The use of the word gentiles in English translations of the Holy Scriptures has created a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding among Bible students by obscuring the meaning of the Hebrew word goy and the Greek word ethnos.
The word gentiles is not a Hebrew or a Greek word, and does not come into English from the Biblical languages. Instead, it comes into English from Latin. It is a transliteration into English of a Latin translation.
Gentiles is an English transliteration of the Latin word gentilis which is derived from the Latin word gens (plural, gentes). Gens means “nation,” “people” or “tribe.” Gentilis means “native,” “of the same gens,” or “of the same house or family/tribe or race.” The word gentiles is an English transliteration of the Latin that was used to translate the the Hebrew words goy (singular) and goyim (plural), and the Greek words ethnos (singular) and ethne (plural) into Latin. The Hebrew word goy means “nation” or “people” as does the Greek word ethnos and the Latin word Gens.
The use of the Latin-derived word gentiles to translate these simple Hebrew and Greek words has led to no end of Scriptural misunderstandings. Most people today incorrectly believe that the word gentiles means “non-Jews” and divide the world into two groups of people — Jews and Gentiles, and even Messianic believers into Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. This common belief is then read back into the Scriptures obscuring their meaning and leading to inaccurate interpretations that have had a damaging ripple effect on belief and practice over the centuries. Had the Hebrew and Greek simply been translated directly into English this confusion and misunderstanding would have not arisen.
As the Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia explains,
“GENTILES. The plural of the word ‘nation’ (Heb. goy; Gr. ethnos) has sometimes been translated ‘nations,’ sometimes ‘Gentiles,’ sometimes ‘heathen’… In its early use, the word ‘Gentiles’ or ‘nations’ (goyim) was applied without distinction to divisions among the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31)” (Moody Press; c. 1975; Moody Bible Institute of Chicago; p. 670).
The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 says,
“In the Hebrew of the Bible "goi" and its plural "goyyim" originally meant "nation," and were applied both to Israelites and to non-Israelites (Gen. xii. 2, xvii. 20; Ex. xiii. 3, xxxii. 10; Deut. iv. 7; viii. 9, 14; Num. xiv. 12; Isa. i. 4, lx. 22; Jer. vii. 28).”
The Hebrew words goy (singular) and goyim (plural), and the Greek words ethnos (singular) and ethne (plural) can be translated nation(s) or people(s), or people of the nations, depending on the context. Context is always critical as many words have different shades of meaning depending on how they are used.
For instance, the English word man generally means mankind. In the Book of Genesis we read, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” However, if the word man is used in the same sentence with the word woman it does not refer to mankind, but to the male sex. Likewise, if it is used in the same sentence with the word boy it means an adult male. So here we have seen three meanings for the word man, with the correct meaning determined by its context.
The Hebrew word goy means nation or people, but it has been translated into English in a number of ways. The word occurs 557 times in the thirty-nine Books of the Tanakh, the Old Covenant Scriptures.
The King James Version of 1611 translates it as nation 374 times, heathen 143 times, gentile 30 times, people 11 times, and another 1 time. Interestingly, the King James Version only uses the word gentiles when the translators believed that the context is referring to non-Israelite people; but that is a theological interpretation, not an unbiased translation of the Hebrew word goy.
The American Standard Version of 1901 reduces the occurrence of the word gentile in the Tanakh from 30 to 9 times, and includes notes showing that in 5 of the remaining 9 occurrences the word nations could have been used.
The Greek word ethnos occurs 164 times in the Brit Chadasha, the New Covenant Scriptures, and translators use the Latin-derived word gentiles far more freely. In the King James Version ethnos is translated gentiles 93 times, nation or nations 64 times, heathen 5 times, and people 2 times. The American Standard Version uses the word gentiles 96 times in the text and 7 times in its notes, but it is also corrected to read nations 15 times in its notes.
In the King James Version of the Holy Scriptures the Hebrew word goy and Greek word ethnos are correctly translated as nations or people 451 times, and as gentiles 123 times. The word gentiles it must be remembered is not a translation of the Hebrew or Greek, but a Latin-derived word which also means nations or people but is properly understood by very few Bible readers, thus obscuring the text and causing confusion and misunderstanding. There is absolutely no reason to use this misunderstood and confusing Latin-derived word in English translations of the Holy Scriptures as it merely obscures the meaning of the text.
