Gentile (from Latin gentilis, by the French gentil, feminine: gentille, meaning of or belonging to a clan or tribe) is an ethnonym that commonly means non-Jew. Other groups that claim Israelite heritage sometimes use the term to describe outsiders. See also "Goy".
The term is used by English translators for the Hebrew גוי (goy) and נכרי (nokhri) in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek word ἔθνη (éthnē) in the New Testament. The term "gentiles" is derived from Latin, used for contextual translation, and not an original Hebrew or Greek word from the Bible. The original words goy and ethnos refer to "peoples" or "nations" and is applied to both Israelites and non-Israelites in the Bible. However, in most biblical uses, it denotes nations that are politically distinct from Israel. Since most of the nations at the time of the Bible were "heathens", goy or gentile became synonymous with heathen, although their literal translation is distinct. The term gentile thus became identical to the later term Ummot ha-olam (nations of the world). Latin and later English translators selectively used the term "gentiles" when the context for the base term "peoples" or "nations" referred to non-Israelite peoples or nations in English translations of the Bible. In Mormon contexts the word can be used to refer to people who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The Torah (Law of Moses written in the first five books of the Bible) exhibits a passionate intolerance of the Gentile nations, alleging the Gentiles practiced "idolatry" and other things it holds to be immoral; the Torah requires the Hebrews to engage in genocide and exterminate or expel the Canaanites (otherwise known as the Phoenicians) without mercy (Deuteronomy 6, 20), and forbade the Hebrews to intermarry with them or adopt their customs. It alleges that the Gentiles' barbarism would "contaminate" the Hebrews. Paul Copan argues that Joshua fulfilled this command.
"Gentile" derives from Latin gentilis, which itself derives from the Latin gens (from which, together with forms of the cognate Greek word genos, also derive gene, general, genus, genesis, gentry, and gentleman) meaning clan or tribe. Gens derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵénh₁tis. The original meaning of "clan" or "family" was extended in post-Augustan Latin to acquire the wider meaning of belonging to a distinct nation or ethnicity. Later still, the word came to refer to other nations, 'not a Roman citizen'.
In Saint Jerome's Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, gentilis was used in this wider sense, along with gentes, to translate Greek and Hebrew words with similar meanings when the text referred to the non-Israelite peoples.
The most important of such Hebrew words was goyim (singular, goy), a term with the broad meaning of "peoples" or "nations" which was sometimes used to refer to Israelites, but most commonly as a generic label for peoples. Strong's Concordance defines goy as "nation, people, usually of non-Israelite people, or of descendants of Abraham, or of Israel, or of a swarm of locusts or other animals (fig.) Goyim = 'nations'." Strongs #1471
In the pre-exilic times the relationship between Israelites and gentiles were mostly hostile and the non-Israelites such as Babylonians, Egyptians and Assyrians were always seen as an enemy. However the exile changed Jewish-gentile relationship to be less hostile. The books of Ruth and Jonah reject the racialization of the Israelite religion by Ezra.
In rabbinical writings
Rabbinical writings often show more hostility towards gentiles due to frequent persecution of the Jews by these nations. Some rabbis show more compassion towards the gentiles, while others are less tolerant. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus writes that the mind of every gentile is always intent upon idolatry. He believed that gentiles only perform animal sacrifice to make a name for themselves. He further believed that gentiles have no share in the world to come. Frequent prosecution of the Jews by Romans at this time may have helped harbor anti-gentile feelings.
Other rabbis show a more positive attitude towards the gentiles. Joshua ben Hananiah believed that there are righteous men amongst the gentiles who will enter the world to come. He believed that except for the descendents of the Amaleks, the rest of the gentiles will adopt monotheism and righteous amongst them will escape Gehenna. There is also a story about a dialogue between Joshua ben Hananiah and the Roman emperor Hadrian in which he tries to demonstrate that God deals with Israel with greater punishment for similar crimes.
Eleazar of Modi'im wrote that Israelis, when guilty of the same sin as gentiles, will not enter hell whereas the gentiles will. Eleazar ben Azariah believed that the rulings performed by a gentile court are not valid for Jews. Rabbi Akiba believed that Israel's monotheism is far superior to the ever changing beliefs of the gentiles. Jose the Galilean criticizes Israel for inconsistency compared to the faithfulness of the gentiles to their ancestral beliefs. He believed the good deeds of the gentiles will be rewarded as well.
