When did the Hebrews or Israelites become known as Jews?
According 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. See Appendix A for a summary of how this word was spoken in various languages. 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 respectively). 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”, “Israelites”, 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”, “Israelites”, and “Jews” are used as synonyms (see Appendix B).
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 (this didn’t destroy all the Jews as many were living in other countries) 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.
Appendix A: Historical summary of usage of the word “Jew”.
The Hebew word translated “Jew” in the Bible originally meant the tribe of Judah and the kingdom of Judah. Judah’s father Israel died in about 1680BC. So the name “Judah” originated in the 17th century BC. With the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Judah became the sole Jewish state and the term word was applied to all Israelites. The Hebrew name for “Judean” (or “Jew”) appears in the Bible from about 600BC. This name was also applied to those who were dispersed in 586 BC. After the Israelite exiles returned to Palestine, the region began to be known as “Judea”. And the dispersed Israelites began to be known as “Judean”. Here’s the word in various languages:
– Yehudi – Hebrew
– Yehudai – Aramaic
– Ioudaios – Greek
– Iūdaeus – Latin
– Judeu, then Juiu, then Juif – French
– Gyv, then Ive, Iewe, Iew – Old English
– Jew – English (1775)
These are the same word as it is spoken in various languages.
So, the Hebrew word translated “Jew” in the Bible is used for all the descendants of Jacob (or Israel). Today, depending on context, it can also mean one who follows the Jewish religion.
Appendix B: Biblical description of the descendants of Abraham/Jacob
Hebrews: Abraham is called a Hebrew (Gen. 14:1). This is the first use of the term. Joseph is also called a Hebrew (Gen. 39:14, 17; 41:12). The people whom God (through Moses) rescued from Egypt were called ‘Hebrews’. The word ‘Hebrew’ may be derived from the name of one of Abraham’s ancestors, the patriarch Eber (Gen. 10:21–25, 11:14–17).
Israelites: means a descendant of Jacob, who in later life was given the name ‘Israel’ by God (Gen. 32:28).
Jews: this word derives from Judah (Hebrew Yehudah), one of Jacob’s 12 sons, and the one who was the ancestor of Jesus Christ (Mt. 1:3, Lk. 3:33). Thus Jesus is Jewish, and the Hebrew version of His name is Yeshua Hamashiach = Jesus the Messiah. However the term ‘Jew’ became used for all descendants of Israel. So the term ‘Jew’ was used interchangeably with ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Israelite’. Thus a Jew is biblically defined as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Also note that in the Bible, Jewishness was determined through the father’s line, as is clear from the genealogies.
Appendix B was sourced from Sarfati “A brief history of the Jews”.
Written January 2013; Revised January 2019