Category Archives: Exodus


Exodus as a Fairy Tale

by Neil Godfrey

David Roberts-IsraelitesLeavingEgypt 1828.jpg

Dr. Hector Avalos has posted at Debunking Christianity his thoughts on the documentary film, Patterns of Evidence: Exodus produced by Timothy Mahoney, and reasons to discount the historicity of the Exodus. Film trailer.

I posted various views of the origins of the Exodus story in a number of posts now.

So speaking of Exodus, hHere I want to continue on from a 2014 post, Transvalued Folktales & Classifying the Bible’s Narratives, and see how a contemporary specialist in Exodus identifies the signs of folklore or fairy tale in this biblical narrative.

William H.C. Propp sees in the Exodus tale the same nuggets that go into the making of folktales or fairy tales and that were set out by another Propp (no relation), Vladimir Propp in 1968, The Morphology of the Folk Tale. For an outline of these structural elements see the Wikipedia article on Vladimir Propp. William Propp’s argument is found in his commentary, Exodus 1-18: a new translation with introduction and commentary, pp. 32 to 34

William Propp begins by acknowledging that Exodus is far more complex than the ordinary folktale. For a start Exodus has not one but three heroes: God, Moses and Israel. Other tale types intrude as well. Nonetheless, “the overall sequence of events follows [Vladimir] Propp closely.”  read more »


Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

Akhenaten refresher

  • Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled for 17 years in middle of fourteenth century, up till around 1336 or 1334 BCE
  • originally known as Amenthotep IV (or in Greek, Amenophis IV); changed his name to Akhenaten
  • opposed the orthodox priests of Ammon-Re; redirected their income to his new god Aton
  • abolished traditional cults and idols of Egyptian polytheism
  • established the sole worship of a new god of light, Aton, (variously described as monotheismmonolatrism and  henotheism)
  • depicted Aton as sun disc with rays ending in hands, understood to be a universal god incapable of true representation
  • established new centre of worship at Akhetaten (today known as Amarna)
  • temples to Aten stressed worship in open sunlight (contrary to earlier custom of darkened indoor temples)
  • Akhenaten was the sole mediator between Aton and earth
  • affinities between Hymn to Aton and Psalm 104
  • son was the famous Tutankhamen

Unlike Moses, Akhenaten, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, was a figure exclusively of history and not of memory. Shortly after his death, his name was erased from the king-lists, his monuments were dismantled, his inscriptions and representations were destroyed, and almost every trace of his existence was obliterated. For centuries no one knew of his extraordinary revolution. Until his rediscovery in the nineteenth century, there was virtually no memory of Akhenaten.

Moses represents the reverse case. No traces have ever been found of his historical existence. He grew and developed only as a figure of memory, absorbing and embodying all traditions that pertained to legislation, liberation, and monotheism. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 23)

This current series of posts has arisen out of Professor Chris Keith’s references to Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s comments about social memory theory in history. Keith uses memory theory to “answer questions about the historical Jesus”. By starting with the gospel narratives as memories of Jesus that have been necessarily reinterpreted he attempts to uncover those narrative details that most likely point to a past reality about Jesus. In Jesus’ Literacy, for example, he judges the Gospel of Mark’s implication that Jesus was was not scribally literate to be more likely a memory reflection of the real historical Jesus than the Gospel of Luke’s suggestion that Jesus was able to competently read the Jewish Scriptures.

However, when I read the first two chapters of Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I read an approach to social memory that is the opposite of the one used by Chris Keith. Keith begins with the Gospels that are assumed to record certain memory-impressions and attempts to work backwards to what those original events more or less looked like to observers. But as I wrote in my earlier post that’s not how the Egyptologist works:

The Egyptologist begins with “hard evidence” and originally genuine historical memories and works his way forward into the later literature to find out what must have become of these memories. The historical Jesus scholar, it appears to me, begins with the later literature and tries to guess what memories came before it.

The two methods look to me to be like polar opposites rather than “similar”.

