By Charles H. Welch
Gentile. The English word Gentile comes from the Latin, and means one belonging to the same class or clan (gens). Gens in Latin indicates the race and surname, and in Roman law a Gentile indicated a member of the same gens. The Scriptural standpoint, however, is that of the Hebrew, and the word Gentile in the Bible refers to the non-Jewish nations of the earth. The Greek word translated Gentile is ethnos, and this has given rise to a number of words in English such as ethnology, the science which treats of the various races of mankind. Ethnos is probably derived from ethos, "custom, manners, etc., and means a people bound together by similar habits, manners and customs". Those of our readers who may use Dr. Bullinger's Greek Lexicon, should be apprised of a slip in the explanatory note under the word Genti1e. It reads: "In the O.T. those who were not of Israel (this of course is true) and in the N.T. those who are neither of Israel nor of the Church, see 1 Cor. 10:32."
It is the reference to 1 Cor. 10:32 that needs care, for a superficial reading uses this verse to indicate the threefold division, "Jew, Gentile and Church of God". The fact is, however, that the word translated "Gentile" in this verse is hellen, which is the more limited term "Greeks" as opposed to the "Barbarians". Both, however, were "Gentiles" in the eye of the Jew, but while all Hellens were Gentiles, all Gentiles were not and could not be Hellens. The word "Gentile" meets us in the O.T. first in Genesis ten, where the progeny of Japheth, the son of Noah, is given.
The R.V. corrects this by reading, "Of these were the isles of the nations divided", for until we have a Jew, we cannot have a Gentile, the one being used to distinguish the rest of the population of the earth from the Hebrew nation, and the Hebrew nation did not exist until after the call of Abraham in Genesis twelve. The Hebrew word thus translated is goi, a word derived from a root, meaning to form into a mass or a body. It is used in Job 30:5, where it is rendered "among (men)". Goi indicates a congregation of men associated together. The word goi , in the plural, occurs six times in Genesis ten, being translated "nations" with the exception of the rendering of verse 5 already noted. It is evident that the word Gentile could not be used in Genesis 12:2, in the promise to Abraham, "I will make of thee a great nation", neither could the word Gentile be used in such a passage as Exodus 19:6, "an holy nation".
We find the word translated "heathen" on occasion (Deut. 4:27), and "people" as in Joshua 3:17, but after considering all the factors in the case, there can be no doubt but that "nation" or "nations" is the most satisfactory translation of the singular goi and the plural goyim. The same can be said of ethnos in the N.T. There it is translated Gentiles, heathen, nation and people. Luke 2:32 renders the word "Gentiles", while Luke 7:5 when, referring to Israel, renders it "nation", as does also John 11:48. Acts 4:25 translates it "heathen" and Romans 10:19 translates it "people". The epistle to the Galatians uses "heathen", "Gentiles" and "nations" for the one word (Gal. 1:16, 2:2, 3:8). What we found to be true in the O.T. we find to be true in the N.T. In the plural the word indicates the non-Jewish nations, which we may call Gentiles, but when used of Israel in the singular it must keep its primitive signification of nation. Owing to the fact that goyim means the Gentiles, the Jew has developed an aversion to the word, and does not readily use the singular goi of his own nation. The reader will have noticed that the returned people of Israel now occupying Palestine are referred to as Israeli. This means literally "of Israel", the full title being "the goi of Israel", the goi , however, being suppressed and left unsaid.
There are one or two outstanding passages where the use of the word "Gentile" is of dispensational significance. In Matthew ten, the twelve apostles were given their first commission, a commission that was concerned with preaching the kingdom of heaven, a preaching which was confirmed by extra-ordinary miracles. This commission was severely limited:
It is patent, therefore, that the term "Gentile" was opposed to "Israel" in this command to the twelve.
It is moreover made evident from Matthew sixteen, both from our Lord's own statement and "from that time forth began" (21), and from Peter's reaction (22), that those who had thus preached the gospel of the kingdom with signs following, had done so without knowing that Christ must suffer and die! For a fuller examination of this and kindred subjects see article entitled GOSPEL. Also under the heading GOSPEL will be found an examination of the four gospels and an exhibition of their distinctive teaching. A special note of comparison to which the reader is referred is that which sets out the distinctive differences of Matthew and Luke, and we will not repeat ourselves here, except to give the references that Luke makes to the Gentiles, and which indicate the peculiar trend of his gospel.
The significance of this passage will be appreciated when it is remembered that Simeon was "waiting for the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25), yet under the power of the Holy Ghost, he put the Gentile first.
