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Coin of John Hyrcanus I (2nd century BCE, Jerusalem) with Hebrew inscription citing "the council of the Jews" on Wikimedia Commons

Was Jesus a “Jew”?

Yonatan Adler

Was Jesus a “Jew”? The internet has been abuzz over this curious question in recent months. Many of those involved in the discussion have claimed that there were simply no “Jews” at all so long ago. Some have opined that Jesus was a “Judean,” an identity-category they suppose was entirely different from what we know of as “Jews.” Others have argued that Jesus was neither this nor that, but was rather a “Galilean.” Still others have claimed that he was none of the above, but instead a “Palestinian.”

The current debate had something of an earlier iteration under the Third Reich, where German scholars found themselves forced to wrestle with the apparent Jewishness of the Son of God. Nazi academics found a solution to this thorny problem by demonstrating through historical “scholarship” that Jesus was descended not from Jews … but from pure “Aryans” who migrated into Galilee from Persia!1

By this point it should be clear that all these spurious claims say more about certain deep-seated beliefs about modern-day Jews than they do about any historical reality. And that historical reality could not be clearer. For at least 2,700 years, the ancestors of today’s Jews have self-identified, and have been identified by others, with the Hebrew name “Yehudim” or its equivalent in other languages. At its root, the name referred to a group associated with a particular territory in the Levant called “Yehudah,” or Judea. True, the specific beliefs and practices of this people have undergone significant shifts and even marked evolutions over the millennia. Judaism itself, as a way of life governed by Torah law, was a relatively late development—likely emerging many centuries after the Jews first appeared on the stage of history as a distinct people in their native land.2 But despite all these changes, the Jews’ core sense of identity as “Yehudim”—and their fundamental connection to their ancestral homeland—have remained extraordinarily stable over almost three-thousand years. The bigotry and unceasing persecutions Jews have suffered over the centuries and throughout their diasporas have only served to bolster and deepen this group sense of self.

How, then, did we get from “Yehudim” to “Jews?” The answer is to be found in the linguistic development of European languages. The ancient Hebrew term “Yehudim” (and its Aramaic cognate “Yehudaye”) was rendered first into Greek as “Ioudaioi,” and later into Latin as “Iudaei.” In some European languages used in the medieval period, the sound “d” in the name was altogether dropped through elision (the common linguistic process whereby a sound or syllable is omitted), thus in early English taking on forms such as “Giwis,” “Giws,” “Gywes,” “Iuwes,” and eventually “Jews.” None of these late linguistic developments, however, reflect any kind of change in the sense of identity of this ancient people. “Jews” are simply what “Yehudim” are called in today’s English.

In recent decades, English-speaking scholars have debated whether it is best to use the English term “Jews” when speaking about this people in antiquity, or if perhaps it might be preferable to use the name “Judean,” an English term closer to the original Hebrew and with a clearer intimation of the geographical element in the name.3 The question is really one of best practices in scholarship, and seems to have little basis in any fundamental debate about what it meant to be a “Yehudi” in the past.

All of this brings us back to our original question: was Jesus a “Jew?” It seems to me that the real difficulty lies in the fact that we are asking this question in English. If we could somehow travel back in time and ask Jesus himself: “Are you a Jew?,” his answer (in Aramaic) would almost certainly be: “I am so sorry, but I do not understand your language, as you see … I am a Jew!”

1. Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

2. Yonatan Adler, The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022.

3. Steve Mason, “Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007): 457–512.

Yonatan Adler is Associate Professor at Ariel University in Israel. His recent book is entitled The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal.

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