Ten Lost Tribes
As readers of the Old Testament know, the ten lost tribes of Israel are those Jewish tribes that did not accept Solomon's son Rehoboam as their king upon Solomon's death. These tribes formed the Kingdom of Israel, or the Northern Kingdom; the two southern tribes formed the Kingdom of Judah, which outlasted the Northern Kingdom and in which the religion ancestral to today's rabbinic Judaism was formed.
In the Bible
Traditionally, the tribes of Israel, named after the twelve sons of Jacob, are:
Of these tribes, Levi did not receive a specific allotment of land; they were granted the Cities of Refuge and various other towns distributed among the other territories. Joseph had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh; they became two separate tribes, and there is no tribe of Joseph in those terms.
The actual Biblical text is relatively clear as to what happened to the lost tribes of Israel. They were conquered by the Neo-Assyrian empire around 722 BCE. Earlier Assyrian conquests had already conquered part of the Northern Kingdom's territory; in this first forced population transfer, "the king of Assyria went up against Damascus, and took it, and carried the people of it captive to Kir." (2 Kings 16:9). The remaining parts of the Northern Kingdom lingered for several more years as a tributary state of Assyria, until the Assyrians doubted their loyalty. Then:
“”Against him came up Shalmaneser king of Assyria; and Hoshea became his servant, and gave him presents.
And the king of Assyria found conspiracy in Hoshea: for he had sent messengers to So king of Egypt, and brought no present to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year: therefore the king of Assyria shut him up, and bound him in prison. Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years.
In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
|—2 Kings 17:3-6.|
“”And the king of Assyria did carry away Israel unto Assyria and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes: because they obeyed not the voice of the LORD their God, but transgressed his covenant, and all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded and would not hear them, nor do them.
|—2 Kings 18:11-12.|
So the Bible says straightforwardly when and where the Israelites were taken, and history loses track of them under their former names at this point. Some were sent to the kingdom of the Medes, in present day Iran. But the notion that the tribes were "lost", rather than scattered and losing their distinctiveness as a people, assumes that they somehow survived in hidden form, waiting to be recognized.
At any rate, the Israelites were not wholly lost; some remained on the land around the capital of the Northern Kingdom, which was Samaria by Mount Gerizim; these are the Samaritans, who preserve the original Hebrew alphabet[note 2] and a version of Judaism based entirely on the Torah and parts of the Book of Joshua. Bad blood between Samaritans and Jews forms part of the backdrop of the teachings of Jesus. A small number of Samaritans continue to this day.
|Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
The authors of the Books of Kings and Chronicles fairly consistently portrayed the kings and rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel as wicked rulers who displeased God. The Bible also portrays the conquest of the northern kingdom as the judgment of a righteous God for their sins.
Despite this, various people seek to claim the "lost" tribes as illustrious ancestors. This is also fostered by the later reappearance of the several lost tribes in apocalyptic and Messianic prophecies. In Revelation 7:5-8, a cohort from most of the tribes is "sealed" for special blessings at the end of the world:
“”of the tribe of Judah twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Gad twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Asher twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Levi twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand were sealed;
of the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand were sealed.
These fortunate 144,000 "servants of God" (Revelation 7:3) apparently will reap special blessings in the end times, together with a "great multitude … of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues" (Revelation 7:9) who will serve God in his temple and reap special blessings at the end of time:
“” Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Note that the original tribes of Dan and Ephraim are omitted entirely from this list. More glaringly, Joseph's tribe was split into Manasseh and Ephraim (his sons); if Manasseh's tribe is here, why is Joseph still here?
Apparently getting into this blessed host is better if you get in as a tribe member. This motivates a number of Christian claims which identify the scattered tribes with contemporary nations. Chief among these theories is British Israelism, which holds that something called the "British nation" descends from the tribe of Ephraim, while the United States continues Manasseh.
