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Judaean prisoners being deported into exile to other parts of the Assyrian Empire. Wall relief from the Southwest Palace at Nineveh, Mesopotamia, dated to 700–692 BCE (the Neo-Assyrian period). Currently on display at the British Museum.

The Hebrews (Hebrew: עִבְרִיִּים / עִבְרִים, Modern: ʿĪvrīm / ʿĪvrīyyīm, Tiberian: ʿĪḇrīm / ʿĪḇrīyyīm; ISO 259-3: ʕibrim / ʕibriyim) were an ancient Semitic-speaking people. Historians mostly consider the Hebrews as synonymous with the Israelites, with the term "Hebrew" denoting an Israelite from the nomadic era that preceded the establishment of the united Kingdom of Israel. However, in some instances, the designation "Hebrews" may also be used historically in a wider sense, referring to the Phoenicians or other ancient civilizations, such as the Shasu on the eve of the Late Bronze Age collapse.[1] It appears 34 times within 32 verses of the Hebrew Bible.[2][3] Some scholars regard "Hebrews" as an ethnonym,[4] others do not.[5][6] (The multiple modern connotations of ethnicity may not all map well onto the sociology of ancient Near-Eastern groups.[7])

By the time of the Roman Empire, the term Hebraios (Greek: Ἑβραῖος) could refer to the Jews in general (as Strong's Hebrew Dictionary puts it: "any of the Jewish Nation")[8] or, at other times, specifically to those Jews who lived in Roman Judaea. Judaea was, from 6 CE until 135 CE, a Roman province. However, at the time of early Christianity, the term instead referred in Christian texts to Jewish Christians, as opposed to the Judaizers and to the gentile Christians.[9]

In Armenian, Georgian, Italian, Greek, the Kurdish languages, Old French, Serbian, Russian, Romanian, and a few other languages, the transfer of the name from "Hebrew" to "Jew" never took place, and "Hebrew" (or the linguistic equivalent) remains the primary word used to refer to an ethnic Jew.[10][11]

With the revival of the Hebrew language since the 19th century and with the emergence of the Yishuv, the term "Hebrews" has been applied[citation needed] to the Jewish people of this re-emerging society in Israel or to the Jewish people in general.


The definitive origin of the term "Hebrew" remains uncertain.[12] The biblical term Ivri (עברי; Hebrew pronunciation: [ʕivˈri]), meaning "to traverse" or "to pass over", is usually rendered as Hebrew in English, from the ancient Greek Ἑβραῖος and the Latin Hebraeus. The biblical word Ivri has the plural form Ivrim, or Ibrim.

The most generally accepted hypothesis today[13][14][15] is that the text intends ivri as the adjective (Hebrew suffix -i) formed from ever (עֵבֶר) 'beyond, across' (avar (עָבַר) 'he crossed, he traversed'), as a description of migrants 'from across the river' as the Bible describes the Hebrews.[16] It is also supported by the 3rd century BCE Septuagint, which translates ivri to perates (περατής),[17] a Greek word meaning "one who came across, a migrant",[18] from perao (περάω) "to cross, to traverse",[19] as well as some early traditional commentary.[20] Gesenius considers it the only linguistically acceptable hypothesis.[21] The description of peoples and nations from their location "from across the river" (often the river Euphrates, sometimes the Jordan River) was common in this region of the ancient Near-East:[22] it appears as eber nari in Akkadian[23][24] and avar nahara in Aramaic (both corresponding to Hebrew ever nahar), the Aramaic expression's use being quoted verbatim in the Bible, for example in an Aramaic letter sent to the King of Persia in the Book of Ezra[25] or in the Book of Nehemiah,[26] sometimes rendered as Trans-Euphrates.[27]

Ramesses III prisoner tiles depicting Canaanite and Shasu leaders as captives. Most archaeologists regard the Hebrews as local Canaanite refugees and possibly some Shasu settling down in the hill-country.[28][29][30]
A depiction of the Ancient Hebrews in Dura-Europos synagogue
Moses leads the Israelites across the Red Sea while pursued by Pharaoh. Fresco from the Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria, 244–256 CE

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 (עבר), which may have a similar meaning.

Some authors such as Radak and R. Nehemiah[31] 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,[32] hence the occasional anglicization Eberites. Others disagree, arguing that the Eberites and Hebrews were two different ethnicities, with the former specifically inhabiting Assyria. Nonetheless, the descent of Hebrews from Eber is acknowledged.[33]

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 semi-nomadic Habiru people recorded in Egyptian inscriptions of the 13th and 12th centuries BCE as having settled in Egypt.[34] Other scholars rebut this, proposing that the Hebrews are mentioned in later texts of the 3rd Intermediate Period of Egypt (11th century BCE) as Shasu of Yhw,[35] while some scholars[36] consider these two hypotheses compatible, Ḫabiru being a generic Akkadian form parallel to Hebrew ʿivri from the Akkadian equivalent of ʿever "beyond, across" describing foreign peoples "from across the river",[37] where the letter ayin (ע) in Hebrew corresponds to in Akkadian[38] (as in Hebrew zeroaʿ corresponding to Akkadian zuruḫ[39]). Alternatively, some argue that Habiru refers to a social class found in every ancient Near Eastern society, which Hebrews could be part of.[40]

