Can we extract history from fiction?

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by Neil Godfrey

Can scholars study fictional tales and extract historical events from them?

Richard Elliott Friedman, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, says, in effect, “Yes, they can!” He says that he himself can . . . and does. It is even possible to find genuine historical data in the fairy tale of Cinderella and his wife did just that, he writes. Professor Friedman is very clear: a scholar can certainly find the historical truth behind the biblical narratives such as that of the Exodus.

This is the process of literary-historical method. We can read a story that we think is fiction, or even know to be fiction, and still extract historical information from it. At a meeting on the exodus in San Diego . . . , the American biblical historian Baruch Halpern stirred things up saying that the Bible’s story of the exodus should be read as a fairy tale. My wife’s reaction was precisely to look at a fairy tale: Cinderella. It has mice become horses, a pumpkin a coach, and a poor oppressed girl a princess because a glass shoe fits only her. The story is fiction. It is not history. But the element of the shoe at least reflects that shoes were a real thing in the culture that produced that story. Everyone who heard the story understood it. So eliminate much of the biblical story from the category of history if you wish. The ten plagues may be a fairy tale. The staff that becomes a snake may be a fairy tale. But we shall see that the exodus itself is not the fairy tale. It is the shoes. (Friedman, R.E. (2017) The Exodus. New York, NY: HarperOne. pp. 11f – my bolding)

I believe that there is a problem with Friedman’s argument here.

His example of the shoes is a poor one since shoes are found among most human cultures throughout history, surely. It is hardly a ‘historical datum’ except in the very broadest sense. It is easier to think of shoes as a cultural item. All the other items in the Cinderella story are also “real things” (except the fairy godmother, of course). Mice are real; so are horses, and pumpkins, and coaches, and princes, and step-sisters, and palace balls. They are all historical items if we immerse ourselves in the interpretations of the Friedmans.

Yet not one of them is really historical, of course.

In other words, there is a difference between the events and persons of history and the cultural, political, social, economic, geographic settings of stories. Most stories, I presume, have settings. Settings themselves do not make a story “historical” or “fictional”.

A setting does not make a fictional story even partly true. Think of the novels with realistic and “true” historical settings by Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Ken Follett and hundreds of others any of us could list if we took a moment to dig.

I once read a children’s book about King Alfred. It was a novel, a historical novel. Although it narrated some events that were historical it was still a children’s novel and shelved with the fiction on the library shelves, not the history section.

The only way anyone could know what parts of the novel were historical would be by turning to the history section and comparing. A fictional story can be set in real places, reference historical customs (palace balls), involve the flora and fauna of the historical places (horses and pumpkins) and even borrow historical characters for certain scenes. But the stories do not become historical. They are fictional narratives in historical settings.

If there are genuinely historical persons or real historical battles or true historical murders in a novel, I think they should be thought of as historical data that has been fictionalized.

No-one can pick up such a fictional story and with that information alone unravel the details to find what persons and details are drawn from history.

The only way anyone can know what is historical is by consulting studies found on the history shelves or information that points to the archival and other primary sources.

In other words, we can only determine what is historically “true” by reference to the historical sources.

Fictional narratives can tell us what their authors told, the customs and characters they wrote about, but they, by themselves, cannot tell us what happened in the past. They cannot tell us what cities fell to conquerors or what kings ruled or what tribes moved from Germania to Iberia. They may tell us about places and fashions and social classes known to the authors, but those are not historical events. And if they do tell details of true stories by true kings, we only know that they do so because we consult other sources — the same sources that were ultimately relied upon by the author of the tale.

Cinderella’s shoes are just as historical as are mice and horses and princes and balls and pumpkins. In other words, they are entirely fictional — unless and until we find in some long forgotten chest in a palace boudoir a pair of squirrel fur slippers stylish enough for a ballroom dance function and with the soles branded with the words “Prince Loves C.E.”.

Fur shoes



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59 thoughts on “Can we extract history from fiction?”

  1. The reason Christian sects focus on “one book” is to avoid the contradictions of history and science. They start with the assertion that the Bible is history and ride the slippery slope fallacy to avoid giving any ground to legitimate studies unless they are able to balance it with some reworking of dogma. Apologists only pretend to respect outside studies because in the end their conclusions are predetermined, but they need to court that appearance of academic respectability otherwise they would just appear to be preachers instead of scholars.

  2. I’d totally agree that there is such a thing as a fictional story set in an historic setting.

    I don’t know if the exodus story can, or should be labeled “fiction”. This is not at all to say that I believe that *anything* about the story is actually “historical”. But, I think of the story of the battle of the Alamo: are we talking about the story where the Mexican army is no more than 2400 troops, or the version where there were 7500 Mexican troops? Is it the version where the Mexicans had 24 cannon that battered the walls for 12 days, or the version where the Mexicans had six six-pound field cannons that did no effective damage? Or, the story that had Travis draw a line in the sand with his sword, or that other version that just says he gave a speech? Or how about the version where Crockett goes down fighting, or maybe the one where he was captured and executed?

    Underneath it all, there actually *was* a battle, all the combatants in the Alamo did, in fact, die, the Mexicans did, in fact, win. But, all the “embellishments”, all the “unsubstantiated facts”, all the “mythological elements” that have worked their way into the story do not make it “fiction”.

    Was there an underlying “true story” to the exodus? One, that perhaps had been greatly embellished? Maybe not a story of 600,000 people being freed from slavery in Egypt by 10 plagues that were warned of in advance by a man named Moses (who himself had been an Egyptian prince), but, maybe a story of a much smaller number of people who had been enslaved, and because of some very “serendipitous” events were finally set free, and then traveled to Canaan?

    I don’t think one can label the exodus story as “fiction” until and unless there has been (for example) more of an archaeological record established. I’m not an archaeologist, certainly, but I am good friends with a former professor at the Univ of Texas who has been involved in many, many archaeological excavations in Israel, and he assures me that the Sinai has hardly been excavated at all. It’s a huge area, and things get buried in that desert very quickly, and very deeply.

