Evidence mounts of ancient Jewish roots of Beta Israel Ethiopian Jewry

A Genetic Perspective on the Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews

While Ethiopian Jews, historically known as the Beta Israel (or derogatorily as Falashas), constitute an inseparable component of today’s Israeli society, the question as to how and what makes them different from non-Jewish Ethiopians remains a prominent subject of discussion. As I discuss in a prior article (Omer, 2013), scholarly circles today remain overwhelmingly attracted to the hypothesis—also known as the traditional theory—that attributes the origins of the Beta Israel to medieval theological transformations within Christianity (e.g. Quirin, 2010; Kaplan, 1995), rather than to Jewish origins. By this theory, the relationship between the Beta Israel and the native populations is defined as socially constructed, with no ancestral or genetic connection to the ancient Hebrews.

My argument draws on evidence that the group is of ancient Jewish descent. Beside the abundant historical evidence, I base my argument on the recent genetic research—summarize by Jon Entine in Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People—which shows that the Beta Israel were established since the mid-first millennium CE period. Genetic research suggests that some shared ancestry from the latter time period is preserved within the group (p. 149; 2007; Saey, 2010, p. 13; Ostrer, 2012); that is through maintaining kinship ties and obviously through restricting intermarriages with outsiders. I also argue that the intermixture of the Beta Israel with neighboring populations was an inconsistent process that occurred gradually over extended periods of time. Outsiders were integrated into the group through spontaneous interaction and assimilation. One point I emphasize is that the historical, geographical and probably genealogical connections between the Beta Israel and Northern Sudan, which no scholar has practically examined in depth, is essential to understanding the group’s origins.

Benjamin Netanyahu (Prime Minister) with various leaders of the Ethiopian community celebrating Jerusalem Day
Benjamin Netanyahu (Prime Minister) with various leaders of the Ethiopian community celebrating Jerusalem Day. Click image for larger version.


Although the majority of the Beta Israel, known in the local Ge’ez-Semitic as Falasha, which translates to mean ”strangers,” were settled in Israel since the 1980s, they have historically inhabited the northwestern areas of the Ethiopian highlands. Their settlements were distributed around Lake Tana, the Semien mountains, as well as western areas in what is today Northern Sudan (Tegegne & Pinchuk, 2008, p. 43-4; Jacobovici, 2004). Historically prohibited by the Abyssinian law from owning land, the Beta Israel primarily worked as tenant farmers and artisans.

Traditionally, they also practiced blacksmithery and pottery. Back in time, they spoke a range of Ge’ez dialects, though in the twentieth century Tigrinya and Amharic were already the dominant languages of the group. Accordingly, they have been generally viewed as part of the Amhara and Tigray-Tigrinya people, also known as Habash—or Abyssinians. While preserving a restricted level of interaction with outsiders—with intermarriage strongly prohibited—the Beta Israel remained an isolated and a distinct ethno-religious entity.


Non science scholars today excessively rely on the existing religious texts of the Beta Israel to analyze their Jewish heritage and distinctive traits that are not shared with the Abyssinian Christian society. Researches, however, suggest that the sum of authentic Jewish material within the religious texts of the group is small (Devens, 1995, p. ix). Rather, the texts are shown to contain significant borrowings from Christian sources. These conclusions are widely accepted by scholars as supporting evidence to the argument of the traditional theory that the Beta Israel people were originally non-Jewish (Quirin, 2010, p. 5-6).

These scholars, however, fail to consider how the various human and environmental calamities ethiopian-jewsexperienced by the Beta Israel could have contributed to the loss of significant religious texts. Moreover, the group’s long history of isolation in the remote Semien and Tana regions would have resulted in total, or almost total, illiteracy. Hence, it is viable to speculate whether the group’s textual heritage was much expanded at some point in time; that is when illiteracy was not as prevalent as it has been in recent times. On this, Leslau (1951, p. xlii) elaborates:

First of all, the isolation from the Jewish world on one hand and the more or less close contact with the Ethiopian population on the other led to the abandonment of many traditional customs and the introduction of religious elements of non-Jewish origin. Secondly, we must not forget that the observance of some Jewish religious customs requires a more or less high economic standard among the people and that consequently the lack of material resources in the Falasha communities might have led them to give up some of these practices.

The role of militant invasions and famines in causing the losses of textual material is well exemplified in the testimony by a Beta Israelite during the 1890s (“A Letter” as cited in Quirin, 2010, p. 169):

Formerly we were very numerous; formerly there were 200 synagogues, now only 30 remain. In the time of the Dervishes [Sudanese-Mahadist invaders] a frightful number of people died from famine…. We are in great misery. Our books have been destroyed; the Dervishes burnt them by fire. We have no longer any schools; they are destroyed.

Hence, the surviving religious texts of the Beta Israel do not form reliable sources when it comes to understanding their Jewish heritage; they offer only partial and limited indications. Rather historical evidence, genetic research and archeological data must be examined to provide the most ideal material for analysis.

 Scholarly discussion

The traditional theory, as advocated by Quirin (2010) and Kaplan (1995), identify the Beta Israel as the product of a fourteenth-to-sixteenth century separatist movement within Christianity. A problematic trend, expressed by proponents of this theory, involves suppressing the distinctions between the Beta Israel and the non-Jewish Abyssinians. They argue that the distinctive traits of the group were socially invented by and within the Abyssinian society and, therefore, the group had no ancient Jewish roots. Hence, they cite differences between the Beta Israel religious traditions and normative Judaism as supporting evidence.

This trend is well exemplified by Daniel Summerfield (2003, p. 133) when he argues that “the ethiopian-jews-3concept of an ‘Ethiopian Jew’ is an invented twentieth century phenomenon”. Accordingly, he seems to claim that Judaism was adopted by the Beta Israel for the purpose of relating to the world Jewry. As evidence for his argument, Summerfield cites examples of religious elements recently adopted by the group from normative Judaism; that is during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—such as the Jewish star, prayer shawls, and use of Hebrew in services (p. 131-2).

