THE APOSTLES ON THE TWELVE TRIBES
In our brief survey of the sifting of Abrahamic seed among the nations
we have been limited by practical constraints. What evidence is available
from archeology? Can stones, or bones, or pottery tell how a people believed,
what they thought, or their expectations of life? Can we penetrate the
mists which veil the countless generations? Can we discover "scientific"
proof of the genetic influence of Adam or Abraham on the western world?
Surviving records from the Near East do not explicitly or clearly support
this proposition. If we are to find evidence of folk belief we must look
elsewhere. Europe had not yet begun to preserve her histories when the
folk migrations began in 700 BC. We must rely on fragments here and there,
on folk traditions, and on linguistic memories.
Consider the mathematical numbers in ancestry. We all have two parents,
a mother and father. We have four grandparents, eight great grandparents,
and so on. This number doubles each generation. In ten generations, perhaps
250 years, we each have approximately 1000 parents. Back another ten generations
this number jumps to roughly one million. Back to the time of Jesus the
number of our ancestral parents is one trillion, or one million million.
Obviously these cannot be distinct parents; there must be many common ancestors
interwoven in this multiplicity of numbers. In any tribe, clan, or common
stock of people, without crossbreeding from exterior sources, the generations
are like a web flowing in a common channel down through time, with every
individual related by blood to every other. This common channel leads to
certain racial or tribal characteristics which distinguish that group from
another. The Germans are noted for their great mechanical skills. The French
carry certain intellectual traits. The melting pot of America, with its
great mixture of bloods, has produced unprecedented inventive genius but
also a boisterous population noted more for its uncouth behavior than for
its cultural refinement.
In spite of distinct traits displayed by European groups there was a
tremendous mixing of tribal stocks. The Kelts overran and intermixed with
a bronze age people, penetrating to the British Isles, Spain, Italy, and
back into Asia Minor. Later the Teutonic Goths overran this strata, penetrating
again to Spain and to the Balkan peninsula from origins around the Baltic
Sea. The Anglo-Saxons invaded England after Rome departed. The Norsemen
left their blood and linguistic influence on major sections of the British
Isles. The French Normans spread themselves on top of the other layers.
In eastern Europe the Asiatic Huns left traces of yellow blood which imprints
physique yet today among Slavic people. The Norsemen also left a legacy
down through those Slavic regions to the Black Sea.
Any precise trace of specific genetic endowments in this massive mixing
of people would be impossible. Ten tribes are no longer ten groups of identifiable
people; they have been thoroughly lost in this blending and blurring. The
features of the people of Spain are different from the Swedish Norse. Perhaps
those features are due to particular characteristics of Israelite tribes,
but identification of such endowment today would be beyond our technical
skill. There are black Irishmen and red Irishmen. Did the bravery and great
personal courage of the Kelts derive from an admixture of Adamic Indo-European
stock mixed with Abrahamic blood? We cannot say how different traits were
influenced by Abraham's seed.
Preceding chapters contain large voids in this brief survey. We did
not examine Teutonic origins, nor Slavic, nor other important segments
of possible Abrahamic influence. We discovered a few threads here and there
and followed those with limited evidence. But the material is sufficient
to demonstrate that a great religious power was at work on our planet to
form and shape its destiny. Strands of belief show among various people.
Tales of migrating Hebrew tribes and Stones of Destiny guided the choices
and policies of the generations. Sometimes this produced highly distorted
views, as Anglo-Israelism or Welsh "Hebrews." Nevertheless, this confused
belief persuaded many generations. Although modern men regard such views
today as strange theological persuasions there are elements in early Christianity
which show that a true blood connection was known and accepted. This evidence
is in writings preserved in the New Testament.
Matt 19:28 has this remark by Jesus:
See also Luke 22:30.
In Acts 26 Paul offered a defense before King Agrippa. As part of that
defense he mentioned the twelve tribes of Israel, verse 6-7:
The letter by James opens with the address:
I Peter 1:1 carries the same reference to a Dispersion:
References to twelve tribes of Israel also exist in John's Revelation
but I postpone discussion of those passages to my work on The Redeemed.
