The word Gentile as Used in Scripture

A Study into the Meaning of the Word Gentile as Used in Scripture

A few years ago this writer was in the home of a friend, and as I looked over her books I saw that she had one of these large dictionaries that are usually found only in public libraries. I said to her, "May I use your dictionary?" I knew that she had always been interested in the correct use of words, so I thought that this would be a good way to start a conversation regarding our identity with Israel. I turned the pages to find the word "gentile". Immediately the lady asked, "What is the word you are looking for?" I replied, "I am looking up the word 'gentile.'" Then she wanted to know what the dictionary had to say. I gave it to help her understand that if the dictionary was correct she couldn't possibly be a gentile, which she had always claimed to be. Then I read her this definition. "A gentile is a pagan or a heathen or some one who is not a Yahudi or a Christian." "Now," I said, "since you are a Christian you cannot possibly be a gentile". She was rather startled at what I told her. Then I went into the meaning of the same words as used in the Bible, and you may be assured that before I was through she had many of her long-established ideas upset.

A great deal of confusion and misunderstanding has been caused by the use of the word "gentile" in the English translation of the Bible. Let us take up a brief study of it. It should always be remembered that foreign languages often lose the strength of their meaning through translation. Then it should also be remembered that some words have many meanings.

Take the word man as an illustration. Generically speaking it means mankind generally, both men and women. But if it is used in the same sentence with the word woman, it means the male of the species. If it is used in the same sentence with the word boy it means the mature of the species. Thus the word man has three meanings, the meaning of the word being determined by its use in the context.

Now the word gentile is a translation of the Hebrew word goi (singular) and goyim (plural) and the Greek word ethnos (singular) and ethne (plural). Using the word gentile to translate these words is often misleading because it is a misapplication of the Hebrew and Greek words as used in the Bible. The modern use of the word has come to mean non-Yahudi or non-Israel, but that meaning cannot be maintained in the face of the evidence I will present in this study.

The Hebrew word goi is a collective noun meaning nation or sometimes a collective body of people. But it has been translated into English may different ways. The word occurs 557 times in the Old Testament. The Authorized Version of the Bible translates it gentile 30 times; heathen 142 times; nation 373 times; people 11 times; another once. But the American Standard Version cuts the occurrence of gentile from 30 to 9 times, and then shows in the footnotes of 5 of those 9 times that the word nations should have been used.

Of course the word nation is not always an exact equivalent term because there is too much of the political significance attached to it. But it is much better than the word gentile and some of our best translators prefer the word nations. This is also shown by the way the Revised Version eliminates the word gentiles.

The same thing is true of the Greek word ethnos. It occurs 164 times in the New Testament. In the Authorized Version it is translated gentiles 93 times; heathen 5 times; nation or nations 64 times; and people twice. In the American Standard Revised Version it is gentiles 96 times in the text and 7 times in the footnotes, making 103 occurrences altogether. But in the footnotes it is corrected 15 times to read nations, making the final count 88. So not only the Hebrew word goi but also the Greek word ethnos has been translated to read nations more than any other word.

Though the word gentiles and the word heathen are used many times in the Bible, we must face the facts that there are no Hebrew or Greek words that would demand this translation.

If the reader will consult a good dictionary, you will find that the word gentile is derived from the Latin word gentilis and properly understood means non-something. As used by a Yahudi or an Israelite it would mean non-Yahudim or non-Israelite. But they are not the only people who have a right to use the word.

For instance, suppose a Buddhist priest spoke Latin and he wanted to refer to the nations that were not Buddhist, he could call them gentilis. In Hebrew and Greek, there is not an exact equivalent to the Latin word gentilis or the English word gentile, nevertheless, if this same priest spoke Hebrew and Greek along with his Latin and wanted to refer to the nations that were not Buddhist, he would call them goyim if speaking Hebrew and ethne if speaking Greek and each time he would naturally include the Yahudim and Israelite people. Likewise a Moslem priest could use the three languages and refer to the Yahudim and Israelites as gentilis, goyim and ethne.

One important thing to always keep in mind is that goi and ethnos are collective nouns and cannot properly be translated to mean an individual person. They always refer to a group. There is no such thing as A GENTILE; it is always plural. Gentiles in its plural sense may at times be used to translate goi and ethnos but its use gives an added thought not intended in the original word which cannot in every case be justified.

