Greeks and other peoples: Paul’s Judean stereotypes about non-Judeans (mid-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Greeks and other peoples: Paul’s Judean stereotypes about non-Judeans (mid-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified January 14, 2023,

Ancient author: Paul, letters to Romans 1-2, 1 Thessalonians 4, and 1 Corinthians 5-6 (link to Greek text and full LEB translation).

Comments: As the passages gathered further below demonstrate, Paul’s characterization of the “peoples” (ethnē; traditionally translated “gentiles”) – by which he means all non-Judean peoples or, sometimes, Greeks specifically  – often reflects more widespread ethnographic thinking among Judean literary elites generally. In this context, there is a focus on the inferiority of ethnic groups beyond the Israelites which is expressed, in part, by way of certain stereotypes about the behavioral tendencies or common failures (or “sins”) of these other peoples. The two most salient failures pertain to the peoples’ (1) relations to their gods and rejection of the “true God” in the form of honoring created objects, creatures, or “images” (eidōla), that is, “idolatry” in Judean terms (e.g., 1 Cor 12:2); and (2) perverse sexual activities (porneia)

The two faults could be closely related, as when Paul asserts that the Israelite god hands the peoples over to sexual perversion because of their worship of images (cf. Rom 1:22–25), or when the author of the Wisdom of Solomon asserts that “the idea of images was the beginning of sexual perversion” (link). This stereotyped thinking concerning the inherent tendencies among the peoples (which made such behaviours very hard to overcome) is captured well in Paul’s comment that “we ourselves, who are Judeans by birth and not failures from among the peoples” (Gal 2:15). The peoples are failures, the Judeans are not, generally speaking.

Paul’s Judean assumptions about the peoples clearly result in a generally negative portrayal with the exception of some unusual non-Judeans who had successfully “turned to God from images to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). In other words, certain persons could be viewed differently if they had adopted worship of Israel’s god, had rejected customs related to their own ancestral deities, and had been initiated (by way of baptism rather than circumcision for Paul) into groups devoted to the Israelite god and/or that god’s messiah. Moreover, this exceptional situation is closely connected with Paul’s repeated comments to those in Rome about there being “no difference” between Judean and Greek and his comment to the Galatians that, for those baptized into Christ, there is “neither Judean nor Greek” (Gal 3:28).

Source of the translation: Lexham Bible translation, adapted by Harland.


[Sexual perversion and worship of images in Romans 1-2]

[Introduction of the letter to Jesus adherents – primarily Greeks – in the city of Rome]

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the announcement of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy writings, concerning his son, who was born a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared son of God in power according to the holy spirit by the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ our lord, (5) through whom we have received grace and apostleship for the obedience of trust among all the peoples (ethnē) on behalf of his name, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ. To all those in Rome who are loved by God, called to be holy ones. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. . . [material omitted].

[Failures of unjust peoples, with Greeks in mind]

(16) For I am not ashamed of the announcement, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Judean first and also for the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in it from trust to trust, just as it is written, “But the one who is righteous will live by trust.” (18) For the anger of God is revealed from heaven against all impiety and injustice among people, who suppress the truth in injustice, because what can be known about God is evident among them, for God made it clear to them. (20) For from the creation of the world, his invisible attributes, both his eternal power and deity, are discerned clearly, being understood in the things created, so that those people are without excuse.

[Customs regarding gods and sexual perversion]

For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks. Instead, they became futile in their reasoning, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God with the likeness of an image of mortal human beings, birds, four-legged animals, and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to filthy activity, that their bodies would be dishonoured among themselves. (25) These were the ones who exchanged the truth of God with a lie, and worshipped and served the creation rather than the creator, who is blessed for eternity. Truly.

[Other vices that follow from the customs]

Because of this, God gave them over to dishonourable emotions (or: passions). Their women exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature. Abandoning natural relations with women, the men were similarly inflamed in their desire toward one another, men engaging in obscene activity with other men, and receiving in themselves the penalty that was necessary for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not consider recognizing God, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do the things that are not proper. They were filled with all injustice, wickedness, greediness, malice, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malevolence. They are gossipers, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boasters, contrivers of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, lacking in trust, unfeeling, and unmerciful. There are those who, although they know the requirements of God and that those who do such things are worthy of death, not only do they continue to do the same things but they also approve of those who do them.

