Moses: Fact or Fiction?

michelangelo-sculptures-16

Part One: The Importance of Moses and the Exodus.

I am beginning preliminary research on the subject for my thesis on the topic of a historical Moses. I began to be interested in the topic after conversations with several Atheists who make the claim that Moses isn’t real. In fact, these gentlemen would make the claim that the historical consensus has dictated that Moses is a myth.[1] In this regard, they would be correct; the historical consensus would indicate that the Exodus account didn’t take place. However, when presented with contrary evidence, the atheist scholar indicates that they will only accept ‘unbiased’ work, which means they will only accept a historical thesis by a none Abrahamic believer. The truth of the matter though is that all people have biases when it comes to forming the narrative and conclusions on historical events, a historian learns this in Historiography 101. It’s natural that the secular scholar will not actively search for a result that contradicts their beliefs, but expects scholars of faith to do so.

Where’s the evidence? Now, this isn’t a philosophical discussion that relies on the metaphysical like the discussion whether there is a supreme being or not. The thesis being discussed is whether Moses was a living breathing actor in the temporal world. The secular assertion is mostly based on the lack of archaeological evidence, notwithstanding, I personally, as one who has operated in the field of history, do not believe that archaeology has the final say on all events—especially ones where archaeological evidence would be hard pressed to find—in deserts spanning over three thousand years. This debate is as important, if not more, than the metaphysical debate about the existence of God. The ramifications, of course, are that those who wish to discredit the historicity of Moses expand their assertion to the understanding that if Moses is fictional, then Christianity is fiction, due largely to the Transfiguration of Christ, among other events. It’s important for our ability to make fishers of men refute such secular biased scholarship. Egyptologist K.A. Kitchen writes, “Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there is no single event (or theme, if the status of ‘event’ be denied) to which its various writers hark back so pervasively as the tradition of the ancestral Israelites being liberated from servitude in Egypt, then forming a community under their deliverer deity YHWH.”[2]

Scholars to fully consider whether Moses is truly a historical actor must understand that it’s certainly okay as scholars, and furthermore as the faithful, to disregard the consensus, especially if one is seeking to argue against it. There are other modern scholars who have argued for the case for a historical Moses and are basing their findings on archaeological evidence. One of them by the name of Gerard Gertoux, who is a Ph.D. candidate in France, who based on his biography at Academic.edu has been black balled by French academia, not by his dissertation on Moses and Exodus, but because he is a Jehovah Witness. Gertoux has published another essay on the topic writing:

“Some atheists refuse to take into account the Bible because that book states clearly the existence of God as well as miracles. However, in my opinion, searching the truth must be the fundamental purpose of any honest historian.“What is truth” Pilate said to Jesus (Jn 18:38). For honest and scientific historians, “truth” is based on two main pillars: 1) an accurate chronology anchored on absolute dates(Herodotus’ principle) and 2) reliable documents coming from critical editions(Thucydides’ principle)”[3]

 Again, as one who has worked in the field of history, I thoroughly support Gertoux on the above statement. After explaining what Gertoux considers truth he runs through a list of scholarly experts making claims that the Exodus story and Moses are fiction.

Here is an example:

Modern archaeology has shown that the concept of archives kept in Jerusalem with writings of the tenth century, is an absurdity based on a biblical witness and not on factual evidence. Bible stories would rank therefore among national mythologies, and would have no more historical foundation than the Homeric saga of Ulysses, or that of Aeneas, founder of Rome, sung by Virgil –Israel Finkelstein, Israeli archaeologist[4]
Gertoux makes a clear distinction in his essay by stating, “An objective reader should note that most reasons put forward by these prestigious scholars are ideological, not based on any verifiable factual data”[5]

Now it’s important to note that I am not necessarily endorsing Gertoux’s thesis if this were the case I wouldn’t be interested in researching the topic myself. However, I do agree with is introductory comments on the topic. Here is his thesis:

According to Egyptian accounts the last king of the XV the dynasty, named Apopi, “very pretty” in Hebrew that is Moses’ birth name (Ex 2:2), reigned 40 years in Egypt from 1613 to 1573 BCE, then 40 years later hemet Seqenenre Taa the last pharaoh of the XVII the dynasty and gave him an unspecified disturbing message.”[6]

However, there are two particulars of the debate that I would like to discuss, and one of them is the term myth. The modern understanding of this word often renders that anything labeled as a myth is fiction; however, this is an incomplete definition of the word. Most ancient oral traditions that would be considered myths effectively conveyed truth to folks who continued to tell the events–a method that was vital before the advent of writing.  The Book of Exodus and the Bible is not suppose to be read as a historical account per say. It’s merely an account, albeit a cultural one that is a reflection of those who wrote it, of the revelation of God to man. Thus, it is the empiricists who have difficulty understanding that with those who continue to look to this collection of books that appear to reject empirical evidence for valuable information. Empiricists will do their best to dismiss the entirety of the Bible as a credible source, but they negate the fact that it was written by authors who would have recorded events from oral histories that predate the invention of modern historical research and writing. The second part, perhaps broken into subparts, is that does Christianity—due to the Transfiguration—require Moses to be truly historic, and how much of the account of Exodus has to be factual due to oral traditions? (An important point throughout the entire Exodus narrative)

 

[1] William G. Dever ‘What Remains of the House That Albright Built?,’ in George Ernest Wright, Frank Moore Cross, Edward Fay Campbell, Floyd Vivian Filson (eds.) The Biblical Archaeologist, American Schools of Oriental Research, Scholars Press, Vol. 56, No 1, 2 March 1993 pp.25-35, p.33:’the overwhelming scholarly consensus today is that Moses is a mythical figure.’

