I'm trying to figure out if ἔθνη (Gentiles) and Ἕλληνες (Greeks)1 envision different (presumably overlapping) groups, emphasize different aspects of the same group, or are simply interchangeable.2,3

This came up when comparing Romans 2:9-10 with 2:14.

Rom 2:9,10 (NASB) "There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek (Ἕλληνος·), but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Ἕλληνι·)".

Rom 2:14 (NASB) "For when Gentiles (ἔθνη) who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,"

A couple observations:

  • He uses ἔθνη much more frequently (48 vs 13 times).4
  • I wondered if he was just using Ἕλλην when a singular was needed, but 6 of the 13 instances use a plural form.
  • Ἕλλην nearly always stands in distinction to Ἰουδαῖος (except once with βάρβαρος instead (Rom 1:14) and once referring to Titus specifically (Gal 2:3)).

Is there any distinction between these two words on Paul's writing?


  1. I think these are the most obvious translations, although the AV has some interesting variations and flips them both directions.
  2. Obviously in the technical sense, ἔθνη is more broad, assuming Paul was aware of the existence of people who were neither Greek nor Jew (βάρβαροι I suppose). I'm not sure how technically he was thinking.
  3. BDAG includes as the more broad definition of Ἕλλην(ες): "all persons who came under the influence of Greek, as distinguished from Israel’s, culture"; ἔθνη here defined are "people groups foreign to a specific people group" further elaborated as "those who do not belong to groups professing faith in the God of Israel"
  4. Here I included all 13 letters I consider Pauline. I counted those instances translated by the ESV as "Gentiles" or "pagans" but not those translated as "nations." There are only a couple potentially ambiguous; I was going for rough estimates here.

There are 24 occurrences of Ἕλλην in the Christian New Testament, of which 13 occurrences appear by the hand of Paul. On the other hand, there are 151 occurrences of ἔθνος in the Christian New Testament, of which 48 occurrences appear by the hand of Paul.

A survey of uses and translations of the occurrences of both words show particular tendencies in the Christian New Testament. That is, Paul uses ἔθνος in reference not only to the unbelieving pagan nations in general, but also to non-Jewish believers in particular (Rom 11:13; Rom 15:27; Gal 2:12; Eph 3:1). Likewise, Luke and John use Ἕλλην in reference to non-Jewish believers in particular (Jn 12:20 and Acts 17:4), but like Paul, they use the term to refer to the Greek-speaking peoples of the world in general (which includes ethnic Greeks).

In summary, Paul tends an occasional use of ἔθνος in reference to non-Jewish believers (but chooses not to use Ἕλλην in this regard); and, on the other hand, Luke and John tend to an occasional use of Ἕλλην in reference to non-Jewish believers (but choose not to use ἔθνος in this regard). In either case, both Greek words refer to the non-Jewish people and/or Greek-speaking nations of the earth in general.

  • If you have access to Jstore this might interest you: jstor.org/stable/4145899?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents – fdb Jun 9 '18 at 21:09

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