If the corresponding section of Matthew twenty-four be read, it will be observed that Luke adds the reference to the times of the Gentiles, a feature which Matthew does not include. Upon reaching the Acts of the Apostles, it is not until we reach the seventh occurrence of ethnos, namely in Acts 9:15, that we find the term used with any sense of favour. See the article entitled PEOPLE for further exposition. In Matthew 12:18,21, which immediately follows the rejection indicated in Matthew 11:20-24 and immediately precedes the introduction of "mystery" into Matthew thirteen (see PARABLE), we have a reference to the Gentiles which is similar to that of Acts 13:46,47, and for similar reasons, culminating as it does at Acts twenty-eight, with the complete setting aside of Israel, the full and independent evangelizing of the Gentiles, and the introduction of the Mystery in the prison epistles that followed (Acts 28:17-31). See the article on Acts 28 as The Dispensational Boundary.
It is the thrice asserted claim of Paul, that he was THE Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13, 1 Tim. 2:7, 2 Tim. 1:11). In addition to these passages Paul declared that he was the "minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles" (Rom. 15:16), that he was separated to preach Christ among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16) and that this peculiar office was recognized by Peter, James and John at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:8,9).
Further, Paul claimed that the dispensation of the grace of God had been entrusted to him "for you" Gentiles, and that he had been commissioned to preach among the Gentiles, the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make known the riches of the glory of this Mystery among the Gentiles (Eph. 3:1,2,8, Col. 1:27). The door of faith was opened unto the Gentiles at Paul's first missionary journey (Acts 14:27). The times of the Gentiles, which refers rather to the political, than the ecclesiastical element, will come to an end when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. See the article REVELATION.
It has been suggested that the word ethnos, translated Gentile, refers in many instances to the dispersed of Israel, who had so long lived among the heathen as to have become in the eyes of their more orthodox fellows "uncircumcision" and "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel", terms that we have generally accepted as a description of the Gentiles before their conversion. As this new interpretation impinges upon the teaching of Ephesians and does not allow the normal meaning of the word Gentile to appear until Ephesians three, no one can object if this interpretation be suspect; or that it should be subjected to criticism, so long as the enquiry be conducted in the interests of Truth.
The article to which we refer provides a concordance of all the references to ethnos in the N.T. from which we extract the following from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts 2:5, 4:25, 7:7,45, 11:1,18, 13:19,46,47. Let us use these references as a test. Acts 2:5 speaks of the "nations" ethnoi among which the "Jews" who came to Pentecost lived. Some of them, namely Parthians, Medes and Elamites (Acts 2:9-11) are undoubtedly Gentiles in the accepted sense. Acts 4:25 quotes from Psalm two "Why do the heathen rage?" and in verse 27 these "heathen" or "Gentiles" are differentiated from Israel, and linked with Herod and Pontius Pilate. The writer of the Acts gives no indication that he believed that the word ethnos could, and did, refer to some of the dispersion of lsrael. Acts 7:7 uses the word ethnos to indicate the "Egyptians" and 7:45, like 13:19, refers to the "Canaanites" as indicated in Genesis 15:19-21. Here Gentiles as differentiated from Israel must be intended. Acts 11:1 and 18 refer to Cornelius who was a centurion of the Italian band, and called by Peter "one of another nation" (Acts 10:28). The word Peter employed is allophulos, and is found in the Septuagint of Exodus 34:15, Isaiah 2:6 and 61:5, as well as six times in Judges as the equivalent of "Philistines".
It is impossible therefore to believe that the acknowledgment of Acts 11:18, "Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life", can refer to Gentiles as such, but that a similar testimony in Acts 14:27 may not. Acts 13:42,46 and 47 are associated with Isaiah 49:6, which can only mean Gentiles in the generally accepted sense.
While we must encourage every believer to exercise the Berean spirit (Acts 17:11) we must not close our eyes to the Satanic travesty, equally mentioned in the same chapter of the Acts, namely the Athenian spirit of ever telling or hearing "something newer" (kainoteron) (Acts 17:21).
The Authorized Version, while containing faults that have been exposed by both friend and foe, still maintains an eminent position in spite of several versions that have followed it. Where the A.V. reads "Gentiles" in Genesis 10:5, the R.V. reads "nations". There is no question that "nations" is a good rendering, as verses 20,31 and 32 reveal. Why, it may be asked, did the A.V. choose to translate the first occurrence of the Hebrew Goyim by the word "Gentiles"? May it not be that instead of accusing them of ignorance, we should credit them with intelligent insight? True there can be no "Gentiles" where there are no "Jews", yet knowing what was written in Deuteronomy 32:8 they may have intended to indicate that all these "nations" would be "Gentiles" as soon as Israel came into view.
The Greeks made a similar distinction, calling the other nations of the world "Barbarians", which is accepted without comment by the writers of the N.T. The accepted meaning of the word "Gentile" in the English tongue is "any nation other than the people of Israel". It is impossible that any objection we may lodge at this time of day could or should dislodge this word from the dictionary and literature of the centuries. The wiser course is to use the term with discrimination, in other words, to practise Right Division even in the terms we are compelled to employ.