Chapter 5
Who is a Gentile?

When asking the question, “Who is a gentile?” there is both the easy answer and the more complex answer. The easy answer is “Anyone who is not a Jew.” But to understand what is being said in the New Testament we have to understand the context and meaning of the words being used.

Pagans and Greeks

For instance: go to the book of 1 Corinthians in the King James Version of the Bible and see the inconsistency found in the verses below concerning Gentiles.

1Corinthians 10:20 KJV

20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that you should have fellowship with devils.

1Corinthians 12:2 KJV

2 You know that you were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as you were led.

1Corintians 12:13 KJV

13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

1Corinthians 10:32 KJV

32 Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:

In the above verses, first we read that Gentiles sacrifice to devils. Next we read that the people that Paul is addressing

WERE Gentiles, (meaning they are NO LONGER Gentiles). Next we read that both Jew and Gentile are baptized into ONE body and we should be careful not to offend Gentiles. What is this talking about?

Let’s look at the same verses in the New International Version

1Corinthians 10:20 NIV

20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.

1Corinthians 12:2 NIV

2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.

1Corinthians 12:13 NIV

13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

1Corinthians 10:32 NIV

32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God--

We see that the word “Gentile” in the four verses out of the KJV is actually two words translated in the NIV as “pagan” and “Greek.” From Strong’s concordance we read the following definitions.


Strong’s 1484. ethnos, eth'-nos; prob. from G1486; a race (as of the same habit), i.e. a tribe; spec. a foreign (non-Jewish) one (usually by impl. pagan):-- Gentile, heathen, nation, people.


Strong’s 1672. Hellen, hel'-lane; from G1671; a Hellen (Grecian) or inhab. of Hellas; by extens. a Greek-speaking person, espec. a non-Jew:--Gentile, Greek.


So then, ethnos means a pagan, and Hellen means a Greek. Being a Greek Gentile is O.K. but being a pagan Gentile would not be O.K. Right? No, that’s not entirely true. In the tenth chapter of Acts we read about some Gentiles who Peter visits.

Acts 10:44

KJV 45 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.
NIV 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.*

Notice that the KJV and the NIV both translate this word as Gentiles. Why does the NIV not use it’s standard translation and say either “pagans” or “Greeks”? Because this is the word “ethnos” that normally would be translated as “pagans” in the NIV.

Who were these “Gentiles” and why is the word ethnos used here and not Hellen?

God Fearers

Let’s take at look at the context of this verse.

Acts 10:1-4

1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,
2 a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always.
3 He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius.
4 And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said unto him, “Your prayers and your alms are come up for a memorial before God.”
5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.

In the 1st century, Gentiles were divided up into a number of groups. There were pagans or heathens, who did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and there were proselytes who had converted to Judaism. But in addition to these two categories of Gentiles, there were also God Fearers who, although not totally converting to Judaism, believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Today they are also known as righteous Gentiles.

As we saw in the previous chapter, the School of Shammai did not believe that an ethnos (a Gentile who was not a full convert to Judaism) had a place in the world to come. Cornelius, being a centurion, would not be allowed, (under military restrictions), to become circumcised. Therefore, he would still be considered a pagan or heathen by the School of Shammai.

Kill and Eat

Continuing in Acts 10:9.

9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.
11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.
12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air.
13 Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."

Many people point to this passage to support the belief that God has “done away” with the laws of eating kosher, but as we shall see this event has nothing to do with changing the kosher laws. Rather, God teaches Peter an important lesson about his relationship with other people, and how the influences of the School of Shammai caused an isolationist approach to Judaism that God had never intended.

Notice Peter’s response when he was told to eat of these unclean animals.

14 "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon's house was and stopped at the gate.

Notice, that after having this vision, Peter could not figure out it’s meaning. It was obvious to him that God was NOT changing the kosher laws. If that was the case, what was God trying to tell him?

Continuing in verse 21:

21 Peter went down and said to the men, "I'm the one you're looking for. Why have you come?"
22 The men replied, "We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say."
23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along.
24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.
25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.
26 But Peter made him get up. "Stand up," he said, "I am only a man myself."
27 Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people.
28 He said to them: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a GENTILE or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.

Again, notice what Peter’s interpretation of the vision was. He did not believe God was now telling him not to follow the kosher laws. Rather, he believed that God was against labeling PEOPLE as unclean.

