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Gentile (from Latin gentilis, by the French gentil, feminine: gentille, meaning of or belonging to a clan or tribe) is an ethnonym that commonly means non-Jew. Other groups that claim Israelite heritage sometimes use the term to describe outsiders.
The term is used by English translators for the Hebrew גוי (goy) and נכרי (nokhri) in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek word ἔθνη (éthnē) in the New Testament. The term "gentiles" is derived from Latin, used for contextual translation, and not an original Hebrew or Greek word from the Bible. The original words goy and ethnos refer to "peoples" or "nations". Latin and later English translators selectively used the term "gentiles" when the context for the base term "peoples" or "nations" referred to non-Israelite peoples or nations in English translations of the Bible.
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"Gentile" derives from Latin gentilis, which itself derives from the Latin gens (from which, together with forms of the cognate Greek word genos, also derive gene, general, genus, genesis, gentry, and gentleman) meaning clan or tribe. Gens derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵénh₁tis. The original meaning of "clan" or "family" was extended in post-Augustan Latin to acquire the wider meaning of belonging to a distinct nation or ethnicity. Later still, the word came to refer to other nations, 'not a Roman citizen'.
In the Bible
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In Saint Jerome's Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, gentilis was used in this wider sense, along with gentes, to translate Greek and Hebrew words with similar meanings when the text referred to the non-Hebrew peoples.
The most important of such Hebrew words was goyim (singular, goy), a term with the broad meaning of "peoples" or "nations" which was sometimes used to refer to Israelites, but most commonly as a generic label for peoples. Strong's Concordance defines goy as "nation, people, usually of non-Hebrew people, or of descendants of Abraham, or of Israel, or of a swarm of locusts or other animals (fig.) Goyim = 'nations'." Strongs #1471
In the King James Version, "Gentile" is only one of several words used to translate goy or goyim. It is translated as "nation" 374 times, "heathen" 143 times, "Gentiles" 30 times, and "people" 11 times. Some of these verses, such as Genesis 12:2 ("I will make of thee a great nation") and Genesis 25:23 ("Two nations are in thy womb") refer to Israelites or descendants of Abraham. Other verses, such as Isaiah 2:4 and Deuteronomy 11:23 are generic references to any nation. Typically, the KJV restricts the translation to "Gentile" when the text is specifically referring to non-Hebrew people. For example, the only use of the word in Genesis is in chapter 10, verse 5, referring to the peopling of the world by descendants of Japheth, "By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations."
In the New Testament, the Greek word ethnos is used for peoples or nations in general, and is typically translated by the word "people", as in John 11:50 ("Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."). The translation "Gentiles" is used in some instances, as in Matthew 10:5–6 to indicate non-Israelite peoples:
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: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
In that instance, Gentiles becomes a reference to pagan cultures of the period.
The Greek ethnos where translated as "gentile" in the context of Early Christianity implied non-Israelite. A question existed among the disciples whether receiving the Holy Spirit through proselytization would be restricted to Israelites or whether it would include the gentiles (the Greco-Roman population of the Roman Empire), as in Acts 10:34–47:
And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?
Attached to this question was the circumcision controversy in early Christianity, i.e., does a gentile need to follow all of the Mosaic Laws? The position of the Judaizers was that this was a necessity for salvation. The Council of Jerusalem decided to give the new converts four things that they had to do.
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.
Within a few centuries, Christians used the word "Gentiles" to mean non-Christians. The alternative pagani was felt to be less elegant.
Some translations of the Quran such as the famous Pickthall translation, employed the word gentile in some instances of the translation of the Arabic word "Al-ummīyīn (الْأُمِّيِّينَ)". For example, in the following verse:
Among the People of the Scripture there is he who, if thou trust him with a weight of treasure, will return it to thee. And among them there is he who, if thou trust him with a piece of gold, will not return it to thee unless thou keep standing over him. That is because they say: We have no duty to the Gentiles. They speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly. - Quran 3:75
As in the King James Bible, from the 17th century onward, "gentile" was most commonly used to refer to non-Jews, in the context of European Christian societies with a Jewish minority. So "gentile" commonly meant persons brought up in the Christian faith, as opposed to the adherents of Judaism, and was not typically used to refer to non-Jews in non-Western cultures.
"Gentile" also appears in compounds such as "antigentilism", hostility of Jews to non-Jews.
LDS Church usage
In the terminology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the word "gentile" takes on different meanings in different contexts which may confuse some and alienate others. Members of the LDS Church regard themselves as regathered Israelites, so sometimes use the word "gentile" to refer to all non-members. According to John L. Needham of Utah State University, "Mormons in the American West applied 'gentile', as an adjective as much as a slur, to nearly everyone and everything that did not adhere to their faith or desert kingdom." Because they had suffered persecution, the word gentile was "a call to circle the wagons socially and politically around the fold." In such usage, Jews may be colloquially referred to as "gentiles" because they are not members of the LDS Church. However, the traditional meaning is also to be found in the introduction to the Book of Mormon, in the statement written to both "Jew" (literal descendants of the House of Israel) and "Gentile" (those not descended from the House of Israel or those of the tribe of Ephraim scattered among the "Gentiles" throughout the earth). Needham writes that Mormons have "outgrown the term."
To avoid confrontation and pejorative connotations, Latter-day Saints now avoid using the word "gentile" in everyday matters, preferring "non-member". "Gentile" is usually reserved for discussions of scriptural passages.
- "Gentile." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 6 June 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gentile>.
- John L. Needham, "The Mormon-Gentile Dichotomy in PMLA", PMLA, Vol. 114, No. 5 (October 1999), pp. 1109–1110
- kind”; in: M. Philippa e.a., Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands
- Searched  for goy.
- Genesis 10:5
- Matthew chapter 10:5–6
- Did a search for "Gentile" in KJV. Used BibleGateway.com. It returned 123 results of the word "Gentile". Retrieved 11 Feb 2007.
- Kohlenberger, John. The NRSV Concordance Unabridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.
- Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press 2010 ISBN 978-0-19978091-4), p. 16
- Marcus, Jacob Rader. "Judeophobia and Antigentilism" in States Jewry, 1776–1985: Volume III The Germanic Period, Part 2, pp. 359–360. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-8143-2188-1. "Yet very few Jews were antigentilic. Despite his occasional hostility Wise was particularly close to liberal Christian religious groups. But where Judaism, the religion was concerned, neither Wise nor any other Jewish leader made any concessions to Christianity, not in substance."
- "Utah Jewish History". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
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