Manatees, Mermaids, and “Pante ta Ethne”

When I was a small child back in the late 60s/early 70s, I saw a nature show on manatees. In that show, the speculation was brought forth that mythological beings, mermaids, might have been inspired by sailors seeing manatees. When I was in college, I saw another special on manatees and dugongs and it said that these animals were PROBABLY the inspiration behind the stories of mermaids. Years later, in my mid-20s I went to Blue Springs State Park in Florida. They have manatees that reside there and I was told that “These manatees are the mermaids of old.”  What changed? In a 20 year period, did solid scholarship occur that demonstrated the probability and then the certainty of the connection between manatees and mermaids?  Probably not. Rather, an interesting, and curious theory got passed around enough that it gained a critical mass of support to be seen as “pravda” (offical truth).

But is this theory true? Probably not. I was in the Navy for a few years. Lookout watches are manned by people with very good eyesight. With the fact that sailing ships move relatively slowly, if an unusually myopic lookout saw a manatee in the water and thought it was a woman/fish hybrid, they would almost certainly have taken the time to test this theory, and disprove it. A far more likely scenario is that lonely male sailors create fantastic stories to vicariously satisfy their libido. Since woman are almost exclusively on land, a woman who can exist where they are would quite naturally lead to stories of mermaids (as well as sirens). That the stories seem to be dominated by mermaids not mermen would then be hardly surprising. Mermen were a logical and biological necessity, not the subject of interest.

It seems like a similar transformation has happened with “Pante ta Ethne.” This Greek phrase found in the Bible with a number of variations, has become a subject of interest. Most famously, it is in the Matthew version of the Great Commission where Jesus said to “Go and make disciples of all nations…” All nations is “pante ta ethne.”

<WARNING!!!  A non-student of Greek is trying to sound like an expert.  My apologies in advance. WARNING!!!>

The term ethnos, ethnoun, or ethne (plural) is used in a number of ways in the Bible. Often it is used generically to describe the Gentiles. Greek at that time had a number of ways of dividing up people. A few ways are seen in Revelation 7:9. There we see:

ethnoun    (nations)

phylon (tribes)

laon (peoples)

glosson (tongues/languages)

ochlos (crowd/multitude… more of a description rather than a taxonomic designation)

Additionally, one could add   genos   (family or kind)

You may wonder if these tend to overlap, and you would be correct. For example, Aristides described Greek divisions of people in terms of four groups (or three depending on the version you are using) based on the term genos (family or kind):    Greek, Chaldean (barbarian), Jew, Christian.  Aristotle centuries earlier divided up people into three groups (ethnos) based on climate: warm climate people, cold climate people, and temperate climate people. Actually, the use of the term ethne or ethnos is quite broad. As noted before, in many passages in the New Testament, and in the Septuagint, the term is essentially a generic designation for Gentiles (everyone who is not a Jew). It is doubtful that a concept or word today would capture the locus meanings of this term..

But things changed in interpretation.

Gustav Warneck, the Father of Modern Missiology in the early 1900s (in Evangelische Missionlehre) noted that “pante ta ethne” is best understood as a religious term not an anthropological term. In other words, Gentiles. Despite this, Warneck tended to use the term, on a practical level, to describe ethnic units of people.

Pulling ahead to the 1960s, we have the systemization of the Church Growth Movement, started by Donald MacGavran. From here comes the developing of the Homogeneous Unit Principle. This is the idea that people prefer to respond to the Gospel and participate in worship when it does not require them to cross ethnic or cultural boundaries. For MacGavran the focus was primarily on description than prescription. In other words he was more saying the way things are than the way things should be.

As we move into the 1970s, things change further. C. Peter Wagner is the new voice in the Church Growth Movement, and he is now expressing that homogeneous groups are not only descriptive, but prescriptive… and Biblical. Acts 6, then, is not describing an ethnic problem in the church that was dealt with in such a way to share power and maintain unity, but a move to separate house churches along ethnic lines. Up to this point the tendency of seeing “pante ta ethne” as referring to specific people groups was related to ministry, not due to Biblical scholarship. However, I don’t think anyone would rely on Wagner, for example, for Biblical scholarship.

