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Hebrews (Hebrew: עברים or עבריים, Tiberian ʿIḇrîm, ʿIḇriyyîm; Modern Hebrew ʿIvrim, ʿIvriyyim; ISO 259-3 ʕibrim, ʕibriyim) is an ethnonym used in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible). It is mostly taken as synonymous with the Semitic Israelites, especially in the pre-monarchic period when they were still nomadic, but in some instances it may also be used in a wider sense, referring to the Phoenicians, or to other ancient groups, such as the group known as Shasu of Yhw on the eve of the Bronze Age collapse.[1]

By the Roman era, Greek Hebraios could refer to the Jews in general, as Strong's Hebrew Dictionary puts it "any of the Jewish Nation"[2] and at other times more specifically to the Jews living in Judea. In Early Christianity, the Greek term Εβραία (feminine) Εβραίες (plural) Εβραί (masculine) refers to Christianizing Jews, as opposed to the gentile Christians and Christian Judaizers (Acts 6:1 among others). Ιουδαία is the province where the Temple was located.

The Old Testament of the Christian Bible uses Hebrews and Jews interchangeably, in the Book Of Esther (2:5) Mordechai the Benjamite is called a Jew,[3] though he is not of the tribe of Judah. In Jonah 1:9 Jonah is called a Hebrew.[4]

In Armenian, Italian, Kurdish, Old French and a few other languages the transfer of the name from Hebrew to Jew never took place, and 'Hebrew' is the primary used word for a Jew.[5][6][7][8]



The origin of the term remains uncertain.[9] The biblical word Ivri (Hebrew: עברי), meaning to traverse or pass over. In the plural it is Ivrim, or Ibrim. It is usually rendered as Hebrew in English, from the ancient Greek Ἑβραῖος and Latin Hebraeus.

In Genesis 10:21 Shem, the elder brother of Ham and Japheth, first born son of Noah, is referred to as the father of the sons of Eber (עבר), which may have a similar meaning.

Some authors argue that Ibri denotes the descendants of the biblical patriarch Eber (Hebrew עבר), son of Shelah, a great grandson of Noah and an ancestor of Abraham,[10] hence the occasional anglicization Eberites.

The term has not been found in biblical or extra-biblical sources for any tribe or nation other than Abraham and his descendants.[11]

Shasu of Yhw

Egyptian representation of a captive shasu

The hieroglyphic rendering of the Egyptian word š3sw (Shasu) means "those who move on foot". The name "Shasu of Yhw", e.g. the name rings from Soleb and Amarah-West, corresponds very precisely to the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH.[12] The demonym 'Israel' can reasonably be referred to a Shasu enclave, and it can be concluded that the Shasu originated from Moab and northern Edom and eventually helped to constitute the nation of 'Israel' which later established the Kingdom of Israel.[13][14] The Shasu are mostly depicted hieroglyphically with a determinative indicating rather a land than a people, referencing people of that particular land.[15]


Head of a captive habiru or shasu: depiction from Tell el-Amarna tablets

Since the discovery of the 2nd millennium inscriptions mentioning the Habiru, there have been many theories linking these to the Hebrews. Some scholars argue that the name "Hebrew" is related to the name of the seminomadic Habiru people, who are recorded in Egyptian inscriptions of the 13th and 12th centuries BCE as having settled in Egypt.[9][11] This is rebutted by others who propose that the Hebrews are mentioned in older texts of the 3rd Intermediate Period of Egypt (15th century BCE) as Shasu of Yhw.[16] Modern scholars conclude that the attempts to relate apiru (Habiru) to the Hebrew word ibri (Hebrews) are not fruitful.[17]


The Jewish historian Josephus maintains that the Hyksos were in fact the children of Jacob who joined his son Joseph in Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. The Hyksos first appeared in Egypt during the eleventh dynasty. They came out of the second intermediate period in control of Avaris and the nile delta and ruled Lower Egypt as semite kings (fifteenth dynasty). Kamose, the last king of the Theban 17th Dynasty, refers to the Hyksos King Apophis as a Chieftain of Retjenu (Canaan). At the end of the Seventeenth dynasty of Egypt, they were expelled by an Egyptian pharaoh. The term "Hyksos" derives from the Egyptian expression heka khasewet ("rulers of foreign lands"). Josephus records the false etymology that the Greek phrase Hyksos stood for the Egyptian phrase Hekw Shasu meaning the Shepherd Kings, which scholars have only recently shown means "rulers of foreign lands."[18]

Use as synonym for "Israelites"

Israelites are defined as the descendants of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Eber, an ancestor of Jacob (six generations removed), is a distant ancestor of many people, including the Israelites, Ishmaelites, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites and Qahtanites. Among historical scholars,[who?] there is some disagreement about the relationship between the Hebrews and Israelites.

The terms "Hebrews" and "Israelites" usually describe the same people, called Hebrews before the conquest of the Land of Canaan and Israelites afterwards.[11][19]

Use as synonym for "Jews"

By the Roman period, "Hebrews" could be used to designate the Jews, who use the Hebrew language.[20] The Epistle to the Hebrews was probably written for Jewish Christians.[21]

In some modern languages, including Armenian, Greek, Italian, Romanian, and many Slavic languages, the name Hebrews survives as the standard ethnonym for Jews, but in many other languages in which there exist both terms, it is considered derogatory to call modern Jews "Hebrews". Among certain left-wing or liberal circles of Judaic cultural lineage, the word "Hebrew" is used as an alternatively secular description of the Jewish people (e.g., Bernard Avishai's The Hebrew Republic or left-wing wishes for a "Hebrew-Arab" joint cultural republican state).