There are four major problems come with this view. First, Summerfield, like other proponents of the traditional theory, ignores the larger picture; that is the religion of the Beta Israel “seemed to have broad equivalences with practices of the wider Jewish world, except they did not know Hebrew or the Talmud or follow post biblical practices such as the Chanukah” as Quirin (2010, p. 5) admits.

Second, the adoption of some normative Jewish practices does not contradict the evidence for the ancient Jewish origins of the group; nor does it support the idea that the “concept of an ‘Ethiopian Jew (Summerfield, 2003, p. 133) is “invented.” As Teferi (2005, p. 176) states “Indeed, one can write a lot on the differences of practice with normative Judaism but that, by no means, implies that the Ethiopian Jews have a different religion” Summerfield seems to ignore that the essential Jewish beliefs of the Beta Israel in the Orit (Torah), the coming of the Messiah (Kessler, 2012), and the pre-rabbinical principles, all pre-date the group’s introduction to normative Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Third, his argument begs two basic questions: First, why would the Beta Israel adopt normative Jewish traits if they were not Jewish in the first place? And second, why did they identify themselves, and were identified by others, in the Israelite-Jewish context prior to their exposure to normative Judaism? While references to Israelite presence in Kush are well founded in Biblical literature (e.g. Psalm 87:4, Isaiah 11:11, and Zephaniah 3:10), a wide spectrum of medieval and contemporary sources refers to Jews in the areas of the Semien and Tana (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 10). And if Summerfield’s hypothesis is based on the assumption that normative Judaism was adopted by the Beta Israel as a more civilized and foreign—perhaps European—influence, then his argument also fails. For such an assumption would contradict the Beta Israel’s overwhelming rejection of Europe’s Christian missionaries. According to one statistic, missionaries converted only about 1% of the poor Beta Israel population within a fifty year period (Hamilton, 2007, p. 143). And even those who converted during this period have predominantly returned to Judaism (Seeman, 2010, p. 63).

Fourth, Summerfield fails to consider the gap between the religious material of the Beta Israel and normative Judaism as a natural outcome of the group’s geographical isolation, social marginalization and various levels of deprivations.


The Beta Israel have traditionally attributed their descent to the Israelite tribe of Dan. On the other hand, they were commonly identified by the Abyssinians with prejudice, as strangers (Falasha) and as being inferior. The Israelite Jewish identity of the group is historically well established across a vast spectrum of sources. Notable of these was the ninth-century Jewish scholar Eldad Ha-Dani, whose very name translates to Eldad the Danite, and who identifies himself as the citizen of a Jewish state “beyond the rivers of Cush [Kush]” (Halper, 2009, p. 49). Eldad was precise about the unique Israelite identity of his people from the tribe of Dan. Others include the twelfth century traveler Benjamin of Tudela (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 50) who refers to “Israelites” in the mountains proximate to Nubia— i.e. the medieval name of the Nile Valley area of Kush in Northern Sudan. Also worth mentioning is the Chief Rabbi of Egypt who wrote in the sixteenth century confirming the origin of the Beta Israel as Jews from “the tribe of Dan” (as cited in Bleich, 1977, p. 302).

However, the perception of the traditional theory, given its trend in suppressing the distinctions of the Beta Israel from the Christian society, has distorted the historical reality of the group’s identity. Kaplan, for example, identifies ayhud, which is the Agaw word for Jews, as a vague term that includes vilified Christians. He cites cases in which medieval authors, starting from the fourteenth century, pejoratively referred to antagonized Christian groups as ayhud.

The word Falasha, on the other hand, was not used in pre-sixteenth century sources (Kaplan, 1995, p. 60). Hence, Kaplan seems to conclude that the ayhud were somehow different from the Falasha. He identifies the ayhud as the product of influences “from groups both within and outside the Ethiopian Orthodox Church”(p. 77). I argue to the contrary; the pejorative use of ayhud—to label Christian adversaries—is best explained within the context of a pre-existing Jewish community of which the Abyssinians are socially aware.

Additionally, ayhud was not the only term that was historically used to refer to the Beta Israel. In fact, the group was dubbed with different terms at different times and with varying degrees of regional interchangeability (Quirin, 2010, p.13). A term that was viewed as pejorative by some Beta-Israel in one area was accepted by members of the same group in another area (Ezer, 2002; Aescoly, 1943). Kayla, Tabib, and Bejrond, are examples of other names used to dub the group. (For more on Bejrond see Quirin, 2010, p. 137-8). (The origin of the term Kayla is unknown; Tabib seems to translate to healer possibly due to a perception that associated the group with superstition; and Bejrond developed as the result of nineteenth century stereotypes associated with artisan and labor occupations.)

Hence, the term ayhud was not an exclusive reference to the Beta Israel, beside Falasha. And although the term was at times derogatorily manipulated to refer to ostracized Christians, it was fundamentally conceived in context of its literal translation, simply meaning Jews—and has accordingly referred to the Beta Israel. Even Kaplan acknowledges, in contradiction to his own line of argument, that “geography, historiography, and religion all seem to link the two groups [the ayhud and Falasha of later periods]” (Kaplan, 1995, p. 63).

Early Jews of Aksum

Aksum was established as a recognizable civilization no earlier than the first century CE. Situated ethiopians-chainedbetween the Kushite kingdom along Sudan’s Nile Valley to the west and the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea to the east, Aksum was a crossroad of major trade routes. Local Agaw, Northern Sudanese-Kushite, and South Arabian elements blended together in Aksum (Dumper & Stanley, 2007, p.17). Studies have already established that Judaism had entered Aksum prior to the establishment of Church; that is sometime between the first and fourth centuries CE (Kaplan, 1995, p. 19). There is no doubt that Jews participated in the establishment of Christianity in Aksum, as well known through the Hebraic influences found in the early Christian texts of the Ethiopian Church.

