A PROBLEM WORD FOR CHRISTIANITY
It doesn't mean what you think it means!
When you learn what the Bible is really saying with the
Greek word "ethnos", which is mis-translated as "Gentile,"
then your entire religion of Christianity will be wonderfully
revised and uplifted.
English versions of the Bible translate the Greek word "ethnos" as "Gentile" or as "nation." A few centuries ago the word "gentile" did have the same meaning as "ethnos," but today the meanings are exactly opposite each other. But modern versions of the Bible still use the word "gentile" just as older versions did. The polar change in the meaning of the word has dramatically influenced the beliefs and the practice of Christianity. Unless one understands what Jesus and the N.T. writers meant by the word "ethnos" (,θvoς), one cannot understand the message of Jesus. This is a critically important factor for every Christian to consider. This will revise your religion of Christianity more than any other single piece of information!
Shortly, I will present definitions of these words in detail. A few centuries ago, "gentiles" meant those who belong to the same ethnic group, clan or tribe. Today it commonly means those who are not Jews.
First, we will examine the definitions of this word, and then show passages in Matthew and Romans where the word is used. You will see how the present-day understanding of the word "gentile" gives us a radically different Christianity than we would have if we understood it correctly. You don't need to know Greek to understand the next few paragraphs, for I have translated the Greek words into English alphabet.
"Gentile" and "nation" are the English words used for the Greek word, "ethnos" (,θvoς), which is the root word for our English word "ethnic." But "gentile" is understood by most people today as "non-Jew." Davis Bible Dictionary actually defines it: "gentile: All nations of the world other than the Jews." But, that is erroneous, as I will show below. The word, "gentile," has only assumed that corrupted meaning in recent years. According to Skeat's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, the word is derived from Old French and Latin. Skeat says, "XVI cent.; F. gentil. L. gentilis, belonging to the same clan, a gentile (afterwards applied to mean well-bred, &c). L. genti-, decl. stem of gens, a clan, tribe." The original use of the word referred to those who belong to the same clan or tribe, a meaning nearly opposite its use in Scripture today as "all nations other than Jews". "Gentile" does not mean "all others," but really means excluding all others, limited to a specific ethnic group. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines the word, "gentile," as "of a clan, tribe, people, or nation." The Encyclopedia Americana says for the root word, "gens": "GENS, among the Romans, denoted that those persons belonged to the same gens who bore the same name; had no slave among their ancestors; and who had not been reduced from a superior to an inferior condition. The gens consisted of many families, supposedly of kindred blood, but was also applied to a whole community, the members of which were believed to be descended from a common stem."
The Greek word, "ethnos" (,θvoς) means exactly the same as the Roman word, "gens." When "ethnos" (,θvoς) was used by Jesus or others, they didn't mean "non-Jews;" they meant "those of our own ethnic group: Israelite tribes." Occasionally the word referred to some other specific ethnic group, but it never meant "all nations of the world other than the Jews!"
The ultimate Greek Lexicon, Liddell & Scott, lists many references to secular Greek Classical literature for definition of the word "ethnos" (,θvoς). The definitions are: "number of people living together, company, body of men; particular tribe; a nation, a people; a caste, a tribe; a guild; a relation." Thayer's Greek Lexicon of the New Testament defines "ethnos" (,θvoς) as "a multitude associated or living together, a company, troop, or swarm, & a multitude of individuals of the same nature or genus, & a race or nation. ONLY modern Bible translators are interpreting this Greek word to mean all-others except Jews.
The reason this word is so important is because the change-in-meaning has created a Christianity radically different than that which Jesus taught. Very simply, today's Christians think Jesus was a Jew who referred to non-Jews (Greeks, Romans, et al) as "gentiles," people NOT of His own group. Actually, Jesus used the word "ethnos" (,θvoς) to refer to people OF His own group. Jesus said in Matthew 15:24, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." So, when Jesus sent his disciples forth to spread the word, He was not sending them to "outsiders," but ONLY to those "lost sheep" for whom He came. Jesus was explicitly and emphatically clear that He came for no others except His lost sheep. It is puzzling that the church has conspicuously ignored that explicit statement of Jesus; let's rephrase it to see if it can be stated more clearly. Jesus said that except for His lost-sheep He was not sent to anyone. It is due to the mis-use of the word "gentile" that the Christian community has come to believe that Jesus came for all the people of the world; His clear statements to the opposite are inconsistent with such an interpretation, regardless of the charitable motives of those who wish to have such a catholic (universal) religion.
