Word Origins and Definitions


In a way, this term came around much later than the biblical text. The many times that it appears in the Old Testament, it is in place of the Hebrew word that would best be translated as “Judahite”. The word comes from the Hebrew word for Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, and literally means a descendant of Judah. However, since the Babylonian captivity, the term was applied to any Hebrew person, no matter if they were an actual descendant of the tribe of Judah. The Hebrew word was translated into Greek, then Latin, while maintaining a resemblance to the original Hebrew word, but once it passed into Old French it reached its three-letter state (Gyu). And it first appeared in Old English in the eleventh century, and it was spelled Giu. As the English alphabet grew, it gave more specific phonics to its letters, thus, the pronunciation of the English word did not change, but the letters did (from Giu to Jew).



Abraham was Chaldean, however, after obeying the command of God to leave his home, he was no longer Chaldean, but Hebrew (Genesis 14:13). The word literally means “one from beyond” and captures in a word the decision of Abraham to act by faith in God. There may be even more to this; Eber, or Heber, was that great-great-great-great-grandfather of Abraham. Eber’s name is similar to the word “Hebrew” and means “a region beyond”. Some believe that Abraham is called a Hebrew because he is a descendant of Eber.


This is a simpler word to define for it is explained in Scripture. The context of this name is in Genesis 32:22-32, when Jacob was in fear for his life, waiting to hear whether his brother Esau would accept him or not. During the night, Jacob finds himself alone and a man wrestles with him until dawn. This is no man according to the text, this is God. Jacob the trickster, Jacob the supplanter, was found utterly hopeless against his assailant and he could not prevail. Jacob soon realizes who he was dealing with and holds onto the man and would not let him go unless He blessed him. So, God blesses Jacob, saying, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” He was no longer to be called the supplanter, the self-seeker, and self-reliant man who found himself scared and alone that night. He was now disabled by the wrestler, dependent on another and seeking a blessing from another. So no more is he to be called Jacob, but a more fitting name under the new circumstances of his life; he is Israel. Israel, prince of God, prevailed not by himself but prevailed with God.



This is a group of people found in Acts 6:1, Acts 9:29, and Acts 11:20. In the KJV they are called “Grecians”. The word “Hellenists” is really just an untranslated Greek word, or rather, a transliteration. It is a word applied to people who were Jews by nationality, but were not born in Judea, and whose primary language was Greek, instead of Aramaic. It is evident from Acts 6:1, that Judean Jews did not count the Grecian Jews as equals with them.



This word is not native to the New Testament, as some might expect, but has been around since Genesis chapter 10, and was a term heavily used by the Old Testament prophets. In ancient Hebrew pictographs this word signified the back, by extension, the body. This word, when applied to people, refers to a nation as a body of people. The literal definition is a mass or swarm of people. The Greek word for “gentiles” is “ethnos”, from which we eventually got the English word “ethnic” (national). The Greek word refers to a nation or people group. In every instance that the word is used in the Bible (151 times) it is always used for any and all people who are not Israelites.



This is an interesting word that is sometimes misused today. Today it is almost used synonymously with the word demon or some horribly wicked person, but this is not the true meaning of this word. Heathen is actually very closely related to the word gentile. In Greek, gentile is “ethnos”, and heathen is “ethnikos”. This word and its definition are almost indistinguishable from that of “gentile”. However, the word heathen can also carry the nuance of a person who has adapted themselves to the customs of another people group.



Here is another misunderstood word in our time. Today it is a term for rude, wild, and uncivilized acting persons. The picture of a barbarian today is that of an illiterate savage. But this is far from the truth. Paul preached to barbarians (Romans 1:14, Colossians 3:11), and they had just as much discernment from the truth as anyone else. In the first century, the word referred to anyone who is not a proper Greek, or could not speak with a smooth Greek dialect, or could only speak in a foreign language. The Greek word is “barbaros”. When Paul was on the island of Malta, he was met with “unusual kindness” by the “barbarous” (in the NKJV, the word is translated “natives”). So, a barbarian wasn’t a horrible person, they just weren’t well acquainted with the Greek language or Greek customs. In English, when one doesn’t ascertain the words flowing out of someone’s mouth, one might rudely mimick them with the sound “blah blah blah”, which denotes their opinion that what they heard was useless chatter or nonsense. Well, it was the same way for the Greeks, except instead of “blah-blah” they said “bar-bar”. Thus was born the term for people who spoke nonsensical words to the Greeks, “barbaros”.

Article by Tanner Campbell