The word “Greeks” in Scripture can be a somewhat puzzling one for those who study the Bible. Any but the most superficial of students must soon see upon examining the uses of the word that it has little or nothing to do with those people who dwelt in Greece or who came originally from Greece. The most obvious answer being eliminated, we are left to wonder what a Greek might be? What people group is represented by this word? What truth was God trying to convey to us when He used this word to describe certain people? How is a Greek special or different from other people? What was it that caused one to be designated by this title?
The answer that most would probably give to these questions is that a Greek was the same thing as a Gentile. They believe that the Holy Spirit has used these terms more-or-less interchangeably, and therefore when we read the word “Greeks” we should think no deeper than to assume that the passage is speaking of “Gentiles.”
This is actually the explanation I was taught myself as a boy, and believed and taught in my studies up to the time I actually sat down to write this article on the meaning of the word “Greeks.” In preparation for writing, I sat down with an online Greek concordance and studied out all the occurrences of the word “Greeks,” hoping to find obvious examples to prove my belief that a Greek is the same as a Gentile. Instead I found these verses in Acts 14:1-2.
1. Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed. 2. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren.
Here in this passage we see something very interesting. First of all, we see that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed. So we have two groups here, one called the “Jews,” and the other called the “Greeks,” and a great number of those in both these groups believed. Then, in verse 2, we read a statement about those in the group called the Jews who did not believe. They, we find out, stirred up a group called the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren.
Now notice how carefully the Spirit has designated for us that it was the unbelieving Jews who poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brethren. He is very careful not to libel the great multitude of Jews who did believe, and let us think that they might have been involved in this. He tells us specifically that it was the unbelieving Jews who did this. But notice that no such care is used regarding the Gentiles. If the fact that a great multitude of Greeks believed meant that there was a great multitude of Gentiles who believed, then we would have expected to read that “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the unbelieving Gentiles.” Yet this is not what we read. Instead, we read that “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles.” This would seem to indicate that, though a great multitude of Greeks believed in Iconium, that no Gentiles believed in Iconium at all. We have three groups here: the Jews, the Greeks, and the Gentiles. A great multitude of the first two groups of these believed, but none of the third group believed. Therefore, whatever a Greek is, it is something different from a Gentile.
This is not the only verse that would lead us to believe that a Greek is not the same thing as a Gentile. John 12:20 would lead us to the same conclusion.
20. Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast.
This verse speaks of Greeks who came up to worship at the feast of Passover. This seems like an extremely unlikely thing for a Gentile to do. During the feast time, millions of Israelites from all over the land and even from outside the land would gather together to Jerusalem to celebrate. This number would include Jews of every persuasion, even those who were most zealous and radical. This would be the last place a Gentile would want to be at this time. Being in Jerusalem at feast time would be like someone who is not a follower of Islam being in Mecca during one of their holidays. This would be a very bad idea.
Yet here in John 12, we read of these Greeks, coming up to Jerusalem along with those who came to worship at the feast. Who could these Greeks be? And whoever they are, why would they come to Jerusalem during Passover?
Another passage that leads us to believe that Greeks could not be Gentiles is Acts 19:9-10.
9. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. 10. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.
Here we read that when some of the Jews in the synagogue in Ephesus were hardened and did not believe, but instead spoke against the Way Paul was teaching, he left the synagogue and took the disciples with him. From then on he taught in a place called the school of Tyrannus. This lasted for two years, and during that time all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus. By all, Luke explains that he means both Jews and Greeks.
Now whatever this means, we can have no doubt but that Paul’s ministry in Ephesus was a great success. Even though he did not leave that city, the word went out from there until all the Jews and Greeks in that region heard the word of the Lord Jesus. That means that people in other cities in Asia actually had to leave their homes and go to Ephesus, enter the school of Tyrannus, and listen to Paul. When we consider how unusual travel was at that time, we realize what a stunning thing this was. Many people then were born in a city, grew up in that city, and died in that city. Many would never have been out of that city in their lives. For this many people to travel to hear Paul, then, was nothing short of a miracle.
