The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel – and Us

When I was in my twenties, confronted by the claim that Protestants are more assiduous than Catholics in reading the Bible, I made a resolution to read the whole Bible to prove (at least to myself) that this wasn’t true. I’ve kept that resolution, more or less, over the years. I don’t have the exact number, but I think I’ve read the entire Bible from beginning to end about seven or eight times – in various translations. (I have to admit, however, that I merely skimmed some of the long genealogies at places in the Pentateuch.) I am just starting 2 Maccabees again; I hope to get to Revelations by 2020.

We tend to think there is a lot about the Jews in the Old Testament. But up to the kingships of David, Solomon, and Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the historical developments were all about the twelve tribes descended from Jacob and eventually freed by divine intervention from slavery in Egypt, forming a confederation of judges, and eventually a kingship.

In Numbers (1: 5-15), the twelve tribes were differentiated into Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. But there was also a priestly quasi-tribe, Levi, allowed in some cities, who later became mostly a group of religious specialists stationed and maintained throughout Israel.

There were also differences in the lists, noted by Biblical scholars. Some combine Ephraim and Manasseh into the single tribe of Joseph; others remove Reuben or Simeon; still others fold Simeon into Judah, etc.

But after Solomon’s son Rehoboam became king of the “Southern Kingdom,” (Judah) the story was all about the revolt of the “Northern Kingdom” (Israel) with Jeroboam as its first king.

The two kingdoms occasionally united against common enemies, such as Babylon and Persia, but were often overcome or forcibly relocated. The story ends with the Jews, the kingdom of Judah, carrying on the Mosaic traditions and practicing a religion centered in Jerusalem, crowned by its temple.

Some refugee members of other tribes made their way to Judah, including the nearby Samaritans, claiming to be of Joseph’s tribe and orthodox followers of the Torah. But in general, the other ten tribes were widely dispersed into Syria, other Middle Eastern countries, and even Europe.

As Muslims began taking over country after country, many of the lost ten tribes probably were converted to Islam. After a time as “people of the book,” subjected to special taxes and regulations, many – now distant from their religious roots – likely decided to convert and assimilate.

Muhammad in Medina was often opposed by Jews and was intent on converting them. Some of his most violent skirmishes were against Jews. His successors, with few exceptions, continued this practice, for which they receive numerous incentives in the Koran.


As the Islamic violence against Jews continued, it’s ironic that many of the Muslim oppressors would be descendants of the “lost tribes” – Jews and Israelites who had been transformed into Muslims! This continued as Muslims spread throughout Syria, Iraq, Constantinople, Egypt, Spain, India, Palestine, offering conversion to Islam as a matter of life or death.

It is quite probable that the anti-Jewish forces in present-day Palestine, Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere consist of people partly descended from the twelve tribes! The leaders of Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, the Ayatollahs in Iran, may be descended from the Israelite tribe of Judah or Issachar, Ephraim or Zebulon. Even some of our readers with Spanish or Eastern European or Mediterranean ancestors may descend from one of the Lost Tribes.

But hasn’t a somewhat similar development taken place among Christians?

The Twelve Apostles, like the tribes of Israel, dispersed throughout what was then the known world. There is scant information about the final destination of most of them. But we know that St. Thomas went to India, St. James to Spain, St. John to Patmos in Greece, and St. Peter to Ephesus and finally Rome.

The traditions about martyrdom often give us an indication of their final destinations. In each of these locations, the Apostles appointed successors, or successors were appointed by various methods, but the episcopate of Rome always held a certain priority because of Christ’s words to Peter. (Mt 16:18; Jn. 21:17)

The Christian analogy with the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel comes from the various breakups over the heresies that emerged, century after century – bishops apostatizing and embracing Arianism, Monophysitism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Pelagianism, etc. – not to mention Protestantism! The leadership of the Bishop of Rome became analogous to the tribe of Judah, maintaining the orthodox teaching and rites of the Mosaic Law.

Constantinople and Moscow, which wanted nothing to do with Peter, failed to establish their title as the “second” or “third” Rome.

Christian heresies, with citations from the Bible, are embedded in this or that Protestant denomination, or in the massive cult of Islam, which makes use of Jewish and Christian ideas and figures to establish its claim to be the new – and best – religion. They haven’t disappeared, like the lost tribes of Israel, but are present all over the world, united against the proclaimed center of Christian tradition (like Israel’s “Southern Kingdom”) the bishop of Rome.

Rehoboam and successive leaders of the Southern Kingdom perpetuated a mixture of fidelity and idolatry but were protected by Yahweh’s promises until the coming of the Messiah. The Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes and high priests often failed in upholding the Mosaic traditions, but many Jews kept the faith, believed for centuries in the promise of a Savior from the house of David, and accepted Him as he finally arrived.

Similarly, Peter’s Roman successors through two millennia have included numerous sinners as well as saints, and have often challenged the patience and faith of their flocks; but, fortunately, they have been assured by Christ of protection from the “gates of Hell.”

The history of the papacy, like the uneven reigns of Rehoboam’s successors, offers us evidence of the consoling thought that “God writes straight with crooked lines.”


*Image: Rehoboam by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1520 [Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland]

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.