The meanings of English words change over time. For an older generation, a vampire was a demonic, predatory being that was to be feared and destroyed. But due to the Twilight book series and movies, for many people today a vampire is a handsome, affluent man who has the ability to be forever young—and, oh, he drinks some blood from time to time.
The same is true for ancient languages. This is why we need to consider the original historical, social and religious contexts of New Testament terms, like ‘Godfearer.’ We will utilize both the Dictionary of New Testament Background (DNTB) and the Dictionary of Deities and Demons (DDD) to decipher what ‘Godfearer’ meant to the author and the audience of Acts. These dictionaries will help us delve into the Graeco-Roman context.
The term ‘Godfearer’ is applied to diverse people in disparate localities: women of esteem in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50), Greeks from Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), people found in synagogues in Athens (Acts 17:17), and a man from Corinth (Acts 18:7).1
Despite their dissimilarities, they have one thing in common: they were not ethnically Jewish but revered the Jewish God. Details about their standing and function in the Jewish community are nebulous. In DNTB the term Godfearer shares an entry with ‘proselytes.’ DNTB, though, maintains that Godfearers were distinctive from proselytes. Proselytes were those who had made a full commitment to the requirements of Judaism, especially the Law. Godfearers expressed enough interest in Judaism to attend synagogue and possibly give alms, but did not fully embrace the Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy).
Godfearers had a polytheistic background. DDD notes that the New Testament use of God/god (theos, θεος) primarily refers to the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh. However, “in pagan Greek literature the use of the word theos is markedly different from what we find in the Bible.”2 Throughout the wider Graeco-Roman world, theos was used to refer to divine figures and abstract concepts like love. An example of cultural confusion occurs in Acts 17:19. The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers misunderstood Paul’s teaching, believing him to be preaching two new deities: Jesus and Resurrection.
It is difficult to know what Godfearers thought of the God of Israel, Yahweh. Did they understand Him to be the only God/god, the chief God/god, or just one of many divine beings? The answer is not clear. However, we do know that Godfearers were passionate enough to come to the defense of the Jewish faith (Acts 13:50).
Socially, many of the Godfearers in Acts were among the wealthy class who donated money to Jewish communities (Acts 10:2). DNTB says that such statements in Acts have been corroborated by archaeological evidence, including the discovery of a stele dating to circa 200 AD in Aphrodisias (located in what is now Turkey). Upon this monument is a listing of those who gave to a local Jewish institution. One side of the stele lists 54 Jewish names, “after a break [is] a list of fifty Godfearers whose names are either Greek or Greco-Roman, suggesting a Gentile origin for the group.”3
Godfearers were among the first members of the early church. They were intricately involved in its growth, hosting house churches, and providing shelter for missionaries (Acts 16:40). Their acceptance of Jesus as the Christ and their subsequent receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:33–34) radically altered the church’s mission—opening the way for the Gospel to be preached to Gentiles (like most of us).
A Godfearer, then, in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, was someone who sincerely revered the God of Israel, but was not necessarily a practicing Jew. Today, the analogy of someone who believes in a personal God, but who isn’t committed to any particular faith, would be on target.
1. Also see Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26, 43; 17:17; 18:7.↩
2. McKnight, “Proselytism and Godfearers,” (DNTB): pgs. 840–47. Logos.com/DNTB ↩
3. P. W. van der Horst, “God (II),” (ddd 2nd ed.): pgs. 365–69. Logos.com/DDD