But, what law is Peter talking about when he says it is “against the law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or to visit him?” This is NOT a law found in the Torah. At this time in Jewish history, however, there was an anti-Gentile movement among the followers of Shammai who instituted the 18 edicts or measures. 

In his book "Jesus the Pharisee" Rabbi Harvey Falk writes:

The eighteen measures were a set of rulings advocated by Bet Shammai in order to foster greater separation between Jews and Gentiles, these rules being opposed by Bet Hillel. [pg 56]

Among some of the rulings, that existed at this time, was a prohibition of entering a Gentiles house so as not to be defiled. Also, eating with a Gentile was prohibited.

The opposition of associating with Gentiles still continued to be part of the custom of believers of "the Way". Even years after Peter's vision the disciples of Yeshua were amazed when Gentiles began to be drawn toward a belief in the One God in record numbers.

Acts 11:18

18 When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.”

What does it mean when it says “repentance unto life”? This means eternal life or life after death. The question that they were struggling with was, “Can a Gentile have a place in the “world to come?” Again, we see the conflict of opinion within the two schools of Jewish thought. The School of Shammai did not accept the concept of the “righteous Gentile,” whereas the School of Hillel did.

Who is a “righteous Gentile”? He is a Gentile who follows the seven Noahide laws. Although he is not a full convert to Judaism, he does adhere to certain principles.

Chaim Clorfene and Yakov Rogalsky in the book “The Path of the Righteous Gentile” write:

With respect to God’s commandments, all humanity is divided into two general classifications: the Children of Israel and the Children of Noah. The Children of

Israel are the Jews, the descendants of the Patriarch Jacob. They are commanded to fulfill the 613 Commandments of the Torah. The Children of Noah comprise the seventy original nations of the world and their branches. They are commanded concerning the Seven Universal Laws, also known as the Seven Laws of the Children of Noah or the Seven Noahide Laws. These Seven Universal Laws pertain to idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, sexual relations, eating the limb of a living animal, and establishing courts of law.

Can such a Gentile decide to become a full convert to Judaism? Absolutely. But, according to the School of Hillel, they should never be forced to convert or to proceed beyond those areas they choose. Taking this into account let’s look at the “Jerusalem conference” in Acts 15 and understand what this discussion was all about.

Acts 15:3

15:3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.

What were the gentiles being converted to? Remember at this time in history there was no such thing as a separate religion known as Christianity. These were Gentiles being converted to a belief in Judaism, although they were NOT full converts.

4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

Notice that they were NOT circumcised NOR were they keeping the "laws of Moses".

6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.
7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said to them, “Men and brethren, you know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the
Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
8 And God, which knows the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did to us;
9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
10 Now therefore why tempt you God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

What is this "yoke" that is hard to bear and who is it on? Is this saying that God’s instructions for living a good life should be thrown out because they are too hard to follow? No, that is not what is being said. The yoke is not on the Gentiles; it is on the disciples. The followers of Yeshua from the School of Shammai were promoting the practice of forcing Gentiles to comply with aspects of the law before they were ready. They were saying that a Gentile had to become a full convert to Judaism (taking on the entire "yoke" of the law) before they would associate or fellowship with them. So in addition, they (those from the School of Shammai) were putting a "yoke" upon those disciples (from the School of Hillel).

13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me:
14 Simeon has declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.
15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,
16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:
17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, says the Lord, who doeth all these things.
18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.
19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.

James explains that Gentiles do not need to become full converts to Judaism to be acceptable before God. Rather, as long as the Gentiles follows the seven Noahide laws they can fellowship and learn as they go.

21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.

The Gentiles were allowed to attend synagogue every Sabbath to learn, The school of Hillel (along with believers in "the Way") promoted the idea of the Jewish people being "a light" to the Gentiles, and did not isolate themselves from them.  That had been God’s intention from the beginning.

Exodus 12:43

43 And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the Passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof:
44 But every man's servant that is bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof.
45 A foreigner and an hired servant shall not eat thereof.
46 In one house shall it be eaten; thou shall not carry forth ought of the flesh abroad out of the house; neither shall ye break a bone thereof.
47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it.
48 And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be
circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.
49 One law shall be to him that is home-born, and unto the stranger that sojourns among you.
50 Thus did all the children of Israel; as the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron, so did they.
51 And it came to pass the selfsame day, that the LORD did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their armies.

