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The Lost Tribes

The first document that tells us anything of the legend that the ten (or nine and a half) tribes were dwelling together as a community in a remote and unknown land is the passage in 4 Esdras xiii. 39 sq. The conception is also found in the Apocalypse of Baruch, lxxvii., lxxviii. It need not be traced out in full here; but the subject is relevant to the present work, inasmuch as there evidently was a writing (presumably Jewish) which described the conditions under which the lost tribes lived.

We find vestiges of it in various places. First come two passages of the Christian poet Commodian, who, whether he lived in the late third century, as was commonly thought, or later, was acquainted with a good many interesting apocryphal writings.

The first section of the second book of his Instructions is entitled, "Of the hidden holy people of Almighty Christ the living God." To translate his terrible Latin literally is beyond me, but something like the sense can be given. The first book of the Instructions ends by telling how Antichrist comes and performs wonders. The Jews, searching the Scriptures, cry aloud to the Most High that they have been deceived by Antichrist. Book II. begins: "The last holy hidden people, of whom we know not where they dwell, are desired." It then speaks, very obscurely, of the two and a half tribes who are separated from the nine and a half, and returns to its proper subject in line 21: "But then the things told in the law hasten to be fulfilled: Almighty Christ comes down to His elect, who have been hidden from us so long and grown to so many thousands. That is the true heavenly people, The son dies not before his father there, nor do they experience pains or sores growing in their bodies. They die in ripe age, resting in their beds, fulfilling the whole law, and therefore are they kept safe. They are (now) bidden to come over to the Lord from that region, and He dries up the river for them as He did before, when they passed over. Nor less does the Lord Himself come forth with them. He passes to our lands, they come with their heavenly King, and on their journey how shall I tell what God accomplishes for them? Mountains sink down before them, and springs break forth. All creation rejoices to see the heavenly people. And they hasten to rescue their captured mother."

In the Carmen Apologeticum the same story is told. The Jews cry for help to God (ll. 934, 941): "Then Almighty God, to fulfil all that I have spoken of, will bring forth a people hidden for a long time. They are the Jews who were cut off by the river beyond Persia, whom God willed to remain there until the end. The captivity caused them to be in that place: of twelve tribes, nine and a half dwell there. There is no lying nor any hatred: therefore no son dies before his parents: nor do they bewail their dead nor mourn for them after our manner, for they look for a resurrection to come. They eat no living thing among their food, but only herbs, for these are without shedding of blood. Full of righteousness, they live with unblemished bodies. The stars (genesis: perhaps lust is meant) excite no evil influence on them, no fever kindles them, nor fierce cold, because they purely obey all the law; to this we too should attain if we lived rightly; only death and toil are there, all else is without force."

"This people then, which now is laid up far away, will return to the land of Judah, the river being dried up. And with them God will come to fulfil the promises. All through the journey they exalt in the presence of God: everything grows green before them, all things are glad; the creature itself rejoices to receive the holy ones. Everywhere springs break out of their own accord where the people of the Most High pass with the terror of heaven. The clouds make a shadow for them that they be not vexed by the sun, and lest they grow weary the very mountains lay themselves flat." He goes on to describe their irresistible might and rapid conquest of the impious Antichrist.

The Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew (tr. Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, ii. 112) tell how Peter and Andrew met Matthew, and he told them that he had lately been in the land called Prokumenos, which being interpreted is "Those who rejoice," and had found the people Christian: in fact the Lord Himself constantly visited them. He asked them how this came about. Their answer was, "Hast thou not heard the story concerning the nine tribes and the half tribe whom God Almighty brought into the land of inheritance? We are they. . . . As for gold and silver, we desire it not in our country: we eat not flesh and we drink not wine in our country, for our food is honey and our drink is the dew. We do not look upon the face of woman with sinful desire: our firstborn children we offer as a gift to God, that they may minister in . . .the sanctuary . . . until they be thirty years of age. The water we drink floweth not from cisterns hewn by the hand of man but . . . floweth from Paradise. Our raiment is of the leaves of trees. No word of lying hear we in our land, and no man knoweth another who speaketh that which is false. No man taketh to wife two women in our land, and the son dieth not before his father, and the young man speaketh not in the presence of the aged. The lions dwell with us, but they do no harm to us nor we to them. When the winds rise we smell the scent of Paradise, and in our country there is neither spring nor cold nor ice, but there are winds, and they are always pleasant."

That Commodian and the Acts of Matthew draw ultimately from a common source seems clear. That it was apocalyptic and Jewish is a safe conjecture: but further than that I do not feel warranted in going.

An elaboration of the theme of the Utopian community may be read in the Narrative of Zosimas, a hermit who visited the secluded land and found it inhabited by the descendants of the Rechabites. He had to leave them because he suggested to his host that he should make an untruthful excuse. The text will be found in my Apocrypha Anecdota, L, and a translation in Recently discovered MSS. (Ante-Nicene Christian Library).