Thursday, December 17, 2009

Historical Exodus: Probably Not

Archaeology describes the past based on scientific evidence: artifacts, architecture, settlement patterns, animal bones, seeds, soil samples, anthropological models drawn from world cultures, and other modern methods.

What does archaeology tell us about the historicity of the biblical Exodus, the miraculous escape of 600,000 people from slavery in Egypt? Not much, and so far what it does tell looks unpromising for those who desire the Exodus narrative to be true as biblically reported. In a review article of Finkelstein and Silberman's The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Sarah Belle Dougherty writes:
Physical evidence and historical texts confirm that Canaanites had traditionally settled in the prosperous east delta region of Egypt, particularly in times of drought, famine, and war. Some came as landless conscripts and prisoners of war, others as farmers, herders, or tradesmen. Egyptian historians tell of the Hyksos, Canaanite immigrants who became dominant in a great delta city and were forcibly expelled by the Egyptians around 1570 BCE. After the Hyksos expulsion, the Egyptian government controlled immigration from Canaan closely and built forts along the eastern delta and at one-day intervals along the Mediterreanean coast to Gaza. These forts kept extensive records, none of which mention the Israelites or any other foreign ethnic group entering, leaving, or living as a people in the delta.

Biblical scholars place the Exodus in the late thirteenth century BCE, and up to that time there is only one mention of the name Israel, despite many Egyptian records concerning Canaan. Nor is there any archeological evidence for a body of people encamping in the desert and mountains of Sinai in the Late Bronze Age. [Emphasis added]
Finkelstein and Silberman themselves state:
Sites mentioned in the Exodus narrative are real. A few were well known and apparently occupied in much earlier periods and much later periods -- after the kingdom of Judah was established, when the text of the biblical narrative was set down in writing for the first time. Unfortunately for those seeking a historical Exodus, they were unoccupied precisely at the time they reportedly played a role in the events of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness. [Emphasis added]
Indeed, not only did the Israelites not escape Egypt and invade Canaan, they never left Canaan at all, say Finkelstein and Silber:
[T]he emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan -- they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people -- the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were -- irony of ironies -- themselves originally Canaanites!
What about Moses? Was there a historical Moses? According to Brian Britt, Associate Professor and Director of the Religious Studies Program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University:
Current discussion of the historical Moses reflects the division between maximalists, who accept much of the Bible as historically valid, and minimalists, who accept very little....Contrary to the impression given by television documentaries, maximalists have little evidence in their favor, though James K. Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford, 1999) makes as good a case as any. Barring dramatic new discoveries of evidence or interpretation, the division between minimalists and maximalists is not likely to be resolved. In fact, both camps increasingly place the Bible at the center of polemics over theology and ideology (evangelical Christianity and nationalism, e.g.).
Britt also notes that Moses myth studies are flourishing: "Such studies go beyond historiographic debates on the Bible to consider its cultural relevance and legacy for the present." Britt explains that the Moses myth reaches far and wide:
The Moses myth is so widespread that writing about him entails writing about culture. Recent books on the Moses myth include Dale Allison’s The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Fortress, 1993), an excellent study of Moses in the Gospel of Matthew; Jan Assmann’s brilliant Moses the Egyptian (Harvard University Press, 1997); and Melanie Wright’s study of popular culture, Moses in America (Oxford University Press, 2003). All of these studies go beyond the obvious point that each generation makes Moses in its own image by exploring how and why these images are made. The new Moses studies also shift from the search for the historical Moses to current preoccupations with memory, traditions, and representation. No longer a topic only for biblical historians, the study of Moses has, like the study of tradition itself, become interdisciplinary. Biblical scholarship joins literary theory and cultural studies, philosophy borrows from psychoanalysis and Judaic studies, ancient history merges with modern intellectual history. Such work generates not only new interpretations but new categories and methods, such as Assmann’s "mnemohistory," the history of memory.
Britt also challenges us to re-think the centrality of Moses to the Torah:
The biblical Moses is not as central to the Bible as many people think. No more than fourteen chapters of the 167 chapters of the Pentateuch, which is also known as the "Torah of Moses," deal primarily with the story of Moses' life, and even these chapters bear faint resemblance to conventional ideas of biography or hagiography. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (Continuum/ T&T Clark International), the biblical Moses is an uncanny figure; the narratives around his birth, commission, leadership, and death challenge the reader to disentangle the man from the myth. In this way, biblical texts stimulate biblical tradition, which depends on unceasing streams of commentary. Conversely, the post-biblical myth of Moses points back to the biblical texts of Moses, the basis for his legend and legitimacy. To the first-century writers Philo and Josephus, Moses represented the pinnacle of Jewish tradition, and their Hellenistic biographies elevate him far above the Bible. Most biographies of Moses, from late antiquity to the present, resemble the portraits of Philo and Josephus, placing the life story of the great man at the center of tradition. Rabbinic Judaism, on the other hand, remained much closer to the biblical tradition in which Moses always stands second to a tradition of text, covenant, and God. [Emphasis added]
People often take "myth" as a pejorative term, especially so in the context of religious narratives. Increasingly, though, I am gaining respect for myths. They are resilient, viral, and flexible. They are not about true content but about packing in data: cultural data, social mores, ideological issues, personal hopes, and more. That's a pretty great thing.

1 comment:

  1. Lack of historical (i.e., written) records is not by itself a strike against the possibility of the Exodus being true in some form or another. But there are other considerations.

    Here is what "The Bible Unearthed" says on page 63:

    "The conclusion - that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible - seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wanderings in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication - if present - would almost certainly be found." [Specific details follow.]

    Here is a passage from a bit later in the book, page 69:

    "It is impossible to say whether or not the biblical narrative was an expansion and elaboration of vague memories of the immigration of Canaanites to Egypt and their expulsion from the delta in the second millennium BCE. Yet it seems clear that the biblical story of the Exodus drew its power not only from ancient traditions and contemporary geographical and demographic details but even more directly from contemporary political realities."

    Lacking historical records outside a bible that is read, interpreted and translated according to specific religious prejudices, and lacking any corroborating archaeological evidence at specific places named in the biblical account, we simply must exercise caution in our declarations of what may or may not have happened.

    We cannot say whether or not the biblical Exodus actually happened. If we like, we can appeal to the authority of the bible and the rabbinic tradition - as in, we think they are authoritative and credible; what they say is true. The appeal to authority can certainly be rationalized.

    The Bible says it happened, so there is perhaps a chance that it or something like it did occur. However, in the realm of physical evidence we cannot state that the Exodus happened.

    Perhaps some new evidence will emerge and force a re-evaluation, a tipping of the scales to the side of "it happened when and how the Bible said it did." However, if we're honest, we must say that we are not there yet and the scales do not at this point lean to the "it happened, etc." side.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.