The use of the term "Jew" in the New Testament to refer to all Israelites or, more broadly, to the descendants of Jacob (also known as Israel) can be attributed to several historical and linguistic factors. It's essential to consider the historical context in which the New Testament was written, as this context greatly influenced the language and terminology used.
1. Historical Context: The New Testament was written during the 1st century AD, a time when the term "Jew" had become commonly used to refer to the descendants of Jacob as a whole, regardless of their specific tribal ancestry. This shift in terminology occurred over centuries, primarily due to historical events. One crucial event was the conquest and dispersion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, resulting in the Ten Lost Tribes. In contrast, the Southern Kingdom of Judah maintained its distinct identity and religious practices. Therefore, when referring to the descendants of Jacob as a collective in the centuries leading up to and during the time of the New Testament, "Jew" was the accepted term.
2. The Babylonian Exile and Return: The Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC marked the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. A significant number of Judeans were taken into captivity in Babylon during this time, and the city of Jerusalem, along with its Temple, was destroyed. The Davidic monarchy essentially came to an end.
3. Decree of Cyrus and Return: In 538 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia, who had conquered Babylon, issued a decree allowing the exiled Judeans to return to their homeland, Judah. This return occurred in waves, led by figures like Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, who played crucial roles in reestablishing the Judean community and reconstructing the Temple in Jerusalem.
5. Evolution of the Term "Jew": During this post-exilic period, those who returned to Judah hailed from various Israelite tribes. However, the distinct tribal identities had become less clear over the 70 years of exile. These returnees collectively settled in and around Jerusalem and the surrounding areas of the former Southern Kingdom. Consequently, the term "Jew," initially signifying members of the tribe of Judah, gradually became a broader term encompassing all those adhering to Judean religious practices, cultural norms, and identifying with the history and traditions of the Israelite people as a whole, especially in their shared experience of exile and return.
6. Cultural and Religious Reforms: Nehemiah, who served as a cupbearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes I, received permission to return to Jerusalem with the mission of rebuilding the city's walls. These walls were essential for the protection and autonomy of the Judean community. Nehemiah not only acted as a builder but also as a reformer who helped reestablish religious and social practices based on the Torah.
Nehemiah and his contemporaries, such as Ezra the scribe, played instrumental roles in these reforms. They emphasized the importance of the Torah, the observance of the Sabbath, and distinct practices that set the Judeans apart from surrounding nations. Returnees, regardless of their tribal lineage, embraced these reforms, further solidifying their identity as a cohesive religious group.
7. Consolidation of the Term "Jew": The rebuilding of the Temple and the reestablishment of Jerusalem as the spiritual center of the Judean community led to a centralized form of worship and practice. Religious leaders stressed unity and adherence to the Torah, transcending earlier tribal divisions. Hence, "Jew" became the designation for anyone committed to the covenantal life centered in Jerusalem, representing the entirety of the Israelite tradition.
In conclusion, the use of "Jew" in the New Testament to refer to the descendants of Jacob as a whole can be attributed to the historical developments and linguistic conventions of the time. It does not imply a lack of awareness of tribal distinctions among Israelites but reflects the common terminology of the period. Nehemiah's return and leadership were pivotal in this transformation as he fostered unity and religious dedication, necessitating a term that could encompass all those who returned and aligned themselves with the reestablished Judean community and its practices.