    Again – I have to stress – I’m not making any point about whether I myself believe the story of the exodus, or, for that matter, any particular “version” of it. I’m just saying that I don’t believe it can, or should be labeled as fiction simply because there are elements to the story that (for example) speak of “miracles”. It is possible that the story may be a greatly embellished, but yet, historical story.

    1. I don’t know about the archaeology, but the motivation to trace Hebrew legacy from Sumer to Egypt, the two most ancient empires known, was strong. It was clearly an attempt to associate their achievements with Hebrews having been there.

    2. Sometimes a movie will display a notice, “Based on a true story.” The true story is not in the movie, however much we may like to believe it is as we vicariously enter into its dramatic world.

      My main point of concern is the belief that one can extract history from a story — even if one knows it is fiction, as in the case of Cinderella — as Friedman asserts. If the plot is based on historical events then no, we cannot divine the historical from the fictional embellishments by any method.

      The best we can do is identify where the author has used historical data by reference to sources outside the tale itself. That is, to sources that are independent and external to the story.

      On a more technical note:

      I suppose with a librarian background I find it easy to think in terms of classification of knowledge picked up in my studies and career: all works in libraries have traditionally been divided between fiction and non-fiction works. The terms have technical meanings to us “information professionals”. Before Spielberg’s Schindler’s Ark came the novel, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List. We were informed that the story was entirely true. Keneally had hewn close to his archival research in composing the novel. The only bits that were fictional, we understood, were the added dialogue. We classified it with the non-fiction even though it hurt some of us to do so. The history is sourced independently of the novelist’s work.

      We can look to see how much of history Keneally used in his book just as we can use our knowledge of Europe of yesteryear to see the cultural setting in which our story of Cinderella took shape.

      1. Added note….

        Whether we label a work of “historical fiction” fiction or something else closer to history is nothing more than a matter of definition.

        The point is, at least to me, that we cannot extract historical data from anything but primary and to some extent secondary sources. Historians do not turn to historical novels to do their research, except, alas, sometimes in the field of biblical history.

      2. Re: “My main point of concern is the belief that one can extract history from a story — even if one knows it is fiction, as in the case of Cinderella — as Friedman asserts.”

        With all respect, Friedman *doesn’t* assert that.

        He asserts that “historic *information*” can be gleaned from fictional stories. He does not assert that you can extract an “history” from it.

        It’s quite a different assertion than what you are talking about.

        1. Can you clarify what you mean by the difference between “history” and “historic(al) information”? I agree that he believes historical information can be gleaned from the stories and did not mean to convey anything different. I obviously have been ambiguous in your eyes and would like to be careful to be more clear and precise in future.

          In the ensuing pages Friedman discusses techniques and methods (all fundamentally through literary analysis and interpretation — including his interpretation of archaeological data) that lead him to strong confidence that the Exodus did indeed happen.

          (Since writing the above I see you have commented again below. I have responded in some more detail there.)

          1. Sure, I can clarify. In an earlier post, I mentioned Hugo’s “Hunchback…”

            Clearly, it’s fiction. Even the author claims it to be. Not at all a true story. Nobody would dispute that.

            But, Hugo spends an entire chapter on nothing but an incredible, in-depth description of the city of Paris at that time. I mean, the guy is describing to the N-th detail.

            This is “historical *information*”.

            It’s like this: Let’s say some ancient Greek writer was writing a tale, and, let’s say there’s no dispute that it’s fiction, because up front, he says it’s fiction.

            But, then he goes on to describe the city of Athens or Sparta with incredibly detailed clarity, page after page, making sure the reader *knows* that city, and knows it well.

            This would be an *incredible* bit of “historical information” to have. Doesn’t matter one bit if the story is fiction, if what the writer is describing about Athens or Sparta fits all we know now from, say, archaeology.

            So, this is the distinction that Friedman is making. We *can* get “historical *information*” from fiction, but, no, we cannot get “history” – ie, some kind of account of chronological events as they pertain to individuals, countries, etc, from reading fiction.

            I feel that this point was probably only a “side issue” with Friedman – after all, as you mention, he believes the exodus story is real, based on the data you mention.

            I’ll admit, I fall into Friedmans camp – not ready to call the story “fiction”. The *story* is of an enslaved people, probably through some unexpected event, getting free of slavery in Egypt, and being led by a great leader to a new life elsewhere. And, it may be LOADED with embellishments and decorum. But, then, so is the story of the battle of the Alamo, and that didn’t really happen all that long ago…

            Hope this makes sense. It’s not my intention to be argumentative, but I honestly believe Friedmans point about “historic *info*”, not “historic events or chronology” (ie, “history itself”) has been mistaken. And, I say this primarily because Friedman’s approach is very heavily based on literary analysis.

            1. My apologies for this addendum… Just a better example of what I’m talking about, and what I believe Friedman is talking about.

              Let’s say that today, in Jerusalem, some manuscript is found, and, it’s just a tale of “a boy and his dog” (please- it’s just an example). No names for the boy or dog, and no “religious” content at all. It’s “just a little story”.

              And, let’s say it’s conveniently dated to BEFORE the time of Jesus, by 30 years…

              BUT – there is a scene in which the boy & dog go walking out the Dung Gate, cross over the Kidron Valley, and go walking past the tombs on the southern end of the Mount of Olives. It describes everything in detail (and, we, in the present, could already know if some of that detail were correct or not). And, it says “they walked past the family tombs of prominent men, the family of Bob ben Judah, and next, the family of Ralph ben Bagdad, and thirdly, that of Joseph of Arimathea…”

              whoa. I can guarantee you that archaeologists would be on that like flies on Velveeta.

