1, 20) and the
rest of the New Testament (e.g. Gal. 5:4) clearly base
our spiritual life on Yeshua's atonement alone.
2. A Gentile believer should not convert
to rabbinic tradition. According to tradition, a bona
fide conversion demands that potential converts renounce
their previous faith completely. Maurice Lamm, a
distinguished professor of rabbinics at Yeshivah
University, describes the convert as "a newborn
child, not only in spiritual-emotional terms, but also in
legal and technical terms."(1) Can a believer,
invalidate his new birth, and renounce his Messiah by
submitting to such a conversion? Even in the rare cases
where the converting rabbi did not require a
renunciation, the conversion is no more justified.
Whether or not this is acknowledged, a believer adopts a
belief system that defines itself by the rejection of
The issue under the microscope in this article is this,
"Should it be possible for willing Gentile believers
to identify more closely with the Jewish people by
voluntarily converting to Messianic
CONVERSIONS TO JUDAISM ARE
UNNECESSARY FOR FELLOWSHIP
(ACTS 15:1-28 I COR. 9:19-23):
The ruling of the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-28)
made it clear that Gentile believers were excused from
taking on the entire yoke of Torah (i.e. conversion) but
instead were prohibited from four things: food offered to
idols, fornication, meat strangled and blood (Acts 15:20,
29). Yet, it has been argued that the ruling actually
encouraged Gentile believers towards a more
Torah-observant life style and left room for voluntary
conversion. For instance, Patrice Fischer states that the
majority of Gentile believers at this point were Jews in
all but name.(3)
"These G-d fearers were every bit as Jewishly
observant as their Jewish friends....Their lifestyle
already identified them as Jews, even if the final ritual
of formal conversion had not yet taken place....."
The purpose of the four prohibitions according to Fischer
was "to delineate more fully their [the Gentile
believers'] already fully Jewish commitment".(4)
There are two major problems with this reconstruction.
The Gentile believers in the new congregations, even at
this early date (Acts 13-14) came from diverse
backgrounds. Some were indeed Torah-observant
God-fearers--participating in the local synagogues (Acts
13:26, 50; 17:14, 17), praying during traditional prayer
times (e.g. Cornelius praying at 3 p.m., Acts 10:3) and
keeping many of the commandments of Torah. Yet, many
(even a majority) of the other new Gentile believers were
saved out of rank paganism (Acts 14:13; 17:34; 18:11;
19:19). The ruling of the council at Jerusalem had to be
directed to meet the needs of the entire spectrum of new
Gentile believers, not just the minority who were more
Secondly, the context of Acts 10-15 defines the ruling in
Acts 15 as strongly related to the social interaction
between Jews and Gentiles--both fellowship and
outreach--not one of greater identification. The four
prohibitions mentioned in Acts 15 certainly point us in
that direction.5 The first pair of prohibitions--avoiding
food offered to idols and fornication--was associated
with festivals (often orgies), held in honor of the gods
(e.g. I Cor. 8:7, 10; Num. 25:1-3). The second pair--the
prohibitions against eating flesh from animals that were
killed by strangulation and drinking blood--was based on
laws of Kashrut spelled out in the Torah (in this case
Lev. 17:10-14). An observant Jew would be repulsed by and
consider unclean anyone who transgressed all of these
prohibitions-- those dealing with kashrut as well as
idolatry/fornication. For instance, Peter had to overcome
his deeply-ingrained squeamishness towards coming into
Cornelius' house, thereby putting himself at the risk of
becoming (tameh) ritually unclean (Acts 10:28;
Outside the book of Acts, only the prohibition against
fornication (Acts 15:20, 29), is repeated again (Rom.
13:13; I Cor. 6:18; 7:2; 10:8; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:13; Col.