[Addressing the Greeks at Rome]

2 Therefore you [Greeks among the Jesus adherents at Rome] have no excuse, man, every one of you who passes judgment. For when you pass judgment on someone else, you condemn yourself on the same matter, because those of you who are passing judgment are doing the same things. Now we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who do such things. But do you – you person who passes judgment on those who do such things and who does the same things – think that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the wealth of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (5) But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart, you are storing up for yourself anger in the day of anger and of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God. God will reward each one according to his works: to those who, by perseverance in good work, seek glory and honour and immortality, eternal life, but to those who act from selfish ambition and who disobey the truth but who obey injustice, anger and wrath.

There will be affliction and distress for every human being who does evil, for the Judean first and for the Greek. (10) But there will be glory, honour, and peace for everyone who does good, for the Judean first and for the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For as many as have failed without law will also die without law, and as many as have failed under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in the sight of God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous. Whenever the peoples (ethnē; i.e. non-Judeans, traditionally translated “gentiles”) who do not have the law do by nature things that are in the law, these peoples are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. (15) They show the work of the law written on their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts one after another accusing or even defending them on the day when God judges peoples’ secret things according to my announcement through Christ Jesus.

[Shifting to Judean addressees]

But if you call yourself a Judean and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve the things that are superior, because you are instructed by the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide of the blind, a light of those in darkness, (20) an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth in the law. . . [omitted material].


[Instruction against sexual perversion in 1 Thessalonians]

4 Finally, brothers, we ask you and appeal to you in the lord Jesus that, just as you have received from us how you are required to live and to please God, just as you are in fact living, that you progress even more. For you know what commands we gave to you through the lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual perversity; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel [likely a reference to the genitals] in sanctification and honour, (5) not with lustful passion like the peoples (ethnē; traditionally translated “gentiles”) who do not know God; not to transgress and to exploit his brother in the matter, because the lord is the one who avenges concerning all these things, just as also we told you beforehand and testified solemnly. For God did not call us to impurity, but in holiness. Therefore the one who rejects this is not rejecting man, but God, who also gives his holy spirit to you.


[Sexual perversion in 1 Corinthians 5-6]

5 It is reported everywhere that there is sexual perversion among you, and sexual perversion of a kind that does not even occur among the peoples (ethnē), since someone has the wife of his father. You are also inflated with pride, and should you not rather have mourned, so that the one who has done this thing would be removed from among you? For although I am absent in body but present in spirit, I have already passed judgment on the one who has done this in this way, as if I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and my spirit, together with the power of our Lord Jesus, (5) I have decided to hand over such a person to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, in order that his spirit may be saved in the day of the lord.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old leaven in order that you may be a new batch of dough, just as you are unleavened. For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. So then, let us celebrate the feast, not with the old leaven or with the leaven of wickedness and sinfulness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in the letter [a previous letter that we do not possess in full] not to associate with sexually perverted people. (10) By no means did I mean the sexually perverted people of this world or the greedy people and swindlers or image-worshippers, since then you would have to leave the world. But now I have written to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is a sexually perverted person, a greedy person, an image-worshipper, an abusive person, a drunkard or a robber. Do not even eat with such a person. For what is it to me to judge those outside? Should you not judge those inside? But those outside God will judge. Remove the evil person from among yourselves.

6 If anyone among you has a case against someone else, does he dare to have it judged before unjust people instead of the holy people? Or do you not know that the holy people will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy of the most insignificant judgments? Do you not know that we will judge angels, not to mention ordinary matters? Therefore, if you have means of judging for ordinary matters, do you seat these despised people in the assembly? (5) I say this to your shame. So is there not anyone wise among you who will be able to make a decision between his brothers? But a brother seeks judgment with a brother, and this happens in the presence of unbelievers! Therefore it is already a complete loss for you that you have cases with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you wrong and defraud, and do this to brothers! Or do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Neither sexually perverted people, nor worshippers of images, nor adulterers, nor passive homosexual partners, nor dominant homosexual partners, (10) nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor abusive persons, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. Some of you were such things, but you were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the lord Jesus Christ and by the spirit of our God.

All things are permitted for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are permitted for me, but I will not be controlled by anything. Food is for the stomach, and the stomach for food, but God will abolish both of them. Now the body is not for sexual perversion, but the body is for the lord and the lord is for the body. God both raised up the lord and will raise us up by his power. (15) Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Therefore, should I take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For it says, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the lord is one spirit with him.

Flee sexual perversion. Every sin that a person commits is outside his body, but the one who commits sexual perversion sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the holy spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? (20) For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God with your body.

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