Indeed, academics attest that by the 1st Century CE Judaism was an evangelistic religion, aggressively proselytising to great success among the gentiles – preaching a message of salvation through faith in the G-d of Israel, conversion and adherence to Torah. For instance, Paul Kriwaczek, (Yiddish Civilisation), has written: “As the centuries progressed and fewer intelligent pagans found themselves convinced by the barbaric old gods with their sensual appetites and violent tempers, belief in the prophethood of Moses and reverence for the Torah attracted ever more popular support from the many who, as the historian Suetonius records, ‘without publicly acknowledging that faith, yet lived as Jews.’ In the eastern provinces of the [Roman] empire, pagan Greeks, known as sebomenoi, (God Respecters in Greek), called yereim in Hebrew, and labelled ‘proselytes of the gate’ by the Talmud, flocked about the synagogues in their thousands – perhaps amounting to millions all told – rejecting, more or less, the old Aryan divinities and keeping to the dietary laws and the Jewish Sabbath.” As a testament to the huge success of Jewish evangelism in the ancient Roman world Kriwaczek reports that “An inscription discovered in Aphrodisias, Anatolia, reveals that about half of the contributors to the city’s synagogue were G-d fearers and their [converted] descendants, rather than ethnic Judaean Jews.”
It is in this context of the established Jewish practice of evangelism among gentiles that the endeavours of the first Messianic Jews ought properly to be interpreted. Going out from Jerusalem into the wider reaches of the Roman Empire as Yeshua HaMashiach had previously directed, these Messianic Jews too sought to bring enlightenment and salvation to the gentiles. They believed that faith in the Jewish Messiah was a pre-requisite of such salvation and they expected that transition to Jewish identity would inevitably follow. To this effect the letter of the Jerusalem Beit Din (Acts 15) bound gentile converts to a minimum set of standards which reflected an embryonic form of the Holiness Code of Vayikra 17-26. Adherence to these basic standards would provide genuine evidence of teshuvah and thereby enable them to access the Jewish community where they would hear the Kitvei Kodesh, grow in their faith, learn the mitzvot and progress toward full Jewish identity. It is thus that Rav Shaul spoke of gentile converts as having been taken out of the wild olive tree of the gentile world and “grafted in” to the cultivated olive tree of the Jewish people (Romans 11). In Ephesians 2 he further stated that “Gentiles by birth… [who had been] estranged from the national life of Israel… [who were] foreigners to the covenants embodying G-d’s promise… [and who were] in this world without hope and without G-d,” were now “no longer foreigners and strangers” but were “fellow-citizens with G-d’s people and members of G-d’s family.” Indeed, such gentiles, he said, were “seed of Avraham and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). This reference to Avraham reminds us of G-d’s original intention to make the patriarch and his descendants a blessing in the world.