3:5 etc.). Where ritual matters are mentioned (I Cor. 10;
27-30; Rom. 14:1-6, 10-14; Col. 2:16), they are presented
as matters where the believer has freedom of choice. For
instance, eating food offered to idols is spiritually
neutral unless it takes place as part of idol worship, or
unless they significantly undermine the faith of another
believer.6 One has to conclude that the other
requirements were not (are not) absolute requirements for
Gentile believers. Rather, they were issued to remove
potential hindrances to fellowship between Jewish and
Gentile believers. While Acts 15 did not explicitly
forbid Gentiles from converting to Judaism, discouraging
conversions certainly was a given at the council.
CONVERSIONS TO JUDAISM ARE
UNNECESSARY FOR IDENTIFICATION (I COR. 9:19-23):
Does identifying with someone require our changing our
identity through conversion? Arnold Fruchtenbaum argues
that Scripture provides a different kind of a model for
identification (I Cor. 9:19-23).(7)
The biblical means of identification is by acculturation
[i.e. adopting cultural norms]. To become as
[italic his] one is not to become one. This little word
is forgotten or ignored by the adherents of conversion to
Judaism, who use this very same text to prove that their
way of identification is by conversion.
Fruchtenbaum goes on to show that using this logic,
Jewish believers should convert and become Gentiles in
order to more effectively share Yeshua with Gentile
friends. This is the farthest thing from Paul's mind in
this passage. The underlying principle is our need to
restrict our freedom for the sake of others by adopting
their cultural norms. For instance, we find Paul's
approach to sharing Yeshua varied as his audience
changed. In the synagogue of Psidian Antioch, he shared
Yeshua through the Tanach (Acts 13:15); in Lystra, he
began by referring to the true God versus Zeus and Hermes
(Acts 14:15) and in Athens, he referred to their customs
(altar to the unknown God) and their poets (Acts 17:23,
28). The same principle was applied sharing meals with
Gentiles. From his instructions to the Corinthian
believers we see that he was willing to temporarily
lay aside his convictions about
kashrut in order to share a meal with Gentiles (I Cor.
10:27; Gal. 2:11-14). Paul identified with his Gentile
audiences but remained a Torah-observant Jew (Acts
Finally, when we see individuals in Scripture who
underwent conversions, they are not presented as
"Jews" but retain their former identify (e.g.
Ruth the Moabitess, Rahab the prostitute, Nicholas the
DOES SCRIPTURE PERMIT VOLUNTARY
CONVERSIONS (I COR. 7:18-24)?
Does the New Covenant speak to those who wish to convert
voluntarily ? David Stern, in his Jewish New Testament
Commentary (8) affirms that it does:
.... if a Gentile Christian wants to identify fully with
the Jewish people, the New Testament in principle would
permit him to become a Jew. Stern, then states that
practical considerations would make these conversations
difficult at best. Does in fact the New Testament permit
a Gentile believer to do so? Unlike Acts 15 where the
issue is dealt with implicitly, in I Corinthians 7 it is
addressed explicitly and forcefully. This chapter
discusses different aspects of marriage for believers.
Flowing out of this discussion about marriage, Paul lays
down a basic principle (1 Cor. 7:17), which is then
repeated twice (7:20, 24).
1 Cor. 7:17 .....each one should retain the place in life
that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called
him. This principle is illustrated by two examples--
circumcision and slavery. What did Paul mean by the
principle and how does circumcision fits into it?
The believers in Corinth did not understand that their
relationship to Messiah was compatible with whatever
social position or occupation they were in at the time
they came to faith.(9) Much of what he tells them is
colored by his conviction that the Lord's coming is
imminent and the then-raging persecution of believers
(7:26, 26, 31). In view of that reality, believers'
attention need to be more sharply focused on furthering
the Kingdom of Heaven. As Stern points out, his concern
is that Gentile believers at Corinth should not waste
precious resources in the effort to change their
circumstances".(10) Remaining in our assignment is
the appropriate response in view of the Lord's imminent
Paul uses two different words "called" and
"assigned", to define believers' relationship
to the Lord. Our call refers to our salvation, whereas
the second term refers to our assigned task within the
kingdom of God. Grammatically, the terms
"called" and "assigned" are the same
type of clause (hos, meaning "as") governed by
the same subject-- the Lord.(11) The thought is the same
in both-- our salvation and our
place of service were given to us by the Lord and are
under His control. There are times when believers feel
that the only way they can serve the Lord effectively is
in a role other that the one they are in. His message to
all of us is clear but often challenging-- "Remain
faithful in the role assigned to you." The Lord may
lead a believer into a different assignment, but until
there is a re-assignment, he or she must remain and serve
Paul illustrates the principle, by referring to
circumcision. For the Gentile majority in the Corinthian
congregation, circumcision probably meant little.(12) But
for a Jew, Paul's statement that "circumcision is
nothing" would have provoked outrage. Circumcision
was a sign of the covenant and the relationship with God.
