Reading Time: 16 minutes / Laszlo Honti
Reading Time: 16 minutes

As part of my debunking the Exodus series, I’ve been involved in a prolonged debate with Dave Armstrong, in particular, regarding…pretty much everything I have stated. Let me give you a super-quick synopsis of where we are at. One of my arguments was that the Moses birth story was appropriated from the surrounding culture when the Torah was originally written in the exilic period in the 500s BCE. The Sargon birth myth predates the Moses birth myth on account of Sargon being an actual historical figure existing 1000 years before Moses and the birth myth of Sargon, as far as earliest extant evidence for it, pre-dating evidence for the Moses myth by at least 450 years.

As an ancillary piece of data to support this mainstream thesis (since none of what I have said above is in the remote bit controversial and is accepted by mainstream non-literalist scholars), I presented the claim that pitch was not known in the Nile River area at the time of Moses’ supposed birth and life. However, it was widely available in the Mesopotamian area where the Sumerian story of Sargon of Akkad and his mythical birth was developed. This is just another nugget of evidence to support the mainstream thesis.

Throwing stuff at the walls to see what sticks

Dave Armstrong, Catholic apologist and apparent biblical literalist, took umbrage with my claims, initially ignoring all of the arguments around Sargon of Akkad and concentrating solely on whether pitch was available in the Nile River area or not at the time in question. When pressed, he did eventually engage with the Sargon arguments, but I’m pretty sure you will agree with me that he didn’t really have a leg to stand on. (And I responded to theist Verbose Stoic on the same topic.)

Over different posts and comments, he has hit me with a whole bunch of sources to support his claim that pitch was either widely available or at least somewhat available at the time and place in question – the Nile River area in Egypt’s during the New Kingdom era. He claims I did not read some of his supposed “refutations” in one or some of his articles. This is absolutely true.

In fact, I only found out about one of his claims concerning a number of his sources through a comment he gave me in a thread yesterday. This was because the pitch stuff he was hitting me with was in the second half of the Sargon article that he wrote to “refute” me. This is where you shouldn’t cry wolf. I read only of this Armstrong article. I  a using induction here to work out what the probability of Armstrong providing a decent argument is and whether it is worth putting all of my effort into reading all of his pieces. And his manipulation of data and usage of sources is so often utterly dubious and disingenuous that I’ve learnt is not to take him as seriously as he would like.

When you get halfway down an article on Sargon and his application of skepticism and hopefully robust use of sources is so incredibly poor, then you have no desire to read the rest of the article. I gave up on that article halfway through and thus didn’t read his subsequent pitch claims. Did I miss anything? Not really.

The question is this, and it’s a Bayesian one:

Which hypothesis is better suited to the claim of the use of a pitch basket (also in context with the rest of the details)?

  1. The Moses story is correct, even if the actual narrative claims are unlikely (given the priors of such extraordinary claims), and given the small probability of pitch being available in the time and place and it being used for those purposes.
  2. The Moses story is appropriated, as many stories are throughout the world, from a neighbouring culture (when exiled to them), including the narrative elements and the detail of pitch, used widely in that culture and their own, but highly unlikely to have been used in the time and place in which the story is actually set.

So where are we at now? I will not talk about the vast majority of the sources that Dave has hit me with over this debate because I have shown them to be either completely irrelevant or certainly not what Dave thinks they are. I mean, if anything is to come out of this discussion over time, it is how to use sources correctly and to be rather more careful when throwing as many sources at the wall to see what sticks, because you don’t look very academic or astute. Armstrong through an awful lot of the wall, most of which I cleared off with relative ease.

So what stuck?

Armstrong did produce some evidence to show that raw bitumen has been found in Egypt over time, including the time relevant to Moses’ supposed life. He really thought this was magnificent evidence and I did have to take him through it, showing that there was absolutely no evidence of pitch being used either to caulk baskets or even in glueing tools together, a more common use of pitch on this small scale, in Egypt and at this time. None. The only evidence of this was in Israel and other countries, but not when and where Armstrong needed it. What the paper showed is that there had been uncommon (not a lot at all has been found) trade of raw bitumen material to Egypt over time. They are basically found a few chunks here and there. The authors guessed at what it could have been used for in Egypt only on account of what it was used for elsewhere in the world. But there is no evidence of it being used and there is certainly no evidence of widespread usage anywhere in Egypt over the required time period.