              *That’s* “historic info”, gleaned from a fiction. It doesn’t tell you anything about “historic events”, per se, but the *info* can shed light on things that *might be* history (ie, historic events)

              1. We are addressing different things, it seems. What you describe would not verify the historicity of the narrative. It would only verify that there is a historical setting for the narrative.

                Friedman is very clear that he is saying that there is more than a historical setting that is to be found in the Book of Exodus. He is saying that the historical event — not just setting in Egypt etc — is what is to be gleaned from the story.

                My post was an attempt to draw the distinction between settings and events. Only the latter is history in the sense in which Friedman is arguing the point. Recall where I quoted him saying that the Exodus — the event — corresponds (in his mind) to the shoes in the story of Cinderella.

                Many fictional stories use real historical settings for their narratives. Many even introduce historical persons into their fictional tales. There is nothing unusual or especially exciting about that.

                You seem to have missed the point of the post and the words of Friedman that I quoted.

  3. Blimey, one of my first essays in English 1 at uni many decades ago [wow, it was a half century plus – oh dear] was on “The Novel as a Reflection of Society”. Based on “Women in Love” and “The Rainbow” by Lawrence [D.H. not T. E.] and informed by the by the contention of F.R. Leavis that ” [Leavis] refused to separate art from life, ..” I done real good in my essay. Ah, nostalgia.

    1. One of the purposes of stories is to establish a social vector from where we were to where we’re going. They tell you where people at the time thought they came from socially and where they believed they were going socially. In that sense it is a reckoning rather than a recounting.

    1. I don’t believe the evidence for any of the stories in the Pentateuch being based on historical events is strong. Freidman would say it is strong enough to call the the Exodus “historical fiction” but I am on the side of those who see better arguments for the narrative being entirely fictional. It’s a while since I have posted about these arguments and after I update myself with some of the more recent publications I look forward to doing so again.

    2. I hope no one loses sight of the fact that the Pentateuch and the rest have been heavily edited and redacted, as well as the fact that the sources used to construct it were themselves already historical fiction. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh is definitely a source and it’s definitely not historical.

  4. It looks to me as if historians adjust their concept of history to the period under discussion. Ernst Breisach, in Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern, refers to the Iliad as “aristocratic history.” In discussing Greek historiography, he has an interesting section called “History as artful narration” (p.33). “History as scholarship was known to few people. History as political narrative or local story had a somewhat greater public appeal.History as dramatic account– serious or frivolous– received the major share of attention.That aspect of history had been present in the stories of heroic deeds in Homer’s Iliad. . .” etc. In analyzing any narrative, one has to put an appropriate emphasis on the narrative’s intended purpose, if it can be known, whether one is limiting one’s discussion to that purpose, or playing games with it, as I have done, risking and suffering misunderstanding in the process. Perhaps there will be a follow-up discussing where Friedman goes with his thesis. As always, an interesting blog.

    1. Friedman’s opening pages provide a beautiful illustration of shameless theological (meaning faith/religious) bias dressed up as objective inquiry. That doesn’t make sense, does it. Cross out the word “shameless”. Shamelessness would leave the author without any motivation to dress up the argument in any other way. I have been thinking of returning to this book after some other long-overdue posts.

      1. Shame is at the heart of it though. It’s as if the Hebrews hated themselves. Imagine if the various Greek city states had come up with this idea that they were each founded by a son of one father who originally came from Sumer and moved to Egypt, and these sons then went and conquered and wiped out utterly the original population of Greece. Aside from whether it’s historical (true), it conveys a lot of social-psychological content.

  5. Any narrative may have fictional or historical elements, and any of the elements may refer to historical events or fictional events. World War II is an historical event because we have a mass of millions of reports on it. The Trojan War is much more problematical because the evidence for it is much slighter. Even if there was a Trojan War, saying that any element in “the Iliad” is true is problematical – 10,000 ships or 50 ships exaggerated over 500 years time? The population numbers for the time would suggest 50 is closer to the truth if there were any.

    1. Is there really a sliding scale of historicity? — though you may not have meant to suggest that there was. If X has a “mass of millions of reports on it” then that means we can know a mass of millions of details about the event, but is the event itself any less historical than any other ancient conflict about which we have only a single piece of primary evidence?

      (Having read M.I. Finley’s chapter “Lost: the Trojan War” in his Aspects of Antiquity I cannot think that there was any historical basis to Homer’s epic, by the way.)

  6. “This is the process of literary-historical method. We can read a story that we think is fiction, or even know to be fiction, and still extract historical information from it.”

    So, the Comedian really did assassinate JFK (you’d think Superman would have saved him as they had been chummy earlier) and Nixon really did commit suicide when Captain America exposed him as the leader of the Sons of the Serpent?

  7. “This is the process of literary-historical method. We can read a story that we think is fiction, or even know to be fiction, and still extract historical information from it.”

    Extracting “historical information” is *not* the same as “extracting ‘history'”.

    That is, if I read a fictional novel (ie, “Hunchback of Notre Dame”) written in the 1700’s, I can not, with any reliability, expect to learn “history” from it. However, the book does, for example, spend an entire chapter on nothing but a description of the city of Paris at the time. Turns out, it’s quite good *historical information*. That, however, does *not* make the story an “historic account”.

    “The point is, at least to me, that we cannot extract historical data from anything but primary and to some extent secondary sources. Historians do not turn to historical novels to do their research, *except, alas, sometimes in the field of biblical history*”.

    What I’m sensing here is an already-established bias: “the stories of the Pentateuch are fiction”.

    I don’t think you can just work that that broad of a brush-stroke, and truly expect to successfully “feign scholarship”. I think you have to be a bit more specific about which story you’re talking about. Clearly, the “story of creation” in Genesis, having exactly Zero eye-witnesses, *must* be put in some kind of “myth” category, if for no other reason than the fact that there simply were no witnesses to the event.

