We have been examining the meaning of the word “Greeks” in the Scriptures. First, we examined the word Hellenists, and concluded that these were Israelites who, after living outside the land, no longer were able to speak the native language of the land, which was Aramaic, but rather could only speak Greek. Then, we considered the word Hellenes. I would suggest that this word has to do with a certain culture or philosophy of life that says the Greek way of life is the best way of life, the Greek gods are the best gods, the Greek way of running a city is the best way of running a city, and so forth. By the Jews, it was used for those ancestral Israelites who, from long dwelling outside the land, had given up on the Jewish religion and culture that God had given Israel, and instead had taken up the religion and culture of the nations around them, which was that of the Greeks.
Now let us examine the occurrences of the word Hellenes or “Greeks” in the New Testament, and see if this idea of Jews who had given up their culture and were living like Greeks fits these occurrences. The first occurrence of the word “Greeks” is, interestingly enough, not the word Hellenes at all, but rather is the feminine form of the word, Hellenis, which refers to a Greek woman or Greekess, if we wish to coin a word. This word occurs twice in Scripture, and the first occurrence is in Mark 7:26.
Mark 7:26. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Here, a woman is called a Greek. Then, it is revealed that she was a Syro-Phoenician by birth, which means she was a mix of Syrian and Phoenician. Since the Lord was in “the region of Tyre and Sidon,” verse 24, this makes sense. Clearly, this woman was not of Israelite ancestry, since the Lord calls her a dog rather than a child in verse 27. The parallel passage in Matthew 15:21-28 calls her a “Canaanite,” and spells out most clearly that she was not of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 15:24.) The use of the word “Greeks” here is probably to emphasize her lifestyle. Not every Gentile lived like a Gentile, for some did attempt to serve the true God and were known as “God-fearers,” whereas others actually started keeping the law as if they were Israelites and were called “proselytes.” This woman, however, had done neither, but had lived her life up to this time as a Greek. She was a Greek by lifestyle, and a Gentile by birth. She had absolutely nothing going for her, that the Lord should have listened to her and granted her request.
The second occurrence of the word “Greeks,” this time the typical male form Hellenes, is found in John 7:35. It is contained in the Jews’ words regarding His statement, “You will seek Me and not find Me, and where I am you cannot come.”
John 7:35. Then the Jews said among themselves, “Where does He intend to go that we shall not find Him? Does He intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?
Notice that “the Dispersion among the Greeks” and “the Greeks” are used synonymously here. Thus we have two uses of the term “Greeks” in this verse. In the phrase “the Dispersion among the Greeks,” the Greeks are used for those Gentiles among whom the Israelites who did not live in the land were scattered. In this second use, “the Greeks” refers to those Israelites themselves, especially, as I have said, those who had learned to live like the Gentiles around them.
John 12:20. Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast.
We have already noted how strange this verse would seem if those referred to are not Israelites. Why would anyone who was not a Jew wish to come to Jerusalem during the time of one of Israel’s feasts? That would be the last time a Gentile would want to be in Jerusalem if he could help it. Could these be Gentile proselytes? Most certainly not, for as we saw from Strong’s regarding the Greeks, “the primary reference is to a difference of religion and worship.” The whole point of the word “Greeks” is that they did not live and worship as the Jews did. Yet the whole point of a Gentile proselyte is that he DID live and worship as the Jews do. So these could not be Gentiles, either proselytes or those who lived the typical Greek lifestyle.
There is only one thing that makes sense for these Greeks to be. And that is Jews who had given up on their culture, and were living like Greeks. Though they may not have taken part in the Passover ritual that the faithful Jews had come there to perform, we can certainly see that Greeks who had relatives and friends who were going to be at the feast might come to visit and socialize, even though they did not care to participate in the worship. This makes sense, and nothing else really does. These Greeks must have been Jews who had given up their culture and lived like Greeks, but nevertheless were coming to the Jewish feast to visit friends and relatives.
Acts 14:1. 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.
We already discussed this verse. A great multitude of both Jews and Greeks believe after Paul speaks at the synagogue. Again, we see Greeks associated with Israel and their gatherings. Again, I believe that these were Jews who had given up on their culture and heritage and who lived the Greek culture that was dominant around them, and yet who maintained their social connections with the synagogues and their fellow Jews. This can be seen by the following verse, where, though some Jews believed, we see that no Gentiles did. “But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren.”
