The Bible gives us a clear and detailed history of the Jewish nation. In fact, the biblical text may give us
a more detailed ethnography for the Jews than we have
for any other ancient nation. Detailed genealogical tables
exist, and an unbroken history from Adam to Abraham and
beyond is given to us with little to no ambiguity. But given
that contemporary Jews descend from the biblical patriarch
Jacob, how much of their genetics can be traced back to him?
With thousands of years of history that includes migration,
destruction, restoration, a ‘Diaspora’ that has never ended,
and much intermarriage with non-Jews, what should the state
of their genetics be today?
Ancient Jewish communities (most of which are still in
existence) were founded in Africa (Algeria, Libya, Morocco,
Tunisia, Ethiopia, SE Africa), Asia (the Levant, Asia Minor,
Yemen, Baghdad, Iran, India, Burma), Europe (Spain, Italy,
Central Europe), and possibly other places. Some of these are
more ancient (e.g. Yemen) than others (e.g. the Ashkenazi).
Some were also founded by fewer people (e.g. Ethiopia). But
all of them claim descent from the Jews of ancient Israel.
Some of these groups grew large, but others remained quite
small, causing significant levels of inbreeding over time. For
example, the NW African colonies may have been settled
along Phoenician trade routes. They managed to hold on
during many centuries of conflict, but never managed to grow
very large. Thus, high rates of endogamy exist in those small
pockets. They did receive an influx of Sephardic Jews after
Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492,
but even today one can see evidence for the two different
groups in the genomes of those people. 1
Modern genetics has advanced considerably over the past
decade. With data from hundreds of thousands of individuals
now available in public databases, we can draw historical
inferences that would have been impossible just a short
time ago. And statistical tools have been developed to take
account of the overwhelming amount of data coming out
of our sequencing machines. These tools allow us to see
historical events in unprecedented detail. To that end, it is
now possible to trace the ancestry of different sections of
an individual’s genome. There are some geographic areas
where discriminating between two countries is difficult due
to high levels of historical connectivity (France vs Germany,
for example), but there are other locations where ancestry is
obvious due to the presence of unique and informative groups
of genetic variants (among people living in specific valleys in
the Swiss Alps, for example) and continental-scale ancestry
is easy to determine across most of the genome.
Thus, it should be possible to determine the ancestral
source populations(s) of modern Jews. This has nothing to
do with evolution, and the deep-time assumption at the base
of all evolutionary storytelling does not generally apply.
Ancestry is a statistical question: how much and what parts
of a person’s genome can be localized geographically, based
on what we know about the distribution of his or her genetic
variants in the contemporary human population? In short,
it is now possible to definitively locate Y chromosomes,
mitochondrial DNA lineages, and different stretches of
autosomal DNA to specific geographic regions, statistically.
This did not have to be true. We did not know it would be
possible until after the data started to come in. But now that
there are thousands of complete human genomes available,
the case for geographical ancestry has become quite strong.
Multiple questions arise when considering the Jewish
people. Are there ‘Jewish’ genes? Are the Jews a genetically
distinct population? Can one trace the dispersed Jewish
people back to their homeland in Israel? Is there any evidence
that the 12 tribes of Israel came from a single family, with a
single patriarch? Questions like these are fascinating, and can
The genetic history of the Israelite nation
Robert W. Carter
In an earlier paper, I detailed the many intermarriages that are documented between the Jews in the Old Testament and
the people groups around them. It was clear from this analysis that they began as a mixed people group and continued to
mix with outsiders through the end of New Testament times. This has profound implications on the genetic patterns we
should expect to be found among them today. Here, I outline multiple relevant lines of genetic evidence that demonstrate
this mixing. Most of this genetic information is for events more recent than many of the episodes in the biblical narrative,
but they illustrate the nature of populations that live in proximity to other people groups. It is clear that modern-day
Judaism carries a core set of ancient lineages tracing back to the Middle East, plus a large fraction of newer genes
brought in by more recent mixing. Is this core set of genes enough to conclude they indeed trace back to biblical times?
Indeed so. This exercise should inform us about how ‘races’ form and what racial differences should exist among the
people living on Earth today.