A popular misconception among scholars today is that a Jewish migration from the Mediterranean through Northern Sudan would have been “nebulous” (Quirin, 2010, p. 10). Thus, a majority of scholars suggest South Arabia as the likeliest source of Aksum’s Jewish influence. Yet, the wide range of historical, archeological, and linguistic evidence—including the institutionalization of Greek during the fourth century CE—signify that contacts between Aksum and the Mediterranean were strong and direct. In fact, Aksum’s economic prosperity is inseparable from its reputation as a “master of the Indian Ocean-Mediterranean trade routes” (Adler & Pouwels, 2014, p. 229). Ceramics and funerary evidence from what is today northern Ethiopia, show Kushite cultural influences all through the second half of the first millennium BCE (see: Hatke, 2013, p. 32; Fattovich, 1994, p. 14-8; Lobban, 2004, p. 58).

Besides being an important trade partner, Kush, which predates Aksum by more than fifteen hundred years (Omer, 2013), offered the direct and relatively easy land routes through which Aksum accessed the Mediterranean world (Phillipson, 1998, p. 24). In fact, in the second century CE, Greco-Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy wrote about the Aksumites as a nation of “Ethiopia” (Mokhtar, 1990, p. 381).

Here, it should be noted that the name Ethiopia in ancient times referred to the civilization of Kush in northern Sudan, not to Aksum in today’s Ethiopia. (This complexity in usage led to great confusion among scholars in the past [i.e. Omer, 2013].) Hence, Claudius’ reference to the Aksumites, in the context of Ethiopia, may indicate that the Aksum area was in a subsidiary relationship to Kush. And although Claudius refers to the cities of Meroe and Adulis, he makes no mention of Aksum—neither as a city nor a kingdom.

Thus, in context of the historical, archeological, and geographical indications, it is reasonable to suggest that the first Jewish elements within Aksum trace to Kush. A number of accounts, including those provided in Beta Israel traditions suggest that the ancestors of the group arrived through the Nile Valley (Quirin, 2010, p. 23). As mentioned, Biblical passages, in addition to a number of extra-Biblical traditions, suggest an Israelite presence in Kush, particularly in Zephaniah 3:10 “From beyond the rivers of Cush [Kush] my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings” (New International Version). In addition to Eldad Ha-Dani, Obadiah of Bertinoro during the fifteenth century suggests that the spices sold by the Kushites “come from” (Abrahams & Montefiore, 1889) the Beta Israel, and Chief Rabbi David ibn Zimra of Egypt in the sixteenth century identifies the Beta Israel as the Jews from “the Land of Cush” (as cited in Bleich, 1977, p. 302).

After tedious research, Kessler (2012, p. 60) analyzes:

Scholars agree that the Jewish religion had a considerable following in the Axumite state before the time of King Ezana and as it is probable that there was a Jewish presence in the neighboring kingdom of Meroë with which Axum was in communication Jewish influences could have followed the well-worn routes across the border by way of the Blue Nile and Atbara rivers, while similar, though somewhat different, influences could also have penetrated from south Arabia and subsequently disappeared.

Thus, Jewish presence in Kush appears to predate the entry of the Jews in Aksum. By the time of their migration to Aksum, these Jews would have already exhibited the phenotypes of Northern Sudanese populations. This would explain the physical affinity between the Beta Israel today and the people of Northern Sudan, which will be discussed below.

Contacts with surrounding populations

The date for the departure of Jews from the Aksum area and their subsequent clustering in the Semien region is widely estimated to the early sixth century (Kaplan, 1995, p. 39). This date correlates with the reign of the fervent Christian king of Aksum Kaleb. Known for conducting wide scale conversions, church building, and anti-pagan campaigns, Kaleb’s relationship with Aksum’s Jewish population was probably restless. In 520, he waged a war against a Jewish king in South Arabia and overthrew him in favor of a Christian one. Dating to his reign, Cosmas writes (as cited in McCrindle, 1897, Book II): “As for the Semenai, where he says there are snows and ice, it is to that country the King of the Axômites expatriates any one whom he has sentenced to be banished.”

Kaplan (p. 39) speculates whether those “sentenced to be banished” were the Jews of Aksum. As mentioned, genetic research points to the establishment of the group in the mid-first millennium CE (Entine, 2013, p. 149; 2007; Saey, 2010, p. 13; Ostrer, 2012). Hence, at this point we have enough historical evidence, and correlative genetic indications, to suggest that the ancestral establishment of the contemporary Beta Israel goes back to the amalgamation of Jewish communities in the Semien and Tana regions sometime between fourth and sixth centuries CE (Omer, 2013). Thus, starting from the latter period, the banished Jews were transformed from scattered and fragmented Aksumite Jews into an ethnically, socially, and culturally integrated, yet fairly isolated, Beta Israel population.

The Semien areas of the Beta Israel may have been autonomous since the late sixth century; that is when the Aksumite kingdom lost its grip over its northern and western territories (see: Kobishchanov & Michels, 1979). Despite the attempts of the Beta Israel at restricting contacts with outsiders, intermarriage with surrounding pagan populations, in the western highlands, have probably occurred. According to some reports, the majority of western Agaw populations remained pagan until the sixteenth century (Abir, 1980, p. 161). Underdeveloped and decentralized, the pagans would have rarely intimidated the Beta Israel. Unlike the Christians who commonly perceived the Beta Israel as the crucifiers of Christ (“Journal,” 1994), pagan societies probably held no relevant perspective. In fact, there appear to have been a tendency among the church and royal authorities, during medieval times, to view the Beta Israel and pagans under one umbrella of heresy (Quirin, 1988; Kaplan, 1995, p. 61).

The pagan Agaw, in particular, appear to have shared a close historical relationship with the Beta Israel. This relationship is best exemplified in the Zagwe dynasty who replaced the Aksumite kingdom at an unknown date. While the Zagwe were prosperous in the early twelfth century, they were absorbed by the Abyssinian dynasty in about 1270. Nonetheless, the history of the Zagwe is hard to construct for it is plagued by political instability and internal strife. Although the Zagwe were Christians for most of their known history, traditions suggest that the dynasty was initiated by Beta Israel—Jews.