[2] K.A. Kitchen On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2003), 241.

[3] Gertoux, Gerard. “Moses and the Exodus: What Evidence?” Moses and the Exodus: What Evidence? Accessed March 24, 2016. https://www.academia.edu/13001480/Moses_and_the_Exodus_what_evidence.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Sermon or no Sermon on the Mount, does it matter?

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon On The Mount with the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli

During my theology class, we studied the sermon on the mount. The essay we were reading on the topic asserted that the sermon on the mount had not occurred, and that most likely Matthew just compiled a collection of saying from Jesus and organized them into what is Chapter 5 of his account. Some of the students were a bit saddened by this revelation by this author, Fr. Daniel Harrington S.J., so I gave them another side to the debate–Pope Benedict XVI.

One thing that has been frustrating to me about the course is the selection of readings that appear to indicate a finality on topics, which have none. As one who has a degree in history, studied oral history, studied written history, etc; I would certainly assert that there is a great possibility that there was certainly a sermon on a mount.

The class that I was out of my mind to be so bold. How could I challenge the opinion of an essay written by a priest?

I said to them, “Well, don’t take my word for it, take Pope Benedict the XVI’s word.” Father Benedict explains,  “The Evangelist does not tell us which of the hills of Galilee it was. But the very fact that it is the scene of Jesus’ preaching makes it simply “the mountain”–the new Sinai. The “mountain” is the place where Jesus prays–where he is face-to-face with the Father. And that is exactly why it is also the place of his teaching, since his teaching comes forth from this most intimate exchange with the Father. The “mountain” then,is by the very nature of the case established as the new and definitive Sinai. “And yet how different this “mountain” is from that imposing rocky mass in the desert! Tradition has identified a hill north of Lake Genesareth as the Mount of the Beatitudes. Anyone who has been there and gazed with the eyes of his soul on the wide prospect of the waters of the lake, the sky and the sun, the trees and the meadows, the flowers and the sound of birdsong can never forget the wonderful atmosphere of peace and the beauty of creation encountered there–in a land unfortunately so lacking in peace. “Wherever the Mount of the Beatitudes actually was, something of this peace and beauty must have characterized it.” (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 66-67.)

There is a particular point I’d like to highlight from Father Benedict, He indicates that it was most likely a hill and that we may not know the exact location, but from the reading, Father Benedict does indicate that there was truly a hill where Jesus sat and did preach the Beatitudes.

The teacher then replied, “So does it really matter if there was sermon as opposed to a collection of sayings.” As a student of history, I was a bit appalled by the question. I explained that it is a complex answer rather than a simple one. In regards to what Father Benedict is speaking about withChrist giving the Beatitudes on a mount and defining his authority in regards to the Kingdom as the living Torah. It certainly is important to a degree. Of course, from a historical perspective, did Christ give the exact words of Matthew Chapter 5? He most likely did not; however, it is very likely from a historical perspective if Matthew took different teachings and a sermon from a mount and simply paraphrased them from memory.

So why did I object so much to these proposed ideas? It’s simple, Jesus is a historical figure, which is one of the motives of Benedict for writing his three volume set on Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that only values evidence, it does matter for some events to be historical. There is certainly a danger from this half-hazard theology, and the danger is Christological heresy.

Christological heresy! What does he mean! After folks in the class became comfortable with the idea that the only thing that mattered was Christ’s teaching, I asked them how far are you willing to go with that idea? If the message is the only concern when it comes to Jesus and Catholicism, and not the actual actions of Christ, the incarnate Lord. How is this belief different than the Christological Heresies that claimed Christ only to only appear, for example, Docetism? Is this now a concern in the modern church?

Regardless, Christ had to be physically here. He had to be an actor on the historical stage. If it doesn’t matter that the Sacred (God) became Man, (Profane) that God ate on the earth or felt pain and joy on the earth like man, then Christ would be nothing more than a great human philosopher. However, he was the divine that became flesh for our salvation, the savior of the world.

There is a great danger for the souls of the charity of Christ in ‘critiquing’ away historical events by theologians using Biblical criticisms. The danger is allowing the belief that the living and breathing actors actions do not matter within the frameworks of the history of salvation—a sentiment that Pope Benedict XVI would agree with being a danger from his Jesus of Nazareth series, as he explained that its the reason why he wrote his book. (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2007), xii.) Father Benedict writes, ““The first point is that the historical-critical method—specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith—is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events…Et incarnates est—when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history…“If we push this history aside Christian faith such disappears and is recast as some other religion…then faith must expose itself to the historical method—indeed, faith itself demands this.(Ibid, xv.)

“The historical-critical method—let me repeat—is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith…but it does not exhaust the interpretative task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God.” (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), xvi.)

A better articulation of this concern is to give an example. So if there are those convinced by the explanation there was no actual sermon of the mount. So What other events can the next theologian claim are not historic? Perhaps, Theologians will “evolve” into claiming the resurrection of the incarnate Lord didn’t really happen– at least, not in the way the Gospel is written. Instead of Christ appearing in the flesh to the Apostles as they walked to Emmaus, they simply “felt” that he was there as if he was resurrected. We’d hope the Church Magisterium would correct this error, but it seems they allow a lot of freedom.

Of course, without the physical crucifixion and resurrection of the body, there would be no salvation.