Ethnic / National / Religious
Groups in Biblical Times by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
The Greek term ethnos literally just means "nation" or "people" or "ethnic
group," although in the Bible it often refers collectively to all the other
nations except for the Jews. Since most "nations" in biblical times
had their own religion and their own gods, there is much overlap between what we
today might distinguish: nation states vs. ethnic groups vs. religious groups. Thus,
"Jews" in the Bible are both an ethnic group and a religious group.
The "Jews" of today have had a very long history and a complex heritage, including
but not limited to the Jews of biblical times. Today they are both a religious group
and an ethnic group, but not exclusively either of these (that is, many of today's
religious "Jews" come from other ethnic groups, and some ethnic "Jews" today no longer
practice the Jewish religion). In different historical eras and geographical locations,
however, they have been called by a variety of different names (Jews, Judeans, Israelites,
Israelis, Hebrews, Palestinians, etc.), each of which has a particular origin and
These terms are all inter-connected, but with some significant differences. They
all refer to people who consider themselves the "Twelve Tribes of Israel," descendants
of the "Twelve Sons of Jacob," and thus ultimately the "Children of Abraham."
On the other hand, Arabs, Muslims, Samaritans, and even Christians also consider
themselves to be descendants of Abraham, although in significantly different ways.
Ancient Jews, their Ancestors, and their Descendants:
Children of Abraham - people who claim Abraham as their father (whether
literally or figuratively, by birth or by faith). This term can encompass Jews,
Arabs, Muslims, Samaritans, and Christians:
Abraham (originally called Abram) eventually had two sons, even though
his wife Sarah (originally called Sarai) was thought to be unable to bear
any children (Gen 12-25):
Since Sarah was childless at first, Abraham's first son Ishmael
was born to Sarah's slave Hagar (a common practice in ancient times; see
But Sarah herself later also had a son, named Isaac,
and some rivalries developed between the mothers, which eventually split the family
In the next generation, Isaac also had two sons, twins named
Esau and Jacob (Gen 25), each of whom had numerous descendants themselves
Jacob's name was later changed to Israel (Gen 32:28;
35:10; see "Israelites" below).
Jews see themselves as the physical and spiritual descendants of Abraham,
through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob.
Even though Isaac was younger than Ishmael, and Jacob was younger
than Esau, the Jews consider themselves the ones chosen by God as the legitimate
heirs of the covenant and promises
God made to Abraham (Gen 17:20-22; 22:16-18; 27:1-45; 49:1-12)
Arabs also claim to be physical descendants of Abraham, but through his
first son, Ishmael (see Gen 25:12-15), or his grandson, Esau (Gen 36:9-19).
Since Ishmael was older than Isaac, and Esau also older than
Jacob, Arabs see themselves as the "older sons," and thus the legitimate heirs
Recognizing this close common heritage is necessary for beginning
to understand the animosity between Jews and Arabs over the centuries.
Muslims from other ethnic groups also consider themselves to
be "spiritual" children of Abraham.
Christians also claim to be Abraham's descendants (Gal 3; Rom 4), but
through "faith" or spiritual "adoption" (Gal 4; Rom 8), rather than physical descent.
Hebrews - an alternate designation for the people of Israel, the Jews, both
in ancient and modern times:
In the OT, "Hebrews" refers to an ethnic group, esp. in contrast to the Egyptians
(Gen 43:32; Exod 1:19) or other nations (Jonah 1:9).
Many scholars today think the word "Hebrew" is derived from
"Eber," the name of one of Abraham's ancestors (Gen 10:24-25, 11:14-26).
Some scholars suggest that the word apiru or habiru
(found in various Ancient Near Eastern documents) refers to early Hebrews.
"Hebrew" also refers to the ancient Semitic language in which
most of the Bible (Old Testament) was written.
By the time of Jesus, most Jews no longer spoke Hebrew, but
rather Aramaic, a closely related Semitic language; yet many Jews still read the
Bible in Hebrew.
