A close examination of all the New Testament occurrences leads me to believe that the singular form of ethnos should always be translated as “nation” and the plural translated as “other nations.”
This puts a completely different spin on the meaning of the verse we are considering. Greek has a perfectly good word for nonbeliever (ἄπιστος) and Paul could have used it here if that was what he was trying to say. To use the word gentile, as many translations do, implies that these people had converted to Judaism, rather than Christianity. It is clear that Paul intended neither of these ideas.
Is something hidden from view?
By translating the word as pagan the translators seem to be pointedly avoiding the clear and simple meaning of Paul’s words, and the obvious intent of this whole passage. Interestingly, at the biblehub link cited above, we find two translations (Darby and Young’s) that correctly render Paul’s words in a way that makes sense. Here is Darby’s: “Ye know that when ye were of the nations ye were led away to dumb idols, in whatever way ye might be led.”
Did you catch that? What were they formerly? Of the Nations! But wait a minute, what is the alternative to being “of the nations?” In most contemporary Christian thought there is no alternative. It seems this is why most modern translations use the word pagan here. An Iranian who comes to our Lord is now an Iranian Christian. A Canadian who comes to the Lord is now a Canadian Christian, and so on. Most of those reading this consider themselves American Christians, or if they hold to the error of “ultimate” allegiance cited in our last post, they may say Christian American.
What is Paul talking about?
In the context Paul is addressing the nature and gifting of the church. He obliquely refers to the spirits which govern the nations and used various means to draw their subjects to idol worship. This is in contrast to the Holy Spirit which declares Jesus as kurios (κύριος) translated Lord, and meaning undisputed owner. This Spirit equips the “church” with gifts so that it can be the “body of the king.”
This body is made of the king’s subjects who are no longer considered Jews or Greeks. Their identities have been transformed by the transfer of their allegiance. It is sad that many translations render the word “Greek” in the text (verse 15) as Gentiles, obscuring the Paul’s clear reference to specific national cultures here.
The fact is that in the context Paul is very pointedly making it clear that his audience were no longer of the nations, but that their new owner (Lord) is their king Jesus, whom they are to represent. It seems strange to us because this point which the New Testament makes repeatedly is so often obscured by translators who find the fact difficult to accept.