Lost and "found"
Here are some of the many claimants to being one of the lost tribes, in roughly decreasing order of likelihood:
- The Falash Mura (Beta Israel) of Ethiopia. The Falasha are the most likely to be an actual lost tribe if there are any true claimants, specifically the tribe of Dan. Mainstream Judaism ignored them for centuries, but they originally spoke a Semitic language (Ge'ez), and they maintained vestigial cultural-religious aspects of Judaism. Due to political turmoil in Ethiopia, most have relocated to Israel. However, Ge'ez is not Hebrew nor as closely related to it as Aramaic, nor is it a language known or thought to have been spoken by the ancient Hebrews, but rather, a local Ethiopian language — many Ethiopian gentiles natively speak Semitic languages. Additionally, what the Falasha consider canon differs hugely from what mainstream Jews do, and they lack key elements, such as hereditary priesthood, that would imply a genetic kinship with other Jews (the Cohen Modal Haplotype [CMH], a.k.a., the Y-chromosomal Aaron). Finally, most genetic evidence suggests they have no strong links to other Jews, and the rest is inconclusive (i.e., shared haplogroups, but not ones not shared with other Ethiopians, too).
- Note however that there are problems with using the CMH as a defining characteristic of Jewishness:
- The Lemba tribe of southern Africa. The Lemba speak a Nilo-Saharan language, not a Semitic language. Some of the male members of the Lemba have the "Cohen Modal Haplotype" in their DNA, which is an indicator of Jewish ancestry through the male line. Since there is no proven matrilineal descent, they may not be "true" Jews.
Many different ethnic groups and empires have been speculated to be Israelite descendants. Much of the motivation for these claims have to do with European incredulity that non-Europeans could come up with sophisticated societies on their own. Often such European observers would rely on superficial similarities between known Jewish practices and whatever local custom they were observing.
- The Pashtun people of Afghanistan, theorised by some to be descendants of one of the lost tribes.
- There were real Jews who migrated to China following the Silk Road whose roots were in Persia and Central Asia. This occurred much later than the dispersal of the Lost Tribes: the Kaifeng Jews who arrived in China starting in 960 CE. The "Chiang" (or Qiang) of China however were the subjects of a dubious claim by (Christian) Reverend T. Torrance in 1937. The Qiang actually speak a language in the Tibeto-Burman family and show no evidence of any west Asian genetics.
- The Bnei Menashe of India. These are not the people of the traditional Jewish communities of India (Cochin Jews) who had maintained continuous links with Judaism over the centuries — but rather tribal people who speak Tibeto-Burman languages. The Bnei Menashe have at least some economic interest in "returning" to Israel. Israel allowed 1700 to migrate, then banned them from migrating when they realized they weren't Jews at all, then changed policy again and allowed them to migrate again when they realized they weren't Muslims. Similar to China, India does have authentic Jewish populations, the oldest of which are the Cochin or Malabar Jews. The oldest evidence for the Cochin Jews in India is a gravestone from 1269 CE, though unsubstantiated claims have placed them at the time of King Solomon (c. 970 to 931 BCE) — which if ever substantiated would make them a "pre-lost tribe". Notably, they claim that all Mizos (a Christian-majority ethnicity in Eastern India) are Jewish. 
- Kashmiris: Al-Biruni, an 11th century Persian scholar suggested that Kashmiris are descended from Israelites. 
- The Gogodala of Papua New Guinea. One of the authors of the Lemba study, Tudor Parfitt, went off the deep end and decided to investigate claims by the Gogodala that they were one of the lost tribes. Given that the people who speak the Gogodala language arrived in New Guinea no sooner than 40,000 years ago and were completely isolated from continental Asia, Europe and Africa until recent historical times (primarily 1800 CE onward), the Jewish connection is beyond implausible to say the least, but it makes for a great publicity stunt.
- The Bine of Papua New Guinea have also claimed to be a lost tribe based on some flimsy linguistic evidence. Both the Bine and the Gogodala speak Papuan languages, whose speakers have most likely been in New Guinea for several tens of thousands of years — from long before the real lost tribes became "lost".
- A variety of implausible Pacific Island claimants (from Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea) to Jewish ancestry are discussed in the November 2015 issue of Oceania.