Another important word found in the Hebrew text, which needs only passing notice is the Hebrew word "am" and is found many times in the Old Testament text. It is translated nation 17 times. It is usually translated people, for it occurs that way 1,835 times in our English text. Occasionally it is qualified by the phrase "every people", but when it is rendered "the people" it usually means Israel. But this is not the word that has been the source of misunderstanding. Translations of the Hebrew word goi and the Greek word ethnos have caused the trouble.

The Hebrew word goi and the Greek word ethnos in their singular and plural forms are used three ways in the Bible:

1.In referring to the Israelite and Yahudim people, let us note the verses which follow below found in the Old Testament and New Testament which refer either to Israel or the Yahudi as a nation and use the Hebrew word goi and the Greek word ethnos. To demonstrate the absurdity of always translating the word goi or ethnos as gentile we suggest that you read the following verses substituting the word gentile or heathen, for nation or nations:

Gen. 12:2-"I will make of thee a great nation."
Gen. 17:4,5-"A father of many nations have I made thee."
Gen. 20:4-"Lord, wilt thou slay a righteous nation?" (heathen).
Gen. 25:23-"Two nations are in thy womb." (Try the word heathen or gentile in that verse).
Gen. 35:11-"A nation and a company of nations"
Gen. 48:19-"Thy seed shall become a multitude of nations."
Isa. 1:4-"Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity."
Isa. 10:6-"Send him against an hypocritical nation."
Jer. 31:36-"Shall cease from being a nation before me."
Luke 7:5-"He loveth our nation and hath built us a synagogue."
John 11:48-"The Romans will come and take our place and nation."
John 11:50-"That one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not."
Acts 24:2-"Worthy deeds are done unto this nation by the providence."
Acts 24:17-"I came to bring alm to my nation."

From the foregoing verses and many others that could be given, it can easily be seen that the Hebrew word goi and the Greek word ethnos do not always refer to non-Israel people.

2.Now let us read a few verses where the same words are used and, as can be seen, refer very definitely to non-Israel people.

Gen. 14:9-"With Chedorlaomer the king of Elam, and with the Tidal king of nations."
Gen. 21:13-"And also the son of the bond woman will I make a nation."
Gen. 21:18-"For I will make of him a great nation."
Ex. 9:24-"There was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation."
Ex. 34:24-"For I will cast out the nations before thee."
Isa. 37:12-"Have the gods of the nations delivered them which my fathers have destroyed?"
Matt. 10:5-"Go not in the way of the gentiles."
Matt. 24:7-"For nation shall rise against nation."
Luke 21:24-
"They shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations."
Acts 7:7-"And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God."
Acts 8:9-"But there was a certain man called Simon which before time in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched all the people of Samaria."
Acts 10:45-"Because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gifts of the Holy Ghost."

In the above verses three words have been used to translate the same Greek word ethnos, and they are nations, gentiles, and people.

3.Now we come to the third way in which the words have been used, and that is to describe all the nations, which of course, always includes Israel and non-Israel nations.

Gen.22: 18-"And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."
Gen. 25:23-"Two nations are in thy womb."
I Chron. 16:23,24-"Declare his glory among the heathen....his marvelous works among the nations."
Psa. 9:19,20-"Let the heathen be judged in thy sight. Put them in fear, oh Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men."

Note the last two verses have used the two words heathen and nations to translate the same word in one passage.

Matt. 24:9,14-".....and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake." "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached for a witness to all nations."
Matt. 28:19-"Go ye therefore and teach all nations."
Acts 10:35-"But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him."

Attention should also be called to another Greek word erroneously translated gentiles. The word is Hellen and means Greeks or speaking people. It is used 27 times in the New Testament. In 20 places it is properly translated Greeks, but in 7 other places in the Authorized Version it is erroneously translated gentiles. This has been corrected in the Revised Version and nearly all-subsequent translations. For example, the Authorized Version translates John 7:35 to read: "Will he go unto the dispersed among the Greek and teach the Greek?" Take as another example I Corinthians 10:32, "Give none offense, neither to the Yahudim, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God". Now the writer has read several articles by well-known Bible teachers who reject the Israel identity of the Anglo-Saxon people because they say that this verse gives the only classes that God now recognizes. In other words they claim on the authority of this verse that the human race is divided into Yahudim, Gentiles and the Church of God.

That is a good example of how anything can be proved by taking a verse out of its context. The context shows that Paul was admonishing people to be conscientious in their walk so as not to offend a weaker brother. The division made in the text is only incidental to the point he was trying to make. And then, too, the text does not say that there are only three classes of people. What it does say is, "Give no offence, neither to the Yahudim, not to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God."

