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Gentile (from Latin gentilis 'of or belonging to the same people or nation', from gēns 'clan; tribe; people, family') is a term that usually means 'someone who is not a Jew'.[1] Other groups that claim Israelite heritage sometimes use the term to describe outsiders.[2]

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 word gentile is derived from Latin and not itself an original Hebrew or Greek word found in the Bible.

The original words goy and ethnos refer to "peoples" or "nations" and are applied to both Israelites and non-Israelites in the Bible.[3]


"Gentile" derives from Latin gentilis, which itself derives from the Latin gens, meaning clan or tribe. Gens derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵénh₁tis.[4] 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'.[citation needed]


Hebrew Bible[edit]

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.

In the pre-exilic times the relationship between Israelites and gentiles was mostly hostile and the non-Israelites such as Babylonians, Egyptians, and Assyrians were always seen as an enemy. After the Babylonian exile, the Jewish-gentile relationship became less hostile.

In rabbinical writings[edit]


Rabbinical writings often show more hostility towards gentiles due to frequent persecution of the Jews by these nations. Eliezer ben Hurcanus writes that the mind of every gentile is always intent upon idolatry.[3] 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.

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 descendants of the Amaleks, the rest of the gentiles will adopt monotheism and the righteous among 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 Jews, when guilty of the same sin as gentiles, will not enter hell whereas the gentiles will.[3] Eleazar ben Azariah believed that the rulings performed by a gentile court are not valid for Jews. Rabbi Akiva 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 antisemites in his sayings: "The best among the Gentiles deserves to be killed", "The most pious woman is addicted to sorcery" and "The best of snakes ought to have its head crushed".[3]

Judah ben Ilai suggests that the recital "Blessed be thou ... 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.

Later sages[edit]

Rav Ashi believed that a Jew who sells a gentile property adjacent to a Jewish property should be excommunicated. 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."[3] 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. Shimon ben Lakish wrote that "A gentile who observes Sabbath deserves death".[3]

In modern times[edit]

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. 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 HaRav Kook yeshiva are schooled in the doctrine that Jews and gentiles have different kinds of souls. One of the yeshiva's scholars, David Bar-Hayim, published a 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.[5][6]

Bar-Chayim further quotes Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), founder of the yeshiva and the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine:

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.[7]

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.[8] These remarks by Yosef were sharply criticized by many Jewish organizations such as Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and American Jewish Committee.[9]

Jewish philosopher and professor Menachem Kellner criticizes the assumption of some Orthodox Jews that there is an "ontological divide between Jews and Gentiles", which he believes is contrary to what the Torah teaches.[10]

In Kabbalah[edit]

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:[11]

  • 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.

Both Jewish and gentile souls are composed of these three elements. The human soul has two additional elements that are completely outside of the lower realm of existence that all humanity currently lives in. These parts of the soul are neither felt nor experienced even by a Jew who has them. It cannot be experienced by any person while they are living in the physical (lower) universe. That obviously does not mean these additional parts do not exist. They are called the Chaya and the Yechida.[12] The only distinction between a Jewish soul and a gentile soul is how it is nourished. Each part of the soul is nourished by a different aspect of fulfillment of a commandment. Gentile souls require and are completely fulfilled by more basic nourishment which comes from the Seven Laws of Noah. The Jewish soul derives additional nourishment that it requires from the proper observance of the additional commandments.


The Greek ethnos where translated as "gentile" in the context of early Christianity implies non-Israelite. In the years after the ministry of Jesus, there were questions over the inclusion of non-Jews and the applicability of the Law of Moses, including circumcision. Over a few centuries, this led to a split between Jewish Christians, who followed Jesus but also Mosaic Law, and Pauline Christianity (also known as Gentile Christianity) which abandoned Mosaic Law and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Jewish Christian beliefs died out around the fifth century, after being rejected by both orthodox Judaism and orthodox Christianity.

With the ministry of Paul the Apostle the gospel began to be spread among the non-Jewish subjects of the Roman empire. 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 as in Acts 10:34–47:

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, some Christians used the word "gentiles" to mean non-Christians. The alternative pagani was felt to be less elegant.[13]

Christian Bibles[edit]

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."[14]

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.[15]

Altogether, the word is used 123 times in the King James Version of the Bible,[16] and 168 times in the New Revised Standard Version.[17]

Latter Day Saint movement[edit]

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. Hence, in LDS contexts the word can be used simply to refer to people who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, since members of the LDS Church regard themselves as regathered Israelites. 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."[2] In such usage, Jewish people are gentiles because they are not members of the LDS Church.[18] 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."[2] 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.[19]


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[20]


"Gentile" also appears in compounds such as "antigentilism", hostility of Jews to non-Jews.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gentile." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 6 June 2014.
  2. ^ a b c John L. Needham, "The Mormon-Gentile Dichotomy in PMLA", PMLA, Vol. 114, No. 5 (October 1999), pp. 1109–1110
  3. ^ a b c d e f "GENTILE -".
  4. ^ "Kind"; in: M. Philippa e.a., Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands
  5. ^ Learned Ignorance: Intellectual Humility Among Jews, Christians and Muslims By James L. Heft, Reuven Firestone, Omid Safi, Oxford University Press, USA, 2011, p. 163.
  6. ^ "Yisrael Nikraim Adam", Tzfiyah, v. 3, 1989, pp. 45-73.
  7. ^ "Daat Emet: Gentiles in Halacha". Retrieved 2015-12-25. citing Orot Yisrael chapter 5, article 10 (page 156)
  8. ^ "5 of Ovadia Yosef's most controversial quotations".
  9. ^ Mozgovaya, Natasha; Service, Haaretz (20 October 2010). "ADL Slams Shas Spiritual Leader for Saying non-Jews 'Were Born to Serve Jews'" – via Haaretz.
  10. ^ Kellner, Menachem (Spring 2016). "Orthodoxy and "The Gentile Problem"". Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. Marc D. Angel. Retrieved 1 June 2020.
  11. ^ Qabbalistic Magic: Talismans, Psalms, Amulets, and the Practice of High Ritual. Salomo Baal-Shem, Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 2013, Chapter 5.
  12. ^ 1934-1983., Kaplan, Aryeh (1991). Innerspace : introduction to the kabbalah, meditation and prophecy. Sutton, Abraham. New York: Moznaim Publishing Corporation. ISBN 0940118564. OCLC 228219990.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press 2010 ISBN 978-0-19978091-4), p. 16
  14. ^ "Bible Gateway passage: Genesis 10:5 - King James Version". Bible Gateway.
  15. ^ "Bible Gateway passage: Matthew 10 - King James Version". Bible Gateway.
  16. ^ Did a search for "Gentile" in KJV. Used Archived 2007-07-26 at the Wayback Machine. It returned 123 results of the word "gentile". Retrieved 11 Feb 2007.
  17. ^ Kohlenberger, John. The NRSV Concordance Unabridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.
  18. ^ "Utah Jewish History". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  19. ^ "Gentiles".
  20. ^ "The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'ân,: 3. Al-Imran: The Family Of Imran".
  21. ^ Marcus, Jacob Rader. "Judeophobia and Antigentilism" in States Jewry, 1776–1985: Volume III The Germanic Period, Part 2, pp. 359–360. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-8143-2188-1. "Yet very few Jews were antigentilic. Despite his occasional hostility Wise was particularly close to liberal Christian religious groups. But where Judaism, the religion was concerned, neither Wise nor any other Jewish leader made any concessions to Christianity, not in substance."

External links[edit]