Who is a Jew?
The word Jew has changed its meaning with time. 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 us that the nation of Israel was divided into two kingdoms called the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah after King Solomon’s death. The division occurred due to King Solomon’s sin of not loving God with all his heart (1 Kings 11:9-13). The fallout was internal strife that occurred after his death 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 word Jewish occurs for the first time in 1 Chronicles 4:18 after the nation of Israel was split and before either the Assyrian or Babylonian armies invaded Palestine. It was used of a woman who had once lived in Judah. The root meaning of the Hebrew word Jew is “a descendant of 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 nation remained. Note that the southern kingdom of Judah was not invaded. Consequently, many of the remaining worshippers 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 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).
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 the 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 kingdom will be called a Jew.
Meaning of Jew In the New Testament
In the New Testament the word Jew referred to anyone living in Judah. Consequently, any descendant from a tribe that was in the northern kingdom and living in Judah was considered a Jew. The distinction between those who had lived in the northern kingdom or those who were living in the southern kingdom had disappeared. Luke 2:36 reveals that the prophetess Anna was a descendant of the tribe of Asher and living in Jerusalem. That is, the tribe of Asher was not lost since at least she was one of the descendants living in Jerusalem at the time of Christ and serving in the temple. James 1:1 also reveals that the ten tribes were not lost either. How many of them were living in Judah?
In the gospels the term Jew is used for the first time to refer to the religious leaders of Judah (John 1:19). The word Jews symbolically referred to the leaders of the people called Jews. The word was broadened in its usage.
Later Paul wrote that there were only Jews or Gentiles.
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also . . . Romans 3:29 (NASB)
Paul says the same thing again in 1 Corinthians,
. . . but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles . . . 1 Corinthians 1:23 (NASB)
That is, there were only Jews or Gentiles by the time of Christ in the thinking of those living in the land of Judah. Biblically speaking, the ten tribes in the northern kingdom are Jews also.
Who is a Jew biblically? The answer is that any physical descendant of Jacob or Israel is a Jew at this point in history. 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).
For example, Paul the apostle clearly views himself to be a descendant of Benjamin and yet says he is a member of the nation of Israel in 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 calls 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 by birth. He calls himself a Jew and He was also a Jew by spiritual birth. Today, some are Jews by birth and 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.
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 enjoy (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”? Chabad.org.