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Since the unexpected discovery in 1492 of humans not accounted for in the Bible, Europeans were keen to find out where they had come from. An ingenious solution was proposed: they were the tribes of Israel that disappeared from history with the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the middle of the first millennium BC. A whole religion (the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) has been built on these shaky foundations.

There was also a movement in the late nineteenth century to identify the English with the same lost tribes. There are still traces of the ‘British-Israelite’ movement today.

The Israelite hypothesis

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566)

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566)

Very quickly after the discovery of the New World, Europeans began to treat its inhabitants as little more than their possessions. There was some debate about whether they were fully human and thus descendants of Adam. At first, few of their fellow Europeans protested, but in the early sixteenth century, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566) became a champion of the Native American cause. He spent many years trying to improve the conditions under which they lived in the Spanish colonies in the West Indies, Peru and Guatemala. Las Casas believed that the Native Americans should be converted to Christianity, as he was convinced that they originated in Ancient Israel and felt that the Bible contained the proof that they were members of the Lost Tribes of Israel. He was not alone and it was in no small measure thanks to his efforts that Pope Paul III (1468-1549; pope 1534-49) declared that the Native Americans were fully human, after all, in 1537.

A report by the seventeenth-century Portuguese traveller, António Montezinos (also known as Aharón Leví de Montezinos), published in 1644, reawakened interest in the subject. He claimed that there was a Jewish tribe living beyond the mountain passes of the Andes and that he had heard them recite the She‘ma Yisro‘el (the expression of the Jewish faith) and saw them observe Jewish rituals. Alas, Montezinos was a fantasist whose stories were accepted uncritically.

Having decided that some of the Native Americans practised Hebrew rites and were therefore ancient Canaanites or the lost tribes of Israel, this meant that they were in dire need of conversion. Thomas Thorowgood’s Jewes in America, or, Probabilities that the Americans are of that race, first published in 1650, was one of the first to argue for the need to convert these lost tribes. The second edition of 1660 quotes the authority of John Eliot (1604-1690), the ‘Apostle to the Indians’, who went on to publish a translation of the bible into the Massachusetts dialect of Algonquin in 1663. Groups like the Corporation for Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England were founded by English settlers who believed that the Native Americans were lost Jews who would need to be reconciled with Christ at the end of time. Although the belief that Indians were Hebrews quickly faded as knowledge of their languages, customs and beliefs increased, Edward Johnson (1598-1672), author of The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Saviour (published in 1654), argued that a mass conversion of Indians was necessary if America were to be the site of the new heaven and new earth.

Menasseh ben Israel

Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657)

Menasseh ben Israel (born in Madeira as Manoel Dias Soeiro, 1604-1657), a respected Dutch Jewish scholar, was heavily influenced by the account of António Montezinos and wrote his best-selling booklet, The Hope of Israel, which he dedicated to the English Parliament. Meeting Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658; Lord Protector of England 1653-1658), he petitioned for the recall of the Jews (who had been expelled from England in 1290) and expressed his belief that the dispersion of Jews to all corners of the Earth was the beginning of the redemption. Certain Christian traditions claimed that when the Ten Tribes of Israel were found and restored to the Holy Land, the return of Christ to reign supreme was not far off, a belief that is still had by some, especially American, fundamentalist churches. There was thus a considerable vested interest among some believers to identify the Lost Tribes. Now that apparently Israelite tribes had been discovered in the Americas, ben Israel argued, Cromwell must readmit the Jews to England to bring about the Messianic era.

Similar sentiments were expressed, albeit in more humanistic terms, in the second half of the eighteenth century during the American and French revolutions. Some abolitionists, for instance, claimed that the Messianic Age would be ushered in when the slaves were freed and when the native Americans, as descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, were converted to Christianity. The sometimes eccentric religious beliefs of the pioneer settlers developed political overtones, with the production of bizarre propaganda works such as the Apocalypse de Chiokoyhikoy, chef des Iroquois (published in 1777 by the newly-formed Congress and condemned by the Inquisition in 1779). This purported to be an account of the end of the world by an Iroquois prophet, denigrating the English to support the cause for American independence by showing how the Iroquois would be better off under American rule.