It has been mostly during this twentieth century that the information has been lost regarding the true identity of those "lost sheep of the house of Israel." During the nineteenth century and the early part of ours there were many publications detailing the history of the migrations of diasporan Israelites from Palestine to Europe and to the United States. There is on the wall of Westminster Abbey in London a genealogical chart which shows the direct lineage of British Royalty from King David. That the flags of Europe fly the Israelite tribal emblems should indicate something! The very purpose of flags is to indicate something. The European white race is the "ethnos" (,θvoς) to which Jesus sends His good news. But western Christianity is today reluctant to recognize our own heritage because we consider ourselves to be a foreign race of "gentiles" instead of those lost sheep for whom Jesus came. Great confusion has resulted from this mistake. How can we reconcile Jesus' clear statements about coming ONLY for the lost sheep with our mission outreach toward foreigners whom God always warned against through the Old Testament?
When you are reading the Bible, Old or New Testaments, and you see the word "gentile" or "nation," try replacing those words with "our ethnic group," or "tribes" or "that ethnic group." The Greek word "ethnos" (,θvoς) is the very basis of our English word "ethnic" and means a specific ethnic group. When used by Jesus or his disciples, it usually meant "our people:" the twelve Israelite tribes. St. Paul sometimes used the word to refer to the ten Israelite tribes of the northern kingdom, distinguishing them from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, known as Judah, "Ioudaia" (Ioυδαία).
The word "gentile" and the word "nation" were quite similar, both meaning a specific ethnic group of people. When the English translations were made, from the 1599 Geneva Bible and the 1611 KJV up until the 19th century, the words were properly understood and were correctly used for translation of "ethnos" (,θvoς). But, now that "gentile" is defined by most Christians as "non-Jews," we need to take a serious look at the new Christianity which has developed around this mistake. Unless we revise our definition of "gentile," it should NOT be used for translation of the Greek word "ethnos" (,θvoς).
Following are some of the scripture passages where the word "ethnos" (,θvoς) is mistranslated as "gentile" or "nation." Following each passage, my comments will indicate a more proper rendering. If you take your time to consider each passage carefully, you will gain insights into the New Testament writings as the early Christians understood them. It is important to use your Bible, examine the context, and imagine Christianity in this new light. Scripture quotations are from the KJV, 1929 version.
Mat. 4:15 - "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, 'The land of Zabulon and land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles; (ethnon ).
This is a quotation from Isaiah 9:1,2. Isaiah (ca. 760 BC) knew Galilee as the land of the Israelite tribes of Zebulon and Naphthali. The sentence means, "Galilee of our people." Galilee was not a land of foreigners when Esaias wrote that!
Mat 6:31-33 - "Therefore, take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the gentiles seek: for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things."
Jesus is criticizing His own people, saying, "For after all these things do our people seek." His admonishment is for His own people, meaning that they should know better. God had not forgotten His covenant.
Mat. 10:5,6 - "These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them saying, 'Go not into the way of the gentiles, (ethnon), and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.'"
Jesus is telling them to go beyond their familiar local areas where fellow Israelites live. He is saying "don't just go to our own ethnon here, or to those whom we know in Samaria, but go and find the lost sheep of Israel." He was always quite clear about whom He was seeking, and never promoted outreach to others.
Mat. 10:17,18 - "But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against (autois) them and the gentiles (ethnesin - ,θvεσιv)."
By mistranslating the word "ethnos" (,
Mat. 12:18 - [referencing a prophecy of Isaiah, Jesus quotes:] "Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall shew judgment (krisin -κρίσιv) to the gentiles (ethnesin - ,θvεσιv)."
In Isaiah we have God foretelling Jesus coming, and the purpose for which He shall live: to announce judgment
Mat. 12:21 - "And in his name shall the Gentiles trust.