Use as synonym for "Israelites"

In the Hebrew Bible, the term Hebrew is normally used by foreigners (namely, the Egyptians) when speaking about Israelites and sometimes used by Israelites when speaking of themselves to foreigners,[41][page needed] although Saul does use the term for his fellow countrymen in 1 Samuel 13:3. In Genesis 11:16–26, Abraham (Abram) is described as a descendant of Eber; Josephus states "Eber" was the patriarch that Hebrew was named after proceeding from the Tower of Babel at the time of Eber's son Peleg, from which Hebrew would eventually become derived.[42][43]

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.[44]

Professor Nadav Na'aman and others say that the conflation of Hebrew with Israelite is rare and is only used when Israelites are "in exceptional and precarious situations, such as migrants or slaves."[45][46] Professor Albert D. Friedberg similarly argues that Hebrews refer to socioeconomically disadvantaged Israelites, especially in the context of the Book of Exodus and Books of Samuel.[40]

In Genesis 14:13, Abraham is described as Avram Ha-Ivri which translates literally as "Abram the Hebrew." Hebrew, in this context, might refer to Abraham's descent from Eber. It might also refer to Abraham's primary language or his status as a migrant from the "other side of the river".[40]

Theologian Alexander MacLaren believes that Hebrew was a nickname for all migrants who migrated to Canaan from the other side of the Euphrates River (or the Jordan River), from the perspective of the 'long-settled' aboriginal inhabitants of Canaan. [47]

Use as synonym for "Jews"

1940s poster:
Sail on Hebrew ships!

By the Roman period, "Hebrews" could be used to designate the Jews, who use the Hebrew language.[48] The Epistle to the Hebrews, one of the books of the New Testament, was probably directed at Jewish Christians.[citation needed]

A friend of mine in Warsaw told me about a Polish journalist who visited Israel for the first time. On his return he reported with great excitement:
“You know what I’ve discovered? In Israel, too, there are Jews!”
For this Pole, Jews are people who wear a long black kaftan and a big black hat. [...]
This distinction between Israelis and Jews would not have surprised any of us 50 years ago. Before the foundation of the State of Israel, none of us spoke about a “Jewish state”. In our demonstrations we chanted: “Free Immigration! Hebrew State!”
In almost all[a] media quotations from those days, there appear the two words “Hebrew state”, almost never “Jewish state”.

Uri Avnery, born in 1923.[49]

In some modern languages, including Armenian, Greek, Italian, Romanian, and many Slavic languages, the name Hebrews (with linguistic variations) is the standard ethnonym for Jews; but in many other languages in which both terms exist, it is currently considered derogatory to call Jews "Hebrews".[50][51]

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). It is also used in some circles as a secular description of people of Judaic cultural lineage who practice other religions or none, including Hebrew Catholics.

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".[52]

David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, believed that the Hebrews were the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan that joined Abraham's religion, after he settled in the region. He also believed that not all Hebrews joined Jacob's family when they migrated to Egypt and later, birthed the generation of Hebrews that endured the Exodus.[53]