Hebrew almost died out as a living language; but "modern Hebrew,"
based on biblical Hebrew, was resurrected in the 19th century.
In the NT, "Hebrew" sometimes refers more loosely to the Aramaic
language commonly spoken at the time of Jesus (cf. John 19:13, 17, 20; etc.)
In the NT, one book is called "To the Hebrews" not because it was originally
written in the Hebrew language, nor because it was addressed to Jews, but because
it seems to have been addressed to Christians from a Jewish religious and/or ethnic
Israelites - the most common term for the ancient people belonging to the twelve
tribes of Israel:
One of the grandsons of Abraham was originally named Jacob, but later received
the name Israel (Gen 25:26; 32:28; 35:10).
Note that this name is properly spelled Isr-A-E-L, not Isr-E-A-L,
even though it is usually pronounced with a long "EE" in English.
The twelve sons of Jacob (Gen 29:3130:24; 35:16-20; summarized in
35:23-26) are considered to be the ancestors of the "twelve tribes of Israel"
During the days of Moses, Joshua, the Judges, and the early
Kings (Saul, David, Solomon), "Israel" and "Israelite" still refers
to the whole people, from all twelve of the tribes.
Following the split of the "Kingdom of David" in 922 BCE, the ten
northern tribes comprised what continued to be called the "Kingdom of Israel,"
in contrast to the "Kingdom of Judah" in the South (which consisted of the tribe
of Judah and the much smaller tribe of Benjamin).
Both of these kingdoms are eventually taken over by foreign
empires (the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, the Kingdom of Judah
by the Babylonians by 587 BCE).
Even before the time of Jesus, people were hoping for the reestablishment
of the "Kingdom of Israel," meaning not just the ten northern tribes,
but all twelve of the tribes of Israel.
The modern state of Israel was not re-established until 1948, following World
War II, but mandate of the United Nations.
Citizens of the modern state of Israel are called "Israelis,"
in contrast to the "Israelites" of ancient times.
Judahites / Judeans / Jews - closely related names stemming from slightly different
historical circumstances and eras:
Judahites - a term for the inhabitants of the southern Kingdom of Judah
after 922 BCE.
Judeans - the Greek term for the inhabitants of Judea, the territory
formerly called "Judah."
Jews - a later English shorthand term derived from the Greek word "Judeans"
(more info coming soon)
Galileans - people in or from the Northern regions of Israel, esp. West of the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. Sea of Tiberias, Lake of Gennesaret, etc.).
The area inhabited by the several ancient Israelite tribes after the conquest of the land led by Joshua (1200's BCE).
Namely, the tribes of Issachar, Zebulun, Naphtali, and Dan (see Joshua 19:10-48; 20:7; 21:32).
Part of the (Northern) Kingdom of Israel, after the death of King Solomon and the division of the kingdom (ca. 930 BCE).
Conquered by the Assyrians, along with the rest of the Northern Kingdom, in the 720's BCE (2 Kings 15:29; Isaiah 9:1).
Thus not inhabited by Israelites for several centuries, but by people resettled from other parts of the Assyrian Empire.
Reconquered and resettled by the Judeans (Jews) during the period of the Maccabees (late 2nd Cent. BCE).
Yet geographically separated from the heart of Judea by the (hostile) region of Samaria.
Part of the Kingdom of Herod the Great (40-4 BCE); then ruled by his son, Herod Antipas (4 BCE - 39 CE; see Luke 3:1; 23:6-11).
Although culturally/religiously Jews, Galileans apparently had a distinct accent (Mark 14:70; Matt 26:69-75; Luke 22:59; Acts 2:7).
They may have been looked down upon by other Judeans (John 1:43-46; 7:41, 52).
Palestinians - originally refers to all the inhabitants of the geographic region
of Palestine; now refers more specifically to certain sub-groups:
"Palestine" was the name given by the Romans to the territory of Israel after
the Second Jewish War against Rome (132-135 CE).
It was derived from the name "Philistines," ancient enemies
of the Hebrews who also lived in the same territory.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, "Palestinians" referred to all the people living
in the Holy Land.
