Term that is found chiefly in the Biblical traditions concerning the 2d millennium b.c., and then, apparently after centuries of desuetude, reappears in the latest books of the OT and roughly contemporary Jewish literature. The English term is derived through the Latin Hebraeus, from the Greek 'Εβρα[symbol omitted]ος, and ultimately from Hebrew ’ibri. Originally it seems to have been an appellative referring to social or legal status [for details, see habiru (habiri)]. It survived in the later period as an ethnolinguistic designation for the Israelites or Jews and for the Semitic language they spoke before the adoption of Aramaic. The ethnic meaning, though with a much wider application, goes back to the late 10th or early 9th century b.c., appearing in the Yahwistic tradition of the Patriarchs and in the Table of the Nations of Gn 10.21, 25;11.15–26, where Eber, the eponymous ancestor of the Hebrews is mentioned. The limitation of the term to Israelites first occurs c. 500 b.c. (Jon 1.9; yet note the different reading of the Septuagint), and then is well attested in the books of Judith (10.12; 12.11; etc.) and 2 Maccabees (7.31; 11.13; 15.37), both probably compositions of the late 2d or early 1st century b.c. At approximately the same time writers begin to speak of the hebrew language, for instance, in the Prologue of Sirach.
Hebrew remained a relatively uncommon term and never replaced Israelite or Jew. It connotes the ancient past and is an archaizing expression. This explains why the old language was called Hebrew; why the Phoenician script employed in preexilic times was named Hebrew by the rabbis and was thus distinguished from the later script of Aramaean origin; why Josephus, Philo Judaeus, and other Jewish writers, when speaking of Biblical times, used Hebrew only of the most ancient Israelites. Savoring of the past, Hebrew was used in archaizing or high literary language, particularly where Jew and Gentile confronted each other (as in Judith and 2 Maccabees) and, by implication at least, were contrasted. The association with the national origins inherent in the term also explains why, in a context of ever-increasing Hellenization of culture and mores, Hebrew came to be applied to what was characteristically Jewish and was used even to distinguish one Jew from another. A Hebrew was a Jew who still adhered to old Jewish customs and language; Hebrews, therefore, usually were to be found in Palestine and only rarely in the Diaspora. It is against this background that one should probably explain the struggle between hellenists and Hebrews mentioned in Acts 6.1. It is fidelity to the past that is implied by St. Paul's boast to be a Hebrew as well as an Israelite (2 Cor 11.22), "a Hebrew of Hebrews" besides a member of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3.5). However, eventually Aramaic became with Hebrew part of the legacy of the past, and the ability to speak it was lost by many Jews, especially those in the Diaspora; hence Aramaic too was called Hebrew (Lk 23.38; Jn 5.2; 10.13, 17, 20; Acts 21.40; 22.2; 26.14).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 955–959. j. haspecker, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 5:44–45. a. alt, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 3:105–106. w. gutbrod et al., in g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935–) 3:359–394. (For additional bibliog. see habiru.)
[w. l. moran]
Early name of a Semitic people of the ancient East, descended from the line of Abraham, whose ancestors today define themselves as "Jews". Hebrew may have come from the word habirou, orhabiru, designating tribes who left Egypt for the Canaanite kingdoms after the death of Amenophis IV (Ikhnaton, 1334/1334 b.c.), or from the word ibrim, designating "those beyond the sons of Abraham." In certain Hebrew writings the name of Abraham appears sometimes under that of the ibri (sons of Eber), which also could be the source of the word "Hebrew."