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Are NT “Race”-related Terms Equivalent to “Culture”?

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series

"Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture"

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The question before us is this: are there any New Testament terms that are equivalent to the contemporary notion of “culture”? At least three separate categories of NT Greek terms possibly parallel the more contemporary idea of culture.

The first grouping includes terms translated with the English words “race,” “tribe,” “nation,” “people” or “languages.” These ideas are probably the most commonly cited by missional authors who are seeking to imply cultural neutrality. For example, Driscoll equates “race,” “nation,” and “culture,” alluding to Revelation 7:9 when he insists that “God promised that people from every race, culture, language, and nation will be present to worship him as their culture follows them into heaven.”1

The term representative of this group that Christian anthropologists mostly cite is ἔθνος (ethnos). For example, in commenting on the Matthew 28:16-20, Christian cultural anthropologists Paris and Howell say that “the word translated ‘nations’ here (ethnos) refers to the culture of a people, an ethnic group.”2 They directly equate ἔθνος with culture and insist that “cultural anthropology helps us fulfill the Great Commission by preparing Christians to go to all ethnē and speak and live effectively.”3 Additionally, the popularity of terms such as “enthnodoxology” among missional worship advocates reveals the assumption that this NT term proves the necessity of a multicultural approach to worship.

Of the 164 times it appears in the NT, the ESV translates ἔθνοςas “Gentile” 96 times, “nation” 68 times, “pagans” three times, and “people” two times. Lexicons4 define the term as “a multitude (whether of men or of beasts) associated or living together, . . . a multitude of individuals of the same nature or genus, . . . a race, nation, people group,”5 or even specifically link it to the idea of culture: “a people, a large group based on various cultural, physical or geographic ties.”6 Lexicons do not define ἔθνος as culture itself, however, but rather identify culture as one element that unites an ἔθνος, as in Bullinger, who defines the term as “a number of people living together bound together by like habits and customs; then generally people, tribe, nation, with reference to the connection with each other rather than the separation from others by descent, language or constitution.”7

Therefore, the term is used to designate groups of people who identify with common values. Cultural anthropologists assume that NT authors use ἔθνος as a parallel to “culture,” yet this correspondence falls outside the common usage of the term. An ἔθνος may be united by shared culture, but it is not the same as culture. Hiebert agrees: “Nation (ethnos) means a community of people held together by the same laws, customs, and mutual interests.”8 The term refers to the group of people, not to the culture around which the group unites.

We’ll look at a second possibility next week.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Driscoll, Radical Reformission, 100. []
  2. Paris and Howell, Introducing Cultural Anthropology, 23. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. While lexical definitions of terms are helpful in determining their meaning and use in the NT, it is important to recognize that authors of lexicons themselves often fall prey to contemporary reorientation of ideas. This is especially a potential problem in this area of cultural neutrality. If authors of a lexicon have been influenced enough by cultural anthropology such that they embrace each of its conclusions about culture and race, their definitions of terms such as ἔθνος may reflect a colored interpretation. Vern Polythress exposes this very sort of influence in “How Have Inclusiveness and Tolerance Affected the Bauer-Danker Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG)?” (JETS 46:4 [Dec 2003]: 574-587). He argues that differences in the third edition of BDAG from previous editions “raise questions about political influence on lexical description” (574). Danker himself addresses the issue in the preface of the third edition:

    Also of concern are respect for inclusiveness and tolerance. But a scientific work dare not become a reservoir for ideological pleading, and culture-bound expressions must be given their due lest history be denied its day in court. It is an undeniable fact that God is primarily viewed patriarchally in the Bible, but translation must avoid exaggeration of the datum. “Brother” is a legitimate rendering of many instances of the term ἀδελψός, but when it appears that the term in the plural includes women (as in a letter to a congregation) some functional equivalent, such as “brothers and sisters,” is required (BDAG, viii).

    However, Danker clearly begins with an a priori acceptance of the contemporary anthropological notion of culture when he speaks of “culture-bound expressions,” and Polythress reveals several examples where political correctness influences changes in definitions. This is why although the lexical definitions are helpful, investigation into the contextual uses of each term is also very important in determining their range of meaning. []

  5. James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, Together with Dictionaries of the Hebrew and Greek Words of the Original, with References to the English Words (Hendrickson, 2004). []
  6. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997). []
  7. Ethelbert William Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament: Together with an Index of Greek Words, and Several Appendices (London: Longmans Green, 1908), 316. []
  8. D. Edmond Hiebert, First Peter (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 134. []