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Christopher Columbus. The name evokes visions of sailing ships, strange lands, adventure, and discovery. His likeness carved in marble or cast in bronze stands in cities such as Barcelona, Madeira, Genoa, Havana, Cartagena, San Juan, Santo Domingo, and Washington, D.C. Have you ever pondered the reason why Columbus decided to sail in search of a new land in 1492? The trip is famous, known to every schoolchild, but the reasons for it are considerably more complex than commonly supposed.

In 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had issued an edict of ejection regarding the Jews. It decreed that every person of Jewish ancestry had to leave Spain or be executed. As a result, several Jewish businessmen went to Christopher Columbus, a Genoese Jew whose family had supposedly converted to Christianity under duress, and pledged to finance his efforts to discover a new land. They purchased two of the three ships that carried Columbus and his sailors across the ocean to find the territory that would later become known as the Americas.

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Why was this so crucial? King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were seeking a means to unite the country and had selected Tomás de Torquemada as the Inquisitor General for most of Spain. The harassment began with attempts to drive out Jews, Protestants, and nonbelievers. Benzion Netanyahu, father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was one of the world’s leading scholars on this era, and wrote a great deal about the Marranos and conversos (Spanish Jews) and the basic reasons behind the attacks on them. According to Professor Netanyahu, the persecution launched against the Jews was mainly based on “racial hatred and political considerations rather than by religious zeal.”

Netanyahu went on to write: “The minority that still adhered to Judaism in the three decades preceding the Inquisition was...constantly diminishing in size and influence; that it would have, in all likelihood, soon faded into nothingness, had not the process of assimilation been violently interfered with by the repellent and bewildering actions of the Inquisition; and that, thus, it was due to the Inquisition itself that the dying Marranism in Spain was given a new lease on life... It was not a powerful Marrano movement that provoked the establishment of the Inquisition, but it was the establishment of the Inquisition that caused the temporary resurgence of the Spanish Marrano movement... The aim of the Inquisition, therefore, as I see it, was not to eradicate a Jewish heresy from the midst of the Marrano group, but to eradicate the Marrano group from the midst of the Spanish people.”

Many people have never considered that:

  • Columbus was likely a converso -- one who chose to convert to Christianity through coercion
  • Columbus' initial voyage was funded not so much by Queen Isabella's jewels, but mostly by a group of wealthy Jews
  • Columbus hoped to find a source of gold -- perhaps King Solomon's mines -- in Asia in order to recapture the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims and fund the restoration of the Temple
  • Columbus hoped to find a place of refuge for Christians and Jews alike in order for them to escape the horrors of persecution descending upon Spain
  • Columbus traveled with a Jew who spoke Hebrew in hopes of finding the ten Lost Tribes during his trip to the New World

This information is not speculation —Columbus himself made his motivations plain in his own words. In his Book of Prophecies, he wrote of the vast land he hoped to discover—a place that would be home to Christianity and a refuge for the Jewish people. But, as we have just read, that was not his only aim: he wanted to deliver the gold of Ophir, the bounty of King Solomon’s mines, to the monarchs who had financed his endeavor.

Columbus set sail on his voyage of discovery during the same year Ferdinand and Isabella had declared that with the recapture of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews, Spain was once again a Christian nation. Christopher was certain the monarchs would soon launch an endeavor to recapture Jerusalem and would require vast amounts of gold and other treasures to finance the battles that must ensue. He wanted to provide the gold from the very same sources that Solomon had used to build the first, magnificent Temple.

Based on calculations of that day, Columbus surmised that there was scarcely more than a century and a half remaining before the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. History professor Laura Ackerman Smoller wrote that in a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, Christopher tried to impress upon them the urgency of the voyage: Astrology dictated that the world would endure only some 155 years to come. Preceding its destruction, however, Columbus told the monarchs: all of the races would be converted to Christianity. He saw his own voyages as part of the universal missionizing of the Last Days.

According to some accounts, the explorer was supposedly quite fond of quoting John 10:16, which in the King James Version says: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” Columbus had also mentioned to those willing to listen that he was seeking a route to India. Why would this have piqued the interest of Jews in Spain and made some of the wealthy willing to invest in Christopher’s voyage? The answer is a bit convoluted but provides great insight.

Judah was not the only son of Jacob the patriarch; he also fathered the heads of the other eleven tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. From the vagaries of Hebrew history two dominions developed, one in the South (Benjamin and Judah) and one in the North (the remaining ten tribes). Some 700 years before Christianity emerged, Assyrian kings attacked the northern tribes and carried the inhabitants—except for those in Samaria—to Babylon. The number of captives is impossible to calculate. Three years after the initial invasion, Samaria was captured, and its peoples taken into captivity.

Judah suffered the same fate, and the Jews in that territory fell under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. The Jews who had traveled to Spain were descendants of the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, as are the vast majority of Jewish people living there today. Nothing was known of the fate of the other ten tribes who had become lost in antiquity. During the Middle Ages, stories would occasionally reach Europe of Jewish enclaves in countries such as India and China. The lure of the quest for the descendants of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, and Joseph was a catalyst for the voyage of Christopher Columbus.

