Monday, February 6, 2012

Debating Whether the Exodus Happened

A: The story of Moses and Pharaoh is fictional. You might as well debate the historicity of The Lord of the Rings.

ME: Talking to a religious believer lately, you correctly pointed out that the burden of proof lies upon him who makes a positive statement. And yet here you yourself make a positive statement for which evidence is lacking. We don't know how much of the story of Exodus might be true.
Concerning the numbers of Israelites described in the OT as comprising the Exodus, since so many point to that as evidence that the story is fictional: 600,000 men, plus women, children, non-Israel­ites and livestock. It amazes me that people get so hung up on this number. It would seem that that many people wandering in the desert for 40 years probably would've left some evidence which archaeolog­ists or other scholars, searching for so long, would've come across by now. But often people of other cultures in other eras had nothing resembling our accuracy when counting large numbers of people or other objects. (Cf Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol i,pp 336-341, for a good discussion of how Medieval Europeans tended to use large numbers.) Combine an inexactnes­s in counting to begin with, with the centuries of oral transmissi­on which may have occurred before the story of the Exodus took fixed form, (now THIS would be an example of a game of Elephant) and it's easy to imagine that a migration of 60,000 families, or 6,000, or much fewer still, could've provided the basis for the OT stories.

B: How about six families? Would that be enought to save the story? Maybe God killed every firstborn Egyptian kids and drowned all those soldiesr for the sake of six families.

ME: You can have that argument with someone who believes in God. For me, all theologica­l discussion­s were over a long time ago. They don't interest me. The same way that what I was talking about, how the story of Exodus actually came to be, doesn't seem to interest you. It's an historical interest for me. In the same way, I'm curious about where the story of the Iliad came from. Both stories come from that era of upheaval in the second half of the second millenium BC which started with a sharp decline of old empires around the eastern Mediterran­ean, and ended with the emergence of some newly-lite­rate cultures such as those of the Greeks and the Jews. I would reject the flat statement: "the Iliad is fictional,­" for the same reason I rejected A's statement above.

B: How about the whole damn story is just so much BS made up hundreds of years after the fact by a group of people that had begun to solidify around one religion and needed a myth of where they came from?

ME: Again: I'm not saying the Exodus story is historical­. I'm not saying it's fictional. I'm disagreein­g with anyone who claims to know, one way or another, how the story arose.

B: Just because a story may have some element of truth in it does not mean that, on a whole, it is not fictional.

ME: Again, I'm interested in finding out which elements might have an historical basis.

A: What's lacking is any evidence it is true. However, we do know the Israelites were not slaves in Egypt. Since there were no people to free there was no need for someone to free them. The Moses depicted in Exodus did not exist.

ME: We don't know that none of them were. That is to say: we don't whether there actually were a people that long ago which could properly be called Israelites -- although the Merneptah stele makes it seem likely that there were -- and if there were we don't know whether some of them were enslaved in Egypt. As to Moses, if you mean that either every detail in Exodus about Moses is true, or Moses didn't exist, well, that's absurd.

A: If anything, the Exodus story is possibly a garbled account of the Hyksos being expelled from Egypt by Ahmose at the beginning of the New Kingdom.

ME: Is the Hyksos-Exo­dus hypothosis actually supported by any prominent people other than Simcha Jacobovici -- who, of course, is prominent for things like not actually being an archaeolog­ist but pretending to be one on TV, and preferring the Jerusalem antiquitie­s market to legitimate archaeolog­ical digs, and denouncing archaeolog­ists en masse -- and vice versa, such as when he claimed that a bunch of archaeolog­ists and epigrapher­s supported his views on what he -- and very few scholars -- call the Jesus family tomb, prompting them to take the extraordin­ary step of signing an open letter saying that they all disagreed with him?

C: There is no evidence of a significan­t number of Israelites being held in bondage in Egypt. There is no evidence of any of the event described in Exodus. Therefore, we have no option but to reject any claim that it's a historical account and it can be safely assumed that it's fiction.

ME: That's a perfect example of a premature "therefore." We have other options. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and the entire Sinai peninsula actually hasn't been gone over with a fine-tooth­ed archaeolog­ical comb just yet. There's no reason to conclude that there never was an Exodus. It's simply premature. Let me underscore once again, in case it wasn't already obvious from my previous remarks, that I think that if there was an Exodus it would have been much smaller than 600,000 families, and also that it may have consisted of some of the ancestors of the Israelites at a time before there actually were Israelites­, and that if it did happen it probably constitute­d a minority of the Israelites -- or of their ancestors, as the case may be -- and that the majority probably were from the less powerful classes in Canaan.

D: Archaeolog­ists have been looking for evidence of the Exodus for decades, nigh on a hundred years. Nothing's been found. In fact the evidence for the early Israelites points to a local origin.

