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 meaning.

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:

Hebrews - an alternate designation for the people of Israel, the Jews, both in ancient and modern times: Israelites - the most common term for the ancient people belonging to the twelve tribes of Israel: 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.).

    Palestinians - originally refers to all the inhabitants of the geographic region of Palestine; now refers more specifically to certain sub-groups:

    Israelis - the citizens and inhabitants of the State of Israel, since its founding in 1948.
    Terms Used for Non-Jewish Groups in the Ancient World:

    Samaritans - people from the region of Samaria (the ancient Northern Kingdom of Israel, whose capital city was also called Samaria):

    Gentiles - a general term referring to any and all people who are not Jews: Christians - not just one ethnic or national group, but all people who believe in Jesus as the "Christ"

    [More coming someday, hopefully soon!]

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