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

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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.

36 Now Moses, saying things of this kind, persuaded not a few thoughtful men and led them away to this place where the settlement of Jerusalem now is; and he easily took possession of the place, since it was not a place that would be looked on with envy, nor yet one for which anyone would make a serious fight; for it is rocky, and, although it itself is well supplied with water, its surrounding territory is barren and waterless, and the part of the territory within a radius of sixty stadia is also rocky beneath the surface. At the same time Moses, instead of using arms, put forward as defence his sacrifices and his Divine Being, being resolved to seek a seat of worship for Him and promising to deliver to the people a kind of worship and a kind of ritual which would not oppress those who adopted them either with expenses or with divine obsessions or with other absurd troubles. Now Moses enjoyed fair repute with these people, and organised no ordinary kind of government, since the peoples all round, one and all, came over to him, because of his dealings with them and of the prospects he held out to them.

37 His successors for some time abided by the same course, acting righteously and being truly pious towards God; but afterwards, in the first place, superstitious men were appointed to the priesthood, and then tyrannical people; and from superstition arose abstinence from flesh, from which it is their custom to abstain even to‑day, and circumcisions and excisions and other observances of the kind. And from the tyrannies arose the bands of robbers; for some revolted and harassed the country, both their own country and that of their neighbours, whereas others, co-operating with the rulers, seized the property of others and subdued much of Syria and Phoenicia. But still they had respect for their acropolis, since they did not loathe it as the seat of tyranny, but honoured and revered it as a holy place.


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26 thoughts on “Moses and the Exodus: again, Moses as an Egyptian Priest”

  1. The contrast from one era’s descriptions, to another’s, clearly illustrate the knowledge and possible bias of each era. But possibly the truth begins to emerge, when we begin to cross-reference one against the other, and against what we know today, in 2015.

    1. The problem you have is that all of the alternatives basically boil down to three basic stories (1) Jews as discontent Egyptians who left, (2) Jews as foreigners who were expulsed (e.g., Hyksos) and (3) Jews as lepers who were expulsed, and the earliest version of each of these stories that we have dates to the first century CE. One cannot confirm the dates of each of the variants, nor can one exclude the possibility that one version of a basic story was derived from another.

      What we know today in 2015 is that there is no archaeological evidence of (1) a mass migration by people from Egypt to Palestine or (2) a conquest of Palestine. Period. Regardless of which alternative to the Exodus story you choose, you have to face that fundamental fact (and the fact that choosing between alternative fictional stories gets you nowhere closer to the truth).

      1. I agree with the skeptics’ findings regarding the non-existence of an historical Jesus. However, the non-existence of the Jews, or their migrations, seems more problematic.

        When archeological evidence is lacking, linguistic evidence is still there. Languages are like archeological strata. Their loan words and then syntactic or grammatical structure evidence their derivation or influences from others. In this case, it is clear that there were countless overlaps and a very strong relationship between the Hyksos and the Jews.

        Whatever admittedly questionable texts might have said centuries later, linguistic. evidence confirms these two people were both Semitic.

        This kind of evidence is often neglected. But finally it is decisive. Whatever their differences, these two cultures were cultural brothers. Members of the same family.

        1. The “meta-problem” is that records of the ancient past, which were affected by political interests and ideological perspectives, are evaluated in terms of the politics and ideologies of the present; e.g. Shlomo Sand, “The Invention of the Jewish People” (2010), E. J. Michael Witzel, “The Origins of the World’s Mythologies” (2012), or Mary Lefkowitz, “Not Out of Africa” (1997).

        2. Bee,

          You don’t even understand the assumptions you are making.

          First, what is a “Jew”? Shaye Cohen has argued the Greek term that has become identified with “Jew” means “Judean” and was meant to apply to geographic origin, not an ethnic, creed or nation. The term did not take on that connotation until at least the Hasmonean dynasty (I think he argues even later). Several of the ancient texts being discussed here as evidence of “Jews”, as we understand that term today, actually refer to Judeans without any connotation of ethnicity or creed. You are unwittingly engaging in retrojection if you assume that these ancients used the term to mean “Judean” to mean “Jew” as we understand it today.

          Second, there is plenty of evidence of people living in Judah well before the Hellenisitc Era, i.e., there were ancient Judeans, but there is no evidence of monotheistic Yahwism. In other words, there is no evidence that these Judeans were “Jews” as we understand that term today. Indeed, much of the evidence that we have of Judeans outside of the Old Testament and dating to before the Hellenistic Era demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of the Torah and, more importantly, that same evidence shows polytheism (e.g., in the Judeans of Elephantine) as late as the early fourth century BCE (~306 BCE).

          Third, the first evidence outside of the Primary History that we have of monotheistic Yahwism, a hallmark of modern Judaism, is the late second century B.C.E. And the Primary History contains evidence that it was written over the span of 70 years from about 270 BCE to 200 BCE.

