Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel, Israelites

Jews are known as a Semitic people because they are said to be descended from Noah's son Shem (see Big ideas: Noah and the flood). In Genesis 11:10-32, the line of descent is traced from Shem to Abram, or Abraham, regarded as the father of the Jewish race. The term Israelites, or Children of Israel, dates from the migration to Egypt of Abraham's grandson Jacob, who was also known as Israel (see Genesis 32:24-28) and his extended family (Genesis 46:5-7). The name Hebrew is also used, from Genesis onwards, for Abraham and his descendants (e.g. Genesis 14:13, Exodus 2:11). The first use of the term Jew to refer to the Jewish people as a whole comes in the book of Esther which tells of a foiled plot to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire (Esther chapters: 3, 7, 8).


Judaism is the oldest monotheistic faith, a religion which teaches the existence of one all-powerful God. After the days of the Patriarchs, God was often described as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and after the Exodus to the Promised Land, also as ‘The God who brought you out of Egypt.' The relationship between Israel and God was ratified by a series of covenants (e.g. Genesis 15:18; Genesis 35:10-13 Exodus 24:3-11). See Big ideas: Patriarchs; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism.

The first two of the Ten Commandments, given by God to the Israelites through Moses, are

‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me' and ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth' (Exodus 20:3-4).

See Big ideas: Ten Commandments.

These requirements proved an on-going challenge to the Israelites, surrounded as they were by other nations who worshipped many gods represented by visible idols. The Old Testament warns of the consequences of turning to the worship of other gods. It warns this will lead to succumbing to idolatry, which was the main reason why many were taken into captivity and exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (e.g. Nehemiah 9:32-37).


Jesus was a Jew who is presented in the New Testament as the Messiah promised by Old Testament prophets, and as God himself in human form (e.g. Luke 22:66-70). The first followers of Jesus were Jews who believed him to be the Messiah because of his miracles, the authority of his teaching, the way he fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, and the fact that he came alive again from the dead as he had foretold (Acts 2:22-36). See Big ideas: Messiah, Christ, Jesus.

The unnamed writer of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews explains in great detail how Jesus Christ, as the ‘Great High Priest' fulfilled all the roles and functions of the Old Testament system of sacrifice and atonement (Hebrews 9:11-14), see Big ideas: Atonement and sacrifice.

Jesus made it clear that ‘his kingdom was not of this world', but his accusers used his claim to be King of the Jews as a lever to persuade the Roman governor Pilate to have him killed by crucifixion. (John 18:33-37; John 19:12).

Saul of Tarsus, who changed his name to Paul when he became a Christian, was trained in the Jewish law and scriptures. After his conversion, he preached extensively to non-Jews (Gentiles), but he also longed for his fellow-Jews to believe that Jesus was the Messiah (Romans 10:1; Romans 11:25-32).


The destruction of JerusalemFollowing the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jews, like Christians, became more widely scattered through the then known world; this is known as the Diaspora. During the early centuries after the time of Christ, hostility gradually increased between Jews and Christians.

By the Middle Ages, Jews were often called ‘Christ murderers', persecuted and confined to ghettos in towns and cities, known as ‘Jewry'. Persecution of Jews has continued to the present day. During World War 2, this was manifest in the Holocaust when millions of Jews were killed. Despite global condemnation of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism continues to be a major issue today and the existence of the modern-day state of Israel still polarises opinion.

Jews in literature

Andrew Marvell's reference to ‘the conversion of the Jews' as an expected future event, in the poem To his coy mistress refers to Paul's longing, in the Book of Romans, for Jews to recognise Jesus as the Messiah.

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's Prioress tells the story of a pious Christian child murdered by Jews because he is singing a hymn in honour of the Virgin Mary, mother of the Redeemer (Christ). The perpetrators are punished ‘with torment, and with shameful death.'

While Chaucer shows no sympathy for Jews, modern critics argue this is not true of Shakespeare. Although Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is cast as the villain, and is duly punished, he is also shown to have good cause for his contempt at the double standards of the Christians, who abuse Jews for exacting usury, and yet are very glad to borrow from them. He has reason to be hostile towards Antonio, who ‘spits upon his Jewish gaberdine', and after listing the many ways in which Antonio has wronged him he asks,

‘And what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? … If you prick us, do we not bleed? … and if you wrong us, will we not revenge?' (Merchant of Venice, Act III Scene 1, 55-78).

Anti-Semitism was rife in Shakespeare's day, and Shylock's enforced ‘conversion' as part of his sentence, reflected a common practice in parts of Europe, particularly under the Spanish Inquisition.

In Christopher Marlowe's play, The Jew of Malta, Barnabas is more grotesquely demonised and punished.

Related topics

Big ideas: Atonement and sacrifice; Patriarchs; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism; Messiah, Christ, Jesus; Moses; Noah and the flood; Ten Commandments

Other cultural references

Marvell's To his coy mistress

Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (the Prioress)

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Marlowe's The Jew of Malta

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.