Observations on life; particularly spiritual

When did the Hebrews or Israelites become known as Jews?

Star of David 400pxAccording to the Bible, Abraham left polytheism to follow the God who made the universe. Abraham lived about 2,000 BC and he and his descendants were known as Hebrews (Gen. 14:13). In fact the Pentateuch was written by Moses in the Hebrew language. Isaac was Abraham’s son and Jacob his grandson. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28; 46:1). Since this time Israel’s descendants were known as the children of Israel or Israel or Israelites. Israel’s family moved to Egypt where his son Joseph was second in command to the Pharaoh. In Egypt the Israelites grew to 2 million people when they subsequently migrated to Canaan in the Middle East under the leadership of Moses and Joshua.

After the Israelites invaded Canaan, they were ruled by the kings Saul, David and Solomon. King David lived about 1,000 BC. After this, the kingdom was divided into two, with 10 tribes in the northern kingdom of Israel and two in the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12; 2 Chronicles 10). Samaria was the capital of Israel and Jerusalem the capital of Judah.

The Hebrew noun “Yehudi” (“Jew” in English; Strongs #3064) is derived from the name Judah, who was one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel, which was named after him. “Yehudi” occurs 76 times in the following books of the Old Testament:
– 11 times in Jeremiah (written about 600BC), where it describes Judeans
– Twice in 2 Kings (written about 550BC), where it describes Judeans who lived about 750BC and 590BC
– Once in Zechariah (written about 520BC), where it may describe both Judeans and Israelites
– 52 times in Esther (written about 460BC), where it describes those dispersed after the Babylonian invasions and living in the Persian kingdom, including Mordecai a Benjaminite (Est. 2:5; 5:13), and
– 10 times in Nehemiah (written about 430BC), where it describes exiles who returned to Jerusalem.

A related word “Yehudain” (Strongs #3062) only occurs in the books of Daniel and Ezra (written about 530BC and 440BC). So the most robust answer to our question, “When did the Hebrews or Israelites become known as Jews?” is from about 600BC.

Originally, the word referred to members of the tribe of Judah, but later it described anyone from the kingdom of Judah. This would include those from the northern kingdom of Israel who moved to Judah, including Mordecai’s ancestors. Also, as those who returned after the exile settled in Judea, they were called Jews regardless of their ancestoral tribe. In the New Testament, the words, “Hebrews”, “Israelltes”, and “Jews” are used interchangeably to describe the descendants of Jacob (Jn. 4:9; 2 Cor. 11:22). And this is the case today – the words “Hebrews”, “Israelltes”, and “Jews” are used as synonyms.

In 722 BC, Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians and the Israelites were dispersed into surrounding nations (2 Ki. 17). As they assimilated and now have no national identity, they are known as the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”. However, they weren’t all lost because some remained in Israel and some moved to Judah (2 Chron. 15:9; 35:18).

In 605 BC and 598 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia invaded Judah and in 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed. Many of the Jews were taken to exile in Babylon. When the Persians conquered Babylon in 538 BC, the Persian King Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to their homelands and many returned to Judah. After the Babylonian exile, “Jew” replaced “Israelite” as the most widely-used term for these survivers. This was because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were descendants of the kingdom of Judah. Also, the Jewish religion was known as Judaism.

After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. Although the terms “Hebrew” and “Israelite” continued in use into the New Testament period (Rom. 9:4; 2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5), by then the term “Jew” was more commonly used. At His death, the Romans referred to Jesus as the “king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37).

In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Despite these difficulties, the Jews maintained their identity, even in foreign lands. The need to find a homeland for Jewish refugees led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

How amazing – the Jews survived 1,900 years of exile! No other people has ever gone into exile and survived this long and returned to re-establish a national homeland. And the Jews went into exile twice! They also survived the persecutions of the the Hamans and Hitlers of this world (Est. 3:1-15). Surely this is evidence of the Bible’s inspiration, and of the existence of the God who promised to preserve the Jews, return them to their homeland, and bring them to a time of great national blessing in the last days.

In common speech, the word “Jew” is now used to refer to all of the descendants of Jacob and those who adhere to Judaism.

