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16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16, NIV

Can the "go and make disciples of all nations" be translated to "go and make disciples of all gentiles"?

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  • 1
    No, because gentile means national (an individual belonging to a nation), not nation (see gens); so, either translate it as all gentes (which, while grammatically correct, sounds odd or awkward, since it is not a proper English term), or all types of gentiles (which sounds needlessly complicated).
    – Lucian
    Oct 12, 2021 at 18:48
  • Personally, I think the word should be translated consistently across the board as "nations" or some similar English word and allow Bible readers to get used to the range of contextual meaning.
    – Austin
    Oct 13, 2021 at 3:30

4 Answers 4

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The original word in Greek that is translated here as "nations" is the word "ethnos." That is the same word from which we derive the word "ethnic" in English. It refers to different races.

The word "Gentile" refers to non-Jews, and hints more at religion as its basis for distinction. The Jews are, however, an ethnic group, which means that the word would include Jews, just as "nations" also would; whereas "Gentiles" would exclude them.

There is a separate Greek word, Ἕλλην (Hellen), that can mean non-Jews more specifically; but that is not the word used here in the text in question.

Conclusion

The word "nations" more closely matches the original meaning of the Greek in this passage.

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Matthew 28:19 New International Version

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Good News Translation

Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

Literal Emphasis Translation

Go therefore, disciple all the ethnicities, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit;

The Greek word G1484 ἔθνος (ethnos) appears 163 times.

NIV translated this word in Matthew 28:19 as "nations". The same word in Matthew 10:18 was translated by NIV differently:

On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.

Can the "go and make disciples of all nations" be translated to "go and make disciples of all gentiles"?

Sure. However, how well does this work?

At https://biblehub.com/parallel/matthew/28-19.htm, 47 versions out of 49 translate it as "nations". None translates it as "Gentiles".

Does this contradict any other parts of the Bible if we understand it to mean "Gentiles"?

It is a dangerous practice to blindly translate ἔθνος as "Gentile" everywhere because ἔθνος has a range of meanings:

NASB Translation
Gentiles (93), nation (30), nations (37), pagans (1), people (2).

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  • Interesting. Does this contradict any other parts of the Bible if we understand it to mean "Gentiles"?
    – Luke Hill
    Oct 12, 2021 at 16:06
  • Good followup. I added :)
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 12, 2021 at 16:17
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Does the translation of "nations" to "gentiles" work?

Technically, yes, but note two explanations.

The study note for Matthew 28:19 gives an interesting explanation:

people of all the nations: A literal translation reads “all nations,” but the context indicates that this term refers to individuals out of all nations, since the Greek pronoun “them” in the expression baptizing them is in the masculine gender and refers to people, not to “nations,” which is neuter in Greek. This command to reach “people of all the nations” was new. Prior to Jesus’ ministry, the Scriptures indicate that Gentiles were welcomed to Israel if they came to serve Jehovah. (1Ki 8:41-43) With this command, however, Jesus commissions his disciples to extend the preaching work to people other than natural Jews, emphasizing the worldwide scope of the Christian disciple-making work.​—Mt 10:1, 5-7; Re 7:9; see study note on Mt 24:14.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, p. 596) under the entry for Matthew 28:19 gives this explanation:

The words panta ta ethnē (“all nations”) have been understood primarily in two ways.

  1. They refer to all Gentiles—i.e., all nations except Israel. Israel has forfeited her place, and now the preaching of the Gospel must be kept from her (so Hare, Jewish Persecutions, pp. 147–48; Walker, pp. 111–13; D.R.A. Hare and D.J. Harrington, “`Make Disciples of All the Gentiles’ (Mt 28–19),” CBQ 37 [1975]: 359–69).

  2. They refer to all people, including Israel (so Trilling, pp. 26–28; Hill, Matthew; Hubbard, Matthean Reaction, pp. 84–87; John P. Meier, “Nations or Gentiles in Matthew 28:19?” CBQ 39 [1977]: 94–102; O’Brien, pp. 262–63).

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]

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In the New Testament ἔθνος means gentiles more often than nations. From the standpoint of a Jew, nations and gentiles are equal. However, considering Peter's vision in Acts 10, apparently the disciples initially took it to mean the dysphoria (the Jews scattered in those nations). It took Peter's vision and the Damascus rood (Paul) to change things.

Senses of ἔθνος in New Testament (Logos Bible Software).

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Hebrew words ἔθνος translates in the LXX for the MT. Most common is גֹּוי, which is what modern Jews call a gentile.

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In the Old Testament גֹּוי has the sense of foreign nation, but translations usually don't use gentile.

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Very likely when Jesus said "all nations" it was כָּל הַגּוֹיִים the plural form with the article.

וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ בֹ֔ו כֹּ֖ל גֹּויֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ (from Gen. 18:18, MT).

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