“As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations.”
The Book of Genesis 17:4

On New Year’s Day of 1812, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson resumed a correspondence, and a friendship, interrupted by eight years of personal and political antagonism. Their dramatic reconciliation was achieved through the efforts of their mutual friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, physician and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. Other mutual friends joined Rush’s call for peace between the heroes of the Revolution, and eventually Adams and Jefferson wrote to each other.

Both men saw this renewed exchange of ideas and views as an opportunity to explain the origins of American democracy to a new generation. Adams wrote to Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.” Adams was then seventy-six years old; Jefferson was sixty-eight.

Early in the renewed correspondence Adams raised questions about what we might today call the anthropology of the Native American tribes. How were the Indians organized? Did they have a system of government? And, most intriguing to Adams, “Have they any order of Priesthood among them, like the Druids, Bards, or minstrels of the Celtic Nations?” In response, Jefferson, long interested in the Native Americans of his native Virginia, provided Adams with a comprehensive review of Western theories of Native American origins. He spoke of the theories of James Adair, author of the 1775 book “The History of the American Indians.” In Jefferson’s words, “Adair believed all the Indians of America to be descended from the Jews: the same laws, usages, rites and ceremonies, the same sacrifices, priests, prophets, fasts and festivals, almost the same religion.”

Rejecting this then widespread notion, Jefferson was nonetheless intrigued, as he was sure Adams would be, by Adair’s theory of language-that the Indian dialects of North America were descended from “a common prototype,” the Hebrew of the Bible.

Observing that Indian ritual chants invoked God as “yohewah,” later supporters of this “Jewish-Indian theory” were convinced that the Indians were chanting the name Jehovah, or Yahweh. The Hebrew language, thought by many to be the world’s first language, was viewed as the key that would unlock the mysteries of the origins and fates of nations and peoples.

Sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans understood exploration and discovery in the New World in biblical and Hebraic terms. A ready-made solution to the enigma of the Native Americans was to link them to a people of biblical times who had long been lost to history: the “Ten Lost Tribes” of the Israelites. In a book on the Lost Tribes one scholar noted, “No other subject seems to have had such fascination for the fanciful theorist.” In 1614 Sir Walter Raleigh’s magnificent “History of the World” still dealt at length with exactly the same enterprise, that of tying the Indians to the biblical history of man.

One of the more remarkable episodes in the history of speculation on the fate of the Lost Tribes occurred in seventeenth-century Holland. In 1644 Antonio Montezinos, a Spanish explorer of Jewish ancestry, returned to Amsterdam from an extended journey in the interior of what is now Eastern Colombia. Testifying in front of Amsterdam’s Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, Montezinos stated that he had met on his travels “the remnant of the Tribe of Reuben.” A group of Indians in the mountains of the New World had spoken to him in an archaic Hebrew. As Montezinos put it, “They greeted me with the Shema Yisrael.” The report that these people knew the words of the Jewish creed, words as old as the Book of Deuteronomy, convinced many who heard Montezinos’s account that this tribe was Israelite in some form. A close look at Montezinos’s account reveals that he implied only that some lost Jews lived among the Indians, not that all the local Indians were Jews.

Native Americans indeed had elaborate religious ideas, rituals, and traditions. Care should be given however, in studying them, partly because nearly all the information we have about them comes from biased European observers and partly because the Indians themselves did not have a word for, or concept of, “religion” as something distinct from their approach to all other aspects of life. Records of Indian discussions with Christian missionaries show us that each side found plenty to criticize in the ideas of the other.

Some Indians converted to Christianity, but more argued with missionaries (Spanish, British, and French) over what seemed to them its absurdities. In a couple of interesting instances from historical records we learn that Canadian Indians reasoned with Jesuit Father Joseph Jouvency that hell could not be a place of perpetual fire, because there was not enough firewood. In another instance a Huron woman warned her husband not to convert to Christianity, because if he went to the Christian heaven, he would find only Frenchmen there and would miss his friends and relatives.

For more than three centuries Americans had been fascinated with the attempt to “tie the Indians to the biblical history of man.” Writing in the 1980s, intellectual historian Richard Popkin dubbed this notion “the Jewish-Indian theory.” Another American scholar of an earlier generation, Allen Godbey, compiled and analyzed many of the legends concerning the “true fate” of the Ten Lost Tribes of Ancient Israel. Godbey’s 1934 book focused on the proliferation and acceptance of Lost Tribe theories.

Rabbi Joseph Hakohen in his book “Universal History of the Franks and the Ottomans,” suggested the European discoverers of the New World found that “the Indians of the Americas were able to speak a little of the language of Ishmael.” This story, which indicates that some Jewish scholars were interested in biblical explanations of New World discoveries, may have resulted from reports that Columbus’s navigators attempted to speak Arabic to the Indians. To some readers it suggested much more: a “Semitic” origin for the American tribes.

Christian and Jewish readers associated Arabic with its Middle Eastern origins. For Middle Eastern Jewish scholars Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic were languages that all exegetes and legalists had to know. Perhaps the American tribes, with their seemingly familiar language, were, in fact, of the children of Ishmael.

That Columbus’s navigators had a biblical orientation is not at all surprising, for Columbus himself was deeply imbued with a biblical worldview. Biblical passages, among them the accounts of King Solomon’s voyages to Ophir, were among the ancient writings that convinced Columbus that he could reach Asia by sailing to the west. As the classicist James Romm noted, “Columbus saw himself taking part in a grand reenactment of a glorious moment in the biblical past; and such returns to early mythic patterns confirmed his belief that the ancient prophecies were being fulfilled and that history was at last reaching its end.”

That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were intrigued by the Jewish-Indian theory should not surprise us. In an age of revolutionary upheaval, questions concerning “origins” and the definition of national groups had become central. In an era of pre-modern Christian belief, public figures debated whether a providential scheme governed the relationship between ethnic groups.

What we do know today is that the term “American Indians” derives from the colonizers’ world-view and is therefore not the real name of anyone. It is a name given to people by outsiders, not by themselves. Christopher Columbus and the first Atlantic navigators set out to sail west to India and insisting they had found it, referred to the natives as “Indians.” The “American” part came later.

America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who was the first person to recognize North and South America as distinct continents that were previously unknown to Europeans, Asians and Africans. Prior to Vespucci’s discovery, explorers, including Columbus, had assumed that the New World was part of Asia. Vespucci made his discovery while sailing near the tip of South America in 1501.

The Jewish-Indian theory, though today associated with fringe groups and other practitioners of historical speculation, was once accepted by some of the most respected and authoritative members of English and American society.

For those wishing to know more about the subject, I highly recommend two books: James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America, (Oxford University Press 1986), and Colin Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, (John Hopkins University Press 1998).

Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. An author, historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.