Evolution Of Words: What Is A Gentile?

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Noah Webster Portrait by Samuel F.B. Morse
Noah Webster
Portrait by Samuel F.B. Morse

This week The Barking Fox celebrates one year since entering the blogosphere.  It is exciting to see how many places this blog has reached thanks to the miracles of modern technology, but it is even more exciting to consider the many people I have encountered through the blog and related activities.  One of those people is Ken Rank of United 2 Restore.  I first heard of Ken last spring through the video he made with Hanoch Young on the reunification of Judah and Ephraim.  Since then I have enjoyed reading his posts on Facebook and elsewhere, and have appreciated the work he and Hanoch are doing to raise awareness of the connection Jews and Christians share as Israelites.  In fact, that connection is at the root of the theme for The Barking Fox in 2015.  In this coming year, the Fox will ask the same question the Apostles asked Yeshua during their last conversation with Him:  “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)  The answer we seem to be hearing these days is that the restoration depends on where we pin our identity.  And that is exactly what Ken addresses in this short article.

 The Evolution of Words

by Ken Rank

United2RestoreBeing a word person, I find the progression of definitions to be an interesting study.  The meanings of words change and often we don’t realize that has happened.  When the KJV [King James Version] was translated, the word “prevent” meant “to go before,” rather than “to keep from happening,” which is what it means today.  Back at that same time in history, if I had said to you, “We engaged in gay intercourse,” you would have not thought twice and knew I meant, “pleasant (or happy) discussion.”  That doesn’t exactly carry the same meaning today, does it?

While my latter example is an obvious one in regards to the evolution of words, a word like prevent is less so.  For example, Psalm 59:10 states, “The God of my mercy shall prevent me:  God shall let me see my desire upon mine enemies.”  One has to wonder how many readers of the KJV truly understand that the first half of that verse means, “The God of mercy shall go before me,” which is how most English bibles, rightly, render the Hebrew in that verse today.

There are other English words that carried a meaning back at the time of the KJV that differs from the meaning it carries today, yet those words continue to appear in all modern translations, perhaps misleading us in the same manner a word like “prevent” would to the KJV reader.  One word in particular has changed dramatically over time and yet that word continues to appear in modern versions with the modern definition being applied to the word.  The word I am referring to is the word “gentile.”

Today, most Christians see themselves as gentiles.  The online Webster’s dictionary defines the word gentile in this manner:

Gentile – often capitalized:  a person of a non-Jewish nation or of non-Jewish faith; especially:  a Christian as distinguished from a Jew

The second definition of a gentile as provided by the online edition of Webster’s comes in the form of two words, heathen and pagan.  So a gentile according to one of the most respected dictionaries of our day says a gentile is a Christian who is not a Jew or a person who is a pagan or heathen.  With the word gentile used for Christians but also tied to one who honors a false deity, you might think that would be cause for alarm?  Strangely, it is not.  Yet, perhaps there should be cause, because the meaning of this word has changed dramatically over time, and yet we continue to use it but with a definition not intended for the word when it was first chosen as the English equivalent of the Greek word ethnos, the word translated as gentiles.  Please understand, a word like prevent once meant one thing, and when the meaning of that word changed we ceased using that word in our bible translations, instead, we chose other words that carried the meaning that prevent once held.  Yet with the word gentile, we did not choose another word in our newer translations, we continued to use the same word but with a completely different meaning.

Back in 1828, Noah Webster (b1758 – d1843) standardized the modern English language by producing his dictionary.  When he did, he defined words as understood in the English bibles of his day.  The most popular of which, the KJV, had a revision in 1769 so he grew up using the KJV and later in life, used it as the basis to give us our first modern English dictionary.  Webster defined the word gentile in a manner which should cause alarm to Christians who consider themselves to be gentiles.  His entry looked like this:

Webster’s 1828:

GEN’TILE, n. [L. gentilis; from L. gens, nation, race; applied to pagans.]  In the scriptures, a pagan; a worshipper of false gods; any person not a Jew or a Christian; a heathen.  The Hebrews included in the term goim or nations, all the tribes of men who had not received the true faith, and were not circumcised.  The christians translated goim by the L. gentes, and imitated the Jews in giving the name gentiles to all nations who were not Jews nor christians.  In civil affairs, the denomination was given to all nations who were not Romans.

GEN’TILE, a.  Pertaining to pagans or heathens.

Please take note of what I made bold in the above definition.  So let’s key in on the main points here…a nation or race but “as applied to pagans.”  Any person who is not a Jew OR a Christian, not just “not a Jew” as it is defined today.  A gentile was a nation that was uncircumcised, or that had not received the “true faith,” which to Webster and all Christians in that day was obviously understood as a reference to Christianity.  In short, a gentile was a pagan, a worshipper of a false deity.  If you weren’t a Jew or Christian in 1828 you were viewed as a pagan, a heathen, somebody outside the true faith, a GENTILE!  Therefore, I can boldly say that in 1828 the idea of a “gentile-Christian” would not have been spoken by any Christian, in fact, it would have been an oxymoron!

That is not to say we were once gentiles, we were, but we cease to be a gentile when we become part of the true faith.  This is why Paul said this:

Ephesians 2:11-12  Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; (12) 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.

In times PAST you were a gentile, in times PAST you were without Christ, in times PAST you were an alien of the Commonwealth of Israel, in times PAST you were a stranger to the covenants of promise, in times PAST you had no hope, and in times PAST you were without God.  But now:

Ephesians 2:19  Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.

NOW we are not strangers to the covenants of promise, NOW we have hope, NOW we know God, NOW we have Christ, NOW we are fellow citizens of the Commonwealth of Israel.  We can no more be a gentile AND a Christian than Yeshua haMashiach, Jesus the Messiah, can be a Roman!  Now, go back and read the entire NT [New Testament], because when the word gentile is defined as it was intended when first used, we begin to see another story unfold.

© Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog, 2014-2015.  Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Barking Fox Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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