I admitted that this would change my probability assessment of a pitch basket being used by a woman to put her own child in to send it down the river (honestly, just listen to this – Armstrong literally believes this mythical story is actually true!) to be incredibly fortuitously picked up by a member of the Royal household so that the baby could be brought up in secret and become an important political leader. Just like Sargon of Akkad.  I changed the probability of pitch being used to caulk a basket in the Nile River area during this time by about 10%, moving it from incredibly unlikely indeed to very unlikely indeed. I thanked Armstrong for making me more accurate, though I’m not sure the time and effort put into all this was worth a 10% movement of probability on the pitch aspect alone (not the whole story probability).

The second gotcha moment that Armstrong thought he had concerned a letter from Rameses II to a Hittite king in the New Kingdom era mentioning a naval vessel with, amongst other things, supposedly a pitch-caulked hull. He also tried to bring in some other sources but I summarily dismissed them. I had already shown that Armstrong really should check his sources more carefully as he has a habit of not doing this, leaving it for me to point out that his sources are either not relevant or actually work against his thesis.

As such, his readers must think that because Armstrong is providing an answer – i.e., saying something – he must be providing the answer – i.e., a refutation. They, his readers, are not bothering to check his work, through confirmation bias. OF course, this could probably be levelled at most of my readers here. The question then is, who is more honest with their sources?

So, the second “gotcha”. This one was nuanced and I don’t blame him for not checking it because it was a French source. However, as I mentioned, I have a degree in French and was able to do a translation of the pertinent parts. I’ve also been helped hugely by another comment here who has delved even deeper into the sources, including the original German translation of the Akkadian letter. Here is Armstrong’s comment (his blockquote now in italics so as not to confuse matters):

You prove once again that you not only ignore answering my rebuttals, but don’t even read them in the first place (as you have now admitted several times):

“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.”

From my article:

But there is further compelling archaeological evidence closer to the time of Moses. Steve Vinson’s article, “Seafaring” [see link], in Elizabeth Frood and Willeke Wendrich (editors), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles, 2009, stated (my bolding):…

A fascinating letter, in Akkadian, from the court of Ramses II [1303-1213 BC; r. 1279-1213, which overlaps the life of Moses] speaks of an Egyptian ship that had been sent to the Hittites, evidently for the purpose of allowing Hittite shipwrights to copy it (Fabre 2004: 96). The only constructional details we get are that the ship apparently had internal framing (ribs), and that it was caulked with pitch (Pomey 2006: 240), a practice now paralleled archaeologically by a water-proofing agent observed on some planks salvaged from New Kingdom sea-going ships found at Marsa Gawasis [see link on that] (Ward and Zazzaro fc.; cf. Vinson 1996: 200 for the practice in Greco-Roman antiquity and one occurrence in Roman Egypt). Whether this was a traditionally constructed Egyptian hull, or a new-style hull based on Eastern Mediterranean/Aegean principles, is unknown.…

Fabre, David 2004 Seafaring in ancient Egypt. London: Periplus.
Pomey, Patrice 2006 Le rôle du dessin dans la conception des navires antiques: À propos de deux textes akkadiens. In L’Apport de l’Égypte à l’histoire des techniques: Méthodes, chronologie et comparaisons, Bibliothèque d’étude 142, ed. Bernard Mathieu, Dimitri Meeks, and Myriam Wissa, pp. 239 – 252. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Vinson, Steve 1996 Paktou/n and Pa,ktwsij as ship-construction terminology in Herodotus, Pollux, and documentary papyri. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 113, pp. 197 – 204.
Ward, Cheryl, and Chiara Zazzaro 2007 Finds: Ship evidence. In Harbor of the pharaohs to the land of Punt: Archaeological investigations at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt, 2001 – 2005, ed. Kathryn Bard, and Rodolfo Fattovich, pp. 135 – 153. Naples: Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”. fc. Evidence for Pharaonic seagoing ships at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

The New Kingdom of Egypt is the period from 1570-1069 BC, which includes the entire lifetime of Moses.…

My reply:

Even before I begin to look into this – again let me refer you to the claims of general pitch usage, and particularly in the Nile River basin. No evidence for caulking baskets (the nearest comes from Israel) or even gluing tools (again, Israel iirc); such use in Egypt, and then in our reference period and exact place, is inference only from some sparse evidence of raw pitch being found a few times about the whole nation – ie uncommonly.

