This article is from
Journal of Creation 32(1):114–120, April 2018

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The genetic history of the Israelite nation

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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.

Simons-Genome-Diversity-Project
Figure 1. An unrooted neighbour-joining phylogenetic tree I created from the Y chromosome data in the Simons Genome Diversity Project.8 The majority of Jewish men belong to haplogroup J (there is no intended association between the ‘J’ and ‘Jewish’), but Jewish men also belong to many different haplogroups, including R, E, and others. Tree drawn using MEGA 7.0.9 The scale bar represents approximately 700 mutations.

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 now be answered, but with multiple caveats. To get at these answers, we must first ask what we should expect to find based on biblical history.2 We must then look at the genetic data and assess post-biblical history, which might include confounding factors like multiple outbreeding events with non-Jewish people, high levels of local endogamy leading to strong genetic drift, and founder effects. Even though the picture is complex, we would hope that these multiple sources of information will tell us the same thing.

Y chromosomes

A direct paternal lineage from the patriarch Jacob is generally thought to define Jewishness. Yet, early analyses with limited data concluded that more than one Y chromosome haplogroup exists among modern Jews. Does this contradict the biblical narrative? Actually, no. When comparing the Y chromosome haplotypes found in Jewish and non-Jewish Middle Easterners, it is clear that they share a common pool of sequences.3–5 The two together are distinct from non-Jewish groups in Europe, North Africa, and South Africa.3 But the majority of non-Middle Eastern Jews also trace back to a Middle Eastern Y chromosome source, meaning all three groups (Middle Eastern Jews, Middle Eastern non-Jews, and European Jews) come from the same paternal stock. Hammer et al. (2000) conclude that a major portion of the diversity of Jewish Y chromosomes:

“… traces to a common Middle Eastern source population several thousand years ago. The implication is that this source population included a large number of distinct paternal and maternal lineages, reflecting genetic variation established in the Middle East at that time. In turn, this source diversity has been maintained within Jewish communities, despite numerous migrations during the Diaspora and long-term residence as isolated subpopulations in numerous geographic locations outside of the Middle East [emphasis added].”3

The multiplicity of distinct ancestral paternal lineages is due to the extensive mixing between Jews and non-Jews throughout their history2 plus the possibility of founder effects at different places in Jewish history. In other words, it is possible that a ‘non-Jewish’ Y chromosome is found at higher-than-expected frequencies in specific Jewish populations today simply because it happened to be represented in one of the men who founded a small colony.

Among the Sephardic Jews, Y chromosomes from a diverse background can be found. The majority come from haplogroup J (strongly associated with Middle Eastern peoples). But others are from E1b1a and E1b1b (common in Africa and other places), R1a (up to 30% in Ashkenazi men), R1b (the most common lineage in Europe), Q (Asia), I (Europe, but rare), and G (mainly Western Asia).6 The distribution of haplogroups found among the Spanish Sephardim was similar to a Jewish population in Turkey (sometimes included within the term ‘Sephardim’). This pattern also held for Jewish men from NE Portugal. Nearly one third of the Y chromosomes were European (R1b, common in Eastern Europe), and over one half were ‘Middle Eastern’ (37% J and 16% T).7 Note that the ‘Middle Eastern’ chromosomes come from diverse lineages. Thus, all Jewish men do not all trace back to ‘Jacob/Israel’ and which lineage might represent him is a matter of debate. See figure 1 for an explanation of these groups and how they are related to one another. There is some debate among biblical creationists as to where the ‘root’ of the tree should be placed, but all of the people with whom I have discussed the subject, to date, agree that ‘Y chromosome Noah’ should be somewhere near the center of the starburst pattern. The evolutionary root would be located about halfway along the A1 branch. But root placement has nothing to do with the relative relationships among the groups.