What do these several references mean? Who are the twelve tribes? What
is the dispersion? Who is exiled? What was the "hope in the promise
made by God to our fathers to which our twelve tribes hope to attain?"
Looking around the world today we see no evidence for a genetic or physical
"twelve tribes." Not since long before the time of Jesus were twelve distinct
Israelite tribes identifiable in any known geographical region. All historical,
archeological, or linguistic evidence speaks for a great mixing and blending
of racial stocks. Therefore, when the writers of the New Testament spoke
of "twelve tribes" they must have had reference to people who were not
specifically identifiable by tribal name. They referred to a large heterogeneous
mass of people, not specific tribes. They must have used the term in a
symbolic sense, not a literal sense.
The symbolic use of the phrase then leads to great contest over its
exact meaning. Was it intended to denote a "spiritual" Israel? If it was
intended to denote a genetic Israel how could such body of people be identified?
Does it imply merely a spiritual endowment to a regenerated world? What
did Paul, James, Peter and the authors of the Books of Matthew and Luke
intend in their use of the phrase?
Modern biblical scholars offer remarks which demonstrate a disbelief.
On Matthew 19:28:
On Acts 26:6-7:
These examples from modern exegesis show that the idea of a genetic
Israel has been almost completely suppressed, and that the notion of "twelve
tribes" is regarded entirely in a "spiritual" sense.
Much of this view is founded in Paul's remarks about a "spiritual" Israel.
Although the apostles may have recognized a genetic component to the
"twelve tribes," later Christian theology denied this possibility by centering
concepts in a "spiritual" body of Israel, without acknowledgement of a
Paul speaks in the present tense. The twelve tribes were hoping and
earnestly worshipping. He accepts their physical existence. He differentiates
between the Jews and the twelve tribes. If he did not wish to distinguish
why did he not say "us Jews" instead of "our twelve tribes?" He implies
that the tribes are restricted by blood; "our twelve tribes" is used in
the same reference as "our fathers," a special application to Hebrew people.
He is on trial only because he has been accused by Jews, one part of the
twelve tribes, while all twelve hope to attain to the ancient promises
at some future time. Paul works for that goal.
The Interpreters Bible ignores the remark except to say that
the word translated "twelve tribes" suggests one single community, presumably
"spiritual" Jewish and GentileIB-9. F. F. Bruce states that
"Paul knows nothing of the figment of ten 'lost' tribesNBCR."
Bruce maintains that Paul has in mind the promise of world-wide blessing
to come through the progeny of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: the Jews, and
thus through Jesus, a Jew. Bruce rigorously deflects any suggestion of
Israelite people other than the Jews, and believes the promises were fulfilled
completely in the person of Jesus.
In its treatment of the several Genesis promises The New Bible Commentary:
RevisedNBCR virtually ignores discussion, adhering strictly to the
theological position that Jesus was the embodiment of those promises.
The Dispersion, Greek Diaspora, is universally understood to mean the
Jewish diaspora, a well-known phenomenon that existed from the times of
Alexander the Great down to the twentieth century. But the letter is patently
addressed to all Christians, both Gentile and Jew, although it presupposes
familiarity with Old Testament scriptures.
Note how the commentator, R. A. Ward, struggles with the problem. He
believes that Acts 26:7 refers to the living nation of the Jews with an
assumption that the phrase was already an anachronism when Paul wrote it.
The twelve tribes are the believing Christian church, regardless of genetic
origin; the phrase has nothing to do with blood descent. In his view the
Dispersion then comes to mean that all believers are scattered abroad from
their heavenly home and at best are temporary visitors on this world. Thus
he avoids the possibility that descendants of twelve actual tribes are
scattered abroad throughout the Near East, Asia Minor, and Europe.
The geographical regions cover most of Asia Minor north of the Taurus
Mountains. The conventional Christian idea of exile is not that of twelve
blood tribes scattered from their home in Palestine into the regions of
Asia Minor, but of Christians who are "away from their true homeland
or metropolis in heavenTNTC-IP."