Mormonism

The most long lasting effect of these ideas about the Israelite origins of the Native Americans was the establishment of a completely new religion, which its founder, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), claimed to have been directly revealed to him in 1827. According to the Book of Mormon, the holy text of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (more popularly known as the Mormons), a people known as the Jaredites arrived in America around 2247 BCE. The Jaredites were a group of people from the Middle East who had fled their homeland, following the destruction of the Tower of Babel and built a thriving civilisation. Their civilisation was subsequently destroyed in a great battle at Hill Cumorah; there is much debate within the church about the location of this hill, which places it anywhere between the Gulf of Mexico and New York. The Jaredites were followed around 600 BCE, before the fall of Jerusalem, by further groups of Israelites, the Lamanites and Nephites, who were the builders of the earthen mounds of the eastern USA. When war broke out between the Lamanites and the Nephites, the Lamanites eventually won and wiped out the Nephites c 421 CE. The Lamanites were cursed by god for their sinful behaviour and accordingly he turned them red-skinned.

As an apparently historical narrative, the story told by the Book of Mormon ought to be testable, just like the bible, but despite many years of effort by Mormon archaeologists, no archaeological evidence has ever been found to support any of this story. Indeed, it looks like an obvious justification for European supremacy: the Lamanites (who are the Native Americans) are not only not the original inhabitants of the Americas, as the much superior Jaredites were there first, but they have also committed a sin so terrible that they now bear its mark for all time. This is exactly the same argument that was once used by Christian apologists for the apartheid régime in South Africa, who argued that the Africans, as descendants of Ham, had been cursed by Jehovah and bore the mark of the curse as their black skin. The arrival of the Jaredites corresponds neither to the arrival of the first humans in North America (the precise date is hotly disputed, but they were there by 13,000 BCE at the latest) nor to the first flourishings of any American civilisation. This causes problems for Mormon archaeologists, who are able to detect numerous civilisations in North America, none of which appears to be of the right date or to possess any of the characteristics attributed to them in the ‘divinely inspired’ Book of Mormon.

15 Responses to The Lost Tribes of Israel

  • Pingback: Mormon Archaeology – good luck with that! « The Gospel According to the Romans

  • To truly find the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel it might help via searching for assomatic DNA and seeking to identify specifically Jewish variant strains, particularly of interest are Far Eastern peoples of non-Chinese ethnicity, particularly given that Classical Mongolian as presented in the translation of “Nuvs Tobchaan Mongolyn” in the translation by Igor de Rachewitz has a percentage of words with a correspondence to Hebrew, like arba ten, batut daughters plural, chatun (chatut) lady, and wife with status corresponding to husband as on the chái equal system of the wife of full right of further East, possibly based on her achieving some role or maturity, since the chatun often wore a henin (boqtaq) which was considered an honorary hat, (cf. chatunah marriage in Hebrew) modern Mongolian has em = woman, em in Hebrew being mother, also their persistence in the era written on by Johnatan Stilberg or Silberberg has parallels with Jewish history in southwestern Europe, and has left them childless from that time and possibly if the government in the larger state in the region would allow it since they have a capital sentence surrounding the subject at some levels, though some is included in the school textbooks under the Case of the Party of …, but I do not believe that indiscreet discussion of the subject (certain figures in specifics are strictly covered by a capital sentence) would have been engaged in by my father Herbert O. Altar who was too clever for that but will have suffered considerable moral and mental deterioration since a physical revival process and I think it looks to be him facing execution there on the only opaque image on Interviews before Execution on the BBC. The revival process might only have left DNA identification possible at certain levels linked to thought and emotion, given possibility of some as yet non-public innovative revival techniques of which something had been reported on the media already prior to what had happened to him, so I asked for such a process for him. Meanwhile I was alarmed by a possibly Jewish man fetching a wreath possibly for the friend of my father who may have hidden him and cared for him during the process who was also from what I saw facing execution there, unless it would be a Swedish citizen whom she somewhat resembled, but who I think was a very brave detective linked to some law enforcement probably from the area of Eurasia unless she had been pardoned but had a problem with some interrogators in the EU due to the laws there.

  • Angela Conti says:

    When I first heard the story of the beginnings of Mormonism, I laughed, a huge knee-slapping laugh. Then I said, “Wow, that was a good one!” Then I looked at my boyfriends face and realized he was not joking.

