The word Gentiles means “the nations” and eventually came to be used to mean all those not of the house of Israel. It is first used in Genesis with reference to the descendants of Japheth (Gen. 10:2–5). As used throughout the scriptures it has a dual meaning, sometimes to designate peoples of non-Israelite lineage and other times to designate nations that are without the gospel, even though there may be some Israelite blood therein. This latter usage is especially characteristic of the word as used in the Book of Mormon.
The duties of Israelites toward Gentiles were defined in the law (Ex. 23:32; 34:12–16; Deut. 7:1–3; 20:10–18; 23:3–8; Ezra 9:2–15; 10:1–18; Neh. 13:1–3, 23–31). These regulations served to emphasize the distinction between Israel and Gentile. However, there were numerous provisions showing that Israel was to deal justly and honestly with non-Israelites and to be compassionate toward them (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:10, 33–34; 24:22).
The pious Jews of New Testament times held themselves aloof from contact with the Gentiles. When a Gentile was converted to Judaism, he was called a proselyte. Even in the Church there was a cultural and doctrinal struggle among many Jewish Christians before they would permit one of gentile lineage to enjoy full fellowship. The first Gentiles to come into the New Testament Church were those who had already become proselytes to Judaism.
Cornelius (Acts 10–11) was the first Gentile of whom we have record who came into the Christian Church without first being a proselyte to Judaism. He was introduced to the gospel of Jesus Christ through a series of divine manifestations both to him and to Peter.
Paul was called the “apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), and it was primarily through his ministry that the gospel was established among those of gentile lineage throughout Europe and Asia Minor, although the way was opened by Peter’s baptism of Cornelius. See also Cornelius; Proselytes.