Almost a week ago (here), I began with some thoughts on capitalization, leading to opinions about “others” and “gentiles.” It’s my general thesis that we would understand certain things more aptly if we first accepted the Jewish-centric (or at least Hebrew-tethered) nature of most scripture, and the resultant fact that “gentiles” is not a proper-noun idea. Rather, the word “gentile” often simply seems to distinguish people from Jewish ones — “the others,” as it were.
There is another, more conceptual/substantive essay to come, but, in the course of looking at these concepts, vocabulary is bound to come up. I haven’t ever really looked into the word “gentile” before, and I’m surprised to find so much complexity and uncertainty in its etymology and usage. I’m in over my head here with the cultural and linguistic material! It should be a) simpler and b) more helpful if I stick to the biblical words and usage.
This page provides a very basic sketch. Note especially the “etymology” section and the transliterated Hebrew word goy (plural goyim). The main thought-train for our purposes is that goy means “nation,” and the term was being used within a Hebrew context to refer to “other nations,” i.e., nations other than the Hebrews. However, even in scripture, viz. the Exodus passage on the referenced Wiki page, the word could be applied to one’s own nation (not “another” nation).
Another Hebrew word, ‘am, also denotes a human group. The historical usage patterns show a preference for ‘am to represent the set-apart people (Jews) and goyim to represent other people groups.
Now to the Greek . . . at least four Greek words are used in this concept area, both in the Septuagint version of the OT and in the NT, to indicate something along the lines of “gentile” or “race” or “nation.” I list these with some trepidation (remember, I said I’m in over my head here), but here is some info gleaned from a few sources, including Logos bible software, a 1957 edition of Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon, Young’s Analytical Concordance, Schmoller’s Handkonkordanz, and the so-called “Little Kittle” Theological Dictionary of the NT:
- The most common is ethnikos (εθνικὀς). The first morpheme (word part), “eth,” might be mentally related to the common usages of the English “ethnic” in order to clue one in to the significance of birth and bloodlines. Also used is the Greek ethnos (εθνοσ), a similar word. This sometimes refers to a nation. By metonymy, the idea most often conveyed is “other nations,” so the usage seems similar here to that of the Hebrew goyim. Young’s ties this word group to the heathen, which is the KJV choice in Matt. 6:7, where a textual variant appears in the original. The KJV, as well as other versions, opt for “others” / “pagans.”
- The second word is genos /(γἐνος). This word and its cognates, which incorporate concepts of begetting/producing and becoming, are translated variously from Mark and Matthew through Acts and the letters. Note especially 2Cor 11:26 (contrasting “kindred” or “born family” here with gentiles). Common renderings include “race,” “family,” “offspring,” and “children.” 1st Peter 2:9’s chosen “race” may be the most familiar instance of genos.
- Next we have hellen (‘ἐλλην), which is almost always translated “Greek” or “Hellenistic.” This word appears to refer specifically to Greeks, but when one realizes something of the pervasive, lasting influence of Greek culture in the Roman empire, the word hellen might well have referred to groupings of people influenced by hellenisms and not necessarily only to Greeks-by-birth. As usual, the context would help to define the term. Exceptional renderings are found in the ISV, HCSB, MSG, NLT and NASB (quite possibly the only example of these last two standing together in unpopular agreement on anything!) in Mark 7:26 — where these versions have “Gentile.”
Also in 1 Peter 2:9, we have laos (λαός). I remember this vocabulary word because of the Asian nation Laos that borders Thailand and Cambodia, but I don’t know whether the etymology of the word has anything to do with Greek. Laos is roughly translated “people” or “nation” most of the time. There is a heavy usage concentration of this word in Luke-Acts, and 1Cor 14:21 is an interesting example since it includes contrasting concepts of “others” and “people.” The most authoritative lexicon I have available makes these distinctions among the usages: 1) people generally, including crowds, 2) the people in contrast to Pharisees and legal experts, 3) people as nation — particularly in Rev., and 4) the people of God. In scanning the NT uses, I could not immediately find an exception to the translation of this word as “people,” not “Gentiles” or “others” or “nations.” Since “people” is a related word-concept, I mention it here.
To be continued