Who Are The Heathen and The Gentiles?
Far more than by His creation, God makes Himself known by His Word. What He says He is, He is. What He says He will do, He will do. He keeps His Word. His Word is Truth. Our job is to pay attention, or take heed, to what God says, and believe. To know God in truth is to know exactly what He has said, to whom He said it, when He said it, where He said it, how He said it. That is why the integrity of God’s Word is always at stake. To misunderstand a word or a phrase or a statement results in wrong believing and wrong results. The purpose of this study is to get the right understanding of one particular word of truth. This vital, significant word was spoken and written by God for men to know “rightly” and rightly believe.
In the Hebrew text of the Old Testament this word is goy. In the Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon goy is defined as “a people”, “a confluence of men”, and it states that “the word is general, and used of the nations at large.” In the New Testament Greek texts, the corresponding word is ethnos. Both words mean “nation” or “people”: the people of a nation, or a nation’s people. Being a general term, it is perfectly appropriate that goy or ethnos would be translated “people” or “nation”.
If you are a reader of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, you have probably often read about people named “the heathen” and “the Gentiles”. Who or what are the people labeled by these words? This study will look at 1) how these terms developed over time, 2) what is implied by using these words in the translations of God’s Word, and 3) what is the truth that the Word of God is clearly and simply declaring by the actual word as used in the Scriptures.
In the King James Version, both “heathen” and “Gentiles” are translated from the word goy in the Hebrew OT, and ethnos in the Greek NT. Goy and ethnos are both also rendered “nation” and “people”. Here are the totals:
Old Testament: the word goy is in the Hebrew text a total of 558-times.
In the KJV goy is translated:
“nation” 374-times. “heathen” 143-times.
“people” 11-times. “Gentiles” 30-times.
New Testament: the word ethnos is in the Greek text a total of 164-times.
In the KJV ethnos is translated:
“nation” 64-times. “heathen” 5-times.
“people” 2-times. “Gentiles” 93-times.
Are the nouns “heathen” and “Gentiles” terms that have a general application? Not in a broad, overall sense, but “general” only within specifically defined boundaries. Are these the boundaries that God intended to be communicated? No. When we know the background and development of these terms, it will be clear that both “heathen” and “Gentiles” are man-made words utilized to promote man-made doctrines.
The book of Joel holds an example of the inconsistent translation of the Hebrew word goy in the KJV. In seven verses of chapters 2 and 3, goy was in the text 9-times. In the KJV it is translated “heathen” 5-times, “nations” twice, “people” once and “Gentiles” once. Here are the seven verses.
Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare Thy people, O Lord, and give not Thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen [goy] should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God? JOEL 2:17
Yea, the Lord will answer and say unto His people, Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and ye shall be satisfied therewith: and I will no more make you a reproach among the heathen [goy] : JOEL 2:19
I will also gather all nations [goy], and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for My people and for My heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations [goy], and parted My land. JOEL 3:2
And I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the children of Judah, and they shall sell them to the Sabeans, to a people [goy] far off: for the Lord hath spoken it. Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles [goy]; Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up: JOEL 3:8-9
Assemble yourselves, and come, all ye heathen [goy], and gather yourselves together round about. Thither cause Thy mighty ones to come down, O Lord. Let the heathen [goy] be wakened, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat: for there will I sit to judge all the heathen [goy] round about. JOEL 3:11-12
Is this haphazard carelessness or the recurring result of deliberate intention?
Here is one other example in the New Testament. The Greek word ethnos is translated three different ways in two verses of one chapter.
And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen [ethnos] through faith [believing], preached-before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations [ethnos] be blessed. GALATIANS 3:8
That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles [ethnos] through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the spirit through faith. GALATIANS 3:14
Simply be consistent. Translate ethnos as “nations” and you will have the integrity of the truth that God is declaring here in His wonderful, matchless Word! TO BE CONTINUED
The Hebrew goy and Greek ethnos both mean “nation” or “people”, and are found translated as such in the King James Version. As noted earlier, both were also translated as “heathen” and “Gentiles”. Here we will look at the word “heathen”. Note these verses in the Psalms where it is found:
The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen [goy] to nought: He maketh the devices of the people of none effect. PSALM 33:10
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen [goy], I will be exalted in the earth. PSALM 46:10
Thou therefore, O Lord God of hosts, the God of Israel, awake to visit all the heathen [goy]: be not merciful to any wicked transgressors. Selah. PSALM 59:5
Wherefore should the heathen [goy] say, Where is now their God? PSALM 115:2
The idols of the heathen [goy] are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. PSALM 135:15
The word goy in all five verses should be translated “nations”, a general term indicating nations at large. The word “heathen” implies certain people having specific characteristics. God’s Word is simply not making that distinction with the use of a term like “heathen”.
