Biblical Archaeology Review 12:5, September/October 1986
The God-Fearers: Did They Exist?


These three extraordinary articles began when we read a technical paper in the obscure scholarly journal Numen. Titled “The Disappearance of the God-Fearers,” the paper was written by A. Thomas Kraabel, dean of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Kraabel is one of the most prominent specialists in Hellenistic Judaism and an expert in the archaeology of ancient synagogues.

The God-fearers are commonly thought to be that large group of “semi-Jews,” referred to several times in the New Testament, who provided some of the earliest and most important converts to Christianity. The God-fearers frequented the synagogue, professed monotheism and observed many, but not all, Jewish religious laws. They are of major significance in the study of early Christianity and Judaism.

If the God-fearers were indeed “disappearing,” this was a major scholarly development that needed to be brought to the attention of BAR readers. So we contacted Tom Kraabel and asked him to write up his findings in a way that would be understandable to a lay audience. Kraabel teamed up with his former student Robert MacLennan, now Reverend MacLennan, to produce the article “The God-Fearers: A Literary and Theological Invention.”

In the course of preparing the MacLennan/Kraabel article for publication, it became obvious that the matter was more complicated than we had at first thought. Kraabel’s scholarly paper had not won universal agreement among the coterie of experts who speak to one another through arcane journals. One of the dissenters was Professor Louis Feldman of Yeshiva University in New York. If Kraabel could speak of the “disappearance” of the God-fearers, Feldman would make them “reappear,” he said.

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