Are Today’s Jews Genetically Descended From the Biblical Israelites?

There is an accusation circulating widely these days that the Jewish people are not really indigenous to Israel, but are actually white Europeans, descendants of an Eastern European people group called the Khazars, who have no business being in the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, these ideas are very popular among anti-Semites but they have even caught on in some Christian circles, suggesting that the Jewish people are unrelated to the ancient Israelites, and have no real history in Israel or rights to the land.

This theory took hold largely thanks to a book published in 1978 by a man called Arthur Koestler, who was in fact Jewish! He was an atheist who rejected the Bible but nonetheless, experienced anti-Semitism just the same as any other Jew.  He felt if he could just prove that the Jewish people of today are not related to the twelve tribes of the Bible, then the blight of anti-Semitism would be eradicated from the earth. He collected a lot of data and presented his case in his book, “The Thirteenth Tribe”.

Koestler was a writer and an intellectual with interests in Zionism and history, among other things, who brought forward a theory which he felt would change the way the world interacted with the Jews, but ironically, it was anti-Semites who alighted upon his theory with glee. The Saudi Arabian delegate to the United Nations claimed that the theory presented in Koestler’s book “negated Israel’s right to exist”, and neo-Nazi magazine The Thunderbolt declared it “the political bombshell of the century”.[1]

His book does indeed contain many historical facts, but was not well accepted among scholars. Anne Applebaum in The New York Review Of Books[2] concludes after reading a biography, “He understood the term “intellectual” in a much broader sense than we do today, and felt comfortable ranging over a huge number of fields in which he had no professional expertise whatsoever”. Ultimately, science and genetic testing available today proves that his central assertion was wrong. The vast majority of Jews today can be traced genetically back to the Levant area, not the Khazars.

So what’s the story with the Khazars?

A people group from an area north of Turkey, just above Georgia, called the Khazars did indeed convert into Judaism about 1300 years ago. We have Jewish writings and archaeological evidence[3] testifying to the event of the Khazars adopting rabbinic Judaism en masse some time in the eighth century.

The story is told in Yehuda HaLevi’s acclaimed twelfth century book The Kuzari, which was written about the time of intense dialogue between the three monotheistic religions. Greek philosophy was widespread after much of the key writings had been translated into Arabic – a language that was commonly understood at the time due to the large areas that had been conquered by Islam. In fact, in the ninth century, 90% of Jews lived in Muslim countries, and HaLevi’s book was written, like many other Jewish works in the Middle Ages, in what is known as “Judeo-Arabic”, which is Arabic words written with Hebrew letters. Debate and polemics were very popular, as respected men of all traditions discussed ontology – matters of truth – trying to get to the bottom of who God is and what we are all doing here. HaLevi’s book claims to be a recreation of how the King Bulan of the Khazar people listened to presentations from a Greek philosopher, a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew all defending their beliefs and arguing why their understanding of God is the correct way to go. The King was ultimately persuaded by the Jewish apologetics and the entire people group subsequently accepted Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism, with no Yeshua in it, mind you.

How did the mass conversion affect Israel?

As is often the case, one thing being true does not render the other invalid. The people of Israel did not evaporate even though the Khazars converted to rabbinic Judaism and were absorbed into the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… just as many other proselytes had done before, from the Exodus onwards. A “mixed multitude” of Egyptians came out with the Israelites; Canaanites like Rahab, Moabites like Ruth also joined along the way, and later many Persians joined the Jews as recorded in the book of Esther (8:17). A careful look through scripture reveals that many from gentile nations are recorded as having joined the house of Israel, without compromising the twelve tribes existence or nationhood, even before Yeshua came on the scene. He knew very well that he was among the people of Israel, and spoke to them as such, despite the fact that many from other nations had been included over the years.

Yeshua talks about the earnest proselytisation efforts of the Pharisees (though not in a very positive manner, it has to be said):

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Matt 23:15

The trouble was that the Pharisees were enthusiastically baptising gentiles into their twisted and man-made version of Judaism, rather than the God-breathed covenant of Sinai. They were more interested in exacting rules than in worshiping in Spirit and in truth. That problem was exacerbated even further by the eighth century. Shortly after the time of Yeshua, the Pharisee sect grew stronger than the others (the Saduccees, the Essenes, the Zealots) and eventually took exclusive control of what it meant to be a Jew. In the centuries that followed, they became the Sages who wrote the Talmud and Rabbinic writings that are followed today, and they built their version of the Torah around two problems: a non-existent temple and a Messiah they wished to avoid. New systems and laws were invented and passed on to perpetuate their religion which had become detached from the God of Israel and the New Covenant. Ironically, the Talmud was in the process of codification and completion around the same time as the Khazar conversion. There was significant tension at that time within Judaism as to whether the rabbinic writings held the same authority as the Bible. The Karaite movement that was strong at that time held that only the Bible had divine authority, but in the end their movement dwindled and the Rabbinic Judaism that emerged now concentrates more on the Talmud than the Bible.