How did this word gain prominence? Historically, the word became a label that was suitable for purposes both political and religious. Here is an excerpt from the Synonym Study (of the two words heathen and pagan) in Dictionary.com under the word ‘heathen’:
Heathen and pagan are primarily historical terms that were applied pejoratively, especially by people who were Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, to peoples who were not members of one of those three monotheistic religious groups. Heathen referred especially to the peoples and cultures of primitive or ancient tribes thought to harbor unenlightened, barbaric idol worshipers: heathen rites; heathen idols.
In modern English, heathen remains an offensive term, used to accuse someone of being unenlightened or irreligious. pagan, however, is increasingly a neutral description of certain existing and emerging religious movements.
“Heathen” is an idiom. An idiom is a "form of speech peculiar to a people or place", also "a peculiarity in language". Perhaps the usage and popularity of the term “heathen” is somewhat similar to our modern idiom “hillbilly” (an uncultured resident of the hills). “Heathen” comes from the word “heath”. An area of open, uncultivated land was called a “heath”. Those dwelling in the heath were then named by the term “heathen” to distinguish them as uncultivated, uncultured, or uncivilized. From that, “heathen” became a label for anyone “uncultivated” or uncivil in the generally-accepted religious standards and beliefs of organized Christianity, etc. This was both a derogatory and pejorative distinction.
Religion labeled those not adhering to its doctrinal norms as “heathen”. At the close of the 16th century into the 1600s this was a commonly accepted term in England for those not conforming to “church” standards. The common usage of this word certainly influenced the men commissioned by King James to complete the then-current translation into the English language. Thus we find the word “heathen” 143-times in the Old Testament and 5-times in the New Testament. In all 148 places it should be “nation” or “nations”.
I want to conclude here with the ninth Psalm. I have noted the five places where goy is found in the text of this wonderful Psalm. It is translated “heathen” 3-times and “nations” 2-times. As you now know, rather than “heathen”, the translation should read “nations”.
Let’s focus on the main subject of this Psalm: God’s just justice that is founded upon His just judgment! I have underlined parts of the Psalm where these things are mentioned.
1.I will praise Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will shew forth all Thy marvellous works.
2.I will be glad and rejoice in Thee: I will sing praise to Thy name, O Thou Most High.
3.When mine enemies are turned back, they shall fall and perish at Thy presence.
4.For Thou hast maintained my right [mishpat=just judgment] and my cause; Thou satest in the throne judging right [tsedech=just justice].
5.Thou hast rebuked the heathen [goy], Thou hast destroyed the wicked, Thou hast put out their name for ever and ever.
6.O thou enemy, destructions are come to a perpetual end: and thou hast destroyed cities; their memorial is perished with them.
7.But the Lord shall endure for ever: He hath prepared His throne for judgment [mishpat= just judgment].
8.And He shall judge the world in righteousness [tsedech=just justice], He shall minister judgment to the people in uprightness.
9.The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.
10.And they that know Thy name will put their trust in Thee: for Thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek Thee.
11.Sing praises to the Lord, which dwelleth in Zion: declare among the people His doings.
12.When He maketh inquisition for blood, He remembereth them: He forgetteth not the cry of the humble.
13.Have mercy upon me, O Lord; consider my trouble which I suffer of them that hate me, Thou that liftest me up from the gates of death:
14.That I may shew forth all Thy praise in the gates of the daughter of Zion: I will rejoice in Thy salvation.
15.The heathen [goy] are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid is their own foot taken.
16.The Lord is known by the judgment [mishpat=just judgment] which He executeth: the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands. Higgaion. Selah.
17.The wicked shall be turned into hell [the state of death], and all the nations [goy] that forget God.
[The wicked do turn back to sheol, all nations forgetting God. -Young’s Literal Translation]
18.For the needy shall not alway be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever.
