Chapter 4
Who is a Jew?

The Bible talks about a people known as “the chosen people” Who are they? Does God choose one group of people for a certain amount of time and when they don’t work out, switch to another group? If not what is he doing? Is Christianity part of God’s plan? If so, how does it fit into end time prophecy found written in the prophets? In a future chapter we will discus how these seemingly contradictory positions are all working together. In this chapter, however, we will focus on the question: “Who is a Jew”?

From: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, under the word Jew it says:

1) An adherent to Judaism.
2) A descendant of the Hebrew people.

To be "a descendant of the Hebrew people" in simple terms would mean that your mother was "Jewish".

A Jew Without a Choice

If your mother is Jewish, you are a Jew.  There is no way to reverse your Jewishness.  You cannot "convert" to another faith and stop being Jewish.  You would simply be a Jew with different beliefs.  However, regardless of what your belief is, you are still bound by the laws that God gave your ancestors on Mount Sinai.  You would still be expected to observe the Sabbath, eat kosher, and do many other things which are not required of someone who is not born to a Jewish mother.

A Jew By Choice

Beyond being born to a Jewish mother, there is another way to be Jewish.  When a non-Jew accepts upon himself all the requirements of the law that are on the Jewish people, he can become a Jew. Today we call this process "conversion", yet it is much more than merely accepting certain beliefs. 

This process has existed from the beginning of the Jewish people, when they left Egypt. Those who wanted to follow God were welcomed to do so. They were considered to be a part of Israel because of the belief system that they adopted, even though they were not originally part of the “family” of Israel.

Exodus 12:48

48 "An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the Lord's Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it.
49 The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you."

The "alien" who wants to become a part of the Jewish people may do so, and be "like one born in the land".  This means much more than changing your beliefs.  It is as if you were actually "born again" as a Jew, with a Jewish history and ancestry.

Once a non-Jew decides to become part of the Jewish people and goes through the process to do so, he can never go back to being a non-Jew.  So, by design, the "conversion" process is not a quick and easy one.  There must be certainty of the individuals commitment.

This is the only method to become part of God's people or "kingdom". Yeshua confirms this in John 3:3

Yeshua answered and said to him, Surely, I say to you, Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.

The examples of the mixed multitude that came out of Egypt with the Israelites, Rahab, and later Ruth and many others who were not born as Israelites and yet BECAME Israelites, shows us that from the very beginning belief is how someone who is not a “Jew” can become a “Jew.”

Paul refers to this in Romans 2:28.

28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly …but he is a Jew which is one inwardly.

Paul is pointing out that being a “Jew” is not confined to ethnic identity, but is also tied to a belief system that (if an individual is willing to commit) is available for anyone to adopt no matter what your national or ethnic origins are.

Beyond the basic understanding of what in means to be part of the "Jewish people", there are other definitions, or actually sub-categories, of being a "Jew".

1) Tribal
2) National
3) Regional

Without understanding, and putting into context, these distinctions it will be impossible to understand; how the Jews could possibly be fighting a war against Israel (1Kings 15:17). We could not know to whom a particular prophecy is directed (the nation of Israel or the nation of Judah). And parts of the New Testament would make no sense at all (like why the disciples of Yeshua, who were all Jewish, were hiding because they feared the Jews).

To understand the meaning of of the word "Jew", we must understand the context in which it is said or written.

Bloodline or Tribal

In probably the truest sense of the word, a Jew is someone who is a descendant from Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and a grandson of Abraham. To explain the story of Judaism or Christianity you have to go back to Abraham.  Abram (his name was changed to Abraham later) is identified as a Hebrew,* meaning he was a descendant of Eber (his great, great, great, great grandfather).

*Although the term “the Hebrew people” has become synonymous at times with the term “Jew,” it would not be accurate to say that the terms mean the same thing. All Jews are Hebrews, but not all Hebrews are Jews.

God told Abram to move to another place. From this time on Abraham lived in a tent, never again having a permanent home. Because of Abraham’s obedience to God and His laws,* God blessed Abraham.

Genesis 26:5

5 Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws*.

*Many believe that all of the laws of God were first established at the time of Moses. This is not accurate. We know this because Abraham is blessed for keeping God’s laws.

Before Sinai, God established laws for all mankind to live by known as "Noahide" laws. I will discuss this further in the next chapter.

Because Abraham followed God, there were some important promises made. It is through those promises that God will carry out the redemption of mankind.

Genesis 12:2

2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.
3 And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.

Abraham had a son named Isaac and Isaac’s son was named Jacob. Eventually God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Jacob (or Israel) had 12 sons who became the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. One of those sons was named Judah. All of those who are descendents of Judah are known as Jews, just as the descendents of Levi are known as Levites. The descendents of Judah have specific blessings, recorded in Genesis 49:8-12.

8 "Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons will bow down to you.
9 You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness--who dares to rouse him?
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.
11 He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.

From this prophecy we see that the kings of Israel were to come from the descendents of Judah, and the Messiah would also come from this line.


All of the 12 tribes of Israel in time became slaves in Egypt.

Exodus 1:11

11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens.

Then God used Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt.

Exodus 3:7

7 And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;
8 And I am come out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good land, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.

Upon leading them out of slavery in Egypt, God gave the Israelites the Torah, or His written and oral instructions on how they should live their lives. (Exodus 20)

In time they settled in the land that God had promised them, and they became a kingdom.

King Solomon was the last king to reign over the entire Israelite people. Because King Solomon did not follow God in his old age, and built holy places for the foreign gods of his many wives, God told Solomon that he would lose the kingdom.

