Brief Information on the Theosebes
The Theosebes (God-fearers) are Jewish sympathizing pagans with beliefs and rituals of their own. They emerged between the 1st B.C and the 4.th century A.D in the Mediterranean area. The Theosebes, which were bridges between the Greek culture and the diaspora Jews, who benefited from them in order to save their Jewish identity. It is believed that early Christianity started its mission among the Theosebes. Named as ‘phoubemenoi’ and ‘sebomenoi ton theon’ in Acts, they are especially marked as being the first addressees of Paul. The Greek term “Theosebes” means “God-Fearers” and it has, as an extension of the Pagan Monotheism and Theos Hypsistos cult, occurred within the Roman borders, revealed itself first in Judaism and later in Christianity. The Theosebes also have been prevalent during the birth of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. The Syriac term ‘hanpa,’ which was used to refer to the Theosebes, has vocal similarity to Hanif and it is possible that there is a relationship between Theosebes and Hanifs. Traces of the Theosebes vanished after the 5th century A.D. Presumably, the group has assimilated into Judaism, Christianity and Islam and gradually disappeared.
“The Greek term “Theosebes” means “God-Fearers” and it has, as an extension of the Pagan Monotheism and Theos Hypsistos cult, occurred within the Roman borders, revealed itself first in Judaism and later in Christianity.”
During the phase when it expanded in the Mediterranean, Christianity was confronted with distinct groups. The group which was most receptive to the new religion, and which accepted it most easily, were the Theosebes. The Theosebes had probably emerged out of Hellenistic culture and were holding beliefs that could be characterized as monotheistic. They played a leading role in spreading Christianity in the Mediterranean.
The Theosebes: Etymology
The Theosebes first appear in the Hellenistic period; they were members of the “Theos Hypsistos” belief, which was one manifestation of the pagan monotheism strongly prevalent in the Mediterranean region. The term Theosebes means “God-Fearer.” There are more terms that describe the Theosebes; phoubemenoi and sebomenoi in Greek and, metuentes (deum )in Latin. Moreover, Hellenistic culture included not only the Greek and Latin languages, it was also prevalent in the expanding Muslim territories. There is obviously a link between the Syriac term hanpa or hanputo, which also expresses, in a broad sense, “God fearers,” and the Quranic term Hanif. The term does not appear in the New Testament as Theosebes (Acts 10: 2, 22, 35; 13, 16, 26), but rather as phoubemenoi (“to fear”/ “to worship” God) and sebemenoi ton teon (“to worship” God).
“The Theosebes first appear in the Hellenistic period; they were members of the “Theos Hypsistos” belief, which was one manifestation of the pagan monotheism strongly prevalent in the Mediterranean region.”According to David Novak, the terms phoubemenoi and sebomenoi were used to express the ger toshav in rabbinic context (Proselytism in the Talmudic Period, 137). Ger toshav was used to express the Gentiles (pagans) who observed the Noachide Law, rejected idolatry and worshipped with Jews in the synagogues, but who did not transform or merge (convert) into Judaism. (The term yirei shamayim (Heaven Fearers) is the rabbinic equivalent of God- fearers.” in: Gottesfürchtige und Sympathisanten, 122) Hence the Theosebes had a profound relation with Jews (The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: The Idea of Noahide Law, 28) and played a central role in Jewish missionizing. The common idea of non- Jews about Judaism is wrongly dominated by the belief that it is a non-missionizing religion. Quite the contrary actually, especially in Antiquity, Jews were missionizing. Scholars call this phenomenon proselytizing. (“A proselytizing movement of such scope, if we may judge from parallel movements in the growth of Christianity and Islam, for example, would seem necessarily to imply the existence of sympathizers who tried to affect a syncretism of the old religion with the new one.” (See, Feldman’s The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers)
Also, archaeological evidence found in Asia Minor, such as inscriptions, point out the names of Theosebes: “theosebeis are listed separately from the Jews; and although not all the Jews on the list have Jewish names, most of them do.” It is interesting that the names after the expression “kai hosoi theosebes” are all Theosebes. As a matter of fact, the Theosebes, in contrast to the Proselytes, converted only partially to the Jewish belief, and as such are considered unclean. But several archeological evidences show that the Theosebes could enter the synagogue and participate in religious services, which indicates the high economic and social status of the Theosebes within the Jewish community.
“As a matter of fact, the Theosebes, in contrast to the Proselytes, converted only partially to the Jewish belief, and as such are considered unclean. But several archeological evidences show that the Theosebes could enter the synagogue and participate in religious services, which indicates the high economic and social status of the Theosebes within the Jewish community.”
Theosebes and the Spread of Christianity
The Theosebes are not only related to the Jews, they also play an immanent role in the spread of Christianity. The Theosebes were one of the key groups that received attention of Paul and his mission (see Demirci, I.Yüzyılda Anadolu’daki “God-Fearers” Grupları ve Hıristiyanlığın yayılması,” , 387). The terms phoubemenoi and sebomenoi in Acts refer to four distinct groups and persons, who received propagation, connected with the Theosebes. One of the four receivers in Acts is Cornelius, a centurion in Caesarea. “At Caesarea, there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment.” (Acts 10:1). İt is presented that the whole story about Cornelius is connected to the role of Peter and the theological understanding (concept) of Luke”) In Acts 10 the storyline centers on Cornelius, who is described as a “… devout, God-fearing man, as was everyone in his household. He gave generously to the poor and prayed regularly to God.” (Acts 10:2).
“The Theosebes are not only related to the Jews, they also play an immanent role in the spread of Christianity.”
