Jew/Judean (Word Study) by Adele Reinhartz

“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 (1Thess 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.

Adele Reinhartz, "Jew/Judean (Word Study)", n.p. [cited 27 Nov 2022]. Online:



Adele Reinhartz
Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa

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.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

A term from late Antiquity, it refers to the western-most part of Asia, bordered by the Black, the Mediterranean, and Agean Seas, in what is now modern-day Turkey.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A designation describing a set of practices centred on the worship of YHWH, which developed out of the ancient Israelite religion in the late Second Temple period.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

John 2:6

6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

John 2:13

Jesus Cleanses the Temple
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

John 8:44

44You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because ... View more

1Thess 2:15

15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone

John 9:22

22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out ... View more

John 10:31

31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him.

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