“Nations”, as we think of them today – independent political entities – did not exist until relatively modern times. Modern usage has considered the term “nation” (a cohesive group, bound together by a common language, culture, and history) to be synonymous with “country” or “state” (a political entity defined by geographical boundaries, laws, and governance) – which, historically, it is not.
Old Testament references to “nations” and “kingdoms”, like those in Homer, usually referred to a single city and its environs, each with its own “king” (more like a warlord).
In the first century, virtually every “nation” in Europe, the middle east, and parts of Asia and Africa was dominated by Rome, as they had been earlier by Greece under Alexander, and earlier still by Persia, under Cyrus. None of these empires were ever termed “nations”. They were composed of many conquered nations.
The “nation” [ethnicity] with which one identified had little to do with political boundaries. The conquerors arranged and rearranged boundaries for their own convenience (much as they do today) with little regard for cultural, tribal, religious, or other loyalties. They appointed various levels of petty despots to do the local governing, with varying degrees of autonomy (and success). In the first century, some of these were Herod, Pilate, Claudius Lysius, Felix, and Festus. (You can fill in corresponding names for the 20th and 21st centuries!)
Jesus seems to have assumed this sort of structure in the parable (Lk.19:12-27) of the nobleman who traveled abroad “to receive a kingdom” and returned. This was probably a political grant from a higher potentate.
Liddell/Scott lists different categories of meanings for ethnos, the most common of the words rendered “nation..” (Other words rarely rendered “nation” are genea -1x– usually “generation” and genos -2 x– “kind, kindred, or offspring”.) The earliest, historically, represented “any body of people living together; a band of comrades; particular tribes, or even swarms or flocks of animals”! Later, implications of “foreign” or “barbaric” were added. In Athens, ethnos was applied to non-Athenian athletic clubs, and in the LXX, to non-Jews, and more generally, to people of a class or caste beneath one’s own, as well as to trade associations.
Consequently, a modern translation of ethnos as “nation” would be more accurately considered a cultural artifact of the time of translation, than a concept present in the original text. The common thread in many of these translations is the concept of “other”. It is mostly concerned with what a person is not, dividing “us” from “them”, and “in” from “out”. Of all the New Testament uses of the word, only ten refer to one’s own people. (Usually one’s own are called laos, “people”. Others are “ethnoi” – Gentiles, or nations). For Jews, the dichotomy was either ioudaioi, Jews, vs. hellen, Greeks; circumcision vs. uncircumcision, or laos, people, vs. ethnoi, nations or Gentiles.
For Greeks, it was hellen vs. barbaros (barbarians), a term which originally applied to anyone who did not speak Greek, but after Herodotus (4th century BC), acquired the connotation of “brutal” or “rude”, although it continued to be applied, often in a disparaging way, to any foreigner.
Hellen (Greek) is also used, although less frequently (only 26 times) in the New Testament, usually as a more specific term of ethnic identity than ethnos, which is arbitrarily rendered “nation” (64 x) or “Gentile” (93 x), and applied to anyone who was not a Jew. Five times it was traditionally translated “heathen” – Ac.4:25, II Cor. 11:26, Gal.1:16, 2:9, 3:8 . This is not a different word. The choice among the alternatives, “nations”, “Gentiles”, and “heathen”, by traditional translators, is completely arbitrary. The word in every instance is ethnos.
One outstanding feature of the New Testament appearances of ethnos is the frequency of its being paired with “all”, “every”, or “many” (31 x), from the charge to Abraham (Rom.14:17,18) to Jesus’ instructions to his original disciples (Mt.28:19, Mk.13:10, Lk.24:47), and the glorious scenes in Rev.5:9, 7:9, 10:11 and many more. This, along with Paul’s more specific descriptions (especially in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians) reveals a massive paradigm shift! Ethnos is no longer a term of exclusion, but of gracious inclusion into the Kingdom – the people (laos) of God!
It took a while for those people to internalize the shift, and the writers are not shy about documenting their struggles. We don’t know whether the confrontation with Peter that Paul describes in Gal.2 was before or after the former’s experience with Cornelius (Ac.10) and/or the conference in Jerusalem (Ac.15), but rough spots are frankly acknowledged. Much of Paul’s correspondence with the group at Corinth involves clashes of backgrounds, as do Ephesians, Colossians, and many of his other letters. This may even show up in the vocabulary, since frequently, the term hellen is substituted for ethnos in settings that may have involved Gentile proselytes. Ac.14:1, 16:13, 17:4, 18:4 describe scenes in the synagogues of Iconium, Derbe, Thessalonica, and Corinth, and the crowd present at Pentecost (Ac.2:8-11) represented “many nations”. Might the shift in “label” have indicated that these folks, while not fully assimilated, were at least no longer considered rank outsiders?
But the objective was much higher than that. Jesus’ prayer for his people was that they all be as completely “one” as he was/is with the Father (Jn.17:21),and that prayer specifically included (v.20) “also those who are faithful to me because of their word”! This is the content of “God’s mystery” (W.S.#57) finally revealed to his people (Eph.3:3-9, Col.1:26-27, Rom.16:25-26). The “in” group has been re-defined: no longer identified by any ethnic identity, but by faithfulness to the King of Kings! And while the Law, the Prophets, and the Old Testament histories are full of admonitions to avoid those of alien”nations”, the New Testament is filled with celebration of their inclusion!
Despite his earlier hesitation. Brother Peter also finally got on board (I Pet.2:9-10). Writing (1:1) to “scattered refugees” (traditionally, “strangers”) who have been brought together by their adherence to the Lord Jesus, he encourages them to seek continually for greater faithfulness, reminding them, “You all are a chosen generation – a royal priesthood – a set-apart [holy] nation (ethnos) especially reserved for the purpose of sending out messages about the excellence of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light! Once, you were not (even) a people (laos), but now you are God’s people(laos)!” In v.11, he refers to them as “temporary residents and foreigners” in the world from which they came!
Paul writes in a similar vein to the brethren in Ephesus (2:11-22) of their transition from being rank outsiders (11 and 12), through the work of Christ (13-16) in creating one Body out of two people, and describing their present status (17-19) as “fellow citizens with God’s people” and members of his own household! This is an ongoing process for all concerned (20-22), as the whole group is built together “into a permanent dwelling-place for God”!
At least 54 of the 93 places where ethnos is traditionally translated “Gentiles” refer specifically to their inclusion in the people of God. In the Kingdom, “in” and “out” is completely independent of national origin. It depends entirely upon one’s loyalty to the King, which is expected to transcend – indeed, to replace – any and all other allegiances (W.S.#4).
In the middle of a section of detailed instructions for the interaction of the widely varied members of that Kingdom in Colosssae, Paul reminds them (Col.3:11-12) that not only do the former divisions no longer matter, but they have ceased to exist! They/we are now all “God’s chosen people (W.S.#56), holy [set-apart for him] and loved!” and charged with representing the grace and power that accomplished such a feat to the rest of the world.
May we learn to prove faithful to that assignment!