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Who are these people?
It is too simplistic to assume that they were Christian radicals who left the Church and began calling themselves Jews. This growing theory lacks historic support in my opinion; there exists strong evidence to suggest otherwise. However, there is also some evidence to suggests this and some scholars do believe it. This is one of those cases where no one knows for sure. This link is to a good scholarly discussion on this difficult issue. It looks at various theories. It does not look at the one I will present below.
My theory: As the author of the above linked piece demonstrates, there is evidence that ties these Jews to at least the first century CE. While we Jews tend to avoid lending credence to the historic Yeshua and the New Testament, there is the following account about the Ethiopian Eunuch at Acts 8:26-39 that may shed light on this:Acts 8:26 But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Arise and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 And he arose and went; and behold, there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship. 28 And he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” 30 And when Philip had run up, he heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” ... 38 And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing.It is certainly plausible that these African Jews are the descendants of the Ethiopians the eunuch taught after returning to his home in Ethiopia. If so, they would have converted to the form of reformed Judaism taught by Philip and his peers before the onset of "the Nicolaitan heresy" (Revelation 2:9, 3:9) that resulted in what became known as Christianity. According to the text, this event took place before James, the head of the original Way sect, ordered the Gentiles to embrace the Noahide Way rather than formally converting to Judaism (since by this point the rabbinical courts were not recognizing conversion through the Way sect which they already regarded as heretical) -- as recorded at Acts 15. Remember that Yeshua and all of his talmidim (students) were Jews. The Way sect formed by the Apostles was a reformist Jewish movement originally. The Ethiopian eunuch would have converted into what he would have understood to be Judaism, complete with immersion into a mikveh (the origin of Christian baptism).
If I am correct, then the "Beta Jews" or Falashas are the descendants of the original Way sect of Judaism taught by the Apostles. They were never Christians. Living such isolated lives (as the author of the piece I link above shows), they logically would have carefully preserved their loyalty to Judaism without incorporating any of the Christian myths that developed later, AND they also would have developed without knowledge of Judaism's later developments after 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed. I'd love to see this line of inquiry be taken up as I think it is quite plausible.
The popular belief that these people are descended from the union of Shlomo HaMelech and the Queen of Sheba is another real possibility. The stories of her visit to Shlomo HaMelech have undergone many creative adaptations among Jews, Arabs, and Ethiopian sources over the years. These stories are seen as giving the Ethiopian Jews ancestral legitimacy as Jews.
I have had the honor of getting to know some of these wonderful people and they are quite sincere about their identity as Jews, even if a bit confused on certain doctrinal points due to current Christian missionary misinformation. Even though the ravages of Ethiopian history leaves many unanswered questions as to where they fit into our extended family, they do fit in. The Jewish Agency and both Chief Rabbis accept this. Those who attack and reject these Jews attack us all, just as those who deny the Ashkenazim their place in Judaism.
HaShem is One and we Jews are One.
It should be acknowledged here in passing that there are other Africans who, due to economic needs and/or seeking protection from Islamic Jihadism, are trying to establish their acceptance as Jews based on these Ethiopians. Understand that the Beta Jews are not Jews because they are African (and they are not not Jews because they are African). Avraham and his kin were not African despite what certain people are claiming today, however since the beginning people of all races and ethnic groups have been accepted into the Sinai Covenant. According to Rambam and other sources all Jews, regardless of race, background, etc. are fully Jews. No distinctions are to be made between Jews. No references to their prior state is to be remembered. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. The Ethiopian Jews are fully accepted into the extended family of Israel and Judaism due to an affiliation that reaches back 2000 years or more.
Determining who is and who is not a Jew has never been more complicated than it is today! May HaShem have mercy on us all and send HaMashiach ben David soon to clarify this and everything else that is unclear!
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