The word “heathen” (by 971) means someone who is not Christian, Jewish or Muslim, someone who does not worship the god of Abraham. By the 1800s it had gained the added meaning of someone who is unenlightened or uncivilized. By the 1900s it had become an old-fashioned way to say “pagan”.
“Heathen” is used all over the place in the Authorized or King James Bible of 1611. Since about the 1970s, though, it has become rare in Bible translations. It is now seen as derogatory even by White dictionary makers (since at least 2008).
Back in 971, when it first appeared in written English, it was applied to the Danes (Vikings). Since then it has been applied to Irish Catholics (seen as not truly Christian), to Black, Asian and Native Americans, and to much of the rest of the world.
Many Christians saw heathens as being in league with the Devil, as being sunk in moral darkness. Following the example of Jews in the Bible, Christians saw themselves as having the God-given right to make war on heathens and to make them slaves. For example, the King James translation informs us:
“Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.” (Lev 25:44)
From religion to race: While Scripture excused genocide and slavery in Anglo America in the 1600s, it did not work so well by the 1700s: too many Black and Native Americans had become Christians. They were no longer heathens! But as luck would have it, nearly all former heathens had darker skin. So Anglo Americans began to see themselves as morally better not because of religion but race.
The word in the Bible that heathen was translating was goy or goyim in Hebrew, which in the Greek New Testament becomes ethnoi or ethnikoi. It meant “the nations”, meaning the other nations, not the Jewish one. That has given rise to four English words: goy, ethnic, Gentile and heathen.
“Heathen” comes by way of Bishop Ulfilas (aka Wulfila). In the late 300s he translated the New Testament from Greek into Gothic for the Visigoths. Many of his words spread to other Germanic languages, like English.
His heathen was haithno. There are two ideas about how he came up with that word:
- He gothicized the Greek ethnos, possibly by way of the Armenian word hethanos.
- He modelled it on the Latin word paganus (pagan). Pagan meant someone who lived in the countryside, but as the cities Christianized, it came to mean a non-Christian. Likewise, heathen was someone who lived on the heath, who was now seen as non-Christian.
The English translation of ethnikoi in Matthew 6:7 through the years:
- 990: hæþene (Wessex Gospels)
- 1395: hethene men (Wycliffe)
- 1531: hethe (Tyndale)
- 1599: Heathen (Geneva)
- 1611: heathen (AV/KJV)
- 1833: heathen (Webster’s)
- 1881: Gentiles (RV)
- 1901: Gentiles (ASV)
- 1952: Gentiles (RSV)
- 1962: pagans (Lattimore)
- 1970: pagans (NAB)
- 1971: heathen (TLB)
- 1978: pagans (NIV)
- 1989: Gentiles (NRSV)
- 2001: Gentiles (ESV)
- 2006: Gentiles (RSV-2CE)
- 2009: idolaters (Holman)
– Abagond, 2016.
- John Trudell – flips the word “heathen”.
- The god of Abraham
- dichotomous thinking