The claims above were made on limited data (e.g. the studies often used only a few tandem repeats that have a high rate of back-mutation), not fully sequenced chromosomes.10 This type of data is only useful for analyzing recent events. Re-examining such data caused Tofanelli et al. (2014) to conclude that, while one might be able to draw conclusions about the founding of various Jewish groups, the fact that multiple diverse lineages exist in these populations and that these lineages exist in non-Jewish groups as well “highlights the lack of support for using them either as markers of Jewish ancestry or Biblical tales”.11

Yet, these comments were premature. Further analysis of fully sequenced Y chromosomes indicates that the Ashkenazi individuals who carry the ‘European’ Y chromosomes of haplogroup R are not, in fact, related to the European branches in the Y chromosome family tree.12 Even though this family might be common in Europe, the Jewish versions were found to branch off earlier and to be more closely related to Middle Eastern men who carry haplogroup R. The clear implication is that this is an old, pre-Diaspora, possibly non-Jacob-descent Y chromosome family which is now found within the greater Jewish population. The majority of lines really do go back to a Middle Eastern setting. But would we expect them to go back to a single person? In fact, no. We would not, based on the known history of the nation of Israel.2

Aaron’s Y Chromosome?

A surprising percentage of men across Judaism who claim to belong to the Levitical priesthood (the Cohanim) share a common Y chromosome within a subgroup of haplogroup J.13 This is despite the fact that they have been separated in some cases for approximately 2,500 years. This Y chromosome type has been named the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH), and men who carry it are more closely related to each other than they are to the other Jews in the communities in which they live. The CMH is rare in non-Levitical Jews, is found in 50% of Levites, and occurs in a much higher proportion of the Cohanim.14 Hammer et al. (2009) discovered that the Cohanim carry many different Y chromosome types, but most are at low frequencies (figure 2).15

Cohanim-vs-non-Cohanim
Figure 2. The frequencies of various Y chromosome haplogroups among the Ashkenazi, Cohanim vs non-Cohanim. The number and letter combination after the main haplotype designation (e.g. ‘-P58*’) references the name of a characteristic mutation that helps to define that lineage. These naming conventions have changed much over the years. (From Hammer et al.15).

This leads us to a fascinating anecdote that combines history, genetics, and oral traditions. The Lemba are a tribe from SE Africa with distinct customs and language. Their oral tradition claims they are Jewish, descendants of men involved in long-distance trade. But they are Bantu speakers and are surrounded by Bantu-speaking peoples. Analysis of their Y chromosomes revealed that more than half are of Middle Eastern origin.16 Mitochondrial DNA, however, reveals no evidence of West Asian roots. This is consistent with the tradition that they were descended from Jewish traders coming down the coast from the north. But the history is further confirmed by the fact that the CMH is found within a certain subset of the Lemba.17 So not only did a group of Jewish men become marooned in southernmost Africa, and not only did they marry local women and settle down thousands of miles south of the equator and thousands of miles more from their ancestral homeland, but it appears that a descendent of Aaron was among them.

Yet the CMH has been disputed of late. Specifically, since it is also found in non-Jewish populations, some argue that the occurrence of the CMH is nothing more than a statistical anomaly. Of course, having Jewish Y chromosomes spread far and wide is expected based on biblical history. But the original studies were also performed on only a few Y chromosome markers. When the number of markers was increased, it was learned that the Cohanim carry multiple unrelated Y chromosome types, several of which predominate.15 Due to the random nature of paternity in small populations, it is possible that the original was lost or that an introgression occurred, and a subsequent random fluctuation brought a new lineage to the fore.

This may have been the case among the living Samaritans of Israel. Their genealogy is restricted to four main families, but the Cohen family that claims the Samaritan priesthood carries haplotype E. In contrast, the other main Samaritan Y chromosomes belonged to haplogroup J.18 Since it is conceivably possible that something similar could have occurred among the Jews at some point in history, it is not possible to definitively state that the CMH is Aaron’s Y chromosome. However, it is still likely, especially when one considers the fact that the men who carry it trace their tradition of being among the Cohanim to a time prior to the Diaspora, which began before 500 BC.

Mitochondrial DNA

Among European Jews, Y chromosomes and mtDNA yield different patterns. More than one half of the mtDNA of Ashkenazi Jews can be traced back to three unrelated women from the same haplogroup K, (figure 3).19 This represents a major population expansion and a significant founder event. These mitochondrial lines are almost non-existent in non-Jewish populations. But note that nearly half of the mitochondrial lineages do not belong to one of these three matriarchs. Just under one half belong to haplogroup H, which is more associated with Europeans.20

1000-Genomes-Project
Figure 3. An unrooted neighbour-joining phylogenetic tree created from the mitochondrial chromosome data in the 1,000 Genomes Project.21 Common mitochondrial lineages found among modern Jewish females include haplogroups K and H. The scale bar represents approximately 14 mutations.