This immediately follows the previous passage, where, according to modern Bible translators, Jesus' purpose was appointed to judge/condemn the Gentiles; now we have the joyous statement that the Gentiles will trust in his name! Since Jesus did not come to judge and condemn the world, that is very confusing unless one knows the true meaning of (ethnos - ,
Mat. 20:17-19 - "And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, And shall deliver him to the Gentiles (ethnesin - ,θvεσιv) to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again."
The chief priests and scribes (Edomite Jews) will deliver Jesus to whom? (Keep in mind that Jesus said he was not a Jew like those Edomites of Jerusalem; He said their father is the devil. John 8:44) Of course, they delivered Him to His own people, His "ethnos" (,θvoς) who mocked Him and selected Barabbas to be free; then the Romans (also of Jesus own ethnic group: some of the lost-sheep) crucified Him.
Mat. 20:25 - "But Jesus called them, and said, 'Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles (ethnon) exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant."
Two disciples, with their mother, were asking Jesus if they could sit at His right and left sides at His throne. He explained that although our own people are ruled over by princes in this world, the disciples should not seek worldly political power, but should be servants instead. This is, of course, the only social path Jesus ever endorsed for His followers.
Mat. 21:43 - "Therefore say I unto you (speaking to chief priests and elders), The kingdom of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation (ethnei - ,θvει) bringing forth the fruits thereof."
Jesus is speaking to those "husbandmen" (devil and his Edomite body) who rule God's kingdom (the world) up until the time the devil is vanquished and Christ assumes rulership. He says God's vineyard/kingdom will then be given to a nation (the true Israelite nation of the Caucasian ethnos) which produces good fruits (values God's commandments and knows Him as our God).
Mat. 24:7 - "For nation (ethnos - ,θvoς) shall rise against nation (ethnos - ,θvoς), and kingdom against kingdom:"
Here, the word (ethnos - ,θvoς) is appropriately translated as "nation" rather than as "gentile." "ethnos" cannot here possibly mean "all nations of the world other than the Jews," as defined in Davis Bible Dictionary. "ethnos" is properly translated here as "nation," meaning specific ethnic groups rising up against each other.
Mat. 24:14 - "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations (ethnesin - ,θvεσιv [dative plural]); and then shall the end come.
Here, again, the word "nation" is a proper translation, as the context defines the very nature of its meaning. If we will always think of the word "ethnos" as referring to specific ethnicity, then we should never have any problem determining whether it means "our group" or "that group" or "many different groups." It is important to get a feel for how the Gospel authors used it.
Mat. 28:19 - "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations (ethné - ,θvη [accusative plural]), baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
This is the Great Commission, the mistranslation of which has caused Christianity to pursue a path radically different from that which the disciples understood. They did NOT, EVER, understand any commission to preach the gospel to all the various peoples of the world, but only to those for whom Jesus said He came. They understood Jesus clearly, and we do not see them going south into Africa or East toward India or China, but only northwest to people of their own ethnic family: the twelve tribes of Israel. Consider: if Jesus came for all the world's people, then we would see His followers going in all compass directions to "claim souls for Jesus." But they all went in the same direction, toward Europe where the Israelites had gone from the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. They knew exactly where to go to find Jesus' "lost sheep." This seemingly innocent mistranslation of (ethnos - ,θvoς) has resulted in a Christianity where our own Israelite people have lost knowledge of who they are, even believing that Jesus was of a different race from us! Just look at the beginnings of each of the epistles of Paul and the disciples; they address their letters to "saints in Christ Jesus," and other similar terms. Since they well knew that Jesus came ONLY for the "lost sheep of Israel," how can we think they would be so stupid as to betray Jesus as soon as He was gone by going to ALL peoples of the world? The epistle of James is addressed to fellow Israelites of the diaspora: "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad." Peter's first epistle is badly translated in KJV: "to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia." The literal translation from the Greek is "to the elect sojourners of the diaspora of Pontus, etc." Peter KNOWS he writes to diasporan Israelites, not to "strangers!"
