Was Moses a real person? How am I to think of Moses?


I’m a doubting Thomas by nature, and this one has me concerned recently. According to Wikipedia, the inerrant arbiter of truth:

No Egyptian sources mention Moses or the events of Exodus-Deuteronomy, nor has any archaeological evidence been discovered in Egypt or the Sinai wilderness to support the story in which he is the central figure.

An absence of evidence, due to the dramatic impact of Moses’ life, seems to be evidence against his existence. I am OK with other figures not existing, such as Adam or Job or Jonah, or any other figure that is remote from the New Testament, but Moses seems like a big deal. For me, this is most especially a concern when considering the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus. If there is no Moses, then was there no Transfiguration? And if there was no Transfiguration…

What are we as believers supposed to do with Moses? Is there a framework or mental model that makes sense of or comes to terms with this absence of evidence? Or even of Moses not existing? Or better yet, is there actual evidence that he existed? (My Googling has not proved super fruitful here, although I did see something about the Transfiguration being thought be some to be more vision-like than physical.)

Any insights on this?

How to counter the slippery slope?
(Henry Stoddard) #2

I feel that the Synoptic Gospels have answer to that. Jesus said he lived. He appeared to Jesus at the Transfiguration. You admit that yourself. Would a fake person appear to Jesus? What would be the purpose in that? The question one should ask is this: Did Moses write the Torah? Did he write about his own death? Do not be a Doubting Thomas, because if you are, you may end up believing nothing.

(Jon Garvey) #3

Josh - you should read some mainstream archaeologists on this. In archaeology - the study, remember, of the few remaining vestiges of the distant past - absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence. Ever. In the Nile Delta, the damp and the high water table mean that very little survives from that period at all. And the Sinai desert is very big and very empty - what does one look for where?

One remark that puts some perspective on it is from archaeologist Alan Millard: of 120 ANE kings known to us from various documentary sources, the existence of only 20 is confirmed by inscriptions. That’s 100 missing kings, despite recording themselves as winning victories, or being recorded by other kings as defeated.

It doesn’t, and never would, include leaders of tribal slave revolts pulling a fast one on you. Compare Spartacus - no contemporary evidence whatsoever - just two historians writing 150 years or so later. Ever heard anyone deny his existence, though?

Remember, too, that just a decade or two ago the very existence of King David was denied outright by the small but influential group of “low chronology” archaeologists, and by the OT scholars whose evolutionary theories of Israelite religion such conclusions suited. Then in 1994 they found the Tel Dan Stele mentioning “the House of David” as early as the 9th century.

Even so, there have been those wanting to show that that evidence too is evidence of absence… but even Wikipedia concludes “House of David” is the meaning. There was a Davidic dysnasty in the 9th century - current royal dynasties are not fictional.

We also tend to forget that the only evidence we have for the existence of the vast majority of ancient authors is their writing itself - or often just citations of their writing in other works (Think of Papias or Hegesippus - major sources for early Christian history known only from citations).

Just imagine being the guy commissioned, many centuries later, to invent Moses out of whole cloth, to compile the torah (books of undoubted genius) and pass them off as his teaching, and then to sell the whole package to your nation as their foundation story, as opposed to whatever had been remembered from their real past.

It would be like trying to persuade Americans about the Sioux Chief Mitch Egan and his forty-nine warriors (Ken Tucky, Minnie Sota and Ida Hoe foremost amongst them) liberating the United States from slavery in Mexico and being given lands in return. Sooner you than me!

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #4

I appreciate Jon’s apologetic response above. For a complementary take, the approach in this chapter by Carol Redmount may be helpful or worth considering, though some will certainly find it too far left for their tastes: http://bit.ly/1Ppx40V (missing pages available by Interlibrary Loan :slight_smile: ). Redmount likens Exodus to a docu-drama based on a core that is historically true.

Personally I struggle with other elements of the Exodus narrative, like why Biblical Hebrew isn’t chock-full of Egyptian loan words, if indeed they started out their time in Egypt as a small family of immigrants and grew into the millions (all the while living as an under-caste to Egyptian masters) before returning to Canaan.

At any rate, brother, may God bless your searching and struggling and seeking Him.

(Jon Garvey) #5

Loanwords, like other linguistic matters, are in themelves problematic. For example, the fashionable dating of Exodus to the Persian period has to account for the fact that, whilst at least a few Egyptian loanwords got in (such as papyrus, linen, basket), not a single Persian one did.

That’s a damned clever forgery!

(Alejandro Lopez) #6

I would not be concerned about the doubting Thomas nature at all, in fact, as long as it does not turn out to be mere cynicism, you’re fine because Christianity happens to be empirically verifiable though history and archaeology. The best I would recommend for this case (which I have had) is to watch the documentary patterns of evidence: exodus on netflix based on the contemporary archaeological evidence which happened to come coincidencially when I had doubts about the historicity of the exodus and definitely shows compelling evidence for and not against the exodus. like Jon said, the absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence, and in favor of the evidence, the patterns of evidence documentary shows it in an eloquent and voluminous fashion which points towards the validity of the exodus.


Thanks all for the responses.

@Jon_Garvey thanks for the thoughtful post, good words to chew on.

@AMWolfe and @Jon_Garvey that is very interesting about the loan words, from both angles. Not sure what to make of that at all. I’m no linguist, but it seems on the surface we should expect loan words from one or both cultures.

