The Twelve Tribes in Dispersion
James 1:1 says,
1 James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to those twelve tribes in the dispersion, greeting. [The Emphatic Diaglott]
To whom did James write his letter? It was to the Israelites “in the dispersion.” The Greek word is diaspora. It is often assumed that James was writing to Jews that were living in various countries. But James said he was writing to the “twelve tribes,” not merely the two or three tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi.
How could he write to the other ten tribes of Israel, unless he knew where at least some of them were located? Those other Israelite tribes had been taken to Assyria over 700 years earlier, and they did not return. However, it was generally known where they were, because Josephus mentions this toward the end of the first century, saying,
“Wherefore there are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans; while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now; and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers.” [Antiquities of the Jews, XI, v, 2]
Josephus came from a priestly family and was well schooled in history as it was known in his day. Nor is he alone in his belief that the ten tribes of Israel had remained in dispersion. In 1888 The Jewish Quarterly Review (Vol. 1) ran an article by Dr. A. Neubauer, saying on page 15,
“The captives of Israel exiled beyond the Euphrates did not return as a whole to Palestine along with the brethren the captives of Judah; at least there is no mention made of this event in the documents at our disposal.”
Scripture itself tells us where they were resettled. 2 Kings 18:11 says,
11 Then the king of Assyria carried Israel away into exile to Assyria, and put them in Halah and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
Previously, 2 Kings 17:18 affirms this, saying,
18 So the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from His sight; none was left except the tribe of Judah.
Some have tried to argue that enough individuals from each of these ten tribes escaped capture to constitute all twelve tribes within the kingdom of Judah. They seem to dismiss verse 18 (above).
What is a Lawful Tribe?
There is no doubt that certain individuals escaped the Assyrian deportation, but individuals do not constitute a tribe, nor do numbers matter. What matters is that the princes of those tribes—those who held the birthright of each tribal unit—were taken into captivity. The “tribe” went with them. All the leaders of the ten tribes were taken to Assyria.
In fact, if individuals could make up the tribe, then consider the fact that the Assyrians took most of the Judahites to Assyria as well. We read in 2 Kings 18:13,
13 Now in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them.
The Assyrian king actually captured 46 cities of Judah and deported the survivors to Assyria. The Prism of Sennacherib tells the story in his own words:
Because Hezekiah, king of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took 46 of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude; and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates, so as to prevent escape....
He could not say that he captured Jerusalem, of course, because the angel of the Lord had wiped out his entire army of 185,000 in one night. He neglects to mention that detail. Even so, we do learn that he took 46 walled cities of Judah and deported 200,156 people into captivity. There is no record that those Judahites ever returned. They were dispersed along with the other ten tribes.
The point is that if individuals constituted a tribe, then one might argue that all twelve tribes were in dispersion and were not known as Jews. However, the king of Judah was Hezekiah, and the tribal unit was where the king was. It did not move with individual tribal members. For this reason the Scripture says, “none was left except the tribe of Judah.”
A century later, Babylon rose up and overthrew Assyria. Babylon then continued its conquest until it had deported Jerusalem and the tribe of Judah to Babylon. King Zedekiah was killed, but others of the line of David were taken captive to Babylon. Seventy years later, they returned, and 500 years after that, Jesus was born of that lineage to claim His throne rights.
Once again, the tribal unit went with the king. This was the messianic line from David which had survived the war and had been deported to Babylon. Three generations later, Zerubbabel returned to the land of Judah as governor and also as the heir of David’s throne (Matt. 1:13; Luke 3:27). The “tribe” moved with him back to Judah, and through his lineage Jesus was born as the final Heir of the world.
When Jesus was presented to the nation as the promised Messiah, the religious leaders rejected Him. They disputed His right of inheritance, and the priests usurped the throne of David by claiming to sit in Moses' seat. Jesus said in Matt. 23:1, 2,
1 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses.”
As Levites in the nation of Judah, these usurpers claimed to be Jews, i.e., citizens of Judah, yet because they separated themselves from the rightful King of Judah, they lost their citizenship as far as God was concerned. Those who followed the rightful Heir of the throne were the ones who remained in the tribe of Judah itself. Paul says that the true Jews were those who followed Christ and the New Covenant that He established with the sign of heart circumcision (Rom. 2:28, 29).
On the other hand, the usurpers of the throne retained control of the political and religious apparatus, making it easy for them to claim to be Jews (i.e., of the tribe of Judah). Thus, most people continued to refer to the usurpers as Jews, but God knew the followers of King Jesus as the real members of the tribe. For this reason, in Rev. 2:9 John speaks to the Church and refers to the usurpers as blasphemers:
9 I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
The implication is that the Church of Smyrna (and that of Philadelphia in 3:9) are true Jews, whereas those who claimed to be Jews were engaging in false testimony (blasphemy). Further study of this may be obtained by reading my book, Who is a Jew?
Getting back to James' letter, there is no doubt that he sent copies by messengers north to the area near the Black Sea, where those Israelites had spread from Halah and Habor. After seven centuries, they had increased greatly in population, as Josephus said, and many had migrated east from the Caspian Sea into what is now northern Turkey.