The word "exiles" would have been better translated as "sojourners"
because the Greek word carries both the idea of alien nationality and of
temporary residence. Once again we have the problem of whether these Christians
are residing as aliens temporarily away from their heavenly home, or as
blood descendants of Abraham temporarily away from their promised land.
In I Peter 2:9 the Christians residing in these regions are called "a
chosen race," "a royal priesthood," "a holy nation," "God's own people."
A chosen race implies physical descent. D. H. Wheaton believes it may refer
to the Godward and manward relationship brought about by the new spiritual
The idea of a chosen race, or a chosen people, is as old as the Exodus
under Moses, and applied to all the people of blood Israel, all twelve
tribes, long before there was a difference between Jew and Ephraimite.
In Deut 10:15 it is stated that Yahweh set his heart in love upon the
Hebrew fathers and chose their descendants after them, above all peoples.
The phrase in I Peter reflects this belief, as applied to the Christian
Gentile converts. They are inheritors of the promise.
Again the royal priesthood reflects Exod 19:5-6:
Is it possible the writer had in mind both a physical rebirth and a
spiritual rebirth, and did not clearly differentiate between them? What
did he mean by an "inheritance which is imperishable?" Does this
remark have significance except with respect to the Hebrew traditions of
Abrahamic blood descent?
Repeatedly we are faced with this problem in attempts to understand
the New Testament remarks. Was this great evangelistic effort intended
to save those who were blood descendants of Abraham, those who were not,
or perhaps both? In I Peter 2:10 a reference is again made to one of the
Old Testament promises:
The implication is that these Christians of Asia Minor never were God's
people and had never received mercy. It is not that they once were God's
people and had become lost, but rather that they never were God's people.
The quotation is from Hosea. The context is important.
In the allusions of Hosea 1 the prophet is told to marry a harlot, symbolic
of the great harlotry committed by the people of Israel (not Judah) in
their forsaking Yahweh. Yahweh was about to put an end to the kingdom of
the house of Israel (not Judah).
At the time Hosea delivered his message, Yahweh still had pity on the
house of Judah, Hos 1:7. The harlot conceives three times, with a son,
a daughter, and another son. In each case the child symbolizes the northern
tribes of Israel. The third child is called "Not My People" because
they were not God's people and he was not their God.
The people of Israel are obviously different from the people of Judah.
When Hosea wrote these lines his term "Israel" could only mean the ten
northern tribes. It had no other significance. Someday they will be gathered
together and will have one ruler.
Could the writer of I Peter have been ignorant of this context? Would
he have slipped this phrase into his argument without regard for the intent
of Hosea? We might expect quotations out of context from an inexperienced
or unknowledgeable person but hardly from the author of I Peter, who gives
every evidence of knowing his sources, and who is a mature thinker. Would
his quotation not cause his readers to search out the passage from which
it was taken? It seems unreasonable that the author did not intend his
phrase to mean the people of blood Israel who were lost, who were "no people,"
but now, through the ministry of Jesus and the teaching of the Gospel,
became God's people. Indeed, they were aliens and exiles from the promises,
I Peter 2:11, (compare Eph 2:12), not aliens and exiles from their heavenly
This view is emphasized in I Peter 2:25:
This view is emphasized in I Peter 2:25:
There could be no straying away unless they once belonged to that Eberi
sheepfold; they could not return if they did not once leave. Of course
one might view this as a departure from the blessed condition known to
man before the fall of Adam; then they have strayed like sheep from that
former ideal state. But this view is not the intent of the writer. His
whole theme is wrapped around Abrahamic descent.
