The Meaning of ‘Gentiles,’ Part 2: The Jew-Gentile Relationship in the New Testament

Read part 1, “Tracing the Meaning of ‘Gentiles’ in the Bible, here.

Are we actually all equal in God’s eyes? And if so, how? It might seem pedantic, but our answers to those questions ground our thoughts on justice, social ethics, even our individual identities. If the Bible is a founding document on human equality—as so many say it is—then it’s exceptionally jarring to find Jesus himself responding to a non-Jewish woman’s request for healing by comparing her to a dog. When she asks him to heal her daughter, he replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Mt 15:26)

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Even if we read past how that sounds, doesn’t it reveal an inherent inequity between Jews and Gentiles? Jesus seems to deny a woman his power thanks to her ancestry. And though he grants her wish in the end, what on earth was the reason for his initial response? She was a Gentile, he was a Jew. Is that difference really big enough to nearly leave her daughter helpless and bound by a demon?

Ethne and Hellēnes (‘Gentiles’) through the Intertestamental Period

In the first-century world of Jesus and his apostles, we’re bound to notice a huge gap in how Jewish authors speak of “Gentiles.” That’s because there was an actual time-leap of at least 400 years when the relationship between Jews and non-Jews became most strained. The Persian Edict of Cyrus, which allowed Jews to return to Judea and self-determine there (somewhat autonomously), was short-lived; the Greeks soon came on the scene with high ambitions to hellenize their entire conquered world. This meant banning a number of practices commanded by Torah, forcibly introducing pagan worship, and worst, desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem. It got so bad that it prompted the most successful Jewish revolt in history, resulting in another semi-autonomous Jewish kingdom that would last just over a century. 

Then came the Roman Empire, whose rule was unprecedented in both scope and brutality. It set up puppet kings, fake high priests, and regional governors who mercilessly tortured and slaughtered Jewish dissidents unlike any rulers before them had. You’d be hard pressed to find another time like this in Israel’s history. The temperature was nearly always at a boiling point—and not only between Jews and Romans, but also between Jews and Samaritans, Jews and Greeks, even Jews and Jews. It’s this world of constant fractures and identity crises that Jesus steps into.

In Roman-occupied Israel, there are no longer Hittites, Amorites, and Girgashites, but there are still “neighbors who worship idols” that need designation. Sometimes the New Testament authors call these ethnē (“nations,” just like Hebrew’s goyim) and other times, Hellēnes (“Greeks,” but usually as a stand-in for any non-Jew). Like we saw with goy in part 1, there are a few places where ethnos is used to denote the “nation” of Israel (Lk 7:5; Jn 11:48, 51; Acts 10:22; 1 Pet 2:9), and it’s possible to argue from these examples that Jewish self-conception still allowed for a peaceful and pluralistic relationship between Jews and other nations. But most of the language contrasts Jew to Gentile (usually in a hostile way), and it is Jesus and his disciples who slowly reconcile this divide anew.

Gentiles in the Gospel Accounts

Toward the beginning of his ministry, we see Jesus uphold distinctions that his contemporaries would understand. He contrasts his teachings on Torah with the practices of “the Gentiles’” (Mt 6:32, 20:25), instructs his disciples not to preach to them (Mt 10:5), and then soon after prophesies that they will be dragged before those very peoples for his sake (10:18). He speaks in coded language to the Syro-Phoenician Gentile woman that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and that “it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Mt 15:26). But seeing the faith in her response, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28), he heals her daughter anyway. 

This single moment is a distillation of the evolving Jew-Gentile relationship as a result of Jesus’ ministry. We have no reason to assume Jesus was lying in his analogy; there was something about Jews that made them the intended first recipients of his ministry and its blessings. And there was something about Gentiles that made them second in line. But this doesn’t have to be seen in a negative light. In fact, it’s a far brighter alternative to the first-century status quo. Where the past millennium had seen the people of God steadily more entrenched against their neighbors, the early Christian movement would make a name for itself on the inclusion of these different peoples in common fellowship.