The second group tied to Theosebes to receive propagation from Paul are the “congregation/audience of Paul” (Acts 13: 43; 17:4) and the third group is the “community of the women and Lydia.” (Acts 13:50; 16: 14; 17:4). Lydia was a well- known seller of purple dye who “typifies a successful business woman in a prosperous city.” This bit of information on Lydia is significant because it also represents the general profile of the Theosebes who are described as noble, intellectual, influential, and prosperous (See, Aus Israels Mitte- Heil für die Welt and Eine Frau names Lydia). The last receiver in Acts is Titus Justus, who is a Roman “Gentile sympathetic to Judaism in Corinth and who gave accommodation to Paul in a house-church after he had been evicted from the local synagogue” (Acts 18: 7).
From these passages in Act’s can be seen which method Paulus uses to spread his message and to form a new community of believers. He does not, as it would be perhaps expected, exclude the Theosebes as another religious group next to Christianity. Actually, he mentions them in a positive context. He even integrates the semi-monotheists to his own mission. It is therefore obvious that Paulus dedicates the Theosebes a role as mediators between the local religious groups and his Christian message.
Theosebes in pre-Islamic Arabia
But what happened to the Theosebes afterwards? Some etymological and historical hints indicate that the Theosebes continued to exist in the Arabian Peninsula. There are historical evidences that in the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula lived a group of people, believing in a monotheistic God, who called themselves Hanifs. In other words, it is possible to identify some similarities between the Hanifs and the Theoesebes.
“What happened to the Theosebes afterwards? Some etymological and historical hints indicate that the Theosebes continued to exist in the Arabian Peninsula.”
The Quranic term hanif and the Syriac hanpa, are related to the term theosebes. The term hanif is related to the Syriac term “hanpa.” In the Peshitta, the Syriac bible, the word used to describe the Gentiles, which are “God- fearers,” is “hanpa.” Although the term “hanpa” is considered in some sources as referring to pagans, its original meaning is “to quit the religion of a tribe” or “to abandon a religion, to move on to another religion”(Zawadki Die Anfänge des „Anathema“ in der Urkirche”, 722 ). In this context, some argue that the Hebrew “hanef” and the Syriac term “hanpa”, bear the meaning “pagan.” For example, according to De Blois, the term hanif (hanip) used by the pre-Islamic Arab Christians, is identical with the Syriac term hanpa, which expresses “pagan.” Another theory about the roots of the term Hanif was mentioned by Moshe Gil, who postulates a Greek influence. Besides these etymological hints it is also possible to find resemblances in religion and belief. The Hanifs and the Theosebes, were both monotheistic, and their God’s similitude is naked to the eye.
The Qur’anic View
“It is important to see that in the first period of Islam (in Mecca) the Qur’an and the Prophet almost accepted the Hanifs as a separate community and as followers of an independent religion.”The Qur’anic verses provide the chronology of the Hanifs (God- fearers). According to the archeological and historical evidences, we can assume that the Theosebes first appeared among the Jews in the Diaspora, after that among the Gentile Christianity as the first addressees of Paul and, last but not least, in the Meccan era during the beginning of Islam. It is important to see that in the first period of Islam (in Mecca) the Qur’an and the Prophet almost accepted the Hanifs as a separate community and as followers of an independent religion. A few examples from the Qur’an will underpin the relationship between the Theosebes and Hanifs: The Meccan verses praise the Hanifs (Theosebes). “And direct your face towards the Religion as a Hanîf and never be of the associators.” Furthermore, in the Medinan verses the Hanifs are referred to as part of the Muslims. “Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah]. And he was not of the polytheists.” This will allow us to argue that the Theosebes (Hanifs) were basic components and one of the cornerstones of Islam.
The God-fearers played a similar key role for early Islam as did the Theosebes for Christianity.Paulus included the semi monotheists to his message. Similarly, the Quran as a first step includes the Hanifs to İslam. The Theosebes/Hanifs were building bridges between the followers of a monotheistic tradition (with the Jews and Christians) and the nascent Muslim community; this helped thus Prophet Muhammad to assemble all of them under a new religion.
Beginning from the Hellenistic period, the “God-fearers” appear as one of the members of pagan monotheism such as the Theos Hypsistos cult. “God-fearers” are Gentiles attracted to Judaism, but stop short of becoming proselytes. Thus, they are pagans who believe in monotheism, follow most of Jewish law and exist until Late Antiquity among Christians. They follow the main rules of Christian doctrine. So, they are non-Jewish Jews on the one hand and non-Christians on the other hand amidst pagans. This seems to be a paradox, but we find later a similar description in the Islamic sources. The Qur’an states: “Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah]. And he was not of the polytheists.” Nonetheless, it is not clear and provable that the “God- fearers” are the so-called Hanifs, but the matter of fact is that the Theosebes existed and played an important part in the spread of Gentile-Christianity throughout Asia Minor in Late Antiquity. Above all, the God- fearers, in the Islamic period the Hanifs, were building bridges between all monotheistic groups.
“Beginning from the Hellenistic period, the “God-fearers” appear as one of the members of pagan monotheism such as the Theos Hypsistos cult. “God-fearers” are Gentiles attracted to Judaism, but stop short of becoming proselytes. Thus, they are pagans who believe in monotheism, follow most of Jewish law and exist until Late Antiquity among Christians.”
In the Islamic context, Abraham plays a key figure as the manifestation of monotheistic belief. In this context, the Qur’an places a special emphasis on the Hanifs (“God-fearers”) as a monotheistic group. In the Islamic sources, the Prophet Muhammad is shown as the legitimate recipient of Abraham’s monotheism. Considering all of these points, it should be a special interest for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to reveal the historical background of the Hanifs to understand the monotheistic tradition and legacy.
 Qur’an, 6:79. See also: 6:161;10:105; 16:120; 16:123; 30:30.
 Qur’an, 3:67. See also: 4:125; 22:31; 98:5.