Are the Jews Really Jewish? Refuting the Khazar Theory

Rev. Fred Klett

I have heard, from time to time, the idea expressed that Jews, particularly Eastern European Jews (known as “Ashkenazim,” after “Ashkenaz” meaning Germany) are not really Jewish at all, but are descendants of the Khazar tribe, which converted to Judaism. Therefore, it is argued, since most Jews are Askenazi; the Jewish people of today have little relation with the ancient people of God. Is this true?

First, let's remember that there are also Sephardic Jews who were centered in Muslim countries and Spain. (“Sepharad” means Spain in ancient Hebrew.) Yemenite, Ethiopian, Cochin, and other Jewish groups have separate and distinct ancient origins different from the Ashkenazi community. Granted, most Jews are Ashkenazi, but the percentage of the Jewish people coming to Israel from other heritages is growing. In Israel today the more traditional Sephardis (who are less likely to use birth control) are multiplying at a faster rate than the Ashkenazis. So we can't simply ignore the Sephardic Jews and Jews of other origins, to begin with.

Second, is it true that most of the Ashkenazi Jews are descended from the Khazars? The evidence by no means leads to the conclusion that they are not descendants of Abraham because of the Khazari connection. Let's see what we can find out about the Khazars:

1. We know that the Khazars were a Turkish tribe living between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea in the eighth century. 1

2. To what extent the Khazars converted to Judaism is open to debate. According to the scholar Robert M. Seltzer, “The Judaism of the Khazars has been much discussed but the historical evidence is very limited. Only the ruling class of the Khazars became Jews...”2 Raphael Patai states: “For more than two centuries Judaism was the religion of the ruling class while other religions, notably Islam, but also Christianity, were extensively practiced among the people.”3

3. Abba Eban has written: “...the rulers of the Khazars apparently converted to Judaism at the end of the eighth century, although the majority of the population appears to have remained either Christian or Moslem.”4 According to Max Dimont, “In 969 Duke Sviatoslav defeated the Khazars and incorporated their territory into the new Russian state he was founding....And so it came about that the former Jewish kingdom of Khazar became part of Mother Russia, and its people made the sign of the cross to the Russian Orthodox formula Gospodi Pomiloy instead of bowing reverently to the Hebrew Shema Yisroel.”5  

4. Eban also wrote: “It is likely too that some Khazar progeny reached the various Slavic lands where they helped build the great Jewish centers of eastern Europe.”6

5. Many Jews from other lands emigrated to Khazaria both prior to and subsequent to the conversion of the Khazars.7

Conclusion: There were members of a tribe of Turkic people who converted to Judaism. Many of their people remained Christian or Muslim, and some of those who had converted to Judaism became Russian Orthodox when conquered by Russia. Some of their descendants probably survived to join the Eastern European Jewish community. This, in a nutshell, is what we know about the Khazars. Does this information lead to a conclusion that the Jewish people of today are not really Jewish at all and are not in fact the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh? Hardly!

What motivates those who argue this way? Some may simply have been convinced by speculative theories. Possibly anti-Semitism may motivate others, but I think we need to be careful with such a charge. Still others may be motivated by a more positive desire to affirm the truth that most ultimately the children of Abraham are those who believe in the Messiah and have by faith embraced the covenant. This is clearly taught by Romans 4 and Galatians 3. Romans 11 tells us that those who believe are grafted into the tree of the patriarchs, but there God also clearly tells us that He has a concern for the natural branches and is able to graft them in again to their own tree.

Not a Race: A “Community of Descent”

There is truth to the statement “the Jews are not a race.” The Jewish people are a “community of descent,” which differs from a “race.” Today's Jewish people are, by and large, the community of physical descent from Abraham and the patriarchs.

Let me illustrate this point. If I were to marry an Asian woman and father children who then married other Asians, these children would be my descendants. If that woman were to die and I were to marry an African woman and have children, and they were to marry others of African descent, they would also be my descendants. One set of descendants would be racially Asian and the other racially African, but they would both be my descendants! Today's Jewish people are, by and large, the community of physical descent from Abraham and the patriarchs, whatever their race. Race is not the issue. The issue is descent. Black Ethiopian Jews, blonde Jews from Scandinavia, and Cochin Jews from India are racially different but are all Jewish. Sure there has been intermarriage, rape, and conversion of Gentiles. Some non-Jews have entered into ethnic Jewry, and no doubt, many Khazars, but at the core, the Jewish community remains descended from patriarchal Israel. There is still a Jewish “community of descent.” Am Israel Chai!