Acts 16:1. Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek.
We see that Timothy was the son of a Jewish woman and a Greek father. As such, his father had not circumcised him, as we see in verse 3.
Acts 16:3. Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.
Since it was the responsibility of the father to circumcise his sons, Timothy’s Greek father had not done this. As Timothy grew, he identified himself with his Jewish mother, not his Greek father. Yet his circumcision, being beyond his control, had been neglected. Now Paul wants to take Timothy with him. Yet he is in the interesting place of living like a Jew, but being uncircumcised. This was not good, and so Paul rectified the situation by having him circumcised.
In this instance, it would seem to make little difference whether Timothy’s father was a Gentile Greek, or an Israelite who had given up on his culture and become a Greek. However, it would seem more likely that he was an Israelite by descent, but one who had given up on his heritage. There is no way for us to tell for certain, but there is no particular reason to believe that he was a Gentile. There were plenty of unfaithful Israelites, and Timothy’s father was probably one of these.
Acts 17:4. And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.
Again, Paul was preaching in the synagogues, and again, a great multitude of devout Greeks in the synagogue were persuaded and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice again that these Greeks are in the synagogue. A very strange place for an idol-worshipping Gentile to be! And if these were proselytes or even God-fearing Gentiles, why in the world would they be called “Greeks?”
It is interesting that these are identified as “devout Greeks,” if Greeks were those who did not follow the culture and religion of the Jews. It may be that these were ones who still reverenced God, yet who had otherwise given up on keeping the law or following Jewish culture. They had not stooped to worshipping idols; yet, not being able to keep the whole law, they had given up on keeping any of it. Thus, they were devout Greeks.
Acts 17:12. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.
The word for “Greeks” here is the second and last occurrence of the female form Hellenis, showing that a good number of Greek women believed in Berea, just as they had done in Thessalonica. The difference here seems to be that in Berea more of the Greek women believed than men, and so the Spirit gives them props for this by listing them first and prominently, and adding the men on at the end, instead of the other way around, like He did in verse 4 of this same chapter.
Acts 18:4. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks.
Once more, we see that both Jews and Greeks are in the synagogue. This makes perfect sense if “Greeks” here means ancestral Israelites who still recognized their Jewish heritage, yet who had given up on the culture and law God gave Israel and lived like Greeks. If this word means “Gentiles,” however, this is a most puzzling statement. Why would there be Gentiles in the synagogue? We know there were proselytes, but why would these not be called “proselytes” then as they are elsewhere, and not Greeks? These questions are easily answered once we identify what a Greek really is.
Acts 18:17. Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. But Gallio took no notice of these things.
Here we have a scene of great contention. We can see what the fuss was about in the preceding verses.
12. When Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him to the judgment seat, 13. saying, “This fellow persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.”
14. And when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or wicked crimes, O Jews, there would be reason why I should bear with you. 15. But if it is a question of words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves; for I do not want to be a judge of such matters.” 16. And he drove them from the judgment seat.
Here, we see that the Jews had dragged Paul before this Roman ruler and accused him of crimes against the law. This might have been of some concern to those Roman rulers who had charge over the land of Israel, where Jews were in the majority and keeping them happy was beneficial to any governor. However, out here in the greater Roman Empire, the Jews were a small minority, and what made them happy did not matter to this Roman proconsul. Therefore, he rejected their appeal. Seeing that their proconsul was disgusted with the Jews, some in the crowd took advantage of this to allow them to publicly beat the ruler of the synagogue before the judgment seat. Though Gallio had not commanded this, he nevertheless did not really care about it, and took no notice of their actions.
Now those who beat the synagogue ruler are described as “Greeks.” This makes sense when we realize that the keeping of the law was at issue. As I said, there were two competing cultures within the Roman Empire: the Greek culture, and the culture set forth by God in the law (at least, as interpreted by the Jews of the day.) The Greeks held with the popular culture, and rejected the culture God laid down for the Israelites.
Now whether or not these Greeks were ancestral Israelites is not particularly important here. Certainly any foreign-born Israelite who had himself given up keeping the law would be incensed at these synagogue rulers suggesting a man should be punished for persuading men to worship God some other way than by keeping the law. They would have known that they could be punished for this same reason. Therefore, they would much have sympathized with Paul, and felt animosity towards his accusers. Yet also, any Gentile who was a strong proponent of the Greek way of life would have looked down upon the Jews who supported the Biblical philosophy and lifestyle. Seeing these rulers promote punishing a person for not following this lifestyle, and hearing their governor condemn them for doing this, they could have seen this as an opportunity to really stick it to those uppity Jews who were always promoting their lifestyle as superior to that of their neighbors.