1 Kings 11:11

11 Wherefore the LORD said to Solomon, For as much as this is done of you, and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely rend the kingdom from you, and will give it to your servant.

Upon Solomon’s death the kingdom split in two.

1 Kings 12:19

19 So Israel rebelled against the house of David unto this day.

The northern kingdom was called Israel (it comprised 10 of the tribes), and the southern kingdom was called Judah (it was comprised of Judah, Levi, and Benjamin). The Northern kingdom (from the start) was not faithful to God’s instructions.

1 Kings 12:31

31 And he made a house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi.
32 And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like the feast that is in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made.

They soon began to adopt the customs of the nations around them; something God had specifically told them not to do.

Deuteronomy 12:28

29 When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, whither you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwelt in their land;
30 Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they are destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.
31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.
32 What thing so ever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

In time the conditions had become so bad that the prophet Elijah believed that he was the only one in all of Israel that was not worshiping other gods.

1 Kings 19:13

14 And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

Finally God made the decision to send the northern kingdom (Israel) into exile. Because their idolatry was so great, their punishment was to be dispersed throughout the entire earth and to lose their identity.

2 Kings 17:15

15 And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them, that they should not do like them.
16 And they left all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal.
17 And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.
18 Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only.

The northern kingdom, sometimes called "the House of Israel" or "the Lost Ten Tribes", disappeared.  It is one of the great mysteries of history.  To this day there is no definitive answer to the question of their location.   It appears that they have assimilated into the societies around them; never to return.

A central event, however, in prophecy IS the redemption of the northern kingdom (at the end of the age) and its reunification with the southern kingdom.

In the meantime, Judah (the southern kingdom) would, also go into captivity.

2 Kings 24:10

10 At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up against Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. ...

14 And he carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valor, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land.

The nation of Judah, however, retained its identity and returned back to the land after being exiled for a period of time in Babylon.

Ezra 1:2-3

2 Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
3 Who is there among you of all his people? His God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem.

By the first century (at the time of Yeshua) the southern kingdom had populated both the territory of the nation of Judah, and part of the territory formerly belonging to Israel (the northern kingdom). Also they were dispersed to other regions that were outside of this area, known as the diaspora.


One of the most misunderstood definitions of the word “Jew” is that of region. To understand this, look at a map of Israel. The region around and below Jerusalem was the general area of the southern kingdom, Judah. This was known (in the first century) as the region of Judea. People who lived in this region were called Judeans. Above the region of Judea was the region known as Samaria, and above the region of Samaria was the region of Galilee. The people in Samaria were knows as Samaritans, and the people in Galilee were known as Galileans.

John 7:1

1 After these things, Yeshua walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.

It is important to note the distinction mentioned here is NOT between Christian and Jew, but between Galilean and Judean. So, the “Jews” that are mentioned here are people from the region of Judea, and not those who simply had “Jewish beliefs.”

2 Now the Jews' feast of tabernacles was at hand.

Again this is a regional distinction. The area of Samaria lies between Galilee and Judea. The Samaritans also kept the Feast of Tabernacles. However, having adopted the practices of the northern kingdom of Israel, their feast was often a month later, as it is to this day.

11 Then the Jews sought him at the feast, and said, “Where is he’?
12 And there was much murmuring among the people concerning him: for some said, He is a good man: others said, No; but he deceives the people.
13 Howbeit no man spoke openly of him for fear of the Jews.

Again, it is important to realize that these visitors to Jerusalem were religiously Jewish. They had traveled to Jerusalem in accordance to the command in Deuteronomy 16.

Deuteronomy 16:16

16 Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the LORD thy God in the place which he shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles.

They were also nationally Jewish. They were descendents from those who returned from the exile in Babylon. In addition, many of them were from the tribe of Judah. The “fear,” however, was of certain people who lived in the region of Judea.

Who lived in the region of Judea? Judea was where the spiritual center of Jewish people was located. The Temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of worship. The sect that had control of Temple worship was the Sadducees; a group who rejected the oral tradition, (including the belief in a coming messiah).

The area of Judea was, to be sure, a place of much friction and unease. Even among the leaders of the general masses (known as the Pharisees) there was much division, especially when it came to the association with gentiles.  It had only been a short time before this point in history that the Jewish people were threatened with assimilation.  One of the prominent Rabbis to stand up against both assimilation and the ruthlessness of King Herod was Rabbi Shammai.  Around the year 8 CE Shammai passed 18 edicts specifically meant to force separation between Jews and Gentiles.

Many of Shammai's views, however, were rejected by the followers of Hillel, another prominent rabbi of the time who was much more inclined to both associate with gentiles and accept them as converts. 

The diminishing influence of the School of Shammai and the disappearance of the Sadducees happened when the revolt of 66-70 CE failed, and a "heavenly voice" in 70 CE was heard in Yavneh instructing the Jews to follow the rulings of Hillel.

The "school of Hillel" became the accepted view of Judaism (very similar to the early followers of Yeshua), while the leaders of what would become the Christian church became heavily influenced by paganism and their perspective grew more anti-Semitic as time went on.

Vince Garcia, in his article "What you never knew about the Pharisees" writes:

The greatest tragedy has been in Christianity's failure to realize who the true enemies of the Gospel really were, and thus Jews throughout the ages have suffered persecution by "Christians" who did not realize the real enemy died out in the 1st century.

As you can see, the tendency for us to generalize about people and circumstances has caused us to misunderstand much of the history and conditions that led to our modern perspective and belief system.

There is much more that we could discuss on the issue of "who is a Jew", but for now, we must ask an equally important question: “Who is a Gentile?”



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