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Hebrews (Hebrew? or , Tiberian ?I?rîm, ?I?riyyîm; Modern Hebrew ?Ivrim, ?Ivriyyim; ISO 259-3 ?ibrim, ?ibriyim) is a term appearing 34 times within 32 verses[1][2][3] of the Hebrew Bible. While the term was not an ethnonym,[4][5] it is mostly taken as synonymous with the Semitic-speaking Israelites, especially in the pre-monarchic period when they were still nomadic. However, 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.[6]

By the time of the Roman Empire, Greek Hebraios could refer to the Jews in general, as Strong's Hebrew Dictionary puts it "any of the Jewish Nation"[7] and at other times more specifically to the Jews living in Judea. In Early Christianity, the Greek term ? refers to Jewish Christians as opposed to the gentile Christians and Judaizers (Acts 6:1 among others). ? is the province where the Temple was located.

In Armenian, Italian, Modern Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Russian, Romanian, and a few other modern languages, there is a pejorative connotation associated with the word corresponding to the word Jew; because of that, in each of these languages, the primary word used is that which corresponds to "Hebrew".[8][9][10] The translation of "Hebrew" is used also in the Kurdish language and was once used also in French.

With the revival of the Hebrew language and the emergence of the Hebrew Yishuv, the term has been applied to the Jewish people of this re-emerging society in Israel or anything associated with it.


The definitive origin of the term "Hebrew" remains uncertain.[11] The Biblical term Ivri (?; Hebrew pronunciation: [?iv'ri]), meaning "to traverse" or "to pass over", is usually rendered as Hebrew in English, from the ancient Greek ? and the Latin Hebraeus. The Biblical word Ivri has the plural form Ivrim, or Ibrim.

Rameses III's tiles depicting Canaanite and Shasu leaders as captives. Most archaeologists as of 2018 regard the Hebrews as local Canaanite refugees and Shasu settling down in the hill-country.

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

Some authors[which?] argue that Ibri denotes the descendants of the biblical patriarch Eber (Hebrew ), son of Shelah, a great-grandson of Noah and an ancestor of Abraham,[12] hence the occasional anglicization Eberites.

Since the 19th-century CE discovery of the second-millennium BCE inscriptions mentioning the Habiru, many theories have linked these to the Hebrews. Some scholars argue that the name "Hebrew" is related to the name of those seminomadic Habiru people recorded in Egyptian inscriptions of the 13th and 12th centuries BCE as having settled in Egypt.[13] Other scholars rebut this, proposing that the Hebrews are mentioned in older texts of the 3rd Intermediate Period of Egypt (15th century BCE) as Shasu of Yhw.[14]

Use as synonym for "Israelites"

Greek painting of three Chaldeans with captive Hebrews

In the Hebrew Bible, the term "Hebrew" is normally used by Israelites when speaking of themselves to foreigners, or is used by foreigners when speaking about Israelites.[15] In fact, the Torah in parashat Lekh Lekha ("go!" or "leave!", literally "go for you") calls Abraham Avram Ha-Ivri ("Abram the Hebrew"), which translates literally as "Abram the one who stands on the other side."[Gen. 14:13]

Israelites are defined as the descendants of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Eber, an ancestor of Jacob (seven generations removed), is a distant ancestor of many people, including the Israelites, Ishmaelites, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites and Qahtanites.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia the terms "Hebrews" and "Israelites" usually describe the same people, stating that they were called Hebrews before the conquest of the Land of Canaan and Israelites afterwards.[16] Professor Nadav Na'aman and others say that the use of the word "Hebrew" to refer to Israelites is rare and when used it is used "to Israelites in exceptional and precarious situations, such as migrants or slaves."[17][18]

Use as synonym for "Jews"

Moses (l) and Aaron (r) lead the Jews across the Red Sea while pursued by Pharaoh. Fresco from the Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria, 244-256 CE

By the Roman period, "Hebrews" could be used to designate the Jews, who use the Hebrew language.[19] The Epistle to the Hebrews was probably written for Jewish Christians.[20]

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".[21]



  • Ancient Judaism, Max Weber, Free Press, 1967, ISBN 0-02-934130-2


  1. ^ Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible #5680
  2. ^ Step Bible
  3. ^ Brown; Driver; Briggs; Gesenius (1952). "The NAS Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon". Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-198-64301-2. Retrieved .
  4. ^ Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p.567, "Hebrew, Hebrews... A non-ethnic term"
  5. ^ Collapse of the Bronze Age, p.266, quote: "Opinion has sharply swung away from the view that the Apiru were the earliest Israelites in part because Apiru was not an ethnic term nor were Apiru an ethnic group."
  6. ^ The Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary s.v. SA-GAZ. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago volume H (1956) p. 13 & p. 84; volume ?/1 (1989) p. 70.
  7. ^ Thayer's Lexicon
  8. ^ Administrator. "Jewish Museum of Venice - homepage". Museoebraico.it. Archived from the original on 2012-08-17. Retrieved .
  9. ^ "Jewish Ghetto of Venice". Ghetto.it. Retrieved .
  10. ^ Yann Picand; Dominique Dutoit. "translation of evreiesc in English | Romanian-English dictionary". Translation.sensagent.com. Retrieved .
  11. ^ "Hebrew". Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago. 2009.
  12. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia article on Eber
  13. ^ entry in britannica.com
  14. ^ Rainey, Anson (November 2008). "Shasu or Habiru. Who Were the Early Israelites?". Biblical Archaeology Review. Biblical Archaeology Society. 34 (6 (Nov/Dec)).
  15. ^ William David. Reyburn - Euan McG. Fry - A handbook on Genesis - New York - United Bible Societies - 1997
  16. ^ Hebrews entry in Jewish Encyclopedia
  17. ^ Carolyn Pressler (2009). "Wives and Daughters, Bond and Free: Views of Women in the Slave Laws of Exodus 21.2-11". In Bernard M. Levinson; Victor H. Matthews; Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. p. 152. ISBN 978-0567545008.
  18. ^ Carvalho, Corrine L. (2010). Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament. Anselm Academic. p. 68. ISBN 978-1599820507.
  19. ^ entry in thefreedictionary.com
  20. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: Hebrews, Epistle to the
  21. ^ Shavit, Yaacov (1987). The New Hebrew Nation. Routledge. pp. xiv. ISBN 0-7146-3302-X.

External links

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