Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Heathen

Additional Links

The word ‘heathen’ still finds a measure of favour with the OT Revisers, and, in order to prevent it from being entirely excluded from the NT, it might well have been retained in at least one or two of the passages where it occurs in the Authorized Version (Matthew 6:7; Matthew 18:7, Acts 4:25, 2 Corinthians 11:26, Galatians 1:16; Galatians 2:9; Galatians 3:8). ‘Gentiles’ is substituted for it throughout in the text of the Revised Version . It first appears in the Gothic Version of Ulfilas (a.d. 318-388) in Mark 7:26, where Ἐλληνίς is rendered by haiþnô. The etymology is uncertain. It was long believed to have come from the Gothic haiþi, ‘heath,’ and to have denoted the ‘dwellers on the heath,’ who, on the introduction of Christianity, stood out longest in their adherence to the ancient deities (cf. Trench, Study of Words8, p. 77). Doubt has been cast, however, on this derivation by S. Bugge (Indoger. Forschungen, v. [1895] 178), who takes haiþnô as indicating a masc. haiþans, which he refers to Armenian het‘anos, ‘heathen,’ an adaptation of Gr. ἔθνος (cf. OED [Note: ED Oxford English Dictionary.] , vol. v., s.v. ‘Heathen,’ where Bugge’s theory is not accepted).

A similar etymological uncertainty presents itself in the care or the synonym, ‘pagan.’ The application of this word to non-Christians was long thought to be due to the fact that ‘the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets [pagi] after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire’ (OED [Note: ED Oxford English Dictionary.] , vol. vii., s.v. ‘Pagan’). But the application to non-Christian probably arose at an earlier date, and in a different way (Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 xx. 449). In the course of the 1st cent., paganus came to mean in classical Latin, ‘a civilian,’ as opposed to a miles. The ‘raw half-armed rustics who sometimes formed a rude militia in Roman wars’ were not looked upon as a regular branch of the service, or as deserving the honourable appellation or milites, soldiers of the standing army. They were pagani (Tac. Hist. i. 53, ii. 14: ‘paganorum manus … Inter milites’; ii. 88, iii. 24, 43, 77, iv. 20: ‘paganorum lixarumque’: Pliny, Ep. x. 18: ‘et milites et pagani’). Christians, then, having taken the title of milites Dei or milites Christi for their own, which St. Paul had warranted them in doing (Ephesians 6:14 f, 2 Timothy 2:3), and for which they found a further warrant in the early application of the word sacramentum, ‘the military oath,’ to baptism, regarded as pagani (‘outsiders,’ not soldiers at all)* [Note: Fr. pékin-a name originally given by the soldiers under Napoleon 1. to any civilian (OED vii. 622).] those who had not abandoned heathenism and committed themselves to Christ as their leader. This derivation seems to have been first suggested by Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. Bury, ii. 394 n. [Note: . note.] , 176), and has been adopted by Zahn (NKZ [Note: KZ Neue kirchliche Zeitschrift.] x. [1899] 28f.) and Harnack (Expansion of Christianity, i. 315, ii. 22).

Our Lord’s three allusions to the heathen [οἱ ἐθνικοί,† [Note: ἐθνικός occurs in the NT 4 times (Matthew 5:47; Matthew 6:7; Matthew 18:17, 3 John 1:7). Neither ἐθνικός nor ἐθνικῶς (Galatians 2:14) is found in the LXX.] τὰ ἔθνη) in the Sermon on the Mount were designed to illustrate His teaching respecting the righteousness of the Kingdom of God, as a righteousness which demanded, in loving one’s neighbour, much more than that reciprocity of courtesy which even heathens practised (Matthew 5:47); in prayer, a childlike trustfulness of asking, unlike the wordy clamour of heathen worship (Matthew 6:7); and in work, a loving dependence on God, which would exalt work, and make it quite a different thing from heathen drudgery (Matthew 6:32).

