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Ethnicity This word, ethnos, from what we get ethnic or ethnicity simply means a nation or nationality. It could refer to any people group around the world (or as far the N.T. is concerned, the inhabitable Roman Empire).

But most English translations (versions) translate this with the word, Gentile. However, in ancient Roman times, and modern times as well, this word is tinged with a bit of disparaging color. It reflects a demeaning attitude to those considered "outsiders" or looking down as "foreigners." It goes beyond "people of an ethnic culture," and tends to look down on a group as an "inferior race."

Charitable Spirit In the Spirit of the New Testament, which announces God's love for the whole world without discrimination, ought Bible translators move over to a tendency of up-grading their versions to reflect this Divine charity? Translate ethos with a more neutral word as "nation" or "people". (See for example, Matthew 28:19, Go make disciples of all nations..., and Acts 2:5, God-fearing Jews from every nation.) INSTEAD OF like Acts 15:17, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my Name, or Romans 1:5, We received grace and Apostleship to call people from among the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith...

Should this New Testament Greek word be translated straight into the English language, instead of traversing through the Latin language and picking up evil connotations, eh?

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I am not sure the lexicons alone will help us here, or at least not the Greek lexicons.


In the Greek New Testament, James is quoting from the Septuagint version of Amos:

After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things (Acts 15:16-17, KJV)

In that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and will rebuild the ruins of it, and will set up the parts thereof that have been broken down, and will build it up as in the ancient days: that the remnant of men, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called, may earnestly seek me, saith the Lord who does all these things (Amos 9:11-12 LXX, Brenton)

The Masoretic text version of this passage is (KJV):

In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, And close up the breaches thereof; And I will raise up his ruins, And I will build it as in the days of old: That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen, Which are called by my name, Saith the LORD that doeth this.

The word which the Septuagint has translated as ἔθνος is גּוֹי (gôy) in the Masoretic Text - heathen in the KJV. The Masoretic Text reads that they may possess the remnant of Edom and groups the gôy with that remnant, but the Septuagint text which James cites seems more universal: that the remnant of men (οἱ κατάλοιποι τῶν ἀνθρώπων) ...

The Jewish interpretation of Amos, given the reference to the remnant of Edom, sees the verses referring to pagan enemies (heathen), but a Christian interpretation might lean more on what is in the Septuagint: ... that the remnant of man ....

I think that nations rather than Gentiles would be clearer here, but almost every translation (except the YLT) chooses Gentiles, even though many of the same versions translate the Masoretic Text version of Amos using the word nations instead of Gentiles or heathen (e.g. NASB, ESV).

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BDAG offers two broad meanings of the word ἔθνος (ethnos):

  1. a body of persons united by kinship, culture, and common traditions, nation, people, eg, Acts 8:9, 10:22, John 11:48, 50, 18:35, 13;19, etc
  2. people groups foreign to a specific people group (a nationalistic expression, also usually in Greek for foreigners)
  • (a) those who do not to groups expressing faith in the God of Israel, the nations, gentiles, unbelievers, eg, Matt 10:18, Acts 11:1, 18, 14:5, 27, 15:3, 7, 17, 21:21, 26:17, Rom 3:29, 9:24, 15:10, etc.
  • (b) non-Israelite Christians, gentiles, eg, Rom 16:4, Gal 2:12, Eph 3:1, Matt 6:32, Luke 12:30, etc.

Now, the OP's questions turns on the matter of whether "ethos" in Acts 15 should fall into the meaning of 2(a) or 2(b) above. It is not "1" above.

The answer lies in the reason that the Jerusalem council was called and the matter at dispute - it follows from the dispute that naturally arose from Peter's experience with the centurion - a non-Jew (ie, "gentile" in today's lexicon) became a Christian.

This was the central question at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 - could a non-Jew be a Christian?? (See Acts 15:1-6 - "circumcision was the step to being a Jew.)

Thus, in Acts 15:3, 5, 7, 12, 14, 17, 19, 23, etc, "ethos" should be uniformly translated, "gentile(s)" - the same as Acts 10:45, 11:1, 13:46, 14:2, 5, 27.

