Who is a Jew according to the Bible?
The word Jew has different meanings to different groups and individuals. Therefore, this article is not attempting to explain the various views, but how the term Jew was used in both the Old and New Testaments. Consequently, the question we are interested in is “Who is a Jew according to the Bible?” This brief study will reveal that the word had changed its meaning by the time of Christ.
Meaning of Jew in the Old Testament
Scripture teaches that after King Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel was divided into two kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah. The division occurred when King Solomon sinned by not loving God with all his heart (1 Kings 11:9-13). The fallout was internal strife within the kingdom between Rehoboam and Jeroboam resulting in the nation being split (1 Kings 12:16-24). Consequently, descendants of Israel either lived in the northern or southern kingdom.
The Hebrew word Jew occurs for the first time in 2 Kings 25:25 if we consider only the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. If we consider the chronological order of events, then the same Hebrew word is translated as Jewish in 1 Chronicles 4:17-18 after the nation of Israel was split and before either the Assyrian or Babylonian armies invaded.
The sons of Ezrah were Jether, Mered, Epher and Jalon. (And these are the sons of Bithia the daughter of Pharaoh, whom Mered took) and she conceived and bore Miriam, Shammai and Ishbah the father of Eshtemoa. His Jewish wife bore Jered the father of Gedor, and Heber the father of Soco, and Jekuthiel the father of Zanoah.1 Chronicles 4:17-18 (NASB)
A quick reading of the preceding verses reveal that a man called Mered had two wives: Bithia and his Jewish wife in 1 Chronicles 4:18. Some Bible versions use “Judah” or “Judahite” instead of “Jewish.” Why have the other Bible versions done this? The answer is that the Hebrew word that the NASB translated as “Jewish” is yehudi. Yehudi occurs 82 times in the Old Testament. It is translated as “Jew,” “Jews” and “Jewish” 74 times but only as Judah, Judea or Judeans 7 times. One time it is translated as “brothers.” The root meaning of the Hebrew word helps us understand why the word can be translated as Jew, Jews, Jewish, Judea or Judah. The root meaning of yehudi is “a descendant of or from the tribe of Judah.” The Jewish Virtual Library makes this comment regarding the word Jew:
The word Jewish is the adjective form of Jew. The word “Jew” (in Hebrew, “Yehudi”) is derived from the name Judah, which was the name of one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel, which was named after him.
The Jewish organization Chabad.org states this,
. . .the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyrian King Sennaherib, and the ten tribes were exiled and lost. The only remaining Israelites were the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, and the term “Yehudi” or “Jew” came to refer to all the Israelites, regardless of their tribal ancestry.
After the Assyrian army invaded the northern kingdom and deported a vast number of its citizens in 722 B.C., only the southern kingdom of the original united nation remained. Note that the southern kingdom of Judah was not invaded. Consequently, many of the remaining worshpers of Yahweh in the north came down to Judah to worship (2 Chronicles 30:1-18). The passage reveals that remnants of Ephraim and Manasseh still lived in the ruins of the old northern kingdom.
Later, 2 Kings 25:25 uses the word Jew or Yehudi shortly after the invasion of the Babylonian army into Judah. The passage states that some Jews left for Egypt in order to avoid the Babylonians. The term Jew was not created by the Babylonians, contrary to the claims of some, but was in existence prior to their invasion.
After the Babylonian exile of 605 B.C., the word Yehudi appears again in Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jeremiah and Daniel to describe those who lived in Judah. When the Babylonians invaded the kingdom of Judah, Jews were living in many nations. The prophet Jeremiah mentions some of the locations (Jeremiah 40:11-15; 44:1).
In summary, the Old Testament uses the term Jew to refer to descendants from the kingdom of Judah. By the time of the Maccabees, the Hebrew word referred to any descendant of the original entire nation. They were also called Hebrews.
Meaning of Jew in the New Testament
In the New Testament the two terms Jews and Hebrews were used interchangeably in a generic sense for those who were living in the northern or southern kingdom (Matthew 2:2; John 4:9; 7:1; Acts 6:1; 18:2, 24; Philippians 3:5). Gentile converts to Judaism were not regarded as racial Jews. In the gospels the term Jew was also used to refer to the religious leaders (John 1:19). The word was broadened in its usage.
