Throughout the Old Testament, generally speaking, a “Jew” is someone who is a member of God’s covenant people, bound together by the Law of Moses given on Mount Sinai, as defined by the first five books of the Bible. In contrast, a “Gentile” is someone who is not a Jew. For example, Jews keep the requirement of male circumcision, whereas Gentiles do not. Historically however, those who can trace their ancestral lineage back to this special nation of people, Israel, are still considered to be “Jewish,” even if they do not keep all of the rules associated with Moses. I have known a number of Jewish people who would consider themselves to be agnostics or atheists. These people are “ethnically Jewish,” though not “religiously Jewish.” But this distinction often causes confusion.
So, when we think of someone who is a “Jew,” do we mean someone who is ethnically Jewish? Or do we mean someone who is a practicing or believing Jew, someone who really believes in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Does the New Testament help us out here?
What Does the New Testament Teach About Being a “True” Jew
The Apostle Paul addresses this a lot in his writings, particularly in the Book of Romans. This apostle, who is called to preach the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, must also address a thorny question as to why so many Jews have not received Jesus as their Messiah. In Romans 2:25-29, Paul talks about the concept of the “circumcision of the heart.” For Paul, even if a practicing Jew, who is circumcised, nevertheless continues to break the Law of Moses, such behavior will be regarded as a denial of their outward, physical circumcision:
“For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law (Romans 2:25-27 ESV).”
This implies that there is a necessary “circumcision of the heart.” But then Paul draws his summary in a way that has puzzled translators of the Bible for centuries. The English Standard Version translates the next verses as thus:
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (v. 28-29 ESV).”
It is quite natural to read this to mean that a Jew can be “merely” a Jew outwardly, through physical circumcision, and still, nevertheless not be a Jew inwardly. However, the ESV’s insertion of the word “merely” is tricky, as it is actually not in the original Biblical text, according to Biblical scholar Bill Mounce. It is put there by the translators as an aid to help the reader understand Paul’s meaning. But is this what Paul is really saying?
A more literal translation is found in the NASB rendering:
“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God (NASB)”
In contrast, the New Living Translation (NLT) is different, and more daring, more so than even the ESV:
For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people (NLT).
I emphasized the word “true” here, as in “true Jew.” The NLT rendering, as a more thought-for-thought translation, makes more sense than the more literal word-for-word translation of the NASB. But it does so with a certain risk. According to Dr. Mounce, an esteemed evangelical scholar, there is no word for “true” in the original Greek text. So if you remove the word “true” (or “real”, as found in a translation like the RSV), the meaning changes rather dramatically. Doing so gives the impression that Paul is actually redefining the concept of what it means to be a Jew. It would imply that someone who has this “changed heart,” or “circumcision … which is from the heart (NASB),” is really the true Jew. Would this not also include a Gentile who has this circumcision of the heart? Can such a Gentile also be a true, inward Jew?
The consequences of how we understand what Paul is saying here can be quite dramatic. There are basically two schools of thought in Christian circles as to how to approach the question of who is a “true” Jew. In the traditional approach, best known by what is called covenant theology, the Apostle Paul is considered to be teaching a redefined concept of what it means to be Jewish. Covenant theology draws on this to conclude that the church in the New Testament, made up of Jews and Gentiles, essentially fulfills God’s purpose for what Old Testament Israel was meant to be, the people of God.
A newer approach, popularized within the past couple of hundred years, known as dispensational theology, or dispensationalism, argues for a distinction to be made between the concept of “Israel” and the concept of the “church” in the Bible. In dispensationalism, a “true” Jew is really an ethnic Jew who has been “circumcised by the heart.” Therefore, a Gentile can never really be a “true” Jew. Dispensationalists are concerned that any redefinition of a “Jew” blurs the sense of different prophetic promises given specifically to the Old Testament people of God, Israel, and other promises given to the New Testament people of God, the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles.
As reflected in these various Bible translations, the question over what it means to be a “true” Jew remains unresolved among evangelical Christians today. This ambiguity may be disconcerting to some. At the same time, understanding how different Christians, even at the level of being distinguished scholars involved in Bible translation, can differ in such matters helps us to better grasp why fellow followers of Jesus read the Bible in the different ways that they do.
[^1] The contrast between “Jew” and “Gentile” can be a bit confusing, as we have discussed elsewhere on Veracity. A “Gentile” is simply someone who is not a part of the worshipping community. The question then becomes, what defines membership of the worshipping community? In Judaism, someone who is not a Jew is a “Gentile.” But in the Christian church, both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) make up the membership of the community. So, in the context of Christian faith, it is possible to say that someone who is not a Christian is a “Gentile.” Likewise, those who are Christians are NOT Gentile. Some Christian groups use this terminology in that way, so it can become very confusing. That is why, I think it is easier to say that a “Gentile” is someone who is not a part of the particular community, with respect to whatever community you are talking about, Jewish or Christian.(back)
[^2] Bill Mounce is the director of BiblicalTraining.org, a fantastic resource for in-depth classes on Biblical doctrine, theology, and church history. Highly recommended.(back)
[^3] This discussion of what it means to be a “true” Jew merely scratches the surface. Spend some time diving into Romans 9-11 if you want to grapple deeply with this topic.(back)
May 31st, 2016 at 6:03 am
BiblicalTraining.org is an amazing resource with many of today’s most distinguished theologians and biblical scholars presenting their best material. It’s a treasure for anyone interested in personal discipleship. Thanks, Clarke, for the great scouting!
May 13th, 2017 at 10:55 am
That is why, I think it is easier to say that a “Gentile” is someone who is not a part of the particular community, with respect to whatever community you are talking about, Jewish or Christian.
To me it seems very simple, we are not talking about different communities we are talking about the (Kingdom of God) which all who are in Christ become a part of, in this context anyone not in Christ is a gentile.
May 13th, 2017 at 12:22 pm
Gary, Thank you for stopping by, and commenting on Veracity. I would very much agree with you, but apparently, not all Christians see it this way. It was news to me when I realized that Christians often float around terms like “Jew,” “Gentile,” “pagan, “heathen,” etc., without a common understanding as to what these terms even mean. I wrote about this problem of how we interpret biblical words, like “Gentile,” in a previous post on Veracity. I can no longer assume what someone means when they say “Gentile.”
February 24th, 2020 at 4:56 pm
Great discussion by veteran Bible translator Bill Mounce about a “real” Jew in Romans 2:28-29″
This pretty much demonstrates that the radical distinction between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church, as originally proposed by John Nelson Darby, the father of dispensationalism, stands on rather shaky ground indeed.