Thus, we can see these Greeks being either ancestral Israelites who lived the Greek lifestyle, or Gentiles who lived that same lifestyle, or a combination of both. The point here is the conflict between the two ways of life. This mob by beating the synagogue ruler showed their support for their own way of life, and their disdain for the Jewish way of life. That is what is going on here.
Acts 19:10. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.
This verse, along with the following reference, lends support to what I am suggesting.
Acts 19:17. 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.
We see the stunning statement here that all the Jews and all the Greeks who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus. My contention would be that this means two different kinds of Israelites: the Jews being those who kept the law, the Greeks being those who had given up on keeping it.
If this statement is rejected, however, we must face the following facts. First of all, in verse 20 we read, “So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.” Certainly this must mean among the Jews and among the Greeks. Yet if the Greeks are all the Gentiles, this would mean that the word prevailed among all the people in Asia. Moreover, “prevailed” does not make sense unless the word was actually winning more converts than enemies. Indeed, this language makes it clear that more than half the Jews and Greeks in Asia must have responded positively to the word at this time and become believers. For “prevailed” to make sense, we would think that the actual numbers would have to be much more than half. However, is this the picture we get of the conditions in Asia and in Ephesus from reading the rest of the chapter?
In verses 25-27, we read of the actions of the man Demetrius the silversmith. He accuses Paul of turning away “many” people after him. However, from this point on, what we read does not fit with a city where the word of the Lord had prevailed, had won out. We see the city filled with confusion. (Verse 29) We see them enraged at the Jews, crying out for about two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city clerk has to quiet the crowd and reason with them. He argues that Ephesus is the city where Artemis is worshipped and honored. This does not sound like a city where the word of the Lord has prevailed. It may have prevailed among the Jews and the Greeks, but it had not prevailed among the general population of the city itself.
Therefore, we see that the Greeks clearly must be some group associated with the Jews. But who would this be? Why would a group so different from the Jewish way of life be allied with or in any way close to them, close enough to be the one group along with the Jews to hear the gospel? This makes sense if these “Greeks” were actually of Israelite descent, but it makes no sense otherwise. Thus again we see that these “Greeks” were actually Jews who had given up their own culture and adopted the Greek way of life.
Acts 20:21. testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is reviewing his ministry here for the Ephesian elders. He mentions that he testified to the Jews, and also to the Greeks. By this he does not mean Jews and Gentiles. He means those who followed the law, and those who did not. Those who did not whom he had in mind were probably largely of Israelite blood, and yet had given up on their Jewish culture.
Acts 21:28. crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”
In this our last occurrence in Acts, Paul’s enemies accuse him of bringing a Greek into the temple. Of course, this was a total fabrication. Paul was far too knowledgeable to make such an obvious and terrible blunder. We read where they got this idea from in verse 29. “(For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)” So this was a mere assumption. Paul had not brought poor Trophimus into the temple. If he had, they should have caught him as well, for it was the Greek defiling the temple who was to die, not some Jew associated with him. This they did not do, because no Greek was ever there. This was their accusation, however: that Paul had brought a Greek into the temple. This was not allowed, because Greeks were not circumcised and could not follow the proper purification rites. Their lifestyle kept them out of the temple beyond its very outer court, known as the court of the Gentiles.
Romans 1:14. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise.
Now we move on to the occurrences of “Greeks” in the epistles. Greeks here in this first occurrence in Romans takes on a little bit of a different flavor. In contrast with “barbarians,” Greeks were the learned and cultured people. The idea is the educated and the uneducated.
Romans 1:16. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
The gospel was primarily for the Jew, the one who was living according to God’s law and looking forward eagerly to the coming of the Messiah. Now He had come, and the gospel let the Jews know about it. However, the gospel was not limited just to them. It also reached out to the Greeks, the ones who did not live according to the law and did not look for a Messiah to come to them. The contrast here is not between Jew and Gentile, but between two different cultures and ways of life.
Romans 2:9. tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; 10. but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Again there is a contrast here between Jews and Greeks. The topic is found in verse 5.