Written January 2013; Revised August 2015

25 responses

  1. Many questions were answered ..thank you

    October 3, 2013 at 7:09 am

  2. Ruben

    Jebus was the name for Jerusalem so in reality the inhabitants were called Jebusites so they became to be known as Jews in the English derived

    August 20, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    • Thanks Ruben. Could you supply a reference for the claim that the word “Jew” was derived from the word “Jebusite” as I am unable to find one?
      Jebus was the name for Jerusalem at the time of Israel’s conquest of Canaan (Jud. 19:10-11; 1 Chron.11:4). It’s Canaanite inhabitants were called Jebusites (Strongs #2983). The Israelites were unable to defeat the Jebusites until the time of David (Josh. 15:63; Jud. 1:21). Once Jerusalem became an Israelite city, the surviving Jebusites were forced by Solomon to become slaves (1 Ki. 9:20-21).
      All the occurrences of the words “Jew” or “Jews” in the Old Testament of the NIV Bible seem to be associated with the word “Judah”, and not with the word “Jebusite”. In the Hebrew language they are associated with Strongs #3063 (or #3061, #3062, #3064, #3065, and #3066), and not with Strongs #2983.
      The first individual to be called a Jew (Yehudi) in the Scriptures was Mordecai (Est. 2:5). It seems more likely that he was named after his ancestors (the Judeans who lived in Judah before the exile), not the previous inhabitants of Jerusalem who became slaves.

      September 14, 2014 at 6:31 am

      • William

        Begging your pardon… The first person referred to as a Jew in scripture was a woman in Genesis 26:34. Yes I realize I am being symantical, but technically the name Judith in Hebrew is Y’hudit “Jewess” … And yes of course there are some rather interesting commentaries about this. One day s that Esau was being rebellious and sarcastic. His family told him not to marry a Canaanite, but he did anyway, but he married one who’s name meant “Jewess”. …. I’ll leave you to ponder anything you may find interesting about this… Shalom

        August 15, 2015 at 8:05 am

      • Thanks for the comment William. Yes the name recorded by Moses for one of Esau’s Hittite wives in Genesis 26:34 is “Yehudith” (Strongs #3067, a feminine proper name). This is the only instance of this Hebrew word in Scripture. Apparently it originates from “Yehudi” (#3064, a masculine noun), which means a descendant of Judah (NAS Exhaustive Concordance). Presumably, the woman was the descendant of a man named Judah. But this would be a different person to the Judah who was Esau’s nephew. However, Brown-Driver-Higgs Hebrew Lexicon states that the “relation to foregoing names (is) obscure”.

        The name “Judith” is Semitic (derived from Shem), but the Hittite language wasn’t Semitic (being derived from Ham). Its usage in Genesis 26:34 could be because it was borrowed into the Hittite language or was her name when it was translated into Hebrew.

        I don’t think the term “Jewess” is appropriate in the context of Genesis 26 (about 2,000 BC) because the word “Yehudi” (which is usually translated “Jew”) is only used in Scripture from 2 Kings 16 (written about 550BC describing events in about 750 BC). So there is a gap of at least 1,250 years in the usages of these two words (or a gap of at least 700 years after the time of Moses, who wrote Genesis). Also, as “Jew” is only used in Scripture for descendants of the Judah who was Esau’s nephew, I don’t think it is appropriate to use the term “Jewess” for the descendant of another man named “Judah”.

        So as Judith was a Hittite and not a Hebrew and Hebrew’s weren’t known as Jew’s until many years later, it’s not appropriate to call her a Jewess. She wasn’t Jewish by race or by religion.

        August 16, 2015 at 3:05 am

      • Sarah Johnson

        mordecai is from benjamin not judah, look at the entire verse.

