Mormon Scripture and the Lost Tribes of Israel by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite

When the Mormons first emerged in 1830s America, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a Christian polymath of French-German heritage, attacked them for their “singular but absurd opinion that American tribes are descended from the Hebrews or the ten lost tribes.” (Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, vol. 1, 1833). Strange as it sounds today, such notions of ancestry were widespread among British and American Christians of the time.

According to the Bible, the Assyrians of the eighth century B.C.E. exiled 10 of the original “twelve tribes” from their land in the northern kingdom of Israel. Many prominent Americans, such as William Penn and Elias Boudinot, believed that they ended up in America.

This belief is known today among historians as the Jewish Indian theory. The theory persisted for centuries because it addressed a religious desire and theological anxiety to link the New World (America) to the Old (biblical) World. The fact that America was not part of the biblical cosmography posed major theological problems for many American Christians. Simply put, if America was not mentioned in the Bible, how could it properly be “under God”? This anxiety about the biblical status of the American continent plagued many generations of US citizens. And they sought comfort in the idea that the lost tribes had come to these shores centuries ago. The idea both linked America to the Bible and accounted for the origins of America’s native peoples.

The theory that the 10 lost tribes of Israel had migrated to the Americas after their expulsion from ancient Israel was of course difficult to substantiate. Many went to great lengths trying to prove it scientifically. Numerous attempts to find linguistic or archeological evidence in support of it failed. Eventually the theory faded away. It would have most likely been long forgotten had it not been for the work of an important figure in American religious history—Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.

Whereas others turned to science to prove the Jewish Indian theory, Joseph Smith appealed to supernatural revelation: a prophecy declaring that the 10 lost tribes had indeed found their way to the Americas. Orson Pratt, one of Smith’s 12 apostles (and a direct ancestor of former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney), explained: “From many intimations of ancient prophecy [the 10 lost tribes] evidently had a highway made for them in the midst of the Arctic Ocean and were led to a land in the neighborhood of the North Pole.” Likewise, the 10th Mormon article of faith states: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent…”

In this way Mormon Scripture and prophecy situate America within the framework of the traditional biblical story. The belief in the restoration of the 10 tribes provided the basis for an America-centered theology and made America the home of a wholly new Scripture—the Book of Mormon.

While this new Scripture remedied the omission of America from the Bible, it has been one of the main reasons why so many non-Mormon Americans have been suspicious of Mormonism. Mainstream Christians hold that new revelation is not possible after the end of prophecy in late antiquity, when the Bible was canonized. Even as Mormonism becomes more and more accepted, the question of new revelation that is at the heart of this religion remains thorny. In this regard, Mormonism challenges the boundaries of the “Judeo-Christian” discussion about religion in America in the most fundamental way: can we not only accept new interpretations of scripture, but also ones based on an entirely new revelation?

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, "Mormon Scripture and the Lost Tribes of Israel", n.p. [cited 24 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/mormon-scripture-and-the-lost-tribes-of-israel

Contributors

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
Professor, New York University

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is professor of history and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University and is the author of The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Formally recognized within a religion; most commonly describes books of the Bible or Christian saints.

Mapping out the known universe (heavens and earth).

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

According to tradition, the ten Israelite tribes lost with the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E., after which only the southern tribe of Judah remained. The tribes were lost through assimilation and deportation.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

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