What is the difference between a Semite, a Hebrew, an Israelite, and a "Jew"?

Are these terms equivalent in any way and can they be used interchangeably?

A Semite (or, "Shemite") is someone descended from Shem, one of the sons of Noah. A Hebrew is someone descended from Heber (or, "Eber"), one of the great-grandsons of Shem. So all Hebrews are Semites, but not all Semites are Hebrews.

Six generations after Heber, Abraham was born to his line, so Abraham was both a Hebrew and a Semite, born of the line of Heber and Shem.

Isaac was born of Abraham; then Jacob of Isaac. Jacob's name was changed to "Israel," and he fathered 12 sons. His sons and their descendants are called Israelites, and they would be both Semitic and Hebrew. However, this would not make either Abraham or Isaac "Israelites." Some, who interchange the words "Jew" and Israelite, call Abraham a Jew, even though Abraham was not even an Israelite, and the word "Jew" is not used in the Bible until 1,000 years after Abraham.

One of Jacob-Israel's children was Judah (Hebrew - Yehudah). His descendants were called Yehudim ("Judahites"). In Greek this reads Ioudaioi ("Judeans").

The confusing factor is that almost all Bible translations employ the word "Jew," which is a modern, shortened form of the word "Judahite." Every time you come to the word "Jew" in the Old Scriptures, you should read "Judahite;" and every time you come to the word "Jew" in the New Scriptures, you should read it as "Judean."

Once you have those proper translations in mind, then we have to interpret those words further, because they can have more than one meaning, depending on the context. In the Old Testament, the word "Judahite" has three distinct usage's:

  1. one who is of the tribe of Judah in a racial sense;
  2. one who is a citizen of the southern "House of Judah," including the tribes of Benjamin and Levi. Thus, this word can be used either tribally (racially) or geographically (nationally).
  3. This is also used in a religious sense of those who followed the religion of Judah. At the time of Esther, many non-Israelites "became Jews" (that is, Judahites) as the result of the Judahite victory (Esther 8:17).

In the New Testament, the Greek word Ioudeos should be translated "Judean." Again, this term was used in the same manner:

  1. one who is of the tribe of Judah in the racial sense;
  2. one who is a citizen of the province of Judea (as opposed to Galilee and Samaria), as is shown in John 7:1. This usage is geographical, and it applied also to the non-Israelite citizens of Judea who had been incorporated into the nation in 135 B.C.; and
  3. a follower of the religion of Judah as given by Moses and the prophets. This usage is found in Romans 2:28 and 29.

Therefore, we can say:

  1. All Israelites are Hebrews and Semites.
  2. Only a few of the Israelites were called Jews (or, Judahites, Judeans).
  3. Many non-Israelites were called Jews (Judahites, Judeans) simply because they lived in Judah or claimed to follow the religion of the Judeans.

 

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