The word for proselyte was first used in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Often, the Hebrew word “ger,” meaning a “sojourner” or an “immigrant” was translated by the Greek word for proselyte. In time, the first meaning was dropped completely. (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 3:1005)
1. If a sojourner was circumcised, they could take the Passover (Exodus 12:43-49).
2. Circumcision implies that he has become a convert (Genesis 17:9-14).
3. The sojourner must bring offerings to the tent of meeting (Leviticus 17:8-9).
4. “Clearly, a ‘ger’ must be united with the people of God before he can be cut off from them.”
5. “To sum up, the ‘ger’ in Israel was a resident alien. Even if a ‘ger’ did not join the people of God he was to be treated justly and fairly. But if a ‘ger’ submitted to circumcision, he was a recipient of the same covenant privileges as the native Israelite.” (ISBE 3:1006)
“In his letter to Caligula, Agrippa I also noted that there were Jews worldwide: in Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, the Greek Islands, Europe, and beyond the Euphrates” [Philo De legatione ad Gaium 281f]. [ISBE 3:1007]
“The hostile reaction that the Jews sometimes received from the ancient world testifies to the breadth of the Jewish dispersion and the success of Jewish proselytism. Cicero charged that the Jewish religion was a ‘barbaric superstition’ [Pro Flacco 28]. Tacitus was especially disturbed with proselytes because the Jews taught them to be antisocial.” [ISBE 3:1008]
“The synagogue was a place where foreigners could hear God’s word explained and applied. Such a place of worship may have particularly appealed to Greeks because such a mode of worship was similar in some ways to Greek philosophical schools.” [ISBE 3:1007]
”Several features of the Judaism appealed to many Gentiles: the pure monotheism, the high ethical standards, the philosophical (rational and nonsacrificial) worship of the synagogue, an ancient and inspired written revelation, and the social cohesiveness of the Jewish community.” [Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 512.]
Circumcision was required in Scripture for males who wished to become proselytes.
1. Since women didn’t have to be circumcised, far more women became proselytes.
2. “Circumcision was not only painful but also disgusting to Greeks and Romans, hence many more women than men became proselytes. Often the men, husbands of the women converts, accepted the moral teachings and religious practices of Judaism without accepting the stigma of circumcision and so full identification with the Jewish community.” [Ferguson, Backgrounds, 515]
3. “The male child born into a Jewish family or born to parents who had already become proselytes received circumcision on the eighth day after birth. This was the covenant seal, a sign that the boy was within the elect people.” [Ferguson, Backgrounds, 513]
PROSELYTES AND NEW RULES
At some unknown point, likely the first century A.D., the rules changed as to how someone could become a proselyte. Not only did male proselytes have to be circumcised, water purification was added. We don’t know for certain if this was a response to what Christians were doing, or not. However, it’s hard to see how else it could have happened.
Jews constructed Mikvehs, a word meaning “immersion pools” all over the Jewish world. Mikvehs were built so that an adult person could be fully immersed. The Mishnah [Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 63.], a book of the Rabbis, had clear rules for how large it should be and the amount of water it must hold. It also had to be water that was not drawn but poured into the Mikveh. [Ferguson, Baptism, 64.]
“The mikveh is valid, however built, providing that it has not been prefabricated and brought and installed on the site since in that case, it constitutes a ‘vessel’ which renders the water in it “drawn water.” It may be hewn out of the rock or built-in or put on the ground, and any material is suitable. It must be watertight since leakage invalidates it. It must contain a minimum of 40 se’ah of valid water, and, although it was originally laid down that its height must be 47 in. (120 cm.) to enable a person standing in it to be completely immersed (Sifra 6:3), even though he has to bend his knees (Sifra 6:3) it was later laid down that providing there is the necessary minimum quantity of water, immersion is valid while lying down.”
The immersion in the Mikveh was self-administered, but it “required the presence of witnesses who gave instructions in the commandments of Judaism.” [Ferguson, Backgrounds, 514]
“Proselyte baptism also was administered to any children in the family. Those born after the family’s conversion did not have to be immersed, for they were born ‘in holiness’ and the males only needed to receive circumcision.”
“The common, technical term for ‘making a convert’ in rabbinical literature is ‘kabbel’ (to accept), or ‘kareb tahat kanfe ha-Shekinah’ (to bring one near, or under the wings of, the Shekinah).” Can’t help but think of Ephesians 2:14-18. The Jews were spiritually near the Father because they were the covenant people of God and the Gentiles were separated from Him. When Jesus died on the cross, He eradicated that barrier that existed for the Gentiles and brought them near. Immersion in baptism and the blood of Christ cleansed them of their sins and added them to the body of Christ (Romans 5:6-11; 1 John 1:7; Acts 2:42,47). The fact that God developed the plan for a foreigner or stranger to become one with the covenant people during the Old Testament is illustrative of God’s overall redemptive plan (Genesis 12:1-3; Isaiah 2:1-2).
God’s covenant has always stood and in baptism by immersion, all can be included (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Galatians 3:27-28).
If the Mikveh was modeled after what Christ’s disciples were doing, and every indication points in that direction, then there cannot be any doubt that immersion was the only mode of baptism during the New Testament period. My book, The Most Important Question addresses this at length. The Greek word for baptism always meant immersion in Scripture and in Greek literature, as well.