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In fact, the Zagwe rulers not only claimed Hebraic roots, but alleged to have descended from Moses and Zipporah (Burton, 2007, p. 188). The infamous Jewish Queen Judith (Jeffrey, 2007, p. 155), who was documented as invading the Aksum area from the “west” (Trimingham, 1952, p. 52) in the late ninth or tenth century, is suggested to have been an early ruler of the Zagwe (Burton, 2007, p. 187-8). In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, rulers of the dynasty controlled important Beta Israel regions, with Lasta being a core area. It was this historical relationship, between the Beta Israel and the Agaw, that inspired scholars to exaggerate and argue that the Beta Israel have descended from Agaw converts to Judaism (Ezer, 2003, p. 27; Ullendorff, 1968). The problem with this argument, however, is that there is neither evidence, nor tangible justification, for the happening of such an Agaw conversion to Judaism.

The Qemant were another small native population who might have partially integrated with the Beta Israel. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both the Beta Israel and the Qemant in Gondar were popularly identified with labor occupations (Quirin, 2010, p. 89-101). In fact, some identified the Qemant as a Hebraic group (Blady & Kaplan, 2000, p. 355). A cooperative relationship between the two groups may have, thus, developed as some Qement are said to have viewed the Beta Israel as a “natural barrier against the Amhara” (Semi, 2005, p. 42).

That said, we ought to take great caution not to exaggerate the level of integration between the Beta Israel and such pagan populations. Religious beliefs and ethnic affiliations would have formed a wide social gap between the groups so that intermarriage would not have commonly occurred. Not to mention, there are no notable evidence that suggests the occurrence of a significant intermixture.

Conversions to Christianity

In the fifteenth century, the Abyssinian monarchs sought to expand their territories to the western area of the highlands so as to exploit the economic resources of the regions inhabited by the Beta Israel (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 11), particularly those of northern Tana. Correlating with these royal infiltrations was the growth of missionary activities and monastic movements in the regions.

One of the early documented missionaries was that of Gabra-Iyyasus, during the second half of the fourteenth century, who converted a leading figure amongst the Beta Israel, Zana Gabo (Quirin, 2010, p. 50; Ramos & Gamada, 2000, p. 176). His conversion was followed by the baptism of his fellow relatives. The king himself is said to have fallen in love and married Zana Gabo’s daughter. Their children later formed the clergy of the monastery of Debra San whose prestigious Beta Israel background was well recognized (Rossini, 1938, p. 409-52; Quirin, 2010, p. 50). Through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries missionary activities impacted the different settlements of the Beta Israel. Regional Christian communities of Beta Israel descent were developed in different areas. In the fifteenth century churches sprang in Shawa for the Beta Israel converts. At one point a Beta Israel convert was awarded the priestly authority over four churches (Quirin, 2010, p. 48; Tamrat, 1972).

Evidence suggests that the Christians held prejudiced feelings even towards the Beta Israel who converted to Christianity, which accords with the group’s separate ethnic status within the Abyssinian society. This is evident through the account surrounding the conversion of a Beta Israel once messianic figure Yessahalo (Kaplan, 1995, p. 59; Rossini, 1910, p. 103-9). Even though Yessahalo became a Christian, he experienced prejudice first hand when he was prevented from entering the church by the clergy who claimed to have doubted his faith.

Another illustrative account involves the succession to the throne of Sarsa Dangal (1563-97) by his son Yaqob from a Beta Israel mistress. Being a Christian like his deceased father, Yaqob was crowned as the new heir to the throne in 1597. His mother, due to her Beta Israel ethnicity, was distanced from the royal body. Due to being half Beta Israel, Yaqob was so alienated from the nobility and military leadership that he was easily overthrown by a contestant a few years later. Fearing for his own safety, Yaqob attempted to escape to his uncle in the Semien who happened to be the infamous Beta Israel leader Gedewon. He was, however, caught and convicted by the court for encroachment of power, paganism and sexual perversion (Kaplan, 1995, p. 89). Further, it was claimed that he was not the son of Sarsa Dangal (Quirin, 2010, p. 82).

As one author puts it, Yaqob was evidently “guilty of nothing other than of having tried to be king” (Berry, 1976). After a period of exile, Yaqob was persuaded by dishonest military leaders to attempt to reclaim the throne. Lacking in support, Yacob was killed by another claimant in 1607 (Kaplan, 1995, p. 90; Perruchon, 1896). Such and other historical circumstances elucidate the prejudiced perspective that the Abyssinian Christians held towards the Beta Israel as an ethnic group regardless of religious affiliation.

The Beta Israel were exposed to Christian missionaries during the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. Since the dire defeat of the Beta Israel militant movement by the royal armies in 1626, their overall condition was in a downward spiral. Widespread social tension and political instability, caused in part by the increased sovereignty of the nobility in the Gondar area and accompanied by plundering activities and raids by the royal troops ravaged the country side. Sudanese-Mahadist invasions from the west devastated the region, notably in 1885 and 1888. The Great Famine (1888-92) is claimed by some to have killed one-third of the country’s population (Gilbert, 2005, p. 89).

Missionaries of the London Society claimed to have converted 1,470 Beta Israel, between 1868 and 1894, out of a total of 10,000 to 50,000 (Seeman, 2010, p. 63). The percentage is evidently small when viewed in context of the great efforts of the missionaries. The result was an unassimilated Beta Israel/Falasha Christians, or Falash-Mura, a majority of whom have returned to Judaism.

Just as in medieval times, testimonies suggest that the Beta Israel converts were not readily accepted by the Christians and experienced prejudices. Until the 1960s, there was a popular belief that the Beta Israel converted to Christianity just to own land (Messing, 1982, p. 97). (i.e. King Yeshaq [1413–30] issued the first known decree that prohibited the Jews from owning land when he declared: “He who is baptized in the Christian religion may inherit the land of his father. Otherwise let him be a Falasha!” [Parfitt, 1987, p. 125])

The fact that leaders of the Beta Israel were rarely interested in pursuing theological discussions with the Christian missionaries, further affirms that the group was established on an ethnic rather than a religious foundation. Historically, arguments raised by the Beta Israel, in response to the preaching of missionaries, typically emphasized the sacredness of preserving the unity of the group.

