In the Old Testament era, Israel was that nation of men that descended from Abraham through his sons, Isaac and Jacob (Gen 17:19, 21:9-12). Jacob was renamed "Israel" (Gen 32:28), and from Jacob came twelve sons who became patriarchs of twelve tribes, or families, of Abraham's descendants. These families famously became known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Though the most visible component of Israel's identity was familial and marked in the flesh with the mark of circumcision (Gen 17:10-11), from the earliest times certain foreigners sojourned among the Hebrew tribes and began following the Hebrew religion and way of life. These gentile migrants lacked the ancestral link to Abraham that the natural-born descendants possessed, but they nevertheless were permitted to be circumcised (Gen 17:11-13) and assimilated fully into the native-born people of God by way of conversion:
"If a man from another country is living with you, and has a desire to keep the Passover to the Lord, let all the males of his family undergo circumcision, and then let him come near and keep it; for he will then be as one of your people; but no one without circumcision may keep it. The law is the same for him who is an Israelite by birth and for the man from a strange country who is living with you." (Ex 12:48-49)
Gentiles who converted to the Hebrew religion in this way and sojourned among the tribes of Israel were grafted into the people of God and given full status as true Israelites. Many such naturalized citizens existed among the members of Israel, though the natural-born sons of Abraham always comprised a majority of the citizenry.
While racial decent from Abraham (through Isaac and Jacob, "Israel") was central to identifying the members of the Israel in Old Testament times, God made it clear that all Israelites who disobeyed His covenant would be "cut off" from among the true people of God:
"He who is born in your house...must be circumcised. My covenant will be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. The uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant." (Gen 17:13-14)
Soon it became clear that other violations of the covenant also served to "cut off" individuals from among the people of God (Lev 18:29; Num 15:30-31; Ex 12:15,19; Ex 31:14; Lev 7:20-27; Lev 23:28-30). Such a person was at that point considered a heathen and not a child of Abraham. This practice of exclusion from the covenant society continued down to Ezra's time (Ezra 10:8) and even to Christ's day (Jn 9:22; Jn 12:42; Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:1-2, 5, 11-13).
Therefore conformity to God's covenantal commands, above all else, determined one's status as a member of Israel. Put another way, a person's identity with Israel was derived from and maintained by obedience—for the natural-born citizen's privilege as Israel could be nullified through disobedience, and the foreigner's status as an alien of Israel could be removed through obedience.
At times the issue of obedience became paramount for the nation of Israel. Scripture records numerous apostasies by—and subsequent excommunications of—seditious sons of Abraham. Examples may be multipled: God struck down thousands of rebellious Israelites in the wilderness (Num 14:26-45; Num 21:5-9; Num 16:1-50), though the church was preserved and led to the Promised Land (Acts 7:38-45); In Isaiah's day, apostasy became so rampant that Israel continued to exist through a small but faithful remnant (Isa 10:22-23; Isa 1:7-9; Rom 9:27-29); In Elijah's era, the multitude of Israelites who worshiped the false god Baal was so great that faithful Israel narrowed to a mere seven thousand men (1 Kings 19:1-18; Rom 11:2-4). Lastly, at the close of the Old Testamental age, Israel was again reduced to a small remnant of faithful elect ones (Rom 11:5). The Jewish Pharisees and temple rulers grew wicked to the point of killing God's holy Messiah and apostles (1 Thess 2:14-16), and throngs wanted Caesar as king instead of Messiah, the son of David (Jn 19:15). Then as in times past, true Israel survived and continued on through the faithful sons, while the unfaithful apostates were "cut off" from among the people.
The severe sedition and schism that took place between the faithful sons and the disobedient brothers of Christ's generation was not without warning. As St. Peter testified to his contemporary Jewish brethren:
"For Moses said: A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me: him you shall hear according to all things whatsoever he shall speak to you. And it shall be, that every soul which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people. And all the prophets, from Samuel and afterwards, who have spoken, have told of these days." (Acts 3:22-24)
As Moses and St. Peter had forewarned, the wicked sons of Israel of that generation were dramatically cut off at the destruction of Jerusalem, at AD 66-70. The disobedient sons received many dire warnings from Jesus the Messiah:
"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites...you are the sons of them that killed the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your fathers. You serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell? Therefore behold I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you will put to death and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city: That upon you may come all the just blood that hath been shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the just, even unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. Amen I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not? Behold, you house shall be left to you, desolate" (Matt 23:29, 33-38)
Again the Messiah predicted the imminent destruction of the rebellious sons:
When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation." (Luke 19:41-44)
As a testimony to God's providential care for his faithful remnant, the obedient sons of Abraham were miraculously spared and protected while the wicked sons were judged and destroyed from among the people. Addresing his beloved apostles and followers, Jesus said:
"When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles" (Luke 21:20-22).
