In search of Exodus

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Before I get too far into this book, I wanted to take a brief moment to look at the possible historicity of Exodus. This is a very important chapter as we go on because, as my study bible points out, “there can be no doubt that Israel’s faith rests upon an actual historical occurrence” (Study Bible, p.67).

From the invention of archeology, there have been a great many attempts to prove the historicity of the Old Testament. Noah’s ark is found every couple years, or the tidal patterns of bodies of water that the Hebrews might have crossed are meticulously observed… In 1883, Edouard Naville, acting on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund (since renamed Society), believed that he found Goshen – the land in the Nile delta where Joseph settled his family. He believed that he found the lost city of Pithom (built by the Hebrews according to Exodus 1:11). For an annual subscription fee, the Society agreed to send members “a genuine Hebrew-made mud brick!” (Hobson, World of the Pharaohs, p.40) – a promise that they were not able to keep due to the size of the bricks…

One of the great stumbling blocks in the way of definitively dating (and therefore verifying) the exodus is that the ruling pharaoh is never named. Even so, it’s generally dated to around the time of Ramses II. There are a few reasons for this, such as the destruction of several Canaanite cities around that time that could be attributed to Joshua’s invasion (Study Bible, p.1538), for example. Another common dating marker is the mention in Exodus 1 of the building of Pithom (Per-Atum) and Rameses (Pi-Ramesse). We don’t know when Pithom was built, but Pi-Ramesse can be dated to the reign of Ramses II. But, of course, all this proves is that the accounts were written “at some time after the building of Pi-Ramesse and Per-Atum” (Collins, Hebrew Bible, p.57).

There is also mention of a group called the Apiru in Egypt and some scholars believe that the name may be a corruption of the word for Hebrew. But even this is problematic, because “nowhere is any revolt mentioned; on the contrary, the principal known foreign community of the time – the workmen of the land of Midian (modern Eilath) – were clearly a free group trading with Egypt” (Grimal, History of Ancient Egypt, p.258). The linguistic argument also has its shortcomings or, as Anson Rainey puts it in “Unruly Elements in Late Bronze Canaanite Society”: “The plethora of attempts to find some way to relate [apiru] to the gentilic [ibri] are all nothing but wishful thinking. The two terms never were related, and […] the social status and the activities of the [apiru] bear no valid resemblance to the ancient Hebrews.” It is a “classic example of unbridled imagination totally lacking in linguistic or semantic acumen” (Pomegranates and Golden Bells, p.483). That’s a burn, folks.

Of the other details that can be matched up to Egyptian history or culture, Collins says that “these suggest that there is a certain amount of Egyptian ‘local color’ in the story, [but] they fall far short of establishing the historicity of the exodus” (Collins, Hebrew Bible, p.57). There are no Egyptian records of the events (Study Bible, p.67), or even in any ancient non-biblical source. “The Egyptians kept tight control over their eastern border and kept careful records. If a large group of Israelites had departed, we should expect some mention of it” (Collins, Hebrew Bible, p.55).

In conclusion, Exodus is not telling us history, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t telling us something about the ancient Hebrew experience. The large migration described is out of the question, but “some scholars now suppose that the biblical account may have ‘telescoped’ several small exoduses, which took place over centuries’ (Collins, Hebrew Bible, p.57). In other words, Exodus may be an exercise in mythic/experiential history rather than factual history.

And with that out of the way, let’s find out WWMD!

Fact-checking the Bible

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Now, the enslavement of the entire Egyptian population seems like the kind of thing that would be mentioned by historians. And, indeed, my study bible claims that “Egyptian sources testify that such a feudalistic system was introduced between 1700-1500 B.C.” So I decided to have a look through my library and see if I could find any mention of this.

