The following is my opinion based on my own biblical research, including books like Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus (2015).
A question that has popped up a few times is: does it matter?
Yes and no.
Yes, because the significance lies in the potential theological, cultural, and historical implications. For example, Jesus’ interactions with Jewish leaders might be read differently, highlighting the importance of context and precision in religious studies.
No, because it doesn’t really change anything. People will still believe what they believe.
Jesus was a Hebrew and an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, belonging specifically to the tribe of Judah, which made him a Judahite. He was born and lived in Judea.
Put another way, Jesus was an Israelite who practised Hebrewism and not Judaism. His teachings and practices were rooted in the ancient Hebrew traditions, which predate the establishment of Judaism as it was known in later periods.
This is in harmony with the idea that Jesus’ message was more in line with the original covenant between God and the Israelites, rather than the traditions that had developed in Judea by the time of his life, which were influenced by various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including those of the Edomites.
Jesus was critical of the Pharisees (mostly Edomites), accusing them of founding a version of Judaism rooted in the Talmud, known during his era as the Tradition of the Elders. Following the Babylonian Exile, they reintroduced a faith that had diverged from the one observed five decades prior. This reformed faith, the Tradition of the Elders – later identified as Judaism – was grounded in rabbinical teachings rather than the divine laws.
The term Jew is widely misunderstood; it’s not derived from Judah, the son of Jacob, but rather from the inhabitants of Judea.
Judea, originally named after Judah, was repopulated by Edomites after the Babylonian Captivity around 538 BC, and those residing there were called Jews, not due to lineage but location, as explained by Jewish historian Benjamin Freedman in Facts Are Facts (2009).
The Edomites, descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:8-9), converted to Judaism and became indistinguishable from other Jews over time, as noted in the historical record The Banner of Israel (1877).
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were Hebrews, stemming from Eber, an ancestor of Abraham. The term Israelite originates from Jacob, later named Israel by God (Genesis 32:28), and refers to his descendants, including the tribes founded by his sons. The covenant God made with the Israelites marked them as the chosen people (Isaiah 41:8), and the term Judahite specifically refers to the descendants of Judah, one of Jacob’s sons.
A new word
The word Jew only appears in modern translations of the Bible (from around the 18th century), with its first biblical use in 2 Kings 16:6, signifying a person from Judea, which included diverse ethnicities, primarily Edomites.
Post-captivity, the term Jew gained significance when the remnants of Judah and Benjamin, along with a mixed multitude, settled in Judea and were described as Jews in later translations.
- In the era of Jesus, those identified as Jews were not members of any Israelite tribe, including Judah. Their heritage was a blend, predominantly Edomite, with elements of Babylonian, Canaanite, and Hittite.
- Modern Jews are the progeny of this diverse group.
- Jesus himself was not a Jew; he was an Israelite, a descendant of Levi through Aaron and Zadok, and of Judah through David, both sons of Jacob, renamed Israel by God.
- Jesus frequently clashed with the Pharisees, who were of Edomite descent and adhered to the Tradition of the Elders, the precursor to Judaism, which Jesus rejected.
- Jesus practiced Hebrewism, known today as the religion of the Old Testament.