The mixed multitude that came out of Egypt with the Children of Israel could not eat the Passover. However, if they CHOSE to become a full convert, they would be allowed to do so. In fact that would be a great decision, but it had to be THEIR choice.

Romans 3:25

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.
26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?
27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.
29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.
3:1 What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?
2 Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the oral law.

What is Paul trying to say here? Again, we need to take into context the issue that is being discussed. A Jew from the School of Shammai would not have fellowship with an uncircumcised Gentile. A Jew from the School of Hillel, however, accepted the Gentile who was attempting to obey God through observing the seven Noahide laws, and yet remained uncircumcised. They believed (as do Jews today) that the “righteous Gentile” will be saved (have a place in the world to come).

He was certainly not saying that circumcision was of no value, nor was he attempting to tell a Gentile that he should not seek conversion.

The Law and the Noahide

However, converting to Judaism would not make the Gentile a better person. The Gentile is considered “righteous” by observing the seven Noahide laws.

1) Prohibition against idol worship
2) Prohibition against blasphemy
3) Prohibition against murder
4) Prohibition against adultery
5) Prohibition against theft
6) Prohibition against eating flesh torn from
     a live animal or drinking it's blood
7) Establishing a legal system

So the application of law is not the same for everyone. In the Mosaic law there are laws that apply only to women, others to men. Some laws only apply to Levites, and others to priests. When you live in the land there are laws that apply, that do not apply when you are not in the land. There are also laws that apply only when the Temple is standing. Likewise there are laws that apply to Jews (the Children of Israel) that do not apply to Gentiles.

The laws you are required to observe do not make you a better person. A male Levite living in Israel is not inherently a better person than a female Danite living in the diaspora. However, each person would have a different set of laws to follow. It is the same for a Gentile who is only required to observe the seven Noahide laws.

Chaim Clorfene and Yakov Rogalsky in “The Path of the Righteous Gentile” write:

By observing the Seven Noahide Commandments, a Gentile fulfills the purpose of his creation and receives a share of the World to Come, the blessed spiritual world of the righteous.

…The Children of Noah are co-religionists of the Children of Israel. Together, they are peaceful partners striving to perfect the world and thereby give God satisfaction. By viewing himself as a Noahite, the Gentile becomes like the Jew, in that he is a member of a people whose peoplehood (not just his religion) is synonymous with its relationship to God.

Rabbi Yakov Fogelman, in his April Torah commentary of 2003 writes:

... Jesus and Paul were good guys, not out to take Jews away from their religion (see Matt.5, Luke 16), but to bring non-Jews to theirs – the Noahide Code; all should remain in their own faith, both Jews and Noahides; later errant Christians distorted their message, tried to convert Jews and deified Jesus, which would probably have horrified him.

In Rabbi Harvey Falk's book "Jesus the Pharisee", he quotes Rabbi Jacob Emden concerning the formation of Christianity as saying: 

But for the Gentiles, he reserved the Seven Commandments which they have always been obligated to fulfill. It is for that reason that were forbidden pollutions of idols, fornication, blood, and things strangled (Acts 15) They also forbade them circumcision and the Sabbath. All of this was in accord with the law and custom of our Torah, as expounded by our Sages, the true transmitters from Moses at Sinai. It was they who sat upon his seat (as the Nazarene himself attested [Mt.23]). It was they (the Sages and Pharisees) who said it is forbidden to circumcise a Gentile who does accept upon himself the yoke of (all) the commandments. The Sages likewise said that the Gentile is enjoined not to (fully) to observe the Sabbath. The Apostles of the Nazarene therefore chose for those Gentiles who do not enter the Jewish faith that instead of circumcision they should practice immersion (for truly immersion is also a condition of full conversion), and a commemoration of the Sabbath was made for them on Sunday.

Paul believed that he was living in the "last days", and if Gentiles were to believe and work for the coming of the Jewish Messiah, they would help bring the world into a time of peace. This would be to the benefit of both Jew AND Gentile.  Paul also tells the Gentiles that they would be used as an important part of God’s redemption of Israel (the northern kingdom that had become lost).

Acts 13:47

NIV 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: "'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'"
48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

How did this group of Jewish followers, many of whom believed that you had to become a complete convert to Judaism BEFORE you could be saved, eventually become “the Church” believing you should ABANDON Judaism for salvation?

We find the answer to that question by studying the journey Christianity takes from the Synagogue to the Church.



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