Gentiles, pagans and heathen – what do those words really mean?

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This article takes a closer look at the concepts “gentile”, “pagan” and “heathen”. Some people have, without knowing the actual meaning of those words, used them of other people, or of other nations, sometimes in a contemptuous manner. Some talk about “paganism” or “heathenism”, or use some similar words. That is often connected to a thought or feeling that people in one’s own church, country or nation are “enlightened” or “God’s people” or “God’s elect”, while others are considered to be “heathen”, “pagans”, “gentiles” or something similar.

The following takes a closer look at those words and concepts, what they actually mean and refer to, and what the relevant Hebrew and Greek words in the Scriptures are.

The word ‘gentiles’.

The origin of the noun “gentile” is that it comes from the old Latin word gentilis which was used both as a noun and an adjective, in the meaning “the nations” and “of the nations”.

Most of the passages where many bible-translations have “gentiles”, refer to non-Israelites, non-Jews – people of other nations than Israel. Background: The makers of the Catholic Vulgate version translated the Hebrew noun goyim (“nations”) and the Greek ethnoi (“nations”) into Latin as gentilis which had the same meaning. That Latin word was then copied into English bible-versions, in the anglicised form “gentiles”.

Over time, people in English-speaking “Christian” nations began to use the word “gentiles” of people in other areas of the world, but that has nothing to do with the Bible or the Bible’s use of the Hebrew and Greek words in question.

Some notes:

In most of the Old Testament passages where for instance the 1769 edition of king James’ bible has “gentile” or “heathen”, the Hebrew text has gowy, “nation”, “people”. (Short form goy, plural goyim.) Here, it must be noted that the KJV translates gowy in different ways. It renders that word 374 times as “nation”, 143 as “heathen”, and 30 times as “gentiles”. Sometimes, it renders gowy in different ways even within the same verse, both as “gentiles” and “nations” (Genesis 10:5, Isaiah 66:19).

In six places in the New Testament, the KJV renders even the word hellên (“Greek”) as “gentile” – John 7:35, Romans 2:9, 2:10 and 3:9, 1 Corinthians 10:32 and 12:13. In twenty other passages, it translates hellên as “Greek”.

The word ‘pagans’.

The word “pagans” comes from the Latin noun paganus which meant “rural people”, “villagers” (from pagus, “rural district”, “rural community”). That referred to people outside Rome, or outside the walls of some other Roman town. It appears that paganus, “villager”, was in ancient Rome a contemptuous word, just as the English words “heathen” and “peasant” are.

Over time, people in various “Christian” nations have in one way or another begun to view themselves as “God’s people”, and they have begun to use the word “pagan” of people of other ethnic background.

Some bible-translators have added the word “pagans” to certain passages, without any basis in the Hebrew or Greek text. An example: The Greek text of Acts 17:17 mentions tois ioudaiois kai tois sebomenois, “the Jews and the devout”, but in one bible-version that has been made into “the Jews and the pagans” which can confuse and mislead the reader. It is true that in the Greek text of Acts 17:17 the phrase tois sebomenois, “the devout”, probably refers to non-Jews, but again, the meaning of that Greek phrase is “the devout”, and not “pagans”.

Some bible-versions have “pagans” even in 1 Corinthians 12:2, such wordings as “when you were pagans” or “when you were gentiles”. But, the actual meaning of the Greek text of that verse is something like “you know that you non-Jews were led to [worship] dumb idols, being misled”.

A note: The 1769 KJ version does not contain the word “pagan”, but it appears in a some other bible-versions, as a “translation” of ethnoi or other Greek or Hebrew words.

Another note: The Latin text of the Vulgate version does not contain the word paganus.

The word ‘heathen’.

A note: The spelling is “heathen” even in plural, but some have used the form “heathens”.

It is thought that originally, the English word “heathen” probably referred to “people out on the heath” – rural people who lived outside the town walls. (The word “peasant” which is of French origin, from pais, “district”, “country”, has the same contemptuous meaning. “Country people”, “rural people”.)

In most of the New Testament passages where some bible-translations have “heathen” (or “pagans” or “gentiles”), the Greek text has ethnos (“nation”), ethnoi (“nations”), ethnikos (“of the nations”) or ethnikôs (“after the manner of the nations”). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word which some bible-translators have rendered as “heathen” is gowy, plural goyim, meaning “nations”.

Please note that for instance the KJV1769 translates gowy/goy/goyim in different ways – around 370 times as “nation(s)”, some 140 as “heathen”, 30 as “gentile(s)” and some 10 times as “people”. Likewise, it renders the Greek word ethnos in different ways; some 90 times as “gentiles”, around 60 as “nation” or “nations”, 5 as “heathen”, and 2 times as “people”.

For the people of ancient Greece, the word ethnoi referred to “foreigners”, non-Greek people, but Greek-speaking Jews used it in the meaning “non-Jews”, the way Aramaic- or Hebrew-speaking Jews used the word goyim (which likewise meant “nations”, referring to non-Jewish peoples). – Just as the Greek looked down on non-Greek people, so did the Jews look down on non-Jews.