        September 2, 2015 at 6:35 pm

      • Thanks for the comment Sarah.
        Yes, Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin, not the tribe of Judah (Est. 2:5). The tribe of Benjamin was a part of the northern kingdom of Israel, which was conquered by the Assyrians in 722BC. At that time, many from the northern kingdom moved south to the kingdom of Judah. King Hezekiah built a wall around the western hill of Jerusalem (2 Chron. 32:5) to house the Hebrew refugees. The city expanded to the west, quadrupling in size. As the tribe of Benjamin lived near Jerusalem, Mordecai’s ancestors probably moved to the southern kingdom at this time. This means they lived in the kingdom of Judah. Then when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586BC, Mordecai’s family were probably deported to Babylon. That is why Mordecai was living in Susa in 460BC.
        As mentioned above, the word “Jew” described anyone from the kingdom of Judah. So according to this definition Mordecai was a Jew even though he was descended from the tribe of Benjamin.
        Also, as those who returned after the exile settled in Judea, they were called Jews regardless of their ancestoral tribe.
        I have edited the blog to clarify this and give more information on the occurrence of the word “Yehudi” in the Old Testament.

        September 2, 2015 at 10:52 pm

  3. Seeking Truth

    It would be good if you read the curses that we find in Deut: 28 to identify who the Israelite’s are. There is only one group of people that these curses fit, only one heritage. If you look humbly with an open mind you will definitely question if this fits the people who call themselves Jews today.

    October 3, 2014 at 10:14 am

    • Thanks for the comment.
      In Deuteronomy God renews His covenant with Israel that was originally given at Mt Sinai. It is in the form of an ancient Suzerain-Vassal treaty.
      The punishments listed in Ch. 28 for disobedience include: depleted crops and herds, infertility, disease, drought, defeat in battle, mental illness, powerlessness, captivity in a foreign land, agricultural pests, poverty, slavery, cannibalism during a siege, disasters, dispersion to foreign nations, and fear of persecution. This warning was given to the Israelites as they were about to possess the land of Canaan.
      The Bible records the fulfillment of these punishments between the 6th to 8th century BC, including the fall of Samaria (722 BC), the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC), and the dispersion of the people of the kingdom of Israel and Judah into exile. Some exiles of the kingdom of Judah returned to Palestine, but they were dispersed again in AD70.
      Does anyone know where the descendants of these people are today? Can anyone trace their ancestory back to these times?

      October 6, 2014 at 8:07 pm

      • When the house of Judah was taken captive and were taken north to Babylon where the house of Israel was already located, After seventy years the time of punishment for the house of Judah the two houses took counsel among themselves and decided to go north through the mountains to Russia. Only 43 thousand of the house of Judah returned to build the new temple, The rest of the two family traveled north for a year and half and became the Caucasians because of the mountains, The travel west to the coast lines and the islands of the sea, The ruling family settled in Great Britain where the crowning stone had come by ship by way of the great sea in the hands of Jeremiah. All the kings of Israel have been crowned on that stone to this present day, Later one family of the house of Israel said this land is to small give us a place where we can grow and it became America,
        In Ireland the Galic language is Hebrew with Roman letters and Roman sounds but they retain the Hebrew syntax of language,
        The people of God are those that are hated by the rest of the world because of the name of God and his righteousness

        August 27, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      • Thanks for your comment Gerald. I offer the following response to your theory that the Britons and Americans descended from ancient Israelite tribes.
        Geneticists analyze unique genetic markers that are passed down through the generations, allowing an individual’s ancestry to be determined. When this data is used to trace the lineages of human populations it shows that the world’s Jewish communities closely resemble Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese, suggesting that all are descended from a common ancestral population that inhabited the Middle East some four thousand years ago. So most modern Jews share origins with other peoples of the Middle East and are sharply genetically divergent from Britons and other Europeans. The same divergence would apply to Jews of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. So modern genetic science shows that Britons and Americans cannot be descended from Israelite tribes.
        The source of the story that Jeremiah traveled to Ireland seems to be a 19th century Freemason book of fiction. But Irish annals written by Catholic monks or priests, in the 1500s and 1600s don’t mention this story. So there seems to be no historical basis for this legend promoted by the British-Israelites.
        Also, according to Wikipedia, Celtic, the ancestor of the Gaelic languages, is a branch of the greater Indo-European language family. It’s not Hebrew with Roman letters. On the other hand, Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite subgroup of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. So, Hebrew and Irish are not related.

