Is Moses a Myth? Part 2

An article appeared in the Guardian last week asking if Moses was just a myth.  I got into an interesting online discussion with a few InterVarsity friends (Jon, Jesse, Tim and Dan), which led to my last blog where I discussed one problem related to this issue (no mention of the Exodus outside the Bible).  The topic of Moses is current since Exodus: Gods and Kings comes out December 12 (see trailer and my initial comments on the film here).  In this post I’ll look at a related problem.

Problem #2 Moses isn’t mentioned anywhere outside of the Bible. 

The only place we find Moses mentioned is in the Bible.  Why isn’t someone as significant as Moses mentioned in other sources, particularly Egyptian ones?

The lack of external validation for Moses is a problem, but not an insurmountable one.  Twenty years ago, we said something similar about David.  We had no external references to King David.  But then the Tel Dan Stele was discovered (1993, 1994), and it mentions “the house of David” only about 100 years after David’s death.  This inscription includes the oldest reference to Israel April 2014 1892David. (Yes, that’s me and Tel Dan Inscription from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. “House of David” is in white, on the right.)

The biggest problem, however, with this problem is that it is an argument from silence, a type of argument which you probably already know is notoriously weak.  We may never find external validation for Moses outside of the Bible like we did for David, but that doesn’t prove anything.

Mark Chavalas in his article on “Moses” in IVP’s Dictionary of the OT Pentateuch makes many good points about the historical plausibility of Moses.  These aren’t proofs, just points that show the historicity of Moses is plausible.  I’ll mention three.

First, we know from Egyptian sources that many Semites lived in Egypt during this period of time (Israelites were Semites), and some of them were prisoners of war.  On the tomb of Rekhmire we even see laborers making bricks (Exo. 5).  There appeared to be thousands of Asiatics in the Delta region (where Goshen was), very possibly working on nearby construction projects.

Second, there are numerous Egyptian papyri and other sources that mention people named Mose during the period of Ramesses.  Now, don’t get too excited about this.  These almost certainly aren’t references to the biblical Moses, just to the fact that Moses was a name that people used during this period.  Probably not as common as Dave is today, but you get the idea.

Three, we find evidence for Egyptian monarchs importing princes from other lands to be trained, a bit like Moses (or Daniel).  The Amarna Letters describe this practice.  Moses could have been raised in a household that included other non-Egyptians like himself.  While the films The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt make it appear that Pharaoh only had two sons (Ramesses and Moses), most ancient royal households had at least dozens—lots of wives, lots of sons.

We do have one ancient source that mentions Moses a lot.  The Bible.

Now, some scholars say we should ignore the biblical record because they claim it’s biased.  Yes, it is biased, but so is everything else, including the scholars and the archaeologists.  Just because something has a bias doesn’t mean it can be used on some level to substantiate history.  Despite the claims of scholars like Davies who I mentioned in Part 1, a lot of biblical scholars (not just evangelicals) think Moses could have been real.  But those scholars don’t make headlines with their quotes (“Moses Was Real!”—doesn’t seem newsworthy), and they don’t make it onto the Discovery Channel.

I think Moses was real.  That’s my bias.

Is Moses a Myth? Part 1

exodus_gods_and_kingsA few days ago some InterVarsity friends (Jon, Dan, Tim, and Jesse) and I were discussing an article that appeared in the Guardian asking if Moses was just a myth.  The article quoted biblical scholar Philip Davies who said, “Moses himself has about as much historic reality as King Arthur” (Davies introduced me in Oxford in 2008 when I presented my Trash Talking paper.)

The topic of Moses is obviously timely in the advent of Exodus: Gods and Kings which comes out December 12, 2014.

I won’t address yet how “accurate” the new Exodus movie is since I haven’t seen it, although I do broach the subject here (this post also includes the trailer).

I don’t think Moses was a myth, but we need to acknowledges that there are several historical problems with the Exodus.  In this post I’ll focus on one.

Problem # 1: Egyptian records don’t mention the Exodus. 

The fact that there is no corroborating account of the Exodus in Egyptian sources could suggest that the Exodus and Moses are just myths.

But why would Egypt record something that makes them look so bad?  If the book of Exodus is right, then a rather pathetic group of unarmed slaves defeated (with the help of Yahweh) perhaps the most powerful army on the planet.  Egypt would presumably want to forget all about those Israelite escaped slaves.  Ancient Near Eastern historical records are basically propaganda.  As they say, “History is written by the winners.”

