Do we have reputable sources telling us about the history of Moses? Who was Moses? Was he real? For many people, his name is synonymous with the Ten Commandments. It is believed that he was the author of the Torah or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.
According to the Bible and the Torah, he was a great Hebrew leader. God appointed him to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and bring them to the promised land, Canaan. But before he became an Israelite leader, he was a member of the Egyptian royal family. How is that possible? From which nation did he originate?
The Bible narrates the history of Moses. It relates that he belonged to the tribe of Levi. The Levites had a special religious status and role. During his infancy, Pharaoh issued a decree to kill all baby boys. To save his life, his loving mother placed him in a papyrus basket and set him afloat on the River Nile. Fortunately, Pharaoh’s daughter came by and saw the baby in the floating basket. Out of pity and love, she resolved to adopt him; that’s how he became an Egyptian prince.
The princess named him Moses. In Hebrew, this name means ‘to draw from or pull out’ (i.e. from the water) and also ‘saviour or deliverer‘. In the Egyptian language, it may be derived from ‘mes‘ meaning ‘son‘.
What is the basis of the history of Moses? Is it just another old wives’ tale?
Moses as a Hebrew – History of Moses
The origin of the word Hebrew has no connection to ethnicity or race. Scholars believe it comes from the word ‘Habiru’ (also Hapiru or Apiru), a landless people who were willing to sell themselves as slaves to earn a living. Their population grew to such an extent that the pharaohs believed they were a threat to Egypt, and so they exploited them.
Moses as Mentioned by Ancient Historians
A Greek historian and geographer (c.550—c.476 BC), Hecataeus also studied the history of Moses.
His books tell of Egypt suffering from a plague. The Egyptians’ solution was to restore their traditional worship and drive away foreigners with different worship beliefs. According to Hecataeus, some of the foreigners fled to Judea under Moses. This leader promoted customs different from the other nations, especially establishing monotheistic worship—without images. Diodorus used much of his work, preserving excerpts about the history of Moses, such as this:
“From time immemorial there lived minorities in Egypt whose manner of sacrificing differed from that of the general population. When a plague occurred, the Egyptians expelled them.
Some found refuge in Greece; the majority fled to Judea, then uninhabited. Their leader, Moses, founded Hierosolyma and its Temple, establishing a cult and a constitution which differed completely from any other.
Because he believed that God is the master of the universe, Moses prohibited the presentation of the divine in a human form. The laws of marriage and burial differed from those among other groups of men, to whom the
Jews adopted a hostile attitude. The Jews never had a king, but Moses assigned a prominent role to the priests, the chief of whom is said to receive messages from God.
When he teaches the divine commandments, the assembled Jews prostrate themselves until the high priest concludes with these words: “Moses heard these words from God, and he spoke them to the Jews.” During the Persian and Macedonian occupations, Hecataeus concludes, many of their ancient institutions were modified.” (1)
What can you say about the history of Moses?
Diodorus Siculus (or Diodorus of Sicily)
Diodorus is a first-century Greek historian who also worked on the history of Moses. Here are some excerpts from his well-known Bibliotheca Historica, a work of universal history in forty books:
“The leader of this colony was one Moses, a very wise and valiant man, who, after he had possessed himself of the country, amongst other cities, built that now most famous city, Jerusalem, and the temple there, which is so greatly revered among them . . .
“(Moses) instituted the holy rites and ceremonies with which they worship God; and made laws for the methodical government of the state.
He also divided the people into twelve tribes, which he regarded as the most perfect number; because it corresponds to the twelve months within a whole year . . .
“(Moses) also ordered the inhabitants to be careful in rearing their children, who are brought up with very little expense; and by that means the Jewish nation has always been very populous.
As to their marriages and funerals, he instituted customs far different from all other people. But under the empires which rose up in later ages, especially during the rule of the Persians, and in the time of the Macedonians, who overthrew the Persians, through intermingling with foreign nations, many of the traditional customs among the Jews were altered. . . . This is what Hecataeus . . . has related about the Jews.” (2)
The history of Moses has much factual evidence indeed.
Lysimachus of Alexandria
He is a first-century Greek grammarian who also researched about the history of Moses. He wrote a book about Egypt, including a version of the exodus account from which Josephus quoted in his work, Apion.
Lysimachus’ version pictured leprous Jews who flooded the temples to beg for food, resulting in a food shortage in Egypt.
An oracle of the Egyptian god Ammon implemented purging the temples of the impious. So the lepers were driven out to the wilderness. Some were drowned, while the survivors had to experience afflictions in the desert.
Lysimachus mentioned a certain Moses who advised the surviving lepers to ravage an inhabited country (now called Judea). There they built Hierosyla, which means “town of temple-robbers”.
Another contributor to the history of Moses was Chaeremon, an Egyptian priest. He lived in Alexandria during the early first century BC and then moved to Rome where he became Nero’s tutor. Josephus also cites him. His version of the exodus is quite similar to that of Lysimachus.
Manetho of Sebennytos
Widely known for his Aegyptiaca or ‘History of Egypt’, he is one of the top favorites of many Egyptologists. Egyptologists are historians, archaeologists or linguists who specialize in studying the antiquities of ancient Egypt.
Manetho was an Egyptian priest and historian who examined the history of Moses. It was during the third century BC (Ptolemaic era). Scholars use his works as a credible source for listing the royal dynasties of Egypt.
