When I enrolled in an undergraduate unit on Luke-Acts back when I was working on my Bachelor’s degree, the textbook we were using was Philip Francis Esler’s Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1987). Esler makes a number of points in his redactional and social-scientific approach to the biblical text, but one key point is that Acts addressed an audience primarily constituted by Jews and non-Jewish “God-fearers” rather than ex-pagans and sought to legitimate their shared beliefs and practices including their open table fellowship. While the bibliography below questions the older view that “God-fearers” (phoboumenoi ton theon) was a technical term for non-Jewish sympathizers who had not become full proselytes, there should be no question that there were interested non-Jews who attended synagogues where the Jewish Scriptures were read, adopted Jewish practices, contributed financially to the Jewish community, or positively interacted with their Jewish neighbours to varying degrees. Esler’s approach offers one possible explanation for why Paul seems to have the greatest successes in persuading Gentile “God-fearers” in the synagogue, while Paul’s letters often seem to indicate that his addressees had abandoned a former life of idolatry (cf. Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:10-11; 1 Thessalonians 1:9). Meanwhile, despite engaging Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Acts 17:16-34, Paul’s message does not get much traction among the “Pagans” in Athens.
On the other hand, there have been increasing criticisms of mirror-reading literary narratives such as the Gospels and Acts in order to reconstruct the specific contours of a “community” that was supposedly the initial readers of the text. There may be a few other reasons why the book of Acts focuses on God-fearers in the synagogue. First, it may have been Paul’s actual practice to make connections through the synagogue in every new place he visited and he may have found a more receptive audience since they already had some exposure to the scriptural story that Paul claimed was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. These “Gentiles” could have perceived themselves as reverencing Israel’s God and learning from the Jewish Scriptures and traditions in synagogues on the Sabbath, while also continuing to practice their native customs and cultic practices towards their own ancestral deities. Second, since the Romans were suspicious of new and potentially subversive voluntary associations, the author of Acts may have emphasized that the (largely Gentile?) Christians were in complete continuity with the ancient Jewish scriptural heritage. The focus on the Gentile “God-fearers” helped to serve this purpose.
For a brief bibliography of sources on the “God-fearers,” see:
- Donaldson, Terence. Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism (to 135 CE). Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007.
- Feldman, Louis H. “The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers.” Biblical Archaeological Review 12.5 (1986).
- Fredriksen, Paula. “”If It Looks like a Duck, and It Quacks like a Duck…’: On Not Giving Up the Godfearers.” Pages 25-34 in A Most Reliable Witness: Essays in Honor of Ross Shepard Kraemer. Edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey et al. Providence: Brown Judaic Series, 2016.
- Kraabel, A. T. “The Disappearance of the ‘God-Fearers.’” Numen 28.2 (1981): 113-126.
- Kraemer, Ross. “Giving up the Godfearers.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 5.1 (2014): 61-87.
- MacLennan, Robert S. and Kraabel, A. Thomas. “The God-Fearers: A Literary and Theological Invention.” Biblical Archaeological Review 12.5 (1986).