In the late nineteenth century, one Beta Israel priest expressed (Quirin, 2010, p. 189) in protest of the missionaries, “We are, and remain, and will die Falashas, with the words on our lips: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord’.” When challenged about their practice of sacrifice, another Beta Israel Priest is documented stating (p. 189): “My children, our faith is the true faith, and our bloody sacrifices have been ordered to us by Moses. We will remain what we are.”

Returning to Judaism

The return of a Beta Israel population to Judaism following a forced—usually superficial—conversion to Christianity, is a pattern that variably reoccurs through the history of the group. King Amda Seyon (1314-44) is documented to have sent military campaigns to subdue insubordinate Beta Israel who were formerly defeated in the Semien and other neighboring sites. According to the report (p. 49) “Formerly, these people were Christians, but now they have denied Christ like the Jews, […]”

Of great importance here is the indication that they “were Christians,” which as Quirin (p. 49-50) admits, “may reflect earlier evangelization efforts, as far back as Aksumite and Zagwe times, when some ayhud underwent nominal conversion and had since lapsed as royal authority in the area waned.” During the fifteenth century a Beta Israel is documented (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 59) as telling a Christian missionary: “We are Christians [but] not from our hearts but [because] we feared the command of the king and governors. Baptize us.” Hence, there is no reason to interpret such a situation as a “phenomenon of Christians joining an ayhud community” as Quirin (2010, p. 67), later concludes.

Such a phenomenon may also be detected through the tale of the monk Abba Sabra. According to the story, the monk was converted by the Beta Israel to Judaism while he was trying to convert them to Christianity. The monk ended up writing, or rewriting, religious books for the Beta Israel and taught the Orit. If we assume that Abba Sabra was not fictional, then we may speculate on whether he was of a Beta Israel descent—as in the case of the aforementioned Debra San clergy. In any case, such a monk would have mostly likely gained his importance amongst the Beta Israel out of his literacy skills.

As discussed earlier, the geographical isolation of the Beta Israel would have contributed to the prevalence of illiteracy. Thus, the Beta Israel would have welcomed the coming of such a compliant and literate monk with great delight. This is also well exemplified through the account of a monk named Qozmos who joined the Beta Israel after he abandoned his monastery due to theological disagreements with the clergy (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 13). Qozmos’s union with Beta Israel began after an accidental encounter when he met some Beta Israel while wandering in hunger. When he asked them for food, they accepted but with the implied condition that he write the Orit for them.

The proposal raised by Quirin (2010, p. 66) and proponents of the traditional theory that Abba Sabra has instituted “the Beta Israel-Falasha religion” is, hence, an exaggeration to say the least. In addition, Quirin’s skepticism that the monk might have introduced monasticism is unlikely. Monastic practices, as suggested in the writings of Abu’l-Mocali, most likely predate the time of Abba Sabra (see: Teferi, 2005, p. 185; Shelemay, 1994, p. 145). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this phenomenon is no less notable. In addition to the mentioned 1,470 Beta Israel who were claimed to have converted to Christianity between 1868 and 1894, but who have mostly returned to Judaism, studies identified 50,000 Beta Israel in the 1960s who identified as Christians, but who continued to practice Jewish traditions (Messing, 1982, p. 93-9; Quirin, 2010, p. 188).


As mentioned, genetic evidence—as best introduced by Entine in Abraham’s Children (2007)— has already demonstrated that the group maintains an ancient descent that traces all the way back to the mid-first millennium CE (Entine, 2013; Saey, 2010; Ostrer, 2012). As someone who is of East African descent, I argue that the African ethnicity of the Beta Israel appears to be more complex than just Ethiopian.

The observed phenotypes of the Beta Israel-Ethiopian Jews today strongly reflect the features of the riverine Northern Sudanese populations. To a lesser proportion, they reflect the phenotypes commonly found among the mainstream Habash-Abyssinian populations of what is today northern Ethiopia. Contrary to the argument that propose the Beta Israel to have originated from Agaw converts (Ezer, 2003, p. 27; Ullendorff, 1968), only a minority of the population today displays distinguishable Agaw features—i.e. large and deep-set eyes, notably thin eye-brows, and the usual dark complexion but with a unique smooth-yellowish tone. This may indicate that intermarriage with the Agaw was limited.

A small minority displays clear Somali features with longer faces and darker than average complexion. A much smaller minority of the group shows clear West/Central African features attributed to the Barya populations who were noted in the fourth century CE inscription of Ezana (Zarroug, 1991, p. 8). The Barya were historically subjugated by the Abyssinians and forced into farm work as late as the mid-twentieth century.

Hence, phenotypes indicate a fair degree of African diversity with the Beta Israel. That being said, understanding the potential contributions of Northern Sudan is significantly important to better understand the development of the Beta Israel, particularly as it pertains to their historical and ethnic roots.


In conclusion, historical indications overwhelmingly suggest that the intermixture of the Beta Israel with surrounding populations was spontaneous, inconsistent and infrequent. Evidence suggests that the traditional theory, which attributes the origin of the Beta Israel to Abyssinia’s Christian society, is unreliable. Evidence also suggests that the Beta Israel originated from Jews who migrated from Kush to Aksum sometime between the first and fourth century CE. It was this Jewish community that was exiled from Aksum to the Semien and Tana areas in the sixth century by King Kaleb that ultimately produced the Beta Israel society. Accordingly, the group’s identity has historically conformed to an ethno-religious Israelite-Jewish-ayhud context in the simplest and most direct manner.

The prejudices that the Beta Israel Christian converts have experienced within the Abyssinian Christian society, as well as the tendency of the converts to return to Judaism, further points to the ethnic character of the group. And as elaborated, a Northern Sudanese element is evident through the current phenotypes of the Beta Israel, which may suggest that the ancestors of the group arrived from Kush. On the other hand, the peripheral nature of the group’s traditional regions, which marginally stretched into Northern Sudan, may also be considered as a factor in an intermixture with Northern Sudanese populations.

More genetic research on the Beta Israel is needed in order to free the course of exploration, on their origins and development, from the biases of the traditional theory. Such research may introduce us to new approaches that may help expand our perception on the formation and influence of Jewish cultures in Africa. It may also shed light on the reliability of the Biblical narrative, particularly with regards to the existence of an Israelite community in the land of Kush as represented by the Beta Israel.


