The english word "Jew"

Yigal Levin Yigal-Levin at
Thu Jun 13 10:50:58 EDT 2002

At 07:36 PM 6/12/2002 -0400, Ralph Purificato wrote:
>I am not sure of the motive but I have someone who does not believe or he
>is being lead to believe that the people who call themselves Jews are not
>the same people that descended from the tribe of Judah. Stranger still he
>claims to be Jewish. He believes that the present and also those who are
>called “Jews” in the New Testament belong to some other tribe that took
>over the identity of the true “Jews” descendents of  Judah.
>My question here is where did the English word “Jew” come from. He
>believes it was made up by Shakespeare and says the word did not exist
>before that.
>Thanks so much

The real question, of course, is not the origin of the English form "Jew".
I don't know the answer to that one, but it may very well have been in the
16th century. The real question is that of the origin of the people who are
today called "Jews".
In modern English, "Judah" is usually used to refer to the pre-exilic (that
is, "First Temple" or "Old Testament") tribe and kingdom, while "Judea" (or
"Judaea") is used for the post-exilic (that is, "Second Temple" and "New
Testament") province and kingdom (in the case of the Hasmoneans and Herod).
(In recent years, the Persian period province is often called by its
Aramaic name Yehud, but this is limited to scholarly circles.) The
inhabitants of both are usually called "Judeans" (scholars today have
coined the term "Judahite" to refer specifically to the pre-exilic people,
but I have yet to see this used in a non-scholarly forum). 
All of these are "tribal", "national" and "regional" names. However, since
the exiled Judeans/Judahites also became a religious community, which
accepted "converts" who were not of Judahite descent, modern English calls
this community "Jews". As I said, I'm not sure how the form "Jew"
originated, but the King James Version uses it only three times for the
pre-exilic period (where more modern translations have "of Judah"), but
often for the exilic and post-exilic period (Jeremiah, Esther, Daniel,
Ezra, Nehemiah and so on, and of course the whole NT).

However, we have to remember that all of this is only about translation,
since in Hebrew there is only ONE word for the country, "Yehudah", and ONE
word for the people, "Yehudi" (pl. "Yehudim").

The real question is, to what extent are the "Yehudim" of the post-exilic
period descended from the "Yehudim" of the pre-exilic period. The
traditional view, according to the Bible, is completely. The post-exilic
"Yehudim" clearly saw themselves as being directly descended from the
pre-exilic "Yehudim", after many of these had gone into exile and returned.
There are trends in modern scholarship (Lemche, Thompson, Davies and
others) who have suggested that the "exile" either didn't happen or was a
much less traumatic event than we would think. Now, this could serve either
to strengthen the connection between the post-exilic "Yehudim" and their
predecessors (since they had never been exiled) or to weaken it (if the
"returnees" were actually foreigners who "took over" the land). This is
very much under debate.

The same question could also be asked about the connection between the
"Yehudim" of the Second Temple/NT period, whoever THEY were, and the
"Yehudim" of today's Jewish community, who claim to be their descendants.
But that's for another day.

Dr. Yigal Levin
Dept. of Philosophy and Religion
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
615 McCallie Avenue
Chattanooga TN 37403-2598

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