The fact that Paul, a Torah-observant Jew, would make
such an extreme statement puts his case in neon lights.
For a believer, circumcision, uncircumcision, one's
marital status, or whether one is free or enslaved-- none
of those matter as far as our salvation is concerned.
Yet, while circumcision (i.e. conversion) is irrelevant
as far as salvation is concerned, that does not mean that
it is a matter of personal discretion.(13)
It is true that Paul does not condemn circumcision of
Gentile believers with the same degree of passion as he
did with the Galatian believers. The stakes were far
higher there but that does not mean that he makes
allowance for it here. When we view this verse (7:18 ),
we most often focus on part b, "was a man
uncircumcised," yet this verse comprises a couplet.
It forbids Gentile men from becoming circumcised and
Jewish men from seeking to become
"uncircumcised." Becoming uncircumcised is not
as far fetched as it sounds. From the time of the
Maccabees on, there were Jews who underwent a surgical
procedure called epipasm that made them
appear to be uncircumcised.(14) Paul would have viewed
either branch of the pair (7:18a or 7:18b) as equally
unacceptable. Just as a Jewish believer should not
undergo epipasm, neither should a Gentile believer
For the second illustration, slavery, Paul adds an
exception--a believer in bondage may become free if the
Lord gives him or her the means to do so. The same
applies to the question of marriage, where a believer has
some measure of individual freedom. Yet, there is no such
exception given in the case of conversion because of what
it represents, regardless of an individual's inner
motivation, or whether this is a "deep
longing."(15) A Gentile believer who wants to
convert for the "right reasons" is not free to
do so. Conversion of a Gentile believer makes a clear
public statement-- Yeshua's sacrifice is not sufficient
(Gal. 5:2-6; 6:15).(16) Stern argues that Paul's words
should not be construed as an absolute prohibition, but
rather offered in the vein of a rabbi discouraging a
Gentile from converting out of convenience or based on
transitory emotion.(17) There are two basic observations
to make on this score. There is no clear consensus on
just when rabbinic tradition began to discourage
potential converts. If anything, the evidence favors the
view that during the first century the rabbis welcomed
.....it is obvious that proselytism was widespread among
the ordinary people....the near pride in which the rabbis
took in the claim that some of their greatest figures
were descended from proselytes point to an openhanded
policy toward their acceptance....(18)
The more germane issue is the fact that Paul applies his
apostolic authority in this case, as he does later in the
epistle (I Cor. 14:33, 37) and elsewhere. What he is
saying is not a suggestion, to be followed or ignored.
Rather, it is a principle to be followed universally. In
the letter to the Galatian believers (5:6; 6:15), the
circumcision of Gentiles is clearly forbidden. There is
no reason to assume that prohibition has been modified,
despite the fact that Paul's tone here is not polemical
(I Cor. 7:19-20).