Paul discussed this question in considerable detail; his thought is
more clearly expressed. The letter to the Romans is addressed to both Gentile
Christians and Jewish Christians. That he was addressing both is indicated
in 7:1 where he makes a particular point for those who know the law, certainly
intending Jews, as well as knowledgeable Gentiles. This double address
is also indicated in 11:13 where he remarks directly that he is speaking
to "you Gentiles." In 4:1 Paul asks a question:
The phrase literally in Greek is "Abraham the forefather of us according
to flesh." John Knox in IB-9 states that:
Repeatedly we see the difficulties raised by such remarks in the New
Testament. To avoid the "twelve blood tribe" problem Knox would have us
imagine a Jewish person who has asked this question of Paul. Paul is responding
to this imaginary individual. While this is an ingenious device for solving
the problem of Paul's phrase, and certainly a logical possibility, it seems
to disrupt the flow of Paul's argument, which is directed to all readers.
The preceding verse of Chapter 3 asks the question, "Do we then overthrow
the law by this faith?" This question is obviously addressed to all
Roman readers as an instruction for those who might question the role of
the law, now that we live by faith and not merely by law.
He is emphatic, "By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law."
This use of the third person shows the sense in which Paul intended the
question of 4:1. It is a question which fits naturally in the context of
his presentation as applied to his Roman readers, both Gentiles and Jews.
The "we" of 3:31 is the same people as the "our" of 4:1.
Again he repeats this argument in verse 16 and 17:
Did Paul mean that Abraham was the spiritual father of us all, which
indeed he was, and not mean that he was the blood father of us all? The
phrasing in I Cor 10:1, a letter addressed to Christian Gentiles, is similar:
This could mean only the pillar of cloud which directed the movement
of the people of Israel during the Exodus. His letter is addressed to people
who could only be Gentiles; they could not be Jews. When he writes to them
he includes them in that group which makes "our fathers" their biological
ancestors, as well as his.
Again he includes the Corinthians in his collective address, "these
things are warnings for us . . .," verse 6. His message is to Corinthians
whose blood fathers were all under the cloud. If we were to accept that
Abraham was merely the spiritual father of the Corinthian converts then
we would be forced to apply this concept to all the fathers of Israel,
all those who were in the Exodus. They too are spiritual fathers and not
Paul wrestled with the problem of the law. As a devout Pharisee, dedicated
to the law of Moses prior to his conversion, he was trained to respect
and uphold that law. But when he met God on the road to Damascus he saw
a great light. It was not law that held men to God, nor God to men, but
rather faith on the part of men, and grace on the part of God. At times
he spoke strongly against the law:
At times we are justified in questioning Paul's insight into this problem.
Did Paul really mean that he would have had no covetousness if he had
not heard about it from the commandment? It seems strange that he should
speak this way. We all have experienced covetous feelings. Perhaps we did
not always recognize them, but quickly we must have dealt with the possible
social repercussions if we expressed them. Laws and commandments have nothing
to do with such moral sense. We did not obtain the sense of right because
of a commandment. We obtained it because of an inner voice or feeling which
awoke us to it from inside. The commandment may clearly express the abstention
from the act but it was not necessary to bring it to light. Paul's point
is poorly taken.
This discussion was anticipated by a remark in 3:20:
Whether or not we agree with Paul on the source of the knowledge of
sin we can see that his argument casts the law in a bad light. The Jew
felt he was justified by works of law; Paul is now saying he is not. In
order that he not strike his audience too harshly he attempts to balance
Paul obviously faces difficulty in his attempts
to treat the connection among law, sin, and the saving grace of Jesus.
In order that he not be condemned by believing Jews, he enters into more
intense discourse in chapters 9 to 11.
Numerous biblical students have noted the extraneous
sense of these three chapters. If they were lifted from the Book of
Romans, with chapter 12 continuing immediately after chapter 8, there
would be no sense of discontinuity in his presentation. Had they not been
included in the book no one would have ever questioned absence of a "missing"
piece from the complete work. But this section contains remarks which more
clearly defines Paul's views concerning the Gentiles, descended or not,
First he wishes that he himself were accursed
and cut off from Christ for the sake of his brethren, his kinsmen by race,
9:3. He would give himself if they could all be saved. What more could
a man give than the prospect of eternal loss for the salvation of others?
They are Israelites, and to them belong the
sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship,
and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs . . ., 9:4.