    But – we’re talking specifically about the exodus story here. We’re not talking about the whole of the Pentateuch.

    The exodus story can indeed be an “embellished historic account”, rather than a fiction with historic elements thrown in. But to just label it “fiction” implies that somehow, you know as fact that the story is indeed fiction. But, nobody knows that just yet. Sure, of course, you can espouse the theory that it’s fiction. That’s fine. But, if you do, then what is the “positive evidence” that the story is, say, “as fiction as The Hunchback of Notre Dame”? We *know* Hugo’s story was fiction, because the author *says* so (first and foremost).

    One of the reasons I balk at calling the exodus story an “historic fiction” (like, for example, any one of a thousand WWII films made about fictional characters in fictional dramas, like “Stalag 17”) is because the *story itself* of a people being freed from slavery in Egypt and eventually settling in Canaan may, in fact, be true – unlike Stalag 17, where the whole story of intrigue and betrayal (etc) simply never happened.

    So, was the story of the exodus entirely fiction, with historic elements thrown in? Or was it historic, with (perhaps lots) of embellishments?

    I don’t think anybody has enough info to really make that call just yet…

    1. What I mean by “historical information” — and what I believe Friedman means — is information about historical events and persons. This goes beyond the historical backdrop or setting.

      The “historical information” of interest to Friedman is the “historical fact” of the Exodus itself. He is not talking about gleaning background information like Egyptian place-names or personal names or Pharaohs etc from the text. All those are in the text but they are not the “historical information” of interest that he is addressing. He is talking about an historical event that happened within all of that context. It is that event — the Exodus itself — that is the “historical information” he is saying can be gleaned from the text.

      As for my comment on the stories of the Pentateuch being fiction in their entirety, I was being open in an earlier comment and referencing posts and readings I have completed in the past. I am happy to revise my views if new evidence has come to light and look forward to writing more about the arguments in the future. But I trust I have been fair and honest with my treatment of views that differ from mine.

      But my focus in the post on the Exodus being fiction was to keep in tune with Friedman’s own argument. He explains that many scholars consider the story to be fiction and he is in turn confronting that view head on by saying that even if the story is fiction he believes he can demonstrate that it contains real historical information nonetheless.

    2. This reminds of the fact that liars always lace their lies with grains of truth. Except that if a book were written about Paris by a man who had never been there, and 1000 years later we have no way of knowing if he had ever been there or not.

  8. The Holy Trinity of fiction is: Plot, Characterization and Setting. The verisimilitude of the setting says nothing about the historicity of the Plot or Characterization. You can probably derive a great deal about late 19th and early 20th century London from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, but that says nothing about whether Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson or 221B Baker St. existed. You could say similar things if your knowledge of the Regency period comes from Regency romances, or an earlier period comes from the works of Jane Austen. These people were writing in a (for them) contemporary setting, but their portrayal, while it might well be accurate, is hardly comprehensive enough to get a balanced idea of the period.

    There is little doubt that Socrates existed, but the portrayal of him by Aristophanes, Plato and Xenophon might make one wonder if they are talking about the same person.

    1. Roger that “Holy Trinity of Fiction”, and your following points about Sherlock.

      But, we *know* from *other sources* (ie, the author himself, Doyle) that Sherlock and his stories are fiction.

      Your point has already been made several times in this thread, but it doesn’t get down to the story in question, the exodus story, and whether that *story* actually did or did not happen. We don’t have the author telling us “oh, yes, this is just a delightful little fiction I wrote”.

      So, with all your points noted, and agreed upon, it still tells us nothing about whether the exodus story – *in some fashion* – actually happened or not.

      We can certainly *theorize* or *postulate* that it is nothing but a fiction, but, we can equally theorize that it is, in fact, a true story (although, greatly embellished).

      In order to demonstrate that the story is indeed fiction – that there was never any kind of “exodus” at all – then you have to rely on other historical and archaeological info to do so. AND – all that info just might be available, for all I know.

      But, everybody seems to be arguing against a point that was never made….

      Friedman never said you can extract “history” from a fiction. He said you can extract “historic information” from a fiction. And, he is entirely correct in saying that. (not ALL fiction, mind you. certainly we can’t extract historic info from a fiction that happens 500 years in the future. But, I’m assuming we’re all using some “common sense” here).

    2. John — you’ve got it. My point exactly.

      Dennis — the Exodus is a question that lends itself to Bayesian analysis. We need to ask what sort of evidence we would expect to find if it did happen, and what we would expect to find if it did not. And then to ask the same about variations of different types of possible Exoduses. From those questions we assess the probabilities on the basis of what we do in fact find.

      1. roger all that. But, all that is a different matter than what seems to be your take on what Friedman says.

        I’ve got no arguments to make, either pro or con, in regards to the exodus story itself.

        I’m just saying Friedman’s comment has to do with getting “historic information”, and not a “history”, from fiction.

        Regarding whether the exodus story is actually fiction, or whether it’s “embellished history”, is indeed a matter of evidence. I’m not dead-set on anything at all about the story in respect to that, though. Maybe it is a fiction entirely. Maybe there never was a Semetic people that were enslaved in Egypt, maybe there never was an event in which they were freed, and finally migrated to Canaan. Maybe that’s totally a fiction that just sort of developed as a tale among people who already lived in Canaan. OR, maybe not. I just don’t think we have quite enough info to make that determination yet.

        1. I quoted Friedman’s point that the Exodus itself — that is, the event of the Exodus — is what can be gleaned from the biblical story.

          I cannot see how I have misrepresented Friedman. I quote the very point of his I am addressing.

          There is a clear difference between setting and event. It is the event that his historical. It is the historical event that is found in the story of the Exodus. Yes, there is also historical setting details — Rameses, mud bricks, Red Sea, slavery — and yes, we can call those historical setting details.

          But Friedman explicitly says it is the historicity of the exodus itself that can be gleaned from the narrative.

