When is a Gentile Not a Gentile (or Pagan or Heathen)?

The purple wildflower, heather, covers much of rural Scotland. In early medieval times, a person living among these heather fields, was considered to be a "heathen," or "from the countryside." However, in Christian usage, the term has taken on a number of meanings, sometimes controversial.

The purple wildflower, heather, covers much of rural Scotland. In early medieval times, a person living among these heather fields, was considered to be a “heathen,” or “from the countryside,” or “from the heath.” However, in Christian usage, the term has taken on a number of meanings, sometimes controversial.

A question came up the other night in a Bible study. When we read Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus is describing the principles of church discipline. If someone who claims to be a Christian, but who acts in a non-Christian manner and will not change their behavior, what is the rest of the community supposed to do?

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matt 18:15-17 ESV)

Jesus’ use of the description “Gentile” for someone who is making up their own rules for Christian behavior sounds confusing. Are there not “Gentiles” who are genuine Christians? If someone is already a “Gentile,” that is a non-Jewish person, how can you then be disciplined and treated as a “Gentile?” How do we make sense of this?

Gentiles (and Pagans and Heathens)

Sometimes we can toss words around without really understanding the context for what these words mean. The term “Gentile” is a case in point.

Generally speaking, yes, a “Gentile” could be understood as someone who is not Jewish. A good example is found in the NIV translation’s rendering of Romans 1:16, where Paul talks about the Gospel being delivered, “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” But the ancient Greek understanding of “Gentile” is somewhat ambiguous, apart from its literary context.

The word “Gentile” comes from the Latin gentilis, meaning “of the same family, clan, or nation.” Based on the Greek New Testament in Matthew 18:17, the ESV uses this word, “Gentile,” to translate the Greek word ethnikos, into our English. The term ethnikos has a variety of meanings, like “of the nations,” so the ESV translators decided to stay inline with the Latin Vulgate’s translation of gentilis, for this word:

“let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (ESV).”

But since this word Gentile is a bit ambiguous, other translations render this part of Matthew 18:17 a little differently, such as:

“treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector (NIV 2011)”

 “let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (KJV).”

So, you would then have someone who is not really behaving like a genuine Christian described as a Gentile, pagan, or heathen. Essentially, the point Jesus is making as that such a person should be treated as though they were no longer a member of the worshipping community.

But then we have those interesting words, pagan and heathen. Both words have interesting etymologies. The word “pagan” has a Latin root, meaning “from the country.” The word “heathen” has a Germanic root, possibly meaning “dweller on the heath, one inhabiting uncultivated land.

When I was a kid, I took a trip to Scotland. Across the rolling fields in rural Scotland, I would see acres and acres of purple flowers. This grassland area was called the “heath.” The purple flower was “heather.”

During the early medieval era, the dominance of Christianity in Western Europe was mainly in the cities. The older, animistic type of belief systems were still practiced mostly in the rural areas. This led Christians in those times to consider practitioners of non-Christian faith as being pagans or heathens, and so the terms just stuck.

Today, the term heathen often sounds archaic to the modern ear, perhaps referring to “an uncivilized person,” whereas pagan has taken a meaning associated with the revival of these old, European religious beliefs, such as practiced by the Druids and the Wiccans. But whether you mean a person from a rural area, an uncivilized person, a practitioner of non-Christian faith, or simply someone who is not Jewish, the terms themselves, Gentile, pagan and heathen, that have taken these various connotations over time, are valid translations of the original Greek ethnikos, depending on the context. Or as in the case of Matthew 18:17, it could mean someone in the church who is refusing to subject themselves to church discipline. Jesus teaches that you are then to treat the person as though they are no longer part of the community.

This brief exploration of what is a Gentile, pagan, and heathen illustrates an important principle for when we study the Bible. When we read a certain word in the Bible, we must be careful not to jump to conclusions as to what that word means. Study it in context. Learn its history. After all, that is why our English translations can differ so much, as they will sometimes render the Biblical text differently in order to illuminate important perspectives on the original context. The issue is far from trivial since there have been many disputes over terms like “Gentile,” “non-Jew,” “pagan,” “heathen,” and other related terms in the history of Biblical interpretation for centuries.

Food for thought.



About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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