Is the Exodus a Myth?

Is the Exodus a Myth?


Is the Exodus a myth?

Millions of people believe that the Exodus we know of from Hebrew school or Sunday school and movies really happened in history. They say God led his chosen people, Israel, out of slavery in Egypt with astounding miraculous power to Canaan, where the Israelite swords reclaimed the land God promised them. Of course, many of us no longer believe in miracles or God, or at least not a god that picks favorites among the children of Earth. Stories like this sound like the fantasy world of Greek mythology. So is the Exodus a myth too? If it is, what were the real origins of the Israelite nation and Judaism? Does the Exodus have any grounding in reality at all? What does this mean for biblical religions today?

To answer these questions we first have to isolate what exactly we are talking about. What is our source for the Exodus story? Cecil B. DeMille and Ridley Scott didn’t invent it. The Exodus story comes to us from the sacred writings that make up the Old Testament, in particular the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. The individual books that make up the Old Testament reached their final form sometime after the return of Jews from Babylon and before the Roman occupation of the land of Israel. Our earliest complete copies are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls dated to around the first centuries BC /AD. The particular books that make up the Old Testament weren’t agreed upon on until several generations after beginning of Christianity!

Outside of those dedicated to defending religious dogmas, the spectacular Exodus story found in the Bible is considered by archeologists and historians to be impossible. A lot of them have suggested that there is a kernel of truth to the Exodus, but what that kernel might be is a matter of considerable debate. While most believe that there may be some historical reality behind the legend, many maintain it is only a myth and even the believers concede that we can’t know what happened, and the question no longer grabs the attention it once did with scholars.



From the film, The Ten Commandments


I am of the opinion that there is a likely historical event in behind the Exodus. I’m documenting my own theory for the date of the Exodus, and what that event was, in my current research. By way as an introduction, I want to explain some of the background to my research.

First, one of the most important keys to understanding the historical record of the Exodus is the understanding that the story is composed of various separate sources. Each tells its own story, and the composite story is ahistorical because it only comes into being with the combination of the sources. Those sources were written at different times and places by people with a diversity of views.

While Christians order the Bible from Genesis to the Minor Prophets and Jews from Genesis to the Writings, the actual chronology of the times when the books and their sources were written is different. The earliest parts of the Bible’s stories that were composed are a number of poems dated by most scholars to around the 12th-11th centuries.

The bible itself cites two works, the wars of Jehovah and the Book of the Righteous, which are now lost to us in their entirety, but seemed to have contained ancient songs celebrating God and Israel.

The next sources are called by scholars J and E, and they make up large chunks of the books from Exodus to Numbers. The dates of these two are hard to determine, but I think J can be confidently dated to between approximately 850-800 B.C. E is harder to date and may be later or earlier. It was probably combined with J shortly after the fall of Israel.

Following them is likely some of the Minor Prophets, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. These books are supposedly records of the lives and prophecies of prophets, written down by disciples either during their lives or shortly afterward. The books, as we have them, were sometimes composed decades later and contain a lot of later material attributed to the old prophets, but there is a certain amount of material believed to date back to the prophets themselves, who were active between approximately 800 and 700 B.C.

The other sources, D and P, are later still. D was certainly written during the reign of Josiah, while P may be from anywhere between the time of king Hezekiah of Judah to the period under the Persians after the Jews were freed from Babylon. D is the book of Deuteronomy while P makes up most of the Bible from Genesis to Numbers that isn’t J or E.

Other biblical books were written even later, but I won’t dwell on these since they are composed too late to have a real historical perspective or are derived from the combinations of these earlier sources.

When you separate the various strands of sources, arrange them in time and read them separately you find the story changes, things that we associate with the Exodus are not found in all versions, nor are some elements and themes found in the earliest sources. Perspectives on the Exodus change as writers are influenced by more independent sources and combined text. Its story is shaped by the circumstances of the history when it was written. By examining the separate elements of the Exodus story in regard to its age, biases, reliability and so forth, we can trace the story of the Exodus back through time to its original form and then use that for comparison to the historical and archeological data to answer the question: what was the Exodus? In future posts, I will discuss how the different sources talked about the Exodus at different times.



Bibliography: If you want to look up the books where I get my information from, here you go…

The Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV 2006

Who Wrote the Bible? 1987

The Bible Unearthed 2001

The Oxford History of the Biblical World 1998

The Old Testament: A historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures 2006

Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry 1975

Click here for a brief summation of the theory that the fist five books of the Bible are a combination of different sources, called the Documentary hypothesis.


Belief in Santa Claus Makes Kids Nicer


Well that’s not what this article says, but I think it would apply. A study was conducted across several cultures to see if belief in an all-seeing god made people more neighborly, and the result was yes. Not that surprising really, essentially people tend to imagine that their god’s have minds much like their own. Now it is one thing to have your conscience nag you about your misdeeds, but if you believe that your conscience can pay you back for your evil, then the impulse to take the easy way will be less attractive since you will predict that in the long term it ain’t that easy. The trick though is what happens when people no longer believe that the universe acts according to the demands of their conscience. Sure the occasional saint does good for its own sake, but for the average Jane does unbelief foster selfishness?

Secret Mark: Hoax or Paradigm Shifting Discovery?


Photograph of Clement’s letter to Theodore, as allegedly found by Morton Smith, the source of the gospel “Secret Mark”


Mar Saba Monastery, where the manuscript containing “Secret Mark” was discovered

After spending the past few months in anxious idleness, I’ve decide to get back on the research wagon and revisit an idea that I’ve been playing with over the past few years.