It must also be pointed out that the Hebrew word goy (nations or people) and the Greek word ethnos (nations or people) are collective nouns that cannot be properly translated to mean an individual person. These words always refer to a group. Therefore, there can be no such thing as “a gentile” (singular). No one should describe himself or herself as “a gentile.”
The Hebrew word goy and the Greek word ethnos are used three ways in the Holy Scriptures:
1. They can be used to refer to non-Israelite nations and peoples.
2. They can be used to refer to Israel and the Jewish people.
3. They can be used to describe all nations, which includes both Israel and non-Israelite nations.
First, we will look at some examples from the Scriptures of how goy and ethnos are used of non-Israelite nations.
“And also of the son of the bondwoman [Ishmael, son of Hagar] will I make a nation, because he is thy seed” (Genesis 21:13).
“Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him [Ishmael] a great nation” (Genesis 21:8).
“So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation”(Exodus 9:24).
“Have the gods of the nations delivered them which my fathers have destroyed…?” (Isaiah 37:12).
“These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not” (Matthew 10:5).
“And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).
“But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one” (Acts 8:9).
In the above verses goy and ethnos were used of non-Israelite or non-Jewish nations and people.
Next, we will see that the Hebrew word goy and the Greek word ethnos are also used in the Sacred Scriptures in reference to the Hebrew, Israelite and Jewish peoples.
“And I will make of thee [Abraham] a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing” (Gensis 12:2).
“Ah sinful nation [the southern Kingdom of Judah], a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward” (Isaiah 1:4).
“If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the LORD, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever” (Jeremiah 31:36).
“For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5).
“Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50).
“Now after many years I [Paul] came to bring alms to my nation, and offerings” (Acts 24:17).
These verses demonstrate the absurdity of translating goy and ethnos as gentiles, a word which most people think means non-Jews. Just try substituting gentiles or non-Jews for the word nation in the above verses and see if they make any sense.
Finally, we will see how the words goy and ethnos are used to describe all nations, Israelite and non-Israelite alike.
“And the LORD said unto her, Two nations [Esau/Edom and Jacob/Israel] are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
“But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:35).
The words goy and ethnos do not necessarily refer to non-Jews or non-Israelites. They are used of such nations and people, but they are also used of Israel and the Jewish people. To use the Latin-derived word gentiles, which most people commonly believe means “non-Jews,” to translate goy and ethnos all but inevitably leads to confusion, misunderstanding, and the misinterpretation of the Holy Scriptures.
In addition to goy and ethnos there is another Greek word erroneously translated gentiles in the King James Version of the Bible. The word is hellen and means Greeks. It appears 27 times in the New Covenant Scriptures and in 20 places it is properly translated Greeks, but in 7 places it is erroneously translated as gentiles.
An example of this erroneous translation is found in John 7:35. The King James Version reads, “Then said the Jews among themselves, Whither will he [Jesus] go, that we shall not find him? will he go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles?”
Rather than reading, “will he go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles?”, the text should read “will he go unto the dispersed among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks?”
This error was corrected in the Revised Version of 1881, and the American Standard Version of 1901, and most subsequent translations have properly translated hellen as Greeks. The New King James Version for instance translates Acts 7:35 this way, “Then the Jews said among themselves, “Where does He intend to go that we shall not find Him? Does He intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?”
Do not let the word gentiles mislead you. The word gentiles is merely a transliteration of the Latin word gentilis, which is derived from Gens, a Latin word meaning nation or people, and was used centuries ago to translate the Hebrew word goy (nation or people) and the Greek word ethnos (nation or people) into Latin. It would have been better if the word “gentile” had never appeared in the English Bible and the words goy and ethnos had simply been translated into the English language. By using an unfamiliar Latin word instead of simply translating these words into English, Bible translators have done a great disservice to Bible readers by obscuring the plain meaning of the Hebrew and Greek and creating confusion and misunderstanding.
There is no such thing as “a Gentile,” and persisting in the use of the term “Gentile” only fosters the false notion of Supersessionism (replacement theology) on the one hand, or serves to rebuild the middle wall of separation which was broken down by the Messiah Jesus on the other, and thus dividing Jewish Christians (Messianic Jews) from those from among the other nations who have been grafted into the commonwealth of Israel by faith in the Messiah of Israel.
As the apostle Paul wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians,
“For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.
“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:14-22 NKJV).