The first thing I found was that this period fell under Hyksos rule (Hyksos is a bastardized form of the Egyptian word: hekaw-khasut, which can be translated to mean “foreign kings”). It’s at least plausible that a major shift in rulers would coincide with a major shift in ruling system. But what I could find seems to suggest that this may not have been the case. Here’s what Nicolas Grimal has to say on page 186 of his A History of Ancient Egypt:

The Hyksos introduced a method of government which was to prove equally successful for all the later invaders who applied it to Egypt: instead of attempting to impose their own governmental structures on the country, they immersed themselves in the existing Egyptian political system.

That’s it. That’s all I could find.

Granted, of course, that my library is far from complete (and focuses far more on the mythology than on the history). If anyone has any better information, I’d be very happy to see it.

Next, I tried to find out if there was ever an extended famine during which Egypt came to the world’s rescue. I didn’t find anything for this time period, but I did find the following from page 268 of the same book:

Merneptah is even known to have supplied grain to the Hittites when they were stricken by a famine.

Merneptah ruled Egypt some three centuries later, but at least this indicates that Egyptian kings did, at times, supply grain to foreigners during hard times.

Again, I would like to do more to confirm or disprove the story of Joseph, so if anyone has any reading recommendations for me, that would be much appreciated.

Lost in Translation #1: Spacing the Bible

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It often surprises people to know that the Bible they hold in their hands may deviate in some rather significant ways from the Bible as it was originally composed. The text evolved (teehee) in a number of different ways, but the one I want to briefly go over today is mostly an issue for the New Testament.



In the original Greek, there was no punctuation. Also, every letter was capitalized (called “majuscule” – the lower case letters I’m using now were unheard of until the Carolingian minuscule script invented in the 8th century). Worse yet, there were no spaces between words!

So the 9th century scribe trying to convert the text of the Bible into the newfangled script had quite the task in front of him. This poor hapless fellow, born to the wrong generation as far as scribes are concerned, had to try to figure out where to put in spaces.

Now, most of the time, this was probably pretty easy. Even if there were several possibilities, the right interpretation could usually be guessed from the context. But sometimes, it wasn’t so simple.

To illustrate this point, Bart Ehrman often uses this example: lastnightatdinnerwesawabundanceonthetable. How do you read this? Is there a lot of food, or is it just frisky?

When I was in university, the best professor ever used this example: GODISNOWHERE. You can see how something as simple as putting spaces in the right place can have a pretty significant theological impact!

On the inverted cross

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The inverted, or upside-down, cross is one of the more popular anti-Christian symbols around. It’s featured on countless metal band albums and, along with the pentagram, is a staple of the Satanic imagery used in film. Most recently, I was watching the first season of the show Supernatural (which is awesome, by the way), and the main characters deduce that an old woman is actually an evil supernatural creature because of the inverted cross on her wall.

In March 2000, Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to Israel. While there, he sat on a throne decorated with the image of the inverted cross. Shortly thereafter, every Evangelical with internet access and a penchant for LaHaye-esque conspiracy theories created a website explaining that this is proof positive that the Roman Catholic Church is evil incarnate and that the now-sainted pope is actually the Anti-Christ.

But like so many commonly known facts, the anti-Christian origin of the inverted cross is pure fiction.

popes-crossThe inverted cross actually refers to Saint Peter. Though this is not mentioned in the Bible, Catholic tradition tells us that he, like Jesus, was executed by means of crucifixion, but that his cross was planted upside down. Drawing on Matthew 16:18-19, the papal line is closely aligned with him.

So when Pope John Paul II seated his holy derrière under an inverted cross, the intended symbolism was actually that he was a successor to Peter, the rock on which Christ may build his church.

Time to recycle that inverted cross necklace you bought to shock the ol’ ‘rents, I’m afraid. That, or attach a little figure onto it. The inverted crucifix is legitimate sacrilege.


This post was originally published on CFI-Ottawa’s blog.

Christ’s crucifixion nails found!

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Or perhaps not…

For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer,
Which that he seyde was Oure Lady veyl:
He seyde he hadde a gobet of the seyl
That Seint Peter hadde, whan that he wente
Upon the see, til Jesu Crist hym hente.
He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones,
And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.