More detailed analyses, however, showed that the common H and K lineages (~40% of the Ashkenazim) as well as most of the minor lineages cluster deeply among non-Jewish Europeans.22 This would seem to indicate a significant number of the founding women among the Ashkenazi were converts. However, this does not support the contested hypothesis that the Ashkenazi came from a mass conversion of people in the Khazar Empire of the Asian steppes (see below), for the common mitochondrial lineages cluster with European lineages, to the exclusion of the others.

Multiple Jewish populations seem to stem from independent founder events with a limited number of female lineages that have not increased much in diversity since their founding. In those same communities, Y chromosomes show much more diversity.13 This is counter-intuitive on some levels because one might expect outsider females to be over-represented in the ancestral Jewish population over outsider males. Yet, on the one hand, this might explain why so many Jewish mitochondrial sequences trace back to European founders. On the other hand, it clearly shows that paternal ancestry has been important to the Jewish people for thousands of years, as the Bible indicates, despite the fact that ‘Jewishness’ has been traced through the mother since the 2nd century.

Genome-wide comparisons

More detailed data sets have confirmed the conclusions of earlier studies, showing us that there exists among modern Jews a core set of genes and haplogroups that trace directly back to the Middle East. Also, significant sections of IBD (identity by descent) and other measures indicate that the various Jewish populations are more closely related to each other than they are to outsiders, despite the fact that some of these groups have been separated from one another for millennia.23-25

When comparing the various Jewish groups to one another and to non-Jewish outgroups, interesting patterns emerge. For instance, since they started from a small group of Jewish settlers and interbred extensively with non-Jewish outsiders, the Ethiopian Jews unsurprisingly cluster with Ethiopians in genetic comparisons. But they cluster with the Semitic-speaking Ethiopians, not Cushitic-speaking Ethiopians. The Jews of Yemen, another old and isolated population, are more closely related to Bedouins and Saudis than they are to the Yemenis. Indian Jews, like Ethiopian Jews, are closely related to their host population, indicating significant mixing over the years.24

But mixing can also be detected on larger scales. The following is based on evolutionary rates and dates, but it is an interesting conceptual framework that can help us to understand large-scale historic processes. The average southern European has 1–3% African ancestry, most of which probably traces back to the Arab migrations after the fall of the Roman Empire. People from the regions surrounding Israel carry 4–15% African ancestry, but these links probably trace back to more recent times (maybe 1,000 years ago). Multiple Jewish subpopulations also carry African DNA (3–5%), with an estimated mixing date of 70 generations ago. This is much older mixing than the other groups, going back more than 2,000 years. This means the African ancestry was almost certainly among them prior to the Diaspora.26 Yet even this is much later than the biblical date for the founding of Israel (it is only about halfway to Abraham). Genetic evidence being what it is, all we can say is that the Jews in late Old Testament times already had a small proportion of African ancestry. This may not turn up in Y chromosome or mitochondrial studies due to genetic drift (where rare lineages tend to be lost) and founder events, but it has carried over to the rest of the genome.

Disease

Due to high levels of inbreeding in their close-knit communities, Jewish groups carry a surprising number of otherwise rare, recessive genetic diseases. For example, a major variant of the Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease has been associated with an origin in Spain and subsequent spreading caused by the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain.27 Bloom Syndrome is another rare, autosomal, recessive disorder most common in Ashkenazi Jews. But it is also found among Spanish-speaking individuals in Central America. Most likely, the individuals living in the Americas that are carriers had a Sephardic Jewish ancestor from Spain (confirmed by ancestry in several families).28 Disease studies are fascinating in their own right, but since there are specific genetic anomalies associated with Jewish populations, this tells us that outbreeding with non-Jews was always limited.