19.Arise, O Lord; let not man prevail: let the heathen [goy] be judged in Thy sight.
20.Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations [goy] may know themselves to be but men. Selah.
The 16th verse declares, “The Lord is known by the [just] judgment which He executeth”. The verse concludes with “Higgaion” and “Selah”. These words are used figuratively to draw our attention to that which God wants to emphasize. The noun “Higgaion” means “A meditation!” (that is: These words are to be remembered!). The verb “Selah” means “Consider these truths!” (with heightened attention). We are to especially consider and remember the remarkable, unparalleled standard of His justice. He is known by “the just judgment which He executeth!” His justice does not use a word like “heathen” to mark or label people because their “religious behavior” is judged “substandard”! His judgment is perfectly just. For men and women of all nations: “The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.”
In previous newsletters I have shown you the Hebrew word and the Greek word translated “Gentiles” in the King James Version. The same two words are also translated “nation”, “people” and “heathen”. The two words are goy and ethnos.
The Hebrew word goy was translated in the Old Testament: “nation”− 374-times, “heathen”−143-times, “people”−11-times, and “Gentiles”−30-times. That makes a total of 558-times the word goy is in the Hebrew text, and only 30-times was goy translated “Gentiles”.
The New Testament was translated from the Stephen’s Greek text. The Greek word ethnos corresponds to the Hebrew word goy. In similar fashion, ethnos was translated the same four words: “nation”−64-times, “heathen”−5-times, “people”−2-times, and “Gentiles”−93-times; a total of 164-times.
Looking at the numbers, we see the translators used the word “heathen” quite extensively in the Old Testament, and, on the contrary, very little in the New. Much the same, goy is translated “Gentiles” only about 5% of the total times in the Old Testament, but ethnos is rendered “Gentiles” well over 50% of the total in the New Testament. Why is there so much dissimilarity?
The word “Gentiles” as well as “heathen” were intentionally used in the text to support the doctrines of men. Both are non-Scriptural terms and should not be used at all in the Word of God. Earlier we looked at the background and meaning of “heathen”. Here we will see where the word “Gentiles” originated.
The first verse or context in which a word is used in the Scriptures is significant in the understanding of its Biblical meaning. The word goy is first found in Genesis 10:5. In this one verse it was used twice, but translated two very different ways.
By these were the isles [coastlands] of the Gentiles [goy] divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations [goy]. GENESIS 10:5
It is not necessary, nor God-inspired, that goy would be translated “Gentiles” here. It is a fabricated proper noun utilized by the translators at the discretion of men and not by the distinction of the God-breathed Word.
The phrase “isles of the Gentiles” should simply say “isles [coastlands] of the nations”. This is speaking of the nations that developed from the families of the sons of Noah after the flood, as stated in verse 32:
These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations [goy]: and by these were the nations [goy] divided in the earth after the flood. GENESIS 10:32
It may not be possible to exactly pinpoint historically how and when the use of the term “Gentiles” began and then became popular. We can, however, distinguish its origin and background.
The word “Gentiles” originated from the Latin noun gens, which means “tribe, family, or people”. The Latin adjective related to gens is gentilis which means “of or belonging to the same family, people or nation”. The plural form of gentilis is spelled g-e-n-t-i-l-e-s, gentiles.
This Latin word was capitalized and given a different pronunciation (with a silent “e” and long “i”) and thus the plural Latin adjective became an English proper noun.
Some history of translations of the Scriptures will help us understand the use of a Latin word in the English text. By the 2nd century, manuscripts of the Scriptures in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, were available and being circulated.
In 382AD the Pope commissioned Jerome to complete an “official” Latin trans-lation. His work became known as the versio vulgata or “version commonly used”, and thus called Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. This Latin translation of the Scriptures was the only text used by the Roman Catholic Church for well over 1,000 years.
The official acceptance of this common Latin text influenced the transliteration of the Latin adjective gentiles into the English proper noun: “Gentiles”. The translators of the 1611 version authorized by King James used this word, at their discretion, 30-times in the Old Testament and 93-times in the New Testament. The Hebrew goy and Greek ethnos are common, not proper, nouns and should both be translated either “people”, “nation” or “nations”.
