Reviewed by Robert Tulip
1. DM Murdock’s study of the biblical stories of Moses and their sources is a compelling and detailed analysis of the available textual and archaeological evidence. She explains in great depth and breadth the facts surrounding this major religious character, rigorously and systematically drawing on sound scholarship to demonstrate a new, provocative and coherent interpretation that refutes conventional assumptions. In highlighting the best and most scientific research, Murdock brings forth lost information with the high goal of enabling greater understanding and social harmony.
“A compelling and detailed analysis explaining in great depth and breadth the facts surrounding this major religious character, rigorously and systematically drawing on sound scholarship.”
2. The findings of this important research should be the subject of much wider conversation about how and why the Bible was written and how it is perceived and used today. The low level of public interest in this material is disturbing, showing the strong pathologies that still surround religion, with widespread prejudices inhibiting scientific analysis of history. Murdock has maintained a fierce integrity in her analysis by working as an independent scholar. Did Moses Exist? presents a jarring conflict with established patterns of thought, and does so with systematic rigor and depth of scholarship. This book deserves to be read as a major contribution to the assessment of the supernatural myths of Judeo-Christian tradition against a modern natural scientific perspective.
“Murdock has maintained a fierce integrity in her analysis by working as an independent scholar…. This book deserves to be read as a major contribution to the assessment of the supernatural myths of Judeo-Christian tradition…”
Moses Not the Author of the Pentateuch
3. The Pentateuch or Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is conventionally but falsely attributed to Moses. The real authors had agendas far removed from the modern goal of providing accurate historical accounts. Murdock explores how the Bible authors adapted older myths, and how the Bible gives readers a false picture about how and why it was written. In an illuminating comment, she says that “popular religious, spiritual and mythological ideas often float between cultures during contacts of a wide variety, from conquests of peoples to cross-cultural royal marriages, deliberate exchanges between educated priesthoods and travelling merchants, as well as the lowliest illiterate slaves sharing their faiths with one another.” (p. 22)
4. This context of broad multilayered cultural contact means that biblical themes often reflect widespread and enduring genres, for example with the Egyptian solar worship seen in Psalm 104. The Mosaic texts evolved and were combined in complex ways that are not obvious, like a natural mosaic of pebbles in a river. The Torah only achieved final form nearly a thousand years after the supposed time of the Exodus, with Moses astoundingly absent from the writings of the pre-exile prophets in the Bible. The Exodus is also entirely absent from non-Biblical sources. The authors had abundant opportunity to create the Moses stories drawing from a range of real origins, simplifying and mythifying chaotic cultural relations into archetypal symbols and stories that served political purposes.
“The Torah only achieved final form nearly a thousand years after the supposed time of the Exodus, with Moses astoundingly absent from the writings of the pre-exile prophets in the Bible.”
Moses as Myth
5. In fact, the first books of the Bible bear little if any connection to real events, but evolved from far older stories, serving agendas of cultural construction rather than historical description. Murdock shows that Moses stories originated in myths of a fictional solar god or hero, and the Moses figure was designed to synthesise a range of religious traditions into a simple historical story. As his myth evolved within the Bible, Moses was demoted from a god to a hero, to support Jewish monotheist ideas of cultural identity and security. Elements of the stories that did not meet these political objectives were altered or discarded.
“Murdock shows that Moses stories originated in myths of a fictional solar god or hero…. As his myth evolved within the Bible, Moses was demoted from a god to a hero…”
6. The invention of Moses is broadly recognised by scholars but is immensely controversial for conventional religion. Popular reverence for Moses approaches that for Jesus Christ. Jews and Christians want to believe the stories are true in order to justify their faith, and they are often emotionally affronted by challenges to their naïve assumptions. The Exodus is a powerful model of liberation from oppression. It presents the ethical clash between monotheism and paganism, providing the foundation for Christian dogmas of good and evil. But believing stories on emotional grounds is a dishonest historical method. If we are serious in our commitment to truth, we should try to understand the realities behind the untrue stories that Christians and Jews have been taught as divine truth. The key message in Did Moses Exist? is that an ethical and scientific approach to religious studies requires a comprehensive inversion of received opinion.
The Bible as Allegory
7. In advocating this scientific paradigm shift in religious studies, Murdock goes much further than conventional critical theology in looking for coherent explanations. The dominance of the church has meant that scholarship on religion has often accepted dogmatic assumptions that lack evidence. The power of popular prejudice about the reliability of the biblical record and the nature of God has corrupted theology with literal acceptance of claims that were originally meant as allegory.
8. Biblical texts contain multiple levels of meaning. The simple literal stories conceal a wealth of deeper symbolic understandings. Over the millennia, simple orthodox faith has gradually forgotten and suppressed cultural memory of the concealed complex vision in the texts, in favour of what people wanted to believe.