Alternative theories

The Khazar hypothesis

Once Need et al. discovered that one can statistically separate people with Jewish ancestry from a general population of Europeans,29 the race to discover ‘Jewish genes’ was on. Even though there are clear patterns, the idea that there are exclusive Jewish genes was recently contradicted by Elhaik.30 He makes six major points, all of which are questionable. I will restate them here:

  1. It is unlikely that an ‘Israelite gene’ ever existed since Iron Age Israelite tribes exchanged genes with their neighbouring tribes.
  2. Had there been a paternal ‘Israelite gene’ on the Y chromosome, it would have been lost due to the transition to matrilineal descent.
  3. Had there been a maternal ‘Israelite gene’ on the mitochondrial chromosome, it would have been lost due to the initial period of patrilineal descent.
  4. Had there been an autosomal ‘Israelite gene’, it would have been lost due to the high rates of movements into the religion.
  5. Had there been an autosomal ‘Israelite gene’, it would not be unique to Jews due to the high rates of movements out of the religion.
  6. Had there been an autosomal ‘Israelite gene’ that survived to modern days, it would have been extremely rare and undetectable by popular search approaches that prioritize findings common to a large fraction of Jews.

Points 1–4 depend on the degree of mixing with other populations, plus chance. Being that the Jews have always had a certain degree of separation from other cultures, the assumption should be that they may have maintained some genetic distinction. Point 5 is a given and is well attested to in the literature. This is one of the main reasons why there are no ‘Jewish’ genes. But this still does not mean there are no genetic Jews. We may not be able to positively identify a Jew by their genes, but when one does find genes common to Jews found throughout their current distribution, this is a strong case for the antiquity of Judaism. His final point 6 depends on the status of his Khazar hypothesis.

Elhaik has attempted to claim Eastern European Jews were descended from the Turkic Khazars of central West Asia.31,32 This seems to be a resurrection of the controversial ideas of Koestler.33 But this theory was quickly shot down by others. Specifically, it seems that his team’s use of the Georgian Jews as a proxy for the assumed genotype of someone from the now-vanished kingdom of Khazar was a mistake, for the Georgians are not only south of the Caucasus, but they cluster tightly with the Middle Eastern Jews in genetic analyses. Instead of being evidence for a mass conversion of Jews in ancient times, the data instead shows that the Ashkenazi Jews are related to those in the Middle East.34

Elhaik’s team has also attempted to claim that Yiddish did not originate in Germany but NE Turkey, along the Silk Road.35 This was also controversial, and both the methods and conclusions were soon strongly contradicted in print.36

I will leave it up to the interested reader to follow this up in more detail. There is some tit-for-tat going on in the literature,37 but my personal view is that Elhaik is wrong. I do happen to agree with one of his conclusions, that Jewishness is more of a religious and/or social construct than it is a biological reality, but I come to these opinions through very different means and I reject nearly all of his criteria. Plus, I cannot discount the multiple strands of genetic and historical evidence linking them to the biblical Jews. Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations have less than 40% European ancestry, and are more similar to each other than they are to Europeans in general. So even though there has been a significant amount of interbreeding among Jews and Europeans, the Khazar hypothesis is incorrect.

The lost tribes of Israel

Essentially, there is zero attestation to the claims the Book of Mormon makes regarding Native American ancestry. Instead of descending from the lost tribes of Israel (which were never lost, cf. Luke 2:36; Acts 26:7; Romans 11:1; Hebrews 7:5; James 1:1), the genetic evidence puts Native Americans squarely into a NE Asian genetic landscape.38 The minor contributions from Judaism we find in the Spanish-speaking populations of South and Central America clearly come from the cryptic Sephardim of Spain and Portugal. Another alternative theory is the claim that the British population descends from the lost tribes of Israel.39 Genetically, this is 100% false. Likewise, the idea that the Picts of ancient Scotland descend from a Jewish group is false. I won’t take more time on these subjects. See Sarfati (1999)38 for more information.

Conclusions

There is no ‘Jewish gene’, although there are certainly genes common to Jews. And because of the possibility of genetic drift, we cannot be 100% certain that things like the CMH are actually the Y chromosome of Aaron. However, Jews today absolutely fit both the biblical expectations and their oral and written history since the completion of the Old Testament canon. From the detailed history of the Jewish nation preserved in the biblical narrative, it should be clear that they started as a mixed population, maintained a degree of mixing with their neighbours, and continue to mix with outsiders today.2 However, as a Middle Eastern tribal community, they should have Middle Eastern genetic roots, and the evidence tells us they certainly do.

