I received the following question:
I have been reading the book of Romans lately, and it is very confusing when it comes to deciding when it is talking about Jews of the Nations, Jews, or Gentiles.
This is not an easy thing. You have read my article on “Gentiles and Nations”?
A few helpful things to keep in mind:
1. The words are used differently in the land and out of the land. Being used in a different context and from a different perspective, they take on a different meaning.
2. In the land, they seem to have used the word “Jews” to indicate the same kind of idea as we use when we say someone is a “real American.” We do not mean that there are a lot of fake Americans running around out there, but we mean that this person is an example of what a true patriot and lover of his country should be like. So, they called “Jews” those who they thought were the pinnacle of their nation, that is, their religious leaders. Ironically, these men were often the most bitter enemies of the Lord, but they were generally thought of as the standard for others.
3. Outside the land, the major issue was whether or not an ancestral Israelite was remaining true to his heritage and living according to the law, or whether he was giving up his heritage and living like the nations around him. Those who stayed true to their heritage were called “Jews.”
4. The Greeks were not those born in Greece. Rather, they were a political movement, an ideology, similar to our “conservative” and “liberal” (but not a party like “Democrat” and “Republican.”) The Greeks believed that the Greek culture, the Greek dress, the Greek city structure, the Greek customs, the Greek gods, the Greek manner of life, and so forth were the superior and best way to live. The strength of this party in the Roman Empire explains why Greek was more or less the official language of the empire rather than Latin, the language of Rome.
5. That said, when the Jews used the word “Greeks” they probably often used it for those who were ancestral Israelites who had given up Biblical customs, laws, and culture, and instead had adopted the Greek way of life that was common with others in the Empire. This was not the way the culture at large used this word, but it was how the Jews used it. For example, you and I would not use the word “conservatives” to refer to a specific group of Jews. However, the Jews might use it this way, and there are synagogues that are associated with the “Conservatives,” as opposed to Orthodox, Reformed, etc. So I believe that the word “Greeks” in the Bible more often than not has to do with ancestral Israelites who were living a Greek lifestyle.
6. The word “Gentiles” just means “nations.” Inside the land, it would have been more common to refer to ancestral Israelites living outside the land as “the nations.” Outside the land, the meaning would probably be much more similar to how we would expect the word to be used.
In Romans, “Jews” definitely refers to Israelites outside the land who were still maintaining God’s culture, laws, and practices. “Greeks” means those who live a Greek way of life, often regardless of whether or not they are ancestral Israelites (though in some cases it might be specific to them, particularly if living according to the law or not living according to the law is in view.) Gentiles means nations, and probably would mean just that, since it was not written to and by those in the land.
Hope that helps.