Under the Old Covenant (or Old Testament, same difference) one had to be of a certain bloodline from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Judah and/or Benjamin (and possibly Levi) to fall under the category Jew, or one had to be added into one of the tribes of Judah as a proselyte, follow certain ceremonial acts to be a Jew. Paul in the New Covenant says this is no longer (sufficiently?!) relevant.

‭‭Romans‬ ‭2‬:‭28

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.

For apparently to Paul a true Jew had to be acknowledged by God and God doesn’t look to the outward appearance but to the heart.

‭‭Romans‬ ‭2‬:‭29

But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.‬ ‭

So then therefore, who is a Jew according to Paul in the New Covenant and is anyone excluded from being a Jew? Can Gentiles be Jews in the New Covenant or do they fall under one of the other ten tribes of Israel, as per

Ephesians‬ ‭2‬:‭12

remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.‬ ‭

Can Gentiles still be true Jews given proselytizing allowed even someone from the other ten tribes to become a Jew in the Old Covenant?

And when James writes his epistle, is he addressing the church as being made up of true Jews and Gentiles in the commonwealth of Israel (the ten tribes)?

‭‭James‬ ‭1‬:‭1

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.‬ ‭

Who did Paul have in mind when he said true Jews? Everyone? Was he using Jew generically or was this just for those who had Jewish blood lineage but were now by faith in the new covenant - given the old covenant is now obsolete after the crucifixion of Jesus (Hebrews 8:13) who annulled the old covenant as per Romans 7:1-6 the law of the first husband thus releasing all twelve tribes from the covenant of marriage at Mount Sinai.


6 Answers 6


Paul continues his thoughts on this subject at length. Perhaps the best excerpt of these chapters to answer the OP's question is found in Rom. 3:21-25:

The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law... the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed.

In terms of the OP's question, the answer according to Paul is thus that true Jews, regardless of their ethnic heritage and religious background, are those who receive God's grace through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

  • 1
    Agreed, excellent supporting passage. Would have liked a more extensive and in-depth response but I do agree with this response Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:59
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    In fact it's the same statement as "It is the men of faith who are the sons of Abraham" (Galatians ch3 v7). That is, the re-definition of "God's people". Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 16:33
  • Indeed. Not excluding the Jews but not automatically including them by natural descent or religion either. +1 Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 13:12

The audience whom Paul was speaking to were Jews. Paul started that speech (Romans 2:17-29) with 'Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; (Romans 2:17 NIV).

Jews, as descendants of Abraham, believed that they were naturally entitled to the covenant of Abraham. Circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and to his descendants (Genesis 17:11-12). Over Two thousands years have passed since then, the Jews came to see this sign as more important than their obligation to obey God. In other words, they have come to value the seal on a contract more than the terms written on it.

I would consider Paul used the term 'Jew' as he was speaking to the Jews. His meaning of a 'true Jew' represent a person truly obedient to God, regardless that person was a Jew or a Gentile;

Romans 2:27-29 NIV

27 The one who is not circumcised (gentiles) physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you (Jews) who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. 28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

Paul used the term 'Jew' in a spiritual sense, rather than a physical one. According to him, anyone who have faith in God and obey Him can be considered a 'true Jew'. This echoes the same sentiment expressed in Romans 9:6 where he says: "It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel."

In Paul's mind, he saw Jews and Gentiles as one people. In Ephesians 3:6, he refers to the mystery of the gospel that unites them. He wrote;

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

The obsolescence of the Old covenant does not imply a divorce decree between God and the Israelites. The covenant of Abraham is never intended to the Israelites alone. When God promised Abraham that "all nations on earth will be blessed through him (Genesis 18:18), the New Covenant is the fulfillment of this promise. Through Christ, the descendant of Abraham, all nations on earth becomes heirs, regardless of whether they are Jews or Gentiles (Ephesians 3:6).

  • 1
    Thank you for your response. I agree with the first part until the last paragraph. I don’t have the time to expound on it but through Jesus’ death the covenant on Mt Sinai was annulled, NOT the Abrahamic promise (who was NOT a Jew) received by faith by a Gentile. And this is a wonderful thing because this allowed the legal requirements of the Mosaic law to be dismissed and be replaced with a new and better covenant that allowed Jews and Gentiles to enter into covenant with God without the requirement of bloodlines as confirmed by J1:12,13 but by faith. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 16:37

John uses similar terminology when quoting Christ:

Rev 2:9 — I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
Rev 3:9 — the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie

John and Paul (in Romans 2:28–29) are using the terminology of their time. They did not mean what we today use those words to mean.

