In Jesus’ critique of certain Pharisees of his day, he singled out those who were overly zealous in seeking proselytes to the Jewish faith: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cross the sea and land to make a single proselyte and in the end create a child of hell” (Matt. 23:15). I would like to give brief attention to what I think was the thrust of Jesus’ statement, and to suggest that his view reflects a widely held Jewish sentiment in the first century, which also formed the cornerstone of Paul’s teaching regarding Gentiles and the Law.
In their zeal to convert Gentiles, these Pharisees ran the risk of creating a situation whereby the convert might in fact become a “child of hell.” Professor David Flusser, in his book, Jesus, suggests that Jesus’ view reflects that of other sages in the first century, and belongs to a debate regarding the place of Gentiles in the world to come. In an early Jewish source we hear just such a debate:
Rabbi Eliezer says, “None of the Gentiles has a portion in the world to come, as it is said: ‘The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the Gentiles who forget God’ [Ps. 9:17].” [He interpreted:] “‘The wicked shall return to Sheol’–these are the wicked Israelites. ‘And all the Gentiles who forget God’–these are the nations.” Rabbi Yehoshua [in disagreement] says, “If it had been written: ‘The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the Gentiles’ (and then said nothing further), I would have maintained as you do. Now that it is in fact written, ‘All the Gentiles who forget God,’ it indicates that there are also righteous people among the Gentiles of the world who do have a portion in the world to come” (t. Sanhedrin 13:2).