It is a pity Chris Keith is too busy to engage with Vridar (no reason given in his personal email, just a copy of a cordial invitation to respond to a Nigerian banker-benefactor asking me for my account details) at the cost of public religious literacy. I would love to discuss these questions with him seriously but he’s clearly not interested. (Slightly revised)

The difference is potentially very significant. Take the different versions of the Moses-Exodus narratives that we have seen in the recent posts — each one a differently interpreted memory — and apply Keith’s method to those in order to arrive at information about “the historical Moses” and the “historical Exodus” and see what happens. As we saw in that first post Assmann has doubts that there even was a historical Moses in the first place and he does not believe there ever was a biblical-like Exodus led by such a figure. Applying Keith’s method to “answer questions about the historical Jesus” to these memory-narratives would produce a very false notion of Egyptian and Jewish history.

Assmann starts with something we lack in the case of the historical Jesus. The known events of Egyptian history according to the contemporary inscriptions. These are used to interpret the later “memory literature”. The “memory literature” is not used in an attempt to uncover past historical events. The past historical events are used to interpret the subsequent stories.

Keith may object that he does use what is known of the historical past in order to assess what is closest to historical reality in the Gospels. He does, for example, in Jesus’ Literacy delve into what we can know about the nature and extent of literacy in ancient Palestine. But this tells us nothing new or relevant to the actual historical Jesus. It is comparable to uncovering details about the historical Pilate, or the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, or the geography of Galilee. No-one would believe we are coming any closer to “the historical Moses” by learning all we can about the Egyptian religious customs and beliefs, the social structures, ethnic groups or literacy in ancient Egypt and Palestine and applying this knowledge to any of the stories we have about Moses.

So here’s how Assmann uses social memory. read more »


Moses and the Exodus: again, Moses as an Egyptian Priest

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . . . 

The final account to be considered is that of the Greek geographer and historian Strabo who was probably writing early first century CE. The passage is found in Book 16, chapter 2 of his Geography.

According to Strabo Moses was an Egyptian priest who established a religion that stood against the traditional focus on idols and sacrifices. “Superstitious” and “legalistic” regulations such as food laws, circumcision, etc. were only introduced after the death of Moses.

35 Moses, namely, was one of the Egyptian priests, and held a part of Lower Egypt, as it is called,

but he went away from there to Judaea, since he was displeased with the state of affairs there, and was accompanied by many people who worshipped the Divine Being.

For he says, and taught, that the Egyptians were mistaken in representing the Divine Being by the images of beasts and cattle, as were also the Libyans; and that the Greeks were also wrong in modelling gods in human form; for, according to him, God is this one thing alone that encompasses us all and encompasses land and sea — the thing which we call heaven, or universe, or the nature of all that exists. What man, then, if he has sense, could be bold enough to fabricate an image of God resembling any creature amongst us? Nay, people should leave off all image-carving, and, setting apart a sacred precinct and a worthy sanctuary, should worship God without an image; and people who have good dreams should sleep in the sanctuary, not only themselves on their own behalf, but also others for the rest of the people; and those who live self-restrained and righteous lives should always expect some blessing or gift or sign from God, but no other should expect them. read more »

Moses and the Exodus: Moses as founder of an alternative Egyptian religion

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . . . 

The following account of “the Exodus” and Moses’ place in history comes from Apion, another Greek who lived much of his time in Egypt. Again Josephus is our source, and a hostile one at that. Apion portrays Moses as an Egyptian priest who preserved a true form of Egyptian religion. The whole “Exodus/Moses” episode belongs to Egyptian (not Jewish) history in his writings.

I briefly take notice of what Apion adds upon that subject; for in his third book, which relates to the affairs of Egypt, he speaks thus:

“I have heard of the ancient men of Egypt, that Moses was of Heliopolis, and that he thought himself obliged to follow the customs of his forefathers, and offered his prayers in the open air, towards the city walls; but that he reduced them all to be directed towards sun-rising, which was agreeable to the situation of Heliopolis; that he also set up pillars instead of gnomons, under which was represented a cavity like that of a boat, and the shadow that fell from their tops fell down upon that cavity, that it might go round about the like course as the sun itself goes round in the other.” read more »

Moses and Exodus according to the Roman historian Tacitus

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing. . . . 

The Roman historian Tacitus (ca 56-117 C.E.) appears to combine several versions of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Most significantly,

In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 37)

From book 5 of Tacitus’s Histories:

3 1 Most authors agree that once during a plague in Egypt which caused bodily disfigurement, King Bocchoris approached the oracle of Ammon and asked for a remedy, whereupon he was told to purge his kingdom and to transport this race into other lands, since it was hateful to the gods.

