Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (2)

What is a Jew anyway?

Specifically, does a Gentile who converts to Judaism become a “Jew”? Many people today say so, and quite a few religious Jews agree with them. There is even a Judaic ritual called giyyur by which, it is alleged, a Gentile becomes Jewish.

Tracey R. Rich says, “A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism.

Now, if that’s a scriptural answer, there are an awful lot of Jews out there. But the Bible does not appear to use the word “Jew” that way. There is considerable elasticity in the term, but in neither Testament does it dovetail perfectly with the modern, secular usage or even the definition of many Orthodox Jews.

Curious? Let’s have a look at some history.

3.  “Jew” / “Jewish”

First usage.  While almost every book of the Old Testament is somehow connected to the story of the earthly people of God, the earlier books refer to them only as “Hebrews”, and later on as “Israel” or “Israelites”. In most modern versions of the Old Testament, the word “Jew” appears first in the book of Esther, but chronologically, the first reference to “Jew” appears to be in Jeremiah. There are no references to “Jew” much before the Babylonian captivity.

Etymology.  “Jew” derives from the name “Judah”, the fourth son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob and his wife Leah. The Hebrew form, Yehudah, means “thanksgiving” or “praise”. The Hebrew form of “Jews” is Yehudim and of “Jew” is Yehudi.

Kingdom, not tribe.  Originally the word “Jew” denoted someone from the kingdom or nation of Judah (as distinct from the tribe of Judah, which existed long before the nation). The kingdom of Judah is also frequently called the “Southern Kingdom”. At that point, the Jews generally referred to themselves as Judeans.

The development of the kingdom.  Judah was one of the sons of the patriarch Jacob, whom God renamed “Israel”. Judah’s descendants formed one of Israel’s twelve tribes. Israel became a nation after leaving Egypt and eventually became a kingdom under Saul (a Benjamite), then David and Solomon (from the tribe of Judah). After Solomon’s death in the time of David’s grandson Rehoboam, Judah became a separate kingdom. Ten of the twelve tribes rebelled against the rule the Davidic kings, crowned a king of their own and left Judah to its own devices. These ten tribes continued to refer to their splinter kingdom as “Israel”.

Four tribes, one kingdom.  The difference between the tribe of Judah and the kingdom of Judah becomes clear when we understand that what was left for Rehoboam to rule after Israel rebelled were the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, along with some from the tribe of Levi that occupied cities in Judah. Much earlier in the nation’s history, the smaller tribe of Simeon seems to have been absorbed into Judah; a function, perhaps, of their tribal inheritance being located within Judah’s borders. So the kingdom of Judah was made up initially of four different tribal groups.

Making a complicated term more complicated still, some from Ephraim and Manasseh, the less idolatrous Israelite tribes, made common cause with Judah in the time of Hezekiah, and Chronicles indicates some of their descendants returned with the other Jews and lived in Jerusalem after their exile.

The nation of Judah.  The kingdom of Judah terminated with the Babylonian captivity. When Jews were allowed to return to the land of Palestine, it was under Zerubbabel, who was a governor and not a king. Judah can be said to have been a nation in one form or another (though its name and territory were inconsistent and it was little more than a vassal state to Persia, Greece and finally Rome) from the end of the Captivity until about AD 70, when the Romans destroyed the rebuilt temple, sacked Jerusalem, and dispersed the surviving Jews throughout the empire.

So there is the tribe of Judah (singular), the kingdom of Judah (four tribes), and finally the nation of Judah (parts of six or more tribes).

Perhaps now it is understandable why, in Acts, Paul calls himself a Jew, but was actually of the tribe of Benjamin. He was both. Mordecai had the same dual-identity problem a few hundred years earlier.

Confusing enough for you? It gets worse.

The nation of Israel (again).  Somewhere between Zerubbabel’s nation of Judah and the time of Malachi, the last prophet, approximately 90 years later, the name “Israel” was revived to describe the reconstituted nation. Malachi uses “Judah” and “Israel” more or less interchangeably.

Roman provinces.  By the time of Christ, the people of Judah/Israel were concentrated in two provinces of the Roman empire: Judaea (the Roman designation, not quite synonymous with the “Judea” of the New Testament) in the south, and Galilee in the north, considerably less geographic territory than they occupied in Israel’s heyday under David and Solomon. These provinces were separated by non-Jewish Samaria and interspersed with Hellenic (Greek, Gentile) territories like Decapolis. Still, the Jews referred to themselves as a “nation”.

When the Lord Jesus tells his disciples to “go to the lost sheep of Israel”, he specifically tells them to bypass Samaria and the Gentiles. So it seems understood that “Israel” meant the inhabitants of Galilee and Judea.