While considering the authorship of the books of the Bible, I encountered a controversy regarding the Gospel of John*. There is no agreement regarding the author, but I was intrigued by a hypothesis linking the Gospel of John to John Mark, travel companion of St. Paul-and also the supposed author of the Gospel of Mark according to an old tradition.

While I was examining the case for this hypothesis, I came across an enigmatic document called “Secret Mark”(the author is unknown). Now that I’m getting back into examining the hypothesis, I again find myself confounded by “Secret Mark.”

What is “Secret Mark”? “Secret Mark” is a name used for a hypothetical alternate version of the Gospel of Mark that is alleged to have been mentioned in an 18th century AD copy of an earlier original text by the 2nd century AD theologian, Clement of Alexandria. Handwritten onto a blank back page of a 17th century AD edition of the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch –another early theologian, and stored in an ancient monastery in the Judean Desert.

Now this isn’t even the really confusing part! The conundrum comes from the fact that the discoverer of the document, Morton Smith, was unable to secure the original and the book it that it was found in has been lost. All that remains are photos Smith took of the book and the pages containing “Secret Mark”. Without the original writing to inspect, determining authenticity is possibly impossible, and there has been a lot of suspicion regarding the authenticity of “Secret Mark”. There have been other supposed early writings that have been turned out to be fakes. Recently a fragment called The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife made headlines but was later determined to be a fake.

Now, if “Secret Mark” had been like some of the other recently discovered or forged additional gospels, like “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” or The Gospel of Judas, the question of authenticity would not be a big concern to me. But “Secret Mark”, if genuine, could have huge consequences for how the development of the first gospels is understood.

The letter that Smith found is supposedly a reply from Clement of Alexandria to a man named Theodore. He asked about the claim of a heretical sect, the Carpocrates, that they had an alternate version of the Gospel of Mark, that Mark wrote in Alexandria with additional material for more spiritually advanced Christians. Clement replies that it is true-that there is another version of Mark, and it is kept in secret by members of the Alexandrian church. The Carpocrates, Clement explains, managed to get a copy of the gospel, but they changed some passages to support their practice of sexual rituals as part of their worship. What we know of the contents of this supposed book are quoted by Clement,

“And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus thought him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.”

These verses are said to be located between Mark 10:35 and 36. Additionally at Mark 15:51, after the words “And he comes into Jericho,” “Secret Mark” adds “And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.”

Now if genuine, this might be a later attempt to add the story of Jesus raising Lazarus to the Gospel of Mark, as a sort of harmonized version of the two. But some scholars have argued instead that this version of Mark is the original and later editions cut out these verses, perhaps because of the awkwardness of Jesus spending the night with a naked youth. It is even further embarrassing with a phrase that Clement called an addition by the Carpocrates; that “he (Jesus) remained with him that night, naked man with naked man.” Another scholar has argued that “Secret Mark” is essentially as Clement explains- an expansion of Mark by its author that includes material intended to provoke deeper spiritual insights into the Gospel of Jesus.

Scholars are divided on the question of “Secret Mark’s” authenticity, and for a while I decided to split the difference by assuming that “Secret Mark” is a genuine book from antiquity but a later harmonization of Mark and John. That being the case, I could disregard “Secret Mark” from my research about the possible links between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. But after reading Scott Brown’s book, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton’s Smith Controversial Discovery, I have been forced to revisit this simple solution and now embark on an investigation to determine one way or another, the authenticity of “Secret Mark”.

Brown argues that the author of Mark** did in fact write an expanded version of his Gospel. It’s hard to ignore the possibilities Brown’s theory presents for my own research. I have thought that the source the author of John used to create his gospel may have been a version of Mark. If the author of Mark wrote a second more spiritual edition perhaps it was this version “John” used as a source. If this is the case, then the resurrection in “Secret Mark” is not a retelling of the story in John, but the opposite. And if John used the story in “Secret Mark” is it possible that the advanced theology of the Gospel of John is based on material in “Secret Mark” that is unknown to us. If so, then the supposed primitive Christology of Mark may have been intended for new Christians while those of sounder understanding and dedication were introduced to a higher Christology in “Secret Mark”. As I get into my research I’ll share what I discover and what conclusions I come to regarding this mystery.

For further reading on the controversy surrounding this work, please visit Michael J. Kok’s  blog discussing this issue!

*A common but inaccurate name of the book. It isn’t Mark’s gospel, but Jesus’, the book we call “Mark” is merely his/(her?) account of it, so more properly it is the “Gospel According to Mark”, …John”, etc.

**He does not affirm the traditional view that Mark wrote the gospel, which is anonymous. Only later tradition attributes its authorship to Mark.


Studying Religion Without God


Caravaggio (1602-1603): Doubting Thomas


I read an article that addresses some of the issues that I’ve had studying religion regarding how to approach religious truth claims. Its difficult to analyze the history of a religion from the perspective of a true believer by following empirical research principles. Logically, I can’t proceed from the point of view that Jesus rose from the dead or that an angel dictated the Koran to Mohammed. So – from the perspective of my subjects, I’m not doing real research. But if I accepted my subject’s claims of truth at face value, I don’t think I would be engaging in real scholarship. Several times, people in religious studies departments have taken me to task for being “reductionist” in my thinking – trying to explain the mystical and sacred by way of the mundane and thus imposing my worldview on others.

A Seal Impression from Hezekiah


A seal of impression of King Hezekiah unearthed in the Opel excavations at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount, conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology under the direction of Dr. Eilat Mazar. (Courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; Photo by Ouria Tadmor)

From Jim Davila: THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY OF JERUSALEM: Impression of King Hezekiah’s Royal Seal Discovered in Ophel Excavations South of Temple Mount in Jerusalem. “First seal impression of an …

Source: A Seal Impression from Hezekiah