Are you a part of the Gentile church, or the Jewish church? Does such a question even make sense in a New Testament context. Whole systems of theology are based on these seemingly legitimate questions. Yet my reading of the Greek New Testament convinces me that the “Gentile church” in a myth based on a misreading of the text, compounded by the use of Gentile–a word which the does not even have a Greek equivalent.
I closed my last post with controversial statement that if we want to continue translating the Greek word ethnos as “Gentile” we are forced to conclude that according to scripture, today”s Jews, who have not accepted Jesus as king, are Gentiles. Of course this makes no sense in English because in our language Gentile means “non-Jew.”This is yet another example of the kind of confusion that is generated when a word in one language is transliterated into another language and given a meaning different from its original. Gentilis is a perfectly good Latin word meaning nation or tribe. As such it conveys perfectly the meaning of the Hebrew goy and the Greek ethnos, and was used to translate those words into the Latin Vulgate. Sadly the English word Gentile does not come close to conveying the meaning of either gentilis, goy, or ethnos.
The fact is, neither the Old nor New Testaments have any word meaning “non-Jew.” As we saw in the last post, the ancient distinction between Israel and the other nations was based on the fact that they were the unique ekklesia of God—those who were to model and exercise the “royal power of God.” Their unique standing among the nations was based solely and entirely on their unique national relationship with YHWH.
Is Jesus a polygamist?
According to scripture God has announced His betrothal to a new ekklesia, taken out of all nations (including Israel). Anyone wishing to join this new ekklesia must take the same stance as Ruth who renounced her former citizenship and declared: “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” Ruth 1:16
While this seems strange to our ears; this is exactly what is entailed in believing that Jesus is the christos. 1 John 5:1 tells us that this is the prerequisite for the new birth.
If we are to avoid wrong thinking we must recognize that God has only one ekklesia, only one nation. This biblical perspective is the clear background for the for both the Old and New Testaments. We have but one King—Jesus, and He has but one nation, one body, and one bride. Jesus is not polygamous.
(Before continuing I should point out that I am not advocating supersessionism, the idea that the new assembly of citizens has replaced Israel in God’s eyes and that all the prophesies about Israel now apply to the Church. Whether or not that idea holds is a matter for systematic theology, which is way beyond me. I am operating strictly at the level of translation and hermeneutics—what does scripture say and mean. At this point I am content to leave the development of systems to others. That said, I am suspicious of any system that avoids certain passages or twists them out of their clear contextual meaning. In other words, I know of no systematic theology that does not arouse my suspicion.)
But wait a minute you say, “Doesn’t the New Testament contain many references to the “Gentile Church?” As far as English translations go, this is often the case. It is my goal in this post to prove to you that this is the result of systematic errors in translation which are the result of either inattention to what the Greek text is saying, or an inability to see it clearly due to a theological disposition.
A little Greek
It is now time to take a deep breath and try to concentrate. We need to review a little grammar. (If you are reading this casually from your cell phone, you might want to book mark this and come back when you can devote your full attention.(And by all means stop driving!)) In English as in Greek, the preposition “of” can have a host of meanings. Consider the phrase “gospel of King Jesus.” It could mean the good news about King Jesus, or it could mean the good news proclaimed by King Jesus.
Now consider “that bucket of metal next to the bucket of wood.” If you see a bucket full of wood chips and one full of nails, you know the one referred to. On the other hand if you see a steel bucket next to a wooden one, you also understand. In the first case “of” referred to the contents, and in the second it referred to composition.
In the New Testament the idea of “of” in all its many forms can be expressed by a special form of nouns called “the genitive case.” (For a simple intro to the genitive click here, or here for a more comprehensive one.) For plural nouns this is always done by adding the letters omega nu (ῶν) to the end of the word. That means that the word “of” need not be present; it can be expressed by the form of the word. As with English, it is up to the context to decide the exact meaning. Additional words may be added to eliminate ambiguity when introducing a topic, if the context is not clear.
The ekklesia separated from the nations, or the Gentile Church?