So the Hebrews were searched out and gathered together; then, being abandoned in the desert, while all others lay idle and weeping, one only of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to hope for help from gods or men, for they were deserted by both, but to trust to themselves, regarding as a guide sent from heaven the one whose assistance should first give them escape from their present distress.

They agreed, and then set out on their journey in utter ignorance, but trusting to chance. Nothing caused them so much distress as scarcity of water, and in fact they had already fallen exhausted over the plain nigh unto death, when a herd of wild asses moved from their pasturage to a rock that was shaded by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, and, conjecturing the truth from the grassy ground, discovered abundant streams of water.

This relieved them, and they then marched six days continuously, and on the seventh seized a country, expelling the former inhabitants; there they founded a city and dedicated a temple.

4 1 To establish his influence over this people for all time, Moses introduced new religious practices, quite opposed to those of all other religions. The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor. read more »


Moses and Exodus: an Ancient Jewish Counter-History

by Neil Godfrey

Artapanus of Alexandria was a Jewish historian living in Egypt in the late third or second century B.C.E. We read the relevant excerpts of his work On/Concerning the Jews in another work by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica (= Preparation of the Gospel). Artapanus gives a new twist to the narratives we have read so far by making Moses a Jew but also the founder of the Egyptian religion and civilization. (He is even identified with Hermes, the inventor of the sacred hieroglyphic script.) As Jans Assmann comments,

[Artapanus’s] picture of Moses is pure counterhistory . . . : it is the exact inversion of Hecataeus’ and Manetho’s Moses, written in contradiction to their texts and with very little reference to the Bible or other Jewish traditions. (Moses the Egyptian, p. 36)

Enjoy the Jewish counter-history! From Book 9, chapter 27 of Praeparatio:

AND Artapanus says, in his book Concerning the Jews, that after the death of Abraham, and of his son Mempsasthenoth, and likewise of the king of Egypt, his son Palmanothes succeeded to the sovereignty.

‘This king behaved badly to the Jews; and first he built Kessa, and founded the temple therein, and then built the temple in Heliopolis.

‘He begat a daughter Merris, whom he betrothed to a certain Chenephres, king of the regions above Memphis (for there were at that time many kings in Egypt); and she being barren took a supposititious child from one of the Jews, and called him Mouses (Moses): but by the Greeks he was called, when grown to manhood, Musaeus.

And this Moses, they said, was the teacher of Orpheus; and when grown up he taught mankind many useful things. For

  • he was the inventor of ships,
  • and machines for laying stones,
  • and Egyptian arms,
  • and engines for drawing water and for war,
  • and invented philosophy.
  • Further he divided the State into thirty-six Nomes,
  • and appointed the god to be worshipped by each Nome,
  • and the sacred writing for the priests,
  • and their gods were cats, and dogs, and ibises:
  • he also apportioned an especial district for the priests.

‘All these things he did for the sake of keeping the sovereignty firm and safe for Chenepbres. For previously the multitudes, being under no order, now expelled and now set up kings, often the same persons, but sometimes others.

‘For these reasons then Moses was beloved by the multitudes, and being deemed by the priests worthy to be honoured like a god, was named Hermes, because of his interpretation of the Hieroglyphics.

But when Chenephres perceived the excellence of Moses he envied him, and sought to slay him on some plausible pretext. read more »

Moses and Exodus according to an early Roman Historian

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . .

The first century B.C.E. (Celtic) Roman historian Pompeius Trogus wrote Historicae Philippicae (Philippic History), of which an epitome survives. The relevant section:

But a prosperous family of ten sons made Israhel more famous than any of his ancestors. Having divided, his kingdom, in consequence, into ten governments, he committed them to his sons, and called the whole people Jews from Judas, who died soon after the division, and ordered his memory to be held in veneration by them all, as his portion was shared among them. The youngest of the brothers was Joseph, whom the others, fearing his extraordinary abilities, secretly made prisoner, and sold to some foreign merchants. Being carried by them into Egypt, and having there, by his great powers of mind, made himself master of the arts of magic, he found in a short time great favour with the king; for he was eminently skilled in prodigies, and was the first to establish the science of interpreting dreams; and nothing, indeed, of divine or human law seems to have been unknown to him; so that he foretold a dearth in the land some years before it happened, and all Egypt would have perished by famine, had not the king, by his advice, ordered the corn to be laid up for several years; such being the proofs of his knowledge, that his admonitions seemed to proceed, not from a mortal, but a god.

His son was Moses, whom, besides the inheritance of his father’s knowledge, the comeliness of his person also recommended.

But the Egyptians, being troubled with scabies and leprosy, and moved by some oracular prediction, expelled him, with those who had the disease, out of Egypt, that the distemper might not spread among a greater number. read more »

Moses and Exodus According to the Egyptian Priest Manetho

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to set out some of the many variants of the Exodus story as told in non-biblical sources . . .

At the conclusion of these I will tie them together with Jan Assmann’s argument that they reflect memories of traumatic events in Egypt’s past.

The Egyptian priest Manetho in the early third century B.C.E. wrote a history of Egypt in which he gives us two versions of an Exodus-like historical event. The following extracts are from the Jewish historian Josephus.

Here is the first one:

14. I shall begin with the writings of the Egyptians . . . . Now this Manetho, in the second book of his Egyptian History, writes concerning us in the following manner. I will set down his very words, as if I were to bring the very man himself into a court for a witness:

“There was a king of ours whose name was Timaus. Under him it came to pass, I know not how, that God was averse to us,

and there came, after a surprising manner, men of ignoble birth out of the eastern parts, and had boldness enough to make an expedition into our country, and with ease subdued it by force, yet without our hazarding a battle with them.

So when they had gotten those that governed us under their power, they afterwards burnt down our cities, and demolished the temples of the gods, and used all the inhabitants after a most barbarous manner; nay, some they slew, and led their children and their wives into slavery. read more »


Moses and the Exodus according to . . . . the Egyptian Chaeremon

by Neil Godfrey

Chaeremon was an Egyptian priest who lived in Alexandria in the first half of the first century and who subsequently moved to Rome where he became the tutor to Nero. Josephus tells us of his version of the Exodus.

Chaeremon is the first to introduce distinctly biblical motifs into the story. The names of the 250,000 lepers being expelled are Moses and Joseph. In Pelusium they encounter 380,000 would-be emigrants who had been refused permission to emigrate with them. These two groups in fact combined forces and conquered Egypt. Later Ramses was able to drive them out of Egypt, pushing them back to Syria.

I omit Josephus’s criticisms of his account.

32. And now . . . I will inquire into what Cheremon says. For he also, when he pretended to write the Egyptian history, sets down the same name for this king that Manetho did, Amenophis, as also of his son Ramesses, and then goes on thus:

“The goddess Isis appeared to Amenophis in his sleep, and blamed him that her temple had been demolished in the war.

But that Phritiphantes [or Phritibantes, = “the scribe of the temple”], the sacred scribe, said to him, that in case he would purge Egypt of the men that had pollutions upon them, he should be no longer troubled with such frightful apparitions. read more »

Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks. . . : Lysimachus

by Neil Godfrey

The next account is by another Greek, Lysimachus, possibly from the second century B.C.E. His account is preserved by Josephus in Against Apion

34. I shall now add to these accounts . . . somewhat about Lysimachus . . . [See Josephus’s account for his criticism of what he takes to be a most unfair and false account by Lysimachus]. . .  His words are these:

“The people of the Jews being leprous and scabby, and subject to certain other kinds of distempers, in the days of Bocchoris, king of Egypt, they fled to the temples, and got their food there by begging: and as the numbers were very great that were fallen under these diseases, there arose a scarcity in Egypt. read more »

Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians: Hecataeus

by Neil Godfrey

After reading Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I’d like to set out here the various alternative versions of the story of Moses and the Exodus as written by ancient Greek and Egyptian historians. (These will be known to many readers but I want to have them all set out together and perhaps discuss their significance in relation to “what really happened” afterwards.)

Here is the apparently earliest non-Jewish record, written by the Greek Hecataeus of Abdera in the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. after he settled in Egypt. It comes to us via another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus [= of Sicily] of the first century B.C.E. I will highlight significant sections that overlap (however obliquely) with the biblical narrative.

[3]  Since we are about to give an account of the war against the Jews, we consider it appropriate, before we proceed further, in the first place to relate the origin of this nation, and their customs.