ME: I know. Mostly likely, many or most Israelites were originally lower-clas­s Canaanites or slaves of Canaanites who, when the Canaanite elite went into decline, took over the region which would eventually form the core of Israel. However, it seems possible to me that in addition to that indigenous core there was another group, maybe Canaanite, maybe not, which was part of the founding of Israel, who had been slaves in Egypt. That story came from somewhere.

D: Origin myths are tricky things. If you look at the "Historia Britonum" for example, it claims that the Brits were descended from Trojans (via Italy) fleeing the fall of that city. When you look at Irish myth in "The Book of Invasions" Greece, Spain, even Egypt etc get a mention. yet apart from Spain there seems no real link of the Irish to any of these places, and even that seems more a coincidenc­­e than a remembered truth. The point is that it need not necessaril­­y be true that an origin myth is a reflection of a one time literal truth, not only do stories change over time but real places can become metaphors for something and somewhere else and stories merge together to create something completely new with the actual historical truths "edited out" (or not) over time. It gets even more messy when differing oral versions are frozen into a written form by people with their own biases. Not saying it can't be true, just that after all that archaeolog­­y I'd have thought something would have turned up by now if it were. Unless Zawi's sitting on the evidence that is.

ME: A lot of people claim to be descended from the Trojans. Check out whether the stories of Trojan ancestry can be traced back farther in time than the people's first contact with the works of Homer or one of the myriad neo-Homeri­c authors. Of course Exodus need not necessaril­y be true. Who's saying that it definitely has an historical core? All I've been saying here is that I think it's premature to rule out any historical basis. The lack of archaeological attestation of the Exodus would indeed be suspicious if it consisted of 600,000 families wandering for 40 years. If 3,000 families crossed the desert in 3 months, and it FELT like 40 years because it was so uncomforta­ble, and several centuries of oral tradition inflated the numbers before the story took a fixed written form, then it's an entirely different matter, and it's unreasonab­le to assume that some archaeolog­ical trace of the crossing MUST have turned up by now. I'm not claiming that Exodus is as accurate in all its numbers and little details as, say, Robert A Caro.

I'm very skeptical -- to put mildly -- of British claims of descent from the Trojans, as you seem to be, and like me, you probably wouldn't put much stock in the legends which have some of the 12 Apostles journeying all the way the British Isles, which if true would make the British church about as old as that of Rome or Jerusalem. But let's look at some other myths, the Nibelungen­lied and the chanson de Roland. In the case of the former it's quite likely that several of the characters originated as actual leaders of Germanic tribespeop­le and Huns, and in the case of the latter there's no doubt at all that there was a Charlemagn­e. The historical interest of the chanson de Roland is greatly mitigated by the amount of historical accounts of Charlemagn­e written in and soon after his reign. Much less historical writing from late-Class­ical and Dark Age Europe has survived, and the historical interest of the Nibelungen­lied is correspond­ingly greater. Now imagine that, other than those two poems, there were NO known written accounts of Attila and Charlemagn­e, just as currently the Pentateuch is the only known account of Moses. How much sense would it make to just say "they're fictional" and dismiss them as having no historical worth?


  1. In the first place, unlike the historical Jesus question, I don't know or care if it is true. I don't have to pander to, or argue with, Biblical literalists, and they are the only ones who view this story as other than a national foundational myth. (And for a lot of your New Atheist readers--gotta be some right?--"myth" and "fiction" and "not true" are terms that, when used together, only prove that you have absolutely no idea what myths are, or how they function, but I digress.)

    The numbers are almost certainly very late (Hellenistic era) glosses; we have a good idea how number replacement in both the Jewish and Christian Testaments work out. Over time, any real numbers with the original story get smoothed out into sacred or symbolic numbers.

    But think about this as a response to the historicity question. I'm pretty sure (without looking it up) that there is only one major Exodus story in the analysis of the Documentary Hypothesis. By contrast there are two different creation stories woven together in Genesis, because the legends in the North and South diverged. If the Exodus story didn't diverge then it was a strong piece of common heritage, that suggests it had already taken a mostly final form before the separation of the kingdoms. Perhaps the event that precipitated the legend was the arrival of a relatively small group of Canaanites fleeing Egypt and bringing their monotheistic god with them, telling stories of their harrowing escape, and slowly marrying into the existing tribes and self-promoting?

    Then their story would become Judaism's story and you've got a plausible semi-historical origin story with little or no expectation of finding the manna or discarded sandals in the desert.

    1. I have some New Atheist readers. Fewer than I used to, I would guess. I've criticized them harshly lately, and harsh criticism, I would imagine, leads to a search for different reading material more often than to introspective self-criticism. Yes, they often demonstrate that they have no idea what terms like "myth" and "history" and "evidence" mean.

      In the case of the historical Jesus and in the case of the Exodus, as in the case of the historicity of anything else in the Bible, many people are always arguing theologically. I have no interest in theological debate. I'm actually interested in the history: how did these stories come to be? How much, if any, of this or that Biblical passage -- or this or that passage from Homer, or for that matter, from Livy, or Gibbon, or Burckhardt -- is based on historical events?