          The whole point of my post was to try to clarify the difference between historical setting details and an historical event that Friedman explicitly says is to be gleaned from the narrative.

          Have I misquoted Friedman?

          1. I think I see the “confusion” (for lack of a better word).

            What Friedman says, in the snippet of text you present, is that the exodus “is the shoes”.

            However – what you *didn’t* quote is that Friedman *also* holds that “The Exodus” (capitalized, including Moses, plagues, etc) – that one, singular, historic event – is actually just *one* such “movement” of people. Friedman holds that Semitic peoples, or Western Asiatics, were in fact living in Egypt and were traveling to and from there for centuries.

            He explains (although, not in your snippet) that the evidence indicates that the smaller group among them, who were connected with “The Exodus” (that one so-named event, which included Moses, plagues, etc), were Levites. It was this one, particular “movement of people” (out of many), that involved the “Levites”, that became known as “The Exodus” (capitalized).

            This is why Friedman contends that “the exodus” is “the shoes”. “Exoduses” (multiple) were happening all the time – it was routine. Friedman notes that this fact (of multiple “exoduses” – the routine movement of people from Egypt to elsewhere) is the widely-accepted “norm” among scholars; something the vast majority all agree on.

            Thus, regarding the story of Cinderella, he says “…the element of the shoe at least reflects that shoes were a real thing in the culture that produced that story”, he equally contends that (my words following, not a quote) the element of the “exodus” at least reflects that “exoduses” were a real thing in the culture that produced the story (of “The Exodus – including Moses, 10 plagues, etc).

            So, no, you don’t “misquote” Friedman. You *selectively* quote Friedman. You give just enough of a Friedman quote to take issue with, while disregarding his own explanation for what he means.

            “But the element of the shoe at least reflects that shoes were a real thing in the culture that produced that story. Everyone who heard the story understood it. ” – and likewise – “But the element of the ‘exodus’ at least reflects that ‘exoduses’ were a real thing in the culture that produced that story (ie, “The Exodus of The Hebrews With Moses”). Everyone who heard the story understood it”.

            Hence, that *an exodus* even *exists* in that narrative we call “The Exodus” simply demonstrates to Friedman that the culture that produced the story we call “The Exodus” *knew* that such “people movements” took place; they knew it just like the majority of scholars today believe it took place. So, it wasn’t some kind of event that simply never happened, like, “the Hebrews came from Mars”. No. They came from Egypt, just like a lot of people. The only *difference* is the *circumstances* under which they came: they had been enslaved, this “great leader” rose up, led them to freedom after some miraculous events, blablabla…

            1. I think you are being a bit unfair here. I was addressing one point of Friedman, a point about methodology as he explains it. I was not addressing his entire book.

              Yes, he later raises his own scenario about what happened or what the exodus looked like. He says it was as inconsequential as any old Asiatic walking in then walking out of Egypt again — as lots of Asiatics were doing at that time. How such a scenario relates to anything at all that we read in the biblical narrative I have yet to see. (I have not completed his book yet.)

              His argument about a group of Levites wandering in and (presumably — I have yet to read the entire book) just wandering out again and “joining” themselves to the Israelites in Canaan is entirely imaginary. Yet he claims from his reading of the bible and comparing it with other scholarly conclusions about the background information of the culture that this “event” of such an “exodus” really happened.

              His method is without rigour. It is apologetic. It is fallacious. If a “mythicist” or an astrologer used the same methods of argument (as some mythicists do, and as all astrologers, I think, do) more learned persons would rightly deplore their methods and expose their fallacious nature. But when this sort of reasoning is marshalled into the service of apologists and apologist biblical scholars it all of a sudden becomes very “insightful”.

              I can see I am going to have to post more on this book to demonstrate the logical flaws and semantic confusion that riddles his work.

              1. I got no defense of Friedmans work that is worth posting.

                I feel certain, though, that there have been many scholars to date that have critiqued his work. I’m sure your addendum will be a valuable addition to the body of scholastic works available out there.

              2. I’ve investigated this years ago and there really isn’t a lot of evidence from the supposed time period of the Exodus. At best there are references to the Sea Peoples, but outside of the Egyptians there were hardly any records from any other regions to support or deny these movements. Even the Egyptians themselves were a product of migration from regions which were becoming desert. The fact that migrations occurred in and of itself is not evidence for any part of the book.

                Scripture at its heart is a political text far more than a religious one. It’s purpose is to enforce a pseudo-cultural narrative to preserve a political identity which was constantly threatened by genuinely powerful neighbors. Questioning Exodus is equivalent to questioning Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, which we have far more evidence for with it’s contrived, exaggerated, and apologetic nature. Or rather the Matter of Britain, which we could safely assume is all hooey and few would complain.

                The reason people complain is what motivates me, because it’s what has and continues to hold up this research.

    3. One other thing that might be a bit telling is that Scripture does NOT describe either Sumer or Egypt in any detail whatsoever. Even the pyramids are not mentioned. Christians go to great lengths to suggest that the Hebrews built the pyramids in spite of this. But what is mentioned, a Tower of Babel.

        1. It naturally follows that a fictional story goes to great lengths to describe a real setting in great detail, but a supposedly non-fictional story assumes people are familiar enough with the setting not to describe it at all, not even the obvious implication, yet when the historicity is questioned, people who believe it is true are put upon to come up with any way of supporting their view because there is little to no contextual evidence that the story took place in those locations.

          It’s my opinion that the Hebrews who originally wrote and edited these stories actually intended the reader to assume that they built the pyramids even though the pyramids aren’t mentioned. The pyramids were already very ancient at the time the Pentateuch was written and average people certainly must have known about them.

          What I think is more important though is that the Babylonian libraries contained ancient texts tracing back to the Sumerians. The Sumerian spoken language was lost but the texts could still be translated. The Hebrews, using these libraries during the captivity recognized that the Sumerians (the name itself was lost) were as old if not older than the Egyptians. And the Sumerians had ziggurats which also rivalled the pyramids.

