According to the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), the Twelve Tribes of Israel were named after Jacob’s sons and grandsons. The tribes were as follows: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Benjamin, and Joseph (which later split into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh). Each tribe — save for the Levites, who were not allowed to be landowners (more on this later) — had its own territory within the Land of Israel.
We know for a fact that the Twelve Tribes were mentioned as early as the 7th century BCE. Some historians argue that the number 12 isn’t literal, but rather, that the People of Israel used it in their founding myth because the number 12 was of sacred and symbolic significance for the cultures of the region during that time period.
Another theory is that the names of the tribes did not originate from people but rather from the names of geographical regions, local deities, and ethnic origins. Finally, other historians suggest that the story of the Twelve Tribes might’ve also originated from administrative divisions created under King David (1040 BCE - 970 BCE).
Archaeologists and linguists today largely agree that the semi-nomadic Hebrew tribes were an offshoot of the Canaanites. Hebrew, for example, is the only Canaanite language that still exists to this day.
Tensions arose between the Canaanites that worshipped multiple gods and those who worshipped a single god. These tensions are reflected in both direct and indirect ways in the narrative of the Torah. The most explicit acknowledgment of these Canaanite origins is found in Ezekiel 16:3: “Thus said the Sovereign God to Jerusalem: By origin and birth you are from the land of the Canaanites—your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.”
The earliest extra-Biblical mention of the name Israel as a people is from 3200 years ago, found in the Mernrptah Stele.
According to the Tanakh AND archeological findings, at some point around 3000 years ago, a confederation of Hebrew tribes came together to unite under a single state, known as the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel.
Thus, the residents of the Kingdom of Israel were named Israelites (not to be confused with “Israeli,” meaning a person of any ethnic origin who is a citizen of the modern State of Israel).
JEWS (DERIVED FROM JUDAHITE)
In 930 BCE, the United Kingdom of Israel split into two: the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. The term “Jew,” which comes from “Judahite,” quite literally translates to “someone from the Kingdom of Judah.”
In other words, the word “Jew” comes from a place, not from a religion. In fact, the word “Judaism,” which comes from the Greek “Ioudaismos,” is how the Greeks described Jewish culture, or “the aggregate of all those characteristics that make Jews Jewish.”
WHAT ABOUT THE TERM JUDEAN?
In 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah (Yehuda in Hebrew) and turned it into the Babylonian province of “Yehud.” They’d was subsequently captured by the Persians and the Greeks. In 6 CE, Yehud came under the domain of the Romans, who renamed it Judea. Judea is, quite literally, a Roman translation of the Hebrew word “Yehuda.”
So is “Judean” the decolonial term for “Jew”? Well, no, not exactly. The decolonial term for Jew would be our original Hebrew name, “Yehudim,” which is what we still call ourselves in Hebrew. “Judean” is simply a Romanized version of “Yehudi/it.” Given the Romans were colonizers, to call ourselves by the Roman name is not exactly decolonial.
Etymologically-speaking, “Judahite” is the closest English translation to “Yehudi/it.” However, the word “Jew” comes from “Judahite.” All these terms mean exactly the same thing.
As illustrated prior, in 930 BCE, the unified Kingdom of Israel split into two: the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. In 720 BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and turned it into the Assyrian province of Samerina, named after the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel, Samaria (or Shomron in Hebrew).
Samaritans are descended from the survivors of the Assyrian destruction belonging to the ancient Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. In other words, while Jews can trace their ancestry to the southern Kingdom of Judah (which the Assyrians did not destroy), Samaritans trace their ancestry to the northern Kingdom of Israel.
In 587/586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the southern Kingdom of Judah, exiling about 25 percent of its residents to Babylon. The majority of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was compiled during this period. In 539 BCE, the Babylonians allowed the Jews to return.
It was upon this return that the split between Judaism and Samaritanism became complete. Samaritans follow the Samaritan Torah, also known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, which they consider to be the true and unaltered version of the Torah that Moses received on Mount Sinai. Samaritans reject all post-Torah texts of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”). They also reject the Talmud and follow a different version of the Ten Commandments.
Though historically relations between Jews and Samaritans were strained and even hostile, they have dramatically improved since the late Ottoman period, and today our relationship is positive. Samaritans are the only group to hold dual Israeli and Palestinian citizenship. However, culturally, they do not identify as Palestinian, Arab, or Jewish, but simply as Samaritan. However, they do consider Jews fellow Israelites. Likewise, Jews consider Samaritans Israelites.
Numerous genetic studies have been done on the Samaritan population since the 1960s, which demonstrate that Samaritans and Jews (including Ashkenazi, Iraqi, Yemenite, Libyan, and Moroccan Jews) have clear common paternal ancestry.
Karaite Jews are a sect of Judaism that follow the Torah and the Tanakh, but not the Oral Law as codified in the Talmud and later works. The origins of Karaite Judaism date back to 30 BCE, in the Land of Israel, then under Greek occupation.
Post-destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Rabbinic Judaism became the mainstream form of Judaism, and the vast majority of today’s 15 million Jews are Rabbinic Jews. By contrast, the Karaite population numbers at 35,000-50,000, with two main streams: Egyptian Karaites and Crimean Karaites. Crimean Karaites arrived to Crimea and Eastern Europe likely during the early Ottoman period, and genetic testing shows a close relation to Egyptian Karaites, as well as to Rabbinic Jews.
ARE KARAITE JEWS JEWS?
The Masorti (conservative) movement — not to be confused with conservative politics! — considers Egyptian Karaites Jewish. In 1985, the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly published a “teshuva” (“repentance”) titled “Accepting Egyptian Karaites into our communities.”
At least two past Sephardic Israeli Chief Rabbis, Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (1941-2020), considered Karaites Jewish, with the exception of those who convert to Judaism via the Karaite movement. They openly encouraged marriages between Karaite and Rabbinic Jews, with the hope that Karaite Jews would come back to mainstream Judaism. Karaite Jews are eligible for the Israeli Law of Return, though the Rabbinate considers Karaite marriages invalid.
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.