(Review of) Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, The Ten Lost Tribes, A World History, Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, 2009

History of Religions, 51/2 (2011), pp. 188-191  Meir Bar-Ilan


The aim of the book is to discuss the lost of the ten lost tribes of Israel, from the book of Isaiah to the Book of Mormons. The structure of the book is as follows: an introduction, six chapters, conclusion, notes, bibliography and index. The first chapter is dedicated to the historical background: biblical times. The second aims to discuss the legend of the lost tribes in IV Ezra (The vision of Ezra) and Sambatyon. Chapter three is called “Tricksters and Travels” telling the story of Eldad the Danite (883 CE), Prester John and Benjamin of Tudela. Chapter four discusses David Hareuveni (1524) [mistakenly called Reuveni] and related stories from the 16th century. Chapter five: “Concordia Mundi” discusses looking for the tribes in 17th century America with European scholars and travelers. Chapter six is named “Hopes of Israel” (named after R. Menashe ben Israel’s book) discusses Jews and non-Jews ideas concerning the lost tribes in 17-19th century. The book ends with a long “conclusion: To find the Ten Lost Tribes” (pp. 199-226), though it is not easy to define in what way this chapter is a concluding remark. Towards the end come notes and a rich bibliography of related several hundred books and papers. Index at the end helps finding issues and names in the book.

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This book suffers from several problems and it is not easy to determine what its main failure is. Let us begin with the fact that B. is retelling a well-known story: the shelves of libraries are loaded with books on the lost tribes, so the necessity of another book dedicated to the same topic is far from being clear. It is true that this book exemplifies more work, covering more locations and people and it is written in a systematic method better than the former predecessors in this journey. However, doing more is not enough since it is more of the same. Now that we know more details how Japanese or Aztecs were considered the lost tribes we cannot but think of the modern web enhanced by Google that brings forwards everything on anything. The virtual library is getting better by the day so it is not clear why a young scholar, instead of making a new path in the scholarly jungle, prefers to rewrite others’ stories.

The second problem lies in the aim of B. in his book. On the one hand he aims to describe centuries of searching people looking for lost tribes, so it is a scholarly work done systematically. On the other hand whenever B. discusses his subject it is not clear whether he writes a history of people or a history of fantasy. Instead of telling the reader how to move from fiction (or: legend) to reality, he writes both: fiction and reality combined. The way B. pours data before the reader makes the differentiation between real and fiction foggy. From the very beginning it is not clear if the book aims to gather folkloristic accounts and analyze them accordingly in scientific methods or is its aim to promote unscholarly imagination blurring the subjects with centuries-old books of fantasies. B. works with myth-telling but it is not clear if he is an observer of a practitioner. B. is aware of his problem, at times (p. 104), but this does not lead him to clarify the point by state of the art scholarly papers. This becomes evident when one looks in vain to see the way B. handles Prester John legend, by ignoring some of its literature and without telling the reader that it is clear today he came from Southern India (since Calicut is mentioned as his vicinity, and for several more reasons), and not from Ethiopia.1 Instead of scholarly works B. quotes modern fantasies making them to appear as if they are learned research, hence staining knowledge with fairy tales (for example: the chief Rabbi of South Africa will tell us where Eldad the Danite came from – p. 88).

Here we come to the third problem, in a way: the worst: B. relies on pseudo-scholars, journalists disguised as professors (from Parfitt to Shahan, from Rabbi Avichail to Halkin) people who never published a paper in a scholarly journal (and when they did publish their own book it was harshly criticized). In doing that B. undermines his own efforts, good and scholarly as could be. When B. echoes noise as true voice he shows a weak critical mind (to say the least). It is evident from the book that B. was trained to be a scholar and he commands unknown books (in many languages) of unknown lands. Moreover, B. reveals knowledge in almost any aspect of history, except Jewish history in the last millennium. Quoting Arab as well as French historians is very good, indeed, but since the subject is Jewish one is surprised to find unawareness of Jewish historiography. So the great masters of unknown Jews in unknown lands are missing while ill competent writers are presented in abundance. This is why the comprehensive bibliography is misleading: a collection of a well-searched field’s bibliography doesn’t show any acumen.

Walter Fischel is not mentioned and Y. Ben-Zvi (former president of the State of Israel) is mentioned only to dismiss him in a dubious statement (pp. 220-222). On the other hand, books of the third rank are mentioned and admired. Eisenstein’s collected itinerary book is not mentioned,2 and what is even more surprising: Kaifeng Jews (close to the very focus of the writer’s former book) get no special attention. Jews from Cochin that claim they got to their place because of Shalmanesser, a testimony already known for centuries,3 are missing too. ‘Surprise’ in observing the missing does not tell the whole story and this is added to the minor (or: minimize) role of the Hebrew bibliography which is more than questionable (misspelling was found only once, in the Heb. book mentioned in p. 262).4 Once M. Eliade said that if one wants to study religions he should command his religion first, and this should be applied to literature as well.

It should be stated that these failures denote not only one scholar’s work rather they expose the state of the art of modern scholarship, since the book was not written in academic vacuum. Looking at the topic and knowing the success of adventure stories, already at the time of incunabula, one wonders whether an academic press in the 21st century is dreaming of money-making more than it was used to in the 20th century, but I leave this question open. In a way, B.’s book is challenging what scholarship should or should not be: could it be that a book with a broad bibliography is not a scholarly book? Could it be that two professors in two different universities recommended a book while a third person thinks they are totally mistaken?

B. cheers to every fantasy and go to rare-books collections but forgets that an arm-chair traveler must begin his journey not only with erudition. Romantic historiography combined with uncritical mind goes together with scholarship of languages and people that seems to belong to the 19th century, certainly not a contribution to 21st century scholarship. B. begins his book with the tragedy of the Jews in 1941 and ends with tears; for me this is a pathetic book, but for different reasons.

In a way, B. is a victim of being unaware of the fact that the world is wide and in it there are many non-scholars who pretend themselves as scholars. Relying on them is like going in unknown lands while relying on un-authoritative guides. Being naïve is inexcusable in scholarship as is in the real world. B. was not able to see the pitfalls and there is no wonder he got lost. The search for the lost ten tribes must go on, or maybe better: to be stopped.

1. M. Bar-Ilan, ‘Prester John: Fiction and History’, History of European Ideas, 20/1-3 (1995), pp. 291-298.

2. J. D. Eisenstein, Ozar Massaoth: A Collection of Itineraries by Jewish Travelers etc., New York, 1926 (Hebrew).

3. M. Bar-Ilan, ‘Books from Cochin’, Pe‘amim, 52 (1992), pp. 74-100 (Hebrew); idem, ‘India and the Land of Israel: Between Jews and Indians in ancient times’, The Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, 4 (2001), pp. 39-77.

4. For example: A. Gross, ‘The Ten Tribes and the Kingdom of Prester John – Rumors and investigation s before and after the Expulsion from Spain’, Pe‘amim, 48 (1991), pp. 5-41 (Hebrew).