          Fourth, from the late second century B.C.E. through the late first century C.E., the antiquity of the Jews (the monotheistic Yahwists following the Torah) was called into serious question by the Romans. The response? A forgery mill arose, spawning many spurious tales aimed at establishing that the Jews of Hasmonean Judea and later were known to Alexander the Great, if not before. That’s a curious response, don’t you think? Surely, they didn’t need to resort to an archaeological record. Surely, at the time, there would have been plenty of evidence to amass without resorting to forgery? What was the deal? Why did the Jewish apologists of the time feel compelled to create evidence, if the evidence was there, as it should have been at the time (e.g., in the great libraries of Alexandria and Antioch)?

          In closing, there were lots of ancient semitic peoples, but that fact does not tell you anything about whether or not they practiced the monotheistic Yahwism of the Torah. The semitic people of Ugarit predate the alleged arrival of the Hebrews in “Canaan”, but their Yahwism was polytheistic. Other semitic people (including your semitic Hyksos, who worshipped Seth and left Egypt centuries before the Hebrew exodus) did not worship Yahweh at all. Many of them worshipped gods like Baal and Dagon, and were condemned by the Hebrew Bible for doing so (so much for that “family” thing you tout).

          For these reasons, I find your argument to be no argument at all. On the other hand, I acknowledge your right to believe whatever you want to believe.

          1. Thanks for your useful summary. National or ethnic identities are in fact often fluid, and evolving. But if so, then possibly linguistic families are in some ways more significant.

            The Hyksos worship of Seth, identified by the Hyksos with note, an Asiatic storm or thunder God, would be an interesting precursor to Jahweh.

            No doubt many later Jewish beliefs were borrowed in part from the Egyptians, and others, by way of the Hyksos and other intermediaries.

            By the way, the Hyksos were chased out of Egypt by an Egyptian Moses, Ah-mose. Suggesting indeed some partially internecine, partially divisive conflicts. Though to many of us, from an a cultural anthropological view, the points of similarity and even universality remain particularly interesting.

            1. “By the way, the Hyksos were chased out of Egypt by an Egyptian Moses, Ah-mose. Suggesting indeed some partially internecine, partially divisive conflicts. Though to many of us, from an a cultural anthropological view, the points of similarity and even universality remain particularly interesting.”

              The inclusion of “truthiness” in a tale does not make the tale true. The problem we have here is a document (the OT and particularly the Primary History) that includes historical facts that can be verified outside of the document sprinkled among a sea of fanciful stories and myths that have been strung together to tell a history that never happened. The Primary History today would be classified as alternative history, a form of fiction. An author’s decision to include certain facts in a work of fiction does not necessarily tell you anything from a cultural anthropological view. The authors of the Primary History in the Hellenistic Era could well have been Greeks. Nothing stopped the English Mary Renault from writing historical fiction about the Greeks.

              1. Greek influence in this area of course increased exponentially after 332 BCE, when Alexander the Great began to take over Israel. Many locals were hellenized from this time.

                Still, if we can find traces of any genuine Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, or early agricultural traditions, etc., through archeology and linguistics, that might help triangulate probable realities.

              2. For reasons that should become apparent, the method of looking for historical elements that is not appropriate as applied to the NT, turns out to work a little more usefully on older material, like the OT.

              3. Hellenism was a word originally coined by the author of Maccabees as an opposite to Judaism, and it has been taken up by biblical scholars in the last 150 years to have the same connotations. The problem with this conception of Hellenism is that, with the exception of what we see in the Ptolemaic kingdoms, the Greeks were diasporic: they kept to themselves and did not try integrate with the native peoples of the territory they had colonized. The Ptolemies, on the other hand, tried to become more like their foreign subjects (and did not try to force their subjects to become more Greek). Witness, for example, the hellenized syncretic cult of Serapis, in which an Egyptian god was given a Greek makeover (although the priests remained Egyptian).

                The evidence we have of the hellenization of Jews in the late 4th century BCE, e.g., Jews allegedly taking on Greek names, is not necessarily evidence of that at all. The evidence is, in fact, ambiguous and hinges largely on the interpretation of a Greek phrase. Tcherikover, looking for evidence of hellenized Jews, found it by interpreting the phrase to mean that the person was Jewish as we understand that word today. Alternative interpretations conclude that the phrase has nothing to do with ethnicity whatsoever. The people with Greek names were Greek.

                A lot of the assumptions we have about the hellenization of Jews in the late 4th century BCE are based on claims made by Josephus and the Letter of Aristeas that hundreds of thousands of Jews were taken captive from Jerusalem and brought to Alexandria by Ptolemy I. The problem with that little tale is that there were maybe 1000 people living in and around Jerusalem at the time. Also, Coele-Syria was relatively undeveloped until the time of Ptolemy II in the mid third century BCE, so it is hard to imagine some kind of overwhelming Greek cultural presence in the area during the early Hellenistic period.

              4. “Still, if we can find traces of any genuine Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, or early agricultural traditions, etc., through archeology and linguistics, that might help triangulate probable realities.”

