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How Did the Word “Jew” Become Identified with the Jewish People?

How did the name Yehuda become the name most identified with the Jewish People and evolve into its derivative, "Jew?"
Dr. Orit Avneri is the director of the Tanach Initiative and a Research Fellow at the Kogod Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Dr. Avneri teaches Bible studies at the Shalem Academic Center. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (under the supervision of Prof. Yair Zakovitz) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She wrote her doctorate dissertation in the Bible Department at Bar Ilan University under the supervision of Prof. Ed Grinstein. In her

The name Yehuda, which first appears in the Bible as the name of the fourth son of Leah, also became the name of the tribe of the descendents of Yehuda. In this form, it is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. The term “Jew” (Yehudi), on the other hand, does not appear in the earlier books of the Bible and is to be found only a few times in the later books of the Bible: Kings II, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Nehemiah, Esther and Chronicles.

How then did the name Yehuda evolve into its derivative, “Jew,” and how did it make its way from being the name of one of the tribes of Israel to being identified with the whole Jewish People?

The use of the name Yehuda expanded following the separation from the Kingdom of Israel not only to the name of the tribe but also to the Kingdom of Yehuda, which is the southern kingdom created from the portions of Yehuda, Binyamin, and Shimon. The term Jew was not used as the collective name for the residents of the Kingdom in its early stages; other terms were used, and in particular “men of Yehuda.” Thus, for example in Judges 15:10: “And the men of Yehuda said, ‘Why are you come up against us?’”

The first appearance of the word “Jew” in the Bible is in Kings II 16:6. Its connotation there is identical to that of “men of Yehuda”: “and drove the Jews from Eilat.” Over time, this name replaced the earlier ones, though the meaning remained unchanged. In other words, the term Jew in this period was a person who originated from the Kingdom of Yehuda.

The Judea Capta coin from 71 CE which was minted by the Romans to commemorate their victory. On one side is the image of the victorious Emperor Vespasian. On the other side appears a woman in mourning who represents defeated Yehuda. She sits under a date tree that represents the Land of Israel. The inscription on the coin (in Latin): “Yehuda captured” or “Yehuda defeated.” Hecht Museum, Haifa University

The Judea Capta coin from 71 CE which was minted by the Romans to commemorate their victory. On one side is the image of the victorious Emperor Vespasian. On the other side appears a woman in mourning who represents defeated Yehuda. She sits under a date tree that represents the Land of Israel. The inscription on the coin (in Latin): “Yehuda captured” or “Yehuda defeated.” Hecht Museum, Haifa University

In 733 BCE, Shalmaneser V, the king of Assyria, began exiling the residents of the northern kingdom of Israel. The exile was completed in 722 by his successor Sargon II. Of the divided kingdom, only Yehuda remained. Over the years, contact was lost with the 10 tribes who apparently disappeared within the societies they were living in, and the only population still identified with the People of Israel was that of the Kingdom of Yehuda.

Accordingly, a gradual process of transformation of the word “Jew” took place: from a term indicating the people of a particular kingdom to one indicating ethnic origin. This became particularly evident in the literature of the Babylonian Exile and later.

Among the Biblical texts, the Book of Esther – which was apparently written in the late Persian period or the early Hellenistic period – contains the largest number of mentions of the word “Jew” in its various forms. The appearance of the term in Esther indicates that already at this stage the name was not restricted to mean only tribal membership. Thus, for example, Haman defines the group as a people: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom and their laws are different from any other people” (Esther 3:8) and it is referring to the “Jews” as this group is called again and again in the book.

In addition, the introduction of Mordechai in the Megillah indicates that the term “Jew” refers to the whole group: “There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital whose name was Mordechai, the son of Yair, the son of Shimi, the son of Kish, a Binyaminite” (Esther (2:5). The Sages still viewed this as a troubling redundancy and suggested that it be interpreted as a tribal division: “His father is from Binyamin and his mother is from Yehuda”(Megilla 12b). However, Rashi adopted the straightforward interpretation and took the position that Mordechai was from the tribe of Binyamin and therefore was a “Binyaminite,” but since he had been exiled with the tribe of Yehuda was referred to as a “Jewish man” even though he was not a member of the tribe of Yehuda.

So also in the Book of Nehemiah, which describes the return from the Babylonian Exile that began with the Declaration of Korush in 528 BCE. The events in the Book of Nehemiah itself occurred around 445 BCE, and the term “Jews” refers to the whole people there without any tribal or geographic distinction.

It should be emphasized that although it is understood in most cases that the “Jews” at this stage are indeed the descendents of the tribe of Yehuda, which was the dominant tribe in the Kingdom of Yehuda, the name came to mean every Jew, wherever he was, without any connection to his tribal origin. Thus, if at the time of the exile of the population of the Kingdom of Yehuda to Babylonia the term “Jew” was still in the stage of transition from its geographic-national meaning to its ethnic meaning, on their return from Exile it had already been confirmed as the name of a people, and this would continue to dominate after their return from Exile.

In the late Second Temple period, the dominant meaning of the word “Jew” continued to be an ethnic one, in its parallel connotation to the “People of Israel.” Coins from the period of Aristobulus I, Alexander Jannaeus and Herod, for example, appear with the explicit inscription: “Yehuda/Yehonatan High Priest, Council of the Jews.” Also in the wedding contract of Babta Barat Shimon from the year 128 CE there appears: “According to the law of Moshe and Yehudai.” A similar phrase is found in the wedding contracts from the time of Hillel the Elder from the first century CE.

However, during the period of the Tannaim, in which the term “Yisrael” again became the main word for referring to the people, the term “Jew” was marginalized. Thus, according to the historic dictionary of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the word “Jews” appears fewer than 10 times in the whole Tanaitic literature, while there are hundreds of mentions of the word “Yisrael.”

Prof. Menahem Kahana, a researcher of the Talmud, believes that there was an intentional transition from the concept “Jew” to the concept “Yisrael” which occurred as a result of the Bar Kochba revolt. According to this explanation, Bar Kochba, who also inscribed his coins with the words “of the Kingdom of Israel,” viewed this phrasing as a political declaration and used it to emphasize the large and expanded kingdom to which he aspired. On the other hand, Aba Ben-David, a scholar of the Hebrew language, claimed that this is simply a switch in language and points to the fact that in Land of Israel Aramaic there was ongoing use of the word “Yehudai.”

In any case, the word “Yisrael” remained the most common term for referring to the people for many years after the Tanaitic period. Alongside it, there was less common usage of the term “Jews” and both continued to be used in their ethnic, cultural, historic and religious connotations. As to the question of when the term “Jew” again became the word most identified with these meanings, we do not possess a clear answer.

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