There are widely spread myths about the “10 lost tribes” of Israel that have led people all over the world to claim Jewish descent from them. The myths are largely false.
Biblical 10 Tribes
The ancient Jews were split up into 12 tribes. Ten of these tribes held specific areas of land in the northern kingdom of Israel. Two of these tribes held land in the smaller southern kingdom of Judah. The two kingdoms formed when a united Israel split in half, after a revolt by the 10 tribes against misgovernment by the Davidic kings in Jerusalem.
The divisions between the tribes were not stringent — people traveled freely between the two kingdoms when they were not at war.
In 722 C.E. (B.C.), the Assyrian empire, a ruthless and warlike culture, seized Israel, turned it into a province of Assyria, and exiled a large number of its people to areas in what is now Iraq and Iran.
This is described in the Jewish Bible (Tanach) and the Christian Old Testament (2 Kings 17). The Bible account in 2 Kings 17:18 states that “the Lord was very angry with Israel [because of their idol worship and lawless society]; and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone.” (2 Kings 17:18, NRSV version)
Assyria is described as completely replacing the 10 tribes with other non-Jewish inhabitants of its empire. The ten tribes were then said to be “lost,” and it is suggested in many pre-modern historical sources that they simply blended in with the population of the Assyrian empire.
However, other stories in the Bible and in secular histories indicate that the comment in 2 Kings was not entirely accurate.
10 Tribes Were Not ‘Lost’
First, some modern Jewish historians suggest that the exiled members of the 10 tribes formed the beginning of centuries-old Jewish communities in Iraq and Iran.
Second, Israeli archaeologists have found some evidence that at the time of the Assyrian invasion of Israel there was a surge of building in the southern kingdom of Judah. They believe this abrupt increase in building activities was caused by the need to house refugees from the 10 tribes within the territory of Judah.
Third, not all of the members of the 10 tribes were exiled to Assyria. A different tradition, preserved in 2 Chronicles 30 in the Bible, describes how some members of the 10 tribes were left in their homes, and were later invited by King Hezekiah of Judah to join the Jews living in Judah (mostly members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) in visiting Jerusalem for religious festivals at the First Temple. King Hezekiah also urged the remaining members of the 10 tribes living in the former kingdom of Israel to give up worshiping idols.
A descendant of King Hezekiah, King Josiah of Judah, actually reasserted some political control of the former northern kingdom of Israel, visited it, and tore down the pagan shrines built by the 10 tribes before some members of the 10 tribes were exiled to Assyria. It is unlikely that he would have bothered visiting that area and destroying the shrines unless there were still Jews from the 10 tribes still living there. (2 Chronicles 34)
Fourth, people from the 10 tribes who became refugees in Judah, after the Assyrian invasion, apparently retained their tribal identifications. In the Christian New Testament portion of the Bible, am account describes Jesus being brought to the Second Temple as a baby. An elderly woman, the prophet Anna, recognized Jesus as an important future spiritual leader. She is described as being “the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” (Luke 2:36) The tribe of Asher was one of the 10 tribes of the former northern kingdom of Israel.
St. Paul also provides evidence that many Jews retained their tribal identifications. He describes himself as “of the tribe of Benjamin,” one of the two tribes primarily residing in Judah. (Philippians 3:5)
Jews eventually lost their tribal identifications — except for the Cohanim and the Levites — when the Roman-Jewish war (66 C.E. to 70 C.E. (A.D.) caused thousands of Jews to leave what is now Israel/Palestine, and flee to other parts of the Roman empire and to other countries as well. The war resulted in the burning of the Second Temple and many other Jewish cities, resulting in the loss of many records, which likely included genealogy records..
In addition, there were already many Jewish communities scattered around the Roman empire before the Roman-Jewish War, that included both born Jews and converts to Judaism. As the Jewish communities grew and diversified all over the globe, tribal descent — based on land ownership in the destroyed kingdoms of Israel and Judah — became irrelevant.
Ironically, despite clear accounts in the Bible showing that portions of the 10 tribes were not lost, just reabsorbed into the tribes resident in the southern kingdom of Judah — and the reasonable theories of modern Jewish historians and archaeologists — there are persistent myths among many ethnic groups around the globe that they are somehow descended from the ‘lost’ 10 tribes.
Are There Modern ‘Lost’ Tribes?
Some ancient Jewish communities, that have practiced Judaism for many centuries, believe that they are descended from members of the 10 tribes who fled the Assyrian invasion. These are usually communities that have retained many mainstream Jewish practices for centuries, including maintaining synagogues with Torah scrolls. Sometimes they claim other types of Jewish descent instead of descent from the 10 tribes.
There is at present no way to tell if they are descended from the 10 tribes.They can be given DNA tests to see if they share any genetic heritage with other Jewish communities. If they show no DNA connection to other groups of Jews, they may be the descendants of converts to Judaism.
For example, DNA tests showed that the Ethiopian Jews had no genetic connection to other Jewish communities. Historians suggest that they are descendants of converts. Their ancient community preserved many traditional Jewish practices for centuries. They have been accepted as Jews by other Jewish communities for many years.
The Israeli government, however, insisted that Ethiopian Jews convert to Orthodox Judaism before they could be considered “real” Jews. The Ethiopians, who had practiced a complete form of Judaism for many centuries, were deeply hurt. They continue to suffer discrimination within Israeli society because they look African and practiced a somewhat different form of Judaism from that popular with Jews descended from European Jews..
Some isolated communities that have retained only a few Jewish practices over many centuries have come forward to claim Jewish descent. Sometimes they believe that they are descended from the ‘lost’ ten tribes, at other times they claim other types of Jewish descent. DNA tests sometimes confirm that they are descended from Jews, probably Jewish traders and other travelers who settled in remote areas, intermarried with other ethnic groups, and engaged in conversion activities.