Yet what does the Lord mean when He tells us that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks? Does He mean both Jews and Gentiles? Because if so, this would mean that every single person in this region heard the word, both Jews and Gentiles. If this is what “Greek” means, then there was not a person in this region that had not come to the school of Tyrannus, listened to Paul speak, and heard the word. This from the start seems very unlikely. While we can imagine many of the Jews being interested enough in this new teaching about the Messiah to leave their homes and travel to Ephesus to hear Paul, that the idolatrous Gentiles would have done the same thing seems incredibly unlikely.
The problem is just exacerbated as we continue through the passage. After reading of an event involving certain exorcists in verses 13-16 of Acts 19, we read in verse 17:
17. This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.
If Greeks means Gentiles, then all the Gentiles in Ephesus felt fear at the name of the Lord Jesus, and His name was magnified among them all. Moreover, in verse 20 we read:
20. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
There can be no doubt what is meant here. When you “prevail,” that means you are winning. You can’t be winning unless you have more than half of the points on your side. In this case, the indication would seem to be that more than half of the Jews and Greeks, those who had heard the word, had responded to it. Plus I would venture to say that you would probably not describe the situation as “grew mightily and prevailed” unless it was much more than half who believed. You just would not describe it this way unless the great majority of people had believed, and those who did not believe were by far in the minority.
So if “Jews and Greeks” means “Jews and Gentiles,” then we have a situation where the vast majority of people in the region called Asia at the time (which we call “Asia Minor”) were believers. The word of the Lord was so prevalent there and so generally victorious that it could be described as growing mightily and prevailing. If this was the case, then we would expect that very little opposition could arise to the word in Ephesus. It being so overwhelmingly accepted, no one would dare to speak against it, and its enemies would either keep quiet or head for the hills. Is this the situation we see in Ephesus in the following verses?
As we examine the subsequent verses, we will find that this was not at all the case in Ephesus. Instead, in verse 21 we immediately start reading of an uprising against the word of the Lord. This uprising is started by a man named Demetrius, a silversmith upset that the success of the word is hurting his business because as people believe in Jesus Christ, they are ceasing any belief in idols. That meant a loss in business for a silversmith who made silver idols, and this angered him. Thus he gathered together his fellow craftsmen and explained the situation to them. He tells them in verse 26:
26. Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands.
Though he acknowledges the size of this movement is significant, he doesn’t seem to describe a situation where the vast majority of people in the region had believed Paul. If so, his cause was already lost. Moreover, his rabble-rousing has a great success, as we see.
28. Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” 29. So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions.
In spite of the fact that the word of the Lord had grown mightily and prevailed, the words of Demetrius is enough to stir up a group big enough to be called “the whole city.” Moreover, these people described as the whole city show no evidence of the word of the Lord having grown mightily among them and having prevailed. Instead, when Alexander is put forward by the Jews to make a defense, we read in verse 34:
34. But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for about two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”
So the people in this multitude, described as the “whole city,” are all worshippers of Diana! If this is the result of the word of the Lord growing mightily and prevailing, the author of this paper certainly cannot recognize it. Apparently the city clerk of Ephesus did not recognize it either. We read his words in verse 35.
35. And when the city clerk had quieted the crowd, he said: “Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple guardian of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Zeus?”
The city clerk seems to take it for granted that the city of the Ephesians is still largely given over to the worship of the great goddess Diana. He knows nothing of a new religion growing to the point where it prevails in the city and turns people to worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ instead of idols. Moreover, this crowd is so stirred up by seeing a Jew that it seems to indicate that the Jews were considered the chief culprits in believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and turning away from idols. Why would this be, if a great multitude of Gentiles up to the majority in the city had also believed?
Therefore we see that, though the word of the Lord had grown mightily and prevailed among the Jews and the Greeks, that there was a much larger group in Asia among whom the word of the Lord had neither grown mightily nor prevailed. This larger group made up the majority in Ephesus, so that they could be called “the whole city.” Whatever the Greeks were, then, they were not everyone except the Jews. They were another group lumped in with the Jews in that they heard the word and believed, but separate from them somehow. Who are these Greeks, then, and why are they distinct both from the Jews and from the Gentiles, as we have seen from these passages?
Now the first Greeks we come upon in the book of Acts is not the usual word for a Greek. It is the Greek word Hellenistes. Hellen was the legendary founder of Greece, and this word ultimately means “Hellenized.” This word is used in Acts 6:1.
1. Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.
From this, it can be seen that the “Hellenists” are contrasted with the “Hebrews.” The Hellenists were those of Jewish descent who, probably from living outside the land much of their lives, had not learned Hebrew (or Aramaic,) the native language of the land of Israel, but instead had learned only Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire. These Hellenists could not communicate with the rest of their fellow Israelites in the land in Aramaic, but only in Greek. Thus, they were divided from their fellows by a very real barrier: the language barrier. This is something that divides many people even today.
We see the Hellenists again in Acts 9:29.
29. And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him.
Paul in Jerusalem speaks boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus. Being himself a man who grew up outside the land of Israel in Tarsus, he probably had a rapport with these people. So he goes and tries to proclaim the word to them, but certain Greek-speakers oppose him, and he disputes with them. When they cannot refute what he says, they plan to kill him.
Finally, we see Hellenists mentioned a third and final time in Acts 11:20.
20. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus.
At this time, the gospel was for the first time moving outside the land of Israel, and was now coming up into Syria north of Israel. In Antioch, one of the major cities of that day, the word is preached. However, since it is now being proclaimed outside the land of Israel, for the first time it is being proclaimed in places where there are many people who do not speak Aramaic. It seems that the first proclaimers in Antioch themselves only spoke Aramaic, and proclaimed only to those in that city who spoke Aramaic as well. Others, however, coming to Antioch changed this, and proclaimed the word to Hellenists also. Thus, for the first time since Pentecost, perhaps, the word was proclaimed in a language other than Aramaic.
Now I know that in some ancient manuscripts, this is an occurrence of Hellenes, not Hellenistes. I am not convinced by the evidence, however, and find Hellenistes the more likely word. Even if Hellenes is the word, I do not think it provides a problem here. However, this leads us on to the next word, the far more common one for “Greeks” in the New Testament.
The primary word for “Greeks” in Greek is Hellenes. Again, it is based on the probably legendary founder of Greece, Hellen. This word, however, just means “Greeks,” not “Greek speaking” or Hellenized. This is the word we are most concerned with, and must discover its meaning. What exactly is a Greek? It is not a Gentile, and it is not a Jew. What, then, is a Greek?
Strong’s Concordance gives as its first definition of the word Greeks, “a Greek either by nationality, whether a native of the main land or of the Greek islands and colonies.” Yet an examination of the occurrences of the word “Greeks” in Scripture shows that this meaning absolutely does not fit in the vast majority of occurrences of this word. Though we cannot deny that the original meaning of ‘Greeks” was “those from Greece,” we can deny that this is how this word is used in Scripture. This is simply not the use the Holy Spirit makes of this word.
Now the second meaning of Greeks according to Strong’s Concordance is “in a wider sense the name embraces all nations not Jews that made the language, customs, and learning of the Greeks their own; the primary reference is to a difference of religion and worship.”
This is a very interesting definition of this word. Notice that it says “the primary reference is to a difference of religion and worship.” This appears very much to be the truth. The fact is that in the Roman Empire, the Greek culture was dominant. This might seem strange to us, since the empire belonged to the Romans. The Romans had defeated the Greeks, and taken over their empire. So why, then, was the Roman Empire dominated by the Greek culture? Why was almost the official language of the empire Greek, when in fact Latin was the language of Rome? Why was Greek culture so widespread?
The fact was that there was a very large party in the Roman Empire, even among the Romans themselves, who looked at the Greek culture with something akin to awe. The Romans were a very practical people. The were great empire builders, and their system of governing their empire was quite brilliant, and saw to it that the Roman Empire lasted longer than the empires that had come before it. They were infinitely better at this than the Greeks had been at maintaining their empire, for no sooner had Alexander the Great, the one who built the Greek empire, died, than their empire split into four parts, and never reunited! The Romans were also great engineers, and their building projects, including roads and aqueducts, were not only brilliant, but helped their empire function in many ways. They were also great and notable soldiers.
Yet there were things that the Romans were weak in. Though they were good engineers, they had none of the science that the Greeks had had. They had none of the arts, none of the philosophy, and none of the culture that had so characterized the Greeks. So the Romans had great respect for these things, and while they spread their empire around the known world, they spread the Greek culture in these things as well. Of course, the Greek Empire had spread these things first, but the Romans did nothing to change this, and actually promoted its continuation. Greek science, art, philosophy, and even religion were promoted by the Romans.
