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judean-desert-final The Judean Desert


Most Jewish people and most Christians barely give this question a thought. They assume that if a person can show recent Jewish descent or their family are observant Jews, then they must be Jewish.

However, there are quite a few people out there in the world who attempt to throw doubt on this, or to claim that sections of the Jewish race are not real Jews. This includes a number of Arab/Palestinian writers and a smattering of Jewish writers. American academic Dr Alfred Lilienthal, author of What Price Israel? was one of these and more recently the Jewish historian Shlomo Sand has written The Invention of the Jewish People.1

The issue raised by these writers is one of race; it is an ethnic issue. If one can demonstrate that a Jew has no genetic descent from Jews in biblical times then one can reasonably ask: what right does he have to claim an inheritance in the land of Israel? This is the thrust of some Palestinian Christian theology. The question immediately arises: does this really matter? Surely if they are practising Jews, this is what really matters? Surely God is interested in their faithfulness to him, not whether they have the right DNA?

Unfortunately this argument is flawed. The reason is this. If we say that the Jews inherit the promises of Abraham through the line of Isaac and Jacob, then they must be descended not only from Abraham, but also from Jacob. This argument is irrefutable. We cannot argue that the promises, including the land, do not apply to Ishmael and Esau and then say that all that is required to define a Jew, is observant Jewish practice. The Bible puts the genetic aspect of this very clearly when it says in Genesis 35:11 that kings will come forth from Jacob’s body (loins).

There are caveats to this. The descendants do not have to be ethnically pure. It is clear from the Bible itself that God permitted mixed marriages and it is also true that he permitted conversion by Gentiles into the Jewish faith. However, these converts are unlikely to have produced a Gentile line of descendants. Living among the Jews they would soon have been assimilated and their descendants would have had mixed ancestry. Thus for a person to be Jewish, a necessary requirement would be a trace of the genome (DNA)4 from the patriarch Jacob. The only exception to this would be a Gentile convert, or immediate descendants, who had married other Gentile converts.

This cannot be determined genetically, because we have no way of knowing Jacob’s DNA. There are genetic tests which we shall examine briefly which suggest that it is possible to find genetic markers within the Jewish population.

The consequences for Jewishness of intermarriage with Gentiles depends on genetic dilution. Thus if a Jew marries a Gentile and their descendants do not marry Jews then they become assimilated Gentiles. Likewise if a Gentile marries a Jew and his or her descendants do not marry Gentiles, then they become assimilated Jews. This dilution happens very quickly. For example, if a man’s great-great grandfather (five generations) was Jewish, but he and his descendants all married Gentiles, then the man would be 1/16 Jewish. I am talking here of being Jewish solely in terms of whether one’s ancestors were Jewish or Gentile – not in terms of particular genes or characteristics.

In reality a small part of Jacob’s DNA is likely to be attached to a part of the genetic material (chromosome)4 which is always transmitted, perhaps in the male or female line or in both, just as being human is always transmitted. Where this applies then Jewishness would never be entirely lost, but it would become increasingly diluted by continuous intermarriage with Gentiles.

This brings us to the next question. At what point does God decide that the dilution effect is sufficiently great for a person no longer to be considered Jewish? This is an interesting question because I have met a number of Christians who have discovered quite unexpectedly that they have Jewish ancestry. Furthermore, the forced conversions of Jewish people to Christianity in Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages led to the assimilation of Jewish people into the Gentile population. They are known as Marranos or Conversos. Many have retained their Jewish identity down the centuries. No doubt some would have retained their Jewish beliefs secretly, but many would perforce have married Gentiles. Some Conversos are not aware of this ancestry. However, in Latin America some women have come to suspect their Jewish ancestry due to the prevalence of certain cancers found predominantly in Jewish women.

The challenge to the Jewishness of Jews has come from a number of directions. These can be summarised as follows:

1. Jewishness was lost through intermarriage with Gentiles, even in Bible times.
2. Jewishness was diluted by the conversion of large numbers of Gentiles.
3. There is no supporting evidence from genetics research that determines Jewishness.

The first point can be dealt with fairly quickly. As long as intermarriage did not swamp the Jewish population, Jewishness would be retained and re-established. We saw earlier that Jewishness can be lost to a Gentile population and vice versa very quickly. People had no difficulty in identifying Jews in New Testament times, so it was not a problem, despite the intermarriage that had already occurred in Old Testament times.

The second line of attack arises after the completion of the Diaspora in the second century AD – in other words in the last 1800 years. It is argued that large populations of Gentiles converted to Judaism. The best-known example is that of the Khazars in Eastern Russia and Central Asia. They are alleged to have adopted the Judaic faith as a people around AD 700. They were subsequently dispersed (circa AD 1000) across Europe and became the ancestors of the European and Russian Jews, the Ashkenazim. This view is popular with some Palestinians because it enables them to say that many of the immigrants to Israel who were from Europe and Russia (or their descendants, people like Binyamin Netanyahu), are not ethnically Jewish. This view was first popularised by Arthur Koestler in his book The Thirteenth Tribe in 1976. Other writers dismiss this view, saying the evidence points to the Ashkenazim coming to Northern and Eastern Europe mainly via Italy.