The Great Commission of Mat. 28:19, being translated literally from the Greek, should read "Going therefore, disciple ye all our people." For the N.T. Greek writers, the word (ethnos - ,θvoς) was their common, everyday, word which referred to a single, specific ethnic group, usually their own. They understood clearly what the term means. It is only during recent times that we have such blatant misguidance as that definition given in Davis Bible Dictionary, which says, "all nations of the world other than Jews."
Luke 2:30-32 - "For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."
This is Simeon's prophecy for the baby Jesus. It is the light for His own ethnic group which becomes the glory of the people of Israel. It would not be Israel's glory if the light were meant for foreigners! The literal translation is "for my eyes saw your salvation, which you prepared before the face of all the peoples, a light for enlightenment of our people (ethnon) and a glory of your people Israel."
The Gospel of Mark uses the word "gentile" only two times and those passages are already covered above, in Matthew. Luke uses the word five times and most are repeats of uses in Matthew. John never uses the word in his Gospel. St. Paul uses the word frequently in his writings; we will look at the book of Romans to consider his usage.
Romans 1:13 - "Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, but was let [hindered] hitherto, that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles (ethnesin - ,θvεσιv).
The word "gentile" is easily understood here to mean others of our own people, since Paul's missionary journeys were to various places throughout the Greek and Latin speaking areas of Asia Minor and southern Europe and Britain. Paul understood his commission to be to the (ethnos - ,θvoς) "gentiles," which explains why he went north and west into the Caucasian settlements of the diasporan Israelites. He wasn't trying to harvest "fruit" among any one outside the Israelite group!
Romans 2:14-15 - "When the Gentiles (ethné - ,θvη) which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts,"
Paul is revealing to the Roman Israelites the New Covenant, as foretold in Jeremiah 31:33: "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people." These Israelite children of God are the ones for whom God gave a New Covenant, and the new one is exactly that stated in Jer. 31:33: that written law won't be necessary because God's law will be written on the hearts and minds of God's chosen people. St. Paul is explaining how the covenant works in simple terms. The word "gentiles" could not refer to people outside the tribes of Israel, for it is ONLY the Israelites to whom the covenant is given. Again, we see the good-news being carried to those "lost sheep" of Israel, the Romans and the Greeks.
Romans 2:23-24 - "Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (ethnesin - ,θvεσιv) through you, as it is written."
In this letter to the Romans, Paul begins chapter 2 by addressing "O Man," sort of "to whom it may concern." He admonishes them for several different problems in the verses prior. In this verse he warns them about blaspheming the name of God among their own ethnic group. It wouldn't be very serious to most Romans to think they might be badly influencing foreigners. But, it might cause them some concern to think they might be harming their own people, which, of course, is the point Paul is making.
Romans 3:29 - "Is he the God of the Jews (Ioudaion -Ioυδαίωv Judah tribe) only? is he not also of the Gentiles (ethnon - ,θvov)? Yes, of the Gentiles also."
Unless you know a little of the O.T. history, which all these diasporan Israelites knew well, you won't know Paul's deep animosity toward the northern kingdom of Israel, because his people of the southern kingdom of Juda were not so apostate and were never divorced from God. There had been division between the houses of Judah and Israel since about 950 BC when the two kingdoms split apart. The northern kingdom, Israel, was then purged from the Palestine area about 700 BC, and the southern kingdom of Juda was taken captive about 586 BC. A few of the Judahites returned from the Babylonian Captivity about 500 BC, rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, and came to be known as "Jews," God's chosen people. Paul, a Benjaminite/Judean, shared the elitist arrogance of those who called themselves "Jews," because he was a Pharisee, and felt animosity toward the northern house-of-Israel which had migrated into Europe and Asia Minor. But he was called by Christ to spread the word to the rest of the "ethnon" (,θvov), to that very house-of-Israel which was scattered in the north. Here in this passage, we see Paul reassuring the Romans that he is not a bigoted Judahite, but rather sees them also as God's chosen people. After all, that's what "ethnon" (,θvov) is about, all twelve tribes of Israel!