If John's meaning were translated into modern English, it would be "which say they are Christians" and "church of Satan".

"Synagogue" is simply a name for the building where people pray and study. "Jew" is simply a name for people that follow God's truth. The word "church" was used in scripture, but it referred to the members of a congregation, not to a building.

At the time, Christians were considered a small sect of Judaism, so it's natural that they were still using the same terminology.

Paul's "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly" should be understood as "For no one is a Christian who is merely one outwardly".

As for James 1:1, "To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion", while Paul was apostle to the Gentiles, James and others were apostles to all of Israel, not only to the Jews. The "Ten Lost Tribes" had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians, and were then located east of the Caspian Sea.

In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
— 2 Kings 17:6

… there are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers
— Josephus

  • You bring out some important points but at the same time seem to conflate some distinctions even if they could pass on technicality. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:38
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    Also it wasn’t John speaking in Rev2:9 it was Jesus, and that’s an important distinction and worthy of noting that this was not merely the view held by the church but by our Lord Himself Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:41

The promises made to Israel in the OT were always open to all people who "joined themselves to the LORD". See appendix 1 below.

The same was true in the NT as evidenced by the following:

  • Rom 2:28, 29 - A man is not a Jew because he is one outwardly, nor is circumcision only outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew because he is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise does not come from men, but from God. [This is direct allusion to Deut 10:16, 30:6, Jer 4:4 - the true entrance into the people of the promise.]
  • Rom 9:6, 8 - For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. ... So it is not the children of the flesh who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as offspring.
  • Paul's metaphor of the olive tree in Rom 11:11-24 makes the same point in an extended way - biological Jews could be cut by disobedience but could be grafted back in, just as the gentiles were. Thus, the composition of the "Israel of God" (= true Israel) is "chosen by grace" as per Rom 11:5, 6.
  • Gal 6:16 - And as many as those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

James 1:1 with address to "the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" requires special consideration. There have been at least three understandings of the people to whom James refers:

  • biological Jews only. This would make the epistle of James quite odd because 10 of the tribes had been lost 700 years earlier. It would also mean that it was no addressed to Christians and thus was not a "catholic" (= universal) letter - a title it has enjoyed from earliest times. It would also be strange that James identifies himself as a "servant of Jesus Christ" - an appellation odious to the Jews.
  • biological Jews who had converted to Christianity. While this is more credible, it still suffers from the problem that the 10 tribes no longer existed. It also excludes this "catholic epistle" being such, ie, not addressed to anyone other than converted Jews.
  • a metaphoric reference to the totality of Christians throughout the world. This is the option that appears to be most consistent with NT teaching and Paul's teaching in particular.

According to the above, the New Covenant was a direct extension of the Old Covenant which was always "of the heart" (see appendix 2 below).

APPENDIX 1 - Definition of OT Jews

Note that while Israel was chosen as the instrument to tell and show the world of God’s saving grace, salvation was always available to all people. Indeed, the Old Testament contains many examples of foreigners becoming part of Israel, indicating that the Israelite Covenant was open to all and was never exclusive. For example:

  • The unfortunate story in Gen 38 about Judah and Tamar shows that a foreigner became the mother of the tribe of Judah.
  • When Jacob entered Egypt, his family numbered 75 people (Acts 7:14, Ex 1:5). Some of these were not direct descendants of Abraham such as the wives of the 12 patriarchs, notably Joseph’s own wife. 215 years and four generations later at the exodus, Israel’s army had over 600,000 men, excluding women and children, (Ex 12:37, Num 1:46, etc) suggesting a total population of several million people, requiring many additions. This included a significant mixed multitude (Ex 12:38) showing that Israel obviously consisted of many non-biological Jews had joined. (Note that it is biologically impossible for Israelite numbers to have grown from 75 to several million biologically without many outside additions.)
  • Moses married a Midianite (Ex 2:16-21) also known as a Cushite. Miriam and Aaron were severely reprimanded and punished for displaying racism (Num 12:1, 2)
  • Caleb, who represented and led the tribe of Judah was a Kennizite (Num 32:12).
  • Rahab was a Canaanite (Josh 2:1, 2, Matt 1:5)
  • Ruth was Moabite (Ruth 1:4 16, 17, Matt 1:5) – these last two make King David descended from foreigners (Ruth 4:13-16).
  • Uriah was a Hittite (2 Sam 11:3)
  • King David’s elite personal regiment consisted of Gittites, that is, Philistines (2 Sam 15:18-22, 1 Chron 18:17)
  • Isa 14:1 - When the LORD has compassion on Jacob and again chooses Israel, and settles them on their own land, then strangers will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob.
  • Isa 56:6, 7 - And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD to minister to Him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be His servants— all who keep the Sabbath without profaning it and who hold fast to My covenant—I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on My altar, for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” See also V3.
  • The Rechabites were Kenites (Jer 35:1-19)
  • Many other foreigners lived in Israel (1 Chron 22:2, 17, 2 Chron 30:25)
  • In Esther’s time “many of the people of the land became Jews” (Esther 8:17, 9:27)
  • Even in NT times, many Jewish synagogues were attended by godly gentiles converted to Judaism (Acts 13:16, 26, 16:14, 17:17)
  • Many Jewish proselytes came to worship in Jerusalem (John 20:20, Acts 2:9-11)
  • Jesus quotes Isa 56:7, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations”, Mark 11:17.
  • Further, biological Israelites could opt out of the covenant and be cut-off (Ex 30:33, 38, 31:14, Lev 7:20, 21, 25, 27).