          Naturally I put those two together, the Hebrews contrived a story that their ancestors originally came from Sumer and moved to Egypt and that the achievements of those two great empires were somehow a result of the Hebrews having been there. This narrative technique is what underlies the success of the Jewish religion in fashioning the original concept of nationalism.

          Please don’t assume that because modern post-Christian research hurts Christianity that it means there is a bias. The only reason it has taken as long as this to get to these facts is because of Christianity getting in the way.

  9. Great Discussion. The fact that Israel exist again after 2500 yrs. and is back in the land proves that the Exodus happened. All the embellishments just makes the story that much more interesting. If you still don’t believe just keep watching Israel and the middle east and see what happens.

  10. I recall many discussions about the transition in the Ancient Near East from ass nomadism to camel nomadism. Simply stated, the farther back we go, the less likely it is that a people will be full-time nomads. Not until the domestication of the camel can we have nomadism as a permanent way of life. Before that, people would have to put down roots from time to time.

    Now, if you search the literature, you’ll see biblical scholars extracting all sorts of “historical information” out of these facts. But the most you can really say is that any reference we read in the Hebrew Bible about camels in Abraham’s time is fictional. On the other hand, we can’t say that a story that focuses on donkeys and how they were used, no matter how detailed, “must be” true. Otherwise we’d be guilty of induction from a single sample with no external controls.

    And yet our fine scholars continue to build sand castles.

  11. ‘. But the element of the shoe at least reflects that shoes were a real thing in the culture that produced that story. ‘

    I see.

    Does Friedman know stories get changed , so that things which appear to be historical actually date from later periods?

    Perhaps somebody added the idea of Cinderella wearing shoes to the original version where she wore clogs?

    1. And clearly the change in Cinderella’s footwear from fur to glass indicates that glass was invented much later than the story – just ignore the archeological evidence that contradicts that.

  12. Having watched the Flintstones, I now know that cars were a feature of prehistoric life.

    Thank you for teaching me how to do history, Professor Friedman.

    1. You are stretching way too far here, Steven. Making simplistic gotchas on the basis of superficial notices only indicates titillation over trivia. I personally think that a little extra homework and digging into the sources etc can lead to a more productive response.

  13. Friedman’s claim reminds me of a parody, the book “The truth about Hansel and Gretel” by German author Hans Traxler. Wiki: “The book purports to tell the story of how teacher Georg Ossegg uncovered archeological evidence of the “real” Hansel and Gretel in 1962. According to the book, Ossegg had determined that the fairytale, Hansel and Gretel, was based on the story of a baker named Hanz Metzler and his wife Grete. According to the book, Hans and Grete Metzler lived in a village in the Black Forest during the Thirty Years War, and killed an old woman named Katharina Schraderin in order to steal her recipe for Nürnberger Lebkuchen (gingerbread) during the 17th century. In reality, Ossegg did not exist and the details of the story were fabricated by Traxler.”
    It was written as a parody, but nevertheless it convinced many in Germany at that time 🙂

  14. Friedman: “But we shall see that the *exodus itself* is not the fairy tale. It is the shoes”.

    And, Godfrey has an issue with the “shoes” analogy. He doesn’t read enough of Friedman to understand what Friedman *means* in his use of the “shoes” analogy. Nope. He takes issue with the *analogy*, and clearly says so. And in doing so, he misses the entire point of Friedman’s discussion, which is, of course, that “exodus'” – movement of people from Canaan to Egypt & back, are already agreed upon by the vast majority of scholars to be fact, and a not-uncommon occurrence.

    And what follows? A bunch of guys all piling in talking about Hansel and Gretel and dwarves and such. As if that had anything to do with the substance of what Friedman was saying.

    But, unfortunately, that *substance* is of no apparent import in this thread. Nope. It’s more important to hammer on an *analogy*, which was clearly used as a “teaser” to draw us to the substance. And dang, it results in a whole bunch of cynical comments about that analogy, rather than an educated discussion of the substance.

    I see that a lot in this blog. Like, for instance, once I saw some discussion of slavery in which the author quotes from an *English* bible, which was an horrific translation, rather than finding out what the Hebrew *actually* says. And, then, that author went about constructing an entire argument based on an horrific mistranslation – an argument which made no sense whatsoever, once the Hebrew was consulted.

    I dunno. I guess I was hoping to find a higher level of critical thinking and scholarship here. I mean, I’m in the *dunce* category myself, but I dig in and try to *learn*. In terms of knowledge, I don’t scratch the surface in comparison to guys like Friedman or Bart Ehrman, but at least I’ll *read* their stuff to try to learn – and, I’ll dig around through Hebrew or Greek (or whatever) to try to see if I think their points are valid or not.

    But here? Nope. It’s “take issue with an analogy, or with a mistranslation, and go to town with it”. It’s almost an inverse-fundamentalist Christian approach.

    And what happens then? Everybody piles in with “ridicule” statements. “Oh yeh, hehehe… it’s like, you know, hehehe… Goldilocks and Several Dwarves”… (delivered Beavis and Butthead style).

    I very seriously thought, when I first started coming to this blog, that there might be a higher level of academia.

    1. Hi Dennis. I fear you have mistakenly read attitudes of ridicule into my above comment. The idea that there was a “hehehe” tone or silly comparison with Friedman’s argument is entirely gratuitous. KK’s point was a demonstration of how literary motifs are sometimes introduced and take on “historical certainty” by unexpected processes. Nothing wrong with that.

      As for your complaint that I was focussing on an analogy and not the argument of Friedman, I can only suggest you re-read my post. You will notice, I hope, that I point out that the “shoes” analogy is in fact a poor one, and I explain why, and how it does not reflect accurately what Friedman explains is his method and what he believes he can extract from the story.