SCRIPTURE HAS NO MODELS FOR THE
CONVERSION OF GENTILE BELIEVERS:
The Tanach makes provision for Gentiles to convert to
Judaism-- Rahab, Ruth, and foreigners who were
circumcised as a prerequisite for celebrating the
Passover (Exod. 12:48). These, examples cannot be applied
to Gentile believers who are fellow-heirs of salvation
(Eph. 3:16). In the New Testament, we find the example of
Timothy being circumcised (Acts 16:1-3). Can that be used
as a valid model for conversion of Gentile believers as
John Fischer claims? (19)
"In the first century, since
receiving circumcision indicated one's obligation and
intention to keep the Law of Moses, Rav Shaul's
circumcision of Timothy may be regarded as the conversion
of the non-Jew to Judaism. Thus we may have a precedent
in the B'rit Hadasha for such a modern-day practice.
considering Timothy's example, two issues present
themselves: was Timothy considered a Gentile in the eyes
of the Jewish community? Directly connected is another
question-- why was he circumcised? In this narrative,
Luke attached an explanatory note suggesting that Paul
had Timothy circumcised "because of the
Jews....[who] knew that his father was a Greek,"
(Acts 16:3). What precisely did Luke mean by this
If Timothy was considered a Gentile like his father,
circumcision would have been a non-issue. Timothy would
have been welcomed as another God-fearing Gentile (Acts
13:26; 13:50; 17:14, 17) wherever he and Paul traveled.
The fact that it was an issue at all reflects the
sentiment among the Jewish people that Timothy should
have been circumcised but had not been because of his
Greek father. Timothy was considered to be a Jew, albeit
a "bad Jew" because he had not been circumcised
in compliance with the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:10)
and the Torah (Lev. 12:2-3).20
Circumcising Timothy was done to facilitate the spread of
the Gospel, based on Paul's stated principle that we
should do everything possible to eliminate barriers to
the Gospel (I Cor. 9:20-22). The Message of the Gospel
should be the only stumbling block presented (I Cor.
1:23). Yet, this action was not undertaken merely for the
sake of expedience. Longenecker explains the relationship
between expedience (for the sake of sharing the Gospel)
and principle (living a Torah-observant lifestyle).
"But while Paul stoutly resisted any imposition of
circumcision and the [Torah] upon his Gentile converts,
he himself continued to live as an observant Jew and
his converts to express their [faith] through the
cultural forms they had inherited....Therefore, it was both
proper and [italics
mine] expedient for Paul to circumcise him....."(21)
The false teachers who dogged Paul's trail attempted to
spread rumors that he had taught Jewish believers to
discontinue their adherence to the Torah (including
circumcision of their sons). The leadership at Jerusalem
encouraged Paul to squelch publicly those rumors (Acts
Unlike Timothy, Titus provides us with a clear model of
how circumcision impacted a Gentile believer in the New
Covenant. Titus was unambiguously a Gentile ("a
Greek," Gal. 2:3). Paul took him to Jerusalem as
part of a trip to meet with the pillars of the
congregation (i.e. apostles). As we read between the
lines, a battle had been brewing between Paul and the
"false brethren" who insisted that Gentiles
should be circumcised.22 Titus was a very visible point
man around which the battle swirled-- if he would be
compelled to be circumcised, then all Gentile believers
should be pressured to do the same. For Paul, giving in
on this issue was tantamount to his declaring that the
message of the Gospel was insufficient to save, and for
that reason, he dug in his heels-- Titus would not be
circumcised (Gal. 2:3-5).23
1. Part of the underlying message Scripture conveys to
Gentile believers and indeed to all of us is this--
"Learn to be content with who you are (Ps.
139:13-14), regardless of deep longings to
the contrary." The Lord's choosing us and selecting
an assignment for us is a choice blessing (I Cor.
2. Conversion of Gentile believers conveys the wrong
message to Gentile believers in a Messianic Jewish
congregation-- "You are a second-class citizen
unless you become Jewish," (i.e. convert). It makes
a mockery of the principle of unity in diversity (Eph.
3. Conversion of Gentile believers to Messianic Judaism
is unacceptable (invalid) among Jewish people here and
abroad (especially in Israel). It is strictly an
"in-house" exercise and what's worse, it
re-enforces the perception in the Jewish community that
we as a movement are "na-arish"-- we cannot be
taken seriously. While rejection by the Jewish community
is part of our cost of discipleship, our rejection should
be for Yeshua's sake only.