-Chaucer, General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

There’s nothing new about selling relics. Charlatans discovered long ago that people will pay far more than is seemly to touch something that was once worn by or part of a hero. While today’s consumers might prefer to buy an air guitar once played by JFK, the saints’ knuckle-bones market has long been considered an investor’s safe bet.

These saint-oil salesmen have embraced new technological developments. Where the pardoner could only sell his pillowcase once, modern peddlers can use TV to sell the same relic to millions of viewers at the same time. This is precisely what Simcha Jacobovici is doing with the conspicuously timed announcement of his new movie, The Nails of the Cross (via Skepchick).

This isn’t a surprising move from Jacobovici, who hosts a TV show called The Naked Archeologist – a show that, according to its Wikipedia page, “reviews Biblical stories, then tries to find proof for them” (which, by the way, is the most precisely backwards way of doing archeology). In his new movie, he claims that some nails that were actually and truly used to crucify Jesus have been found in what may be (but likely isn’t) the tomb of Caiaphas.

[Caiaphas is the Jewish priest who, according to Matthew and John, organized the plot to kill Jesus. According to Jacobovici, he was also a Dexter-like collector of tokens from his victims.]

The find is bunk, of course, and XKV8R does a fairly good job explaining why. But isn’t it interesting that the scams Chaucer complained about over 600 years ago are still with us and going strong?

John Calvin once complained that there were enough pieces of the True Cross in churches across Christendom to fill a ship – and now we have the nails to go with them!


Reposted from the CFI-Ottawa blog.

Lost in translation #5: Ritual Address

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I’m subscribed to more Christian e-newsletters than I can count. I enjoy keeping up to date about what’s going on in that world, like the recent Sears fiasco (they’re selling hard-core pornography, dontcha know, and the AFA took one for the team by buying a copy to make sure that a) it was really Sears selling it, and b) it was hard-core and not something more acceptable to Christian sensibilities like soft-core or erotica, for example).

Occasionally, one of these distributors will mail out a prayer. Just to be clear, these aren’t “pre-made” prayers from Psalms or anything. They are prayers written by people like Tim Wildmon‘s ghost writer to deal with whatever the most recent crisis may be.

"Don't you 'thee' me!"

“Don’t you ‘thee’ me!”

The thing that strikes me about these prayers is that they almost always use “thee” when addressing God.

Now, obviously, this is the language used in the King James Bible. That makes sense, since “thee” was in common use when the KJV was written. Nowadays, it sounds archaic and conspicuous.

Which is, of course, the point. Tim et al. are trying to sound archaic to separate ritual/sacred speech from profane speech. This serves to formalize the prayer, making it more honorific. (Within about 20 seconds of Googling, I was even able to find this website, which is devoted to helping people properly use “thee” in prayers because this, rather than “you,” is the way to honour God with the “utmost humility and reverence.”)

Many people don’t realize this, but the “you” we now use every day is actually the honorific form of “thee,” not the other way around. So the irony is that the KJV uses “thee” for precisely the opposite reason – to emphasize familiarity with a personal god. You can see this more clearly in other languages that have kept the two forms of address, such as in the French Our Father:

Notre Père, qui es aux Cieux,
Que ton nom soit sanctifié,
Que ton règne vienne,
Que ta volonté soit faite
Sur la terre comme au ciel.
Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour,
Pardonne-nous nos offenses
Comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés,
Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation,
Mais délivre-nous du mal.

The end result is that Tim et al. are being somewhat flippant while intending to be reverential. And yes, it is flippant if you’re not making a deliberate theological point – heck, it’s flippant even if you are! After all, even a dog gets the honorific “you” these days!

Tasty fact: I come from Quaker stock, and as recently as my great-grandparents, my family still used “thee” in their everyday speech. That’s as little as 50 years ago!

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