      Further, you should note that Friedman, in fact, points out several times that most critical scholars actually do NOT accept the historicity of the Exodus.

      Friedman’s arguments violate all standard historical methodology that we read about in works by historians who discuss the techniques of their craft.

      By the way, I have now read Friedman’s book in its entirety. What Friedman describes as a “literary-historical” method for establishing facts is indeed logically flawed. Friedman’s book is apologetics appealing to readers who want to find reasons to believe the Bible and even further justification for modern Zionist ideology and Israeli state policies.

      1. Hi, Neil –

        I’d just mention that neither I nor Friedman (as best as I can make out) ever claimed that the majority of critical scholars accept the history of “THE Exodus” (ie, Moses, etc).

        What I pointed out, and what Friedman acknowledges, is that the vast majority of scholars accept that “exoduses” (exodus’ ?) – meaning, movements of people, or migratory events from (and, I guess, to) Egypt, were common-enough events. Hence, “THE Exodus” – a story of a people group migrating from Egypt to Canaan – should come as no surprise.

        Granted, most scholars don’t accept “THE Exodus” – and, that’s precisely what Friedman is trying to remedy: He’s saying that the one, central, *believable* part of THE Exodus story is that an “exodus itself” actually took place. It may not have involved plagues and parting seas, but the idea that a people group – a Semitic people – left Egypt and migrated to Canaan – should itself be an entirely believable event.

        I think it’s very important to respond to *what is actually said*, and as I indicated above, I don’t think that either I nor Friedman have asserted that the majority of scholars believe that “THE Exodus” occurred. If they did, then Friedman hardly had any reason to write his book, did he?

        Somehow, though, I’m beginning to fear that the distinction between “THE Exodus” (with Moses, etc) and more generic “exoduses” is simply not registering, or is not being appreciated, because little misquotes have worked their way into the conversation on more than one occassion, and seem to indicate that such a distinction is not really being understood…

        1. We are talking past each other. No, what Friedman has done is redefine “exodus” to a meaningless term that makes no sense of any tradition of an exodus (with or without Moses) for any critical scholar. Contrary to Friedman’s innuendo, most critical scholars do NOT accept Friedman’s definition of an exodus as an exodus event behind the biblical narrative. They simply don’t. That definition Friedman introduces is so general as to be meaningless. Wandering in and wandering out again is not an “event” that can possibly generate a national tradition. It is an apologetic rationalisation in the extreme.

          I did not want to discuss the details at this stage but now I must, it seems.

          To begin, Friedman contradicts his claim that the exodus behind the bible story was one of many Asiatic tribes wandering in and out of Egypt. He contradicts this claim by elsewhere pointing out that the group called Levites were not even related to one another! They were not a tribe so how could they somehow be bound together “like a tribe” to wander in and then out again together? Friedman appears to remain oblivious to this fundamental contradiction in his argument.

          Notice that Friedman also says the consequence of this exodus event was belief in monotheism and the law to love the stranger. The reason they love the stranger and stress this law is, he says, because they (the Levites) knew what it was like to be strangers and even slaves, and to suffer oppression, in Egypt.

          Now Friedman does not address the consequences of this “little” detail that he introduces later in the book. It in fact means that he is denying his original thesis — that the exodus was simply one of many wanderings in and meanderings out of Egypt. People don’t just “wander out” again after they become slaves and are oppressed.

          Further, what is just as nonsensical in his hypothesis, is that these Levites somehow (how, he does not explain) got away from being oppressed slaves and then made their way into Palestine and became accepted as part of this nation and even its teachers and priests. How on earth can a strange people just come in and become the teachers and priests of another people? That makes no sense and Friedman, wisely, does not even attempt to explain how that could have happened — except where he suggests the Levites were pretty violent and forceful. But if that’s the case they are even less likely to be welcomed or accepted as priests and teachers.

          I have indeed addressed what Friedman has “actually said” and I have explained why I do not agree with his view, but I do believe you are only wanting to focus on part of what he said and to ignore the whole point of his analogy (though a poor one) — that he believes more than “background” historical information can be gleaned from texts.

          Of course I register Friedman’s point about the biblical story of the exodus being nonhistorical — Moses, plagues, etc — of course. That scarcely needs to be emphasized, surely, since it’s Friedman’s entire hypothesis. It’s what his book is about — an alternative narrative of how an exodus happened.

          He is trying to save a biblical Exodus of some kind — one with only one tribe of Levites, and who were not even genetically related to one another! — who “wander in”, become slaves and are oppressed brutally, who learn to become monotheists possibly because of a renegade Pharaoh, and then just “wander out” and become the leaders of another group of tribes entirely! It’s patently absurd and scarcely worth the effort of refutation.

          My point, though, is not the exodus itself, but the historical methods F applies. That is the point of my post. It is in line with many other posts I have made on the same theme.

          Friedman, by the way, makes his motivation for wanting to save the exodus (without Moses, somehow rationalised to accord with archaeology) clear towards the end of the book. He strongly implies that the exodus that did happen remains the explanation for the existence of the Jewish race and justification for modern state of Israel’s existence and Zionist policies in the Middle East today. And he saves the Bible in the process, he thinks. He is always stressing how wonderful the Bible is and how we should make allowances for its bad parts. He writes like a religious apologist and a Christian Zionist. He does not write like an objective scholar in this particular book.

          (I have not addressed yet Friedman’s culpable failure to fairly acknowledge the evidence and scholarship that contradicts his thesis.)

          1. Neil –

            Really, I myself am not interested in focusing on just the “shoe analogy” — As far as I’m concerned, between you and me, we’re past that.

            I *did* sort of bring up the topic again, but it was in response to some other guy, who (I’m guessing) had not read through the earlier parts of the thread.

