This expression (Heb., ‛am ha·’a´rets, with its plural forms) occurs 67 times in the Hebrew text. In Jesus’ day it was employed by the religious leaders as a term of contempt, but originally this was not the case.
As a Term of Contempt. In course of time, however, the religious leaders of Judah began to use the term to designate those persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were unlearned in the Law and more particularly those who were ignorant of or who failed to observe in detail the great body of rabbinic traditions that now developed. (Mt 15:1, 2) The term expressed the contemptuous attitude exemplified in the statement of the Pharisees at John 7:49: "This crowd that does not know the Law are accursed people." Rabbi Joshua said that an ‛am ha·’a´rets is: "Anyone who does not put on tefillin [phylacteries]." Other rabbinic statements applying to such nonobservers of Jewish traditions were: "Even if one has learnt Scripture and Mishnah, if he has not ministered to the disciples of the wise, he is an ‛am ha-arez." (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 47b, translated by M. Simon) "Neither is an ignorant person [‛am ha·’a´rets] pious." (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:5, translated by J. Israelstam) "The illiterate will not be resurrected." (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubbot 111b, translated by S. Daiches) (Compare Mt 9:11; Lu 15:2; 18:11.) Jesus, however, said that he "came to call . . . sinners," and he showed affection for the people who were "thrown about like sheep without a shepherd."—Mt 9:13, 36.
Thus the sense of ‛am ha·’a´rets changed from one of general respect to one of religious opprobrium, much as the Latin term paganus, from which the English word "pagan" is derived. Pagan originally meant simply a dweller in a rural community, but since those country people were often the last to be converted, it came to be used by city dwellers as applying to all who did not adopt their professed Christian beliefs. In a similar way the term "heathen" at first meant simply one who lived out on the "heath" or field. (Insight on the Scriptures, volume 2, page 600-01, pr. 6.)