                Maybe. Let’s remember that Ptolemy I/II commissioned Manetho, an Egyptian priest, to write a history of Egypt, and Seleucus I/Antiochus I commissioned Berossus, a Babylonian priest, to write a history of Babylon (although it appears to be a bit broader than that). Moreover, there are later documents showing that the Ptolemies and Seleucids continued to study the history and gather the traditions of regions over which they ruled. One would think that these traditions as captured would be genuine/authentic, and once made available to others, these traditions could be transmitted in literature authored by foreigners.

              5. “For reasons that should become apparent, the method of looking for historical elements that is not appropriate as applied to the NT, turns out to work a little more usefully on older material, like the OT.”

                Luckily, I have spent very little time studying the NT or parsing what is proper history for the NT. I come at this as one who has only been studying the origins of the Primary History, and my approach to history is very much in line with the so-called “Minimalists.” Therefore, I just don’t have the NT-mythicist baggage you seem to think I have. The bottom line is that the Primary History is not a history of anything that actually happened, it is a piece of literature that served a socio-political purpose.

                If you spent more time reading minimalists like Davies, Thompson, Gmirkin, Lemche and Wajdenbaum, you would see that my “innovation” is refusing to assume that the Primary History was written by ethnic Judeans. Once you reject that basic assumption, a number of more probable explanations arise regarding the origins of the Primary History

              6. My take on the “minimalist” methods associated with the OT and the pre-Christian history of Palestine, especially as explained in Lemche’s works but also fundamentally applied by Davies, Thompson, Whitelam and others, is that it’s just basic normal historical methods as found in any other (non-biblical) historical study. I see no reason not to apply the same approach to the study of Christian origins.

              7. In fact I am at most a minimalist myself. And expect that we will find not so much Moses himself, but probably smaller migrations, typical in this era.

                By the way? At some point, in part recently, “dynamic”translators began increasing the numbers. On the theory that earlier numbers were meant to impress, but did not impress moderns used to much larger figures today.

                As for early homogenization, note that the Ptolemaic s and Selucids were founded by Al the Great.

              8. “Judaism and Hellenism” dates to 1974 and is a product of its time. It remains a good place to go to find cites to primary sources and prior studies (such as Tcherikover’s “Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum”). While it has been awhile since I’ve read the book in detail, doesn’t Hengel fill in gaps in historical references using the OT?

    1. Thanks for the link. Actually what I’m trying to do here is to set out the Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s application of “social memory” to his topic of interest. My next post will set out actual facts that we do know about Egyptian history, whereas these recent posts have all been patently fictional narratives. I will outline how Assmann draws upon Redford and others (other Egyptologists) to explain how such fictional stories involving lepers, religious heterodoxy, exile, etc. originated.

      My interest was piqued by Professor Chris Keith’s discussion of social memory as applied to historical Jesus studies. (See the post immediately preceding this series of Moses-Exodus posts.) Keith often referred to Assmann, enough to interest me enough to start to read Assmann”s work for myself. I was quite surprised, however, to find that what Assmann does is almost the reverse of what Keith does. I will be explaining this again in my final post.

        1. Hi Scot,

          I asked this several months ago on a different post, but I guess you missed it: do you have any update on getting your blog up & running? I’d like to know more about your take on the origins of the OT.

          Richard G.

  2. Richard,

    Yeah, I missed the earlier request. Thanks for the interest.

    I do have the blog up and running, but it is a work and progress (“under construction,” as they say). The result is that the majority of the posts currently up are more summary in nature and don’t necessarily advance my thesis. (I am accumulating some of the background material that I want to cite to in my posts.) But I actually have more posts in draft form than are currently posted. I expect my next meaningful post to be about the similarities between charter myths of the cult of Serapis and the origins of the Greek translation of the Torah. Of the current posts, the “Parallel Lives” post from the Nov. 2014 is the most detailed/scholarly in approach, although still more of an outline/thumbnail than a full blown paper. The “About” page gives a concise summary of my thesis and how it came about. My recent interaction with Bee has been very helpful in sharpening some of the arguments being made in my draft posts, so there may be more content very soon.


    1. Thanks, Scot.

      Wow! You already have a lot on your blog. It’ll take me some time to go through it all.
      I noticed this remark, “I have identified biblical characters who correspond to both Aristotle and Plato (and Plato’s nephew), but I have not listed them here (yet)”. May I ask who you think they are? Or point me to the blog post where you elaborate?

      FYI, if Neil doesn’t mind, you can link to your blog every time you post on Vridar, can’t you?

      Richard G.

  3. The easiest parallel to see is Aristotle as Samuel because of their relationships with Alexander and Saul, respectively. Once you have that parallel established, Plato and his nephew are fairly easy to find based on their biographies.

      1. Eli and Ichabod. Speusippus was not a very good intellectual heir to Plato. The glory departed with Speusippus, indeed. Aristotle’s thought was ascendant. He was Plato’s true heir, just as Samuel was Eli’s.

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