Paul the apostle clearly viewed himself to be a descendant of Benjamin, and yet said he was a member of the nation of Israel, a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Philippians 3:4-6).
. . . though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Philippians 3:4-6 (NASB)
Then in Acts 21:39, the apostle called himself a Jew. He wrote this about the time that he wrote the book of Philippians.
Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” Acts 21:39 (NASB)
The apostle was a Jew and a Hebrew by birth. He called himself a Jew and He was also a Jew by spiritual birth. In Romans 9:3-5, Paul refers to his brothers as fellow Israelites. Then in Romans 9:6-8, he refers to those who believe in Christ as the true descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:6-29; Philippians 3:3). That is, he considered them to be spiritual Jews.
Later Paul wrote that there were only Jews or Gentiles in the body of Jesus Christ. Paul was speaking spiritually and not according to a person’s genetic heritage.
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also . . . Romans 3:29 (NASB)
A true Jew in a spiritual sense, is one who has faith in Jesus Christ (Romans ).
Today, some are Jews by birth and some by spiritual birth also. The word Jew is used differently in the Bible as a result of the passage of time. In Jesus’ day, the word Jew referred to all descendants of Jacob or Israel and that definition will continue into the millennial kingdom.
Meaning of Jew in the Millennial Kingdom
When the book of Zechariah prophesies about the future millennial kingdom in Zechariah 8, the Hebrew word Yehudi is used to describe the descendants of Jacob or Israel in the millennial kingdom (Zechariah 8:23). It should be noted that in Zechariah 8:11-13, God tells the remnant of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah that they will be together in the millennial kingdom. In Zechariah 8:15 God says that He plans good for both Israel and Judah in the context of the millennial kingdom. Zechariah 8 reveals that the ten northern tribes are lost. God knows who they are and descendants of those tribes will be in the millennial kingdom. Earlier in Zechariah 2:6, 10-13; 8:6-8 God says that He will gather many from distant nations and they will be His people.
There are numerous prophecies about Jesus Christ in Zechariah. One of them is Zechariah 11:12-13 which prophesies the betrayal of Jesus by Judas (Matthew 26:15). Then immediately in the next verse we are told that the second staff will be cut into pieces (Zechariah 11:14). That refers to the discord that would occur following the rejection of Jesus Christ. Jews will kill other Jews who are Christians, and in A.D. 70 they will attack one another when the Roman army invades the land. Therefore, the verse should not be understood to imply that Israel does not have a future in the millennial kingdom. Zechariah 8:13 reveals that Yehudi will refer to all Jews in the millennial kingdom. Jerusalem will be the capital city of the kingdom (Zechariah 14:8-21). Any remnant of Jacob living in the millennial kingdom will be called a Jew.
Who is a Jew biblically? The answer is that anyone who is a physical descendant of Jacob or Israel. Some teach that the real Jews are those who have been spiritually reborn. Such teaching misses the obvious that there are Jews by physical birth and there are those who are Jews spiritually (Romans 2:29; 9:6; Galatians 3:28-29).
We should rejoice that the kingdom God the Father planned from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34) will finally be realized and the promises (Genesis 49:10; Numbers 24:17; 2 Samuel 7:15-17) that God made to His chosen people (Zechariah 13:9) will be fulfilled. Christians are beneficiaries too, since we will be able to share in the enjoyment (Zechariah 8:20-23) of the Jewish king, the Jewish kingdom and Jerusalem, the capital (Joel 3:17; Zechariah 14:8-9).
1. Willem A. VanGemeren. Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. vol. 2. Zondervan Publishing House. 1997. pp. 415-416.
2. Gilchrist, P. R. (1999). 850 יָהַד. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 369). Chicago: Moody Press. (The authors write, “יְהוּדִי (yĕhûdî). Jew, Jewish, an adjective used fourteen times. Its plural yĕhûdîm “Jews, men of Judah” is used seventy-one times substantively.”)
3. Jewish Virtual Library. “Judaism: Who Is A Jew?”
4. “What is the Meaning of the Name “Jew”? www.chabad.org.
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