It would seem that the question of Jesus’ ethnicity would be beyond controversy. Of course Jesus was a Jew—right? The biblical record says, yes, Jesus was a Jew. But that doesn’t stop the disagreements and objections that some have. We will take a look at what the Bible has to say.
In Jesus’ day, a person was considered Jewish if he or she 1) was born to a Jewish mother or 2) had formally converted to the religion of Judaism. Jews by descent traced their lineage to the ancient Hebrews; Jews by conversion were proselytes from any ethnic background. Jesus was a Jew by descent, and He lived a Jewish life in the first century.
Jesus was born in Judah to a Jewish mother, raised in Galilee in a Jewish home, and taught in Jerusalem, the Jewish capital. He ministered throughout Israel: “He came to His own [the Jewish people], and His own [the Jews] did not receive Him” (John 1:11, NKJV). Speaking to a Samaritan, Jesus said, “You [Gentiles] worship what you do not know; we [Jews] know what we [Jews] worship, for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). In His use of first- and second-person pronouns, Jesus identified Himself as being among the Jewish population.
The biblical record sets out the facts: Jesus Christ is “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). When the angel Gabriel announced Jesus’ birth, he spoke of Jesus’ having “the throne of his father David” and of His “reign over Jacob’s descendants forever” (Luke 1:32–33). In writing of Jesus’ unique priesthood, the author of Hebrews says, “It is clear that our Lord descended from Judah” (Hebrews 7:14). Judah was a son of Jacob, and it’s from his name that we get the word Jew. Mary’s genealogy, in Luke chapter 3, shows that the mother of Jesus was a direct descendant of King David, giving Jesus the legal right to the Jewish throne and establishing without a doubt that Jesus was a Jew by descent.
The biblical record also presents Jesus as living a Jewish lifestyle and keeping the Jewish law. He was reared in a Jewish home, and Jesus’ parents were careful to do all that the law required of them (Luke 2:39). In His ministry, Jesus often taught in synagogues (Matthew 13:54; Luke 6:6; John 18:20), and even in the temple (Luke 21:37). In His teaching, Jesus pointed to the Law and the Prophets as authoritative (Matthew 5:17; 12:5; Mark 10:19), He taught others to keep the law (Matthew 23:1–3), and He Himself observed the commandments. Jesus identified with the religion of the Jews and was considered a rabbi (John 1:38; 6:25), although He strongly rejected the pharisaical reinterpretation of that religion.
As a Jew, Jesus observed Passover (John 2:13), the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 10), and Hanukkah, (John 10:22). Jesus was called the King of the Jews (Mark 15:2).
The Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament was a Jewish savior, one chosen by God for a special purpose. The Messiah was to serve God by redeeming Israel and then ruling from Zion, bringing peace, righteousness, and security to Israel (see Isaiah 9:6—7; 32:1; Jeremiah 23:5; Zechariah 9:9). Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the Son of David sent to the Jews, and in His earthly ministry He focused on “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). But in His death and resurrection, Jesus secured salvation for all who would trust in Him, regardless of their nationality or background. The Jewish Messiah became the worldwide Savior (Ephesians 2:11–22).