        September 1, 2015 at 1:28 pm

  4. Remember Abraham had seven sons and God only recognized the one of the wife Sarah, all others were rejected to wait the wrath of God, From Isaac we get the twelve tribes of Jacob whose name was changed to Israel, The twelve were divided into two houses. and none of these were Jews,
    In the New Testament the Jews were rejected as hypocrites because they claimed to be of the righteous seed of Abraham, and it was said that of these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham
    The Jews are descendants of Abraham and Hagar who were rejected because she was a Canaanite woman, The Jews are of Abraham but not of Isaac, They were rejected time after time because of their false claim to be the children of Abraham, The Jews did not receive the birthright promises through Isaac because Hagar was rejected, The Jews are known as gentile Jews because God said to Abraham I will make you the father of a throng of gentile (guim) which includes the gentile Jews who are hypocrites according to the Son of God in the New Testament,

    August 27, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    • Thanks for your comment Gerald. I found it very difficult to follow your reasoning, but offer the following comments.
      You say that none of the descendants of Jacob (Israel) were Jews, but this contradicts that fact that the word “Jew” comes from the name Judah (one of Jacob’s sons).
      You also say that “the Jews are descendants of Abraham and Hagar”. But this contradicts your statement that none of the descendants of Jacob were Jews! As the word “Jew” comes from the name Judah (a son of Sarah) and not from Ishmael (a son of Hagar), it is more likely to apply to some descendants of Sarah than to some descendants of Hagar.
      The line of promise was from Abraham through Isaac, not through Ishmael. The promise of God was, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Gen. 21:12; Rom. 9:7; Heb. 11:18). It is interesting to note that the OT prophets often illustrated God as the husband of Israel (Is. 54:5-8; 62:5 Jer. 2:2; 3:14; Ezek. 16:32; Hos. 2:16, 19-20; 3:1). In this case the nation of Israel are descendants of Isaac and not Ishmael.
      The Bible says that Jesus was a Jew who was a descendant of Isaac (Lk. 3:33; 23:38). His disciples and the apostle Paul were also Jews.
      Also, the term “Gentile Jews” doesn’t seem to make sense to me as it is made up of two contradictory words.

      September 1, 2015 at 1:27 pm

  5. Remington LeBeau

    FALSE. The info is false. The true Hebrew Israelites are your so called African Americans, Haitians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Native American Indians (who are “black”) Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Australian Aborigines, Hawiians, Mexicans, etc.
    NOT every Israelite is a “jew”. One would have to be from the seed of Judah to be a “Jew”.
    The first mention of Jew doesnt come until 2 Kings 16………..LIARS. IT Does NOT appear in the Torah. Let’s remember, you don’t “read” the Tanakh.
    “The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Despite these difficulties, the Jews maintained their identity, even in foreign lands. The need to find a homeland for Jewish refugees led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.” FALSE. Jeremiah 17:4 says “And thou, even thyself, shalt discontinue from thine heritage that I gave thee; and I will cause thee to serve thine enemies in the land which thou knowest not: for ye have kindled a fire in mine anger, which shall burn for ever. So the question being is how were you able to maintain your identity??????? What you’re saying then is that the Tanakh is false???? When did you “serve” your enemies. The Hebrew word for serve is Abad which means become slaves or bondage. When were you edomites in slavery???? The real holocaust is the Atlantic Slave trade in which the House of Judah endured after fleeing into West Africa after the filthy romans committed their atrocities against Ehyeh aser Ehyeh’s Chosen People.
    Yes, the Negro is of Judah, the Royal Tribe, The Tribe of the Kings. The King of kings, Yeshua haMasiach or Jesus the Christ, sprang from Judah. Yes, Jesus the Christ is “black” and has Negro features. You don’t acknowledge him because Esau (Edom or “white” people) are the Chief enemies of the Isrealites.
    Job 30:30 My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.
    Song of Solomon 1:5 & 6 I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Son 1:6 Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me:
    Jeremiah 14:2 Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish; they are black unto the ground; and the cry of Jerusalem is gone up.
    Lamentations 4:8 Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets:
    Lamentations 5:10 Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine

