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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Hebrews

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The name ‘Hebrew’ (Lat. Hebraeus, Gr. Ἑβραῖος) is a transcription of the Aramaic ‘ebrâyâ, the equivalent of the original word עִבְרִי, the proper Gentile name of the people who were also described as ‘Israelites’ or ‘Children of Israel.’ The people themselves preferred as a rule the designation ‘Israel.’ The latter was the name of privilege and honour given to the race as the descendants of Jacob and the people of God’s choice. Frequently, too, in the OT the term ‘Hebrew’ occurs where foreigners are introduced as speaking or spoken to (e.g. Exodus 2:6-7; Exodus 2:11; Exodus 3:18, 1 Samuel 4:6; 1 Samuel 4:9; 1 Samuel 13:19; 1 Samuel 14:11; 1 Samuel 29:3, Genesis 40:15, etc.). These facts have led to the conjecture that the name ‘Hebrews’ was originally given to the race of Abraham by their Canaanite neighbours, and that this name continued to be the designation of the race by outsiders all through their history, just as the Magyars are known as ‘Hungarians’ by other nations of Europe. This conjecture, although it has much to commend it, does not meet all the facts of the case, for the name ‘Israel’ is often found in the OT in the month of foreigners, and it even occurs on the Moabite Stone, while Israelites are found describing themselves as ‘Hebrews’ (1 Samuel 13:3, Jeremiah 34:14). Robertson Smith points out that the whole usus loquendi is explained by the consideration that the regular Gentile name for a member of the race of Israel is ‘Hebrew’ and not ‘Israelite,’ the latter word being rare and apparently of late formation (Encyclopaedia Britannica 9 xi. 594).

The derivation of the term does not render much help in discovering its original significance. The word presupposes a noun ‘Eber as the name of the tribe, place, or common ancestor from which the Hebrews are designated. According to one passage in the OT (Numbers 24:24, Eber figures as a nation along with Asshur or Assyria, while in the genealogical lists of Genesis 10 f. Eber is represented as ancestor of the Hebrews and grandson of Shem. The names in the genealogical tables-Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, etc.-cannot be regarded as names of persons. Some of them are names of places near the upper reaches of the Euphrates and the Tigris, and the whole genealogy may be regarded rather as a geographical account of the wanderings of the Hebrews than as a statement of racial affinities. Eber means ‘the further bank of a river,’ from a root עבר, ‘to cross.’ The Septuagint in Genesis 14:13 translates the term as ὁ περάτης, ‘the crosser.’ Jewish tradition gives the more accurate form ὁ περαΐτης, ‘the man from the other side,’ i.e. of the Euphrates. This theory, which has generally been accepted by the Rabbis, carries with it the implication that the name was originally given by the original inhabitants of Canaan to the Hebrew immigrants. A modification of this etymology is found in the view which takes Eber in the Arabic sense of a ‘river bank’ and makes the Hebrews ‘dwellers in a land of rivers.’ Ewald (Gesch. Israels3, i. 407ff.) discusses fully the meaning and etymology of the term, and rejects the view that the name was given by outsiders to the people on their entry into Canaan. It was, he holds, rather the name commonly in use among the people themselves from the earliest times up to the time of the kings, when it was displaced by ‘Israel’ as the name of national privilege, which again was in turn displaced in common use by the term ‘Jews’ from the time of the Exile. In the period immediately before Christ, an artificial interest in the past and a revival of ancient learning, coupled with the exaggerated reverence for Abraham ‘the Hebrew,’ led to a revival in the use of this term, and to the language of the race being designated thereby, although Philo calls the language of the OT, Chaldee (de Vita Mosis, ii. 5f.).

In the NT the word ‘Hebrew’ is seldom found applied to members of the ancient race of Israel, ‘Jew’ having become the usual designation of the period. In apostolic times the term became specialized, and was applied not to any member of the ancient race, but to Palestinian Jews of pronounced national sympathies who spoke the Aramaic dialect and retained the national customs, in contrast with the Hellenistic Jews (Authorized Version ‘Grecians’ [q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ]), who were scattered over the world, spoke Greek, and were interested in the thought and life of Greece and Rome. In Acts 6:1 we read of a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews where this distinction obtains. In 2 Corinthians 11:22 St. Paul, in contrasting himself with false teachers, calls himself a Hebrew, and in Philippians 3:5 refers to himself as ‘a Hebrew of Hebrews.’ Probably in both cases the Apostle wishes to emphasize his true Hebrew descent rather than to distinguish between himself as a Hebrew-speaking Jew and the Greek-speaking members of the race. Eusebius at a later date does not adhere to the specialized use of the term as found in the Acts, but designates Philo (HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] ii. iv. 2) and Aristobulus (Praep. Evang. xiii. xi. 2) as ‘Hebrews,’ although both were Greek-speaking Jews with little knowledge of the Hebrew tongue.

The Hebrew language is on several occasions referred to in the NT. What is meant is not the ancient Hebrew of the OT but the Aramaic dialect of Palestine which was understood by the Jews of Jerusalem at the date of the apostles (Acts 21:40; Acts 22:2; Acts 26:14).

Literature.-H. Ewald, Geschichte des Volkes Israel3, i. [1864] 407ff.; W. Robertson Smith, article ‘Hebrew Language and Literature’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica 9 xi. 594ff.; J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians2, 1869, p. 145; J. H. Bernard, Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘2 Corinthians,’1903, p. 105; H. A. A. Kennedy, Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘Philippians,’ 1903, p. 451; articles in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) and Encyclopaedia Biblica .

W. F. Boyd.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Hebrews'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/h/hebrews.html. 1906-1918.

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