A Closer Look At The Meaning Of 'Gentiles' In The Old And New Testaments - Christians for Truth - October 9, 2022
We previously presented Bertrand Comparet’s brief study on the meaning of “Gentiles” — and it is certainly a good introduction, but he often uses too broad of strokes and doesn’t address certain nuances to the meaning of this controversial term.
Most white Christians of European descent today believe that they are “gentiles” — but as Ewing demonstrates, this cannot possibly be true given how that term is used in the New Testament.
We would like to draw your attention to Ewing’s explanation of the oft-repeated phrase “fullness of the gentiles” — certainly one of the least understood phrases in all of the New Testament — which has led to much confusion and disagreement.
Ewing also doesn’t spell out that there were most certainly Israelites living among the “nations” — specifically among both the Greeks and Romans.
Either way, Ewing does a good job in explaining how the term ‘gentiles’ is used in many of the different contexts throughout both Testaments — context is crucial to understanding this term, and those who cherry pick verses inevitably ignore the context.
So here we present Curtis Ewing’s comments on the term “gentiles”:
A Study of the Meaning of the Word ‘Gentile’ As Used In the Bible
The following study material appeared twice before in leading religious magazines, and many calls have come for the material in tract form. So we offer it now in this form in hopes that it will shed light on the Bible and also open the way for a ready acceptance of the proper identity of Israel as the Anglo-Saxon and kindred people.
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 the 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 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 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 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 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 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) [Strong’s #1471] and the Greek word ethnos (singular) and ethne (plural) [Strong’s #1484].
Using the word “gentile” to translate these words is often misleading because it is a misapplication of both 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; and “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 be used.
Of course the word “nation” is not always an exact equivalent term because there is to much of a 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” completely.
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 “gentile” 93 times; “heathen” 5 times; “nation” or “nations” 64 times; and “people” twice. In the American Standard Revised Version it is “gentile” 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 occurrence 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 “gentile” 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 [Strong’s #1483] and properly understood means “non-something.” As used by a Jew or an Israelite, it could mean “non-Jew” or “non-Israelite.” But they are not the only people who have a right to use the word.
For instance, supposed 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 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 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” [Strong’s #5971] and is found many times in the Old Testament text. It is translated “people” for it occurs that way 1,835 times in our English text. Occasionally it is qualified by the phase, “every people” — but when it is rendered “the people,” it usually means “Israel”.
But “am” is not the word that has been the source of misunderstanding — rather 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
First, in referring to the Israel and Jewish people, let us note the verses which follow below found in the Old Testament and New Testament which refer either to Israel or the Jews 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.
Genesis 12:2 “I will make of thee a great nation.”
Genesis 17:4,5 “A father of many nations have I made thee.”
Genesis 20:4 “Lord, wilt thou slay a righteous nation?” (heathen).
Genesis 25:23 “Two nations are in thy womb.” (Try the word “heathen” or “gentile” in that verse).
Genesis 35:11 “A nation and a company of nations.”
Genesis 48:19 “They seed shall become a multitude of nations.”
Isaiah 1:4 “A sinful nation. A people laden with iniquity.”
Isaiah 10:6 “Send him against an hypocritical nation.”
Jeremiah 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 alms to my nation.”
From the forgoing verses and many other 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.
Second, 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 of him a great nation.”
Exodus 9:21 “…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 in the way of the gentiles.”
Matthew 24:7 “For nation shall rise against nation.”
Luke 21:24 “They shall fall by the edge of the sword, and 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 10:45 “…Because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift 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.
Next 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.”
1 Chronicles 16:23,24 “Declare his glory among the heathen…his marvelous works among the nations.”
Psalms 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.”
Notice the last two verses have used the words “heathen” and “nations” to translate the same word in one passage.
Matthew 24:9,14 “…And ye shall be hated of all nations for my names sake.” “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached for a witness to all nations.”
Matthew 28:19 “Go ye therefore and teach all nations.”
Acts 10:35 “But in every nation he that fearth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”
Attention should also be called to another Greek word erroneously translated “gentiles” — the word is hellen [Strong’s #1672] 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, 1 Corinthians 10:32, “Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the Church of God.” Now I have 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 single verse that the humane race is divided into Jew, Gentiles and Church of God.
That is a good example of how anything can be proven 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 weak 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 none offense, neither to the Jew, nor 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 race out entirely because the word that is translated “gentiles” is a palpable mis-translation 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 “gentile” 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, then they are the Jews, 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 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 Jew, nor to the Romans, nor to the Church of God.”
Besides 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 Romans 2:9,10; 3:9; and 1 Corinthians 12:13.
While on this subject, a few words should be said about the way the word “gentile” 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. 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-tribe 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-tribe 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 fact in the history of ten-tribe 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 refers to ten-tribe Israel. It is not a contrast between Israel and non-Israel people — rather, it is a contrast between Israel in 975 B.C. and Israel known as the nations in A.D. 60.
Do not let the word “gentile” 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 [or hellenized] in the sense that they were not known — as they formally were — as “Israel.” Israel was one nation God had called out from among the other [Genesis 10] nations; but now she was just like the other nations.
She had lost her identity so much so that the Apostle Paul said that blindness was to stay on Israel until the “fullness of the gentiles” (nations) become in (Romans 11:25). This “fullness of the gentiles” should be “fullness of nations.” It is a direct reference to Genesis 48:19, where it is states that Ephraim was to become a “multitude of nations” 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 corrected 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 now arrived — 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 covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all 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 hag-goyim render it “a company of gentile nations.” I am convinced that a “company” or “multitude of nations” is the better translation. However, there is nothing wrong with the translation 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. And neither goi nor ethnos necessarily mean “non-Israel,” as has been shown above.