Apologetics Index

The term ‘Jew’ in the Bible

The word Jew is derived ultimately from the tribe of Judah through Middle English Iewe, Old French Ieu, Latin Iudaeus, and Greek Ioudaios (compare the woman’s name Judith, which originally meant “Jewess”).

The Old Testament Era
The Hebrew yehudim meant originally descendants of the tribe of Judah and then those who inhabited the territories claimed by them (2 Kings 16:6; 25:25; Jer. 32:12). With the deportation and subsequent assimilation of the “Ten Lost Tribes” of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians after 722 B.C., the only Israelites to survive into the exilic period (with a few from the tribe of Benjamin, e.g. Mordecai, who is called a “Jew” in Esther 2:5) were those from Judah, hence the name Jews (Neh. 1:2). The corresponding Aramaic word is used in Daniel 3:8,12.

The Intertestamental Period
The Greek name Ioudaios (plural Ioudaioi) was used for the Israelites in the Greek and Roman world. This is the name used in the treaty between Judas Maccabeus and the Romans, described in 1 Maccabees 8:23-32: “May all go well with the Romans and with the nation of the Jews….”

Matthew, Mark, Luke
The term Ioudaios occurs relatively rarely in the Synoptic Gospels, the first three Gospels which are closely parallel to each other. The word occurs but five times in Matthew, seven times in Mark, and five times in Luke, usually in the expression “King of the Jews” (12 of the total of 17). Of the remaining occurrences only Matthew 28:15 designates Jews as contrasted to Christian believers.

By contrast the word Ioudaios occurs 70 times in the Gospel of John. Some of these references are quite positive, especially in the dialogue between Jesus and the woman of Samaria (ch. 4). In v. 9 the woman says to Jesus, “thou, being a Jew,” and in v. 22 Jesus says, “salvation is of the Jews.” Many of the Jews believed in Jesus (8:31; 11:45; 12:11). Other references are neutral as in John 3:1, where Nicodemus is described as a ruler of the Jews.

The description of Jesus’ opponents reveals a striking difference between the Synoptic Gospels and John. Whereas the former names Jesus’ enemies as scribes and Pharisees, high priests and Sadducees, the Gospel of John simply uses the general term “Jews.” The term often implies Jewish authorities as in 7:13; 9:22; 19:38; 20:19.

The Jews impugned Jesus’ birth and His sanity (8:48), and even alleged that He was demon possessed (8:52). The Jews questioned His statements about the Temple (2:20) and were scandalized at His claim to be the bread from heaven (6:41). They regarded His affirmations of equality with the Father as blasphemous and picked up stones to kill Him (5:18; 7:1; 10:31,33; 11:8).

The heightened use of the term “Jews” in John to serve as a general designation for those who denied that Jesus was the Christ may be explained by the fact that John’s Gospel was composed at a later date than the Synoptics–after such events as the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the insertion of a curse upon the minim (“heretics,” especially Christians) into the daily synagogue prayer in A.D. 80 had increased mutual hostilities between Jews and Christians.

Paul was a Jew from Tarsus (Acts 21:39; 22:3). After his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, his fellow Jews sought to kill him (9:23). King Herod Agrippa I arrested Peter and killed the Apostle James, believing this would please the Jews (12:1-3).

Following his conviction that the gospel should be preached first to the Jews (Rom. 1:16), Paul on his missionary journeys began his preaching in the Jewish synagogues–at Salamis on Cyprus (Acts 13:5), at Iconium (14:1), at Thessalonica (17:1), at Athens (17:15-17), and at Corinth (18:1). Though he made some converts among the Jews, even converting the synagogue ruler at Corinth (18:8), and no doubt had success among the “god fearers” or proselytes who were interested in converting to Judaism (13:43; 17:4), the majority of the Jews reacted violently against Paul’s message (13:50; 14:2; 17:5; 18:12). Paul therefore turned his efforts increasingly toward the Gentiles, the non-Jews.

Pauline Letters
As the “apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul argued against “Judaizers” that Gentile converts did not have to be circumcized, that is, become Jews first, before they became christians (Acts 15:1-5). His arguments were accepted by James and the church council at Jerusalem held about A.D. 49. Paul, who had been “an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5) and had been more zealous in his pursuit of Judaism than his peers (Gal. 1:13,14), came to the radical conclusion that a true Jew is not one who was physically descended from Abraham (compare John 8:31-41), adhered to the Torah or Law of Moses (Rom 2:17,28) and was circumcized. For Paul a true Jew is one who believes that Jesus is the Messiah or Christ (Gal. 3:26-29), relies on God’s grace and not works of the law (Eph. 2:8,9), and has been circumcized in his heart by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 2:2-9; 5:6). In spite of his grief that most of his fellow Jews did not accept his message, Paul did not teach that God had abandoned the Jews but believed that God still has a plan for them (Rom. 9-11). [Note: the word Ioudaios is not found in any of the non-Pauline letters of the New Testament.)

The two references in the Book of Revelation are to the church at Smyrna (2:9) and the church at Philadelphia (3:9), where there were those who claimed to be Jews but who were denounced as the “synagogue of Satan” because they opposed Christians.– Source: Holman Bible Dictionary

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First published (or major update) on Wednesday, January 18, 2006.
Last updated on July 07, 2024.

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