A dispute (Leviticus Rabbah 3.2; cf. Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 22.29 and Psalm 31:8, ed., Buber, p. 191) between the third-century Palestinian rabbis Joshua ben Levi and Samuel bar Nahman as to whether the phrase “Ye that fear the Lord” refers to “fearers of Heaven” or proselytes would indicate that these two groups are comparable; and the most obvious point of comparison is that proselytes are full converts, whereas “fearers of Heaven” are not. It would also indicate that both disputants recognized that the phrase “fearers of Heaven” is a technical term for a group distinct from proselytes. To be sure Kuhn and Stegemann (Karl G. Kuhn and Hartmut Stegemann, “Proselyten,” in August Pauly and Georg Wissowa, eds., Realenzyklopadie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, Supplement 9 (1962), p. 1279) cite this passage to support their view that whereas originally the rabbinic term yirei shamayim was a technical term for God-fearers, by the third century, when there were no longer any “sympathizers,” the term was used of proselytes; but there is no indication in Leviticus Rabbah that the “sympathizers” had disappeared: The only question was whether the Biblical term “Ye that fear God” referred to them.

Another passage that clearly differentiates between proselytes and “sympathizers” is Pesiqta Rabbati 43, p. 180a (ed., Friedmann), which mentions a dispute as to whether the heathen children suckled by Sarah became full proselytes, as the third-century Palestinian rabbi Levi declares, or “fearers of Heaven.” Again, the contrast indicates a distinction between full proselytes and partial proselytes.

The talmudic category of ger toshab (resident alien) would seem to bear a close relationship, moreover, to that of the “sympathizer.” The second-century rabbi Meir (Avodah Zarah 64b, Jerusalem Talmud Yevamoth 8.1.8d) defines the ger toshab as a gentile who obligates himself not to worship idols, whereas others declare that the ger toshab is one who undertakes not merely to abstain from idol worship but also to observe the other six Noachian commandments; and still others define a ger toshab as one who undertakes to observe all the precepts mentioned in the Torah apart from the prohibition of eating the flesh of animals not ritually slaughtered. However, the one common denominator of these definitions is that the ger toshab is a non-Jew who observes some of the Biblical commandments and is thus part of the way on the path to full conversion. Braude (Jewish Proselyting, p. 136) contends that such a discussion has an unmistakable air of unreality, but Lieberman (Greek in Jewish Palestine, p. 81) seems to be right in declaring that the clash mirrors the facts of actual life, since apparently there were various gradations of such “sympathizers.” The very fact that the third-century rabbi Johanan bar Nappaha (Avodah Zarah 65a; cf. Jerusalem Talmud Yevamoth 8.1.8d, where the statement is put into the mouth of Rabbi Hanina bar Hama), gives a time limit of 12 months during which the ger toshab must make up his mind whether to become a full convert or to be regarded as a gentile in every respect would seem to indicate that the rabbis, confronted with a widespread phenomenon of “semi-proselytes,” had decided to clamp down. (The close connection between the ger toshab and the “sympathizer” may be deduced from the fact that there is a baraitha [Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b] which describes Naaman as a ger toshab, whereas Naaman was not a resident alien but one who accepted Jewish monotheism “in fear of heaven.” See Bamberger, Proselytism in The Talmudic Period, p. 137.) Moreover, the statement of the third-century Palestinian rabbi Simeon ben Lakish (Resh Lakish) that a gentile who rests on the Sabbath deserves capital punishment seems to be an extreme reaction against “sympathizers,” who were attracted especially to the observance of the Sabbath among the practices of Judaism, as we have seen.

Bertholet (Alfred Bertholet, Die Stellung der Israeliten und der Juden zu den Fremden [Freiburg and Leipzig, 1896], pp. 331–334) has gone so far as to deny the existence of God-fearers in the talmudic period; but this view has been challenged by Levi (Israel Levi, “Le proselytisme juif,” Revue des Etudes juives 50 [1905], pp. 1–9; 53 [1907], pp. 56–61), and it may be of value to present the evidence, as I have tried to do here, systematically. True, the term is not common in rabbinic literature, perhaps because as Strack and Billerbeck have suggested (Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar-zum neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, II [Munich, 1924], pp. 716–721), the “sympathizers” were found not so much in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, which are the central foci of the rabbis’ interest, as in the Diaspora. In any event, there are, as I have tried to show, considerable references to “sympathizers.”