Now, if this text were given to show a division of humanity, then it leaves the vast majority of the races out entirely, because the word that is translated gentiles is a palpable mistranslation and should be translated Greeks. This is exactly the way the Revised Version gives it, as is also true of most private translations. But you do not even need a Revised Version to discover this error. Any good Bible with a marginal reading will show this to be true. The Greek word that has been translated gentiles in this verse is Hellen and means Greeks, or Greek speaking people. So if, as these men have claimed, this verse proves there are only three classes of people in the world which God now recognizes, then they are the Yahudim, the Greeks and the Christians. Everybody else is left out.

By using the same method of reasoning we could quote Galatians 3:28 and prove that God does not recognize any distinction in the human race; then we could go to the other extreme and quote Colossians 3:11 to prove that God recognizes eight divisions of mankind. In both cases we would be taking the verses out of their context just as these men have done. But all the confusion over this text would have been avoided if the word Greeks had been used instead of gentiles. Paul was writing to the Corinthian. Corinth was in Greece. They had three classes of people there- Yahudi, Greek and Christian. Had Paul been writing to the Romans he no doubt would have said, "Give none offence, neither to the Yahudim, not to the Romans, nor to the Church of God."

Beside these two examples, there are four other places where Hellen has been translated gentiles where it should have been translated Greeks. These are found in Romans2: 9,10; 3:9; and I Corinthians 12:13.

While on this subject, a few words should be said about the way the word gentiles has been used in the Epistle to the Romans, one of the important books in the New Testament. And on this matter I will borrow some thoughts from the late Dr. Wm. Pascoe Goard.

In Dr. Goard's book, "Epistle to the Romans", he has given some illuminating comments on how ethne refers to the ten-tribed Israel. These are found in the fourth and fifth chapters of his book. He shows very clearly the chapter 9, 10 and 11 of Romans refer to ten-tribed Israel. In these chapters the Apostle Paul quotes quite freely from Hosea, Isaiah and Elijah, and as Dr. Goard shows, all these quotations refer to facts in the history of ten-tribed Israel, and not in the history of Judah nor in the history of any other nation. Thus when the word gentiles (Greek word ethne) is used in these three chapters it definitely is ten-tribed Israel. It is not a contrast between Israel and non-Israel peoples. It is contrast between Israel in 975 BC and Israel known as the nations in AD 60.

Do not let the word gentiles mislead you. The Greek word is ethne and means nations. The Apostle Paul in the Israel section of his epistle is merely contrasting Israel's former state when she was known as Israel with her state in his day when she was known as the nations. To use the popularized meaning of the word, they had become gentilized in the sense that they were not known as Israel. Israel was one nation God had called out from among the other nations; now she was just like the other nations.

She had lost her identity so much that the Apostle Paul said that blindness was to stay on Israel until the "fullness of the gentiles" (nations) be come in, (Romans 11:25). This fullness of the gentiles should be fullness of the nations. It is a direct reference to Genesis 48:19, where it is stated that Ephriam was to become a "multitude of nations" in the last days. This is confirmed by the fact that both Dr. Delitzsh's translation of the New Testament in Hebrew, sold by the British and Foreign Bible Society and Ginsburg-Salkinson's New Testament, published by the Trinitarian Bible Society, for the use of the Yahudim, have the very same Hebrew words-me lo bag-goyim-in Romans11: 25, that we find in Genesis 48:19, in the Hebrew Old Testament, and in this verse only. We use the expression "multitude of nations" because it is given as the correct reading in most Bibles in reference to fullness of nations. In other words, Israel was to be blind to her identity until the tribe of Ephraim became a multitude of nations. That time has arrived now and that is the reason our identity as Israel is becoming known. As Isaiah 25:7 reads, "He will destroy in this mountain the face of the coverings cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over the nations". That veil is being lifted now and our real identity and the identity of other nations is becoming known.

Some scholars, in translating Genesis 48:19, where the Hebrew is me lo bag-goyim render it a company of gentile nations. The writer is convinced that a company or multitude of nations is the better translation. However, there is nothing wrong with the translations if the right meaning is attached to the word gentile. That is, they would become so much like other nations that they would not be recognized as Israel. That, of course, is a different meaning given to the word than is meant in the original text.

To summarize: the word gentile is derived from the Latin word gentilis and is only one of several words that are used to translate the Hebrew word goi and the Greek word ethnos into English. The best word to use is nations. It would have been better if the word gentile had never appeared in the English text. Neither goi nor ethnos necessarily mean non-Israel, as has been shown above.

Curtis Clair Ewing




Presented for aletheia, by the Assembly of Yahweh, Cascade

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