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31 thoughts on “Evidence mounts of ancient Jewish roots of Beta Israel Ethiopian Jewry”

  1. You have some interesting comments in here but, related to the Tribe of Dan legend, I don’t think you should use the 8th Century author Eldad ha-Dani as evidence for anything. You seem to rely on him to give credence to the derivation from the Tribe of Dan. Eldad’s writing, known as Sefer Eldad in Hebrew, also claimed the the land he discovered with resident black Jews has a river called the Sambayton, which stops running on the sabbath. He also claims this is a land where no child dies before his parents. IS this someone you want to rely on for an “accurate” picture of Jewish practice in Kush?

    • Hi LSL: If Eldad Ha-Dani is not a source of “evidence for anything”, then so are the writings of most of the well known medieval and ancient scholars. Reality and imagination are commonly blended in ancient and medieval writings. So fictional statements are not unusual. That said, the idea that the Beta Israel originated from the tribe of Dan comes from old Ethiopian traditions. So the fact that Eldad was precise about the existence of a Jewish/Israelite population that originated from the same tribe, in the area of Kush, is not likely a coincident. And what is really worth noting here is the broader Israelite-Jewish heritage that is claimed across a vast array of sources.

      • Ibrahim, Regarding your statement — “the idea that the Beta Israel originated from the tribe of Dan comes from old Ethiopian traditions” — please tell me what those traditions are, where do you find them?
        The Beta Israel in particular believed themselves to be descendants of Solomon and Sheba through Menelik, who returned to Aksum (according to the Kebra Negast, also a purely legendary source). Menelik has nothing to do with the Tribe of Dan.
        I would be grateful if you can point me to any references showing that the Beta Israel themselves believed they were descendants from the Tribe of Dan. Or even that Ethiopian Christians believed the Falasha were from the Tribe of Dan. I am asking about sources other than Eldad or those who accepted his opinions.
        I maintain this idea was first proposed by Eldad who, as you say, mixed fantasy with truth. How do we know whether any particular claim is true or only invented? For one thing, if he had lived in “Ethiopia” or Kush, as he claimed, he would have spoken Ge’ez but there is no use of Ge’ez in his book.
        You mention a “vast array of sources,” but all of them are based on Eldad’s fantastical account of his travels. For example, he talks of being washed up on a shore where his companion was eaten by cannibals. This is more like Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels than “scholarship.”
        In conclusion, if you really do know of references to Beta ISrael origins from the Tribe of Dan — other than from Eldad’s writing or those who accepted it — please share them. I would like to use that in my own writing about this topic. I am totally open to changing my opinion if there are other reasons for this belief.

        • The distinction between reality and fiction in ancient and medieval times was not typically as sharp as in our modern times. It is the challenge of the modern researcher to separate between reality and imagination through rational and reasonable analysis of the text. This source speaks with some depth on the Ethiopian traditional narritive regarding the Danite origin of the Beta Israel:

          Jon Entine, Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (Grand Central Publishing, 2007), p. 148-9.

          • Thank you Ibrahim! I like your articles. They are very clear and make so much sense about the subject. Coming from Ethiopia, what you are saying is actually true. Your article answered the many questions I had about the Ethiopian Jewish.
            My question to you is, if the northern Sudanese people have some connection with the Beta Israel, now being 100% Muslims is troubling because it’s by nature weird that Jewish people could turn to be such fanatic Muslims as a whole and are against their own. Or do they qualify to be called Jewish at all anymore? Are they aware that they have some genetic connection with the Jewish people? What do you think about that?

          • IN MY EXPERIENCES TEACHING FOR 2 YEARS IN ETHIOPIA [and having become observant a scant 2 years before that] I NOTED A VAST SIMILARITY BETWEEN ETHIOPIAN COPTIC ORTHODOX PRACTICES [as opposed to the EGYPTIAN COPTIC ORTHODOX CHURCH which hasn’t even a prohibition against eating pork] AND NORMATIVE JUDAISM – CIRCUMCISM ON THE 8TH DAY, BAN ON SEA FOOD AND OTHER, PERHAPS ALL, DIETARY OLD TESTAMENT CULINARY PROHIBITIONS, ONE’S LAST NAME BEING HIS/HER FATHER’S FIRST NAME, ETC., ETC. [On my 4th re-visitation at the Addis Ababa airport during a delay in a first return to Eritrea with the entire planeload of passengers “surrounding” me and Moms and being told “You are a good Christian family”, upon my correction [in Amharic] that we were Jews, all exploded: “WE TOO ARE OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL” [at which point Moms turned to me and said “Now I believe you”].
            BEST TO ALL,
            MARK LEWIS BRECKER, Esq.
            Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
            ETHIOPIA III

          • Hi Ibrahim,

            Well said! Abraham’s children…who are they? Who are the Jews? When did they become referred to as Jews? Abraham was a Babylonian from the land of Chaldea. The article speaks of the Israelites as being Hebrews. The ancient Hebrews were Canaanites, they spoke Hebrew. When Abraham arrived there, he spoke a totally different language (he and his ancestor had to have picked up the language during their stay there).. So now they’re considered to be the ancient Hebrews???? Israeli people is who they are as is what they should be appropriately called. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel after he wrestled with an angel.

            Why is the writer so adamant about the Ethiopians not being Israeltes. God scattered 10 tribes throughout the world. They could have landed anywhere. Is it because they are black. Did they originate from the tribe of Dan? Could be! If an Ashkenazi can be give the “right to return” (99% European, namely German) so should the Ethiopeans. It is simple as conducting a DNA for semitic heritage .

  2. History is Sociodynamic. Hebraic [Abraham to Moses] and Israelite [Moses to Second Temple] history can be defined as a nomadic and henogamous clade of peoples practicing Torah belief and sociodynamics. Focussing on the definition of Hebrew and Israeli after the Exodus era we can determine the migrations and proselytization of peoples to the Torah in East and North Africa and South and West Asia from 4,000 to 2,500 years ago, c. Abraham to post-Assyrian exile. That is 1,500 years of migration and sociodynamics in the Northeast African region, as Professor Omer is reading and advancing.