  1. ^ Hebrew-language


  1. ^ "Index of /epsd". Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  2. ^ "עִבְרִי - Hebrew - iv.ri - H5680 - Word search - ESV - STEP". Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  3. ^ Brown; Driver; Briggs; Gesenius (1952). The NAS Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-198-64301-2. Retrieved September 6, 2014.
  4. ^ Douglas Knight, "Hebrews", The Oxford Companion to the Bible: "An ethnic term, it antedated the common sociopolitical names Israel or Judah in the monarchic period, as well as the more ethnoreligious appellative Jew in later times."
  5. ^ Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p.567, "Hebrew, Hebrews... A non-ethnic term"
  6. ^ 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."
  7. ^ Steadman, Sharon R.; Ross, Jennifer C., eds. (April 1, 2016). Agency and Identity in the Ancient Near East: New Paths Forward. Approaches to anthropological archaeology. Routledge. p. 131. ISBN 9781134945443. Retrieved November 14, 2023. Ethnicity [...] is a [...] subtle and difficult phenomenon to explain within an ancient context. [...] I think it is dangerous to equate modern concepts of ethnicity with the sorts of social markers used in ancient times to distinguish groups of people from one another.
  8. ^ "Genesis 1:1 (NKJV)". Blue Letter Bible. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  9. ^ Acts 6:1: "Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution." - among other texts).
  10. ^ English "Jewish Museum of Venice" translates Italian Museo Ebraico di Venezia. - See for example: Administrator. "Jewish Museum of Venice - homepage". Archived from the original on August 17, 2012. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  11. ^ "Jewish Ghetto of Venice". Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  12. ^ "Hebrew". Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago. 2009.((cite encyclopedia)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ Gesenius, H. W. F. (ed.). "Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament".
  14. ^ "Genesis 14:13". Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges.
  15. ^ Ernest, Klein (ed.). "A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English".
  16. ^ "Joshua 24:3 But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through all the land of Canaan, and I multiplied his descendants. I gave him Isaac". Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  17. ^ "Abram the Hebrew = Αβραμ τῷ περάτῃ".
  18. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert. "περατής". A Greek-English Lexicon. Retrieved September 3, 2022.
  19. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert. "περάω". A Greek-English Lexicon. Retrieved September 3, 2022.
  20. ^ "Bereishit Rabah 42:8" (on the first mention of the word ivri in the Bible: the phrase "Abram the ivri" of Genesis 14:13).
  21. ^ Wilhelm Gesenius. "Sketch of the History of the Hebrew Language". Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar.
  22. ^ Beattie, D. R. G.; Davies, Philip R. (March 1, 2011). "What Does Hebrew Mean?1". Journal of Semitic Studies. 56 (1): 71–83. doi:10.1093/jss/fgq059. ISSN 0022-4480.
  23. ^ A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, page 64
  24. ^ Example: definition of eber nari in Akkadian-language Treaty of Esarhaddon King of Assyria with Baal King of Tyre (British Museum, London, UK)
  25. ^ Ezra 4:11, New American Standard Bible: "To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the Euphrates River" (Aramaic: enash avar nahara).
  26. ^ "Nehemiah 2:7 Hebrew Text Analysis". Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  27. ^ "Nehemiah 2:7 in the New International Version translation: "may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates"". Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  28. ^ "Shasu or Habiru: Who Were the Early Israelites?". The BAS Library. August 24, 2015. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  29. ^ "Israelites as Canaanites". Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  30. ^ "Inside, Outside: Where Did the Early Israelites Come From?". The BAS Library. August 24, 2015. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  31. ^ Who Were the Hebrews?
  32. ^ "EBER -". Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  33. ^ Public Domain Hirsch, Emil G.; König, Eduard (1903). "Eber". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. p. 30.
  34. ^ "Hebrew - people". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  35. ^ Rainey, Anson (November 2008). "Shasu or Habiru. Who Were the Early Israelites?". Biblical Archaeology Review. Biblical Archaeology Society. 34 (6 (Nov/Dec)).
  36. ^ "Klein Dictionary, עִבְרִי". Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  37. ^ See above the discussion of the Akkadian and Aramaic expressions eber nari and avar nahara respectively, corresponding to Hebrew ever nahar, being widely used in the ancient Near-East.
  38. ^ Klein, Ernest (1971). A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary Of The English Language. p. 692.
  39. ^ "Search Entry". Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  40. ^ a b c D. Friedberg, Albert (February 22, 2017). "Who Were the Hebrews?". The Archived from the original on November 28, 2023.
  41. ^ William David. Reyburn, Euan McG. Fry. A Handbook on Genesis. New York: United Bible Societies. 1997.
  42. ^ Flavius Josephus - Antiquities of The Jews, Book I, Chapter VI, Paragraph 4: Greek: Ἀρφαξάδου δὲ παῖς γίνεται Σάλης, τοῦ δὲ Ἕβερος, ἀφ᾽ οὗ τοὺς Ἰουδαίους Ἑβραίους ἀρχῆθεν ἐκάλουν: Ἕβερος δὲ Ἰούκταν καὶ Φάλεγον ἐγέννησεν: ἐκλήθη δὲ Φάλεγος, ἐπειδὴ κατὰ τὸν ἀποδασμὸν τῶν οἰκήσεων τίκτεται: φαλὲκ γὰρ τὸν μερισμὸν Ἑβραῖοι καλοῦσιν., lit.'Sala was the son of Arphaxad; and his son was Heber, from whom they originally called the Jews Hebrews. Heber begat Joetan and Phaleg: he was called Phaleg, because he was born at the dispersion of the nations to their several countries; for Phaleg among the Hebrews signifies division.'
  43. ^ ‘To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth (erets) was divided’ (Genesis 10:25)
  44. ^ "HEBREW". Jewishe Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  45. ^ 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 (eds.). Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 152. ISBN 978-0567545008.
  46. ^ Carvalho, Corrine L. (2010). Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament. Anselm Academic. p. 68. ISBN 978-1599820507.
  47. ^ "Genesis 14 MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture". 2024. Archived from the original on February 8, 2024.
  48. ^ "Hebrews". Retrieved March 3, 2019 – via The Free Dictionary.
  49. ^ Avnery, Uri (November 27, 2010). "The Original Sin". Gush Shalom. Retrieved January 26, 2023.
  50. ^ Yitzhaq Feder, in an online-article (c. 2013), "Don't Call Me Hebrew! The Mysterious Origins of the First Anti-Semitic Slur" suggests the term's present-day derogatory quality goes back to the origins of writing about the Jewish people.
  51. ^ E. G. Kraeling, "The Origin of the Name Hebrews", American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 58/3 (July 1941): 237-253.
  52. ^ Shavit, Yaacov (1987). The New Hebrew Nation. Routledge. pp. xiv. ISBN 0-7146-3302-X.
  53. ^ Wazana, Nili (April 15, 2018). "Israel's Declaration of Independence and the Biblical Right to the Land". Archived from the original on February 7, 2024.


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