Is it possible that the descendants of the leaders of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, exiled in Assyria, made their way northwestward across Europe, perhaps over multiple generations, eventually arriving in the British Isles?
There’s not much in the way of evidence from the period.
I say “not much” because there’s a teeeeeeny little bit, but it doesn’t get us very far. In the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras, a Jewish apocalyptic writing probably from around the time of Christ, there’s a brief account (13.40-47) of the exiles from Assyria determining to escape over the Euphrates into a land called “Arsareth.” But the name is mentioned nowhere else in ancient writing; and nobody knows where it was, or even if the name was intended to be a place name at all.
There’s another relevant reference in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews,11.5.2, where Josephus observes off-handedly that “the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers.” Josephus is writing in the first century AD.
Here’s the thing. Neither of these sources is reliable. 2 Esdras is filled with bizarre visions and is at best deuterocanonical; the Orthodox tradition gives it that status, but the Roman Catholic church doesn’t. And Josephus tends to include unconfirmed historical accounts, especially if they portray the Jews, his people, in a good light.
So we have two accounts that may or may not agree, and we can’t trust either one of them. That’s not much of a basis for connecting my WASPy brethren to Joseph’s birthright.
A second line of evidence for the idea comes from biblical passages.
- Israel will be regathered from “the north and the west,” presumably with reference to the land of Israel (Is 49.12). But the same passage also refers to people coming “from the land of Sinim”; and while Anglo-Israelites suggest that the phrase literally means “the land of the South” and refers to Australia, the two standard Hebrew words for “south” are teman (e.g. Dt 3.27) and darom (e.g. Ezek 40.24), and the place name Sin is used elsewhere (Ezek 30.15) to refer to a location in Egypt, probably Syene (modern Aswan). The point of the passage, which I believe looks to a time yet future, is the gathering of peoples from all directions to worship Yahweh’s Servant. The use of similar passages, such as Isa 11.11, 24.14-15, and Hos 11.10-11, in support of the tribes in the west is similarly weak.
- Allegedly Zaraphath (Ob 1.20) is a reference to France. But the only other biblical reference to the place (1K 17.9-10) speaks of it as in the vicinity of Sidon (Lebanon).
A third line of evidence is from names that sound like biblical names or words.
- The word Saxons is allegedly from “Isaac’s sons.” Sounds cool, but it’s just simply not true. The fact that words sound alike—seem and seam, for example—is absolutely no evidence at all they are related to one another. In practice, they usually aren’t.
- It’s suggested that the Danites left their tribal name in place names all across Europe—the Danube, Don, Dneister, and Dneiper rivers; Denmark and Danzig; and even London. We can observe first that there are other origins for those names given in the standard reference works—you can Google them yourself. But further I note the following place names in Vietnam: Danang, Dien Bien Phu, Nam Dinh, and Don Duong. Seems as though those Danites really got around. Why do you suppose the name of Dan shows up so often, and not the name of, say, Naphtali, Zebulun, or Issachar? I think the question answers itself.
- The name America allegedly comes ultimately from hamachiri, “the Machirites” (Num 26.29), descendants of Manasseh’s son Machir. Unfortunately, though, no standard source derives the Italian name Amerigo, the immediate source of America, from Hebrew. Several sources are suggested—and you should be warned that the alleged meanings in those “baby names” books are highly unreliable—with the most popular being “house ruler” from Germanic.
- Yankee is allegedly a form of the name Jacob. While there’s again a lot of uncertainty, most place it from the Dutch janke, meaning “little John.” The Hebrew form of John is Yohanan (e.g. Jer 40.13); while the English form of the Hebrew Jacob is James. Even if Yankee were connected etymologically to the name Jacob, it would be exceedingly difficult to show that it was a reference to the biblical Jacob; there have been a lot of Jacobs over the years. The argument that “GI Joe” is a reference to Jacob’s son Joseph is similarly poorly founded.
All the evidence of a migration of the ten tribes northwestward to Europe—all of it—is poorly based and ephemeral and thus worthless. If the migration happened, we’re going to need better evidence before we believe it.