Romans 9:22-26 - "What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews (Ioudaion -Ioυδαίωv /House of Judah) only, but also of the Gentiles (ethnon - ,θvov [this is Paul's term for the House of Israel])? As he saith in Osee (Hosea), I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God."
Notice that Paul distinguishes between those who were destined for destruction and those whom God "afore prepared." He includes the House of Israel, whom he calls "gentiles," with the House of Judah, both of whom were aforetimes prepared for glory and whom God has called. Certainly, Paul had a clear vision that the "ethnos" (,θvoς) of God's chosen vessels included the Romans and the Greeks who were diasporan Israelites, but he felt it necessary to reassure them of his favor. Since Paul knew well the history of the 12 tribes, he knew God had cursed the ten northern tribes of Israel, and scattered them to distant lands, divorcing them from himself, so they would forget their God and no longer be his people for the period of the curse. Paul is making the prophecy of Hosea pertinent to those diasporans by reminding them of their divorce from God, and their reclamation whereby the divorcee becomes again God's beloved bride. And in those lands of the diaspora where the people had heard only about their rejection by God, it is there that they shall be called again, "the children of the living God." This is a beautiful statement of reconciliation for those "lost sheep" whose divorce was then past, as they were reclaimed by their God of the everlasting covenant.
Romans 9:30-32 - "What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone."
After announcing God's reclamation of those Gentiles (ethne - ,θvη), who are the very House of Israel, Paul poses the question of how they could have attained the great reward without even trying to follow after righteousness, while those of "Israel" in Jerusalem failed. Paul's underlying anger shows a little bit here as he refers to his Judeans as "Israel," but usually he refers to his own Jerusalem group as "Judah." This was a problem which tormented Paul , as he saw the entire ethnic group of all twelve tribes of God's children getting the reward which the Jerusalem-temple-Israelites failed to get. Paul has here resolved his quandary for himself and shares his good-news of salvation-by-faith. The stumblingstone which Paul refers to occasionally is the idea which is so difficult for so many to accept, that God has rewritten the contract so that "Law" is not the justification for salvation, but rather "faith" is the key, and that is given by grace. That is a stumblingblock which many cannot get past even today.
Finally, it should be clear to the reader that the words "gentile" and "nation" deserve closer scrutiny in our Scriptures. The Greek word, "ethnos" (,θvoς) truly does have the meaning of "ethnic," namely a specific ethnic group. We can see how easily Bible translators are influenced by the presumptions they bring to their work, like the presumption that Jesus came for ALL peoples of the world. If a translator believes that, then his translation will preserve that doctrine. That doesn't mean he is being deliberately fraudulent, for he believes he is doing justice to Scriptures by forcing them to agree with his traditional belief. He isn't lying, but he is failing to be as objective as a translator should be.
One verse, in English versions, that seemed to clearly imply the Gentiles were people separate from the children of Israel, is Isaiah 49:6 which reads in the NKJV: "Indeed He says, 'It is too small a thing that You should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, That you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.'" Well, how much clearer could God say that Gentiles are different from His children, Israel? I looked at that verse and pondered whether I might be on the wrong track with my thesis that "gentile" usually means the race of Israel. So, I reached for the Septuagint, the 285 BC Greek version of the Old Testament, a version twelve hundred years older than the Hebrew Masoretic text on which our modern versions are based. The Greek Septuagint was the Bible of Jesus, the apostles, and everyone else until the Masoretic Hebrew text was introduced about 900 AD. The literal translation from the Septuagint reads: "And He said to me, 'It is a great (μέγα mega) thing for you to be called my servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob, and to recover the dispersion (διασπoράv diaspora) of Israel: behold, I have given you for the covenant (διαθήκηv diatheken) of a race, for a light of our people (,θvov ethnon), that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.'" You can see what the Jewish Masoretes did to our Old Testament! Of course, it is to the ends of the earth that God scattered His children of Israel. In this comparison between the English version and the Septuagint, we can see the Bible is consistent in the essential use of the word (,θvoς ethnos) to mean "our own people." It is merely the bias of translators that gives us a corrupted Scripture, with the result that Christianity does not realize the Truth which Christ admonishes us to seek.
by Roger Hathaway, December 1996
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