Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Gentile. N.T. word for a person who was not a Jew. Same as nations. Matt. 5:47; Mark 10:42; Acts 11:1; Rom. 2:14; 1 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 2:14.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

gentile (from Latin gens, ‘nation’), a non-Jew. The distinction has its roots in the ot in the seven nations (Heb. goyim) not driven completely from the land (Josh. 24:11). According[D to several traditions, the Israelite was enjoined to maintain strict separation from them in matters of religion, marriage, and politics (Exod. 23:28-33; Deut. 7:1-5; Josh. 23:4-13), although, historically speaking, the amount of interchange between Israel and the peoples of the land seems to have been considerable. Only in postbiblical Hebrew did it become possible to speak of an individual ‘Gentile’ (goy) as, after Ezra, the Jewish community began to close ranks in the wake of the Exile.

Jew and Gentile: The distinction between Jew and Gentile is related to a tension between universalism and particularism. The Isaianic tradition spoke of Israel as ‘a light to the nations’ (Isa. 42:6; cf. 60:3). In the latter days, the nations would flow to Jerusalem to learn Torah (Isa. 2:2-4) or to participate in the coming reign of God (45:22-24; 51:4-5). On the other hand, in an effort to establish a separation between Jew and Gentile, Ezra and Nehemiah commanded Jews in Jerusalem to divorce their non-Jewish wives—not just those of the seven nations (Ezra 9-10; Neh. 10:30; 13:23-31). Ruth and Jonah seem to be parables written to protest this action in the name of a more universal understanding of God’s care for his human creation.

The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha give evidence of a wall being erected between Jew and Gentile (see 2 Macc. 14:38), although expressions of universalism are still found. The claim that the world was created for Israel alone (T. Moses 1:12; 2 Esd. 6:56) contrasts sharply with echoes of the Isaianic ‘light to the nations’ (T. Levi 2:11; 14:4; Tob. 13:11; T. Judah 24:5-6; 1 Enoch 10:21). Ecclus. 11:34 warns against receiving a stranger into your household, lest your way of life become alienated. The prohibition of mixed marriages became a central concern (Tob. 4:12-13; T. Levi 9:10; 14:6). Other areas in which separateness was particularly apparent include food (Dan. 1:8-15; Tob. 1:10-12), circumcision (1 Macc. 1:11-15), and avoidance of the idolatry characteristic of Gentile society (1 Macc. 3:48). 1 Maccabees 1 presents in bold relief the contrast between life according to Jewish and Gentile law and custom. While it was possible for a Gentile to become a proselyte, many of those attracted to Jewish monotheism became ‘God-fearers’ (Acts 10:2; 13:16) rather than undergo circumcision and keep the food laws required of full converts.

Rabbinic attitudes toward Gentiles vary depending upon the conditions of Jewish life. The righteous Gentile was expected to keep the seven Noachian laws (Gen. Rab., Noah, 34:8) and, according to some, would be given a place in the world to come (t. Sanh. 13:2). The Jew was to deal honestly with Gentiles in order to avoid profanation of the name of God (Abod. Zar. 26a) and was obligated to relieve their poor (Gittin 61a). The charging of interest to Gentile as well as Jew was prohibited (B. Mes. 70b-71a). On the other hand, one finds polemics directed against Gentiles for their idolatry and immorality as well as regulations designed to maintain Jewish separateness—for example, prohibitions against wines and cooked foods prepared by Gentiles.

In the Early Christian Community: The development of Christianity, which began as a Jewish movement, was profoundly affected by the success of the Gentile mission undertaken by the apostle Paul and others. The Jerusalem conference of about the year a.d. 49 determined that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to become Jewish proselytes (Gal. 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-35), thus opening membership in the Christian community to those who might otherwise have remained ‘God-fearers.’ Paul fought efforts to distinguish between Jew and Gentile in the Christian community (Rom. 3:29-30; Gal. 2:11-21; 3:26-29). He was opposed by the Judaizers or ‘circumcision party’ (Gal. 2:12), Christians who insisted that Gentile converts become Jewish proselytes. Paul’s practice furthered the success of Christianity within the empire and led to its emergence as a distinct religion by the end of the first century.

As a result of the controversy over the role of Gentiles in the church, it is difficult to determine the attitude of Jesus himself, since both sides seem to have affected the preservation of the Jesus tradition. Some scholars suggest that Jesus understood the activity of the Messiah in traditional terms as directed toward the Jewish people (Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24) with, perhaps, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the final rule of God. On the other hand, Jesus does not seem to have been a supporter of Jewish nationalism, and some of his more radical sayings and actions (Matt. 21:31; Mark 11:15; Luke 10:30-35) suggest that he proclaimed a kingdom that confronted men and women rather than Jew and Gentile.

Bibliography Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus’ Promise to the Nations. Translated by S. H. Hooke. Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1958. Manson, Thomas Walter. Jesus and the Non-Jews. London: Athlone, 1955. Montefiore, Claude G., and Herbert Loewe. A Rabbinic Anthology. New York: Schocken, 1974.

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