APPENDIX 2 - Matter of the Heart

The Old Covenant was a matter of the “heart” (Deut 6:5, 10:12, 16, 11:18, Ps 40:8, Jer 24:7, 31:33, 34, 32:38-40, Eze 11:19, 18:31, 36:26) and NOT mere regulations (1 Sam 15:22, Ps 40:6-8, 51:16, 17, Prov 15:8, 21:3, Isa 1:10-17, Jer 6:3-6, 20, Hos 6:6, Micah 6:6-8).

These references make it clear that the Old Israelite Covenant did not really include the animal sacrifices, and that they could not define nor atone for sin. (Heb 9:9, 10:4, Ps 51:16, 17, 1 Sam 15:22). The animal sacrifices and the sanctuary ritual were part of the Levitical covenant which acted as teaching device that anticipated, and was a type of, the High Priestly ministry of Messiah. It was this Levitical Covenant that was fulfilled by Jesus as per Matt 5:17-19.


The OP notes, “To Paul a true Jew had to be acknowledged by God and God doesn’t look to the outward appearance but to the heart.” I believe this statement holds the answer to the OP’s question. If we look at the entire context of Romans 2, Paul is saying that only God, who alone can see into a person’s heart, can judge the genuineness of a person’s faith. It is therefore not “who did Paul have in mind” but who does God have in mind that is key. Paul’s words in Romans 2 reflect an enduring truth that is applicable both then and now, whether we speak of Jew and gentile or Christian and non-Christian.

Romans 2:28-29 BLB

28 For the one on the outside a Jew is not, neither that on the outside in flesh is circumcision. 29 But he who is a Jew is one on the inside; and circumcision is of heart, in spirit, not in letter, of whom the praise is not of men, but of God.

  • If you’re saying that it cannot be known if a person is born again by faith and has the fruit of the Spirit, thus demonstrating they are a true Jew, but it’s some mystery only known to God, I utterly disagree with your statement. It should be very obvious as Romans explains that a person of faith, lives by faith and obeys in faith. Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 1:06
  • @NihilSineDeo Looking at the context, the things of which you speak are not yet in view. Romans 2 is instead a reminder not to judge others but to be watchful over oneself lest we become over confident/arrogant in our own faith. "A guide of the blind, a light to those in darkness" - sharp words to stir the conscience. If, as Paul says, faith is an inward reality, if the mark of faith is on the heart that only God can see, then yes, I believe it is a mystery known only to God, He who will judge the "secrets" of men.
    – Nhi
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 12:27
  • Not immediately in view, but not permanently out of view in this life either, as it seems to are suggesting. I don’t know why you’re adamant about saying, we cannot know who is and is not full of the Holy Spirit, and therefore in faith. If it was possible for the early church to select men full of the Holy Spirit, then it was obvious enough to identify them. If Paul instructs Timothy how to choose leaders then it becomes apparent at some point. Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 0:27
  • @NihilSineDeo If I do appear to be adamant, it is not based on personal conviction but on how I understand Rom 2:29 and its context. 1 Cor 4:1-5, I think, more directly addresses your point. In that passage, St. Paul says that while the stewards of God must undergo human scrutiny, he himself considers such scrutiny a matter of little consequence (vv 2-3). He adds that he does not even judge himself, leaving all judgment to God (vv 3-5).
    – Nhi
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 3:43
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    @NihilSineDeo Your point is valid; such judgments are necessary for practical purposes. It is precisely for this reason, I think, that St. Paul belabors his point, which is that we should be careful not to confuse our judgment with God's.
    – Nhi
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 12:50

None of those verses show that a sinful Jew is not a Jew. The verses of Rom 2:28-29 seems to be misunderstood into saying that since a true character of a Jew is from inward, of the heart, not outward appearance such as circumcision, therefore Gentiles can be Jews. Such an interpretation is highly absurd. If this was true, then Paul wouldn't bother continuing the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. That verse talks about the purpose and function of the Jew, not the identity itself.