The closing words of Matthew 18:17 (ἔστω σοι ὤσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης) must give us pause. Had they stood alone, we might have inferred that Jesus acquiesced in the judgment which put the heathen and the publican under the ban. But a publican had already been taken into the number of the Twelve (Matthew 9:9), and he is the very apostle who reports these words. St. Matthew has also recorded before this how Jesus had put forth His miraculous power in response to the ‘great faith’ of a heathen centurion and a distressed heathen mother (Matthew 8:10, Matthew 15:28). That the words imply personal contempt or dislike for the heathen and the publican, or pronounce a sentence of exclusion upon them, is, accordingly, out of the question. This saying is to be regarded as an obiter dictum of our Lord’s, spoken to His disciples from their present Jewish standpoint, and therefore of use to them at the moment in interpreting His meaning. Current Jewish opinion is made the medium of conveying moral and evangelical guidance.

The healing of the Syrophœnician’s daughter is another occasion on which our Lord appears to speak the language of His time. Here, however, the severity of the words, ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs’ (Mark 7:27), is intentionally mitigated by the use of the diminutive κυνάρια, which is just ‘doggies’ in our language-no word of scorn, but one of affection and tenderness. Nor should we forget that the saying which immediately precedes is, ‘Let the children first be filled.’ The Syrophœnician, with the quick penetration of faith, perceived that the two sayings were to be taken together, and knew that she was not really repelled (cf. Wendt, The Teaching of Jesus, ii. 347).

The Third Epistle of St. John is ‘a quite private note’ (Encyclopaedia Biblica ii. 1327), recommending to the kind attention of Gaius, a friend of his, some ‘travelling missionaries,’ described as men who ‘for the sake of the Name went forth, taking nothing of the heathen’ (3 John 1:7 : μηδὲν λαμβάνοντες ἀπὸ τῶν ἐθνικῶν). Seeing that these itinerant preachers of the gospel deem it most prudent not to accept hospitality from ‘them that are without’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:12, Colossians 4:5)-a course which St. John approves-they are the more dependent on the φιλοξενία of the few fellow-Christians who come in their way (cf. Zahn, Introd. to the NT, iii. 374). The cutting question which St. Paul addressed to St. Peter in the presence of the congregation at Antioch (Galatians 2:14) was justly aimed against the moral inconsistency of his first eating with the Gentile converts (σύἐθνικῶς ζῇς; cf. Galatians 2:12) and then withdrawing from table-fellowship with them. This vacillation, had it been allowed to go on without remonstrance, would have arrested the progress of the work of Christ among the heathen. Few occurrences in Church history are more full of warning than this memorable crisis, which might have divided more than the Christiana of Antioch into two opposing camps, and made the Lord’s Supper itself a table of discord (cf. Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iii. 765b).

Over against the dark picture of heathenism which he draws in Romans 1:18-32 St. Paul sets a very different presentment in 2:14f, where he depicts heathen human nature as bearing witness to a law written within, and being guided by it to well-doing. The Apostle also does justice to heathen ethics in Philippians 4:8 -‘an exhortation,’ as Weizsäcker says (Apostolic Age, ii. 354), ‘whose charm to this day rests on the appeal to the common feeling of humanity,’ and on the principle that ‘that which was valid … among heathens was also truly Christian’ (cf. article ‘St. Paul in Athens’ by Ernst Curtius, in Expositor, 7th ser. iv. 441f.).

Literature.-Encyclopaedia Biblica ii. [1901] 1327; Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 xiii [1910] 159, xx. [1911] 449; E. Curtius, in Expositor, 7th ser. iv. [1907] 441f.; E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, ed. Bury2, ii. [1897] 394: A. Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, Eng. translation , 1904-5, i. 315, ii. 22; E. Hatch H. A. Redpath, Concordance to the Septuagint , ii. [1893] s.v. ἔθνος; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iii. 765b; J. Facciolati-A. Forcellini, Latin Lexicon, 1828, ii., s.v. ‘paganus’; OED [Note: ED Oxford English Dictionary.] v. [1901] s.v. ‘Heathen,’ vii. [1909] s. vv. ‘Pagan,’ ‘Pekin’; W. A. Spooner, Histories of Tacitus, 1891, iii. 24; R. C. Trench, Study of Words8, 1858, p. 76f.; C. von Weizsäcker, The Apostolic Age2, Eng. translation , ii. [1895] 352-354; H. H. Wendt, The Teaching of Jesus, Eng. translation , 1892, ii. 347; T. Zahn, Introd. to the NT, Eng. translation , 1909, iii. 374.

James Donald.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Heathen'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/h/heathen.html. 1906-1918.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Heat
Next Entry
Heathen (2)