Words are squiggling little things, tough to nail down their meanings are always changing. When we speak, we presume that the word we use means the same thing to another person as it does to us. But, it often doesnt work like that.
A challenging word that has a variety of meanings yet seems so simple and obvious is Jews. It has a long, distinguished history.
The word is rooted in the name Judah, which refers both to one of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel) and to the Israelite tribe that traced its ancestry to Judah.
After the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan, each tribe was given a territory. From that point on, Judah refers not only to a son of Jacob and to a tribe but also to a geographical area.
After the death of Saul, the first king of all the Israelites, David of Judah succeeded him. Initially, he ruled only Judah; later he ruled all Israel. However, this unity was short-lived. A few years later, all the Israelite tribes except Benjamin rebelled against Davids grandson, and the Israelites became permanently divided into two separate kingdoms.
Judah now begins to refer also to a geopolitical entity, the southern kingdom. The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.; the kingdom of Judah survived until its conquest by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.
Until that time, the Bible refers to the people as Israelites. It was only after the conquest of Judah that we find the people referred to as Jews and the land as Judea.
Jews now means the people of God worshipers of the one God and practitioners of a religion, Judaism.
In the New Testament it is not so clear what Jews means. For example, Jesus and his apostles are called Galileans. This seems to distinguish them from Jews in the sense of people from Judea yet they are all, religiously speaking, Jews.
At times the Jews are portrayed as hostile to Jesus and his disciples. This seems to refer to the official religious leaders, especially those who collaborated with the Romans. Criticism of the Jews cannot refer to all Jews, since Jesus and his disciples are numbered among them.
At that time, Jews were divided by doctrine and practice into Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. Jesus followers formed a new group, messianic Jews, later called Christians.
There are many references to criticism of Jesus by Pharisees and Sadducees. In the years after his death, hostility broke out between them and Jesus followers. Jews came to mean those Jews in opposition to the Jews who followed Jesus.
After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisee school survived and evolved into modern Judaism. The missionary, expansionist part of the Jewish family became Christianity.
Alas, the ancient differences and hostilities survived rather than the unifying, common traditions and faith. For many, Jews became a pejorative term.
Its baffling how a Christian can be anti-Semitic. I think it means he hates himself.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA