Osarsiph and the Exodus
Here’s an interesting passage I came across in doing some research today. In Against Apion 1.26, Flavius Josephus provides the following (very) lengthy quotation from the Egyptian priest Manetho, who writes of an incident that some of suggested reflects the Egyptian version of the Exodus story. I hadn’t read this before, and it’s an interesting tale.
Since the Weebly block quote function puts everything in italics, I’m going to present it as a chunk of text so it’s easier to read. I pick up the story from William Whiston’s translation right after the pharaoh Amenophis orders all of the lepers of Egypt to work in the quarries.
The text as given presents several possible interpretations, all of which have their supporters. Because the pharaoh’s name is a Amenophis (i.e. Amenhotep), which was what Akhenaten was called before he introduced worship of the Aten, some have argued that this is a jumbled account of the Amarna period, as filtered through the damnatio memoriae that followed his chaotic reign. (Josephus considered Amenophis to be fictional.) The references to Avaris, the Hyksos capital, suggest a relationship to that period. But the story overall reads as a highly negative take on the Jewish Exodus narrative, particularly the final reference (sometimes thought to be an interpolation) to the name of Moses. Many have therefore suggested that the tale was originally written as anti-Jewish propaganda.
According to Egyptologist Jan Assmann, the story is not a specific recollection of any one historical incident but rather a conflation of many. Writing in Moses the Egyptian (1998), Assmann argued that Manetho had to have written before the Egyptians had contact with the Hebrew Bible and was therefore recording an oral tradition current among the Egyptians. Assmann believes that the oral tradition combined elements of Akhenaten, the Hysksos period, and oral accounts of Jewish Exodus beliefs. Assmann, however, believes that the idea of Moses and monotheism originate in Akhenaten’s reforms—and is publishing this year a new book called From Akhenaten to Moses to outline his evolving view of the origins of monotheism.
This is beyond my scope for this piece, but it’s interesting to look at this strange passage from Josephus and the fragments of memory embedded in it. And then we can remember that Frank Joseph, the former head of the American Nazi Party, used this material in Opening the Ark of the Covenant (2007) as evidence that the Jews were really “leprous Asiatics” who stole their culture—and treasure—from Egypt.
8/19/2014 04:48:41 am
I've never found the evidence of Jewish monotheism developing out of Akhenaton's reforms terribly compelling. It's a stretch that is not adequately supported by the evidence, in my opinion. The Akhenaton-Moses connection was seized upon by the archeologists who first uncovered el-Amarna in the early 19th century. It was linked to some of the hyper critical interpretations of Judaism and Christianity of the time (you know, the crap 666 is stuck on even though things have changed in the last century or two). To be sure Egyptian culture influenced Palestine, especially the kingdom of Ammon south-east of the Dead Sea.
8/19/2014 05:01:37 am
8/19/2014 05:55:06 am
Isn't it curious that the article mentions cities that should not have existed yet as though they were already there? Jerusalem shouldn't have been there yet, at least not with that name. If it was supposed to be the exodus it would have predated the Jews even entering the promised land, and thus, no 'city on a hill'. Other names seem to be corruptions of modernized Greek names, of which Egyptians wouldn't have used. Who compiled this mess?
Who Compiled This Mess
8/19/2014 08:49:57 am
Josephus was a Jew living in the first century AD and writing in Latin. He was drawing upon the work of Manetho, an Egyptian who wrote a history of Egypt in the Greek language in the third century BC, centuries and millennia after most of the events he described. Josephus was countering another writer, Apion, who derided the Jews and used this passage of Manetho to insult them. Josephus quoted this passage of Manetho before arguing that the most insulting parts of it were lies. What Josephus originally wrote may also have been distorted by later scribes, as is true with all ancient books.
1/3/2015 07:19:38 am
On the other hand, the same could be said of the Bible, Mr. WhoCompiledThisMess. There is nothing disrespectful or "wrong" with trying to find out the truth of ancient history. So what if the Hebrews evolved from the Hyksos?