The flashpoint of this change almost results in an untimely death for the Christ of Nazareth in Nazareth. He is nearly killed by his own neighbors there for preaching a sermon that heavily hinted, in coded language, “Like Elijah to the widow of Zarephath and Elisha to Naaman the Syrian, I will give healing that Israel needs . . . to others” (Lk 4:16–30). The language here is important. He never explicitly uses a term for “Gentile” or “Jew” in this. He does not claim to ignore the needs of his own kinsmen. He references how in the days of the prophets, the people of Israel had many needs, and yet the biblical stories tell of Gentiles being healed by the prophets.

This was met with ire, whereas his reading from Isaiah 61:1–2 just moments before had been met with praise: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19).

What is the connection between this statement and the stories Jesus cites of Elijah and Elisha performing miracles for Gentiles? It’s in the juxtaposition of this Scripture and these stories that he shows how the mentality of his neighbors has shifted away from Israel as a “light unto the nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:6), and toward Israel as something like a light hidden away safe from the nations. Even if the good news in Isaiah 61:1–2 is exclusive to Israel, it still says in verse 9, “Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed.” Also verse 11: “For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.”

The biblical model is that Israel, despite her Gentile neighbors’ antagonism, would walk in righteousness and bring them to praise her God. The Gentiles would necessarily benefit from learning to mimic Israel. But here in the Nazarene synagogue, after several hundred years of increased animosity, a new and hostile mentality has developed—such that, even the mention of Gentiles receiving a blessing that should have been ours only is reviled with murderous disgust.

Now take this mentality to Jerusalem: the central hub of religious zeal. When Jesus cleanses the Temple—the court of the Gentiles, to be more exact—he doesn’t do so privately as an internal Jewish affair. He announces to the Jews and Gentiles alike that this defilement affects both groups. “And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17, cf John 2:14–16) It’s no wonder that religious and political figures alike sought his head.

Gentiles in Acts and Paul

Soon after Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, his followers would spell out several ways to approach the reason for his crucifixion. Peter convicts his fellow men of Israel for it, in accordance with the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” and done “by the hands of lawless men” (the Romans, cf Acts 2:23). John asserts that Caiaphas prophesied his death on behalf of the nation (ethnos) of Israel (Jn 11:51). Paul in his letters works out a marvelously complex series of arguments for the purpose and result of Christ’s death. But none of them blame exclusively Jews or exclusively Gentiles.

In fact, in Acts 4, the apostles all sing Psalm 2, “Why do the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?” and interpret it as prophecy: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28). The key phrase, “both Herod and Pontius Pilate,” condemns the corrupt governance of both nations. And the explicit mention of Gentiles and peoples of Israel is all-inclusive. Yet both parties are brought under the umbrella of God’s own sovereignty in appointing this thing to happen.

So the next question is . . . why?

In the earliest days of the church, it seemed that Jesus was the catalyst who would redeem Israel and regather her people, fulfilling common Jewish beliefs about the destiny of their nation (Isa 11:12, 49:6). That’s why it came as such a shock to Peter when Cornelius—who was “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts 10:22)—received the Holy Spirit. In this one story we see Peter’s understanding of God’s plan for the world open up in accordance with Isaiah 49:6.

First he falls into a trance, seeing animals—both kosher and nonkosher—and hears a voice tell him to “rise, kill, and eat” (10:13). Peter objects, but he is told, “What God has made clean, do not call unclean” (10:15). Perplexed at this, he meets “unclean” people (Cornelius’s messengers) and accompanies them to Caesarea. There, he marvels at Cornelius’s earnestness to be instructed in the ways of God and says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation (ethnos) anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ . . .”

What follows is up to interpretation. Did Peter expound on the gospel because he thought it would result in the Holy Spirit falling on people who, just a couple of days ago, he never would have associated with at all? Clearly his Jewish friends in the room were amazed (10:45). Even in his retelling of the story in Acts 11, we don’t know if he intended his words to coincide with the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles or not—just that it happened and, once it did, that he didn’t stand in the way (11:17).