4. The nuances of the conversion of Gentile believers
would be lost on the rest of the Body of Messiah, who
would view this as a re-occurrence of the Galatian
heresy. We cannot delineate theology on the basis of
whether it is understood by other believers. Yet
alienating fellow believers elsewhere for the sake of a
practice that is questionable at best, unnecessarily
squanders precious goodwill we have earned among other
1. Conversion of Gentile believers is not necessary for
the sake of fellowship with Jewish believers or more
effective sharing of Yeshua with the Jewish community
(Acts 1:1-28; I Cor. 9:19-23).
2. Conversion of Gentile believers violates the
scriptural principle of accepting our God-given identity
(I Cor. 7:18-20).
3. There are no scriptural examples that can be applied
to believers today (Acts 16:1-3).
4. Conversion of Gentile believers works against the
principle of unity in diversity among believers in and
out of Messianic Jewish congregations (Eph. 2:12-19). It
also promotes confusion in how the Jewish community and
the church view who we are.
(NOTE THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN KESHER A Journal of
Messianic Judaism, ISSUE 6, 1998.)
1 Becoming a Jew, (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David
Publishers, 1991), pp. 73-74.
2 Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism, Summer 1997,
"Halachah in Action," the editors, pp.
3 "Modern-Day G-d-Fearers: A Biblical Role Model For
Gentile Participation in Messianic Congregations," a
paper available through Menorah Ministries, Clearwater,
FL, no date, p. 7, 8.
4 "Modern-Day G-d-Fearers," p. 7.
5 It is possible that the four prohibitions were an
abbreviated form of the Noahide laws-- seven rules for
Gentiles expanded the covenant with Noah in Gen. 9:1-17--
practicing justice, avoiding blasphemy, idolatry,
adultery, bloodshed, robbery, flesh and blood from a live
animal (Sanh. 56a)
6 See Craig Blomberg, I Corinthians, The NIV Application
Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, p. 193 on vv.
7 Hebrew Christianity: Its theology, history &
philosophy (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1992),
8 Clarksville, MF: JNP, 1992, p. 562.
9 Simon J. Kistemaker, I Corinthians, NTC, (Grand Rapids:
Baker Books, 1993), pp. 230; (7:5)see Gordon D. Fee's
discussion in The First Epistle to the Corinthians,
NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, pp. 280-283.
10 JNTC, p. 456.
11 I Corinthians, Hans Conzelman, (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press, 1975), p. 125.
12 Fee p. 313.
13 Conzelman, p. 126.
14 Blomberg, pp. 145-146.
15 Fischer, "Halacha in action," p. 93.
16 Fee, p. 311-312.
17 NTC, pp. 562.
18 Encyc. Jud. 13:1183. Also see Ben Zion Bokser,
"Witness and Mission in Judaism," in Issues in
Jewish-Christian Dialogue: Jewish Perspectives on
Covenant, Mission and Witness (New York: Paulist Press,
1979), p. 134; Lawrence H. Schiffman, Who was a Jew:
Rabbinic and Halachic Perspectives on the Jewish
Christian Schism, (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1985), pp.
19 John Fischer, "Halacha in Action," p.
20 While Scripture traces a person's line through the
father, rabbinic tradition early on (e.g. M Kiddushin
3:12) ruled in favor of matrilineal descent. For an
overview of the issue as it related to Timothy refer to
Stern, pp. 281-282.
21 Longenecker, Acts, EBC, Zondervan, 1995, p. 25.
22 This seems to be an earlier occasion that the one
described in Acts 15.
23 The view that Titus was not compelled but underwent
circumcision voluntarily does violence to the grammatical
context. Richard N. Longenecker, in Galatians,
(Waco:Word, 1990), p. 50 points out that Paul went out of
his way to emphasize that he would not give the legalists
any quarter. To have Titus circumcised for any reason
would have defeated his purpose.