Jesus Was Not a Jew

The history of the land that the present-day nation of Israel occupies, especially regarding Biblical events, can be hard to follow for the average uninterested person. Even those who would call themselves Christians don’t have a strong understanding of the movement of people who lived there. There is a misconception that the Bible, from the Old Testament to the Gospels, is a story about people who we call “Jews.” The historical fact is that there were no such people called “Jews” where this history begins, and there wouldn’t be any “Jews” until a few hundred years after Jesus was crucified. As such, it’s impossible that Jesus was a Jew, and claims about the supposed Jewishness of Jesus are based in pure anachronistic ignorance and an unfortunate mistranslation of the Holy Bible.

A History of the Biblical Levant from David to Jesus

Map of the United Kingdom of Israel
Map of the United Kingdom of Israel

For the purpose of this essay, our story begins around 1000 BC with King David ruling over a strong United Monarchy of Israel,1 which in the past had been divided into smaller regions. Up to this point in time, there was said to be twelve different tribes living in Israel, with each tribe representing a son of Jacob and occupying their own piece of land. These tribes had their own identity and could be referred to as a collective group, such as “the children of Benjamin.” Also, the terms “children of Israel,” “Israelites” and “Hebrews” could all be used to describe the twelve tribes collectively. Note that they were not referred to as “Jews” or “Jewish” people.

David is eventually succeeded by his son Solomon, who did a fine enough job ruling the kingdom at the start of his reign, but cracks in the United Kingdom of Israel eventually began to show. Solomon and many of the Israelites broke God’s covenant by worshipping other gods, which displeased God. Here is the account of God’s warning to Solomon according to 1 Kings:

So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my Covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son.2

Map of the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of judah
Map of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah

And here is the account of God’s warning to Solomon according to 2 Chronicles:

“But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. This temple will become a heap of rubble. All who pass by will be appalled and say, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why he brought all this disaster on them.’ ”3

At around 930 BC, the schism that God foretold finally occurred, and the Kingdom was separated into two distinct kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in the north, containing ten of the twelve tribes, and the Kingdom of Judah in the south, containing the tribe of Judah and the smaller tribe of Benjamin.

The Kingdom of Judah contained the land that the Greek and Roman world would refer to as “Judea.” As such, the Israelites who lived in the Kingdom of Judah would later become known as “Judeans” as a way to refer to the people who live on that land collectively, just as you would refer to people who live in Greece as the “Greeks.”

Map of Israel in the time of Jesus
Map of Israel in the time of Jesus

After two centuries of living independently from each, the Kingdom of Israel to the north was conquered piece-by-piece by Assyrians, and the Hebrew tribes who resided there became known as the “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel. The destruction of the Kingdom of Israel was the will of God after the Hebrews began to worship the gods of Edom,4 the Canaanite god known as Baal,5 and golden calves.6

The Kingdom of Judah eventually fell as well, but it lasted until 587 BC when the Neo-Babylonian Empire brought the kingdom to its end. However, the people of the Kingdom of Judah, also known as the Judeans, kept their identity and stayed relatively loyal to God through five tumultuous centuries until the Messiah, Jesus, was born.

Joseph and Mary lived in Galilee, the land north of the former Kingdom of Israel; in other words, you could refer to them as Galilean. However, they were descendants of Jacob, and Mary’s ancestors belonged to the tribe of Judah, which is they traveled to Jerusalem on a decree from Cæsar Augustus for people to visit their ancestral towns — an event that coincided with the birth of Jesus. Ancestrally, they were Judean, but geographically, they were Galilean.

Israelites, Hebrews, and Jews, Oh My!

There is a common term throughout the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Biblical text) that is falsely translated as “Jew.” The word is “ioudaios.” The mistranslation of the word “ioudaios” is the root cause of the rampant mischaracterization of Jesus as Jewish. Throughout the Greek text, the word “ioudaios” is commonly used to refer to the people who live in geographical area once occupied by the Kingdom of Judah, and on occasion, the word is used to refer to the descendants of Judah.7 The proper translation of this word is “Judean,” not “Jew.”

This is critically important, and it is not a mere technicality. There is a fundamental difference between the meaning of the words “Jew,” which implies a religious group, and “Judean,” which implies a group of people with either the same soil or the same bloodline. Whether you’re referring to the bloodline of Judah or the people who live in the geographic area of Judea, you are not including all of the people who have the same religious beliefs as the Judeans. For example, someone from the tribe of Benjamin would have the same religious views as someone from the tribe of Judah, and that person could live in somewhere like Galilee. The term “Judean” wouldn’t apply to them at all! In other words, it would be a mistake to say that the terms “Jew” and “Judean” are merely interchangeable terms. To say that “ioudaios” means “Jew” is just an outright falsehood.

The reason why this is hard for people to wrap their heads around is because of a phenomenon called anachronism, in which people have a tendency to apply modern-day conventions to places, people, and things of the past. In modern times, people think of religion as an optional part of your identity that you can apply to yourself regardless of where you come from. For this reason and because of the critical religious importance of the Holy Bible, our modern instinct is to apply a name to the beliefs of the ancient children of Israel. However, there simply was no term for their beliefs, and it doesn’t make sense to substitute a word referring to people in a geographical area with a religious term. Just as you wouldn’t call a neo-pagan today a “Greek” for believing in the Greek gods, you wouldn’t call someone a “Judean” for believing in the God worshipped by Judeans.

In simpler terms, there were no Jews in the Bible; there were Israelites (or Hebrews), and the various tribes thereof, including Judeans and eleven others. Jesus could not have been a Jew since there were no Jews. If you try to insist that Judeans are the same thing as Jews, then you are ignoring descendants of the tribe of Benjamin, who were not descendants of Judah but had the same beliefs as the Judeans.

None of this is to say that Jews do not exist today. Israelites who were against Christ began to form a religious book called the Talmud in the 2nd century, which was 200 years after Jesus was crucified by their hands. In 600 CE, nearly six centuries after Jesus was crucified, a religion called Judaism began to form around the Talmud. The Talmud “far outweighs the Scriptures in sanctity and authority”8 to the Jews; it is their main religious text and offers commentary on Jewish life, such as how one ought to deceive gentiles and Christians.

For example, one passage in the Talmud argues that Jews do not have to pay gentiles if their ox kills a gentile’s ox, but a gentile would have to pay a Jew if the roles were reversed:

“With regard to an ox of a Jew that gored the ox of a gentile, the owner of the belligerent ox is exempt from liability. But with regard to an ox of a gentile that gored the ox of a Jew, regardless of whether the goring ox was innocuous or forewarned, the owner of the ox pays the full cost of the damage.”9

This Talmudic passage is in direct contradiction of a rule in the book of Exodus, which says that if an ox injures another man’s ox, they must sell the live ox and share the money.10 It should be strikingly obvious that the beliefs, traditions, and rituals in the Talmud, and thus the beliefs of the Jews, are not the same as the beliefs, traditions, and rituals held by the Israelites or the Judeans.

In all aspects, the words “Jews” and “Judeans” are referring to different people.

  1. 2 Sam. 5
  2. 1 Kings 11:11-12
  3. 2 Chron. 7:19-22
  4. 2 Chron. 25:14–16, 20
  5. 1 Kings 16:31
  6. 1 Kings 12:26-29
  7. Ross S. Kraemer, “On the Meaning of the Term ‘Jew’ in Greco-Roman Inscriptions,” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 1 (1989): 35.
  8. P. A. Nordell, “The Origin and the Formal Contents of the Talmud,” The Hebrew Student 2, no. 1 (1882): 15.
  9. Baba Kamma 37b
  10. Exod. 21:35
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