To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. 1 Corinthians 9:20

Who / What are the Jews

Hassidic Jews returning from prayer during Sukkot - near Mea Shearim

Hassidic Jews returning from prayer during Sukkot - near Mea Shearim, Jerusalem

Technically speaking, Jews are descendants of Judah ( Yehudah ), one of the twelve tribes of Israel.  (The name Yehuda means "praise" )

The nation of Judah was the Southern kingdom which was formed when Israel was divided.   Judah included the tribe of Benjamin (Binyamin) and part of Levi.

There is much speculation about what happened to the "ten lost tribes" of Israel (other than Judah and Benjamin). There are different answers.... One is that they are not lost to God and He will reveal them in His own time. Another answer is that 2 Chronicles 11 v13-16 records those from every tribe who joined Judah. Many times it is the faithful remnant that counts in God's plans, while the unfaithful are lost. Perhaps God's elect from every tribe are not lost at all but are already part of Judah.

The priests and Levites from all their districts throughout Israel sided with him. The Levites even abandoned their pasturelands and property, and came to Judah and Jerusalem because Jeroboam and his sons had rejected them as priests of the LORD. And he appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat and calf idols he had made. Those from every tribe of Israel who set their hearts on seeking the LORD, the God of Israel, followed the Levites to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to the LORD, the God of their fathers.

The Jews are not all the same and you can't make generalizations about what they believe or practice.

Here are a few distinctions between Jews.

The Kingdom of Judah

The Southern kingdom after the split following the reign of Solomon. Judah - the Jews.

The Kingdom of Israel

The Northern kingdom after the split following the reign of Solomon. Sometimes known as the "ten lost tribes" but see Ephraimites


Jews living in the state of Israel.  Those who have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) or descendants of those who did.   Plus  the very small number descended from families who never left.


The Jews who live in other nations around the world, having not returned to their homeland after the exile imposed by the Romans in 70CE.

There are still more Jews in the USA than there are in Israel.

Olim      Recent immigrants to Israel Sabra      Israelis born in Israel
Ashkenazi     Jews from Christian lands - mostly Northern Europe. Sephardi     Jews from Muslim lands  -  Middle East, North Africa and Spain
Religious Secular
Within the religious, there are . . . . 
Hasidim Strict followers of Rabbinic Judaism from Ashkenazi tradition. many speaking Yiddish.
Orthodox Traditionally observant Jews
Reform, Liberal,  Progressive Observant Jews who follow a less rigid, more modern  interpretation of Judaism
Karaite Jews who accept only the Tanakh (Old Testament) and not the teachings of the Rabbis.    (see  below )
Messianic Jews Jews who have accepted Yeshua as being the Jewish Messiah.

Messianic believers vary from some whose gatherings resemble Christian meetings through those working in a more Jewish framework, to those who are working out their own way; sometimes in secret.

This brings us to an important division that existed in the time of Yeshua's ministry

Pharisees       Parush  -  Parushim

The party Yeshua clashed with most frequently.

An essential part of their system was the belief in an oral Torah being given to Moshe at the same time as the written Torah (the first five books of the Bible)   Their system included the assertion that the oral Torah gave them authority to add practices and teachings to the body of the oral Torah which could even override the written Torah.

Saducees        Tzadokim

Probably derived their name from Zadok, the first High Priest to serve in Solomon's temple.

In first century times, a sect of the saducees did not believe in the resurrection.  These were the ones with whom Yeshua disputed about the resurrection.

The Saducees lost their role and their significance with the destruction of the second Temple.

It was Pharisaic Judaism that survived and became Rabbinic Judaism.   Thus the most significant distinction to be drawn within non-Messianic Judaism in the present day is between  . . . 

Rabinnic Judaism Karaite Judaism

Within this comparison can be seen a major reason why Yeshua was at odds with the Pharisees of his day, and why religious Jews still have more difficulties with Yeshua than just his Messianic claims.  

Yeshua was not advocating departure from the written Torah, but from the added commandments which the Pharisees held as even more important.   This is an area of confusion, even among evangelical Christians.  Many see Yeshua's disputes about washing hands etc as putting aside Torah commandments; indeed freeing us from THE LAW.  (washing hands is not a Torah commandment, but a tradition) Yeshua did not put aside any command from the written Torah.   You could check this out - or you could read the excellent book by Nehemiah Gordon,  "The Hebrew Yeshua vs the Greek Jesus."

Nehemiah Gordon was raised as a Pharisee but became a Karaite from a conviction that the Pharisaic tradition was negating the Torah by the additions it made in the Mishna and the Talmud - which collected the "Oral Torah" and the teachings of revered rabbis and sages.

The Hebrew Yeshua vs the Greek JesusThe centre point of his teaching concerns the dispute recorded in Matthew 23 v3, in which Yeshua appears to first condemn the Pharisees for their error and the burdens they impose on men, and then tell us to follow whatever they teach.   Surely a teacher of such integrity as Yeshua would not do such a thing!  

This is where Nehemiah Gordon's clarity of scholarship and specialist knowledge of Semitic texts enabled him to make a major breakthrough.   He discovered that there is a Hebrew version of Matthew's gospel, which although not as ancient as could be desired, contains enough textual evidence to prove that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew and that all Greek versions were translations from Hebrew.   (possibly via Aramaic)

The Hebrew of this passage reveals that Yeshua was not contradicting himself but was making a subtle point, which depended on one letter's difference in the Hebrew text (the difference between "them" and "him" )  to tell people to obey Moshe (Moses) and not the people who sat in the seat of Moshe.    ( Read Nehemiah's book to understand these important truths - I will give away no more than the above.)

This book also throws light on the dispute over washing hands before eating  (Matthew 15 v2-3) and on taking oaths  (Matthew 5 v33)  In every case it proves the integrity of Yeshua's teaching and clears up a difficulty with Greek based interpretations.

It is surely another sign of the amazing things God is doing that a Karaite, who does not  believe that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah, has been raised up to give such important understanding about Yeshua to Christians.      It is also very significant to Messianic believers who are attempting to reconcile their trust in Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah with a form of Judaism which still includes a nineteenth prayer in the "Shemoneh Esrei"  (eighteen) which puts a curse on those who follow the teacher Yeshua from Natzeret.   

We all need to understand the distinction between . . . . . . 

Following the Torah    (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy) and the rest of the Tanakh  without adding to it or taking away from it. Following the teachings and traditions of the Rabbis when they conflict with the Torah.   (Talmud, Oral Torah, and Mishna )

This distinction would appear to make it more difficult than we might wish to identify closely with Jewish people.   However, perhaps understanding the problem brings us a step closer to overcoming it; or allowing God to overcome it.

The Talmud

The Talmud is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. It has two components: the Mishnah (c200AD, edited by Rabbi Judah HaNasi), which is the first written compendium of Judaism’s Oral Law, and the Gemara (c500AD), an elucidation of the Mishnah. The Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and is over 6,200 pages long. It contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis on a variety of subjects, including: law, ethics, philosophy, customs, history, theology and love. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of rabbinic law and is much quoted in other rabbinic literature.

Orthodox Jews accept the Talmud as authoritative and its study is a central component for those training to be rabbis.

Before condemning the Pharisees or the Rabbis too enthusiastically - do we Christians add traditions, forms of righteousness and requirements to the scriptures and the gospel with which we have been entrusted?

Updated 09/09/13

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