In ancient times a great plague occurred in Egypt, and many ascribed the cause of it to the gods, who were offended with them.

For since the multitudes of strangers of different nationalities, who lived there, made use of their foreign rites in religious ceremonies and sacrifices, the ancient manner of worshipping the gods, practised by the ancestors of the Egyptians, had been quite lost and forgotten.

Therefore the native inhabitants concluded that, unless all the foreigners were driven out, they would never be free from their miseries. read more »


Transvalued Folktales & Classifying the Bible’s Narratives

by Neil Godfrey

sinai7Recently I posted on the twenty-two typical incidents Lord Raglan found in certain types of mythical tales and that Richard Carrier uses to classify Jesus. I avoided dwelling upon “spiritualizations” of the elements. So when we come to Raglan’s point twelve,

(12) He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor

I resisted addressing the early Christian symbolism of Jesus marrying the Church or the “New Israel”, the “daughter” of the previous Israel who had been metaphorically married to God (Ezekiel 16).

So I was surprised to find another classification scheme for similar stories being transvalued (“spiritualized”) by a scholar responsible for a very well received commentary on Exodus and accordingly earning very high praise indeed in the reviews of his work.

Vladimir Propp

Vladimir Propp

While Lord Raglan identifies elements typical of the hero in the sorts of myths that can be associated with religious rituals, Vladimir Propp analyses the plots and structural elements of folk tales. (Lévi-Strauss takes another step and examines the relationships between such tales and how they reflect different cultural mores.)

William H.C. Propp

William H.C. Propp

Among the structural elements in the plots of folk tales identified by Vladimir Propp are the hero being assigned a difficult task, passing an ordeal, vanquishing rivals, undergoing a change of status, marrying a princess and ascending a throne. Another Propp (no relation), William Propp, a professor of history and Judaic studies, finds these elements in the story of the Exodus. He begins by explaining that the biblical narrative is more complicated than many folk tales given that it has three heroes — Moses, Israel and Yahweh. With reference to the elements just mentioned he writes on page 34:

In some fairy tales, when the Hero returns, he is assigned a difficult task (function M). After passing an ordeal (function N) and vanquishing all rivals (function Ex), he undergoes a change of status (function T), marries a princess and ascends the throne (function W). 

Now where is any of that in Exodus? William Propp continues: read more »


Bible and the Argonauts. ch.5 (Book 4)

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing my little series of posts reading the Bible in the context of popular ancient fiction, specifically with the Argonautica.

Book 4 — Seaton’s translation of the fourth and final book of the Argonautica. (Ignore the chapter numbering in the title.) This post covers only the early portions of this book.

Escape adventure and happily disbelieving reunion

Having thrown her lot in with Jason Medea flees her father’s palace under cover of darkness fearing his wrath. As she rushed forth from her home,

the bolts of the doors gave way self-moved, leaping backwards at the swift strains of her magic song. . . . Quickly along the dark track, outside the towers of the spacious city, did she come in fear; nor did any of the warders not her, but she sped on unseen by them.

Peter is not a semi-divine being as Medea is (she is a granddaughter of the sun god Helios and has magic powers) so he needs an angel to help him out when it is his cue to enter this Hellenestic adventure motif of fleeing for his life, past guards unseen, with doors opening of their own accord: read more »


Bible and the Argonauts. Chapter 3 (Book 2)

by Neil Godfrey
Clashing Rocks Parted by Poseidon

Continuing here my commentary on the points of literary, thematic, religious and cultural contacts between ancient popular literature and the Bible, with the Argonautica as a case study. From my initial post:

Anyone who treats the Bible too seriously as history needs to take time out to read Jason and the Argonauts, or the Argonautica, composed in the third century BCE by Apollonius of Rhodes.  They could also read a lot of other ancient literature, epic poetry, tragic dramas, Hellenistic novellas, to find a more grounded perspective for the Bible as literature, but here I focus on the Argonautica.

Book 2 — this links to Seaton’s translation of the second of the four books of the Argonautica. (The “chapters” in my titles are only for convenience to follow the sequence of posts on the blog and are not part of any formal numbering system.)

The Dual, the Prophecy, the Parting Rocks, and Seeing the Glory of God

read more »