What does this tell us about races in general? Slatkin and Racimo (2016) say it this way:

“We now know that present-day populations were created by a complex history of admixture and population movement. Although local genetic continuity over long periods has been documented in a few cases, these are exceptional. The general rule is that the ancestors of present-day populations lived somewhere else.”40

So now we know that human history is complex and sometimes convoluted. The various people groups on this planet all have the tell-tale signs that their ancestors mixed with other people. The Jewish people, due to their rich historical background, serve as a test case that informs us what we should expect to find in other groups. Essentially every people group should represent a history of mixing that unites us all under one common banner: descendants of Adam and relatives of Jesus Christ, the Kinsman-Redeemer (Isaiah 59:20).

Acknowledgements

I thank Jonathan Sarfati for his critical review of an earlier draft of this manuscript as well as the efforts of two anonymous reviewers.

References and notes

  1. An interesting brief history of these events can be found here: Campbell, C.L. et al., North African Jewish and non-Jewish populations form distinctive, orthogonal clusters, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 109(34):13865–13870, 2012. Return to text.
  2. Carter, R.W., Extensive mixing among Israelites and non-Israelites in biblical history. J. Creation 31(3):112–118, 2017. Return to text.
  3. Hammer, M.F. et al., Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 97(12):6769–6774, 2000. Return to text.
  4. Nebel, A. et al., The Y chromosome pool of Jews as part of the genetic landscape of the Middle East, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 69:1095–1112, 2001. Return to text.
  5. Kopelman, N.M. et al., Genomic microsatellites identify shared Jewish ancestry intermediate between Middle Eastern and European populations, BMC Genetics 10:80, 2009. Return to text.
  6. Adams, S.M. et al., The genetic legacy of religious diversity and intolerance: paternal lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 83:725–736, 2008. Note that the haplotype names reported in this paper (e.g. E3a and E3b) differ from those I reported in the text (in this case, E1b1a and E1b1b). Revisions in haplotype names are constantly occurring, so I strove for consistency. I chose not to use a recent convention of naming haplogroups based on lineage-specific mutations (e.g. E-P147, which defines haplogroup E1) because it would make it too difficult for the reader to cross-check the references and discussion. Return to text.
  7. Nogueiro, I. et al., Phylogeographic analysis of paternal lineages in NE Portuguese Jewish communities, Amer. J. Phys. Anthropol 141:373–381, 2010. Return to text.
  8. Mallik, S. et al., The Simons Genome Diversity Project: 300 genomes from 142 diverse populations, Nature 538:201–206, 2016. Return to text.
  9. Kumar, S., Stetcher, G., and Tamura, K., MEGA7: Molecular Evolutionary Genetics Analysis version 7.0 for bigger datasets. Mol. Biol. Evol. 33:1870–1874, 2016. Return to text.
  10. For an example of a study performed on limited data, see Behar, D.M. et al., Multiple origins of Ashkenazi Levites: Y chromosome evidence for both Near Eastern and European ancestries, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 73:768–779, 2003. Return to text.
  11. Tofanelli, S. et al., Mitochondrial and Y chromosome haplotype motifs as diagnostic markers of Jewish ancestry: a reconsideration, Frontiers in Genetics 10, 2010 | doi:org/10.3389/fgene.2014.00384. Return to text.
  12. Rootsi, S. et al., Phylogenetic applications of whole Y-chromosome sequences and the Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi Levites, Nature Communications 4:2928, 2013. Return to text.
  13. Thomas, M.G. et al., Founding mothers of Jewish communities: geographically separated Jewish groups were independently founded by very few female ancestors, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 70:1411–1420, 2002. Return to text.
  14. Thomas, M.G. et al., Origins of Old Testament priests, Nature 394:138–140, 1998. Return to text.
  15. Hammer, M.F. et al., Extended Y chromosome haplotypes resolve multiple and unique lineages of the Jewish priesthood, Hum. Genet 126:707–717, 2009. Return to text.
  16. Spurdle, A.B. and Jenkins, T., The origins of the Lemba ‘black Jews’ of Southern Africa: evidence from p12f2 and other Y-chromosome markers, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 59:1126–1133, 1996. Return to text.
  17. Thomas, M.G. et al., Y chromosomes traveling south: the Cohen Modal Haplotype and the origins of the Lemba—the ‘black Jews of Southern Africa’, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 66:674–686, 2000. Return to text.
  18. Shen, P. et al., Reconstruction of patrilineages and matrilineages of Samaritans and other Israeli populations from Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA sequence variation, Hum. Mutation 24:248–260, 2004. Return to text.
  19. Behar, D.M. et al., The matrilineal ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: portrait of a recent founder event, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 78 (3):487–497, 2006. Return to text.
  20. Feder, J. et al., Ashkenazi Jewish mtDNA haplogroup distribution varies among distinct subpopulations: lessons of population substructure in a closed group, Eur. J. Hum. Genet. 15(4):498–500, 2007. Return to text.
  21. Diroma, M.A. et al., Extraction and annotation of human mitochondrial genomes from 1000 Genomes Whole Exome Sequencing data, BMC Genomics 15(Suppl 3):S2, 2014. Return to text.
  22. Costa, M.D. et al., A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages, Nature Communications 4:2543, 2013. Return to text.