The fact is that we might say that there was a very large “Greek” political movement in the Roman Empire. This would be more along the lines of conservatives or liberals, rather than a party like Democrats or Republicans. Basically it was a political ideal that said the Greek culture was the best culture, the Greek way of running a city was the best way of running a city, the Greek religion was the best religion, the Greek arts were the best arts, and so forth. This was a dominant viewpoint in the Roman Empire, and it drove the culture of the Roman Empire in many ways.
Now the main competing political, religious, and cultural philosophy in the Roman Empire was that of the Jews. Their philosophy was based on the Word of God, and it provided a very extreme contrast to the philosophy and culture of the Greeks. The Jews made up about 10% of the Roman Empire, a very large minority, and yet a minority nevertheless. Still the culture of the Jews became a very notable competing culture with that of the Greeks. In fact, over a hundred years before Christ a man named Antiochus Epiphanies, the ruler of the Syrian portion of the Greek Empire, had taken over Israel and tried to wipe out the Hebrew culture by turning Jerusalem into a Greek city-state. He even sacrificed a pig on the altar in the temple to defile it. Yet the Jews had finally arisen behind the Maccabees and had thrown off his rule. Yet ultimately, they were again conquered by the Romans while they were distracted fighting among themselves. So at the time the New Testament was written, there was a great clash between the Jewish culture and the Greek culture.
The one thing that I would take issue with in Strong’s Concordance regarding the meaning of the word “Greeks” is their assertion that it “embraces all nations not Jews.” The fact is that Greeks was not a designation for nations, but rather, as Strong’s itself says, “the primary reference is to a difference of religion and worship.” This is true, but why, then, should it not be applied to any of Israel who gave up on the religion and worship of their fathers, and adopted that of the nations around them?
It has always been true that not all Israelites are faithful to the God of their fathers. They are a divided people. Even today, we see many different philosophies among those who are called “Jews.” Far from all worshipping according to the Jewish religion, many of them are in fact atheists. Some Jews believe in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and become Messianic Jews of one kind or another. Of those who practice the religion of Judaism, there are many different types of synagogues. The main divisions today of the synagogues seem to be Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.
Now we commonly use these terms in our society. We speak of the “orthodox,” “conservatives,” and even “reform.” Yet it is likely that most of us use these terms in connection with something other than Jewish synagogues. When we talk of the orthodox, we probably either mean the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christianity, or else just those who hold with doctrinal views that tend to be defined as “orthodox.” When we speak of “conservatives,” we are either talking about those who hold to a conservative view of the Bible and Christianity, or else those who hold with a conservative political ideology. “Reform” in our minds reminds us of Reformation Theology and men like Luther and Calvin. The last thing we would probably think of in connection with these words is a group of Jewish synagogues.
Yet the fact is that, among the Jews, these words are the designations they use for different types of synagogues. That may not be how society in general uses these words, but that is how the Jews use them. If you were in a Jewish synagogue and mentioned the “orthodox,” probably the first thing the people around you would think of would be orthodox Jews. It is just a matter of context.
Now this is not strange, and many groups adopt words to have certain meanings among them in this way. For example, the Mormons when they speak of “Gentiles” usually mean those who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, not those who are not Jews, as we would use the word.
I have said all this to say that I believe that the Jews had adopted this word “Greeks” to apply to all those who were in fact Israelites by birth, and yet who had adopted the form of religion, worship, and culture that dominated the Greek world around them. They had given up on the culture, religion, law, and philosophy that God gave, and had become like the culture that was common around them. These were called by those who were faithful to these things, “Greeks.”
Now this should not seem strange to us. We tend to kind of foolishly look back on Israel and think “a Jew was a Jew was a Jew.” Yet this is not logical, and is certainly not true today. As I said, there are Jews from atheists to Christians to orthodox Jews. They are fractured, and certainly not all in agreement on worship and culture. Living among nations who do not worship God the way they do traditionally, many of them have adopted customs and cultures of those around them, or even have given up on God altogether. This has happened today. So we should not think it at all strange that it had happened to many Jews living in the time of the New Testament.
