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There has been a back and forth between myself and Catholic apologist (with a bent for biblical literalism) Dave Armstrong on the subject of the Exodus account from the Bible, and specifically recently on Moses’ birth story and its dependence on the pre-existing Sargon birth myth (in itself, a tropey affair).

Theist Verbose Stoic (VS) commented as follows, and I will say my last words on this for now, to get onto other Exodus topics. Hopefully, there is enough content now, and I feel I have refuted enough of Armstrong’s points, to make an informed and rational decision on the topic. Here is VS, with me interlinearly:

That’s almost certainly not his argument though, at least as you presented it. His argument seems to me to be that even though Sargon did precede Moses, the specific story in question — of his birth — only appears AFTER Moses would have lived.

Let’s change his words to see if the reverse works:

His argument seems to me to be that even though Moses didn’t precede Sargon, the specific story in question — of his birth — only appears AFTER Sargon would have lived.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Again we get to this idea that the Sargon birth story was constructed AFTER Moses was SUPPOSED to have lived. Let me analogise.

The Lord of the Rings was written, let’s say, about Aragorn who supposedly lived 1800 years ago. I claim Tolkien drew on Norse myths. Aah, says the Tolkienist, but the actual Norse myths were written 1500 years ago, so Tolkien couldn’t have been drawing from them. Instead, the Norse myths were drawing on existing Tolkien stories (which we have no evidence existed then) 1500 years ago.

So on and so forth. It’s a silly argument for all the obvious reasons, and reasons I detailed previously.

I presented Armstrong fairly, though he has now deleted some of his claims on the dating, so whether his redacted version has informed your evaluation, I can’t say. He was clear in saying they were contemporary with each other. Armstrong is fairly explicit:

…the account would be roughly contemporary with the Sargon birth-legend…. The likelihood is much more so that the opposite was the case: that the Assyrian legend is based on either the written biblical account of Moses’ birth or else unwritten oral traditions of the same event that would have been circulating for about 550 years (from the estimated death-date of Moses) before the advent of the 7th century BC.

VS’s claim is exactly the same for Moses, though. Sargon predates Moses, and Sargon’s birth story predates Moses’ birth story, as does all the extant evidence, as does the mainstream dating for when both were written.

There is literally nothing in favour, other than desperation and biblical exceptionalism, for Sargon drawing on Moses. Moreover, Sargon actually existed. Moses, as most non-biblical scholars believe, was mythological.

So it appears that it was a late addition to the legend and biography of Sargon.


And if that’s the case, then it’s probably at least as likely that it was adapted from accounts of Moses than that the accounts of Moses were adapted from that account.

Absolutely not, for the above reasons, and in terms of what I have previously discussed. I literally don’t know how you could draw this conclusion, though I would know why (motivated reasoning). We have precisely no evidence that any such Moses story existed until 1000 years later, and the best theory is that these were originally compiled maybe 700 years later.

While I wouldn’t want to say that that’s certainly the case without more argument — but your quotes imply that there IS more evidence, such as the resurrection of the accounts by a similarly named leader — that would at least cast some doubt on whether we should believe that it was copied from Sargon.

I think you would really need to make a positive case for your thesis (or possibility) because I don’t think there actually is a positive case.

I didn’t mention it at the time, but the same thing applies for the argument about pitch. First, it is important to note that this, really, is the best argument you have for showing that the account was copied from Sargon, since pitch being used involved talking about something known to the Assyrians but, as you argued, not to the Egyptians or Jews.

The pitch point, in my original article, was tagged on at the end, almost as an afterthought. I started the pitch paragraph “One reason…” I don’t think it is the best argument. I think the dating, and the place of composition of the Torah, and the pre-existing birth myth of Sargon already existing in the culture in which the exiles were living, and the extant earlier evidence for the birth myth, and the conclusion that Moses is mythological – these are all the best arguments.

Going the other way? There are no arguments other than “because the Bible is awesome and must be true”. VS, whom I respect a good deal is usually way more astute and on the money than this.

That would suggest a copying of the story and that whoever did it simply missed how incredible that would be.

The pitch thing is incredible in the technical sense – or more accurately “improbable”. But not in terms the Torah being constructed in a place that uses pitch and by a culture that uses pitch, and not knowing that the setting that they are describing is not consonant with this milieu. Because it is only by doing modern archaeology that we have come to find this out. This isn’t modern palaeontologists finding a rabbit skeleton in the pre-Cambrian rock strata after careful analysis built on a foundation of knowledge and experimentation. This is ancient parochial people developing their own national identity, because they are in exile, and using ideas from the culture within which they are set to write this pseudo-history. They wouldn’t have the first clue that pitch wasn’t particularly available in Egypt, and there is no evidence it was used at all for caulking, during the supposed Moses time.

And that in itself would only make sense if pitch was known to the audience at the time it was being written, because otherwise they’d ask the same questions you asked which would sink the story.

Seriously? I mean, seriously? This is a staggering level of apologetics. It is unusual that someone of VS’s undoubted calibre would trot something this problematic out. I’m trying not to overdo my rhetoric here!

How the heck would Hebrew exiles in Mesopotamia know whether pitch was being used in the Nile River delta to caulk baskets almost a thousand years previously? Were ancient readers that skeptical? No. Not only were they not, they also had no manner of verifying claims anyway. For a good analysis of verifiability and whether things were actually (and desired to be) verified, in biblical times, see Carrier’s rather excellent Not the Impossible Faith.

If pitch would have been known at the time even if not commonly used, then it could have been stated in the story without copying it from something else. So if he managed to show that it was not inconceivable for them to know about pitch and use it in the story without copying it, even to the extent of simply being asked how come the basket didn’t sink and coming up with an answer on the fly.

The scenario is this: All the motivation and evidence for the Moses birth story to be drawn from the Sargon birth story is there. Added to this, we have incorrect (anachronistic) – though thoroughly understandable – use of pitch and camels in the stories. Such anachronisms, I proffer, support the thesis that the Torah was indeed written in the way mainstream scholars now accept. They aren’t key, but they are interesting little nuggets.

So it’s not as clear that it was a simple copy as you imply, especially since the issue of copying it from an enemy is indeed a good one.

Ultimately, this is what leaves me cold about a lot of these analyses, especially ones that are purportedly or commonly seen as “Bayesian”. It’s about trying to add up a bunch of irregularities to try to get to a certain probability that you can call certain, but a bunch of somewhat dubious claims don’t add up to knowledge, and if we don’t take the Bible as having to be literally true minor discrepancies are generally met, at least by me, with a shrug.

I just can’t see how VS has arrived at his conclusions here, though I welcome his reply. That said, this was only a thread comment by him, so I could be over-reacting!



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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...