[I note that other instances should be better rendered "nations", eg, Acts 17:26, 24:10, etc.]

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This answers your question:

And I will make of you a great nation [גּוֹי MT, ἔθνος LXX], and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
(Gen. 12:2, ESV)

Ethnic is a technical term not the meaning of the Greek word, just as agriculture is taken from the Greek word for field. In the Bible there is no difference between nations and Gentiles other than the singular Gentile is a person from another nation, but translating as Gentile is a matter of context, and translating ἔθνος as Gentile is interpreting the word with a Jewish meaning of גּוֹי rather than its Greek meaning. Of course, Gentile only makes sense after Israel became a nation in Exodus.

In the Bible גּוֹי and ἔθνος mean both nation and Gentile. If you translate גּוֹי from modern Hebrew to modern Greek, you get ειδωλολάτρης, idol worshiper.

Acts 15:17 is quoting the Old Testament in the middle of writing about the Jerusalem council concerning the Gentiles, thus the translation Gentiles. However, a Gentile reading Acts at that time would probably interpret τὰ ἔθνη as the nations unless they were very familiar with Jewish culture.

While God's love for the nations is as you mention, this was not immediately recognized by many of the first century Christians who were predominantly Jewish. Look at Paul's letter to the Galatians, where some Christians wanted the Gentiles in Galatia to essentially become Jewish (Gal. 2:14), thus the translation Gentiles in Acts 15:17. Translating גּוֹי and ἔθνος is a matter of context.

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  • @PerryWebb-Good point! Would the people Paul is ministering to be offended at being called "pagans" or "heathens" instead of just nationals or ethnic groups? The interaction of Paul and Peter in Antioch would seem that Paul wanted them to be loved as anyone else and embraced equally! (Gal.2:11-21) And we must not forget that Gentile is a Latin word, neither Hebrew nor Greek...so it was not in the N.T. vocabulary, especially if they adopted the LXX (Massoretic text was not in existence back then; it came later in history, or am I mistaken about that?). Thanks for input!
    – ray grant
    Jun 30, 2023 at 21:38
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    All Peoples The last part of the verse, quoted at the beginning of this Answer, adds meat to this discussion: And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you! (Genesis 12:3b)...
    – ray grant
    Jul 1, 2023 at 23:22
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Ethnos ,Gk. The word, ethnos, occurred 164 times in the N.T. It is translated as GENTLES 93x, NATION 64x, HEATHEN 5x, PEOPLE 2x, in the King James Version.

When examining the flow chart of the History of Translations, it is seen that the Latin Vulgate of Jerome (Hieronymus) was a major spring-board for our versions. (4th century) And it is a legitimate question for research as to how much influence it had on our present versions. Can it be that it has too much influence on the vocabulary we've transliterated? Case in point is our posting: Gentile. This Latin word was not in the original Greek New Testament. And yet it is used abundantly throughout our English Bibles.

Mystery It is a mystery that the Greek LXX used the remnant of men, and all the 'nations' in its rendition of Amos 9:12---and so do the English translators. YET when it is quoted in Acts 15:17, the majority of translators of the New Testament use, rather, GENTILE as the word in this quote, instead of "nation." (The Latin, Gentilis, of Jerome, even though the Greek word is ethnos, the same as in Amos.)

Ecumenical Letter Notice that the letter to the new pioneer churches contained the word, ethnos. It did not use the more derogatory or tainted words: eidololatres or hoiethnikoi or ethnikos. (Idol worshippers, heathen, pagan) Should not the modern translators follow suit of the inspired Apostolic letter writers, instead of Jerome?

Universality The conclusion is best presented by the quotation of the verse brought to our attention by the insightful Perry Webb: I will make you a great nation (ethnos) and I will bless you, and I will make your name great...and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2-3) If it is okay for Abraham to be a "nation" then it is okay for those who "bear the Name of God" to be simply "nations" and not despised people groups of a second-class nature as gentile implies. This would best convey the charitable and gracious message of Christ's Amazing Grace.

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