The gospel of John tells a lot of stories about Jesus and his run-ins with a group of people that are usually translated into English as “the Jews.”
Who were these people, “the Jews?” And what was their beef with Jesus?
This is a tough question, and a number of answers have been suggested by biblical scholars. The Greek term is Ioudaioi, a plural word. The singular version is Ioudaios. So what does this word mean?
That depends on the context. The word was used by different authors in various ways, so it has quite a wide range of meanings. The word derives from the Hebrew word Yehudi, which originally meant a person from the tribe Yehudah, which we transliterate in English as Judah. But words evolve over the years, and the original meaning doesn’t necesarily give us the full picture of what Ioudaios meant in the first century.
10 Definitions of Ioudaios
Here are some definitions I’ve come across in my readings of biblical scholars, and I’m sure there are more:
- A Torah-observant person in the first century. (This is a religious definition.)
- A person descended from the original twelve tribes of Israel. (This is an ethnic definition.)
- A person descended from the original tribe of Judah. (This is a more narrow ethnic definition.)
- A person living in the “greater Judea” region ruled over by Herod the Great—including the districts known as Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and Idumea. (This is a geographical definition.)
- A person living in the district of Judea. (This is a tighter geographical definition.)
- A person living in Jerusalem. (This is an even tighter geographical definition.)
- Political/religious leaders in Jerusalem whose focus was the Temple. In the first century, these were almost exclusively the Sadducees, wealthy aristocrats and chief priests. (This is a mixed definition that includes religious, ethnic, geographical, and political elements.)
- Political/religious leaders in the greater Judea region whose focus was returning political power to the descendants of the Maccabees and/or Herod the Great. The New Testament calls these “the Herodians.” (This is also a mixed definition.)
- Political and/or religious activists, mostly in Jerusalem, whose focus was a deep study of Torah. These were generally Pharisees or Pharisee sympathizers, and their leaders were the famous sages that we read about in the Talmud, such as Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Shammai, Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, etc. (This is yet a different mixed definition.)
- Torah-observant persons in the first century descending from the twelve tribes of Israel, living in the greater Judea region, with a strong nationalist hope of overthrowing Rome. (This is a still different mixed definition.)
Which Is the Right Meaning?
When a word can have multiple meanings, none of them can be the “right” meaning for all possible cases. The right meaning depends on context. But the context is often fuzzy, and sometimes multiple definitions apply. We can see how fuzzy things get with a well-known example—Jesus of Nazareth.
Everybody agrees that Jesus was a Jew. So which of the 10 definitions above apply to him? Some, but not all.
Jesus was a Torah-observant person from the tribe of Judah, living in Galilee. So definitions 1 through 4 all apply to him.
Jesus did not live in Judea or Jerusalem, nor was he a political leader. So definitions 5 through 8 don’t apply to him.
Jesus was widely considered a rabbi. Therefore, many people must have thought he was either a Pharisee or a Pharisee sympathizer, since most of the sages were Pharisees. They would have assumed that definition 9 fit him. But the real Pharisees thought it did not fit him. Jesus certainly had a lot of debates with the Pharisees, and part of the reason must be that he was “close” to them in some way, but also different.
Jesus preached the coming Kingdom of God. In the first century, everyone believed this meant a future kingdom to be established by either a human warrior—the Messiah, or an angelic warrior—the Son of Man. (For more info on these beliefs, see my blog post Jesus and the Third Way of Salvation). So people thought the Kingdom of God would begin with an apocalyptic battle that defeated Rome and all the Seventy Nations. It would end with a king sitting on David’s throne, ruling over the entire earth, holding all the conquered Seventy Nations in subjugation.
Naturally, many people thought Jesus fit definition 10 quite well—a zealous Jewish nationalist intent on the overthrow of Rome. Most Pharisees probably fit this definition, but probably also a large number of non-Pharisees. (For more on politics in the time of Jesus, see my blog post Jesus and Politics.)
But Jesus was no nationalist, and he had no plan to overthrow Rome. So Jesus must have had a lot of conflict with these people.
Reading the Gospels
When you read the gospels, you’ll come across the word “the Jews” over and over. In each case, ask yourself which of the ten definitions above fits the context of the verse you’re reading.
In many cases, you’ll see that multiple definitions seem to fit very well. Other definitions will fit very badly. And some definitions will fit sorta-kinda well.
This means you have to work hard to read the gospels. You can’t assume that “the Jews” means the same thing everywhere. We’re used to this in our own world. Just think how many different ways you can define the word “Christian,” for example. When you read a news article that says somebody is a Christian, you automatically use the context to figure out which of the many possible definitions apply.
Labeling the Groups
When biblical scholars talk about Jesus, several of the definitions of “Jews” come up often enough that they get a one-word label.
The label “Sadducee” is used for Jews fitting definition 7.
The label “Herodian” is used for Jews fitting definition 8.
The label “Pharisee” is used for Jews fitting definition 9.
A problem comes in with definition 10. This is actually a very broad group of people. Most Jews of the first century living in greater Judea wanted Rome gone. They may not have been ready to take up arms right away. But they had a hope that the nation would take up arms. Some of them could be labeled “zealot,” but not everybody was quite that militant.
In the novel I’m working on now, Son of David, I decided that none of the existing terms really worked for definition 10. So I coined my own term for this group. I call them “Yehudi Nation.” They were Jewish religiously, ethnically, and geographically, and they were nationalists politically. It’s the best term I could come up with.
What is Yehudi Nation?
A man of Yehudi Nation just wants freedom from Rome. He wants to worship God freely. He wants an end to the domination by the heathen. He wants Messiah to come, or the Son of Man, or both—he’s not fussy about who liberates Yehudi Nation.
A man of Yehudi Nation is not quite ready to join the army. There is no army to join. Not yet.
But a man of Yehudi Nation strongly believes that the army will form—someday—and when it does, he’ll cheerfully sign up and do his sacred duty for God and country.
Yehudi Nation, I think, was the zeitgeist of Palestine in the time of Jesus.
So you can see right away why Jesus drew a crowd when he entered a synagogue and told his fellow countrymen that the Kingdom of God was about to begin. It sounded like a prediction that Yehudi Nation would soon rise up to liberate God’s people from the iron boot of Rome.
And you can see right away why some men of Yehudi Nation might have reacted with shock and even anger when they heard Jesus say, “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.”
For men of Yehudi Nation, “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” So ultimately, many of them came to see Jesus as their enemy.