A friend pointed me to a video produced by the Usefulcharts YouTube channel this week – Did Moses Exist? Applying the Historical Method. I enjoyed it – it’s well produced, and the communication style is really easy to follow. He makes great use of pictures and…well…charts in his communication. His channel is well named – this is a useful way to communicate complex ideas.
I also appreciated the way he summarises a scholarly approach to history – “The Historical Method.” He refers to the importance of matching texts to archaeology, of seeking multiple sources, recognising genre, and taking notice of the passage of time. He also mentions the need to ask whether a source is “biased.”
Can we know whether something is true? Or are we left to just choose the interpretation we like best to explain an event or a writing from history? The video says – truth is accessible to us. We can know something about the past when we use historical methods. YES! I think he’s 100% on the money here.
For the rest of the video, the author applies these methods to the question, “did Moses actually exist?” In this blog I am going to make a few comments about his application of the Historical Method to the Moses question.
Responding to the Usefulcharts Argument about Moses:
First – he omits consideration of the cultural context of the ancient text. This is an important consideration. Which culture produced these writings, what were they like, and what was the purpose in writing. He does refer to the idea of “literary tropes” which were common at the time the text was originally written. We will come back to that. I think context is crucial in understanding any text. And if you are trying to answer the question, “did Moses exist?” we should include context in the discussion.
Second – his stated aim at the top of the video is to assess whether Moses existed in real life. He says that he will take a historical perspective, and so this means he must restrict the historical data to reports that are only found outside of religious tradition – the Bible, or the Jewish written Torah. He isn’t using the Bible as a source of historical information in this video.
I think this is a misapplication of his historical method. Why would a historian arbitrarily set aside a rich source of information about a culture and the figure under consideration in the video – Moses? Particularly when this source is incredibly ancient, and so dates back to the times when these events occurred? A better approach would be to INCLUDE the Biblical texts, but assess the data we find in there. Perhaps he decided to set scripture aside because – he thinks it is somehow “biased.” I think this is an important misstep – and I will come back to it in a moment.
Also – I think his use of other Ancient Near Eastern writings to make his arguments shows a double standard. He seems happy to refer to the Babylonian record of Sargon of Assad as “an important part of the historical record,” and so is worthy of quoting directly as history. If that is the case, on what grounds can he discount the writings of neighbouring Israel? Why are they not worthy of consideration as part of the historical record?
Third – he points to various competing Moses stories that he says come from the Hellinistic period, spanning the time between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the birth of the Roman Empire around 31 BC. He seems to assume these competing Moses accounts are as potentially truthful as the Bible’s account of Moses. But they all describe a very different man.
What the video does not admit, however, is that these competing Moses stories are much much later than the Torah accounts. There is evidence that the Torah is much older than these Greek stories. For example, an inscription from the book of Numbers in the Torah has been discovered on metal amulets in Jerusalem that date back to 700 BC, and the Torah writings would have to have been around much longer before that time. So – why does it make sense to treat the later Greek descriptions of Moses on an equal footing with the Torah? Clearly, the Greek accounts were written many hundreds of years after the Torah and the events it describes, in a different culture at a different time and for a different purpose. It is more reasonable to assume the earlier Israelite record is more likely to report who Moses actually was.
Fourth – he spends a lot of time making the argument that, because elements of the story of Moses are found elsewhere in other writings, this means that it is likely that Moses life in the Torah was a fictional account. He has a few examples of this. First, the Babylonian Sargon of Akkad, whose mother put him in a basket of reeds and placed him in the river. He also points to common story tropes of the prince who finds out how hard life is outside the palace, or the hero who runs away and has to come back. He also observes that writings of this time viewed crossings of bodies of water as a metaphor of leaving behind an old life and starting a new one. He likens this to the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus.