These are Jews, and to them belong the Abrahamic
He then treats more rigorously the question
of who is part of God's salvation.
Paul says that not all who are descended from
Israel belong to Israel. He means that not all the flesh children of Abraham
are a part of spiritual Israel. It is not the children of the flesh who
are the children of God; it is the children of the promise who are reckoned
as descendants. Though they were not yet born and had done nothing, good
or bad, they became part of God's elect.
Paul asks, does this mean there is injustice
on God's part?
Is God unjust because he has a chosen people
beforehand? He answers, by no means! God will have mercy on whom he will
have mercy and compassion on whom he will have compassion. It does not
depend upon man's will or exertion but upon God's mercy.
Paul makes an outright statement that it is
not the children of the flesh who are the children of God. He then goes
on to quote from Hosea the same verses as did the writer of I Peter. Only
a remnant of the flesh sons of Israel will be saved. Paul continues in
this manner through chapters 10 and 11.
He prays that the Jews may be saved, 10:1.
Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified,
10:4. There is not distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is
Lord of all. Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved,
Did God reject his people? By no means! God
did not reject anyone whom he foreknew among the Jews, 11:2.
Through the trespass of the Jew salvation has
come to the Gentiles. If their trespass meant riches for the world how
much more would their full inclusion mean, 11:11-12? If their rejection
means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean
but life from the dead, 11:15:
In his discussion Paul clearly intends that
all Gentiles, all the people of the world, now benefit by the sacrifice
of Jesus, from the path of salvation prepared at the time of Abraham.
He then goes into an illustration of a holy
root and its various branches. If some of the branches were broken off
and the wild olive shoot of the Gentiles was grafted in their place to
share the richness of the olive tree, they should not boast. It is the
root which supports the branches, not the branches which support the root.
Through unbelief some of the original branches were broken off in order
to make way for the wild branches. But this should be no cause for the
Gentiles to boast; if the natural branches were broken off then more easily
could the wild branches be broken off. Furthermore, if the natural branches,
the disbelieving Jews, did not persist in their unbelief they could be
grafted back in again. In use of the parable of the branches he intends
Then he makes a remark which has led to great
Did he mean that the disbelieving Jews were
the ones that were hardened, and that they would remain hardened until
all Gentiles had been converted? By Israel did he mean spiritual Israel,
not Jewish Israel, and that a hardening had come upon part of non-Jewish
Israel? Would this hardening continue for some time until all of non-Jewish
Israel would be converted? Did he mean the Gentile nations, as political
units, and not merely the whole mass of Gentile people? When did he expect
that the full number of Gentiles would come in, a hundred or a thousand
years? Through his quotation of phrases from Isa 50:20-21 he puts this
presentation into an apocalyptic frame, a work to be consummated at the
future healing of the world.
Regardless of Paul's convoluted discussion,
it is clear that he addressed himself to all Gentiles, even those who are
not of blood descent. He may have felt an obligation to the Gentile blood
descendants of Abraham but his work was to all the people of the world.
This is a primary tenet of Christianity. Jesus
is God to the entire world, not to any one special people. He may have
used the Jews as a vehicle of salvation but that salvation belongs to everyone.
And it was through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus that
it was guaranteed to everyone.
We find similar discussion by Paul in Galatians
3. It is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
Those who are men of faith are blessed with
Abraham who had faith. It was through Christ Jesus that the blessing of
Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, verse 14. If you are Christ's then
you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise, verse 29.
In these remarks Paul is showing that the promises
do, indeed, pertain to all who live by faith, not only the blood descendants
of Abraham, but others also. Paul did not want to exclude anyone who had
faith in God, regardless of their ancestry.
The great difficulty which Paul faced, as well
as the other apostles, was the lack of keen insight into the difference
between personal salvation, which was extended to all the citizens of the
world, regardless of blood descent, and planetary salvation, which was
focused through blood descent from Abraham. The one was spiritual; the
other genetic. The two aspects of salvation were so intimately interwoven
that a clear, incisive presentation was not achieved by Paul or any of
the other apostles.
