Who is a Jew in the New Testament?

by Ray Pritz

In 1976 the Bible Society in Israel published the first translation of the New Testament in modern Hebrew. This new translation was an attempt to provide the reader with the same level of language which the New Testament had in its original rendering. The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are in koine or common Greek. It would have been possible for Paul to compose his letters in classical Greek with its aura of antiquity and authority. This way of writing religious, philosophical, and historical texts was in fact popular in his time in a movement known as Atticism. Among others, the first century Jewish writers Josephus and Philo adopted this style. But Paul rejected this approach. Instead he wrote in a simpler language, one which would have been easily understood by the man on the street. We must assume that he (and the Holy Spirit who was inspiring him) placed straightforward communication ahead of the accepted norms of how a religious book should sound.

As many as 90 translations of the New Testament into Hebrew have been done over the past three or four hundred years. Until the Bible Society’s translation, all had been completed before the resurrection of the language at the start of this century. Most would be understood by a speaker of today’s Hebrew, just as the book of Genesis can be understood. Some, indeed, could be said to be great works of scholarship. But none of them could claim to be in the “heart language” of modern Israelis.

No Bible translation, however good, can make everything in the text completely understandable to the modern reader. Some words or ideas are not translatable in the strict sense of the word and will need to be explained in a footnote. So, for example, modern translations in many languages may find it desirable to explain what a Pharisee was or the equivalent value in days worked of a denarius.

The modern Hebrew translation, even though it is in Hebrew and is read primarily by a Jewish audience, is no exception to this rule. Soon after the translation appeared, it was decided that an edition with notes was needed. This work was initiated in 1980.  The aim of the editorial committee was to provide the reader with helps for understanding the text at all points where it might be unclear. This was not to be a doctrinal exegesis of the New Testament but rather a clarification of factual matters such as geography, historical background, or cultural questions. In light of the potential use of the book by a wider Israeli audience, it was decided to include also references to rabbinic parallels which were roughly contemporary with the New Testament writings.

The editorial committee frequently came upon places where a problem of understanding could be solved by a change in the translation rather than by simply adding a footnote. This article and several to follow will deal with some of the more interesting questions which arose.

One of these was how to render the Greek word “Ioudaioi.” Almost all English translations consistently translate this word as “Jews.” Some background on this word will help the reader understand the problem.  The fourth son of Jacob was named Judah [יהודה] by his mother Leah because she said “this time I will praise the Lord” (Gen. 29:35). The word comes from a root meaning to praise or thank or, sometimes, confess. To the family of Judah was allotted a portion of land when the Israelites crossed over into Canaan, and that allotment was also called Judah after the family or tribe. The Greek form of the place name is Ioudaia, which we know in its Latinized form of Judaea. A person who came from that area came to be known in Hebrew as יהודי (yehudi), in Greek Ioudaios (plural Ioudaioi). At the simplest level, then, a person from Ioudaia is a Ioudaios. This word occurs in the gospels some 88 times, and in all of the New Testament almost 200 times. (The frequency of usage in each of the four gospels is instructive: Matthew 5 times, Mark 7 times, Luke 5 times, John 71 times. Clearly John, who is dealing with the same basic events, the same people, and the same time period, must be using the word differently from the other evangelists.)

By the time of the New Testament, of course, not only were the Jewish people living all over the land of Israel, but the great majority of them were scattered throughout the Mediterranean lands and eastward into Persia. In these lands they were generally known as Ioudaioi or its local equivalent. In the land of Israel, however, the situation was somewhat different. In Israel there were also recognized geographical distinctions. People from the Galilee were called Galileans by those from the south, who were called Judaeans by their northern brothers. The Roman authorities and other foreigners tended to call them all by the more inclusive name of Ioudaioi.  We may compare the geographical usage in two places in John. In John 7:1 we read that Jesus was staying in Galilee; he chose not to go into Ioudaia (Judaea) because the Ioudaioi were trying to kill him. Now how should we properly translate the word Ioudaioi in this verse? Clearly, the distinction made in the text is between the Galilean region, inhabited by Galilean Jews, and the Judaean region, inhabited by Judaean Jews. Our translations should maintain this distinction and say something like “He did not want to go into Judaea because the Judaeans were looking to kill him.”

Similarly we have what looks to be a geographical use of the word in John 11:7-8. Jesus said to his disciples “Let’s return to Ioudaia [Judaea]. The disciples said, Rabbi, not long ago the Ioudaioi tried to stone you, and you’re going back there?” Here again the context demands that we translate (actually transliterate) “Judaeans.” Unfortunately, most of our English translations (with very rare exceptions) have used the word “Jews” here. This inflexible and inaccurate translation has contributed to the way the New Testament has been used for antisemitic purposes.

Another peculiar usage of the word Ioudaioi, particularly in the Gospel of John, is for certain Jewish religious leaders. It is a common linguistic practice to use the name of a whole people when speaking of a few of its representatives. Thus, for example, we would correctly say “The Brazilians and the Argentines are negotiating a trade agreement” or “The Americans beat the Russians in ice hockey.” No one would suppose that 330 million Americans and 145 million Russians went onto the ice.

In the same way, the New Testament (and especially the Gospel of John) often uses the word Ioudaioi as a term to speak of a few people in leadership (or their representatives). The first appearance of the word in John’s gospel is this kind of usage. In John 1:19 we read that “the Ioudaioi” sent some priests and Levites to ask John the Baptist some questions. At the end of the passage, in verse 24, we read that “they had been send from the Pharisees.”  Or if we will look at John 13:33, in one of the few places where Jesus himself actually uses the word, he says “as I said to the Ioudaioi, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ ” If we go to find where Jesus said those words, we find in John 7:30-34 that he was speaking to officers who had been sent by chief priests and Pharisees.

The good translator is not just a person who learned Greek grammar and can use a dictionary. Responsible translation demands working with the text in the context in which it was written. In this case, for example, we should recall several historical factors which will have influenced John’s use of language. John wrote his gospel near the end of the first century in the area of Asia Minor, well outside the land of Israel. By the time he wrote, the Temple had been destroyed and much of the social structure of the Jewish people in the land had been changed radically from what it had been in the time of Jesus. Most of the sects and parties which had been active at the start of the century no longer existed. The only significant groups that still maintained their identity were the Pharisees and John’s fellow believers in Jesus. Writing at the end of the century and for a mostly non-Jewish audience outside of the land of Israel, John could quite correctly use Ioudaioi and Pharisees interchangeably.

There was a further significance in his location outside the land.  Geographical distinctions often lose their meaning when the speaker is removed from the immediate vicinity. We might imagine, for example, a Mississippi-born American ambassador to a Latin American country waking up one morning and finding the words “Yankee go home” painted on the wall of his house. Inside the USA no one would call him a Yankee, which is reserved for people from the northern states of the US, but outside of the country the usage is completely correct (if not particularly polite).  In the same way, while John was aware of the geographical distinction between Galilee and Judaea and sometimes made that distinction, he could also speak accurately to his audience in the more inclusive meaning of the word.

The modern Hebrew translation of the New Testament has considered each appearance of the word Ioudaioi. It has not been automatically and woodenly translated “Jews” [יהודים] in every case but has been fitted both to the internal context in which it occurs and to the external context in which it was written.