Cultural Differences of Jews & Gentiles

The Jewish and Gentile populations of the ancient world inhabited the same cities (such as Jerusalem) but rarely shared cultural customs.
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The main cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles in the ancient world primarily stemmed from their different religious beliefs and associated practices. The term "Gentile" comes from the Latin "geni" meaning "nations" and is used within the Bible to differentiate the Jewish people from all non-Jews. This all-encompassing term also served to emphasize the inherent specialness and uniqueness of the Jewish people and their covenant with God.

1 Categories of Gentiles

According to Jewish law, there were different categories within the broad term Gentile. The two most significant of these categories are polytheists (worshipers of many gods) and monotheists (worshipers of one god). If they accepted certain Jewish laws, monotheist Gentiles were able to qualify for a status known as "ger toshav" (meaning "resident stranger") with limited rights within the Jewish community. These different categories of Gentiles are important, because laws within the Bible and Talmud that apply to "heathens" and "idolaters" did not apply to monotheist Gentiles but only to those who continued to worship multiple deities.

2 Language

In addition to religion, language was a significant point of differentiation between Jews and Gentiles. Jews spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, and Gentiles primarily spoke Greek. While the Hellenistic influence of the ancient world meant that many Jews would have understood at least some rudimentary Greek, most Gentiles did not understand either Aramaic or Hebrew. This can be seen in the New Testament Gospel of Mark, in which Mark transliterates Hebrew expressions and then provides the translations into Greek for the benefit of his primarily Gentile, Greek-speaking audience.

3 Entertainment

Because most Gentiles in the ancient world were polytheistic, many of the activities of daily life involved acknowledging (either explicitly or implicitly) a particular divinity associated with each activity. As such, although Gentile buildings such as theaters and amphitheaters were not specifically religious, they were nevertheless problematic for Jews because of the religious connotations of the shows and games within. Jewish writers such as Josephus describe the presence of theaters in Jewish cities like Jerusalem and Jericho as problematic, because they were "opposite to the Jewish custom," and the theaters seem to have been established and frequented primarily by the Gentile populations of the cities.

4 Meal Practices

Both Jews and Gentiles participated in communal meals for religious and social purposes. Despite certain superficial similarities in the structure of these meals, significant differences in ideology meant that Jewish and Gentile meals rarely overlapped. For example, Talmudic law asserts that Jews should not share meals with polytheists as this could lead to becoming impure, even if the food that was served did not violate any of the strict dietary laws. As the meal provided an important opportunity for socialization in the ancient world, this injunction also served to establish protective barriers between Jews and their potential assimilation into the Greco-Roman world through social interaction and inter-marriage.

HD Livingston has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in religious studies from the University of Manitoba. She is also completing a Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.