What does Paul mean by “Greek”? Though often taken as simply synonymous with “Gentile,” it seems instead to have the more specific force of “Hellene,” someone who is part of the Greco-Roman empire. ETHNOS means simply “nation,” and refers to nations other than Israel. A HELLEN is a member of a specific ETHNOS. There are several passages where the words appear in close proximity to one another, and these can be used as test cases for Paul’s usage. Along with this, passages where HELLEN appears in connection with other ethnic designations are relevant to the discussion.
1) In Rom 1:14, Paul distinguishes between the “Greeks” and “barbarians” to whom he is obliged to preach the gospel, which appear, in the light of 1:13, to be subsets of the category “Gentile” (ETHNE). Paul wants to obtain fruit among the Romans, as among the rest of the ETHNE, and this is supported by the debt he holds toward both HELLENES and “barbarians.” “Greek and barbarian” thus seems to be another way of saying “Gentile.” Given this usage, it seems that 1:16 must use “Greek” in a specific sense, not in a generic sense of “all Gentile nations.” Paul is indeed obliged to “barbarians” as well as to “Greeks,” but in the order of the gospel salvation comes to the “Jew” and then to the “Hellenist.”
2) Both HELLEN and ETHNOS appear in Romans 10 as well. 10:12 appears to use “Greek” with a more universal force, since the announcement that there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek” is followed by the claim that “the same is Lord of all” and the promise that God will save “all” who call on Him. There is no apparent relation between “Greek” in this verse and the use of ETHNOS in verse 19, which is (properly) translated as “nation” by the NASB.
4) Colossians 3:11 uses “Greek” and “Jew” in a passage talking about the gospel’s destruction of distinctions among ethnic and social groups. Also listed are “barbarian” and “Scythian,” which suggests that “Greek and Jew” did not encompass the whole human race. Rather, they encompassed two specific groups, but there were other ETHNE outside of both Israel and the Hellenistic world.
What are our results? It seems that Paul sometimes does use “Greek” in a way that is virtually interchangeable with “Gentile,” but there are also places where he uses it in the specific sense of “Hellenist,” and this possibility must be kept as a live exegetical option when the word is used.