This it included Palestinian Jews, Palestinian Arabs, and Palestinian
Today, "Palestinians" generally refers to the non-Jewish Arabs living in Israel,
including those from there but now living in exile in other countries.
Note that while most modern Palestinians are Muslim, there
still are some Palestinian Arab Christians.
Israelis - the citizens and inhabitants of the State of Israel, since its founding
The term "Israelis" (in the modern State of Israel) should not be confused with
"Israelites" (the ancient inhabitants), as explained above.
Although most inhabitants of Israel today are Jews (including some Palestinian
Jews and many Jewish immigrants from other parts of the world), one should not forget that some citizens of
Israel are Arabs, Muslims, and/or Christians.
Terms Used for Non-Jewish Groups in the Ancient
Samaritans - people from the region of Samaria (the ancient Northern Kingdom
of Israel, whose capital city was also called Samaria):
Samaritans are descendants of the ten Northern Tribes, the Ancient Kingdom of Israel, which separated from the two Southern Tribes (Judah & Benjamin) after the death of King Solomon (ca. 930 BC).
This "Northern Kingdom" was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BC; many of the inhabitants were taken into exile while people from other parts of the Assyrian Empire were resettled in the territories of Israel. Thus, the Israelite inhabitants eventually intermingled and intermarried with the non-Israelite immigrants.
The Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch (the Torah, the first five books
of the HB, attributed to Moses) as canonical or scriptural. They did not recognize or use the rest of the HB, books that were written prodominantly in the Southern Kingdom after the division of the two kingdoms.
Jews and Samaritans disdained each other over the centuries, due to various conflicts and rivalries.
The Gospel of Mark never mentions Samaritans, while the Matthean Jesus explicitly
instructs his disciples to avoid Samaritan villages (Matt 10:5-6).
In Luke's Gospel, one Samaritan village rejects Jesus (Luke 9:52-53), but rather than calling down punishment from heaven upon them, Jesus and his disciples simply go to another (also Samaritan) village; the Lukan Jesus
also uses a Samaritan as the compassionate central character of a parable (Luke
10:29-37), and one of the ten lepers cleansed by Jesus is a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-17).
In John, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well, and also accepts the hospitality
of a Samaritan village for a few days (John 4).
Samaria evidently becomes a center of missionary activity in the early Church (Acts 1:8;
Gentiles - a general term referring to any and all people who are not Jews:
Nations: the Greek term ethnos literally means "nation," but if
it seems in the Bible to refer to all the other nations, outside of Israel,
it is often translated "Gentile."
Greeks: can refer either specifically to the people from Greece (2 Macc
4:10-15), or more generally to any Greek-speaking person living in the Eastern part
of the Roman Empire (Mark 7:26; John 7:35; etc.).
official representatives of the Roman Emperor or Empire (John 11:48, Acts 25:16)
those who pledged allegiance to Rome (Acts 16:21)
citizens of the city and/or empire of (Acts 22:25-29)
Jews who had been born in Rome or resided there (Acts 2:10)
Barbarians - a term used for people outside the Hellenistic and/or Roman
worlds (depending on who the speaker is).
Christians - not just one ethnic or national group, but all people who believe
in Jesus as the "Christ"
Although the first disciples/believers in Jesus were all Jews, they were soon joined by people from various Gentile origins.
The term "Christian" is derived from the Greek word Christos, equivalent
to the Hebrew word Messias, both of which simply mean "the anointed one"
(John 1:41; 4:25), and are used as the most common Christological
Titles for Jesus of Nazareth.
"Christian" is first applied to the believers in the Greek-speaking
city of Antioch, the capital of the Roman Province of Syria and third-largest city
of the Roman Empire (Acts 11:26); it is used only two other times in the entire
NT (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16)
Before being called "Christians", these people probably referred to themselves
as "believers," "disciples," "brothers/sisters," or "saints," while outsiders may
have called them "Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5), or followers of "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 18:25;
19:9, 23; etc.).