This is a topic that has been debated behind closed doors in the Jewish community for millennia.
The definition accepted by the Jewish community today is anyone who has at least a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism is Jewish. We would have to disagree with that – to a point.
First, the scriptures teach that the Jewish people are a nation. A scattered nation but, nevertheless, a nation. A nation that has physically descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So a person with two Jewish parents will always be a Jew no matter what they believe.
So even an atheist, with two Jewish parents, is still Jewish. Nothing can ever change the fact that this person is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Nothing.
Second, what about a person who has only ONE Jewish parent?
As stated above, the modern Jewish community looks to the mother for nationality if only one parent is Jewish. But do the scriptures teach this? No.
A clear example is found in Leviticus 24.10-12:
”Now the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father went out among the Israelites, and a fight broke out in the camp between him and an Israelite.”
Notice that Moses makes a clear distinction between these two men. The latter is called ”an Israelite” (ie. a Jew) and the former (with a Jewish mother and an Egyptian father) is said to have went out ”among the Israelites”. Notice they were both living in the same camp, but only one is called ”an Israelite.” It is the one with the Jewish father.
Third, what about someone with a Jewish mother only?
Again, we need to see how scripture treats this…. And historically we have a first century example with Paul and Timothy.
”Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:1)
Notice how Paul treats this when taking along Timothy for his outreach trip. He has Timothy circumcised.
”Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:3)
Notice in the first century, this young man, Timothy, had a Jewish mother, YET Paul was sure the people who he went to talk with would accuse Timothy of being “not Jewish” even though he had a Jewish mother. And of course being uncircumcised did not help either.
So it appears that a person who has a Jewish mother has *the choice* whether or not to identify with the Jewish people. It is up to them. Timothy chose to identify with the Jewish people and so Paul circumcised him. Paul obviously thought his would be helpful when speaking to the Jewish community who would no doubt inquire as to Timothy’s external status.
Notice that when Paul takes the gentile Titus along, he would not circumcise him for he had no Jewish parents and that would be sending the ”wrong message” – for hearing/sharing the good news of the Messiah has nothing to do with being circumcised or not.
”Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.” (Galatians 2:3)
Yet it does have everything to do with who will hear you. Paul wanted Timothy and him to be heard when sharing the good news of Messiah so he had Timothy circumcised. Yet, Titus was not Jewish and therefore it was completely unnecessary to circumcised him.
Fourth, are converts to Judaism Jews?
Modern Judaism says, yes.
However the Bible says no.
Any gentile (non-Jew) who decides to follow Judaism – well that makes him/her a ”proselyte”.
Remember, a Jew is a physical decendanthood. Judaism is open for anyone to follow, but that does not make them Jewish.
Historical case in point – Matthew 23:15 where a convert to Judaism is called a ”proselyte.”
”Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte.” So notice Jesus called these gentiles who “convert” to Judaism “proselytes.”
Also Acts 13:43 says the same thing:
”Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas:”
Again, notice in the first century, the Biblical author uses two different terms from his time period. ”Jews” and ”proselytes.”
So what is the point of all this? There are two extremes.
1) Many times we hear over zealous Christians come up to us and say they are ”Jewish!” by virtue of their faith in Jesus.
While we applaud them finding the Messiah, that did not make them Jewish. It makes them grafted into the nation of Israel. ”….fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” (Ephesians 2:15) They share in the exact same blessings of Israel as they have now been grafted in. (Romans 11:11) But they are not ”Jewish.”
And the other extreme is when Christians say 2) ”there are no more Jews and Gentiles!”
And they will always quote Galatians which says, ”There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28)
Notice that they never push hard on the end part of that verse which says there are no more males or females. So I guess we can all use the same bathroom if we are believers in Messiah!
We should just build one large unisex bathroom in new church construction since there are no more men and women according to Galatians.
But they misread Paul. Here is what Paul means. A believing man or woman has a standing before God that is exactly the same – both have salvation!
In Messiah, our gender identity remains, and so does our ethnic (national) identity. Jews and Gentiles remain as they were born (despite the foolishness of Gentiles trying to be Jewish and Jewish believers being wrongly told that they are now Gentiles), but our right to stand in the presence of our Heavenly Father is equal, regardless of male or female gender because of Yeshua. That is what Paul was trying to say.
And the real issue ultimately is not who is a Jew externally, but is your heart circumcised.
“Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.. ” (Jeremiah 4.4)