  23. Atzmon, G. et al., Abraham’s children in the genome era: major Jewish Diaspora populations comprise distinct genetic clusters with shared Middle Eastern ancestry, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 86:850–859, 2010. Return to text.
  24. Campbell, C.L. et al., North African Jewish and non-Jewish populations form distinctive, orthogonal clusters, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 109(34):13865–13870, 2012. Return to text.
  25. Behar, D.M. et al., The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people, Nature 466:238–243, 2010. Return to text.
  26. Moorjani, P. et al., The History of African gene flow into Southern Europeans, Levantines, and Jews, PLoS Genet 7(4):e1001373, 2011. Return to text.
  27. Lee H.S. et al., Ancestral origins and worldwide distribution of the prnp 200k mutation causing familial Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 64:1063–1070, 1999. Return to text.
  28. Ellis, N.A. et al., The Ashkenazic Jewish Bloom Syndrome mutation blmAsh is present in non-Jewish Americans of Spanish ancestry, Amer. J. Hum. Genet. 63:1685–1693, 1998. Return to text.
  29. Need, A.C. et al., A genome-wide genetic signature of Jewish ancestry perfectly separates individuals with and without full Jewish ancestry in a large random sample of European Americans, Current Biology 10:R7, 2009. Return to text.
  30. Elhaik, E., In Search of the jüdische Typus: a proposed benchmark to test the genetic basis of Jewishness challenges notions of ‘Jewish Biomarkers’, Frontiers in Genetics 7(141), 2016 | doi: 10.1086/500307. Return to text.
  31. Elhaik, E., The missing link of Jewish European ancestry: contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian hypotheses, Genome Biol. Evol. 5(1):61–74, 2012. Return to text.
  32. Venton, D., Highlight: Out of Khazaria—Evidence for ‘Jewish genome’ lacking, Genome Biol. Evol. 5(1):75–76, 2012. Return to text.
  33. Koestler, A., The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its heritage, Random House, New York, 1976. Return to text.
  34. Behar, D.M. et al., No evidence from genome-wide data of a Khazar origin for the Ashkenazi Jews, 41, 2013; Human Biology 85(6):859–900, 2013. Return to text.
  35. Das, R. et al., Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to primeval villages in the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz, Genome Biol. Evol. 8(4):1132–1149, 2016. Return to text.
  36. Flegontov, P. et al., Pitfalls of the Geographic Population Structure (GPS) approach applied to human genetic history: a case study of Ashkenazi Jews, Genome Biol. Evol. 8(7):2259–2265, 2016. Return to text.
  37. For example, see Das, R. et al., Responding to an enquiry concerning the Geographic Population Structure (GPS) approach and the origin of Ashkenazic Jews—a reply to Flegontov et al., rxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1608/1608.02038.pdf. Return to text.
  38. Yang, N.N. et al., Contrasting patterns of nuclear and mtDNA diversity in Native American populations, Annals Hum. Genet. 74:525–538, 2010. Return to text.
  39. See Sarfati, J., Genesis correctly predicts Y-Chromosome pattern: Jews and Arabs shown to be descendants of one man! creation.com/jews, 1999. Return to text.
  40. Slatkin, M. and Racimo, F., Ancient DNA and human history, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 113(23):6380–6387, 2016. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Graham P.
A typically brilliant and highly readable piece by Robert Carter. I have a question: Ancient books say that a group of Hebrews voyaged to Ireland in classical times, (not an unreasonable thing given the trade routes to Britain and its tin and copper). Bill O'Connor touches upon it in his various tomes. Is there any genetic evidence of this purported Jewish settlement?
Robert Carter
Do you mean Bill Cooper? He has written much on such subjects. However, there is no genetic evidence for Hebrews in Ireland in ancient times. Neither is there good historical evidence for such. But even if there were, the ravages of time take a toll on the genetic contribution of ancient people. For example, the majority (>80%) Y chromosome in Ireland today is from group R1b. This is not found in the earliest graves and appears to have come from Central Asia. So even if some ancient Jews went all the way to Ireland (note: I do not believe this), one would not necessarily expect to find genetic evidence for it in the modern population.
Thomas M.
I think that while the genetic evidence linking some Jews to a mass conversion of Kazars as laid out by Elhaik may be sketchy, there is a body of historical material that supports that hypothesis also.
Robert Carter
Yes, there is some historical material to support the claim, but it is questionable. And it is not supported by the genetic evidence. Even if some Central Asian people converted to Judaism, and there is no reason to think that none did, there is no reason to suspect that the Ashkenazi Jews are not, in fact, predominantly Jewish by descent.
Cameron N.
Great read! I have often thought about looking into my genetic history. Being the descendant of slaves in America, the oral tradition for my family's lineage and history pretty much only goes back to the end of slavery in the 1800s. I am only certain I have Scots-Irish ancestry in me as the recessive phenotypes for freckles, green & blue eyes and red hair is found on my mom's side of the family. I only have one question. What's a founder event and what do you mean by founder effects? Hopefully thus question isn't too ignorant.
Robert Carter
It is not surprising that you have some "European" genes in your family tree, being that African American's are, on average, about 30% European. This is also not surprising, considering history.