The fact was that there was a lot of frustration in trying to live like a Jew out in the Roman Empire. The religion God gave the nation of Israel was really tailor-made only to be practiced in the nation of Israel. Any attempt to practice this religion outside the land was destined to fail. For example, how could one possibly travel to Jerusalem three times a year to worship at the feasts, as the law commanded, if, for example, you lived a two month journey from Jerusalem? You would basically spend all your time traveling back and forth to Jerusalem, and none actually earning a living. How could you follow the law to have all your children dedicated in the temple if you lived, say, six months from Jerusalem? During your child-bearing years, you could hardly travel to Israel every time you had a baby, especially not if you had any kind of a large family. Therefore, the Jews outside the land simply could not keep the law like the Jews inside the land could.
We might wonder, then, if they could not keep the law outside the land, why did all the faithful Jews not just move back to the land? Well, that was easier said than done. The fact is that the land of Israel was occupied territory at this time, and the economy there was very bad. There were no jobs for you! Even if you could move there and find a job, the natives there would resent you for coming in and taking away the little work they had. They didn’t want you coming back.
Moreover, the Israelites in the land would not view you as a long-lost son and welcome you with open arms. Your ancestors might not have lived in the land for hundreds of years. You were born in a foreign land, and your citizenship was there. You had no citizenship in Israel. This would be like me trying to go back to Norway and claim I am a Norwegian just because my last name is Johnson. I was born in the United States, as were my parents and grandparents. No one in Norway would acknowledge me as a Norwegian! And yet my family has been away from that land a much shorter time than most of these Jews had been out of Israel. The fact is that these were ancestral Israelites, yet they had no citizenship and no place in the land. Sometimes a few Jews who became very wealthy in their lifetimes would move back to Israel when they reached what we would call retirement age. Then they were not looking for work and competing with the locals, but just bringing money in, which everyone was happy to see them do. But short of this, it was very, very hard for any Jew to move back to the land.
Altogether, the Jews inside the land were not very supportive or sympathetic to the scattered Jews. They claimed great superiority to their brethren living outside the land. The rabbis in the land even taught things like the idea that just breathing the air in the land of Israel made one holier. This drove an even greater wedge between the Jews in the land and those outside it, and those in the land liked it this way.
Now this became a source of great frustration for the Jews outside the land. Imagine it was one of their feast days, and these Jews were at home or work in the place they lived outside the land of Israel. They would wake up in the morning and go about their day, all the time knowing that this day they had failed God, this day they had neglected to worship Him as He demanded, and there was pretty much nothing they could do about it. They might have their first child, and at this time that should be full of joy, they discover that they have just created another way that they have failed to please God, for their new baby will not be dedicated in the temple as he should be. All these things had to be greatly discouraging. And while many Jews outside the land tried to please God as best they could and keep the parts of the law that it was possible for them to keep outside the land, ultimately it was never enough. The law didn’t say just keep the things you can keep and forget the rest. The law demanded that you keep all of it, and that was something these Jews outside the land simply could not do. They were law-breakers, no matter how hard they tried to please God and sacrifice for Him.
Now in these circumstances, we can certainly understand why some of the Jews outside the land might have just given up. No matter how hard they tried, they could never really please God or do things right. Therefore, why even try? So some gave up even on trying, and stopped practicing even what they could of the religion and culture God gave Israel. Others even turned from their culture altogether, and started living, behaving, and even worshipping according to the predominant Greek culture that surrounded them on every side. Once they started doing this, we could imagine that within a generation or two, their children might forget they were Jews at all, and just intermarry with the Gentiles and live as they did. Yet for those who had more recently given up on their cultural heritage, they may yet have maintained some connection with their Jewish friends and neighbors. As Jews, they were often persecuted, and banding together could help even those Jews who were living the Greek culture. So in any synagogue around the Roman Empire, you probably could have found some of these Greeks, these Jews who had given up their culture and were living like Greeks, among those who were gathered there. That is who I believe the Greeks were in the majority of cases we see them in the New Testament.
Now we need to examine all the occurrences of the word “Greeks” in the New Testament, and see if the suggestions I have made here are borne out by the occurrences of the word Hellenes as they appear in the Word of God. This we will do in our next article.