You might say, but isn’t Israel’s history then just propaganda too.  Perhaps, and the biblical story clearly does have a bias, or if you don’t like that term, a perspective, a point it’s trying to make.  But Israel’s history is unusual in that it makes the nation frequently look so bad: the golden calf, the refusal to enter the land, cycles of idolatry in Judges, a continuous stream of evil rulers, five distinct exile events as Israel and Judah are crushed first by Assyria (733, 722 BCE), then Babylon (597, 587, 582 BCE).  Israel’s history doesn’t appear to be biased in Israel’s favor.  The fact that the Old Testament makes Israel look so bad argues for its historical reliability.

Egypt does mention Israel in the Merneptah Stele, which is dated to about 1210 BCE, during the reign of Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II (also called Ramesses the Great), the ruler who is often associated with Moses and the Exodus (some scholars think Moses’ rival was an earlier pharaoh, but Hollywood always picks Ramesses, so that must be right).  The reference to Israel on the stele is curious, as Merneptah bragging over the fact that Israel is basically wiped out by Egypt.  Now, we know that’s he’s exaggerating because Israel was not in fact wiped out, but perhaps Merneptah is gloating because of the embarrassing thing that happened during his father Ramesses reign?

More on the myth of Moses in my next post. 

Exodus: Gods and Kings: What to do when Hollywood gets the story “wrong”?

The new film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will be released December 12, 2014 (watch the trailer below).

I obviously, haven’t seen it, but I know what’s going to happen (spoiler alert: the Israelites are freed). But I also can predict what Christians will say. Based on responses to numerous previous screen portrayals of Scripture, most notably to the recent Noah film (2014), there will two reactions among the Christian community.

1) Some will say, “Hollywood is making a movie about the Bible. That’s awesome! I can’t wait to see how big they make the walls of water of the Red Sea. I’ll definitely see it.”

2) Others will say, “Hollywood never gets the Bible right. Look what happened to the Noah movie. I’ve already heard bad things about the new Exodus film. They change the story. I definitely won’t see it.”

I personally identify more naturally with the first group, but I understand the second group.

I am frequently in situations where people don’t get the biblical story right (perhaps some of those times I was listening to some of you). But before I jump into biblical scholar mode, I recall it’s not my job to correct every minor detail. Christians who say, “Hollywood got the story wrong” come across like the person in high school that corrected everyone else’s grammar. You don’t want to be that person (like you don’t want to be the creepy Rob Lowe).

I would hope that both groups would remember that this film is just an interpretation of the story (like Renaissance art portrayals of biblical scenes). The Bible reinterprets the story of the Exodus in different ways, emphasizing different things.  Some of these interpretations seem contradictory.

Check out these two versions in the Psalms of the complaining in the wilderness (Exo. 16-17):

“They asked, and he brought quails,
and gave them food in abundance.
He opened the rock, and water gushed out” (Psalm 105:40-41a).

“But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness,
and put God to the test in the desert” (Psalm 106:14).

Psalm 105 frames their complaining positively.  They asked, he gave.

Psalm 106 describes it a bit more negatively (“wanton craving”, testing God).

If Scripture itself can retell the story it such divergent ways, perhaps we should cut some slack to these screen interpretations.

The story of the Exodus is an amazing story, re-told more than any other story in Scripture. I’m glad Hollywood is retelling the story. I’ll see the film and tell you what I think about it next month (the good, the bad, and the ugly). Maybe I’ll see you at the theater (save me the aisle seat).

Ten Commandments Smashed a Second Time

Smashed 10 CommandmentsThe Ten Commandments have been smashed a second time.  The first time the perpetrator was Moses.  He got mad when he saw that the Israelites were worshiping the golden calf (Exo. 32:19).

It’s happened again.

This time in Oklahoma City, on the lawn of the Oklahoma State Capital grounds.  On Friday, October 24, 2014, a man who claims to be a Satanist drove his car into a granite monument containing the Ten Commandments.  The monument was shattered.  Oklahomans were shocked (although the ACLU was suing to have the monument removed).

Here’s ABC’s version of the story.  And Huffpo’s version here.

I’m surprised none of the journalists reporting on the story mention the “legal precedent” for such behavior established by none other than the most famous law giver this side of Hammurabi, i.e., Moses.

I’ve generally been opposed to these sorts of public displays of the Ten Commandments (I call them the Fourteen Commandments, because there are actually fourteen commands, but who’s counting?).  But every time I give my students a pop quiz on the Ten Commandments (did it again this week), typically about one out of ten can name all ten.  And these are seminary students.  Perhaps I should support these types of displays?  Maybe students would do better on my quizzes?

I still think it’s more important to obey the Ten Commandments, than to display them.  What do you think?