The most famous of the anti-gentile teachers is Simeon bar Yochai. He is often quoted by anti-semites in his sayings: "The best of gentiles kill it, the best of snakes cut its head, the most pious of women is prone to sorcery." His beliefs might reflect the extreme persecution of the Jews by the Romans during his time and the fact that he spent a great portion of his life escaping from the Romans.
Judah ben Ilai suggests that the recital "Blessed be though ... Who has not made me a gentile" should be performed daily.
Hananiah ben Akabia believed that shedding the blood of the gentiles, although not punishable in human courts, will be punished in heavenly judgement.
Jacob, the grandson of Elisha ben Abuyah, wrote that he saw a gentile binding his father and throwing him to his dog as food.
Simeon ben Eleazar does not favor social interaction between Jews and Gentiles.
Hananiah bar Hama wrote about the extreme immoralities perpetrated by gentiles. He believed that in messianic time only the heathen will be subject to death. Hezekiah ben Hiyya believed that treating gentiles with hospitality results in the exile of the children. Johanan bar Nappaha wrote of the mistreatment of the Jews by gentiles. He believed that the evil of the serpent was neutralized in Jews, whereas the gentiles still have that in their blood. While he also wrote that the wise amongst the gentiles should be treated as a wise man, he further wrote that a gentile who reads Torah deserves death. He has also said, "Whoever abandons idolatry is called Jew." Abbahu complains of gentile mistreatment of Israel. He endorsed the law according to which a gentile should not be compensated if his ox was damaged by an Israelite. Assi suggested that gentiles should not be taught about the laws of the Torah. Abba b. Kahana refers to the book of Ruth and preaches against the racial arrogance of Israel.
Rav Ashi believed that a Jew who sells a gentile property adjacent to a Jewish property should be excommunicated. A reason to discriminate against the gentiles was the vile and vicious character of them (). The Talmud, referring to this passage, recalls the gentiles of Barbary and Mauretania who walked naked in the streets. The violation of Jewish women by gentile men was so frequent that the rabbis declared that a woman raped by a gentile should not be divorced from her husband, as Torah says: "The Torah outlawed the issue of a gentile as that of a beast." A gentile midwife was not to be employed for fear of the poisoning of the baby. The gentiles should be dealt with caution in cases of using them as witness in a criminal or civil suit. The gentile does not honor his promises like that of a Jew. The laws of the Torah were not to be revealed to the gentiles, for the knowledge of these laws might give gentiles an advantage in dealing with Jews. Resh Lakish wrote that "A gentile who observes Sabbath deserves death".
In modern times
Under rabbinical law, a modern-day gentile is required only to observe the Seven Laws of Noah, while Jews are bound by Mosaic law. In periods of decreased animosity between Jews and Gentiles, some of the rabbinical laws against fellowship and fraternization were relaxed; for example Maimonides himself was a physician to the Sultan.
However, even though most Rabbinical schools do not teach the same hostility as Middle Age rabbinical teachings some Orthodox rabbinical schools hold extreme conservative views. For example, scholars from the Zionist Mercaz HaRav Kook yeshiva are schooled in the doctrine that Jews and Gentiles have different kinds of souls. One of the yeshiva's scholars, R' David Bar-Chayim, published an paper in 1989 explaining the doctrine, entitled "Yisrael Nikraim Adam"(Jews Are Called 'Men'). In his conclusion, Bar-Chayim writes:
There is no escaping the facts: the Torah of Israel makes a clear distinction between a Jew, who is defined as "Man," and a Gentile. This distinction is expressed in a long list of Halachic laws, be they monetary laws, the laws of the Temple, capital laws or others. Even one who is not an erudite Torah scholar is obligated to recognize this simple fact; it cannot be erased or obscured ... One who carefully studies the sources cited previously will realize the abysmal difference between the concepts "Jew" and "Gentile" -- and consequently, he will understand why Halacha differentiates between them.
The difference between the Jewish soul, in all its independence, inner desires, longings, character and standing, and the soul of all the Gentiles, on all of their levels, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal, for the difference in the latter case is one of quantity, while the difference in the first case is one of essential quality.