- Many Mormons believe that Native Americans ("Lamanites") are descended from Israelites.
- There are claims that the Celts or specifically the Irish are from the lost tribe of Dan. The fact that king David played the harp and the Irish play the harp supposedly provides evidence.
- The Scythians, a people in the first millennium BCE who came from central Asian steppes and got as far as the western shores of the Black Sea. The commonest theory is that they were really Indo-Iranian (Aryan), although other central Asian origins have been suggested. Similar dubious theories claim an Israelite origin for a related group, the Cimmerians or Kimmerians, who are sometimes erroneously suggested as the ancestors of the Welsh or Celts. These groups are often part of the strange fantasies of British Israelism.
- British Israelism. Correlated with proponents of the British Empire and other claims that the British are on a mission from God. There are convoluted narratives involving multiple steps of wrongness trying to explain how they came to be in Britain, involving various west Asian and east European tribes (e.g. the idea that the Scythians and Saxons were the same, or that the Welsh are Cimmerians who were also a lost tribe), but the British monarchy is also (bizarrely) said to be descended from King David.
- Upon encountering the Japanese, the Jesuits speculated about Israelite origins like they did with nearly every other non-European civilization they met. The theory was revived in the nineteenth century by a Scottish traveler named Nicholas McLeod who attempted to trace extremely superficial connections between Judaisms and Shinto practices, such as the fact that portable shrines used in during Japanese festivals are paraded around on poles just like the Ark of the Covenant was. In the early Showa era the theory became popular amongst some Japanese Christian academics who were hoping to provide some legitimacy to their religion which was coming under attack from the state at the time.
Other lost tribes
While the Israelites are the best known, there are various other legends where part of an ancient people wanders off and starts a new life some other place. Perhaps this is akin to the desire to imagine your real parents are royal and you have princes and princesses for brothers and sisters.
- Welsh Indians, who allegedly emigrated from Wales to North America around the 12th century, resulting in a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. Almost certainly untrue and probably politically-motivated (to provide an English or British claim to American territory, with Wales long being part of England and later the UK).
- New England (by the Black Sea), supposedly settled by Saxon emigrants from England after the Norman Conquest in 1066 on land belonging to the Byzantine Empire. A few place names are suggestive e.g. Londina ("London"?), but there is no real evidence.
- We should break this out, pointing out that there was never consistency.
- The script associated with modern Hebrew was originally used to write Aramaic.
- Catholic Resources on the 12 tribes
- See the Wikipedia article on Beta Israel.
- See the Wikipedia article on Y-chromosomal Aaron.
- Y chromosomes traveling south: the CMH and the origins of the Lemba—the "Black Jews of Southern Africa"
- Shalva Weil, "Our Brethren the Taliban?", The Jerusalem Report, Oct 22, 2001, 22. Taliban may have origin in ancient tribe of Israel: Anthropologist finds many similarities — October 2001
- China's First Missionaries: Ancient Israelites by T. Torrance (1937) Thynne & Co.
- Wang, Chuan-Chao, Ling-Xiang Wang, Rukesh Shrestha, Manfei Zhang, Xiu-Yuan Huang, Kang Hu, Li Jin, and Hui Li. "Genetic Structure of Qiangic Populations Residing in the Western Sichuan Corridor." PloS one,2014 9(8): e103772.
- Indian Jews from 'lost tribe' land in Israel
- Professor studies Jewish movement in Papua New Guinea
- Bine mene: connecting the Hebrews, new covenant in Bulawe Land from phonetic-revelations by Samuel (Sami) M. K. Were (2006). Bright Morning Star Corporation, 19 pp.
- Special Issue: Descent from Israel: Jewish Identities in the Pacific, Past and Present Oceania November 2015.
- See the Wikipedia article on Lamanites.
- Are the Celts one of the ten lost tribes of Israel?, Irish Central, July 7, 2021
- The Legend Of British-Israel, C.T. Dimont, 1933, on Theological Studies.org.uk
- Prince Madoc and the Discovery of America, BBC Wales History, 2010
- See the Wikipedia article on New England (medieval).