Thank you @Alejandro_Lopez for the recommendation. I have come across that before as well. I read something online that was pretty critical of the theories or hypotheses in that documentary, so I will admit I’m a bit prejudiced coming in. But since it’s on Netflix, the price is right so couldn’t hurt to give it a look!

(Jon Garvey) #8


I searched around the net after replying to you, and it looks as if a symposium on this very subject is being published this year… including a whole chapter on Egyptian loanwords. One to look out for.

One contributor to that book has posted an interesting hypothesis that the Song of Moses is a polemic response to Rameses II’s victory poem - apparently widely published in Egypt, but not elsewhere, and only during his reign. Bear in mind that late Babylonian influence on the Pentateuch has sometimes been assumed on far less secure literary links (such as Enuma elish and the Genesis 1 account).

Almost more interesting than the evidence is what this author - an Israeli scholar - says as an outside observer about the sharp divisions within the US biblical studies guild, to the effect that if someone tells him whether or not they believe in the Exodus, he’ll tell them how they voted in the last presidential election. That’s typically Israeli hyperbole, but it resonates with me as another outsider (I’m English) not only in biblical studies, but in attitudes to origins. It seems that, to many, the main criterion for deciding any issue is whether it’s supported by conservatives or liberals - you just have to decide which of those two you are, and the rest is easy (that’s English hyperbole, by the way!).

It underlines the truth that what seems most plausible in any area - not only the theological but even the scientific - is very much bound up with geography and sociology. You can seem to be out on an intellectual limb believing something - even struggling to hold on to that belief - and yet take a plane journey and find that you’re mainstream and that the opposing view is marginal.

I’m not sure what’s the best lesson to take from that - maybe it’s that in the end, you must seek out whatever evidence there is, and assess it from your own worldview without being intimidated by what happens to be in fashion, because sure as hell the fashion will change.

(Jo Helen Cox) #9

The evidence of Moses and company would be difficult to find in Egypt, unless Joseph’s empty tomb is found undisturbed and the Egyptian royal painter mentioned his family of foreigners. However, I suspect any evidence like that would have been eradicated by angry Egyptians at the time of Moses.

Moses in the desert? We don’t even know the location of Mt. Sinai. That place probably would have some evidence as there would be a big graveyard and some kind of trash pile.

I suspect when relations with Islamic people grow less hostile (like the relationship change between Jew and Christian) evidence will suddenly appear. God would not want such things to disappear, so he has kept them hidden.

(Jim Lock) #10

@Josh and…everybody else…perhaps someone can verify or clarify this (I’m off to bed and David McCollough’s book on the Brooklyn Bridge so I’m not going to take the time to peruse Google) but I seem to remember a fairly recent find near the Jordan River that indicated an exceptionally large encampment and would have dated to near the appropriate time period. I’ll try to follow up with something more specific tomorrow.


(Jon Garvey) #11

Jim et al -

I found a few references to a group of several “gilgals” (stone enclosure encampments) in the Jordan valley. University of Haifa did the work, through an archaeologist with a strong Zionist slant who has identified one of them with the Jordan crossing and built a visitor centre there.

On the one hand it seems part of the unfortunately politicised archaeological situation, turning an interesting “possible” into a controversial “definite”, but on the other, it seems that 12th-13th century pottery was found, suggesting that there was occupation at the right sort of time, and requiring some inventiveness about who built them if it wasn’t the early Israelites.

As usual with archaeology you reconstruct the story according to your faith commitments, once popular one being “The Biblical history is fiction at every point it has not been proven.”

(George Brooks) #12

Was Moses a real person? There are so many ways of answering this question. One way of answering the question is to first determine WHEN Moses was… Let’s look at these three texts (the last one from Joshua):

Exo 13:17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:

Exo 23:31 And I will set thy bounds from the Red sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert unto the river: for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.

Jos 13:2 This is the land that yet remaineth: all the borders of the Philistines, and all Geshuri,


Clearly, the Philistines were already installed in their coastal pentapolis by the time of Moses. This makes some sense… since it was the Philistine presence that blocked Egypt from exercising the kind of vague hegemony over Palestine that we find even in the Amarna texts.

So when was that? There is increasing consensus that the Philistines were in place by 1130 BCE.

In the Wiki article (link at bottom), I’ll just list the 4 pharaohs - the one before 1130, two (2) during, and the one after 1130 BCE:

1145 to 1137 BCE:
Nebmaatre-meryamun Ramesses VI (Ramesses the 6th)
Son of Ramesses III. Brother of Ramesses IV. Uncle of Ramesses V.

1137-1130 BCE
Usermaatre-setpenre-meryamun Ramesses VII (Ramesses the 7th)
Son of Ramesses VI.

1130–1129 BCE
Usermaatre-akhenamun Ramesses VIII (Ramesses the 8th)
An obscure Pharaoh, who reigned only around a year. Identifiable with Prince Sethiherkhepeshef II. Son of Ramesses III. Brother of Ramesses IV and Ramesses VI. Uncle of Ramesses V and Ramesses VII. He is the sole Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty whose tomb has not been found. [Very tempting to link this “mystery” pharaoh to the tumult of the Exodus, yes?]

1129–1111 BCE
Neferkare-setpenre Ramesses IX (Ramesses the 9th)
Probably grandson of Ramesses III through his father, Montuherkhopshef.
First cousin of Ramesses V and Ramesses VII.

(system) #13

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