  • Richard Rafael Joahim says:

    There are no ‘lost tribes of Israel’, all are present andaccounted for; the whole concept is a figment of anti-Semitist ‘Christian’ evangelism. They claim the Jews of Europe were ‘false Jews’ and therefore looked elsewhere, it made it easier for the Christians to engage in massacre of European Jewry if they weren’t truely Jews.

  • Mark T. says:

    Except that the connection between ‘Jews of Europe’ and Khazars, and a non-connection between the Khazars and either the House of Judah, or the House of Israel is both historically and genetically testable. Political and religious objections aside, one cannot simply reject the notion without first explaining the apparent evidence.

  • J Stuart says:

    RRJ is correct, there are no lost tribes of Israel. Some people thought that the “10″ northern tribes had been dispersed, never to be returned: hence “lost.” In actual fact, the Bible never taught any lost tribes – and what is called the New Testament specifically refers to all 12 tribes (c.f., James 1:1) being extant when it was written, though other places in both the Old and New Testaments are clear that all tribes of Israel were still around. So what caused people to think some tribes were missing? I guess the best answer was the one given by Rabbi Jesus: “You error not knowing the Scriptures.”
    I wish you had gone a little further with las Casas – when I was writing my thesis on the ethnic groups of the Mayan area, I came across things he said that made me wonder if he actually believed the Mayan’s descendants were from the ‘lost 10 tribes’ or if he thought it would be a more compelling argument (he didn’t make such claims when he first started begging for living at peace with them). But at this remove, who knows.

  • Pingback: Quickie: More “mysteriously” disappearing colonists « Urocyon's Meanderings

  • Roaymanode D,timissi says:

    Lost tribes. So groups of people wander off in search of places that offer solace of spirit? Did any of the gods of material find them? If so, those tribes are dead.

  • Sam Paellon says:

    Abraham smashed the idols of his parents shop once he realized they were false.

    I wonder what lessons Christians should take from the multiple sacking and burnings of Jerusalem (including the holy temple)…….perhaps the same one?

  • I don’t get it. Christianity began as a branch of Judaism and quickly became anti-semitic after someone declared the fictional Christ figure was handed over to Pilate by some angry rabbis. It all went down hill from there and then at some point, people who inherited the anti-semitism decided they wanted to be Jewish? Really, really confusing.

    • Shooter says:

      “Fictional Christ figure” – HAHAHAHA.

      Oh, how cute. Funny how non-Christian sources say he exist.

      • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

        Except that the only non-Christian sources that do are either tampered with (Josephus, for instance) or rely on Christians for their information.

  • Hezekiah says:

    First of all, “Mormonism,” so called, is not based on the idea that all peoples have descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. This point needs correction. In actuality, the doctrine of the the church is that there are those who have descended from Abraham and are therefore, “born in the covenant.” I understand that the doctrinal beliefs of the Church of Latter-Day Saints might not interest you all that much, but ignorance leads to error. It is established doctrine of the church that those who do not have israelite blood (as there are many) are adopted into the covenant upon baptism. The doctrinal implications of this whole process are irrelevant in this instance.

    Also, it is not stated in the Book of Mormon, nor anywhere else in church doctrine that the “red-skinned” inhabitants of the Americas bear that mark because of a curse from God. The Book of Mormon DOES tell of a people that were cursed, but never claims that they are the sole ancestors of the Native American people, nor does it claim that Native American skin color is a mark of God’s displeasure.

    Also, the author should be reminded that lack of evidence is not, in and of itself, evidence that something does not exist. Remember, religion is not a science. An important note is that there is no proof that an offshoot group of Israelites DID NOT exist in the Americas.

  • Brach says:

    One interesting factor to note is that a lot of these “Lost Tribe” stories gained popularity in places where virulent anti-Catholocism was the norm—England at the end of the 17th century, for instance. A lot of those fanciful stories that hype up encounters with lost Israelites are little more than frame stories for attacks against the “Papist” faith, which they saw as having drifted from more pure forms of worship. The idea is usually that the narrator witnesses these primitives worshipping in a stripped-down (i.e. Protestant) manner and realising that this is the way to go. There are several stories of that general outline that appear in periodicals after the Glorious Revolution.

  • kai says:

    Love it, Jewish Indians , very Blazing Saddles,”Oy,they darker than us!” :)

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