Today, the primary meaning of gentile is non-Jew.
Gentile derives from Latin gens (from which, together with forms of the cognate Greek word genos, also derive gene, general, genus and genesis). 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 mean "foreign", i.e. non-Roman. After the Christianization of the empire it could also be used of pagan or barbarian cultures.
In the Bible
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 that 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 other peoples. Strong's Concordance defines goy as "nation, people usually of non-Hebrew people, or of descendants of Abraham of Israel, or of a swarm of locusts or other animals (fig.) Goyim = "nations". Strongs #1471
In the KJV 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 and Genesis 25:23 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 use of Gentile as a translation when the text is specifically referring to non-Israelites. 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 word translates Greek terms for peoples in general, and is used specifically to indicate non-Jewish peoples, as in Jesus's command to the apostles in Matthew chapter 10:
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.
Here Gentiles becomes a synonym for pagan cultures of the period.
Gentile in the context of Early Christianity meant "non-Jewish". It was a matter of dispute whether proselytization should be extended to the gentiles (that is, the Greco-Roman population of the Roman Empire) or whether it should remain restricted to the Jewish communities throughout the Empire.
Attached to this question was the Circumcision controversy in early Christianity, i.e., does a Gentile need to convert to Judaism before he can convert to Christianity. The position of the Judaizers was that this was a necessity, taking Christianity to remain fully within Judaism, including obedience to the Torah Laws. The opposite position was defended by Paul of Tarsus who argued against the Judaizers. The Council of Jerusalem decided in favour of the more liberal position, allowing converts to forgo circumcision. This decision contributed to the rapid spread of Christianity, since it made Christianity a more attractive option for interested pagans than Rabbinic Judaism which instituted a more stringent circumcision procedure in response.
As in the King James Bible, from the 17th century onward Gentile was most commonly used to refer to non-Jews. This was in the context of European Christian societies with a Jewish minority. For this reason 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.
Latter-day Saints Church usage
In the terminology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("LDS Church"; see also Mormon) 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, and 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 that it is 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".
In order to avoid confrontation and pejorative connotations, Latter-day Saints in the 21st century avoid using the word Gentile in everyday matters, preferring "non-member". Gentile is usually reserved for discussions of scriptural passages.
In British Israelism, which claims that the Anglo-Saxon nations are direct descendants of the lost tribes of ancient Israel, the word gentiles is used to refer to all nations which are not of "Israelite" origin. Some schools of British Israelism consider that most nations of western and Northern Europe are tribes of Israel as well, and thus non-gentile nations.
|Look up gentile in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Searched  for goy.
- Genesis 10:5
- Matthew chapter 10
- Did a search for "Gentile" in KJV. Used BibleGateway.com. It returned 123 results of the word "Gentile". Accessed 11-Feb-2007.
- Kohlenberger, John. The NRSV Concordance Unabridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.
- John L. Needham, The Mormon-Gentile Dichotomy in PMLA, PMLA, Vol. 114, No. 5 (Oct., 1999), pp. 1109-1110