Spanish Jews had come to sense that the budding explorer seemed to realize their frustration and support their beliefs. He alleged to know the best way to reach India by water and was searching for financial and moral support for his project. Perhaps the explorer had visions, once on the shores of the vast continent of India, of discovering members of the ten Lost Tribes, which had been reported scattered throughout Asia and China. And it seems that the many threads which zigzag through the life of Columbus appear to be intertwined with the Jewish people and their predicament in Spain at the time of his voyage.

As a suspected descendant of conversos, Christopher would have embraced Christianity and sought to spread its influence to any lands on which he set foot. And he was not the only converso aboard the three caravels that set sail on August 3, 1492; there were at least six other such men present.

One traveler, Luis de Torres, sailed in the company of five other Marranos, two of whom were his physician and navigator. All Jews on board had submitted to baptism into the Catholic Church the day before the ships sailed.

Among the men, de Torres spoke Hebrew—a great part of Columbus’ belief that he would need someone conversant in Hebrew if or when he encountered members of the ten Lost Tribes. He, and others of his time, firmly believed the stories of the wandering Hebrew children who had, after their Babylonian captivity, migrated throughout Asia and imprinted numerous civilizations with their cultural mores. Today, there are Asian people, mostly Muslim, who light candles on Friday nights but have never known where this custom originated. There is said to be a group in Japan who once a year drive a goat over a cliff in a ceremony that resembles the Yom Kippur service observed by the Jews.

What other indications are there that Columbus was a secret Jew, a converso? A review of the books he relied on in his search for knowledge reveals that in most of them, he added comments in the margins that made it evident he was well informed regarding the Old Testament. His notes held observations of the Prophets, with material befitting the academic world of Judaism. In Historia rerum unique gestarum, a tome penned by Pope Pius II, one notation indicates Columbus’ familiarity with the Jewish calendar as he gives both the Gregorian year—1481—and the equivalent on the Hebrew timeline—5241. One note in particular is lauded as an even more definitive sign that the explorer was a Jew; he referred to the Second Temple as Casa secunda—the second House. This is typically a Jewish rendition unused by Gentiles.

In his research, Columbus studied the works of medieval scholar and philosopher Pierre d’Ailly, and especially his tome, Tractatus de Concordia astronomie veritas et narrationis hystorice (Treaty of Concordia astronomy and narrative and historical truth). Apparently Christopher was seeking to learn of the signs and events that would usher in the reign of the Antichrist to include in his Book of Prophecies, a personal diary of Scriptures and quotations that reflected his thoughts on the subject of End-Time events. He reasoned that there would be eight events signaling the return of Christ. In a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, he wrote: “Holy Scripture attests in the Old Testament, through the mouths of the prophets, and in the New Testament through our redemptor Jesus Christ, that this world will end. The signs of when this must happen are described in Matthew and Mark and Luke, and the prophets frequently predicted this event... Our Redeemer said that before the consummation of this world all that had been written by the prophets would have to be fulfilled.”

Columbus was adamant that the Temple in Jerusalem had to be rebuilt and the Antichrist revealed. In his writings Columbus reiterated that the world would soon end with the second coming of Christ. His manuscript Libro de las Profecias (Book of Prophecies) includes a letter of theological proportions which reads: “At this time I both read and studied all kinds of literature: cosmography, histories, chronicles, and philosophy and other arts, to which our Lord opened my mind unmistakably to the fact that it was possible to navigate from here to the Indies, and He evoked in me the will for the execution of it... All those who heard of my plan disregarded it mockingly and with laughter. All the sciences of which I spoke were of no profit to me nor the authorities in them... Who would doubt that this light did not come from the Holy Spirit, anyway as far as I am concerned, which comforted with rays of marvelous clarity and with its Holy and Sacred Scriptures.”

In this same letter, Columbus presses the providential guidance of his Western discoveries as a miracle intended to encourage the undertaking of the restoration of Jerusalem: “I have already said that in order to execute the enterprise of the Indies neither reason, nor mathematics, nor maps profited me; what Isaiah said was fully realized, and this is that which I wish to write here in order to bring to the mind of Your Highnesses, and in order that you rejoice of the other, which I shall tell you about Jerusalem through the same authorities, about whose enterprise, if there is any faith, hold victory for more than certain.”

The life of Christopher Columbus was one fraught with adventure, discovery, failure, frustration, trials, and tragedy, but also with great success, opportunity, joy, and reward. The Admiral’s impact upon the lives of the Jewish people must not be underrated. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield wrote: “Whoever Christopher Columbus was, and however he is remembered, this much we know: he was a boundary crossing explorer who drew on multiple identities and traditions in ways that empowered him to take incredible chances when others would not, see remarkable opportunities where others could not, and accomplish things big enough that their full implications were beyond anyone’s understanding. That is the stuff of spiritual greatness.”

At a juncture in history when anti-Semitism had reached a fanatical note in Spain, Columbus discovered a New World to which the Jews could escape the oppression of the Church in Europe. With abundant determination and bravery, the Jews eventually won the privilege of observing their religion in that New World.

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