A Key-Word Study Leading To A Greater Biblical Understanding!
A Study into the Meaning
of the Word "Gentile"
as Used in the Bible
By CURTIS CLAIR EWING
A few years ago the 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 concerning the identity of Israel. I turned the
pages to find the word, "gentile." Immediately the lady asked, "What
is the word you are looking for?" I explained, and she wanted to
know what the dictionary had to say. I gave her to 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 Jew or a Christian." "Now," I
"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 that same word 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
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.
The word, gentile, is a translation of the Hebrew words goi (singular) and goyim (plural), and the Greek words 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-Jew' 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
many 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 Revised 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 considered an exact equivalent
term, because there is so much 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 almost entirely 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 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 both the Hebrew word, goi, and the Greek word, ethnos, have
most frequently been translated as nations, than any other English word.
Though the word gentiles and the word heathen are used many times in
the Bible, the fact is 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 Jew
or an Israelite, it would mean non-Jew 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 would call them gentilis. In Hebrew and Greek, there is no 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 which were not Buddhist, he would call them goyim if speaking Hebrew, and ethne if speaking Greek, and each time he would naturally include the Jewish and Israel people. Likewise, a Moslem priest could use the three languages and refer to the Jews and Israel 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 only 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 in three ways in the Bible:
1. In referring to the Israel and Jewish people. Let us note the verses
which follow below, found in both the Old and New Testaments, which refer
to either the Jews or Israel as a nation. These verses use either the
Hebrew word, goi, or the Greek word, ethnos. In order to demonstrate
the absurdity of always translating goi or ethnos as gentile, we suggest
that you read the following verses, substituting the word, gentile or
heathen, for nation or nations:
Genesis 12:2, "And I will make of thee a great nation." (A "great gentile"???)
Genesis 17:4-5, "...thou [Abraham] shalt be a father of many nations." ("father of many gentiles"?)
Genesis 20:4, "Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?" (try substituting heathen)
Genesis 25:23, "Two nations are in thy womb..." (Try the word heathen or gentiles here)
Genesis 35:11, "Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee."
Genesis 48:19, "...his [Ephraim's] seed shall become a multitude of nations."
Isaiah 1:4, "Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity..."
Isaiah 10:6, "I will send him against an hypocritical nation..."
Jeremiah 31:36, "Israel...shall cease from being a nation before me for ever." (try gentile!)
Luke 7:5, "For he loveth our nation, and hath built us a synagogue."
John 11:48, "...and the Romans shall come and take away both 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, "...very worthy deeds are done unto this nation by thy providence."
Acts 24:17, "...I came to bring alms to my nation, and offerings."
From the foregoing verses and many others which 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:
Genesis 14:9, "With Chedorlaomer, the king of Elam, and with Tidal, king of nations..."
Genesis 21:13, "And also the son of the bond-woman will I make a nation..."
Genesis 21:18, "...for I will make him a great nation."
Exodus 9:24, "...there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation."
Exodus 34:24, "For I will cast out the nations before thee..."
Isaiah 37:12, "Have the gods of the nations delivered them which my fathers have destroyed...?"
Matthew 10:5, "Go not into the way of the gentiles..."
Matthew 24:7, "For nation shall rise against nation..."
Luke 21:24, "And 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 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 nations, which of course always includes Israel
and non-Israel nations.
Genesis 22:18, "And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."
Genesis 25:23, "Two nations are in thy womb..."
I Chronicles 16:24, "Declare His glory among the heathen; his marvelous works among all nations."
Psalm 9:19-20, "...let the heathen be judged in thy sight. Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men."
Notice that in the last two verses, the translators have used two different words, heathen and nations, to translate the same Hebrew word, goyim.
Matthew 24:9, 14, "...ye shall be hated of all nations for My Name's sake...And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations..."
Matthew 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. 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 Gentiles
and teach the Gentiles?" Nearly all revised versions translate this
to read: "Will he go unto the dispersed among the Greeks and teach
the Greeks?" Take as another example I Corinthians 10:32, "Give
none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church
of God." Now the writer has read several articles by well-known
Bible teachers who 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 Jews, Gentiles, and the Church of
Now if this text were given to show a division of humanity, then it leaves the vast majority of mankind out entirely, because the word that is translated gentiles in this verse is hellen and means Greeks. So if, as these men have claimed, this verse proves there are only three classes of people in the world which God now recognizes, they are the Jews, the Greeks, and the Christians. Everyone 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 of the confusion over this text would have been avoided if the
word Greeks had been used instead of gentiles. Paul was writing to the
Corinthians. Corinth was in Greece. They had three classes of people
there - Jew, Greek, and Christian. Had Paul been writing to the Romans
he no doubt would have said, "Give none offense, neither to the
Jews, nor to the Romans, nor to the church of God."
Besides these two examples, there are four other places where hellen
has been translated Greeks. These are found in Romans 2:9, 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 most important books in the New Testament. And on this matter I will borrow some thoughts from the late Dr. William Pascoe Goard.
In Dr. Goard's book, "Epistle to the Romans," he has given
some illuminating comments on how the word ethne refers to the ten-tribed
Israel. These are found in the fourth and fifth chapters of his book.
He shows very clearly that chapters 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 of 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 speaking of ten-tribed Israel, and no other race. It
is not a contrast between Israel and non-Israel people. It is a 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 this 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 other peoples; but now in her Spiritual decline, 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
translated 'fullness of nations.' It is a direct reference to Genesis
48:19, where it is stated that Ephraim was to become a "multitude
in the last days. This is confirmed by the fact that both Dr. Delitzsch's
translation of the New Testament into 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 Jews, have the very
same Hebrew words - me lo hag-goyim - in Romans 11:25, 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 preference 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 the Israel of God is becoming known.
As Isaiah 25:7 reads, "He will destroy in this mountain the face
of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over
all nations." That veil is being lifted now and the prophetic identity
of all nations is becoming known.
Some scholars, in translating Genesis 48:19, where the Hebrew is me
lo hag-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 a germ of truth in their translation if the right meaning is
attached to the word gentile; that these people would become so much
like other nations that they would not be recognized as Israel. But 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.
Note: The Greek words ethne and ethnos, translated nations or gentiles, are the source of our English word, ethnic, signifying a blood-relative. They certainly do not mean 'heathen' or 'non-Israelite' as is popularly taught today.