The Jewish community of Kai-feng, China, for example, has a well-documented history of being founded by Jewish traders who traveled long distances to China to set up businesses as merchants. They built a synagogue and intermarried with the Chinese. They have been accepted as Jews by many Jewish communities worldwide because there is a fair amount of Chinese and European documentation of the founding and history of their community.
Kai-feng Jews who have immigrated to Israel have been required to undergo conversion to Orthodox Judaism before the Israeli Jewish government would give them full citizenship.
A third group of communities claim Jewish descent, who have no DNA connection to modern Jews, and cannot prove any centuries old observance of Jewish traditions and religious rites, other than perhaps a few customs that may or may not have Jewish origins..
Historians generally find that these groups were likely not Jewish in any way, but followed other faiths, including paganism. They were usually contacted by Christian missionaries within the last 100 or 200 years. After initial conversion to Christianity, some group members who read the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) decided that they preferred Judaism.
In some instances they seem to have followed their adoption of Judaism from the Old Testament with the creation of myths that they are descended from the 10 tribes. Typically, mainstream Jewish communities do not accept these groups’ self-identification as Jews, and encourage these groups to undergo formal conversion to Judaism.
The Israeli government has allowed some of these groups to immigrate to Israel, but they must convert to Orthodox Judaism before the government will give them full citizenship.
Problems Associated With 10 Tribes Descent Claims
Prior to the modern era, many Christians and Jews hoped to find the allegedly ‘lost’ 10 Tribes living in some isolated area. All kinds of ethnic groups were thought to possibly be members of the 10 tribes. This led to some ludicrous historical errors.
There is no way to determine what tribe a person of Jewish or partly-Jewish descent belongs to. Modern DNA testing can only point out that a person shares a certain amount of DNA with certain groups of Jews, such as Jews from various countries in Northern Europe, and Jews who originally lived in the Southern Mediterranean area and the Arab countries.
There is DNA testing that can determine if a person has a legitimate claim to be descended from a Cohen (priest) or a Levite (assistant priest), who were workers in the First and Second Temples. Modern DNA testing has discovered that some peoples’ claims to be Cohanim or Levites are correct, while others are false. It is thought that as some Jewish families migrated from one country to another, they began falsely claiming descent from Cohanim or Levites because this gave them some communal prestige within the Jewish community.
Another problem with claims of descent from the 10 tribes is their exploitation by the Israeli government. Modern Israelis are reluctant to accept 10 tribes descent claims, as they are often presented with no DNA or historically documented proof.
However, if a group promises the Israeli government that they will convert to Orthodox Judaism and — this is implied, but rarely spelled out — vote for right-wing parties in the Israeli elections — parties dominated by Orthodox Jews — these groups are then sometimes allowed to immigrate to Israel, even though their claims of Jewish heritage are demonstrably erroneous or false.
The apparent Israeli goal in these arrangements is to acquire more soldiers for the Israeli armed forces, more tax payers, and more adherents to Israel’s right-wing political parties.
It is as if the United States government would allow people to immigrate to the United States, who erroneously or falsely claimed descent from U.S. citizens, and admitted them if they promised to convert to a stringent form of Roman Catholic Christianity, and made it clear that they would vote only for particular types of political parties.
The cynicism of this Israeli government behavior is especially apparent when contrasted with their treatment of people who can prove genuine half-Jewish descent. If they are not practicing Jews, they receive no financial help from the Israeli government in settling in Israel. In addition, half-Jewish people living in Israel — both those who identify as Jews and those who practice other belief systems — are considered second-class citizens, and deal with laws and policies that discriminate against them.
What Is The Cause of Israeli Government Behavior?
Groups coming into Israel in large, cohesive communities with claims of Jewish descent that may or many not be true, present the Israeli government with certain problems. Converts to Judaism are allowed to immigrate to Israel and become full citizens.
The Israeli government is reluctant to admit groups with shaky claims to Jewish descent, but has taken notice that many of them are poverty-stricken, oppressed or live in countries that have not achieved modern economies.
While these groups are generally sincerely interested in Judaism, the Israeli government sometimes sees them as false claimants. Sometimes they are seen as economic opportunists who are claiming Jewish descent to move to a more prosperous country.
But the Israeli government has decided that even groups with no real connection to Judaism, other than a sincere willingness to embrace it — can be useful. Once converted according to Orthodox Jewish rites, these groups are considered full Jews. Because they often come from economically undeveloped countries, where they were poor or suffered oppression, the Israeli government views them as potentially docile citizens, who will join the armed forces, pay taxes, vote for right-wing political parties and not ask awkward questions about Israel’s treatment of half-Jewish people and the Palestinians.
Whereas people who want to move to Israel — who can also prove half-Jewish descent via DNA tests and documentation — are often citizens of economically developed democracies, are not always willing to convert to Orthodox Judaism — some of them prefer more liberal branches of Judaism or practice other belief systems — and they are more likely to demand equal treatment with other Israeli citizens and ask awkward questions.
This leads to the paradoxical situation that groups of well-meaning people who may or may not be of Jewish descent — but are sincere practitioners of Judaism — have to fight for years to get into Israel, convert to Orthodox Judaism, and implicitly promise to comply with lots of Israeli government demands.
On the other hand, half-Jewish people from economically-developed democracies, who can prove Jewish descent via DNA tests and documentation may find it easy to move to Israel and become a citizen — but they then discover that they are second-class citizens with laws and policies that discriminate against them.
For more information on topics of Jewish and partly-Jewish descent, please see our webpages on “Israel” and “Who Is A Jew?”