This question has its roots in a historical event – the destruction of Samaria and conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.
The deported, those who remained, and those who fled to Judah
The 10 tribes in the Northern Kingdom were: Reuben, Simeon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Manasseh, and Ephraim. Many of the populace, particularly the leaders, were taken into captivity by the Assyrians and did not return. But they were not totally lost as there were Jewish communities in Assyrian territory prior to the rise of Babylon.
The second, probably larger, part of the Jewish population stayed in the land but gradually intermarried with the non-Jewish peoples already there or with those who entered the land after the Assyrian conquest. This second group traditionally became part of the “Samaritans”, the Jewish name for the mixed race Jewish-Arab people whom the Jews of the Southern Kingdom encountered much later following the 539 BCE edict of Cyrus allowing the Jews exiled in Babylon to return home.
A third group were neither deported to Assyria, nor remained to intermarry, but migrated south to the Southern kingdom both before and after conquest of Samaria. Evidence from within the Bible indicates however that large numbers of the population had already been migrating south long before the Assyrian conquest, and the descendants of some of those northern tribes are documented in later Jewish records – including even mention of individuals belonging to the northern tribes in the New Testament.
Most importantly Paul and James address the Jews then known in the 1st Century Mediterranean as “twelve tribes” – not “two tribes” or “three tribes”. So this really is conclusive.
“to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king!” (Acts 26:7)
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. (James 1:1)
Paul and James do somewhat contradict the idea of Josephus (37–100 CE) who wrote:
“the ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude and not to be estimated in numbers”. (Antiquities, 11:133)
But that may have more do with Josephus’ need to increase the status and size of the Jewish diaspora to his Roman readers by claiming that there were Jews beyond the borders of the Roman empire – which of course there were, as Rome never conquered Persia, but not in the “immense multitude” which Josephus claimed.
All told however the “lost tribes” is a myth, contradicted by the New Testament record. On closer reading it is also contradicted by the Old Testament (see the appendix below on ‘The First Iron Curtain’ by Alan Hayward).
Popular identifications of the ‘Lost Ten Tribes’
Although the evidence from the Bible, and Jewish history, does not support the idea of ‘Lost Ten Tribes’ claims of descent from the supposedly “lost” tribes have been made for many groups,. Among which the most notable include:
- Menasseh-ben-Israel : Portuguese rabbi who published ‘Spes Israel’ in 1649
- British-Israelism : John Wilson’s ‘Our Israelitish Origin’ 1840
- Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God – until 1990s when renounced by WCG leadership
- Mormonism : claiming that native Americans are the Tribe of Manasseh
These ideas lie purely in the area of myth and fiction.
Somewhat different are the various neo-Jewish communities (some of which may have started as Sabbath and food-law observant Christians) including:
- Bene Israel – Goa and Mumbai, India
- Bnei Manasseh – Mizoram, India
- Beta Israel – Ethiopia, formerly known as ‘falasha’ Jews
Many of these groups have been accepted by the State of Israel as Jews and allowed to emigrate to Israel.
But again, this is the area of popular mythology, not Bible teaching. The Bible does teach a regathering of Jews in the last days; but it was Jews of all 12 tribes which returned to Palestine before and after 1948.
Appendix 1 ; The First Iron Curtain
from God’s Truth chapter 10, Harmony doesn’t just Happen – by Alan Hayward
The first iron curtain in recorded history is probably the one described in the Old Testament.
Like the present wall across Germany, this one also split a nation into two pieces. After 120 years as one united kingdom, the ten tribes in the north of Israel broke away from the two tribes in the south. The larger northern kingdom was called Israel, and set up its capital at Samaria. The smaller southern kingdom was called Judah, and retained the original capital, Jerusalem.
The northern kingdom of Israel never had one godly king. For nearly three hundred years it lived in idolatry. Then the Assyrians conquered it, and carried its people into captivity. They were never heard of again. The southern kingdom of Judah had a mixture of good and bad kings. Its people were carried into captivity by the Babylonians about a hundred years after the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians. But their grandchildren were allowed to return to their homeland. Their descendants were still populating the land of Israel under the name “Jews” in the time of Christ. The people of the northern kingdom are often referred to as “the lost ten tribes”. This is very curious, because there is a thread of harmony running through many books of the Bible which shows that the ten tribes were not lost at all.