Who are ‘pagans’, ‘heathen’ or ‘gentiles’, from the biblical point of view?

The ancient Israelites made a covenant with the Lord by Mount Sinai and became his people. The other nations did not have any covenant with him. But, when the Old Covenant came to its end, [a] the Israelites lost their special status (for the time being; until their still future restoration). – The ten northern tribes of Israel lost their covenant status much earlier than the southern tribes (the Jews); the Lord divorced the northern tribes because of their unfaithfulness. The Jews’ covenant status came to its end when Jesus came and made it possible to launch the New Covenant. – The Jews might have been joined to the New Covenant, but most of them rejected Jesus and the New Covenant.

In the future, Israel will be restored, but that has not happened yet. As of now, the Israelites have no covenant with the Lord. This means that from the biblical and covenant-related view, today people of all countries are “goyim”. God simply does not have any special nation here on Earth today.

(Appendix 1 has some notes on the origin and meaning of the English word “Jew”, and also on those people who since the 1800s have moved to the land of Israel and call themselves Jews.)

a The Old Covenant was a temporary arrangement which came on the scene because of transgressions, see Galatians 3:19. It was to last “until the Offspring should come to whom the promise had been made”, same verse – that is, until the coming of Jesus who is the Offspring of Abraham which that verse refers to. When Jesus came and then made his Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, it became possible to launch the New Covenant. When that happened, the Old Covenant had served its purpose and was set aside. The article eca086.htm has more on this.

The chauvinist concept of being an ‘elect nation’.

Over the centuries, many people in the western world have come to view their own country as “God’s chosen nation”, while considering people of some other nations to be “heathen”, “gentiles” or “pagans”. That is, of course, self-deception and self-glorification. As far as the Bible is concerned, only the ancient Israelites were God’s chosen nation; all others were goyim (“nations”). And, when the Old Covenant came to its end, the Israelites lost their special status (for the time being). Thus, today, no nation has a covenant with the Lord. No nation here on Earth has a special relationship with God.

A few notes: Some churches, especially Anglo-Israelist ones, have special dogmas which they connect to a concept of being a “chosen nation”. They claim that certain western nations consist of descendants of the patriarch Jacob (whose other name was Israel), and that they are “God’s chosen people”. Many of those churches sort (classify) people on ethnic grounds. Those who are not Anglo-Saxons (or at least West Europeans) are viewed as “pagans”, “gentiles” or “heathen”. The article eya097.htm has some notes on that matter.

The spiritual election which the saints received, had nothing to do with race or nationality.

(“Saints”: In this article, that word refer to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.)

The New Testament shows that when it comes to the New Covenant, God called people of different ethnic backgrounds. There was “neither Greek nor Jew”. Let us read something the apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Rome, Galatia and Colosse.

Romans 10:12 For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: [b] for the same Lord over all is rich to all that call on him. (AKJV, note sign added)

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, [b] there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (AKJV, note sign added)

Colossians 3:11 Where there is neither Greek [b] nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, [b] Scythian, [b] bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. (AKJV, note signs added)

The point here is that in New Testament times, God chose people from many nations. A significant part of the saints were non-Jews. In connection with the New Covenant, the Jews’ status as a “chosen nation” (which they had had under the Old Covenant), had lost its value. (Unfortunately, most Jews rejected Jesus and the New Covenant.)

b “Greek”, “Barbarian” and “Scythian” – appendix 2 has some notes on those words.

Can one become a part of ‘God’s elect’ or ‘God’s chosen people’, by joining some church?

Many people have been caused to think that they are “elect”, “called”, “chosen” and “saints”. Some church or preacher has told them that, and they gladly believe it. But, how is it really – does one become a “saint” or “elect” or “chosen”, by joining some church?

Many churches have let it be understood that they have a special relationship with God, and that their members are “saints”. In some cases, people even view those who do not attend the same church as they, as “heathen”, “pagans”, “gentiles” or something similar. Some churches have copied the originally Catholic “true church” dogma. They say that they are “the true church”, while others are said to be “heathen”, “pagans”, “gentiles”, or whatever.

But, the “true church” dogma is based on misleading translations of a verse in Matthew 16, a verse taken out of its context. That passage does not refer to a church, neither the Catholic one nor any other. That passage records that Jesus said that he would form an assembly (Greek ekklêsia). It appears that his statement that the “gates of hades” would not prevail against that assembly, means that it was to consist of immortals. Clarification: We know that the apostles were to assist Jesus in the administration of God’s Reign, at least as judges, after they had become immortals. At that time, they were to become a part of that assembly (call it “government”, if you wish). In short: The ekklêsia or assembly of Matthew 16:18 is not an earthly one.

(The article eaa017.htm takes a closer look at Matthew 16:18 and the “true church” dogma. The article eaa037.htm sorts out the “church eras” dogma which some have promulgated.)

See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendixes below.

Appendix 1 – Regarding the origin and meaning of the English word ‘Jew’.