Can it be refuted that Jews named Levi, Levitt, Levinson, Lewis, etc. trace their heritage to the tribe of Levi or that Jews named Cohen, Cohn, Cahn, Kaplan, Katz, etc., trace their ancestry to the Cohanim, the priestly descendants of Aaron? This knowledge has been preserved in part because of the special roles these descendants have had in the synagogue. You must know if you are a Priest or Levite in the synagogue. It has only been fifty generations since the first century. It doesn’t seem so difficult to believe that this sort of information could be passed on orally given the importance of it in synagogue life. Recent genetic studies have found a common genetic link, tracing back to a single ancestor, that connects Jewish males from all over the world claiming priestly heritage. Also, a very large percentage of Ashkenazi Jews all descend from four women of Middle Eastern origin. In general, genetic studies have shown Ashkenazi Jews in general have significant MiddleEastern genetic origins, which demonstrates non-Khazar ancestry. Granted, unless DNA studies are done on remains of certifiable Jewish ancestors, which yet may happen, these studies are not conclusive proof of descent from Abraham, but they do at least establish Askenazi Jews have Middle Eastern ancestry and they do refute the idea that all Ashkenazi Jews are simply Khazars. So what if there has been some influx of non-Jews? Non-Jews, like the Khazars, have married into the community of descent from Abraham. It is a most reasonable conclusiuon that most Jews today still share the ancient Israelites as their common ancestors.8 As a people, Jews are the community of Abraham's physical descendants.

A Providential Preservation

God has preserved the Jewish people against overwhelming odds. The great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, said: “The Jews may be considered as a remarkable evidence of the truth of revealed religion, in that they were preserved so long a time a distinct nation from all others, even since their father Jacob's time, till this day; being neither destroyed, nor abolished, nor lost by mixing with other nations.”9 Edwards recognized God's amazing preservation of the Jewish people, a preservation motivated by grace and accomplished to God's own glory. When the Jewish people return to faith in their own Messiah, Jesus, it will be to His glory and praise. The ethnic children of Abraham will come back into the spiritual family of Abraham by faith, the New Covenant Community.

Truly, the promises of God and the election of God are only realized through faith in Messiah. Praise the God of Israel that He has opened a way for all people to become Abraham's spiritual children through Messiah, the ultimate seed of promise! As for the natural branches of Abraham's tree, God is still faithful to His promises. He has told us: “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and His call are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29) May those of Abraham’s natural descent soon return to the God of their fathers and soon join with all those of spiritual descent, that is, all who believe, so that a great blessing may be experienced by all and that the good news of Messiah will prosper in the world.

Notes:

1. My People, by Abba Eban, page 149, Behrman House/Random House, © 1968 by Author.

2. Jewish People, Jewish Thought, by Robert M. Seltzer, page 787 in note 7, Macmillan Pub. Co. NY, NY© 1980 by author.

3. Tents of Jacob, The Diaspora - Yesterday and Today, by Raphael Patai, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, © 1971

4. Eban, page 149.

5. Jews, God and History, by Max I. Dimont, pp. 198-199, Signet Books, NY, NY, © 1962 by author.

6. The Jews of Khazaria, pages 117-120 by Kevin Alan Brook, Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, NJ/Jerusalem, © 1999 by Author. A newer edition incorporates genetic data and somewhat modifies Brooks earlier position.

7. Eban, page 150.

8. See the conclusion of Kevin Alan Brook, author of The Jews of Khazaria at www.khazaria.com/khazar-diaspora.html. Also see www.khazaria.com/mountainjews.html and www.khazaria.com/genetics/abstracts.html

9. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2, p. 494, Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh 1976.

Rev. Klett is an evangelist to the Jewish people with the Presbyterian Church in America. He is director of the CHAIM ministry in Glenside, PA, a Reformed ministry to Jewish people, lectures at Westminster Seminary California and has been called to co-lead the Rock of Israel PCA congregational plant among Jews, Russian immigrants, Gentiles and Central Asians in Philadelphia.