Jews or Israelites?

Recently I spoke at a Bible study about Paul, apostle of the nations. There I was asked: what exactly is a Jew in the Bible? This study was mainly about Paul as an apostle of the Gentiles, but also about the twelve apostles, with their ministry aimed at the Jewish people. The question in this context is therefore: what is a Jew in “the New Testament”? Is that different from an Israelite? To answer that question, we need to take a closer look at “Old Testament history”.

division of Israel
In 1 Kings 11 and 12 the announcement and division of the kingdom of Israel is described. From that moment on, there is no longer one kingdom of twelve tribes, but a distinction is made between Judah (two tribes) and Israel (ten tribes).
Some conclude from this that in the days of the New Testament and also in our days, a Jew is someone from the two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) and that the term Israel would be reserved for the other ten tribes. But is that right?

In 2 Kings 17 we read how Israel, the ten-tribe kingdom, is conquered because of idolatry and is taken out of the land into captivity to Assyria.
2 Kings 25 and 2 Chronicles 36 describe how Judah, the two-tribe kingdom, is conquered and taken into captivity to Babylon.

The Ten Tribe Empire as a whole never returned to the land, but most of it mixed with other peoples. Only a few have returned to the land, but the vast majority have disappeared among the nations and thus become “alienated from the citizenship of Israel” (Eph.2:12).

At the end of 2 Chronicles 36 we read that King Cyrus of Persia calls on the people to return to the land of Judah and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus had received this command from YAHWEH, the God of the heavens (verse 23). To Cyrus all the kingdoms of the earth were given and the appeal is therefore made to all the people (2 Chron. 36:23; Ezra 1:1-4). The 10 tribes in Assyria were also included in this (Ezra 6:22).

Ezra and Nehemiah
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah extensively discuss the return of the people to the land of Judah. The number of returned exiles is stated with particular precision: 49,942 people (Ezra 2:64; Neh.7:66-67). With regard to the people, terms are used such as all Israel (Ezra 2:70; Neh.7:73), sons of Israel (Ezra 3:1; Neh.1:6). But they are also called: people of Judah, (Ezra 4:4), sons of Judah  (Neh. 13:16) and Jews ( Ezra 5:1; Neh. 2:16, 4:1, 2, 12; 5:1, 8, 17; 6:6 ).

The returned exiles are members of all twelve tribes of Israel (Ezra 6:17), who have settled in the land of Judah.They are referred to by such terms as Jews and Israel. From this we can conclude that from this moment on these concepts are considered synonyms.

Jew and Israelite in the New Testament
Then when we arrive in the New Testament, we are confirmed in it. For example, it is the apostle Peter who, in his speech on the day of Pentecost, addresses his audience as: “Jewish men”(Acts 2:14), but also as “Israelites men” (Acts2:22). Compare verse 36.

And we also see with Paul he uses these terms interchangeably. In the same scriptures he speaks of Jews (Rom.9:24) and of Israel (Rom. 9:6, 27 and 31). Or a little further where he speaks of my flesh (Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin) and about Israel (Rom. 10:19; 11:1, 14). When we read Paul gives an account before Agrippa he speaks of Jews three times (Acts 26:2, 3 and 4) and then he says :

7 Which our twelve tribes hope to achieve by continually worshiping God night and day (. . .)

Paul speaks here about the twelve tribes as a unity, a religious unity .

Only a small proportion of the people returned to the land in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. Most of these came from the two tribes, of Judah. Only a small proportion came from the ten tribes. Yet scripture uses the term, both Jew and Israelites for the entire nation.

They were Israelites from all twelve tribes who settled in the territory of Judah. The apostles such as Paul and Peter use both terms, Jews and Israelites interchangeable. This makes it clear that these concepts have been regarded as synonyms from that time onwards.

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