In my reading of the Gospels, I have not noticed any derogatory or sectarian statements using the word "Israel", such as in:

Matthew 10:6 ... but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Matthew 15:24 But he answered and said, I was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Matthew 19:28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that ye who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel


However, there are many derogatory or sectarian statements using the word "Jews", such as:

John 6:52 The Jews therefore strove one with another, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

John 5:16 And for this cause the Jews persecuted Jesus

John 7:1 ... the Jews sought to kill him.

John 7:13 Yet no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews.

John 8:44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do


In John 7:41-43, a dispute arises due to Jesus being from Galilee rather than from Bethlehem even though the Gospels of Matthew & Luke introduce (questionable) birth stories tracing the ancestry of Jesus back to David & his birth to Bethlehem, despite no words of Jesus I could find mentioning this. I note 1 Timothy 1:4 states:

...neither to give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questionings, rather than a dispensation of God which is in faith

My questions fall into the following general categories:

(1) Do the words "Israel" and "Jews" have a different meaning in the Gospels?

(2) Are these "Israel" versus "Jews" statements of Jesus based in a sectarian dispute between religious remnants of the former Kingdom of Israel (of which Jesus of Nazareth represented) and the Jews of the Kingdom of Judea?

(3) Was Jesus a "Jew" or did Jesus represent another sect within the Biblical or otherwise local Judaic religious traditions (such as Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc)?

  • 1
  • Good question. Acts 1:6 is also a reference. Nov 30, 2016 at 16:03
  • I would highly suggest the 2nd and 3rd be stated as separate questions. First of all, there is a debatable presumption in #2 and lastly there is a lot of historical information involved in #3. Both instances deserve full treatment apart from the basic title question.
    – Joshua
    Dec 1, 2016 at 3:20

5 Answers 5


The kingdom of Israel ceased to exist in 722 BCE. During the next century or so, you will see that biblical authors, all based in Judah, did draw a distinction between Israel and Judah, but towards the time of the Babylonian Exile, this distinction becomes blurred. The Israelites were not returning and it would be good for Judah to establish a claim to the inheritance of the rich Israelite territory. By the end of the Babylonian Exile, Jews were calling themselves Israelites, although apparently it took a little time for other nations to accept that appellation. Thus, the first-century use of the term 'Israelite' should not be understood as referring to the citizens of the northern kingdom. The two terms Jews and Israelites were largely synonymous, as was 'the House of Israel'.

Galilee and Dor, which is on the coast, were Canaanite districts that were conquered by the Israelites under King Ahab, but apparently not settled by the Israelites. When Assyria conquered this part of the Levant a century and a half later, the conquerors created three provinces along ethnic lines - Galilee, Dor and Samaria, which was the new name for Israel. Galilee was later conquered by Judah during the second-century-BCE Maccabaean period, and the pagan residents forcibly converted to Judaism. Unlike the Samaritan religion, Galilean Judaism was the religion of the Jews, so there was no sectarian issue between Galilee and Judea (the Roman name for Judah), although Galilean Jews were regarded at that time as inferior Jews. In the original Hebrew or Aramaic, Yehudi were residents of Judea, whereas the word Yehuda refers to all Jews.

Apart from the personal choice of authors as to using the terms Jew or Israelite, you will notice an evolution in attitude to the Jews. Paul, himself a Jew, considered it his greatest goal to convert the Jews to Christianity. In his undisputed epistles, believed to have been written before any of the gospels, he identifies as a Jew and is not particularly critical of other Jews.

Most New Testament scholars say Mark's Gospel was written around 70 CE, making it the first gospel to be written. The author criticises the scribes and Pharisees, but not the Jews. Matthew came next and was a little critical of the Jews. Then came Luke's Gospel and finally John. Everett Ferguson says, in Backgrounds of Early Christianity, page 461:

Gemaliel's grandson, Rabban Gamaliel II (active 80-120), introduced into the Eighteen Benedictions, the curse, “Let the Nazarenes [Christians] and the heretics perish as in a moment, let them be blotted out of the book of the living and let them not be written with the righteous," which effectively excommunicated the Christians from the synagogues and formalised the break between the two faiths.

This action certainly took place before John was written, and probably a little before Luke. This helps explain what we see in, especially in John, as constant and strident criticism of the Jews. Derogatory and sectarian statements in the later gospels are a consequence of the developing friction between mainstream Judaism and the Christians, with the Jewish curse probably placed in the Benedictions around 96 CE.

  • 1
    The Talmudic source (b. Ber. 28b-29a) says that Gemaliel introduced a curse on the mīnīm. It is debated among scholars whether the mīnīm are the same as the nōṣrīm (Nazoraeans), or whether they are two separate denominations. This is all highly controversial and there is no scholarly consensus. There is thus no hard evidence that the Nazoraeans were expelled from the synagogue before the putative dates for the composition of Luke or John. Actual textual evidence for cursing the nōṣrīm is not available until the time of the Cairo Geniza.
    – fdb
    Nov 30, 2016 at 11:27

I have only answered the first and primary question as the 2nd and 3rd would be more appropriate as separate questions and deserve larger treatments beyond the basic title question. However, my answer may hopefully help to clear up some of the issues that come up in the other questions.

