In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gentiles

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • General Introductions
  • Historically Significant Works
  • The Term and Its Development
  • Ethnicity and the “Other” in Antiquity
  • Effects and Influence

Biblical Studies Gentiles
Terence L. Donaldson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0252


This article deals with the place of Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) in biblical tradition, biblical studies, and closely related fields. As a topic, “Gentiles” is not as clearly defined as some others within the field of biblical studies. Both as a term and as a category, it has tended to exist as a pervasive but under-examined aspect of the field as a whole, functioning as a constituent element of a number of topics within the field but without becoming itself the object of direct attention or sustained analysis. However, with increasing scholarly interest in matters of ethnicity, identity, and the social construction of reality, this is beginning to change. The roots of the English term go back to the distinctive Hebrew usage in which “nations” (especially gôyîm) was used to refer to the “non-Jewish nations,” all nations but the nation of Israel. In a later development, gôyîm and its Greek equivalent ethnē came to be used of individual non-Jews as well (“members of non-Jewish nations”), a sense that carries over to the New Testament and other early Christian literature. The topic, however, is not restricted to these specific terms. The binary category of “Israel” and “the nations”—and later of “Jews” and “Gentiles”—is woven deeply into the fabric of the biblical tradition from beginning to end, and it comes to expression in a variety of ways. While the scriptures of Israel (Hebrew Bible, “Old Testament”) deal centrally with a particular people, the relationship of that people and its God with all the (other) nations of the earth is constantly in view. And while the movement that eventually produced the New Testament originated as a messianic group within the Jewish side of the binary, a significant feature of its formative first century and a half was (initially) the inclusion of non-Jews as members and (eventually) the emergence of Gentile Christianity (in its various streams) as the dominant form(s) of the movement. Consequently, both the term “Gentiles” itself (gôyîm, ethnē) and the ethnic binary that it signified are inextricably linked with a wide array of topics pertaining to biblical literature, the human groups that produced and preserved it, and the larger social realities in which they were embedded. Within this wide array, this article focuses on topics and secondary literature in which Gentile themes and issues are particularly in the foreground.

Reference Works

Most Bible dictionaries, lexical dictionaries, and related works contain entries on “Gentiles” or “Nations.” Of the articles in lexical dictionaries listed in this section, Botterweck and Clements 1975 and Bertram and Schmidt 1964 represent older word-centered treatments, marked (and to a certain extent marred) by an overemphasis on words as stand-alone carriers of meaning. By contrast, both Block 1997 and the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis discuss gôy and ethnos, respectively, within a larger framework of semantic domains. Of the articles in dictionaries organized more on a topical basis, Christensen 1992 and Gilbert 2010 provide good discussions of pertinent material in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism, respectively, in standard mainstream reference works. Taken together, the various articles in The IVP Bible Dictionary Series provide comprehensive coverage. The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception Online is worthy of note both because of its accessibility online and also because of its emphasis on subsequent reception of the biblical material.

  • Bertram, Georg, and Karl Ludwig Schmidt. “Ethnos, ethnikos.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 2. Edited by Gerhard Kittel. Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 364–372. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964.

    While dated and flawed, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) remains a standard reference work. This article deals with ethnos in the Septuagint (LXX) and New Testament (NT), with some attention to Hellenistic usage (though the frequently cited assertion that the term is commonly used in a disparaging way by Greek authors needs to be reexamined).

  • Block, Daniel I. “Nations/Nationality.” In New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 4. Edited by Willem A. VanGemeren, et al., 426–433. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997.

    Deals with gôy and several less frequently used synonyms within a single article on “nations” as a semantic domain. The treatment of biblical usage is prefaced by a discussion of ancient ethnology. It includes a helpful discussion of the nations other than Israel.

  • Botterweck, G. Johannes, and Ronald E. Clements. “Gôy.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Vol. 2. Edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren. Translated by John T. Willis, 426–433. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975.

    In addition to general topics (etymology, meaning, survey of usage), the article discusses the use of the term with reference to nations other than Israel, with an emphasis on the nations as a religious and political threat to Israel’s existence rather than on the more positive and universal themes.

  • Christensen, Duane L. “Nations.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 1037–1049. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    After a brief description of terminology and usage (both Hebrew and Greek), the bulk of the article deals with the nations in Israel’s scriptures (highlighting the range of attitudes toward the nations both chronologically and in different textual traditions), discussing New Testament material briefly at the end.

  • “Ethnos.” In New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 2. 2d ed. Edited by Moisés Silva, 89–93. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.

    A thorough revision of the first edition. Contains a brief survey of classical Greek and Jewish usage (LXX, Qumran, rabbinic), followed by a discussion of NT material, focusing on Paul and Revelation.

  • “Gentiles.” Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception Online. Edited by Hans-Joseph Klauck, et al. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

    The entry contains separate articles, written by different authors, on the New Testament and on Judaism (Second Temple, rabbinic, medieval, modern), supplemented by three articles depicting themes pertaining to the Gentiles in Literature, Visual Arts and Film.

  • Gilbert, Gary. “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes towards.” In The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, 670–673. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

    A brief but authoritative discussion of Jewish attitudes toward Gentiles in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods (“Early Judaism”), dealing with Jewish involvement in Gentile religious practices, Gentile religious practices in themselves, Jew-Gentile interactions, Gentiles in the land, ritual purity, and the status of Gentiles in the eschatological future.

  • The IVP Bible Dictionary Series. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992–2012.

    Contents include a detailed, comprehensive and up-to-date set of articles dealing with usage of the term in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, together with the phenomenon of proselytes and Gentile sympathizers in Second Temple Judaism. Relevant articles include: William Osborne, “Nations, Table of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, pp. 588–596; Philip E. Satterthwaite and David W. Baker, “Nations of Canaan,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, pp. 596–605; Paul M. Cook, “Nations,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, pp. 563–569; Scot McKnight, “Proselytism and Godfearers,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, pp. 835–847; Kelly R. Iverson, “Gentiles,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2d ed., pp. 302–309; Douglas R. de Lacey, “Gentiles,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, pp. 335–339.

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