5. But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
It is the righteous judgment of God that is being spoken of. Punishment comes on the one who lives according to the law, the Jew, first, yet it also comes on the one who does not live according to the law, the Greek. Both will eventually be judged for what they did.
Romans 3:9. What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.
It didn’t matter if it was the law-keeping Jew or the idol-worshipping Greek. All are under sin. Again, as has been the case in Romans except in the very first occurrence, the contrast is between lifestyles, not between people groups. It is irrelevant to these arguments whether the Greek mentioned is of Israelite ancestry or not.
Romans 10:12. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.
This verse is speaking about saving faith. The previous lifestyle of the one calling upon God in faith does not matter. All that matters is that he calls. The Lord is rich to all who call upon Him, whether they have lived as a Jew or as a Greek.
Moving on to the next book, the book of I Corinthians, we have several occurrences of the word “Greeks.”
I Corinthians 1:22. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23. but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24. but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Again, we can see that the contrast here is between philosophies, cultures, and ways of life. In the Jewish culture, they looked for signs from anyone who claimed to speak for God. In the Greek culture, they sought after wisdom and some well-reasoned argument to prove to them what was true. Therefore Christ crucified made the Jews stumble, since this sign seemed to point to God’s rejection, not approval. Christ crucified seemed as foolishness to the Greeks, for what kind of logic has a Savior die on a cross in order to save His people? Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, the power and wisdom of God is seen in the cross. They get it, even if the cultures of the world around them do not.
I Corinthians 10:32. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God,
The Lord encourages the Corinthians to give no offense. He wants them not to offend the Jews, for there certainly were ways that they could be offended. He wants them not to offend the Greeks, for they could be offended as well, though what would offend them was significantly different from what would offend the Jews. Then, they are not to offend the church of God, His Own out-positioned ones. Thus Paul emphasizes that they should not give offense to anyone, no matter what his culture and beliefs may be.
I Corinthians 12:13. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.
Whether their background was in the Jewish culture or the Greek culture, they were now all baptized into one body. The significant differences that had divided them before when they were Jews or Greeks no longer need divide them, for they are now all identified into one substance.
Galatians 2:3. Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.
II Corinthians has no references to Greeks, so we come to Galatians. Here, we read that Titus was a Greek. Many jump to the conclusion that this means he was a Gentile, but I do not believe that it means any such thing. Titus had grown up following the Greek culture. As such, he had never been circumcised. Now, Paul did not compel him to be circumcised. He refused to add this ritual to the gospel. And the twelve concurred with him in this. They did not compel Titus to be circumcised either. Thus the point here is whether or not Titus was circumcised. Whether or not he was an ancestral Israelite whose parents had given up on circumcising their children, or whether he was what we would call a “Gentile,” is not too important. We just need to be careful to recognize that we do not know for sure what Titus was, either way. There is a good chance he was, in fact, descended from the man Israel.
Galatians 3:28. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In Christ Jesus, all these distinctions that are so important in the world mean little or nothing. In Him, all are one. This includes the significant cultural difference between Jew and Greek. Yet notice that in reality this difference did not disappear any more than the reality of male and female disappeared. Both the Jewish and the Greek culture still existed, even among the believers. Yet in Christ even this difference did not matter. Salvation had come upon both.
Colossians 3:11. where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
Here we have our last occurrence of this word “Greeks,” and the only occurrence after the important Acts 28:28 dividing line. This speaks of “the new man” that the believer of today is to put on. In this new man, none of these distinctions have any importance. It does not matter if one is of the Greek or the Jewish culture. It does not matter if one is circumcised or uncircumcised. It does not matter if one is uneducated, coarse, slave, or free. All that matters for this new lifestyle is Christ. He is the center and the definition of how we are to live as believers for today. In Him, the difference between the Greek and Jewish lifestyle becomes irrelevant.
Thus we have covered all the occurrences of the word for “Greeks.” We have seen nothing to indicate that this does not have primarily to do with a way of life, and in fact have seen much evidence that this is the case. We have seen nothing to make us think that “Greeks” are Gentiles in contrast with Jews. In fact, we have seen several passages where the fact that the Greeks mentioned were actually ancestral Israelites seems quite plain. Therefore, we would conclude that a Greek is not the same as a Gentile. A Greek is one who lives according to the Greek philosophy, culture, religion, and manner of life. The Greek could be a descendant of the family of Israel, or could be one who is not a descendant of that family. This is the true answer to our question, “What Is a Greek?”