So while Yehuda HaLevi does an admirable job of explaining each faith through imagined proponents and apologists, and even though his presentation of Judaism is beautiful and easy to embrace, the fact is that the Khazars were offered the religion of whitewashed tombs. And that is what they got. Moreover, as the wheels of history turned, things got from bad to worse, egged on by persecution from those who claimed to be “Christians”. Tragically, the church’s relentless battering of the Jewish people wherever they went pushed many further and further away from the truth of the gospel.

What does God have to say about the matter?

No other people group have ever survived such a long exile without vanishing completely. You hear of “Russian Jews”, “Moroccan Jews”, and “American Jews”, but you do not hear about “Italian Medes” or “Ukrainian Chaldeans”. The sands of time have long since washed these civilisations away. Yet the Jewish people endure. Why? Nothing short of the saving hand of their God has preserved the Jewish people. Assimilation and intermarriage has not managed to erase Jewish culture and heritage, and neither have the repeated attempts at violent annihilation. Even Israel’s errors will not be able to stop God’s purposes for them, or render his promises invalid. 

Thus says Adonai,
who gives the sun as a light by day

and the fixed order of the moon
and the stars as a light by night,
who stirs up the sea so its waves roar,
Adonai-Tzva’ot is His Name:
“Only if this fixed order departs from before Me”

—it is a declaration of Adonai—
“then also might Israel’s offspring cease

from being a nation
before Me—for all time.”

(Jeremiah 31:34-35)

In other words, so long as the sun, moon and stars are in the sky, the people of Israel will continue to exist as a nation. This is a promise of God.

The Khazars did indeed convert as a people group in the eighth century, but the house of Israel has absorbed many from other nations in the past, and Yeshua himself has some gentile ancestry. This fact did not by any means wipe out God’s chosen people. The house of Israel and God’s promises to it still stand. In fact, there are many promises about the end days that reveal that the people of Israel will be back in the land of Israel when the Messiah comes again. (Ezekiel 20:40-41, Ezekiel 37, Zechariah 12, Amos 9 and many more).

Along with many other believers of his day who saw the promises of God to restore Israel, Isaac Newton wrote long lists of these Bible references that prophesied the return of the Jews to their homeland, noting that it is mentioned in “almost all ye prophets”.[4] Back in the seventeenth century, Newton even made calculated estimates of the dates of their return, based on numbers given in the book of Daniel, saying that the call to return and rebuild Jerusalem would go out in 1895 or 1896 (in fact it was 1897 at the Basel Congress) and that it would could come to pass in 1944 [5]. He was very close! God has been absolutely faithful in fulfilling his promises throughout history, and if he said he would return his people to the land, then we can be sure that he meant it. God knows the end from the beginning, and he also knows who are the real people of Israel. We can be confident that he knows who to gather back to his land.

Science the backs up the Bible

Koestler was no doubt a brilliant, prolific, and award-winning writer, but even though he references some reputable sources in his book, it has ultimately been more warmly received by conspiracy theorists than scholars. Koestler wrote, “I have tried to show that the evidence from anthropology concurs with history in refuting the popular belief in a Jewish race descended from the biblical tribe.” According to biographer, Michael Scammell, he was  “convinced that if he could prove that the bulk of Eastern European Jews (the ancestors of today’s Ashkenazim) were descended from the Khazars, the racial basis for anti-Semitism would be removed and anti-Semitism itself could disappear”.[See note 2, p.546] There certainly is some truth in the genetic connection with the Khazars, but not nearly to the extent that Koestler would have us believe. His main source, Douglas Dunlop, an expert on the Khazars, was considerably more cautious in his claims. The fact is now we can look to science and genetic testing to get to the bottom of the mystery and test this theory in a laboratory – and that is what several people have done.

