In the TV drama series Lost, the so-called “others” were at first a mysterious unknown, but then they became a “thing” to be reckoned with — once they up’n’ got themselves capitalized. The group “The Others” took on a proper-noun significance.
Capitalizing a word can indicate an understanding of the nature of a thing. In this essay, I mentioned two odd capitalization practices — first, the odd capitalization of everything in worship lyrics; and then, the pesky Church of Christ habit of half-making a proper noun into a common one. Let’s focus fully on another matter of capitalization now.
In several of the most common English Bibles, the word “Gentile” is capitalized. If we were to decapitalize this word, not only in our scripture translations and our articles and essays, but also in our thinking, we might understand the concept differently. In other words, if we simply read “gentiles” as “non-Jews” (and not Others, or, in this case, capital-G Gentiles), we might understand scriptural texts with a little more light.
Incidentally, there was a definitive change, way back then, to include gentiles in God’s kingdom. It had not always been so. The explicit inclusion of the other-than-Jews seems to have started, more or less, with Jesus. The shift was carried out, geographically and exponentially, by Paul and others.
Personally, I’m really glad for this inclusion. And all you other others should be, too!
I hadn’t ever really looked into word “gentile” before, and I was surprised to find so much complexity and uncertainty in its etymology and usage. See the last post here for some background material on some key words. (It might also be noted that there is some political-agenda-laden material out there on these words — material that may be safely avoided if one is more interested in what the texts say than what the pundits want to advance. See here and here for more thoughts on geopolitics, which is decidedly not my typical sphere of thought. The second post there mentions one politician’s ill-conceived re-appropriation of biblical prophecy.)
The English “gentile” ought, it seems, to be thought of as a non-specific word, not denoting any particular identities, but signifying or connoting any other nation other, i.e., in Jewish and Christian scripture, other than the Jewish nation. One could be a Greek gentile, or a Roman gentile, or a Cappadocian gentile, but not a Hebrew gentile. “Hebrew gentile” would be a contradiction in terms. Hypothetically (although biblical usage is more confined), one could belong to a laos or ethnikos — a nation or people group — and be either a Jew or a gentile.
In the situations in which most of the NC documents were being written and compiled, I think it is fair to say that pretty much everything was centered on the Jewish system. All non-Jews tended to be conceptually lumped simply as “others,” not as capitalized Philistines or Assyrians or Laotians or Canadians. The “others” — whether Hellenists/Greeks or of other races/nations/people groups — were, for the writers of the gospels and letters, simply non-Jews.
How significant is this? Probably just as much, in our context, as the capitalization of “church.” Maybe more significant, given all the misappropriations of Jewish prophecy at work in the Jewish, Christian, and political spheres today! If we read “gentiles” where English bibles have “Gentiles,” we can more thoroughly understand the Hebrew-tethered nature of the scriptures.
And we can understand, by extension, that “gentiles” implies not only the ancient Galatians and Alexandrians and Romans, but it also includes us. This doesn’t mean that we read ancient texts, which were addressed from within and to specific situations, with a current-day “I/me” orientation: the original writings are to be understood, first, in their contexts. However, understanding “gentile” better does, however, lead to an enriched understanding of the breadth of God’s kingdom.