Is He the God of the Jews [Judeans] only? Is He not also of the Gentiles [ethnos = nations]? Yes, of the Gentiles [nations] also. ROMANS 3:29
Indeed, God is the God of people of all nations who love and honor Him.
And that the Gentiles [nations] might glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to Thee among the Gentiles [nations], and sing unto Thy name. And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles [nations], with His people. And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles [nations]; and laud Him, all ye people. And again, Isaiah saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles [nations]; in him [Jesus Christ] shall the Gentiles [nations] trust. ROMANS 15:9-12
The Scriptures are the written record of God’s Word and will. He gave this record so that men might know Him, and know His ways, and know His promised blessings. Many times He refers to and quotes things recorded previously to help us remember those things, and to reiterate that what He promised then is still “good” now! God is faithful.
The epistle to the Galatians is stern and very direct because it is confronting wrong doctrine. Certain leaders were “troubling” the Galatians by teaching that the legal ways of the old-covenant were still required by God. They were refuting, even denying, the right doctrine of the grace of God in the new-covenant with their legalism.
This only would I learn of you, Received ye the spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of [ek=out from] faith [believing]? Are ye so foolish [senseless]? Having begun in the spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? GALATIANS 3:2-3
The Galatians were “senseless” for believing this wrong doctrine that contradicted what Paul had previously taught them about God and the grace of God. In order to help them remember the truth about His ways and His promises, God has Paul quote from a previously written record.
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached-before [declared previously] the gospel unto Abraham, saying, “In thee shall all nations be blessed.” GALATIANS 3:8
The previously-declared record is fundamental in making known God’s immeasurable grace, mercy and forgiveness. To help us understand the greatness of this, here are the Scriptures from the book of Genesis being referenced:
And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. GENESIS 12:2-3
And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. GENESIS 22:18
Had God promised that in Abraham all families of the earth shall be blessed? Yes. And that in Abraham’s seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed? Yes. Had He clearly stated His promise and had it put in the written record so that all could read and know? Even folks in Galatia? Yes! What God has promised He is willing and able to perform.
Now let’s get to the heart of the matter. What is the truth that the Galatians were being “troubled” by certain leaders to compromise, disobey and replace with error? Let’s give detailed attention to the things written in these two verses:
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen [ethnos] through faith…. GALATIANS 3:8A
That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles [ethnos] through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the spirit through faith. GALATIANS 3:14
First it is important to know: The words “heathen” and “Gentiles” are both translated from the same Greek word, ethnos. Ethnos simply means “nations”. It is properly translated in the last part of verse 8: “In thee shall all nations [ethnos] be blessed.”
Also vital to understand are these two great truths inherent in God’s blessing:
1. God justifies people of all nations through faith [out-from believing].
2. People of all nations receive the promise of the spirit through faith [by believing].
To be justified is to be forgiven. God forgives and justifies freely by His grace. This cannot be earned by good works and is not kept by good works. God freely gives. Man believes and receives. Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and man. Through his works God’s blessing is given to people of all nations. Through his works we receive the holy spirit God promised. The gift of holy spirit is received by believing and manifested by believing. Good works are not required and God is not a respecter of persons. Whosoever believes receives. This is God’s way. He changes not.
Paul had taught these things in Galatia, but the “troublers” came in and “bewitched” the saints into believing that it was necessary, even required by God, to do certain things and practice certain traditions to be in God’s favor. These “good works” only gained the favor of the men propounding them. But, people like to be well-regarded in the sight of other people, and so the truth is compromised and substituted with wrong doctrine. It takes a bold, loving leader like Paul to stand and speak the truth of God from the integrity of His Word. Men come and go, but the Word of the Lord abides forever.
Paul boldly spoke and wrote to correct the error of walking by the five-senses (according to the old-covenant works), with walking by the spirit from God (according to the new-covenant grace).
Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. GALATIANS 5:4
Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not of Him that calleth you. GALATIANS 5:7-8
But if ye be led of the spirit, ye are not under the law. GALATIANS 5:18
Paul’s exhortation is to stand fast in the liberty, or freedom, of grace. Not in the bondage of legalism. By God’s grace He justified us and filled us with the gift of promise, holy spirit. We are called to freedom that we might serve one another in love.
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. GALATIANS 5:1
For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. GALATIANS 5:13