    In summary a hypothesis built from my research work, “Sociogenetic Complex Systems History and Religious Origins and Development of Hebrew, Israelite and Jewish and Related Groups and Migration in Asia, Africa and Europe from G, J1, J2, R1a, T, E1b1b (Y-DNA) Haplogroups” is that the founding groups of the Kush Israelites remarried into the Israelites, and outlying groups intermarried or converted some of the ancestors of the Beta Israel, or North Ethiopian and Southern Sudanese people, sometime after the Second Exile after the Second Temple era.

    The Beta Israel then formed their own societies and kingdoms after the Christian era began in Northern Ethiopia. Ironically, and in agreement with the thesis Omer is advancing, some of the Christian or Moorish Northeast Africans involved in these histories, may have had as much Hebrew or Israelite ancestry as the Beta Israel. The Coptic Orthodox are mostly endogamous to Greco-Egyptian and Egyptian delta clades of worshippers. However we can also refer to Hamitic and Bantu Africans migrating North in ancient, classical and medieval era migration patterns as well [Abkhazians of African [Ethiopian?] Descent, et. al.].

    We can furthermore note to trace Hebrew and Israeli migrations across the Horn of Africa, Lakes Region and Southeast Africa, and West Africa to the Ivory Coast and Nigerian deltas in other research works, histories and modern studies. Some of the Sociodynamic histories, peoples and cultures I research include Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa; Agaw, Somali, Afar; Tutsi, Lemba.

    Jonah Lissner, Independent Researcher

    • That is what the author is pushing. I already know that interest and that is why they wanted to divorse the natural tie of Ethiopian Jews with Northern Ethiopians (that appeared diffrent in your eyes). The undeniable fact is…the descendants of the ancient biblical Kush are the Agews, Kemants, Bejas and Afars of modern Ethiopia and no one else. Ethiopian Jews were part of the founding Kushite wing of the people of Mosses. Semites that were part of the founding Israelite people are absorbed in EOC followers today. You just swallow the reality!

  3. I still do not see any better of this paper from the previous one. I can’t imagine visible line that can separate ancient people of northern Ethiopia from the ancient Northern Sudan. The most likely scenario that so happened in ancient Kush is a bit diffrent than we think. Israelite religion or its culture in that area was very ancient, probably as old as the time of Mosses (1400 B.C) and therefore, we can imagine most people in that area, extending east as far as beyond the red sea was more or less loyal to the practice. Accordingly, it is very likely that about half of the people around Axum was practicing an Israelite religion. The current Ethiopian Jews are simply the last remainants of the people that resisited christanity. It is not that difficult to observe more and more Israelite tradition is still maintained by Ethiopian Christans. How do you explain that??? There is no as such unique practices that Ethiopian Jews maintained but not Ethiopian Christians. I even see additional practices like Ark veneration in EOC. You must have diffrent hidden agenda.

    • I think the Beta Israel are, as they say, a mixture of different Agaw Hebraic/Judaic groups that received a major boost from the ancient Kingdom of Israel (in West Arabia) after 722 BC. The inscriptions at Adi Kaweh mention “Black Hebrew” twice and the word in Hebrew for Black person and Samaritan (the religion fo Israel) is the same “Kushi”. I agree that over half the population of Ethiopia was Israelite (not Jewish) around the time of Christ but was divided between Aksum and D’MT (based on Yeha but then Adi Kaweh) which did not fade ca.200 BC but lasted up until Yodit’s death in around 970 AD – she is buried at Adi Kaweh. The Nine Saints converted Aksum but their work incensed the Israelite population – Yodit’s fury seems to have been motivated very much by being blocked from access to the sea and also the murderous consequences of Matthew 27:25. The Semitic Aksumite royal house were Israelites who saw a logical progression to Christianity, whereas the Cushitic Beta Israel stood by the First Temple “pure Judaism tradition.

      • I’m sure that Ethiopia has Israelite roots, but the “over half the population of Ethiopia was Israelite around the time of Christ” thing is exaggerated.

  4. No, the tribe of Dan are the Danes who live in Jutland (Danish: Jewland) and are Jutes (Danish: Jews). The have the same education, high tech industry and development as the Jews of Israel. They are a modern western Civilization as all Jewish civilizations. They name their children with Hebrew names like Sarah, Michael and EDUCATE them. They DEVELOP their country and don’t need help from outside. All Danish men and women have their genetic roots and haplogroup origins in the near east Levante and not in Africa.

  5. You must come to terms with Ezra’s distortion of Old Testament history. The Hebrew appear to have started the Exodus in Nubia, passed through Egypt into Yemen an founded Ancient Israel and Judah in West Arabia. the Beta Israel have the original Torah of 40 laws not the 613, mostly invented by Hilkiah and Ezra. The Sheba-Menelik Cycle in the Kebra Nagast seems to be a true account. The Balfour Declaration saved hundreds of thousands from the Holocaust but Palestine was not the Promised Land of Moses, only the land of Ezra till Bar bar Kokhba.

    • Very interesting!!! Your position is evidence based and radically change what myths are saying. Ultimately, the truth wins and today’s popular views vanish

      • I am sure Ethiopians can work out the truth if the Israelis back off and allow them more expression. It was insulting to refuse to let their priests operate in Israel and teach them they were not true Jews

  6. I happen to be from north Ethiopia, a Christian of Amhara ethnicity. As an Amhara I can readily identify a north Sudanese as a foreigner but not most Falashas. So when the author says Falashas have similar phenotype as north Sudanese with “yellowish” skin, I just had to laugh and dismiss the entire argument of this Sudanese(?) author.

    Now, he is more interested in some myth than history or genetics. For starters, the Falashas don’t look like Sudanes nor do they have “yellowish” skin. They have average Agaw Ethiopian complexion and phenotype. The Authors description of Agaws is weird and infantile. It seems he’s never visited the Falashas country nor that of the Agaw. Obviously he had no idea what the Amhara looked like.

