In English, “Gentile” usually refers to a person from a nation other than Israel (although some people use it to refer to people of a different religion to themselves). Because the Bible is a translation from other languages, and because it was written over a long period of time, when the word “Gentile” occurs in the Bible the story is a little more complicated.

In the Old Testament, “Gentiles” occurs 30 times in the KJV (but much less often in most modern translations) and is always a translation of goy (plural goyim). The Hebrew word occurs 559 times and it is translated (in the KJV) as nations (266x), heathen (143x), nation (109x), gentiles (30x) or people (11x). So primarily the word goy means nation or people. It is used of Israel in some passages; for example, when God promised Abraham (Genesis 12:2) that his descendants would form a “great nation”, the Hebrew phrase is goy gadol. Another example is Genesis 25:23. Over time, the word changed its meaning slightly and the later books of the Old Testament tend to apply the word only to other nations, not to Israel. By Roman times (and so New Testament times), the word goy had come to exclusively mean a non-Jewish nation. The word continued to evolve, and came to be applied to an individual belonging to a non-Jewish nation, which is how it is used in modern Hebrew and Yiddish.

In the New Testament, “Gentile” or “Gentiles” occurs 93 times in the KJV (and about the same number in most modern translations). It is usually a translation of the Greek word ethnos which is also translated (in the KJV) as nations, nation, heathen and people. Jesus uses it specifically of non-Jewish nations in Matthew 10:5:

These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles (ethnos) and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

However, in Luke 7:5, the word is used of the nation of Israel:

… for he loves our nation (ethnos), and he is the one who built us our synagogue.”

Fortunately, it is always clear from the context whether the nation referred to is Israel or the non-Jewish nations. The English translations of the Bible have clarified the meaning by using “Gentile” whenever it is clear that non-Jewish nations are intended.

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  • Rickey

    Are you really satisfied with this answer? If you read Romans, Paul says this (Rom 9:24-26 KJV) – “(24) Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (25) As he saith also in Hosea, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. (26) 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.”
    Nowhere in the Bible were all of Israel referred to as Jews, they were sent into “diaspora” amongst the “gentiles” or nations. (Hsa 8:8 KJV) – “(8) Israel is swallowed up: now shall they be among the Gentiles as a vessel wherein [is] no pleasure.”
    Israel was among the Gentiles or nations, not Judah, who are the Jews. So who did Paul call “gentiles” in this verse, was it the house of Israel, of whom Hosea was talking about in the verse that Paul quotes. (Hsa 1:4, 6-7, 9-11 KJV) – “(4) And the LORD said unto him, Call his name Jezreel; for yet a little [while], and I will avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu, and will cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel. … (6) And she conceived again, and bare a daughter. And [God] said unto him, Call her name Loruhamah: for I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away. (7) But I will have mercy upon the house of Judah, and will save them by the LORD their God, and will not save them by bow, nor by sword, nor by battle, by horses, nor by horsemen. … (9) Then said [God], Call his name Loammi: for ye [are] not my people, and I will not be your [God]. (10) Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered; and it shall come to pass, [that] in the place where it was said unto them, Ye [are] not my people, [there] it shall be said unto them, [Ye are] the sons of the living God. (11) Then shall the children of Judah and the children of Israel be gathered together, and appoint themselves one head, and they shall come up out of the land: for great [shall be] the day of Jezreel.”
    Paul is declaring that this prophesy is coming to past in his day, so the “gentiles” or nations are the house of Israel, the Jews are the house of Judah.

    • Rob J Hyndman

      You have misunderstand the use of “Jew”. See http://bibleq.info/answer/2965/

      As for the northern tribes, being “among the Gentiles” did not make them Gentiles. In Rom 9:6 Paul says ” For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”. So he is talking about descendants of Israel (i.e., all 12 tribes) in contrast to other nations.

  • juliet chadzingwa

    I want to agree with the comment by Rickey but why did he put Gentiles in inverted commas. The Lord had dispersed house of Israel among the Gentiles, He could not call them Israel as He was divorced from them. So they were “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” or the Gentiles, depending on whether they were located in Northern Israel, former Israel, or in the diaspora, among the Gentiles. They obviously took up Gentile traditions and names as the Lord had said that they would be a by-word, or a proverb among the nations.

    Yes Paul was sent to the lost people of Israel that is why he used to meet them in the Synagogues. The pagan Gentiles would not have built themselves synagogues. These people of Israel, were among the early Christians.

    The word of God Almighty is very good. Blessed are those who walk in His light

    • Rob J Hyndman

      Jesus said ““Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5). So it is nonsense to say that the Gentiles = the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

  • Moses Chikwekwete Mbano

    Firstly i would like to thank you for the good answer. I have looked into a variety of answers from good and reputable historian writers and i find that you have satisfactorily given me what i wanted. It is so confusing to find that many preachers would say “do not be like gentiles” hence all Christians ARE GENTILES.

    THANK YOU VERY MUCH1

  • Jesse Hanna

    I would say that Gentile would typically reference those without God. Since in various translations HEATHEN is depicted.

    hea·then   [hee-thuhn] Show IPA noun, plural -thens, -then, adjective
    noun
    1.
    an unconverted individual of a people that do not acknowledge the God of the Bible; a person who is neither a Jew.
    2.
    an irreligious, uncultured, or uncivilized person.

    Read these scriptures and and see if you should be still called a GENTILE.

    Romans 11:16For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.

    17And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;

    Colossians 3:11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.

    Galatians 3:26For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.

    27For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

    28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

    29And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

    According to the Bible to be a CHRISTIAN you MUST accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. You do not go to heaven because of your nationality or origin of decent.