There are major problems with this line of reasoning. First, it commits the post hoc fallacy, which says that since Y followed X, this necessarily means X caused Y. Unless there are very good reasons to conclude that X caused Y, it is just not rational to suppose that it must have been so. There appear to be no good reasons to suppose this in the case of Moses. Second – most of the “tropes” the video identifies are very general themes that do crop up in many true historical accounts throughout human history. So – why must we assume the Moses account is fictional if the others are not?
Fifth – there is an assumption that religious sources are biased sources, and so should not be treated as reliable source of history. First – the Israelite nation recorded their religious history as a record of important events in their history. The Torah recorded of the nation’s covenant with Yahweh. This is the context in which the texts were produced. Second – to discount any text as biased (Biblical or otherwise) is to fail to realise that ALL communication from people carries bias. In fact, every person has a biased perspective in life. So – if we follow the video and reject biased accounts, then that means we also have to reject the video! Because he himself also carries bias when he wrote it.
The video’s tacit assumption is that a biased person is not capable of recording historical events. It turns out – the issue is not bias at all. The question is – can biased people (everyone is biased) tell the truth? I think the clear answer to that is – yes. For example, the most important accounts of the Nazi holocaust are from Jewish sources. Does that render them inaccurate? Quite the opposite. The people most interested in an event are likely the most meticulous in recording them. Just because we all carry biases of different kinds does not mean we are unable to be objective. We can be objective. When it is important to us that we record what happened for the next generation to know and understand, we are likely to get details correct. Even though the ancient Israelite approach to historical record is less linear than our modern historical approach, this does not mean it must contain fiction. Israel’s record is likely to reflect what happened within the frame of their approach to history.
Sixth – he claims there is no archaeological evidence of Moses and an exodus from Egypt. But why would we expect to have evidence of the journey of a nomadic people who lived in tents as they travelled? It would seem more likely that we should find archaeological evidence of Israel from Egypt (where they started from) and the Canaanite areas (where they ended up). The video gives the impression that there is no archaeological evidence – but this is clearly false. Evidence exists in both locations. For example, the Merneptah Stele was discovered in 1896. It is an Egyptian record mentioning Israel which is dated at around 1200 BC. There may be other earlier references to Israel in Egyptian archaeology. Archaeologists have also found evidence supporting the Bible’s claim that Israel conquered Canaan around this time period.
Also – just because we have not found archaeological evidence of Moses today does not mean the evidence does not exist. It just means it has not been found. Absence of evidence is never evidence of absence. There are many examples of Biblical accounts which were thought to be fictional, and yet archaeological evidence supporting the Bible’s account has eventually been found. One example of this is the archaeological evidence for King David in the Bible.
The video is an interesting discussion around whether Moses and the exodus occurred. He concludes that Moses must have been a composite fictional figure designed as a literary work explaining the origins of Israel.
The idea that a story which forms an important part of a nation’s identity must necessarily contain invention – does not make sense to my mind. It assumes a very base level understanding of the idea of “myth.” But myth’s can be so much more than fictional tales. They can also be stories of actual events that shaped a people’s lives and their culture that take on incredible significance. I think – if you accurately assess the whole historical record for Moses – including Israel’s record – you can arrive at a strong argument proposing that the Torah contains historical accounts of a man called Moses.
 Ibid., 19:23.
 Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 102.
 Usefulcharts, 19:20.
 Usefulcharts, 20:11.
 Morrow, 114.
 Does the Merneptah Stele Contain the First Mention of Israel, Biblical Archaeological Society, uploaded January 17th, 2012, accessed May 23rd, 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/does-the-merneptah-stele-contain-the-first-mention-of-israel/.
 Israel Enters Canaan Following the Pottery Trail, BAS Library, September/October 1991, https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/17/5/2.
 The Tel Dan Inscription: The First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible, Bible History Daily, uploaded October 18th 2020, accessed May 23rd 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/the-tel-dan-inscription-the-first-historical-evidence-of-the-king-david-bible-story/.
 Usefulcharts, 20:32.