Similar anti-gentile remarks have been expressed by the late chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in which he stated in a sermon in 2010 that "The sole purpose of Gentiles is to serve Jews". He said that Gentiles served a divine purpose: "Why are Gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why Gentiles were created.
Some Kabbalistic writings suggest a distinction between the souls of the gentiles and the souls of the Jews. These writings describe three levels, elements, or qualities of soul:
- Nefesh (נפש): the lower part, or "animal part", of the soul. It is linked to instincts and bodily cravings. This part of the soul is provided at birth.
- Ruach (רוח): the middle soul, the "spirit". It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil.
- Neshamah (נשמה): the higher soul, or "super-soul". This separates man from all other life-forms. It is related to the intellect and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God.
According to those writings, a Jewish soul is composed of all three, whereas a Gentile soul contains only Nefesh.
In the King James Version, "Gentile" is only one of several words used to translate goy or goyim. It is translated as "nation" 374 times, "heathen" 143 times, "Gentiles" 30 times, and "people" 11 times. Some of these verses, such as Genesis 12:2 ("I will make of thee a great nation") and Genesis 25:23 ("Two nations are in thy womb") refer to Israelites or descendants of Abraham. Other verses, such as Isaiah 2:4 and Deuteronomy 11:23 are generic references to any nation. Typically, the KJV restricts the translation to "Gentile" when the text is specifically referring to non-Jewish people. For example, the only use of the word in Genesis is in chapter 10, verse 5, referring to the peopling of the world by descendants of Japheth, "By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations."
In the New Testament, the Greek word ethnos is used for peoples or nations in general, and is typically translated by the word "people", as in John 11:50. ("Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.") The translation "Gentiles" is used in some instances, as in Matthew 10:5–6 to indicate non-Israelite peoples:
These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
The Greek ethnos where translated as "gentile" in the context of early Christianity implied non-Israelite. A question existed among the disciples whether receiving the Holy Spirit through proselytization would be restricted to Israelites or whether it would include the gentiles (the Greco-Roman population of the Roman Empire), as in :
And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?
Within a few centuries, Christians used the word "Gentiles" to mean non-Christians. The alternative pagani was felt to be less elegant.
LDS Church usage
In the terminology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the word "gentile" takes on different meanings in different contexts which may confuse some and alienate others. Members of the LDS Church regard themselves as regathered Israelites, so sometimes use the word "gentile" to refer to all non-members. According to John L. Needham of Utah State University, "Mormons in the American West applied 'gentile', as an adjective as much as a slur, to nearly everyone and everything that did not adhere to their faith or desert kingdom." Because they had suffered persecution, the word gentile was "a call to circle the wagons socially and politically around the fold." In such usage, Jews may be colloquially referred to as "gentiles" because they are not members of the LDS Church. However, the traditional meaning is also to be found in the introduction to the Book of Mormon, in the statement written to both "Jew" (literal descendants of the House of Israel) and "Gentile" (those not descended from the House of Israel or those of the tribe of Ephraim scattered among the "Gentiles" throughout the earth). Needham writes that Mormons have "outgrown the term." The LDS website states this about the meaning of Gentile. "As used in the scriptures, Gentiles has several meanings. Sometimes it designates people of non-Israelite lineage, sometimes people of non-Jewish lineage, and sometimes nations that are without the gospel, even though there may be some Israelite blood among the people. This latter usage is especially characteristic of the word as used in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.
Some translations of the Quran, such as the famous Pickthall translation, employed the word "gentile" in some instances of the translation of the Arabic word "Al-ummīyīn (الْأُمِّيِّينَ)". For example, in the following verse:
Among the People of the Scripture there is he who, if thou trust him with a weight of treasure, will return it to thee. And among them there is he who, if thou trust him with a piece of gold, will not return it to thee unless thou keep standing over him. That is because they say: We have no duty to the Gentiles. They speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly. - Quran 3:75
As in the King James Bible, from the 17th century onward, "gentile" was most commonly used to refer to non-Jews, in the context of European Christian societies with a Jewish minority. So "gentile" commonly meant persons brought up in the Christian faith, as opposed to the adherents of Judaism, and was not typically used to refer to non-Jews in non-Western cultures.
"Gentile" also appears in compounds such as "antigentilism", hostility of Jews to non-Jews.