Egyptian vessels generally didn’t need caulking because they were too light, or were caulked between planks with reeds. This we have a whole BUNCH of evidence for.

Now, because I am a skeptic, I check sources. Here is the quote from Ward & Zazarro (that returns no “pitch” results in the paper):

A 3–4 cm wide black coating along plank seams (T13, T14, T41) probably represents a waterproofing agent on the outer planking surface. The coating has not been analyzed chemically. No petroleum-like odour, such as bitumen might produce, was detected when a small fragment was burnt. In 2005–06, all Type 4 planks were acacia or sycomore; in 2006–07, Zazzaro and Claire Calcagno recorded a Type 4 plank of cedar, reworked from a Type 2 hullplank. Acacia and sycomore planks were less well preserved than the thicker Type 2 cedar examples. All examples excavated in 2005–06 had been recycled as ramps leading into the entrances to Cave 3 and Cave 4 (Fig. 1).

It absolutely does not support your claim in any way whatsoever. This is waterproofing with a different substance altogether. So the whole mention of New Kingdom and reference to Marsa Gawasis is irrelevant. They did not use pitch for caulking. I’m sure you went to the trouble of checking your own sources to verify this yourself, right?

Now let’s think about the boat mentioned by Pomey. This is fsr more nuanced. I will forgive you for not checking this source as it is in French. Bear in mind that he is sending a letter to the Hittites detailing what appears to be a NEW design and technology precisely because it had not been seen before (certainly by the neighbouring Hittites).

Luckily, I have a degree in French, so I’ll give the analysis tht proceeds the Akkadian letter a stab:

“…For the outside, the Pharaoh recommended using asphalt, that’s to say mineral pitch, in order to seal the hull so that the boats wouldn’t sink. [ie, this is new to them.]
The interest in the last passage concerns sealing procedures highlighted by Dimitri Meeks. He notes, in effect, that the original character of the testimony appears unique for the Pharaonic era. [ie, that such suggestions are unique for this age.]”

So far, this looks pretty understandable. The Pharaoh advises the Hittites take on this new-fangled technology, not seen before, for caulking boats. This would also imply it was not being used to caulk baskets, because you can rest assured, the King’s navy would be using this tech before washerwomen or randos on the edge of the Nile who want to send their babies downstream. And it doesn’t look like it is actually widespread (or evn occasionally used!) with the Egyptians since there is precisely zero evidence of it being used. From your previous source, we know that IF THEY DID caulk,. they would use alternative oils.

The next part I disagree with. I will include it (being honest with my sources), though I somewhat disagree with the analysis:

“He also deduces, rightfully, that the usage of pitch or bitumen for the sealing of seafaring ships hulls however had to be well-known to the Egyptians in order for it to be an object of recommendation by the Pharaoh.”

This should play into your hands. Except I would argue not. So Pomey agrees that this letter is asking the Hittites to copy this new tech, including pitch caulking, because it looks sensible, but Pomey then states (in reference to Meeks) that the Pharaoh must have well known about this already in order to recommend it. Well-known? Hardly, since next door have no idea about it, he is having to explain it, and there is no evidence of it being used in Egypt during this time. This looks like a pretty new tech to the Egyptians because ALL the evidence we have elsewhere is that they caulked between planks (if they did at all) with reeds and other wadding. I’m not even sure there is widespread contemporaneous use of the ribbing either, though I haven’t looked in detail. He is sharing a new thing, I would reason.

The whole point of the letter is to say “look what we’ve got- new fangled awesomeness! I recommend you copy it!” Which is the point of Pomey’s paper – about new ship design for the Egyptians.

Now, I am admittedly doing some inference myself here because we have to fill in the gaps. I definitely know this is new tech to the Hittites because that’s the whole point of the letter and why Rameses is explaining it. He literally explains what pitch does in his letter. Now, the Hittites are literally next door. Part of this letter is about, I presume, offering a fig leaf after the peace treaty they had just signed.

So I would conclude somewhat opposite to this paper, though using other inferences as well: knowing that there is no actual evidence that the Egyptians did widely use (or at all?) this technique themselves as we have no extant evidence of them doing so, though there IS evidence they waterproofed with a DIFFERENT natural oil substance. So perhaps they recognised the usefulness of pitch, but opted to use more locally available substitutes.