    When it comes to the genetic argument, he hasn’t singled out a trait that uniquely links the Falashas of Ethiopia to the general Jewsh population. Besides, he ignored to mention the troves of genetic informations available to the general reader linking the Falashas to Agaws of Ethiopia. I am not really interested to delve in to the origin of Falashas, but I have no doubt the Falashas are Agaws, ethnically. As to the origin of their religion, your argument Judaism came from Sudan is plausible, but not necessarily true. Because we have historical reorder testifying the enslavement and exile of Jews from Yemen following Axumes punitive expeditions in the early to middle of the first millennium AD. And the author hasn’t sufficiently disproved Falashas were not converts of these exiled Jewish slaves from Yemen.

    • Like I said they never sequenced or tested the DNA of the ancient Judaeans/Israelites.


      Genetics and the Archaeology of Ancient Israel (2013)
      Letter to the Editor
      Aaron J. Brody, Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA
      Roy J. King, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford

      This letter is a call for DNA testing on ancient skeletal materials from the southern Levant to begin a database of genetic information of the inhabitants of this crossroads region. In this region, during the Iron I period traditionally dated to circa 1200–1000 BCE, archaeologists and biblical historians view the earliest presence of a group that called itself Israel. They lived in villages in the varied hill countries of the region, contemporary with urban settlements in the coastal plains, inland valleys, and central hill country attributed to varied indigenous groups collectively called Canaanite. The remnants of Egyptian imperial presence in the region lasted until around 1150 BCE, postdating the arrival of an immigrant group from the Aegean called the Philistines circa 1175 BCE. The period that follows in the southern Levant is marked by the development of territorial states throughout the region, circa 1000–800 BCE. These patrimonial kingdoms, including the United Kingdom of Israel and the divided kingdoms of northern Israel and Judah, coalesced varied peoples under central leadership and newly founded administrative and religious bureaucracies. Ancient DNA testing will give us a further refined understanding of the individuals who peopled the region of the southern Levant throughout its varied archaeological and historic periods and provide scientific data that will support, refute, or nuance our sociohistoric reconstruction of ancient group identities. These social identities may or may not map onto genetic data, but without sampling of ancient DNA we may never know. A database of ancient DNA will also allow for comparisons with modern DNA samples collected throughout the greater region and the Mediterranean littoral, giving a more robust understanding of the long historical trajectories of regional human genetics and the genetics of varied ancestral groups of today’s Jewish populations and other cultural groups in the modern Middle East and Mediterranean.

      “Why the DNA of the ancient Judaeans has not being sequenced and settle the question of relatedness once and for all is a question that should be directed to Israeli archeologists. It is most unfortunate that the members of the general public have been mislead to believe (no doubt after paying a lot of money to DTC companies) that they are related to ancient figures without any shred of evidence.”


  7. Despite the citation of numerous scholars and the admixture of plenty of true scholarship, this article is flawed and disingenuous for numerous reasons. Read my article titled, Falasha Authentic Jews? on Academia.edu. There I point out, have actually studied the entire responsa of Radvaz, the rabbi from Egypt quoted in this article, that the people he was referring to could not have been the Beta Israel. Numerous other irefutable reasons are also given

  8. I am curious.
    There are many tribes or ethnic groups who were equally marginalized in Ethiopia as the Bete Israel and they all seem to engage in similar trade. Craftsmanship.
    The Ari blacksmith in south are one such ethnic groups and to have derived from the most ancient stock in Ethiopian population in existence today.
    One of the DNA analysis I saw suggested that the Bete Israel originated from an ancient Ethiopian population.
    I am wondering could there be a presence of Judaism before even the Kushits moved to Ethiopia displacing the original inhabitants (now mostly present in south and south west of the country) and become the masters?

  9. The priestly gene stems from Nubia on the Egyptian-Sudanese border. Moses and Aaron were probably from the black Nubian pagan priesthood. The Hebrew were enslaved as gold miners after the Hyksos disruption ended corvee labour. They were exploited for 430 years as slave gold miners in Nubia, the eastern mountains and around Adi Kaweh (Wuqro) in Ethiopia). Moses converted to the cult of YHWH in West Arabia and then returned during environmental chaos to convince the paramilitary Medjay to join the Hebrew in the Exodus to southern Yemen via Ethiopia when the Red Sea bed lifted, which is why ancient Hebrew prayers are found in Ethiopian Agaw (Martin Flad evidence in 19th century) and the oldest inscriptions mentioning Hebrew (actually “black” Hebrew) are to be found at Adi Kaweh. Canaan was in West Arabia and the two Israelite states were there until 722/1 BC (Israel) and 586 BC (Judah). The “return” to Jerusalem (in Palestine) was to the Land of Jacob not Joshua’s Promised Land. Ezra and his colleagues tampered with the Hebrew Old Testament to pretend Jews were a Middle Eastern people. There was no genetic connection between Moses and Abraham. The Abrahamic traditions, 12 tribes etc seems to have come from the conquered West Arabian Canaanites. Today 95 % of Jews have the Hebrew priestly paternal DNA marker, Haplogroup J1-M267 (Y Chromosome gene as they are descendants of light skinned Middle Eastern (including Persian) converts. A significant number of priests were deported to Turkic Khazaria where they converted the locals. 53% of modern Oriental Jewish priests have the special Nubian DNA marker and 45% of Ashkenazim priests. The Lemba of southern Africa have 9% of the marker and their Buba priests 58%. They are however not Jews but a Nubian pagan remnant. Judiasm is therefore a blend of an originally black Nubian YHWH converted priesthood who established control over light skinned Abrahamic Middle East adherents partly in West Arabia but more in the Levant, Babylon and Persia. Most Hebrew remained in West Arabia and particularly Yemen. The Beta Israel are a mix of several waves of early Hebrew and Israelites. Their Torah – only 40 laws compared to the “official” 613 laws (mostly invented by Hilkiah and Ezra) came from Solomon’s’ court along with the Ark in West Arabia, which is why the geography of the account of the flight of the high priest Azariah with the Ark refers to West Arabia not Palestine.

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