According to his account, the Hyksos conquered Egypt and ruled for five hundred years. Hyksos, as translated by Josephus, means “captive shepherds” or “king shepherds”.
In the Egyptian language, it is closely related to heqa-khase or “rulers of foreign lands”. The king of Thebes, Thumosis, besieged their city Avaris forcing the Hyksos to emigrate to Syria and settle in Judea.
Josephus is another scholar who investigated on the history of Moses. He makes reference to a genuine Manetho and a pseudo-Manetho. In the latter’s story, Pharaoh brought the lepers to the quarries and isolated them in Avaris.
Osarseph (also Osarsiph), a renegade Egyptian priest, led the unclean people against Amenophis, the pharaoh at that time. He implemented anti-Egyptian worship and laws.
A Roman historian in the first century BC, Pompeius wrote Historicae Philippicae (Philippic History). In his study of the history of Moses, he found out that he was a prominent Egyptian, and during his time the country was plagued by leprosy.
Similar to other ancient writers’ stories, the Egyptian gods’ oracle says that the only cure for the land was to expel Moses and the lepers. When he left, Moses took with him sacred objects which the Egyptians attempted to recover, but storms hindered them.
From that time on, this leader implemented laws to keep his constituents separate from others.
Artapanus of Alexandria
Lived during the first century BC. His works were lost, but excerpts were cited by the Church Fathers such as Eusebius and Clement of Alexandria. In his book On the Jews (or Concerning the Jews), he mentions about the history of Moses. He says that Egypt was indebted to the Jews for knowledge and technology.
He identified Moses with the semi-mythical Greek poet Musaeus and the Egyptian god of writing and culture, Thoth.
According to his writing, Moses was Hermes, the mentor of Orpheus (a legendary ancient Greek musician, prophet and poet).
King Chenephres became jealous and tried to kill him. During Moses’ exile, God appeared to him in a fire and commanded him to confront the king and rescue the Jews.
Moses obeyed, but the king had him imprisoned. Moses was able to escape through divine intervention but, from then on, the country was afflicted by plagues making the king relent.
While making their escape to the wilderness the Jews were pursued by the Egyptians whom God destroyed with flood and fire. (3, 4)
Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus
Modern scholars consider him to be one of the greatest Roman historians. In his Histories and Annals, he mentions a significant event in the history of Moses. That is the plague in Egypt that disfigured the body.
The solution from the god Ammon was to remove the hateful Jews from the land. The Jews’ leader, Moses, led them to water amid their pilgrimage by following asses.
In six days, the pilgrims reached a country and drove the inhabitants away. Further, Tacitus claimed that the Jews set up the worship of the ass idol and that they introduced practices opposed to other races.
This Hellenized Egyptian sophist and grammarian flourished in the early first century AD. He has written about the history of Moses telling that he was an Egyptian priest in the principal city of ancient Egypt called Heliopolis.
The account says that he built temples and established worship practices that were quite different from Egyptian customs.
A Greek historian and geographer who witnessed both the Roman Empire’s institution by Augustus and the Roman Republic’s final collapse.
He is well known for his large-scale works. One account talks about the history of Moses. According to this account, Moses was an Egyptian. He was disappointed with his country’s worship and so exiled himself.
He then led worship without images. Strabo points out that Jewish legalism was implemented only after the death of Moses.
Demetrius the Chronographer
Also called Demetrius the Chronicler, he was a Jewish historian (writing in Greek) of the latter part of the third century BC. Though his works were almost lost, a few fragments were preserved through the citations of Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, Alexander Polyhistor and Josephus.
In his document Praeparatio Evangelica, Demetrius gave an account on the history of Moses, stressing the genealogy of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. He also mentions the sweetening of the Marah waters. (5, 6)
Probably the earliest significant Greco-Jewish historian and diplomat. He lived in the second century BC. In his work On the Kings in Judaea, he asserts that Moses taught the alphabet and writing to the Jews, Phoenicians and Greeks. (7)
Moses in the Quran
The Islamic sacred book has the same account on the history of Moses as that of the Torah and the Bible. (8)
What Modern Studies Say About the History of Moses
In 1992 an interesting article appeared in the paper Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, 14 March: “Research Supports Bible’s Account of Red Sea Parting”.
The study used sophisticated computer analyses of the effects of wind speed over the sea. This was a modern joint work by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the University of Rhode Island, Florida State University and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. (9)
The Bottom Line
This is just some of the evidence for the existence and history of Moses. There are other references to Moses found outside of the Bible. He was not a mythical figure, but rather a leader and prophet, favored by God. It may seem like just a story, but learning about the history of Moses can provide many lessons for us to live by and a bright hope for tomorrow.
Tune in to Chasing Hope podcasts, and together we will grow in faith.
- Hecataeus of Abdera° | Encyclopedia.com
- Evidence Of The Exodus (earlychurchhistory.org)
- Artapanus of Alexandria – Works and Portrayal of Moses | Works Portrayal Moses (liquisearch.com)
- artapanus of alexandria : definition of artapanus of alexandria and synonyms of artapanus of alexandria (English) (sensagent.com)
- Demetrius the Chronographer: 225 BC Mt. PDF online Sinai in Arabia (bible.ca)
- Demetrius the Chronographer • The Lost Books of The Bible
- Judaism – The Roman period (63 bce–135 ce) | Britannica
- Story of Moses in the Quran | Facts about the Muslims & the Religion of Islam – Toll-free hotline 1-877-WHY-ISLAM
- Crossing the Waters: Moses and Hamilcar on JSTOR