What have we learnt from this? Not a lot. We’re pretty much back to where we started.

Beau Quilter, another commenter, did some excellent work to support my position:

I’ve found an English translation of a similar Patrice Pomey article:

Pomey, P. (2009). Chapter Two: On the Use of Design in Ancient Mediterranean Ship Construction. In H. Nowacki & W. Lefèvre (Eds.), Creating Shapes in Civil and Naval Architecture: A Cross-Disciplinary Comparison (1st ed. pp. 49-64). Brill.

Pomey (an archeologist) bases his comments on a restoration of the table (KUB III 82) written in German by Elmar Edel (an Egyptologist) in 1994. Here’s what he writes about Edel’s restoration:

“Unfortunately, the text is gravely incomplete and has been restored by Edel (Figs. 2.1, 2.2, 2.3). According to this restoration Ramses wrote a letter to inform Hattusili about the sending of two ships (one first and a second one later) by the intermediary of the king of the Amurru kingdom in order that the Hittite king’s shipwrights draw a copy of the ship. For that purpose they had to make a drawing to build a replica. He recommended also to make frames (?) and to use asphalt to caulk the ship. The ship drawing had to be made on a tablet. But this restoration is quite hypothetical and raises a lot of questions about the circumstances and the conditions to carry out the operation. However, the remaining original part of the text which is not damaged is nevertheless clear enough to understand that it is the issue to send a boat and then another and to make a drawing of them. There is also the question of an unknown technical word (Edel proposes the word “Spanten”, i.e., “frames”) and to use asphalt.“

This is only section in the article in which “asphalt” is mentioned, and this is the only source from which Dave’s article derive’s the use of asphalt. As you can see, the phrase, “to use asphalt to caulk the ship”, is Pomey’s rewording of a “restoration” by Elmar Edel. Then in the last sentence he notes that a word possibly for “frames” and the use of asphalt are in question.

Unfortunately, Pomey never explains here why the use of asphalt is in question, but only spends the rest of the article talking about the word for “frames” and how it relates to architectural drawing, which is his main concern.

In Chapter Three of the same book, (Were the Hittites Able to Build a Replica of an Egyptian Ship According to their own Drawings?), Lucien Basch gives this explanation for Elmar Edel’s restoration:

“In 1994 Elmar Edel published and commented on a clay tablet inscribed in Akkadian, found somewhere in Hattusas, the capital of the Hittite kingdom (Hatti), addressed to the king of the Hittites, probably Hat-tusilis III, dealing with an Egyptian ship the pharaoh had sent to him (tablet KUB III 82) [1]. In 2006 Patrice Pomey [2] published a further comment where he concluded that the tablet demonstrated, at least with a high degree of probability, that its contents were sufficient to enable the subjects of the Hittite king to build a replica of this ship, though not claiming that the tablet was equivalent to a modern ship lines plan as used from the 17th c. on. The tablet which originally contained at least 20 lines was broken at one end and what remained was severely damaged: Only one third, at the most, on the right-hand side could be read without restoration. Yet it seems that the spirit of the general meaning was that the pharaoh asked the Hittite king to have a drawing made of the ship he had sent and to build a replica of her.Almost the whole rest of the text is the result of Edel’s restoration.“

Lots of question marks here. Pomey is basing all of his comments on a German “restoration” of highly damaged tablet.

Abd then again:

When Pomey says “He also deduces … that the usage of pitch or bitumen for the sealing of seafaring ships hulls … had to be well-known”, is he referring to the original German translator/restorer Elmar Edel? Because Edel was trying to restore damaged text – does Edel have to make this deduction because pitch or bitumen is not in the text at all?