Into the 1980s this thinking in the Church Growth Movement continues, and with the growth of focus on “unreached people groups” (UPGs) in missions, there was a greater tendency to see the Great Commission as centered around people groups or ethnic groups. David Bosch in his article “Church Unity Amidst Cultural Diversity: A Protestant Problem.” (Missionalia 10, no. 1 (April 1982): 16-28) noted that no Biblical scholar, then at least, would define “pante ta ethne” as referring to people groups. Frankly, people groups is a missiological construct based, generally, on principles from cultural anthropology. The term can not accurately be linked to Greek thought and designations. According to Bosch, Biblical scholars were united in the understanding that “panta ta ethne” was describing the universality of the mandate, not the diversity of the mandate. Consider, for example, the parallel passage in Acts 1 where the same conversation led to a geographic rather than a sociological description. The disciples would be witnesses ” in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This geographic description certainly is describing the ultimate geographic universality of the call to witness, rather than a focus on individual places on the earth. In the early 1980s the argument among Biblical scholars was not about the focus on discrete units versus universality, but rather the level of universality.  That is, did the phrase mean all Gentiles, or all people including both Gentile and Jews? Bosch noted that the principle of homogeneous groups and a people group interpretation of the Great Commission became part of the basis for Theological Apartheid.

Since the 1980s, the growth of a theology built people groups has grown. Websearch “pante ta ethne” (I will wait for you). You will note that the pages are dominated with an anthropological/missiological interpretation. One is hard-pressed to find interpretation by Greek Scholars. Part of this may be that missiologists are more interested in the phrase. Or maybe Greek scholars have trouble using the Internet.

Jim Slack  (“A ‘Ta Ethne ‘ Ethnolinguistic People Group Focus As Seen In The Scriptures”) states that “ta ethne” are ethnolinguistic people groups that are defined by “a stable, historically developed community of people with a territory, economic life, distinctive culture and language in common”.  This is probably a pretty good definition for practical missions, but seems to go way beyond the rather loose way the term was used by the Greeks (remembering of course my complete lack of scholarship in Greek. You do remember, correct?). But of even greater question would be whether Jesus in Matthew 28 was saying “Make disciples of all stable, historically developed communities of people with territory, economic life, distinctive culture and language in common…”

More recently, some missiologists gathered together to seek to determine whether “ta ethne” could also refer to castes?  Obviously if “pante ta ethne” means everyone, then it certainly includes people who are in castes. I am from America where there were traditionally castes based on racial lines.  If “pante ta ethne” applies to me, and I am part of a caste, then it certainly applies to castes. By the same logic, it can also include classes, races, gangs, sub-cultures, and micro-cultures. I suppose, however, this was not the real question. For them, I am guessing, the real question was whether it was okay to create and support churches that intentionally discriminate based on caste. They may as well simply go ahead with the logical stream and say that ta ethne also refers to socio-economic classes as well. This all to me seems a true bastardization of both the phrase and its broader context.

Additionally, others have come along and used a similar logic for Matthew 24:14… “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” The phrase to all nations, “pasin tois ethnesin” is grammatically different from “pante ta ethne”
but essentially works out the same. If it is translated ‘everyone” or ‘the Gentiles” it becomes a fairly straightforward thing. God’s message will be proclaimed all over the world… and then Christ returns. However, by taking a people group interpretation from Matthew 28, this passage morphed into a theologically aberrant view.  It comes out as “The gospel will be proclaimed to each and every people group, and when that happens, Christ will return.” This really doesn’t make a lot of sense exegetically or even logically. But you get mission groups that talk about speeding up Jesus by reaching every people group. Other organizations come up with “official” lists of how many people groups there are (at the moment at least) and how many are defined as unreached or at least unengaged.

For me, a fairly simple message of Jesus to share the gospel everywhere to everyone became weirdly misinterpreted into a call to homogeneous groups and caste churches, and to speeding up the return of Christ.  This is not a necessary result of this interpretation, but it is where it has gone by some. Personally, I find value in the missiological concept of people groups, and the importance to contextualize. But when a slight interpretational error (not even an error, more an interpretational shading of meaning) starts to grow from practical guide to theological dogma, bad things begin to happen. I think we see some of that now. We are called to share the Gospel to everyone everywhere. People groups may be a useful concept for proclamation, contextualization, and indiginization, But it is a missiological concept that is to be guided by interpretation of Scripture, rather than a hermeneutical lens through which Scripture is to be interpreted.

Everyone is not the same as “People Groups” any more than “Manatees” are “Mermaids.”


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