Use in Zionism

Beginning in the late 19th century, the term "Hebrew" became popular among secular Zionists; in this context the word alluded to the transformation of the Jews into a strong, independent, self-confident secular national group ("the New Jew") sought by classical Zionism. This use died out after the establishment of the state of Israel, when "Hebrew" was replaced with "Jew" or "Israeli".[22] At the fringes of Zionist thought, the Canaanites, who were radically opposed to Judaism, drew a sharp distinction between "Jews" and "Hebrew".

The American South

In the Southern United States, the Jewish communities were at times referred to as "American Hebrews".[23]

Name of the Hebrew language

The Hebrew language is a member of the larger group of Canaanite languages within Northwest Semitic. The language has been known as "Hebrew" in English since the 11th century, from Old French Ebreu, in turn from Latin Hebraeus and Greek Hebraios, ultimately a loan from "Assyrian lettering" (Ktav Ashuri), the "square-script", by Ezra the Scribe following the Babylonian Exile.

Since the Hebrew Bible makes a point of marking the Canaanites as peoples set apart from the Israelites, the extent of the distinction between the culture of the Canaanites and the Israelites is a matter of debate. It has been argued that the Israelites were themselves Canaanites, and that "historical Israel", as distinct from "literary" or "Biblical Israel" was a subset of Canaanite culture. It is also known that Israelites and later the subdivision of Israelites known as the Judeans spoke Hebrew as their main language and it is still used in Jewish holy scriptures, study, speech and prayer.

See also




  1. ^ The Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary <http://psd.museum.upenn.edu/epsd/> s.v. SA-GAZ. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago volume H (1956) p. 13 & p. 84; volume Š/1 (1989) p. 70.
  2. ^ Thayer's Lexicon
  3. ^ "Esther 2 / Hebrew - English Bible / Mechon-Mamre". Mechon-mamre.org. http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt3302.htm. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  4. ^ "Jonah 1 / Hebrew - English Bible / Mechon-Mamre". Mechon-mamre.org. http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt1701.htm. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  5. ^ "եբրայեցի - Wiktionary". En.wiktionary.org. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D5%A5%D5%A2%D6%80%D5%A1%D5%B5%D5%A5%D6%81%D5%AB. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  6. ^ Administrator. "Jewish Museum of Venice - homepage". Museoebraico.it. http://www.museoebraico.it/english/. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  7. ^ "Jewish Ghetto of Venice". Ghetto.it. http://www.ghetto.it/ghetto/en/index.asp. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  8. ^ Yann Picand, Dominique Dutoit. "translation of evreiesc in English | Romanian-English dictionary". Translation.sensagent.com. http://translation.sensagent.com/evreiesc/ro-en/. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  9. ^ a b "Hebrew". Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite.. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009.
  10. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia article on Eber
  11. ^ a b c entry in britannica.com
  12. ^ Astour, Michael C. (1979). "Yahweh in Egyptian Topographic Lists." In Festschrift Elmar Edel, eds. M. Gorg & E. Pusch, Bamberg; (1979), p. 18
  13. ^ Redford, Donald B. (1992). Egypt, Canaan and Israel In Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-00086-7. p. 272-3,275.
  14. ^ Rainey, Anson (2008). "Shasu or Habiru. Who Were the Early Israelites?" Biblical Archeology Review 34:6 (Nov/Dec).
  15. ^ Dermot Anthony Nestor, Cognitive Perspectives on Israelite Identity, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010 p.185.
  16. ^ Rainey, Anson (2008-11). "Shasu or Habiru. Who Were the Early Israelites?". Biblical Archeology Review (Biblical Archaeology Society) 34 (06 (Nov/Dec)).
  17. ^ Anson F. Rainey, Unruly Elements in Late Bronze Canaanite Society, in "Pomegranates and golden bells" ed. David Pearson Wright, David Noel Freedman, Avi Hurvitz, (Eisenbrauns, 1995) p.483
  18. ^ Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil Asher, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, 2001, The Free Press, New York City, ISBN 0-684-86912-8 p. 54
  19. ^ Hebrews entry in Jewish Encyclopedia
  20. ^ entry in thefreedictionary.com
  21. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: Hebrews, Epistle to the
  22. ^ Shavit, Yaacov (1987). The New Hebrew Nation. Routledge. pp. xiv. ISBN 0-7146-3302-X. http://books.google.com/books?id=Ziok8FgWCpQC&lpg=PA68&dq=merlin%20kook%20hebrew&pg=PR14#v=onepage&q=%22last%20quarter%20of%22&f=false.
  23. ^ search for the word "Hebrew" it is a transcript from the PBS program History Detectives discussing a mid-19th Century wanted poster, and physical description pages for Frank Muller someone hired to kill a New York gangster, and fled to hide and blend in with the Jewish community at Leavenworth, and warn them to stay away from him. The poster was owned by a Civil War Captain J.T. Taylor grandson of President William Harrison, who then became the Chief of Police of Leavenworth and was attempting to apprehend Muller by placing wanted posters around Leavenworth. Taylor's book referred to the Jewish criminal as an "American Hebrew".