A "founder event" and "founder effects" are related concepts. If you take a small group of individuals, split them off from the main population, and don't let them interbreed with the main population, it is 100% certain that the only genes in the descendants of that little group came from the founding members. If, by chance, there were some "tall" genes or "light color" genes in the founding group, the descendants would likely be tall and light-colored, even if these were rare traits in the original population. Thus, you can get "change" without any new mutation and with no natural selection. This is the "founder effect". Also, founder events generally produce populations with reduced genetic variability.
Kevin R P.
I read this article then while in the car listened to Pilgrim radio reading through the Bible: Lamentations 5:11"They ravished the women in Zion, the maids in the cities of Judah."
David J.
Thanks Dr Carter for the wonderful article. I am reading Philip Bell's latest book (Evolution and the Christian faith). The connection of the two sentences? CMI staff, scientists and authors cited always seem to be focused on the Bible. I think that is the proper example to everyone to always "ask".. what does the bible say, if anything, to me when studying (reading). Should a student (reader) need help, the 1000's of CMI articles (& books papers etc) and SOME other Bible-believing, teaching ministries help tremendously. I can't thank CMI enough for their work, including quarterly magazine and the various help referenced earlier. CMI has taught me indirectly to strategically refer discussions (both with believers & non-believers) to first, what does the Bible specifically say? Then, let's compare to your arguments/sources. I must be getting wiser as I no longer argue understanding I don't have the great insight. The Bible does and ministries like CMI help tremendously in keeping discussion on track (at least for me)(providing necessary expertise). Last, I find the Bell book referenced earlier to be a great companion piece to read before Dr Jonathan Sarfati's Book, the Genesis Account. I have given about 10 of the Genesis Account books to more that a few professing believer that don't believe in the biblical-historic age of the earth/mankind.
Robert Carter
Thanks for the positive affirmations. For our other readers, see Evolution and the Christian Faith and The Genesis Account. You may also be interested in our 12-part teaching series The Genesis Academy.
Sean A.
This paper appears to take into account the loss of mutations due to genetic drift (see also your 2018 paper re; "most mutational alleles are rapidly lost due to genetic drift within just a few generations (Rupe and Sanford 2013)"). However other studies appear to use empirical data only (Sanford's Genetic Entropy, or Jeanson's popular mtDNA clock mutation accumulation Graphs for fruit flies, roundworms, water flies, humans) but do not appear to factor in a loss of historical mutations due to genetic drift. This would result in a reduced time frame for the same number of net (remaining) mutations, then would have accumulated if mutation leakage due to genetic drift had been factored in. What am I missing? How is the unknown loss of mutations due to Genetic Drift modelled? And why is it that some studies appear to assume there are no lost mutations at all, while others, like this one, appear to factor that in?
Robert Carter
Since all the people you mention work together, and on similar concepts, there cannot be a contradiction. Thus the answer depends on what one is trying to model. Sometimes you want to start at the beginning and see what happens over time. Thus, you track mutation accumulation or the loss of diversity due to genetic drift, or both. Other times you are looking at a final dataset and all you have is an end point after all that mutation accumulation and drift has already occurred. See my paper on the effects of the Flood bottleneck.
J J.
At the beginning of the article, the author refers to an earlier paper demonstrating that "many intermarriages that are documented between the Jews in the Old Testament and the people groups around them." First, there seems to be no reference to that actual paper. Please provide it. Second, "many" intermarriages? The Book of Ezra mentions some, but not a lot (enough to trigger divine displeasure but not a lot overall). Other than that, it's extremely rare (e.g. Dina's rape). On what basis does the author claim "MANY intermarriages that are documented between the Jews in the Old Testament"? And how many is "many"?