It may very well be that these problems were
confused in the minds of the Apostles. The New Testament speaks strongly
for a tradition and a belief that many of the people of Asia Minor, the
Greeks, the Romans, the Kelts, and the Iberians of Spain, (Paul intended
to go their Rom 15:24), all contained that Abrahamic gift of genetic endowment.
He worked to bring this saving message to those people. But he also realized
that the life of Jesus meant much more than blood ancestry. He became the
spiritual savior and ruler of this world.
In order to offer greater insight into this
confusion it may be helpful to show how Jewish people viewed the aspects
of divine destiny in the period between the return from Babylonian exile
and the birth of Jesus. This evidence exists outside the traditional Old
First, regarding the Diaspora. The International
Critical CommentaryICC, in the Volume on the First Epistle
of Peter, offers discussion of the widespread dispersion of Jews throughout
the Near East and Mediterranean regions. According to Josephus in his Antiquities,
12:3-4, Antiochus the Great, circa 200 BC, settled two thousand Jewish
families from Mesopotamia and Babylonia in Phrygia and Lydia. In 138 BC
the Roman Senate wrote on behalf of the Jews to the kings of Pergamos and
Cappadocia, I Macc 15:16-24. Agrippa, in a letter to Caligula, asserted
that there were numerous Jewish settlements in Pamphylia, Cilicia, and
the greater part of Asia as far as Bithynia and recesses of Pontus. Petronus
stated that Jews abounded in every city of Asia and Syria. From this evidence
modern commentators falsely assume that the New Testament writers meant
exclusively Jews when describing the Diaspora.
Thus we have specific evidence how Israelite
people populated the countries of those ancient times, not limited to the
"northern" ten tribes. The essential difference between the Jew and his
northern brethren was his determination to maintain himself distinctly
different in his genetic and religious affiliations, although he blended
with the economic and social culture of the surrounding people. The northern
tribes, in their departure from their religious loyalties, also departed
from their genetic loyalties, and hence, did not maintain so distinct a
religious or genetic separation. They became one with the surrounding people.
But the New Testament writers recognized their genetic gift to other racial
stocks, and clearly understood them to be part of the Diaspora also. Then
they, too, were exiles from the promises.
The continuing strong belief in the "twelve
tribes" is attested in several places, inside and outside the Bible. That
individuals identified with tribal stock is shown by Anna in Luke 2:36,
where she felt herself descended from the tribe of Asher. Paul, in Rom
11:1 and Phil 3:5 identified himself as a Jew, from the tribe of Benjamin.
The difference here was distinguished by Paul's recognition of himself
as a Jew, while Anna's claim was to a non-Jewish tribe. In the Apocryphal
works Tobit and Judith both claimed descent from tribes of
In the Letter of Aristreas, written sometime between the third and first century BC, a list of elders, fictional or not, is specified from each of the twelve tribes, "seventy-two in all," Sect 51. In the Testament of Benjamin, 9:2, one of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, circa 100 BC, a statement is made that in the regeneration "the twelve tribes shall be gathered there." In II Baruch, several statements are made: "And truly I know that behold all we the twelve tribes are bound by one bond, inasmuch we are born of one father, 78:4." II Baruch 1 also says of "the ten tribes which were carried away captive," that "I will scatter this people among the nations that they may do good to the nations." In Chapters 62 and 63 the writer carefully distinguishes between the "nine and one-half" northern tribes, and the "two and one-half" tribes (of the Jews). In The Assumption of Moses, Chapter 4, the remark is given that, although "they have gone into captivity with their wives and their children," "God will remember them on account of the covenant which he made with their fathers." "And the ten tribes shall increase and multiply among the nations during the time of their captivity."
Obviously, we cannot interpret the remarks of the Apostles, and especially Paul, as addressing merely a "spiritual" Israel. While the Apostles understood that personal salvation was open to the entire world, biological salvation was through the twelve tribal blood lines. They knew this, and recognized this in their writings. Unfortunately, they did not distinguish between the two, that later generations could understand.