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Jew/Judean (Word Study)

“Jew” and “Judean” are the English words most often used to translate the Greek term ioudaios, but which word to use is a controversial issue.


“Jew” and “Judean” are the English words most often used to translate the Greek term ioudaios (plural: ioudaioi). Exactly which word to use, however, is a controversial issue. In literal terms, ioudaios refers to someone who lives in or is from the Roman province of Judea. It also used, however, to refer to people from other parts of the Roman Empire, such as the Galilee, Rome, and Asia Minor. These ioudaioi may have had a close, distant, or no connection at all to Judea, but they did share basic commitments and practices of the ioudaioi who lived in Judea. For example, they viewed the Torah as divine revelation, circumcised their infant sons, and observed the Sabbath and festivals mentioned in the Torah.

How should ioudaios be translated?

Until the early years of the twenty-first century, ioudaios was generally translated into English as “Jew.” Two main factors have led some scholars to prefer “Judean” over “Jew.” One stems from the “critical religion” debate, according to which “religion” is a modern Christian and European category that cannot be applied to the ancient world. According to this view, “Jew” is a religious label; if there was no such thing as ancient Jewish religion, then the ioudaioi could not have been “Jews” in our modern sense of the term.

The second is an ethical consideration. Most ancient texts, such as the writings of Philo and Josephus, use ioudaios in a neutral, descriptive way. The same is true throughout the New Testament, which refers, for example, to Jewish practices and festivals (e.g., John 2:6, John 2:13). Some New Testament texts, however, use the term negatively, for example, in describing ioudaioi as the devil’s children (John 8:44) and accusing them of killing Jesus (1 Thess 2:15) and persecuting his followers (John 9:22; John 10:31). The ethical concern is that translating ioudaios as “Jew” for all New Testament occurrences may foster anti-Judaism or anti-Jewish prejudices today.

For these reasons, some scholars suggest that it is both more precise and more ethical to translate ioudaios as “Judean” rather than “Jew.” The matter is not quite so straightforward, however. Jewish identity, past and present, cannot be reduced to beliefs and practices but includes shared histories, cultures, traditions, and allegiances. Whether “Judaism” as a religion did or did not exist in the ancient world, the Jews as a people certainly did. The ethical issue is also more complex. While the repetition of “Jews” in the Gospel of John runs the risk of encouraging anti-Judaism, eliminating the word “Jews” from the New Testament makes it difficult to address the history of Christian anti-Judaism and the history of the Jewish people themselves.

For these reasons, the majority of scholars, and Bible translations, continue to use the term Jews. The solution of the NRSVue is to use Jew unless the meaning is clearly geographical, that is, if the intention is to draw attention specifically to the location of an individual in Judea. This solution seems optimal, as it takes advantage of the existence of two words in English to make a distinction that is meaningful in English and brings clarity to the Greek text for English readers and listeners.

  • reinhartz-adele

    Adele Reinhartz is Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, in Canada. She was the general editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature (2012–2018) and president of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2020. Her books include Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (Continuum, 2001), Caiaphas the High Priest (University of South Carolina Press, 2011; Fortress 2012), and Cast Out of the Covenant: Jews and Anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John (Lanham, MD: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2018). Adele was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2005 and to the American Academy of Jewish Research in 2014.