Robert Carter
In scientific writing, it is considered bad form to include references in the abstract and most journals preclude their use before the main text. However, it would not have taken much reading to discover the paper since it is reference #2. Here's a direct link: Extensive mixing among Israelites and non-Israelites in biblical history. I believe you will find sufficient numbers listed in the paper to see that there were indeed "many". So many, in fact, that we should expect no genetic distinctions between the Israelites and the surrounding nations, as I document in this second part.
J J.
Your use of the word "intermarriage" is what was confusing to me. You've shown, and no one denies, "mixing" between "races." Almost all of it in the biblical account is sanctioned by law, however. On the other hand, intermarriage not sanctioned by law is very rare, such at the time of Ezra (which is why he makes such a big deal about). For the purposes of your article, it probably makes no difference. But I found your use of the word "intermarriage" confusing.
Robert Carter
I used that word on purpose because of the way God views sexual activity in general. It is a polite short hand for all the various ways that children can come into this world. I strongly disagree that intermarriage not sanctioned by law was rare. At what point in their history did the Israelites stay true to the mandates of the law? But even if it was rare, mathematics tells us that it only takes a little mixing every generation to completely homogenize a population.Thus, even rare and sanctioned intermarriage would produce the same result I describe here. There should be no reason to expect the Jewish people to be genetically distinct from the Middle Eastern background genetics.
Matthew B.
Thanks for another excellent article, Robert! I enjoyed reading this in the JoC, and again now. So if most Jewish men come from haplogroup J, could groups F, G, H, I, and J be the descendants of Shem? My Brubacher family comes from Switzerland and we belong to haplogroup R1b. Could groups Q, R1a, R1b, and R2 (K-T?) be descendants of Japheth? (From their intermarriages with Europeans, it is no surprise that some Jewish men today are from haplogroup R.) And it would make sense that groups A and B (A-E?), found in Africa, are the descendants of Ham.
Would it be possible to construct a neighbor-joining phylogenetic tree that would parallel some of the grandsons of Noah as well (Javan in Greece, Gomer in the NW, etc.)? It might be surprising that most Jewish mtDNA traces back to a few women in haplogroup K and also group H, when the Y chromosomes have such diversity. But this is what is to be expected if Jewishness is traced through the mother—when a child has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, he may not consider himself Jewish when he marries and has children, and his Jewish Y chromosome is then no longer in the Jewish gene pool. But when a child has a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, he (or she) will probably consider himself Jewish when he has children, so his mother’s mtDNA is retained and his non-Jewish father’s Y chromosome is introduced into the Jewish gene pool. Repeat this over and over, and the mtDNA will stay fairly similar but new Y chromosomes will continue to be brought into the Jewish group. As we see. This would also explain why the CMH is found outside Jewish populations. If the father was a Jew by birth but did not practice it and married a non-Jew, then the child would probably not identify as a Jew and the CMH is passed to non-Jewish groups.
Robert Carter
Everything you ask for is coming down the pike. Stay tuned. All those haplogroup designations might be correct, but a detailed discussion of such things is also being prepared, so you will have to wait. As far as the discussion of Jewishness coming from the father or mother, let us not forget that the religious state of a family was mainly determined by patriarchal status across most of Europe for most of its history, so this is in conflict with the Jewish tradition (that appears to have started in the 2nd century only).

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