After the reign of king Solomon, the nation Israel came to be divided; see 1 Kings 11:9–12 and 12:1–20. The northern tribes of Israel were called “the house of Israel” and made after some time Samaria their capital. The southern tribes had Jerusalem as their capital and were called “the house of Judah”, whence the word “Jews”. (Judah was one of the patriarch Jacob’s twelve sons. Judah’s descendants formed “the tribe of Judah”.)

In the Bible, the phrase “house of Judah” and the word “Jews” refer to people of the tribes Judah, Benjamin and Levi. Among them, there were also some stray people from the northern tribes.

A note: In New Testament times, there were Jews living even in the northern part of Israel, in areas which had belonged to the ten northern tribes. The whole nation had been taken into captivity, but in the days of Ezra a number of people of Israel’s southern tribes, Jews, returned to the land of Israel, while the ten northern tribes never returned.

A side-note, regarding the words “Israel” and “Israelites”: The patriarch Jacob (Hebrew Yaaqob) was also called Yisrael, anglicised “Israel”, see Genesis 32:28. In the English language, the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons have been called “Israelites”. Several hundred bible-passages contain the phrase “the children of Israel” – that simply means “the descendants of Jacob”.

By the way, what is the origin of those people who since the 1800s have moved to the land of Israel and call themselves Jews?

In the Bible, the word “Jews” refers to people of the “house of Judah”, originally from the southern part of Israel, mostly of the tribes Judah, Simeon and Levi. Around year 70 CE, the Roman army killed countless Jews in that land, some say three million. It is not fully clear what happened to the remainder.

Those people who since the 1800s have moved to that land, consist of many different groups, of varying shades and colours. The largest groups are called “Ashkenazi Jews” and “Sephardic Jews”. It appears that in the Middle Ages or so, some in the Ashkenazi group which consists of people from Germany and eastern Europe, had begun to practise various forms of what has then come to be called “Judaism”. Also, some of them had begun to write their (German) language with Hebrew letters. But, it is not clear what the ethnic roots of that group actually are. The same goes for the Sephardic group which consists of people from Spain, Portugal and northern Africa.

The language which some in the Ashkenazi group have spoken, is called Yiddish (“Judaish”), but even though some have written Yiddish using the Hebrew alphabet, it is in fact a dialect of High German. (Over the centuries, Yiddish has come to include a number of words from Slavic languages and Hebrew.) Many of those Yiddish-speakers who have moved to the land of Israel, have then learned Hebrew, of course.

Again, what is the origin of those people who since the 1800s have moved to the land of Israel? Some of them are white with blue eyes, some a bit darker, and some are even black (from Ethiopia), and some have Asiatic looks. It could be that at least some of them are genetically Jews – but at the same time, it must be noted that it is hard to align those people and their present-day situation, with what biblical prophecy says about the fate and restoration of the tribes of Israel.

The article eya018.htm has some notes on what we can learn in the Scriptures, in regard to how the Israelites were to be doing in our day.

Appendix 2 – Regarding Colossians 3:11 and the words ‘Greek’, ‘Barbarian’ and ‘Scythian’.

The apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Colosse:

Colossians 3:11 Where there is neither Greek [c] nor Jew, [d] circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, [e] Scythian, [f] bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. (AKJV, note signs added)

c “Greek” – the original text has hellên. Literally, the words hellên and hellênikos meant “Greek” and “Grecian”, but Greek-speaking Jews used them in reference to non-Jewish peoples in general (similar to how the Hebrew words goy and goyim were used).

(In New Testament times, many Jews spoke Greek, even in Palestine but especially in the surrounding areas. A large part of the Middle East, including the land of Israel, had under several centuries been under Greek control and influence. Even in Roman times, Greek was a common language in that area.)

d “Jew” – the meaning and origin of that word is explained in appendix 1.

e “Barbarians” – in ancient Greece, the word barbaroi was used as an epithet of people who spoke some other language than Greek. The adjective barbarophônos referred to all who spoke a non-Greek language, or spoke Greek with a foreign accent.

f “Scythian” is an anglicised form of the Greek word skuthês, plural skuthai, a name the people of ancient Greece had given to some non-Greek group of people, apparently a nomadic one. Some say that the Greek considered the skuthai to be the “wildest” people among the barbaroi (non-Greeks).

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → esa095.htm

On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by “added law”. → eca086.htm

Did the ten lost tribes of Israel move into Europe? Are the white north-west Europeans Israelites, as some say? → eya097.htm

Matthew 16:18, “I will build my assembly, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it”. What and where was the ekklêsia or assembly which Jesus said he would form? Was it an earthly religious organisation as some claim, or something else? → eaa017.htm

“Church eras” – do they exist? Are there seven “eras of the church”, as some say – “Sardis era”, “Philadelphian era”, “Laodicean era” and so on? → eaa037.htm

Pride and humility in connection with religion. → ega105.htm

The lost ten tribes of Israel in prophecy. → eya018.htm

The meaning of the words Christ and Messiah and the name Jesus. Also, some notes on the word “Christian” in the New Testament. → ega076.htm

What does the word “saint” mean and refer to, in the Bible? → ega036.htm

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