Israelites - Terminology


See also: Hebrews and Who is a Jew?

Prior to a meeting with rival brother, Esau, the biblical patriarch Jacob wrestles an angel on the shores of the Jabbok and is given the name 'Israel'. Throughout the rest of the Torah, Jacob is referred to at times as both Jacob and Israel, depending on which aspect of his character the text means to convey.

In modern Hebrew, B'nei Yisrael ("Children of Israel") can denote the Jewish people at any time in history; it is typically used to emphasize Jewish religious identity. From the period of the Mishna (but probably used before that period) the term Yisrael ("an Israel") acquired an additional narrower meaning of Jews of legitimate birth other than Levites and Aaronite priests (kohanim). In modern Hebrew this contrasts with the term Yisraeli, a citizen of the modern State of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity (English "Israeli").

The Greek term Jew historically refers to a member of the tribe of Judah, which formed the nucleus of the kingdom of Judah. The term Hebrew, perhaps related to the name of the Habiru nomads, has Eber as an eponymous biblical patriarch. It is used synonymously with "Israelites", or as an ethnolinguistic term of the historical speakers of the Hebrew language in general.

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