Sunday, January 15, 2012

Any difference between 'Jew', 'Israelite', and 'Hebrew'?

There is so much that I have taken for granted in term of the concern of local congregation. Take for example, during yesterday's Bible Study session, a question was asked about the ethnic difference between Jews and Israelites: Are the two identical?

All this while I assume that they are. Yet, I can't be sure.

Someone said that "Jews" is a race, while "Israelites" is synonymous to "people of God" (therefore, "Christians" are sometimes called "Israelites").  The former is strictly an ethnic group, while the latter is more inclusive (one can be an "Israelite" by embracing Judaism, but one cannot be a "Jew" in the same way). 

I didn't know whether was this correct. So after the Bible Study session, I did a search.

I knew that "Israelites" refers the descendants of Jacob, who is known as Israel. I also knew that after Solomon, there were two kingdoms, with the north known as Israel while the south as Judah. But I didn't know how did the reference "Jews" and "Israelite" came about, and whether they are identical.

According to Oxford Dictionary, the word "Jews" originally used during the Middle English era, derived from "Old French juiu, via Latin from Greek Ioudaios, via Aramaic from Hebrew yĕhūḏī, from yĕhūḏāh" ('Judah').

So, "Jews" is just a translation of Judah. This means that a Jew is also an Israelite, a descendant of Jacob.

Then, what about "Hebrew"? 

Oxford Dictionary states that the English "Hebrew" is translated "from Old French Ebreu, via Latin from late Greek Hebraios, from Aramaic ‘iḇray, based on Hebrew ‘iḇrî understood to mean 'one from the other side (of the river)'."

This word is synonymous to "Jews" and "Israelite." This sheds some light over 2 Corinthians 11:22, when the apostle Paul highlighted three different aspects of his ethnicity: "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I."

He was a true Hebrew because he spoke the language. He was an Israelite because he was from the lineage of Jacob. He was Abraham's descendant because he was born into the covenantal community. This suggests that to the apostle, a true Jew is someone who has all three aspects.

More interestingly, Jews' own understanding of these phrases can be found at Judaism101 website. It is highlighted that the Jews see ethnicity as inherited through the mother:
The Torah does not specifically state anywhere that matrilineal descent should be used; however, there are several passages in the Torah where it is understood that the child of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man is a Jew, and several other passages where it is understood that the child of a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man is not a Jew.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-5, in expressing the prohibition against intermarriage, G-d says "he [i.e., the non-Jewish male spouse] will cause your child to turn away from Me and they will worship the gods of others." No such concern is expressed about the child of a non-Jewish female spouse. From this, we infer that the child of a non-Jewish male spouse is Jewish (and can therefore be turned away from Judaism), but the child of a non-Jewish female spouse is not Jewish (and therefore turning away is not an issue).

Leviticus 24:10 speaks of the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man as being "among the community of Israel" (i.e., a Jew).

On the other hand, in Ezra 10:2-3, the Jews returning to Israel vowed to put aside their non-Jewish wives and the children born to those wives. They could not have put aside those children if those children were Jews.
In summary, "Jews", "Judahite", "Hebrew", and "Israelite" are interchangeable.

That said, there are certain occasion when a distinction between these words can be helpful. For instance, when one is writing something about the post-Solomon era of northern and southern kingdoms.

1 comment:

Steven Sim said...

you forgot another important term, especially in modern politics - Israeli. This should be distinguished as well from the other references to Semitic ppl of the OT.

Steven Sim