In Acts 15 we see the new ekklesia in action, trying to come to terms with the work the Holy Spirit is doing in forming this new assembly of citizens. While they clearly recognize that God is creating a new nation based on the work of their King Jesus, most of them naturally assumed that this new nation was being taken out of the old one. Their terminology is clear and consistent on this point. What came as a shock was that the Holy Spirit was not restricting Himself to this pool of potential members, but was taking members out of the other nations as well.
The terminology in Acts 15 is critical because the decision rendered at the Jerusalem council provides the foundation for all later New Testament teaching on the subject. As a result Dr. Luke is at pains to add the prepositions needed to avoid ambiguity.
In Acts 15:14 Luke tells us that God was “taking from among the nations a people for His name.” The Greek “labein ex ethnon laon” (λαβεῖν ἐξ ἐθνῶν λαὸν) uses both the genitive of nations (ethnon) and the clarifying preposition “ex.” A term you will immediately identify as the source of our word exit. The clear unambiguous meaning of the genitive construction and the preposition ex means “to take out of, or remove, from the other nations.” The passage makes clear that these new converts (remember what that word means) were no longer considered members of their former nations.
In verse 23 we see the ambassadors using the exact same construction again in their letter to their new brethren who had been removed from the other nations to become part of the new nation God was creating.
In Acts 15:19, our historian uses a different preposition in conjunction with the genitive of nations: apo ton ethnon (ἀπὸ τῶν ἐθνῶν). This combination is possibly even more potent that the use of ex. Apo does not simply mean taken out of, it means separated from, taken away from. It implies spatial or conceptional distance. As if to say they were no longer in the same ballpark. Is this significance being conveyed in the translation you use?
Luke’s history provides the backdrop and prerequisite understanding for the rest of the New Testament. Once this understanding is established one may continue to show the state of separation by simply using the genitive form of nations, and only using apo or ex when clarification is needed.
So it is that we find verses that we have looked at before which seem to make no sense in English. Verses like 1 Corinthians 12:2 and Ephesians 2:11 which make clear that followers of our king are no longer members of the other nations. Verses like Ephesians 4:17 and 1 Peter 2:12 which call the king’s followers to hold to different standard than the nations they used to be a part of. The nations of the world exist as one great kingdom of darkness subject to their dark lord. We have been transferred out of that kingdom into the kingdom of light.
Am I rightly dividing the word, or simply a heretic dividing the Church?
To see the danger implicit it the lax treatment of the genitive form of ethnos, consider Romans 16:4: “…who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the churches of the gentiles.” Here the NIV certainly makes it look like I am a fool, or heretic for calling the Gentile Church a myth. But when we look at the Greek we find that Paul used the simple genitive form of nation. The NIV, and many other translations make this look like Paul was referring to churches made up non-Jews. This is in spite of the fact that Greek had no word meaning non-Jew. Had the translators rendered this “churches of the nations,” it would have been acceptable Greek, but not acceptable theology. Translating it as “churches out of the nations” is true to both the Greek and the New Testament message.
In closing I would like to give one more example of the subtlety involved in the correct handling of the genitive case. You will remember when I was experimenting with the word ekklesia, I tried it out on Galatians 1:1-2
Paul, an ambassador (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through King Jesus and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, To the assemblies of citizens from Galatia– Galatians 1:1-2
Observant individuals will note that I changed the NASB “of Galatia” to “from Galatia. The word “of” is not explicitly in the Greek, being derived from the genitive form of “Galatia.” It is clearly an ablatival genitive indicating source or origin. While “of’” communicates this in English (eg Saul of Tarsus) in this case it may cause confusion with the genitive of material. Paul was not addressing citizens of Galatia, but citizens of God’s kingdom from Galatia.
I do not believe that our king expects all His subjects to learn the original languages of scripture. But we can at least recognize that what we read has been filtered through the limits and sometimes theology of human vessels. This makes it all the more important that we “study to show ourselves approved…”
As I struggle to get this message out, I hope you will take part by asking questions, or commenting below. If you think this is important please like, share and plus this page and sign up for our updates by clicking here. May our king grant you His favor as you seek to be faithful to Him.
For the king,