How Jesus may have viewed conversion to Judaism
David Flusser was a professor of Early Christianity and Judaism of the Second Temple Period at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was also a devout Orthodox Jew and a renown author who contributed much to the study of Jewish history and understanding of Jesus the Jew. In his book The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius Flusser turned his attention to Jesus’ view on conversion as practiced during the Second Temple period. Professor Flusser focused on Matthew 23:15 as an example of how seriously Jesus considered the Jewish obligation to fulfill the legal requirements of Torah, but also, no less seriously, the non-trivial consequences of bounding Gentile converts to Judaism to Torah’s stringent requirements upon their conversion.
The liberal school of Hillel was not distressed to see Gentiles becoming Jews. By contrast, the school of Shammai made conversion as difficult as possible. The following sayings show that Jesus shared the strict stand-point of Shammai. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). A non-Jew who lives according to certain fundamental moral laws, without following the whole Mosaic law, is blessed. The proselyte, the Gentile who has converted to Judaism, however, is bound by the whole law. If a proselyte fails to fulfill the whole law, which formerly did not obligate him, his conversion to Judaism is itself the cause of his becoming a child of hell. Quite needlessly he has thrown away his blessedness. (The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius, By David Flusser, R. Steven Notley, p. 50)
From Jesus’ words we can glean the following four pieces of information:
- First of of all, the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees he was addressing were law-breaking Jews themselves.
- Secondly, we can also say that by making converts to Judaism from Gentiles and entering them into the Mosaic Covenant, these particular bad apples among scribes and Pharisees were legally obligating Gentiles to full Torah observance. This obligation will come into play during the time of Judgement.
- Thirdly, with the sinful teachers being law-breakers themselves, these Jewish religious teachers were not teaching their converts how to observe that Torah in the proper manner, i.e. how to fulfill the terms of the covenant to which all converts to Judaism bind themselves by their own free will (in contrast to Jews who are born obligated to all terms of the covenant but still bear the punishment for breaking them).
- And fourthly and most distressingly, by turning their Gentiles disciples into Jewish converts who were disobedient to Torah, these scribes and Pharisees were doing them a far greater disservice than if those Gentiles had remained as they were before their conversion (e.g. remained “G-d-fearers”). In other words, as Flusser writes, by becoming a “bad” Jew instead of remaining a righteous Gentile, the convert “[q]uite needlessly he has thrown away his blessedness.”
For his part, Apostle Paul too appears to have viewed formal conversion to Judaism as legally binding on all converts and the subsequent obligation to the whole of Torah as serious enough to warrant a stern warning:
Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole Torah. (Galatians 5:3)