The two terms are used very similarly throughout the NT and are often nearly synonymous. However, a closer examination of their usage in the Gospels (and I'm including Acts due to Luke) reveals a pattern to why Jew or Israel may have been chosen and show that while they are similar they are not interchangeable. While the precise definitions of the terms are close, their connotations clearly do vary.

The Jews

The term "Jew" is an Anglicization of "Judean" which comes from the Greek Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios). Technically, it can simply be a regional distinction, that is someone who is from Judea. But it can of course represent one's ethnicity. Greeks who happened to grow up in Judea would not have identified himself as Judean. 1

The first observation we can make of NT usage of "Jew", "Jews", or "Jewish" is that it is often personal, religious or ethnic, all three of which focus on the person or people that are individually involved.

  • Refers to people who are from this land, historically. Identity from ethnicity of Judean origin.
  • A group of people were Jews (Jewish people, specific plural)
  • A man or woman are Jews (Jewish man or woman, specific singular)
  • A town is Jewish (inhabited by Jewish people)
  • It was the Passover of the Jews
  • Jesus is mocked as King of the Jews (King of all Jewish people)(Matt 27:29, Mark 15:26)


Meanwhile, NT usage of "Israel" and "Israelite(s)" show it to be less personal. It often is used to speak of the God's people as a singular unit. It has a more official collective or national2 meaning and often carries association of the Law, Covenants and promises given by God to his people as a whole.

  • It is not derived from the land, rather the land is "of Israel"
  • Refers to the people or nation as whole. Identity in nationality.
  • Unless context demands otherwise, it represents all Israel (12 tribes) and any or all within.
  • Close association with God's people (representative singular)
  • Jesus is mocked as King of Israel, as the nation (Matt 27:42, Mark 15:32)

An illustration could be that Israel is the bowl and the Jews are the contents.

Other New Testament usages

While it is outside the frame of the Gospels, Paul's book of Romans continues and exemplifies this pattern of usage. While he is a Jew of all Jews when reaching the Jews, he becomes an Israelite when speaking of the promises of God to Israel and to the Church's inclusion in all Israel. Romans 11:11-14 highlights this. In v11 salvation has come to the nations to make Israel jealous, but when he turns to speak to individuals in v13, 14 it is to make Jews jealous that some may be saved.

1: Which tribe did Paul belong to?

2: Nationality does not necessarily mean political nationality. Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27) but also an Israelite (2 Cor 11:22) Rather, nationality can be historic connection with a sovereign people differentiated from an ethnicity (genetic, geographic and cultural).


Of the 4 gospel writers, John used 'Israel' to talk about history of a people going back to Abraham. 'Jew' is more likely to be about some of those people, born of the tribe of Judah, or from the old southern kingdom Judah or from Rome's Judea.

Some examples:

John's use of the term' Jew' seems to be used when talking about the historical people rather than the faith or only the faith. He has a long conversation with a group of people (NIV John 8): "Jews who had believed him" who say they trace their ancestry back to Abraham. That suggests John is referring to people from Judah.
Later, when Jesus heals a blind man (John 9), the some Jews (possibly the same group) take the cured man to the Pharisees. When the man's parents are questioned, John explains that they dodged giving a proper answer because "they were afraid of the Jews". Yet all the people in the story - Jesus, Jews, Pharisees, blind man, parents - had the same faith.

John used 'Israel' as well as 'Jew'. In the calling of the disciple Nathaniel (NIV: John 1: 43-51) Jesus calls him a "true Israelite in whom there is nothing false" and in return Nathaniel calls him "the Son of God, the King of Israel". This exchange is respectful, not derogatory. Then Jesus talks about angels descending and ascending, and thus harkens back to the story of Jacob (Genesis 28: 12) who was also named Israel.

Jacob called one of his sons Judah, and said he was like a cub lion (Genesis 49: 9-10), John refers to the 'Lion of Judah' (Revelation 5: 5) as a postive figure in his vision.


John uses the term, "The Jews" where Matthew and Mark most often speak of the Scribes and Pharisees. When you read and compare the occasions and conversations where John uses the term with parallels in the Synoptics, this becomes clear.

It is not a generalization, and is not intended to give Jews as a group a bad name.

Paul's use of the term, especially in Romans and Galatians, where he speaks to the Law, is using the term as a reference to the "whole." In his writing, he "knows" only two groups: Christians and all others.


Yes, they do.

For Israel, you have 2. One is the alternate name of Jacob, son of Isaac. The other, it is the name of the country made up of the 12 tribes (of Israel).

Jews, however, are the people who live in Judea.

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