Who got here first? Refugees from Atlantis? Phoenicians piloting the children of Israel? Chinese? Egyptians? Or none of them? Is it possible to conceive of the unthinkable with regard to the discovery of America?
In 1641 a Portuguese Jew named Antonio Montezinos, while journeying near Quito in Ecuador, met up with a native who, he was flabbergasted to discover, was Jewish. What is more, the man took him on an arduous week-ling trip through the hinterland to a remote spot where an entire community of jews was living; Antonio actually heard them recite in Hebrew the traditional prayer, “Hear,O Israel.”
Returning to Europe, he reported this spectacular news to Manasseh ben Israel, the most eminent Jewish scholar of the day. Manasseh published it in a slim volume called The Hope of Israel, which was swiftly translated from Spanish into Latin, Hebrew, and English; the English version went into three editions within two years. Manasseh was not the first to claim that the Lost Tribes of Israel had crossed the ocean to America, but he was the one who really launched the notion on its long-lived career.
The theory that wandering Israelites were among the founders of New World civilization reached its heyday in the last century. Lord Kingsborough of England, for example, went through the family fortune and landed in debtors’ prison no less than three times in order to publish deluxe volumes proving that the Mexican Indians were descendents of the Lost Tribes. And the Mormon sacred writings speak of two waves of Israelite migrants, an early wave of Jaredites, who found their way across the Atlantic during the confused times after the toppling of the Tower of Babel and a later one made up of the followers of a certain Lehi, who left Jerusalem about 600 B.C. , shortly before the rest of the city was led off into the Babylonian captivity.
How the emigres negotiated the thousands of miles of open water bothered no one, since the Bible provided a built-in expanation. The Lost tribes had presumably gotten themselves lost sometime after 721 B.C., the year that Sargon II of Assyria conquered the northern part of Palestine and resettled its inhabitants in the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates. At least two centuries before this, Solomon had “made a navy of ships in Ezion-geber… on the shore of the Red Sea,” which he manned with Phoenician “shipmen that had knowledge of the sea” and which “came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold… and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.” If the ships of the day could make it to Ophir and back- a three years’ journey, we are told- obviously they could take an Atlantic crossing in stride.
The Bible pointedly mentions that Solomon used Phoenician crews. The Phoenicians were for a long while the mariners par excellence of the ancient world. They even boasted considerable oceanic expertise: not only did they sail to Ophir but, according to a tale reported by Herodotus, around 600 B.C. a fleet of Phoenician galleys successfully circumnavigated the continent of Africa. ( to be continued)…