This moment would forever change the Jew-Gentile relationship in the eyes of the Apostles. Not long after, one very zealous Jew from Tarsus would find himself the Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13) and bring this same gospel Peter preached at Caesarea specifically to non-Jewish people. In Paul’s letters, we see one final development in the concept of a “Gentile” in scripture.

A self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul was well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and did not miss its conception of Israel among the nations. In Romans, he calls to mind that God’s reputation is at stake among the nations (1:5, 2:24), over whom He is still God (3:29). He reiterates the promises to Abraham as a father of many nations (4:18) and frequently recalls the prophetic warning that God would make Israel jealous by interacting also with Gentile nations (10:19, 11:11, 12, 25). Written to a divided Jewish/Gentile church, Paul’s letter to the Romans is chiefly an argument that the groups should be open to one another joining the same in-group with God, not as an out-group at all. It’s chapter 11 that contains the illustrious analogy of wild olive branches being grafted into God’s own cultivated olive tree, a symbol of mutual acceptance that couldn’t be much clearer.

This same idea is presented in various ways in his other letters. Ephesians speaks of a mystery of God in Christ: “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). This is achieved by Jesus himself, who “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (2:15). The language gets even more extreme in Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

Sadly, this verse is often cited in a shallow flattening of the actual point. We know experientially that people who join the church don’t magically stop being slaves, or free, or male, or female. Why would they magically stop being Jews or Gentiles? And even if they did, what would that look like? Did their physical ancestry change? Their culture, language, skin, or memories? No, the same Paul who asserted the unique differences between Jews and Gentiles in God’s salvation history is here asserting that those differences are not valid reasons for factionalism or partiality in the body of believers. Nor are they valid reasons to spurn one’s identity and try to change it, as was actually happening in Galatia at the time (1:6, 5:12).

We have good reason to believe that our national identities are, at worst, morally neutral details about who we are: demarcators for the social environments in which we experience the world and God. But they are massively influential in who we become by our deeds. Moreover, they’re parts of our identity that don’t go away, even in the New Creation. For all his visions of the nations of the world being deceived and enslaved by the Beast, and made to war against God, John of the Apocalypse ends his book with a beautiful vision of eternity: “By [the Heavenly Jerusalem’s] light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. . . . They will bring into it the honor and glory of the nations” (Rev 21:22, 24, cf Isa 60:3, 5, 11). At the center of the city, John sees the Tree of Life, whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

Reclaiming the Name of ‘Gentile’ in God’s Order

So what ought we to think of the New Testament’s view of Gentiles? First, we should appreciate the magnitude of the rift between Jews and Gentiles that so many bloody years of history had created. And we should remember that Jesus’s own ministry, while almost entirely undertaken among Jews, did not seclude them as the “in-group,” nor exclude Gentiles as the “out-group” in question. It set in motion a plan to heal the rift between peoples by the mere acts of inclusion and accommodation that he modeled and that his apostles continued. 

The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 likewise shows the apostles making compromises to include and accommodate Gentile believers without betraying central Jewish convictions. Paul relentlessly commands compromise and self-denial for the sake of communal peace (Rom 14, 1 Cor 1:10-17; 9:19-23; 10:31-33, Eph 4:3, Phil 4:2-3, Col 2:16-23). It is in these decisions that the leaders of the early church would pragmatically restore something like the vision of the prophets—people of all nations fearing and praising the God of Israel. But where the Apostles succeeded, their successors somewhere down the line failed. It’s nothing short of a tragedy that the Jewish-Christian relationship would eventually fall into such disrepair, and remain so far longer than any other era we’ve seen so far.

Still, recent years have shown unprecedented steps forward in Jewish-Christian relations, including Christian efforts to quell antisemitism worldwide. The prophetic vision may still be reserved for a future day of Judgment, but we have can live out a fractal of it today through befriending our Jewish neighbors and seeking to better honor the God of their covenants. In this, we can reclaim the meaning of the word goy (“Gentile”), restoring to it the neutral—even positive!—connotations of diversity and order in God’s grand Creation.

Image created by Rubner Durais

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