This thread is obviously not deliberately contrived. It is so unobtrusive, in fact, that many people still cannot see it-hence that strange popular misconception that the ten tribes were lost. But the thread is there, none the less. It starts in the First Book of Kings, where we read of a very early king of Israel, Baasha, making his iron curtain. He fortified the border, “that he might not suffer any to go out or come in to Asa, king of Judah”.33
Why did he do that? Other books of the Old Testament supply the answer. Like the builders of the Berlin wall he was not concerned about keeping an enemy out, but with keeping his own people in. All the Godfearing people in the idolatrous north wanted to emigrate to the south, where the Temple in Jerusalem kept true worship alive. Baasha‟s iron curtain was inefficient. He lacked the barbed wire and minefields beloved of modern dictators. The Second Book of Chronicles tells us that when good king Asa purged all the idols out of the Kingdom of Judah, this was the result: “He gathered all Judah and Benjamin, and them that sojourned with them out of Ephraim and Manasseh and out of Simeon. For they fell to him out of Israel in abundance, when they saw that the Lord his God was with him.”34
A later chapter in the same book tells of another good king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, who also received a wave of immigrants from Israel. 35
They must have been very numerous, because Jehoshaphat is actually called “King of Israel” in one place,36 as if to indicate that men from all twelve tribes owed him allegiance. The result of all this immigration was a rapid increase in the size of Judah‟s army. At the time of the split, King Rehoboam had only 180,000 men. 37 The next king, Abijah, had 400,000;38 his successor, Asa, 580,000; 39 and Jehoshaphat had 1,160,000 men. 40
About a hundred years after the Kingdom of Israel had been wiped Out, and the ten tribes were supposedly lost, King Josiah of Judah was receiving tribute from “Manasseh, and Ephraim and of all the remnant of Israel, and of all Judah and Benjamin.” 41 Just before they were carried captive into Babylon, Ezekiel described the inhabitants of Jerusalem as “all the residue of Israel . . . the house of Israel and Judah”. 42 Jeremiah hinted that both Judah and Israel would return from captivity in Babylon. 43
A modern translation of 1 Chronicles makes it plain that the “Judah” who returned from captivity included men of Israel, and especially of its two leading tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh. 44
Finally, so far as the Old Testament is concerned, the book of Ezra describes the return of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity, around 500 B.C. Those Jews are described several times as “Israel”, and on two occasions when they offered sacrifices these comprised twelve animals “according to the number of the tribes of Israel”.45
Quite clearly, then, the Old Testament tells us that only the dregs of the “lost ten tribes” were ever lost. The cream of the ten tribes were absorbed into the two-tribed Kingdom of Judah, which later became called the Jewish nation. Our thread of harmony has so far run through six different Old Testament books, and covered some 500 years of history. It now jumps the 500-year gap between Ezra and the New Testament, and reappears in the gospels.
Matthew takes a prophecy that Jeremiah made about the children of Rachel (the ten-tribed kingdom), and says it was fulfilled among the Jews of his day. 46
Luke reports Jesus as quoting a prophecy from Hosea about the ten-tribed kingdom, and applying it to the Jews in Jerusalem. 47 He also mentions that a woman in Jerusalem, Anna, was of the tribe of Asher (one of the ten). 48 Peter addresses the Jews as, “Men of Israel . . . all the house of Israel.”49 Paul said that John the Baptist had preached to “all the people of Israel”.50 On another occasion Paul called the Jews “our twelve tribes”. 51 James also addresses “the twelve tribes”.52
The thread of history has now passed through 25 different passages of the Bible, in 11 different
books. It covers a period of a thousand years. And a perfect harmony prevails. Once more the question has to be faced: what caused this harmony? Did it “just happen”? Or is it evidence that one Master Mind was behind the writing of the Bible?
33 1 Kgs 15:17
34 2 Chr. 15:9
35 2 Chr. 19:4
36 2 Chr. 21:2
37 1 Kgs 12:21
38 2 Chr. 13:3
39 2 Chr. 14:8
40 2 Chr. 17:14-18
41 2 Chr. 34:9
43 Jer. 51:5,6
44 1 Chr.9:1-3,in RSV
45 Ezra 6:14-17; 7:13; 8:29, 35
46 Jer. 31:15, quoted in Matt. 2:18
47 Hos. 10:7-9, quoted in Luke 23:30
48 Luke 2:36
49 Acts 2:22, 36
50 Acts 13:24
51 Acts 26:4, 7
52 James. 1:1