            Now, regarding Friedmans work, I’d first want to note that in an interview, Friedman said “At a recent international conference entitled “Out of Egypt” on the question of the Exodus’ historicity, one point of agreement, I believe, among most of the 45 participating scholars was that Semitic peoples, or Western Asiatics, were in fact living in Egypt and were traveling to and from there for centuries”.

            Is that true? I don’t know. That’s what he said.

            I don’t know if I find Friedman’s theories terribly convincing, myself. But, somewhere, somehow, we have to account for the emergence of this Hebrew-speaking people. Who were they? How did they rise to power?

            There is scant little info. The earliest Hebrew writing was discovered by Prof Galil in 2010, and it dates to 1000 BC. And, it (being a broken shard) says stuff about “worshipping the Lord”, and “slaves, orphans, strangers, the poor”, and seems to be some kind of “exhortation”.

            What does this tell us? Well, maybe quite a lot, but, it gives Zero indication as to the origin of this Hebrew-speaking people.

            So, I just regard Friedman’s writing as an attempt – as so many others have tried – to fill in the Big Gap. Like I said, somehow, we’ve got to account for the reality of the Hebrew people showing up in Canaan…

            It’s one thing to dispute another scholars work, and, I’m all for it. But, as far as I can tell, the overall point is to try to answer that Big Question of who the heck were the Hebrews and how did they get there and how did they rise to power? Nobody questions that any of that stuff *happened* – the only question is “how did it happen”.

            As such, I myself really don’t care if Friedman contradicts himself, per se, nor do I care if he writes like a “Zionist Christian”. What I care about is whether some part of what he is asserting may, in fact, be part of the answer to the Big Question.

            1. It’s a little while since I focussed on reading the various viewpoints and archaeological finds but last time I was exploring this topic I understood the evidence was fairly clear that the northern Kingdom of Samaria (or Israel) was indigenous to that region of Palestine, and the kingdom of Jerusalem only came into its own after that northern kingdom was destroyed by Assyria. Both were indigenous to Palestine.

              The stories of migrations (from Mesopotamia and Egypt) emerged in the late Persian or Hellenistic era. I know Friedman scoffs at that view, but I think the arguments for it, the interpretation of the archaeological data, are more valid than the arguments of Friedman. The stories of migrations make sense as attempts to create a history and justification for those who were settled (or re-settled in a few cases) in Palestine under the Persians and later.

              There is some evidence that imperial powers would encourage new histories for the people they transferred from one place to another; sometimes they were said to be sent back to restore the worship of the god of that new land.

              1. Neil –

                re: “It’s a little while since I focussed on reading the various viewpoints and archaeological finds but last time I was exploring this topic I understood the evidence was fairly clear that the northern Kingdom of Samaria (or Israel) was indigenous to that region of Palestine….(etc)”

                Yes, I think (probably) this is currently the general idea that most researchers work with these days. The question (which is still wide-open) is how did this one particular people-group (which we think of as the “Hebrews”) come into power? And, rather than having a “history tradition” of having been in that region since (say) the beginning of time, why *did* they develop this “history tradition” of having migrated there out of slavery from elsewhere? It *seems* to at least hint that somewhere, way back in time, this one particular group (aka Hebrews) did view themselves as having had a “beginning” (so to speak) in this “new land” (again, so to speak).

                And, there’s *lots* of other questions which continue to be unanswered, but, archaeologists, historians, etc, are still trying to sort it all out. Heck, just in 2008, Garfinkle announced that he had found the city of Sha’arayim, and also the oldest Hebrew inscription in existence (both from the time of David).

                So, info continues to very slowly come in.

                But, this is the reason why, way earlier in this thread, I said I think it’s far too early to make any determinative call as to whether or not there had been at least some type of “exodus”. Somehow, there has to be a theory formulated that accounts for the *reason* for the development of this “traditional historic narrative” of an exodus. If there was never any exodus at all (and, there may not have been), still, we have to account for *why* this narrative began in the first place. If it were simply an example of a “new history”, then *why* did this people-group feel they needed a “new history”? If they had inhabited the region since God-knows-when, why didn’t they just stick to *that* history? What was the reason for this change in narrative?

                At any rate, I’m rambling… Not really making any particular point, except to say it’s these kinds of questions that keep me from concluding that The Exodus (as it were) is just a total fabrication, a complete fiction. With the evidence we have (which is simply not good enough to distinctly support any one view as “definitive”), I think that declaring the “fiction” view is perhaps a tad more cynical than scholastic.

              2. Though the original kingdoms of Israel and Judah were indigenous to Palestine, there was also an exile and “return” that was historical.

                We have every reason to believe that the stories of Exodus emerged well after the “Judeans” were “returned” to their land in the Persian era. That is, those stories were created by people who were not very many generations in the land, who were historically recent arrivals.

                How did those “new arrivals” adjust to their new land and pre-existing populations? Why did they uproot themselves from Mesopotamia and Syria (and possibly Egypt, too) to settle instead in Palestine? Some form of compulsion was typical of such mass relocations under the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians. We also know that sometimes new myths were given to the peoples being moved — in one case they were told they were going to restore the true worship of a particular god in a region of Mesopotamia. That sounds similar to the biblical narratives. Relocating populations meant the creation of new identities through the retelling and variations of myths.

  15. Until I do my own review of Friedman’s book, I link here to the one reader review on Amazon that I find myself by and large agreeing with: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R85UJ56QELHPK/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0062565249

    Most or all other reviews are positive, but I think many of us will see why, and the apologetic appeal of Friedman’s work. I have not yet found any scholarly review. I would be very surprised if we ever do read any critical (as distinct from patently apologist) scholars saying anything much favourable about the book. But I welcome any notices from readers that might prove me wrong.

    (For what it’s worth, I might add that I was very disappointed in this book by Friedman. I have read other works of his that I appreciated overall but they did not prepare me for the apologetics that drenches this book.)

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