The Jews

There are a two different categories of Jews: ethnic and religious. Ethnically, Jews are descendants of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. Jacob was renamed Israel (meaning "he struggles with God") as an adult1. Thus, the ancient term "Israelites" was a synonym for "Jew". "Hebrew" was a term applied to Abraham, and so (I suppose) could technically apply to any of his descendants. However, apart from Abraham, that term only applies to Jews in the Bible. After New Testament times, "Hebrew" is only used in reference to the language of the Jews. The modern English word "Jew" originated in the middle ages from earlier, similar-sounding, words. The Hebrew word is "Yehudi" (one transliteration is "Jehudi"). "Jehudi", "Judah", "Judea", "Judiasm", and "Jew" all seem to have derived from the same ancient origins.

The New Testament sometimes refers to Jews as "the circumcised"2. Circumcision was introduced to Abraham3, and there are many non-Jews (such as Arabs) that are circumcised, but since nearly all of the New Testament was written by Jews, "circumcision" and "Jews" are equated. In like manner, non-Jews are sometimes referred to as the "uncircumcised", but usually as "Gentiles".

Another term used to refer to Jews is "Semite". Technically, a Semite is any descendent of Noah's son, Shem. In the modern day, Arabs and Jews alike would technically be Semites. However, the term "antisemitic" has come to specifically mean "anti-Jew". I've never heard of anyone who hated Arabs being called "antisemitic". Thus, through a sloppy use of language, it seems that "Semite" and "Jew" are now equivalent.

Finally, in the New Testament, "Greek" is generally applied to Gentiles rather than someone specifically of Greek ethnicity or origin. Thus, the Jews of the time often divided the world into "Greeks" and "Jews".

From a religious standpoint, there are several modern variants of Jews, which can roughly be categorized in five branches:
Orthodox Judaism. This can be divided into Modern Orthodox Judaism and Haredi (or Ultra-Orthodox Judaism). Hasidic Jews are a subset of Haredi Jews. All of these are religious Jews who do their best to follow the Mosaic law. They are awaiting the appearance of the Messiah. They have various perspectives on Jesus, but they are united in rejecting Him as the Messiah. They do not recognize the authority of the New Testament. Gentiles who convert to Judaism convert to Orthodox Judaism. I'm not aware of any "converts" to other variants of Judaism.
Reformed Judaism. Also referred to as Liberal Judaism or Progressive Judiasm. This developed in the 18th-century. While they esteem some traditions and the morality of the Old Testament, they largely reject ceremonial observances and the authority of the Old Testament (and New Testament) scriptures. North America is the center of Reformed Judaism.
Conservative Judaism. Also referred to as "Traditional Judaism" or "Masorti". This is a middle ground between Orthodox and Reformed Judaism. The primary concern is preserving Jewish tradition. One minor offshoot of this is "Reconstructionist Judaism".
Messianic Judaism. These are Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. They accept the authority of both Old and New testaments. As believers in Jesus, they could be called Christians. However, due to some unfortunate connotations with the word "Christian", they do not refer to themselves that way.
Secular Jews. There are some ethnic Jews who do not fall into any of the other religious categories - usually they are non-religious. Some claim that nearly 30% of Jews in America fall into this category.

Jewish identity flows from the ethnic origins of the Jews, as described above, as well as shared history from then to modern times. Although some intermarriage with Gentiles has occurred over the years, the Jewish people, as an ethnic group, are remarkably homogeneous. This has been accomplished from within by strongly discouraging marriage outside the group. It has often been discouraged from without by general racism and outright antisemitism.

Many (if not most) ethnic groups do not survive for thousands of years. They are either wiped out by other groups, or merge with another group to become a new group. The smaller the group, the more likely it is. Thus, the survival of the Jewish people for over 3,500 years is remarkable. In fact, some people consider the survival of the Jewish people to be proof of the existence of God. God has, indeed, been protecting the Jewish people from the start, despite the multiple attempts to destroy them one way or another. The first attempt was at the beginning with Jacob and his children, when the people of Shechem wanted to absorb the Jews into their people.4 Many other attempts were made over the centuries. Perhaps the most famous related in scripture was the attempt by Haman to completely wipe out the Jews.5 More recently there have been attempts by the Nazis and radical Islamists to do the same.

But the Bible is clear that the Jews are God's chosen people. Jacob (Israel) related that God has promised him that he would become a community of people and the God would give him the land (of Israel) as an everlasting possession6. God's message to the Israelite slaves in Egypt was that He would take them as His own people7. Later, Moses says8 "The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession." Now some may wonder why God chose the Jews as His people. Moses answers that in the very next verse where He points out that God chose the Jews because He is loving and He made promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He makes it clear that there was nothing about the Jews that made them special, lest they become arrogant and self-righteous. Of course, humans being humans, some of the Jews began to assume that they were inherently righteous, even after their exile to other nations for idolatry. By the time of Jesus, there were still some who confused God's election with their own righteous. Paul had to tell Jewish believers that God shows no favoritism9. Thus, the Jews are not His favorites, even if they are His chosen.

So what were God's purposes in His promises to the Jews? Paul tells us that God chose Isaac because he was born as a result of a promise to Sarah10, as opposed the Ishmael who was born to Hagar, an Egyptian slave (and born as a result of a lack of faith on the part of Sarah) - Isaac was born miraculously after his parents were past the age of childbearing. Likewise, Jacob was given the blessing and birthright of the eldest although Esau was older. All of this was to demonstrate that God chose the Jews to illustrate His character and power, not that of the any man or people. In other words, there was nothing inherently special about the Jews (or any other ethnic group). God decides who to exalt and who to bring low, to accomplish His good purposes. And a huge part of His plan was that, through the Jews, Jesus was born to save the whole world.

