A word only meaningful in relation to Israel and the Jews for the rest of mankind. Although there was always a good deal of contact between Israelites in Palestine and their Gentile neighbours, attitudes to them were ambivalent. On the one hand a sense of vocation was strong to bring Gentiles to the worship of the one God (Mic. 4: 2; Zech. 8: 22–3); Israel is a ‘light to the nations’ (Isa. 42: 6), and there are the books of Ruth and Jonah. But on the other hand there was, for example, the nationalistic apartheid of Ezra and Nehemiah who decreed that non-Jewish wives were to be divorced. Barriers became more rigid in the last two centuries BCE and there were urgent warnings against the idolatry of the Gentiles (1 Macc. 3: 48) who were generally assumed to enjoy lax behaviour.
It was this last sense of horror that moved some of the Jewish Christians in their opposition to Paul's mission to the Gentiles: if these converts did not keep the Law, would the Church be able to maintain moral standards? Certainly the relaxation of the demand of circumcision led to an influx into the Church of ‘God-fearers’ (Acts 13: 26, 48) who were loosely attached to synagogues. Some Gentiles who had embraced the full rigours of Judaism (called proselytes), attracted by the ethics and the strong community life of Jews, also joined the new movement (Acts 6: 5). Probably they hoped to find the same support in the Church (Acts 2: 10; 13: 43), but they would have resented any apparent laxity. Cf. Gal. 4: 21.
Jesus confined his own mission to his immediate home ground (Matt. 10: 5) but there are hints that in the view of the evangelists he would not have disapproved of Paul's initiatives: he healed the daughter of a Gentile woman (Mark 7: 26) and it would have been impossible for Jesus to have avoided all contact with Gentiles—indeed he might have spoken some Greek. His cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11: 15–17) took place in the Court of the Gentiles, which was carefully separated from the holier parts of the building by a flight of steps and a wall to which were affixed a minatory instruction in Latin and Greek warning Gentiles to proceed no further. Jesus was apparently concerned that there should be no obstacle to Gentiles engaging in prayer in that limited portion of the Temple which they were allowed to enter. The destiny of the Temple as a sanctuary for ‘all peoples’ in the Messianic age was prophesied by Isa. 56: 7. The authorities construed Jesus' action as a threatening prediction of its future destruction (Mark 14: 58).