Many began as Christians, and searching through the Bible concluded that Judaism is the right way. Who are these people, and could they be the lost tribes of Israel?
Approximately 50,000 members of the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe and South Africa believe they are descendants of a Yemenite Jewish tribe that crossed into Africa. The tribe tells of how they lost their holy book (Bible) along the way, and continue to keep those Jewish traditions that have been passed down orally. They rest on the seventh day, mark the new moon festivals and celebrate Pasika in April by roasting a lamb. The tribe circumcises boys on the eighth day, eats only biblically-kosher animals and separates milk and meat. The Lemba, who perceive themselves as ethnically Jewish, find no contradiction in regularly attending Christian churches. Recent DNA analyses have established a partially Middle-Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population.
Eze Chukwuemeka, king of the 32 million-strong Igbo nation-tribe of Nigeria says on his Facebook page that he is “a direct descendant of the biblical patriarch Gad’s son, Eri.” In practice, the Igbo are Christians, but call themselves “Jews.” They use the Star of David to mark their graves, and the king often wears the Jewish symbol around his neck. Here again it was the study of the Bible, but also disappointment with colonial Christianity, that moved this tribe toward Judaism.
The Bnei Menashe (Sons of Mehashe) who reside in the North-Eastern Manipur regions of India believe they are descendants of the Israelite tribe of Menashe. Their traditions teach that their people fled to India when the Ten Tribes were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar in 722 BCE. Because the tribe had no connection with Jewish communities, they were eventually converted to a “messianic” version of Christianity in the 19th century. After establishing contacts with Jewish religious groups in Israel and abroad, they renounced Christianity and began to practice more traditional rabbinic Judaism in the 1980s and 1990s. Thousands have been allowed to immigrate to Israel, some completing the required formal conversions there to be accepted as Jews.
Other groups like the Beta Israel (House of Israel) from Ethiopia and the Benjews (descendants of Jews) from Kurdistan are commonly recognized as having authentic Jewish roots. Though many are married to Christians or Muslims, they preserve a strong sense of their Jewish identity. They recite Hebrew blessings at meal times, light candles and eat challah bread on Friday evenings, and refuse to cook on the Sabbath.
The Abayudaya from Uganda are an example of a people with no claims to Jewish ancestry who have nevertheless found their way to Judaism through Christianity. The Abayudaya were converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, but once the Bible was translated into their dialect, tribal leaders came to believe that the customs and laws described in the first five books of Moses (Torah) are the true biblical path. As they tell it, members of the group ripped the New Testament out of their Christian Bibles, circumcised their male children, began observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher and using the Jewish Siddur to pray in Hebrew.
More recently, in 2001, leaders of the Zion Gospel Church in India concluded that Judaism is the true religion and began practicing Jewish rituals in private. When they told their congregation in 2011 what they believed, 1,500 members of the congregation decided to adopt a Jewish liturgy and lifestyle.
Centuries of missionary work around the globe have ironically turned numerous Christian groups to Judaism. To many Jewish rabbis, this phenomenon is a fulfillment of Scripture. The great Jewish sage Maimonides is quoted as having said that God was using Jesus to “bring Torah to the nations.” He also believed that when the true Messiah would be revealed, Christians would recognize him and repent of following the Nazarine. While Christians around the world are gaining a deeper appreciation for Judaism and Jewish lifestyle, most of the churches turning to Judaism look more like Gentiles who believe in a Jewish Messiah than Orthodox Jews who reject a Gentile Christ.
Israel Today Membership
Save 18% Per Month.
Six Months Membership
Save 9% Per Month.