From Basch again:

“The seven first lines of the tablet are almost entirely destroyed. This does not prevent Edel from restoring them completely by a small story”

Basch seems to have some of the same reservations you have about Edel’s knowledge of Egyptian practices:

“Almost the whole rest of the text is the result of Edel’s restoration. Restoration in epigraphy deserves much respect and Edel is without any doubt a distinguished specialist. Yet, as noted by another specialist, L. Robert, “the diffi culty of restoration increases in proportion to the uniqueness of the document” [3], and this tablet is unique. Moreover a familiarity with the subject of the document is helpful. Unfortunately Edel’s knowledge of Egyptian naval architecture seems to have been only limited. E.g. he writes in his comment that the “frames” (or “fl oor timbers”) found in the Cheops ship determined the shape of the hull, 1 which is quite impossible in the system of hull construction of this ship. Still in this comment Edel writes. “In dem umfassenden Buch von Ch. Boreux, Etudes de Nautique Egyptienne, (569 Seiten) steht nichts über das Abdichten von ägyptischen Schiff en” (“In the comprehensive book by Ch. Boreux . . . (569 pages) nothing is stated on the caulking of Egyptian ships”), whereas Boreux wrote that the seams of papyrus boats were likely caulked by “une résine ou bien une mantière bitumineuse, ou bien encore un composé de l’un et de l’autre” ([4], pp. 184, 185).”

I have bolded the final sentence because it is key. My translation of this would be: “a resin or a bituminous covering, or maybe even a compound of both”.

This is vital because there is evidence from the other sources Armstrong has provided that suggest a non-bituminous waterproofing, as I detailed above. So Armstrong’s comebacks really have fallen short of the mark he thinks they have achieved. As I mentioned earlier, I have moved my probability of pitch being used to caulk a basket in the Nile area in the supposed lifetime of Moses from (guestimated, but using the data), say, 2% to 12% (and that may be being generous). But that is only for the proposition “someone in this area and at this time had access to a pitch-caulked basket”. For the full probability of the Moses birth story being true, my probability would be less than 0.01%, and probably considerably so.

Just think about it a second here. Someone would have to have had the forethought to pitch cover a basket so it was still light enough to float so that it would carry a human baby down a river full of crocodiles. They would have to specially make it. You wouldn’t use a pitch-covered reed basket for drawing water; I’m not really sure what you would ever use one for, other than in a mythical tale about sending a baby down a river. There are all sorts of ways of getting rid of a baby, and this is the least likely. It is very mythical in its feel. I can no more think what Mesopotamians would do with such a basket! (The only evidence I can find, from an albeit brief look, is black tarry material found on a basket, one presumes much much later, excavated in Oslo harbour, now in the collection of the Norwegian Maritime Museum, Oslo.)

Armstrong is a biblical literalist, it appears, with a strong motivated reasoning at play to defend that position. You could say the same of me, but it would be incorrect to compare the two of us in terms of motivated reasoning. If it turned out Sargon’s birth myth was based on Moses’ birth myth, or that pitch was widespread…meh. The Moses myth still ain’t true, and I have a whole bunch of data on my side to support it, and it’s mainstream data, not fringe stuff.

We are back to the start, but with a marginally changed formulation: Pitch appears not to have had widespread use, including for waterproofing, at the time and place (Egypt, New Kingdom era). Though there is uncommon evidence of the raw material having been traded in a few places and times in Ancient Egypt, there is no evidence of widespread everyday usage (and this also includes for caulking boats). Whilst it is not impossible for a woman by the Nile to have had a pitch-covered basket, it is incredibly unlikely having surveyed all the evidence. On the contrary, it is not just likely but known that people in the Mesopotamian area used pitch-caulked baskets, and pitch was used there from 4000 BCE onwards. [1] Again:

Which hypothesis is better suited to the claim of the use of a pitch basket (also in context with the rest of the details)?

  1. The Moses story is correct, even if the actually narrative claims are unlikely ‘9given the priors of such extraordinary claims), and given the small probability of pitch being available in the time and place and used for those purposes.
  2. The Moses story is appropriated, as many stories are throughout the world, from a neighbouring culture (when exiled to them), including the narrative elements and the detail of pitch, used widely in the source culture and the writer’s own, but highly unlikely to have been used in the time and place in which the story is actually set.

And finally…

Thanks so much to the input of Beau Quilter. That’s the value of blogs like this. I cover a wide range of topics, many that I don’t have first-hand expertise on, and with the help of such commenters here, the coverage is improved, including of sources. Pun definitely intended.


[1] Use and Trade of Bitumen in Antiquity and Prehistory: Molecular Archaeology Reveals Secrets of Past Civilizations [and Discussion], J. Connan, R. P. Evershed, L. Biek and G. Eglinton, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 354, No. 1379, Molecular Information and Prehistory (Jan. 29, 1999), pp. 33-50


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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,...