Does that mean that God is now done with the Jews? No. God's promises are forever. And He is on record saying that those who bless Abraham, and thus by extension his Jews descendants, will be blessed and those who cursed them will be cursed.11 That doesn't mean that God wants people to support any given Jew or Jewish state that does something evil. Being God's chosen people doesn't mean you are allowed to do things contrary to His explicit commands. But if you want to be blessed by God, be a blessing to the Jews.

As mentioned earlier, Jesus was born a Jew. The first Christians were Jews. As of Acts 4:4, there were about 5,000 men who were believers (and probably women in addition). After that, it becomes impossible to make any definitive statement about the number of Christians. However, one thing is clear: until Acts 10, with the conversion of Cornelius, all Christians were Jews or prior converts to Judaism. The Christian leaders (James and Peter) were Jews, and the first missionaries were Jews. For a while, Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism12. With the missionary journeys of Paul and isolated incidents such as illustrated by Acts 10, the ranks of Christians began to swell with Gentiles. Given the relative numbers of Jews and Gentiles in the world, it is no surprise that the Gentiles soon became the dominant make up of the church. It seems clear that by the end of the first century, Jews were a small minority among Christians.

How did a faith that started entirely with Jews, whose leaders were Jews, whose majority was Jewish for many years, become something that is no longer even associated with Jews in the eyes of most people? I believe there were several factors that led to this. First, one must understand the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, especially in the first century. In the few hundred years before that, after the Jews had returned from their exile, they were oppressed by the Greek Seleucids and then the Roman rescuers became their oppressors. This did not endear Gentiles to the Jews, to say the least. This, combined with the idea that - as God's chosen people - they were more righteous than everyone else, led to a feeling of superiority and an animosity towards all Gentiles. This was so ingrained in them that they would not even enter the house of a Gentile. As related in Acts chapters 10 and 11, up until the conversion of Cornelius, the Jewish believers didn't even think that Gentiles could be saved. Nevertheless, they were. But even though they were accepted into the ranks, the Jewish believers wanted to Judiaze the Gentile believers. This came to a head as recorded in Acts chapter 15 where a council was held in Jerusalem and the Jewish leaders decided that the Gentile believers neither had to be circumcized nor follow the Mosaic law or Jewish customs. But even after that, the early church continued to struggle with this issue, as indicated in Paul's letters. In fact, most of the letter to the Galatians addresses the attempt by some to try to lure the Gentile believers into Jewish practices.

Given the Jewish feelings toward Gentiles, in general, and the growing number of Gentile believers, and the fact that the Gentile believers were exempted from becoming more like Jews, there was an increasing resistance among Jews to becoming Christians. Over time, as the focus of Christianity shifted from the Jews to the Gentiles simply because of sheer numbers - and the removal of Jewish leadership after the destruction of Jerusalem - the beginnings of the church became lost to the memory of most people until we get to the condition we have today where many Jews and Gentiles alike are unaware that Jesus was an orthodox Jew. Granted, He was much more than that, but the only points His critics could raise against His manner of living was that He did not abide by their additions to the Scriptures. Of course, the continued mistreatment of Jews throughout history, sometimes by those associated with Christianity, helped to solidify the idea in modern Jewish minds that Christianity has nothing to do with them. This is why Messianic Jews do not refer to themselves as Christians, although that is, technically, what they are (by my definition of "Christian"). Biblical illiteracy - and an inability to see the facts when the scriptures are read - are the primary reason these historical facts seem to be lost on most people.

Paul was sad about the general hardness of Jewish hearts against the gospel. Being a Jew himself, he wished for his fellow Jews to come to Jesus13, despite the fact that God sent him primarily to preach to the Gentiles. However, he states that this partial hardening of the Jews would only last until the end of the time of the Gentiles, after which there will be a huge turning of the Jews to Jesus as their Messiah14. This has not happened yet, but it will. My guess is that the church will become primarily populated with Jews after the rapture removes the (predominantly Gentile) Christians from the Earth. The 144,000 believers mentioned in Revelation chapter 14 may be this very turning of the Jews to Jesus that Paul prophesied.

Given God's promises to the Jews, the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and that the early church was Jewish, it is distressing to me that there have been people that refer to Jews as "Christ killers". Granted, the Jewish leaders were complicit in it, but it was the Gentile Romans that put Jesus to death. So both Jews and Gentiles are guilty. Singling out Jews strikes me as simply an excuse for antisemitic racism. God's promises stand. The Jews are still His chosen people. The idea that some theologians have that the Christian church has taken the place of the Jews in God's overall scheme, is grossly misleading at best. God's promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and their descendants) are irrevocable because He is faithful and constant. He has not rejected them, though they have thus far rejected His Son15. One day, many Jews will wake up to the fact that Jesus is the promised Messiah and will turn to Him.

1 Genesis 32:28, 35:10
2 Galatians 2:7, etc.
3 Genesis 17:10
4 Genesis 34:20-24
5 Book of Esther
6 Genesis 48:4
7 Exodus 6:2-8
8 Deuteronomy 7:6
9 Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6
10 Galatians 4:22-31
11 Genesis 12:3
12 Acts 24:14
13 Romans 9:3
14 Romans 11:25-26
15 Romans 11:1,28