Once the faithful nation of God's elect were miraculously protected, the doom predicted for wicked brothers would commence. As Jesus forewarned:
"When therefore the Lord of the vineyard comes, what will he do unto those vine-growers? They said unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will rent out his vineyard unto other vine-growers, who shall render him the fruits in their seasons. Jesus said unto them, Did you never read in the scriptures, 'The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?' Therefore say I unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits of it. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they understood that He was speaking about them." (Mt 21:40-45)
And so true Israel—the sons of Abraham who followed the Messiah, as manifested by Providence and history—was again preserved during a time of national apostasy and tribulation. As was the case in former times with Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah, countless apostates were cut off from among the people. But God's elect Israel, the faithful remnant, triumphed and continued on, spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God to the entire world.
New Testament Quotes on Who is True Israel
The mark of faithful obedience was so central to the identity of God's chosen Israel, that most major figures of the New Testament preached concerning who is reckoned as a true Israelite. The following scriptures show that true Israel, true Jewishness, the true nation, the true sons of Abraham, the true bride, and the true chosen race were identified, above all else, by faithful obedience to God and his Christ:
John the Baptist
"Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. (Lk 3:8)
Jesus the Messiah
I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father. They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God. (John 8:37-47)
"If you belong to Christ, then you are indeed true descendants of Abraham, and are heirs in fulfilment of the promise" (Gal 3:29)
Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the nations will be blessed in you." So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Gal 3:7-9)
"For in Christ Jesus neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them and upon the Israel of God." (Gal 6:15-16)
"Ye were...aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise...[but Christ] hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us...Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens." (Eph 2:12,19)
"Beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:2-3)
"For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? 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" (Rom 2:25-29).
[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all—as it is written, 'A father of many nations have I made you' (Rom 4:11-17)
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are God's people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy." (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Justin Martyr (AD 100-165)
"As therefore Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelitish race." (Justin Martyr)
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (AD 130-200)
"Now I have shown a short time ago that the church is the seed of Abraham."
Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170-236)
"For it is not of the Jews He spoke this word of old, nor of the city of Zion, but of the church. For all the prophets have declared Zion to be the bride brought from the nations."
Notes on the Jewish Race
As has been noted throughout this article, Israel of ancient times was identifiable largely through the ancestry of the descendants of Father Abraham—the Twelve Tribes of Israel. However, this genetic or ancestral component was extinguished in the generation of Christ, as the destruction of Jerusalem at AD 70 left no trace of Jewish ancestry (most racial Israelites died in the war, and the ancestral tribal records were destroyed). Though it is common for many to conceive of adherents of rabbinic Judaism in the post-AD 70 era as a "race," both Jewish and non-Jewish sources confirm that the ancient Jewish race of the Hebrews went extinct and/or were fully assimilated in the post-Second-Temple era:
"The findings of physical anthropology show that, contrary to the popular view, there is no Jewish race" (Patai, R., Director of Research, Theodor Herzl Institute, New York. "Encyclopedia Britanica", 12: 1054, 1969).
"A common error and persistent modern myth is the designation of the Jews as a 'race'" (Roth, C., Oxford University Reader in Jewish Studies, 1939- 1964, in: "Jews", "Collier's Encyclopedia", 13: 574, 1991).
"It is a common assumption, and one that sometimes seems ineradicable even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the Jews of today constitute a race, a homogeneous entity easily recognizable. From the preceding discussion of the origin and early history of the Jews, it should be clear that in the course of their formation as a people and a nation they had already assimilated a variety of racial strains from people moving into the general area they occupied. This had taken place by interbreeding and then by conversion to Judaism of a considerable number of communities...Thus, the diversity of the racial and genetic attributes of various Jewish colonies of today renders any unified racial classification of them a contradiction in terms. (Encyclopedia Judaica Jerusalem, 1971, vol. 3, p. 50).
Put another way, there are no longer any tribes of genetic Israel that descend from Abraham. As the apostles had foreseen in their teaching: "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The former distinction between natural-born Jew and natural-born gentile was broken down by Christ at his coming:
"Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called 'Uncircumcision' by the so-called 'Circumcision,' which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man." (Eph 2:11-15)