    September 19, 2015 at 7:28 am

    • Thanks for the comment Remington.
      According to the book of Esther, Mordecai was called a Jew even though he was descended from the tribe of Benjamin and not the tribe of Judah (Est. 2:5).
      With regard to Jeremiah 17:4 “Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you. I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know, for you have kindled my anger, and it will burn forever”. This message was given to the inhabitants of Judah around 600BC. Their “own fault” was gross idolatry and their “inheritance” was the land of Canaan (Jer.16:18). As God’s punishment was slavery in the land of Babylon, the “land you do not know” was Babylon. You asked how could they maintain their identity? Although Jeremiah predicted the Jewish exile, he also predicted their restoration (Jer. 3:15-18; 16:14-15; 23:3-8; 24:4-8; 29:10-14; 30:1-31:40; 32:36-33:26). A remnant will return to Jerusalem and live in peace and prosperity (Zech. 8:1-17).
      As mentioned in the comments above, as those who returned after the exile settled in Judea, they were called Jews regardless of their ancestoral tribe. So after the exile, the words “Jew” and “Israelite” were synonyms.
      I won’t comment here on the skin color of the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews as this topic is outside the scope of this post.

      September 28, 2015 at 8:02 am

    • Yvette

      What I don’t understand is that they “the so called jews” don’t read their Torah! Read Deut 28. None of the curses apply to the “jews” sitting over in modern day Israel. They only apply to the “so called negros”. SMH!!!

      October 6, 2015 at 11:05 am

  6. Remington LeBeau

    Also, If we know the Egyptians to be black, please explain to me how Moses was able be pass for an Egyptian if he (Moses) was a white Amalakite edomite???? Remember, Pharaoh was murdering the Hebrew Israelite boys at the time so I think Pharaoh would have noticed if Moses was a white person.

    September 19, 2015 at 7:40 am

    • Thanks for the comment Remington.
      I won’t comment here on the skin color of the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews as this topic is outside the scope of this post.

      September 28, 2015 at 5:50 pm

  7. alewis

    Can you provide a shorter and more concrete answer than that? This was a very intelligent answer, but you explained why the Israelites became known as the Jews, not when.

    September 24, 2015 at 11:44 am

    • Thanks for the comment.
      As mentioned in the third and fourth paragraph of my post above these comments, the oldest record in the Bible of the Hebrew word for “Jew” occurs in the book of Jeremiah which was written about 600BC. During this time Judah was invaded by the Babylonians and was a vassal (a person or nation in a subordinate position to a superior person or nation) of King Nebuchadnezzar. The word Jew seems to be used frequently after the exile – see the books of Esther (written about 460BC) and Nehemiah (written about 430BC).

      September 28, 2015 at 6:26 am

  8. Thank you for a very helpful article George – was trying to find out when ‘Jew’ was first used. Saddened by the number of people who appear to believe in Replacement theology!

    October 19, 2015 at 9:45 pm

  9. Neri

    If I may say, which of the Bibles are you all referencing? The original Hebrew or the adulterated Greek and Latin so called Authorised versions?

    October 20, 2015 at 9:08 am

    • Thanks for the question Neri about the Old Testament Scripture. I use English versions that have been translated from the Masoretic Hebrew text. I also use Strong’s reference system when referring to particular Hebrew words. These don’t involve Greek or Latin influences.

      October 22, 2015 at 8:23 am

  10. melodie

    The 10 tribes had no right to attach themselves with the 2 tribes of Judah, GOD kept a remnant from Judah, because the northern Hebrews began worshiping idols & such, GOD knows who inhabited Judah, & who descendanted from that tribe, other tribes had no right to attach themselves, & make with their own hands a state, GOD said he would do it, he didn’t say at the appointed time I will let you know when to make Israel a land/nation

    October 22, 2015 at 6:55 am

  11. George, thank you for not getting into a race discussion you showed poise and tact. I am a black minister and what different does it make there is enough in Scripture for all who wants to be saved if they study it and apply it. Many think they know the truth it only causes confusion division. What does it matter if red white black or blue? There is only one way JOHN 3:16. HAVE A BLESSED DAY..

    November 28, 2015 at 3:41 am

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