Who Compiled This Mess
5/31/2015 06:22:13 am
All I was doing was answering Kal's question. I never meant to imply that it is wrong to search for the truth of ancient history. I was simply pointing out that Josephus and Apion and Manetho all had agendas and had limited knowledge of events more than a thousand years before their own time, so probably none of their interpretations are entirely correct. One could indeed ask who compiled the mess known as the Bible. It is the product of the same kind of distorted memory and reworking of tradition, on a far grander scale, taking place over many centuries and involving multiple authors. There is a vast field of research devoted to answering exactly those questions. So far, however, people working in that field tend to doubt that Josephus or Apion were correct about the Hebrew–Hyksos connection. Most of them nowadays date the Hebrews' ethnogenesis to the Bronze Age collapse, about 500 years after the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt. That means that the Exodus tradition is either entirely unrelated to events of the Hyksos period or based on a very faint folk memory of those events.
10/29/2016 11:03:51 pm
In Conventional Chronology the Amarna letters have Jerusalem already known by that name under Ebed-Tov.
8/19/2014 10:43:27 am
8/19/2014 11:30:43 am
The Amarna period is basically scholarly quicksand and it attracts large number of kooks and kook theories. However one thing should be made clear. The idea that Hebrew Monotheism came from the religious reforms of the Pharaoh Akhenaten is dubious. First it is debatable to put it mildly whether or not Akhenaten's new faith was in fact Monotheistic to begin with. It appears for example that Akhenaten expected the people to worship him and his family has divine while the royal family worshipped the Aten. Further there is to put it mildly precious little evidence that Akhenaten denied the existence of other Gods.
8/19/2014 12:07:57 pm
I agree with pretty much everything Pacal says.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
8/19/2014 01:47:22 pm
Is Assmann arguing that there's a direct connection between Akhenaten and Hebrew monotheism? The online description for the new book just says Akhenaten and Moses "symbolize" the shift from polytheism to monotheism, and it calls Moses a "figure of tradition", which doesn't necessarily imply that he existed.
8/19/2014 01:53:25 pm
He goes back and forth on the details. But the general framework is a kind of flaky, wishy-washy "collective memory" type of thing, where the questions of historical truth play a surprisingly minor role. He doesn't really care about "direct connections" as much as about isolating certain patterns which may then be woven into hard-to-criticize narratives.
8/19/2014 02:04:17 pm
Let me just illustrate the "flavor" of Assmann with a couple of quotes:
8/19/2014 02:42:58 pm
Again, because the subject and comments are completely outside of my realm of expertise, can we all please let me enjoy the fact that this thread involves the unfortunate name of "Assmann"?
8/19/2014 02:45:07 pm
I swear I wasn't even going for that! Get your mind out of the gutter! :P
8/20/2014 07:03:30 pm
Dickey, do you need Chinese finger traps to aid in controlling your compulsion? Look at the article headline. It's about Osarsiph and the Exodus.
8/21/2014 01:24:52 pm
@ Only Me
8/21/2014 01:43:19 pm
Except the sapient reptiles. I'm not ready for those!
8/21/2014 01:51:53 pm
They are ready for you though. Roll for anal circumference! :)
8/21/2014 02:03:29 pm
Whoa. Deja vu.
8/21/2014 03:28:40 pm
8/22/2014 02:00:28 am
Did a Ufo help to part the Red Sea?
8/22/2014 03:06:37 am
Based on this post alone, Dickey, if all of us were light bulbs, you'd be the burnt out two watt.
8/22/2014 12:02:51 pm
Hey ., have YOU ever "rolled for anal circumference"?
8/23/2014 10:52:44 am
Upon thinking this over... yes I do assume most E.Ts
8/22/2014 04:37:23 pm
"it’s interesting to look at this strange passage from Josephus and the fragments of memory embedded in it."
10/29/2016 11:02:11 pm
I've written on this.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.