From the Latin gens (literally, “nation”; Hebr. gôy; Grk. ethnos), “gentile” refers to a non‐Jew or, more broadly, anyone outside the covenant community of Israel. Postexilic times witness references to individual gentiles as opposed to nations; concurrently, the possibility of conversion to Judaism appears. Gentiles depicted in the Bible are as diverse as are Jews: From Rahab to Ruth, Haman to Holofernes, they come from various locations and play various roles—helpers, oppressors, witnesses, tempters.
Joshua 24.11 mentions the seven nations from whom the covenant community is to maintain separation (see Exod. 23.23–33; Deut. 7; Josh. 23). Yet a “mixed multitude” accompanies the community escaping Egypt (Exod. 12.38), and rules for the resident alien permit the circumcised sojourner to participate in Israel's religious life (Exod. 12.48–49). The so‐called promise motif (Gen. 12.3; see Ps. 72.17; Jer. 4.2) insists that by Abraham “all the families of the earth will bless themselves/be blessed”; Isaiah 42.6 (see 60.3) calls Israel “a light to the nations”; and Jonah is commissioned to preach to Nineveh. Yet Ezra (9–10) and Nehemiah (10.30; 13.23–30) require divorce of gentile wives (see also Exod. 34.15–16), and the condemnation of gentile nations is a common prophetic motif. The Hebrew book of Esther does not decry intermarriage, and the book of Ruth celebrates the union of a Judean man to a Moabite woman, but the Greek additions to Esther and the book of Tobit value endogamy (see Marriage).
Connections between Jewish and gentile communities existed in politics, trade, and even religious practices. Some gentiles became proselytes (Jth. 14.10; Acts 6.5); others were attracted to Jewish practices and synagogues (the “God‐fearers”). The pseudepigraphical book of Joseph and Asenath presents the Egyptian priest's daughter whom Joseph marries as the archetypal proselyte. Gentiles also participated in worship in the Herodian Temple (Josephus, War 2.17.412–16; 4.4.275; 5.13.563).
Jewish reactions to gentiles are also diverse. Most Jewish groups in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods believed that the righteous among the gentiles would achieve salvation, but they would do so as gentiles and by divine decree at the end of time. Such dual soteriology may also underlie Romans 9–11. Genesis Rabbah 34.8 lists the Noachide commandments incumbent on gentiles. Tosepta Sanhedrin 13.2 mentions gentiles who receive a place in the word to come (but see 1QM; 4 Ezra 3.32–36; ʿAbod. Zar. 24a). Jews were to deal honestly with gentiles (ʿAbod. Zar. 26a) and relieve their poor (Giṭ. 61a) even as they were warned against associating with idolaters. Neither scriptural warrant nor unambiguous historical evidence exists for an organized Jewish program to convert gentiles. Distinctions were to be kept between Jew and gentile, but the manner in which separation was maintained varied economically, socially, geographically, ritually, and philosophically.
Early Christian views of gentiles are generally positive; this is not surprising, given that the church found gentile territory fertile soil for its messages and that most of its canonical documents are addressed to gentile or partially gentile communities. Matthew's genealogy includes gentiles, and the gospel concludes with the command to make disciples of all the nations (or gentiles, panta ta ethnē; 28.19); Luke has Simeon predict that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (2.32). Paul is the apostle to the gentiles both in Acts and in his own letters. How Jesus himself regarded gentiles is not clear. In Matthew 10.5b–6; 15.24, he forbids his disciples to engage in a gentile mission (see also Rom. 15.8), but Luke 4 depicts his early willingness to extend the good news to non‐Jews. And both comments may be redactional inserts.
Anticipated by the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10, behavior incumbent on gentile Christians is confirmed by the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15): gentiles were to follow what was likely a combination of Noachide commandments and the laws incumbent on the resident alien (see also Gal. 2). Scholars debate whether Paul himself insisted that all ritual law was abrogated in light of the Christ event, or whether ethic Jews could retain ritual practices. Within a century, this debate ended: Christianity became predominantly gentile, and Jewish practices were labeled heresies. Today, especially in the United States, “gentile” is often viewed as synonymous with “Christian.” This is not, however, the case among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‐day Saints (Mormons), who refer to those outside their community (including Jews) as “gentiles.”