Genetics expert Dr. Karl Skorecki has been involved in several research projects concerning the genetics of Jewish people. In an interview[6], he confirmed that DNA markers for self-identifying Jews show a high degree of relatedness to each other and great affinity to each other, wherever they might be from (Morocco, Lithuania, Iraq, India, Europe etc) which indicates a common ancestry, and that the closest non Jewish populations genetically are Levantine populations: Druze, Palestinians, Cypriots, Syrians.

In short, Ashkenazi Jews are highly related to Sephardic Jews, and all of them are closely related to populations in the Middle East.

Along with many other studies, his research found that, “In contrast to the previously suggested Eastern European origin for Ashkenazi Levites, the current data are indicative of a geographic source of the Levite founder lineage in the Near East and its likely presence among pre-Diaspora Hebrews.”[7]

The faithfulness of God

God is not a liar. If he says he will regather his people, Israel, then that is exactly what he will do. He can see our DNA without the need of a laboratory, and he knows who he is bringing back to the land. He will make sure that his word is fulfilled, because he has put his word above his name. He is so sure that he will do what he said, that his very reputation is riding on it. God is happy to have it that way – to stake his glory and honour on his word coming to pass, because he will never let one word fall to the ground.

  • He promised to keep Israel as a nation as long as the sun, moon and stars are in place. (Jeremiah 31:34-35)
  • He promised to bring them back to the land, never to be uprooted again. (Amos 9:15)
  • And he promised that they would one day recognise his Son, Yeshua, as the Messiah. (Zechariah 12:10)

God knows who the people of Israel are and where they are – every single one. He cannot be fooled and his purposes cannot be thwarted. You can be certain of that. God is restoring Israel, just as he said, step by step, promise by promise.

“I bow before your holy Temple as I worship. I praise your name for your unfailing love and faithfulness; for your promises are backed by all the honor of your name..” (Ps. 138:2)

 


 

[1] Scammell, Michael. Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, Random House, 2009, p.547

[2] Anne Applebaum, “Did the Death of Communism Take Koestler and Other Literary Figures with it?” The New York Review of Books, 3/28/2010 

[3] Judah Halevi writes of primary sources from which he adapts his speeches (Scholcken Books 1971, p35). This assertion is generally accepted: “The narrator then establishes the context of the dialogue by recalling what he had heard of the arguments used by a Jewish sage approximately four hundred years earlier that persuaded the king of the Khazars to adopt the Jewish religion based on testimony recorded in historical chronicles of the time”. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Archeological evidence of Jewish conversion of Khazars: Kievan letter found in Cairo Geniza – Letter from a Khazar, written in Hebrew, was found in the Cairo Geniza (collection of all kinds of Jewish writings and documents – it’s forbidden to throw away anything with Hebrew letters). The Kievan letter, as it is known, is a document of introduction attesting to the credibility of the holder of the letter, assuring the reader that he was worthy of the support of the Jewish communities that he visited. The holder of the document probably didn’t speak Hebrew, and so it was most likely written by a Jewish scribe in Hebrew, and authenticated by a Khazar Jewish community leader who approved it in Turkic. At the bottom, in Turkic script is written “I have read it” – signed by a Cohen, which indicated endorsement by a prominent Khazar Jewish official, but the fact that it was written in Turkic indicates that the head of the community didn’t know even basic Hebrew, so this is one piece of evidence that  historians refer to in their deduction that the conversion of the Khazars was most likely fairly superficial. Additionally, testimonies of travellers Benjamin of  Tuleda and Petahia of Regensberg found very few Jewish schools and ritual baths among the Khazars, and evidence seems to indicate that they may not even have practiced circumcision – an absolute basic in Jewish conversion. Most evidence indicates that they were not very religious and probably remained pluralistic. Not only did Judaism not sink too deeply into Khazari culture, but it’s hard to find evidence of any Khazar influence on Jewish culture and communities as well. Many believe there is connection with the Hungarian Jewish community, but widespread influence across the Jewish diaspora is certainly not evident.  Dr Henry Abramson’s Jewish History Lectures 

[4] Snobelen, “The Mystery of this Restitution of all things” Isaac Newton on the Return of the Jews

[5] Newton, Observations, 113-4

[6] Interview with genetics expert Dr Karl Skorecki

[7] Phylogenetic applications of whole Y-chromosome sequences and the Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi Levites , Rootsi, Skorecki et al, Nature Communications 4, Article number: 2928 (2013)

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

ONE FOR ISRAEL (Messianic Jews in Israel)

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