Now I have got your attention with this title, I must start by dissociating myself completely from the anti-Semitic rubbish which you can easily find by googling “Jesus was not a Jew”. My point here is not at all negative about the Jewish people. It is abundantly clear from all of the accounts that we have of his life that Jesus of Nazareth was in every way a member of the people of Israel: biologically, racially, culturally and by religious upbringing.
My point is in fact not really about Jesus. Rather I am asking this question: Who are the people referred to in the New Testament, and especially in the four Gospels, as the Jews? Are they the same people as we now refer to as Jews? Does the group include Jesus?
Thanks to J.K.Gayle for a post at BLT Odd Gospel Greek: Jesus as a Jew – ἐκ τῶν Ἰουδαίων, which prompted me to study this issue.
In most Bible translations the Greek word Ioudaios is translated consistently as “Jew”. Some more recent translations, such as TNIV and the NIV 2011 update, render the term in other ways, such as “Jewish leader”, in some places especially in the gospel of John. On this point, see Joel Hoffmann’s post Which Jews Opposed Jesus? – although I don’t agree with all of Hoffmann’s conclusions.
The Greek Ioudaios corresponds to the Hebrew Yehudi, used in the Hebrew Bible but almost exclusively in the post-exilic books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Zechariah. This Hebrew word refers to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah, Yehuda, to people exiled from that kingdom, or to the people of the restored post-exilic state of Judah. People from the northern parts of Israel, i.e. from Samaria or Galilee, are never referred to as Yehudi.
By New Testament times this southern part of the land of Israel, the area surrounding Jerusalem and to the south, was known in Greek as Ioudaia, “Judea” or “Judaea”. Ioudaios is, at least in its form, the adjective derived from Ioudaia, and so can be expected to mean “Judean”. It is indeed used as an adjective in this way in, for example John 3:22, “Judean land” = “Judea”. But the word is used more commonly as a noun, referring to people, and it is these references which are generally translated “Jew”.
In fact the word Ioudaios is rather rare in the first three Gospels. Matthew (27:11,29,37), Mark (15:2,9,12,18,26) and Luke (23:3,37,38) use it mainly concerning the title “King of the Ioudaioi“, given to Jesus at his trial before Pilate – this title will be discussed again in the next part of this series. Matthew also refers to Jesus as “King of the Ioudaioi” in his infancy narrative (2:2). In Luke 23:51 Arimathaea, in Judea, is described as a city of the Ioudaioi.
Only in Matthew 28:15, Mark 7:3 and Luke 7:3 do we meet characters in the story called Ioudaioi. The first two of these references may well be to people from Judea (compare Mark 7:1) rather than to Jewish people in general. In Luke 7:3, however, we have the only example in the synoptic Gospels where Ioudaios is most likely used in a religious sense, to distinguish these religious Jewish elders from the Gentile centurion who sent them.
However, it is in the Gospel of John that the great majority of the Gospel references to Ioudaios are found. I look at these references in part 2 of this series., and then conclude my discussion in part 3.