Jew First and then the others...

Paul continues to remind the Gentile churches that Jews hold primacy as the natural children or people of God in everything for the Church of God, and then comes the Gentiles. Romans 1:16; 2:9-10. The inclusion of Gentiles in the Church of God does not mean dissolution of the Jewish identity or the holy nation (cf. Romans 11:1, 11, 28-29; Ps 89; Ps 105:10; Isa 54:10; Isa 61:8; Jer 31:35-37; 33:23-26). Ephesians 2 says that the Gentiles join the religion of the Jews by being united "in Christ", not in Israel. Gentile's do not join the nation of Israel, they come close with Israel through Christ, they don't become or replace Israel.

A bad Jew no more cease to be Jewish than a bad Greek ceases to be a Greek, or a bad woman ceases to be a woman for being bad. Galatians 3:28 has been misinterpreted to deny gender and ethnicity, in the racist agenda to deny the rights of the Jewish people.

Gentiles never join the 12 tribes of the Jews, because they are not Jews. James' epistle is for the Jewish Church.

Though the Rev 2:9; 3:9 reference to the false Jews as the "synagogue of Satan" is interpreted historically to persecute and hate the Jews in general, it can also be interpreted as imposter satanic Gentiles posing as Jews, trying to usurp the rights of the people of God.

Who is a Jew?

Paul makes it clear in reminding his Jewish ethnicity. You can argue what characteristics fulfil the true purpose of a Jew, such as obeying the spiritual requirements and inward works of God, rather than mere outward appearance. However, remember that Jewish identity is based on their ethnicity or race, which has not been ignored or dissolved in theological terms in the New Testament. There is no change in the definition or ethnicity of the Jewish people. Ethnicity is not a matter of imagination, they remain God's chosen people with an eternal covenant possessing the land of God. Also note that being spiritual children of Abraham also doesn't make a Christian an Israelite, since only the children of Isaac and Jacob are called Israel. Jacob is Israel, not Abraham. All attempts to reinterpret the Bible to replace Israel can be easily refuted.

[Rom 11:1-2 NASB] I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in [the passage about] Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?

  • I understand you hold to a more mainstream well accepted view but I want to correct you on definitions. Jew refers EXCLUSIVELY to Judah and Benjamin, to say that James when addressing the TWELVE tribes of Israel was addressing the Jewish Church and therefore by extension ONLY TWO tribes, makes for terrible math. Jews are not twelve tribes they are only two maybe three if you include Levi. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 17:05
  • read this article to clear the myth of lost tribes khouse.org/articles/1995/40 After the Babylonian captivity, the terms "Jew" and "Israelite" are used interchangeably. Ezra calls the returning remnant "Jews" 8 times and "Israel" 40 times. (Ezra also speaks of "all Israel": Ezra 2:70; 3:11; 8:35; 10:25, et al.)
    – Michael16
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 17:13
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    To say that there is NO distinction between Judah and Israel old and new covenant is to admit a superficial reading of the scriptures. Hosea1:9-11 makes this distinction and the unification, also referencing Hosea is Paul Romans9:25 as do the prophets Ezekiel37:17-19 shows the joining of Judah with Israel. Ezra chapter 1 explains exactly who those Israeli were, Judah and Benjamin. Jews are Israeli or Israel or children of Israel technically yes but not all of Israel is Judah and Benjamin. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 17:33
  • There is also an explanation why the Jews after the Babylonian captivity took on the name Israel, because they now excluded the ten tribes from Israel and considered only themselves, the Jews as worthy of the title Israel, for indeed God gave the ten tribes or Israel, or the kingdom to the north a certificate of divorce. Jer3:6-10 or Isa50:1. They were no longer relevant under the old covenant.So when you quote Peter as using men of Israel, or inhabitants of the land of Israel, it’s not specific ethnically to all tribes.It can include all twelves tribes if they are represented but not required Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 17:43
  • also see khouse.org/articles/1999/228 for James letter reference of 12 tribes and khouse.org/enews_article/2007/1244
    – Michael16
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 17:47

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