Having read various views on the Khazars I think the evidence for this hypothesis is simply not there. There is no justification for dogmatic statements such as that of Alfred Lilienthal who wrote:

That the Khazars are the lineal ancestors of East European Jewry is an historical fact.1

Our knowledge of the Khazars and their relationship with the Jews is limited, a problem compounded by the fact that the Khazars disappeared shortly after AD 1000 and we cannot follow their history. It is believed they were sympathetic to the Jews and that some of them converted to the Jewish faith. We do not know whether this was confined to the leaders of the nation or more widespread among the population.2 We shall see shortly that a genetic marker, the Cohen Modal Haplotype, is found in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish males, another fact which weakens Lilienthal’s argument.

The genetic research is also disputed. Some writers like Shlomo Sand argue that genetic research has proved nothing yet. Others like Jon Entine3 argue that it has. Remember that we are not looking for Jacob’s DNA because there is no way we could determine that. However, geneticists look for patterns which show that one race may be closer to another in its origin. One of the interesting things they claim to have found is the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH).4 CMH is a DNA marker found in most males with the name Cohen. This marker is found on the Y (male) chromosome which is passed unchanged from father to son. It is found in a very high proportion of families with the surname Cohen and numerous related names who are believed to be descended from the traditional Aaronic priesthood. Less than 10% of other Jewish males carry this marker. It is found in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish males with Cohen or related surnames.

There is other genetic evidence which suggests Jewish common ancestry with people in the Middle East. However, there is no genetic marker (gene or group of genes) which defines one as Jewish.

The interesting thing to me about the genetic marker in the Cohanim is that it confirms that Jews have stuck together as a group. The Cohanim still have the same name (or similar) centuries later. If this is true of one group of Jews it is likely to be true of the others.

For me the question: Are the Jews really Jewish? is ultimately a question for God. We are back to Chapter 3: Has God been asleep for the last 130 years? If the answer to this is yes, then the Jews occupying Israel could be doing it without his approval – worse still, some of them might not be Jews at all! If on the other hand he has been wide awake, then we can trust that he will bring back to Israel those he considers to be his people and the great majority will have a part at least of Jacob’s DNA. Hypotheses about racial dilution, large-scale conversion and genetic markers will all be irrelevant in the face of God’s sovereign will.



1. An extract of Lilienthal's book can be found on various websites which tend to use his thesis to support their belief that the Ashkenazi Jews are not genuine Jews. One such website is: www.biblebelievers.org.au/jews.htm.
Shlomo Sand's book is listed in the bibliography.

2. See Jon Entine – Abrabam's Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People. A concise, but good summary of views on the Khazars is given in Chapter 9, Ashkenazim: Converts or Abraham's Children.

3. Jon Entine also gives a good account of the present knowledge of genetics in relation to ancestry.

With the mapping of the human genome in the last decade, human genetics has become a very complex subject. What follows here is a very simple dictionary of some basic terms.
DNA is the acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid. This is the complex chemical material on which all our genetic information is carried.  
GENES: These are the genetic units responsible for inherited characteristics. Some simple traits are governed by one pair of genes, but most are governed by several pairs of genes. Genes come in pairs because one is inherited from the father and the other from the mother. Following the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s, it was realised that genes are sections of the long strand of a DNA molecule. 
GENOME: The totality of genes in a species of animal or plant.
CHROMOSOMES: These contain a molecular strand of DNA and come in pairs, one from the father and one from the mother. Each species of animal or plant has a fixed number of chromosomes. Human beings have 23 chromosome pairs. These reside in the nucleus of almost all cells and become visible when a cell divides either during ordinary multiplication or when producing reproductive cells, sperms and ova. The process of cell division was observed under the microscope and understood long before the chemical nature of the component DNA was worked out.  
X and Y CHROMOSOMES: One pair of chromosomes is not equivalent: a short male or Y chromosome and a normal sized female or X chromosome. Because of the way chromosomes are transmitted when a sperm meets an ovum, girls are born with two X chromosomes and boys are born with an X and a Y chromosome. The Y chromosome tends to pass unchanged from father to son and can therefore provide defining information from generation to generation. 
CROSSING-OVER: This is the principal way in which genetic variation is achieved in a population. It is why we are not identical to our parents or an 'average' of their characteristics. It is a process which occurs between the two chromosomes in each pair at the time when the reproductive cells are formed. It mixes up the genes. However, it does not happen except to a minute extent with the X and Y chromosomes. This is the reason that some genes or DNA pass unchanged in the Y chromosome from father to son.  
HAPLOTYPE: A combination of genes on a particular chromosome that are transmitted together. This can be particularly useful when carried on the Y chromosome because of its relative stability from generation to generation.
MODAL HAPLOTYPE: An ancestral haplotype derived from DNA tests on a specific group of people. These can be considered a 'marker' for ancestral relationship. 
COHEN MODAL HAPLOTYPE: This is a haplotype found on the male Y-chromosome with a high incidence in people with the name Cohen (or related names) and a relatively low incidence in other Jewish males. It suggests that the Cohens are a closely related genetic group with a common ancestor.