At this point in history, living in occupied provinces with different names, “Israel” and “Judah” seem to have been more ethnic concepts than nationality or unified geographic territory, and a “Jew” seems to have been anyone left who could claim some sort of connection to one of the original tribes.

As I noted, there is considerable elasticity in the biblical term “Jew”.

Ethnicity, not Faith

However, though the term is elastic, it is not infinitely flexible.

The word “Jew”, in scripture, denotes an ethnic identity and nothing else. (Wikipedia calls it “ethnoreligious”, which is not correct if we are speaking strictly of biblical usage, though it may fairly describe normal secular usage.) Judaism has always been open to converts, but in the Bible its converts are called proselytes, not Jews. I defy anyone to locate even a single instance in all of scripture where a Gentile convert is unambiguously referred to as a “Jew”.

And no, Esther 8:17 does not count. That’s the verse with that says, “And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.”

That is the only verse those who apply the word “Jew” to Gentiles rely on to make their case. But the single word in the original that is translated as “became Jews” by many is not unambiguous.

Warren Wiersbe agrees. The translators of the English Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, God’s Word translation, Septuagint Bible, Lexham English Bible, New Revised Standard and other versions agree. They all translate the same phrase as “declared themselves Jews”, “professed themselves to be Jews”, “pretended to be Jews” or similar language, grasping that it was self-preservation that was involved in identifying as a Jew, rather than genuine conversion. Moreover, Elias Joseph Bickerman, a leading scholar of Greco-Roman history, agrees.

To top it off, Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar, two Jews who wrote an acclaimed scholarly treatise on the subject of “The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew” agree. In fact, the entire thesis of their book is that the transition from Gentile to Jew is impossible:
“Of all Judaic rituals, that of giyyur [the conversion process by which a Gentile is alleged to become a “Jew”] is arguably the most radical: it turns a Gentile into a Jew — once and for all and irrevocably. The very possibility of such a transformation is anomalous, according to Jewish tradition, which regards Jewishness as an ascriptive status entered through birth to a Jewish mother.”
“Anomalous” means deviating from what is expected. Sagi and Zohar opt to go with Jewish tradition rather than embrace the giyyur concept. In English, the message of their book is that Gentiles do not become Jews by embracing Judaism.

But much more important than any of these testimonies, in the New Testament, “Jew” always and only denotes ethnic identity.

Jews and Contrast

We can understand what “Jew” means in scripture by what it is contrasted with. Multiple times in the book of Acts, Luke contrasts Jews with Greeks. In Romans, Paul also contrasts them with Greeks (meaning Gentiles generally). John contrasts them with Samaritans.

If a term is consistently laid alongside another term, the logical conclusion is that the terms are of the same sort. If Greeks and Samaritans are national or ethnic identities rather than religions, it is fair to assume that the writer is using “Jew” to denote the same sort of identity.

Most compelling, though, in the book of Acts, Luke also distinguishes Jews from both “proselytes” (meaning converts) and “devout persons”. If Gentile converts to Judaism are considered Jews, why is the word “proselyte” used in the New Testament at all, let alone in contrast to Jews? At very least it is redundant.

Further, Luke also goes to the trouble in Acts of referencing the “Jewish nation”. A nation is not a religion, notwithstanding Wikipedia’s confusion on the subject.

In Summary

Scripturally, then, two things:
  1. You are a Jew if you are descended from Judah, or from one of the tribes of Israel that later joined with Judah to make up the Jewish nation.
  2. If you are a Gentile convert to Judaism, you are not a Jew but a proselyte.
Why Does It Matter?

Good question. If you are out speaking to Jews about the Lord Jesus, or speaking to the unsaved about the Lord and the subject of Jews comes up, I’d say it doesn’t matter at all. Why pick at nits or distract anyone from your main point? Use the language the people you are trying to reach are familiar with. If they want to examine these sorts of details a decade after they are saved, wonderful.

But there are also plenty in Christendom with theological hobby horses to ride that benefit from blurring the distinction between Jew and Gentile. When a white Anglo-Saxon Christian claims to be a “Jew”, watch out: he is either confused by the rhetoric of others, or there’s an agenda there waiting to reveal itself. I’ll be looking at one or more of these agendas in future posts.

Further, if you’re studying the Bible and trying to make sense of all its wonderful details, it helps to use words the way the Holy Spirit does. I am fairly confident we are not free to make up our own meanings for words we find in the Bible and import them whenever we find it convenient. Only confusion is likely to result.

That matters, doesn’t it?

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