Jews, Greeks, Gentiles and Proselytes: Who are they?
By Jeff A. Benner
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As the gospel of Yeshua's message was spreading throughout the land, mostly documented in the book of Acts, three people groups are mentioned; the Jews, the Greeks and the Gentiles. Unfortunately due to misinterpretations and mistranslations of the text, there is a lot of misunderstanding over who these people are.
The Greek word ethnos (Strong's #1484) literally means "nation." This word is used in the 2,000 year old Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word goy (Strong's #1471), which also means "nation." A nation is any group of people living and working under one rule. Many different nations are mentioned in the Bible including; the Canaanites, Egyptians, Moabites, Arameans, and others. But more importantly even Israel is called a "nation."
And I will make of thee [Israel] a great nation (goy)... (Genesis 12:2, KJV)
... and of good report among all the nation (ethnos) of the Jews... (Acts 10:22, KJV)
Translating the Greek word ethnos in the New Testament as "gentile" is problematic. While the word "gentile" does mean "one belongs to a tribe or clan," it has come universally mean a non-Jew. But as we have seen, the words goy and ethnos do not mean a non-Jew, they mean "one who belongs to a tribe or clan."
Who are the ethnon (nations - plural of ethnos) mentioned in the New Testament?
I am sure that most people are familiar with the "ten lost tribes" from the northern "nation" of Israel that was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C. It believed by most that these "ten lost tribes" are "lost," but this is not exactly true, at least not in the sense that most people assume.
And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher... (Luke 2:36, RSV)
The tribe of Asher is one of the "ten lost tribes," but as we can see, Anna, from the tribe of Asher, is not "lost." The "lost" tribes are not "lost" in the sense of "missing," but in the sense of walking away from the teachings of Yahweh. Even Yeshua mentions that his mission was to reach the "lost" tribes and commissions his disciples to do the same.
But he [Yeshua] answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 15:24, KJV)
But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 10:6, KJV)
Even James mentions that he is a servant to the "twelve tribes," which would include the "ten lost tribes."
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting. (James 1:1, KJV)
When Paul preached to the "nations" in the Book of Acts, he was doing what Yeshua commanded, preaching to the "lost" tribes, the lost goy/ethnos of Israel.
The book of Maccabees, one of the books of the Apocrypha, tells the story of the Jewish Revolt about 150 years before the time of the New Testament. The Greeks, led by Antichus Epiphinus, conquered the land of Israel and forced the Jews to leave their national heritage and the Torah and begin following the Greek culture. Because of the Jews hatred for all things Hellenistic, including the culture and language, Judas Maccabee lead the revolt against Antichus Epiphinus destroying the Greeks and slaughtering those Jews that had adopted the Greek language and culture. This revolt demonstrates the Jewish hatred of the hellistic culture and the incorrect assumption that the Jews freely adopted the Greek language during the time of the New Testament.
This divide between the Jews who remained faithful to the Torah and the Jewish culture, and those who rejected the Torah and adopted the Greek culture continued to exist into the first century A.D. The Jews that adopted the Greek culture and language were called Hellenes (Oxford Greek Dictionary)
The word Hellenes is the word used in the New Testament, where it is usually translated as "Greek," but sometimes "Gentile," but does not refer to native "Greeks," but to Jews who have adopted the Greek culture and language.
The Jews, in contrast to the Hellenists, are those Jews that remained faithful to the Torah and rejected the Greek culture and language.
Only mentioned four times in the New Testament are the "proselytes" (Matthew 23:15, Acts 2:11, 6:5 and 13:43). The word proselytes is a transliteration of the Greek word proselutos, which means a "stranger" or "foreigner." These are non-Jews, what we would call today "gentiles," that have joined Israel and follow Yahweh and his teachings.
The Greek word proselutos is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word geyr, which also means a "stranger" or "foreigner," a non-Israelite. It was not uncommon for foreigners (geyrim) to join Israel, and many of them came out of Egypt with Israel.
When Israel came out of Egypt, it was not just Israelites who came out, but a multitude of others. And the LORD gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they spoiled the Egyptians. And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle. (Exodus 12:36-38, KJV)
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them. (Exodus 12:37,38)
These foreigners were to be treated the same as the Israelites.
The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
"You are to have the same laws (mishpat) for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 24:22)
Even Paul in the New Testament understood this and recognized that anyone could join Israel, just as they did in ancient times.
That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12, KJV)
We now have a clearer understanding of these four people groups;
- The Jews: The observant Jews who reject the Greek culture and language.
- The Hellenists: The Jews who adopted the Greek culture and language.
- The Nations: The Jews from the ten lost tribes.
- The Strangers: Non-Jews who join themselves with the Jews.