9. Conventional theology starts from a premise of respect for religious belief. While seemingly reasonable, this approach has resulted in indifference about evidence, willingness to be intimidated by faith, and failing to realise that the surface text does not convey the real meaning originally intended by the authors. The systematic analysis of ancient evidence and archaeological data in Did Moses Exist?, and in Murdock’s earlier books, overturns major cultural beliefs regarding the origin of the Bible stories.
“The systematic analysis of ancient evidence and archaeological data in Did Moses Exist?, and in Murdock’s earlier books, overturns major cultural beliefs regarding the origin of the Bible stories.”
The Exodus as Fiction
10. Murdock summarises the broad scholarly consensus of evidence about the Exodus story as related in the Bible, to show Moses did not exist and the Exodus did not happen. The data show the stories are fiction, not fact. Moses is myth historicised, not history mythologised. The captivity in Egypt, the mass flight of the Jewish people, the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the 40 years in the Sinai Peninsula, the Jewish conquest of the Promised Land – none of these fabled events actually occurred. If these events had happened, archaeological data would support the stories of the Bible. In fact, the Egyptian Empire controlled Canaan at the claimed time of the Exodus. This is just one of the myriad problems that show the biblical account is clearly fictional. The Moses story does not appear until after the Jewish captivity in Babylon, centuries after its events, and then, like so many other Bible stories, it shows clear evidence of the transposition of other myths into a Jewish framework.
“Moses is myth historicised, not history mythologised. The captivity in Egypt, the mass flight of the Jewish people, the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the 40 years in the Sinai Peninsula, the Jewish conquest of the Promised Land – none of these fabled events actually occurred.”
11. The gulf between the possible events and the Biblical story is vast. One possible origin Murdock cites is the hypothesis of Russell Gmirkin in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus that the entire Pentateuch was written in Alexandria in the third century BCE, and that the Egyptian writer Manetho provided the framework for the Exodus. The bottom line in terms of Bayesian probability is that if Moses did not exist, the existing texts are possible, but if Moses did exist, the texts would be very different. This simple point of logic shows that Moses did not exist.
Science and Skepticism
12. The paradigm of modern science requires an attitude of relentless scepticism towards data. Biblical studies have traditionally been unscientific, using methods corrupted by faith. No well-informed people today believe in Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, or traditional literal concepts of God and Heaven. These stories are generally seen as mythical, like Greek and Egyptian myths. But some biblical characters, such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and Jesus, are still widely accepted as historical, even though the evidence indicates they too are fictional. This fascinating question of how myths came to be seen as history is at the heart of Murdock’s deconstruction of the biblical narrative. Psychologically, to claim a god is real increases the political power of belief in that god. Similarly, belief in Moses or Jesus as historical figures serves to simplify and clarify biblical faith, regardless of the evidence.
“Some biblical characters, such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and Jesus, are still widely accepted as historical, even though the evidence indicates they too are fictional. This fascinating question of how myths came to be seen as history is at the heart of Murdock’s deconstruction of the biblical narrative.”
13. Part of the shift of understanding now underway is that conventional views of history can be placed in a longer time frame. Looking beyond just the conventional written records, DNA analysis explains the diffusion of humanity from Africa over the last hundred thousand years, an immensely long period in which our species has been modern in brain and body capacity. The entirety of biblical writing dates to the three thousand years since the dawn of the Iron Age around 1000 BCE, after the Bronze Age collapse. Once we start to place the extant written record within the longer paleontological context of prehistory, conventional views become very shaky. Murdock accepts this larger paleolithic framework for myth, opening the question of how some religious ideas reach back into very ancient African and Indian sources.
14. Murdock devotes most of her Moses book to compiling information that can help us to work out what really happened in the process of writing the Bible. The conclusion is that the reality is extremely different from the traditional myths. Over the generations people had strong incentive and means to promote myths as history, establishing powerful false beliefs that still endure today. The evolutionary drift of the stories meant they gradually changed towards what people wanted them to say. This fact is confronting for people who have internalised Biblical stories as part of their personal cultural identity, but such psychological challenges should not deter rigorous analysis.
Gilgamesh and Dionysus
15. There is no evidence for stories about Moses from earlier than about 600 BCE, a dating which incidentally illustrates that the jibe of the Bible as the product of Bronze Age shepherds is wrong, since the Bronze Age ended many centuries before the Moses stories appear. However, many themes that appear in the later Pentateuch literature can be found in myths that date back much earlier, especially the stories of the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, and of the wine God Dionysus, whose cult extended from Greece across the Middle East.
“…many themes that appear in the later Pentateuch literature can be found in myths that date back much earlier, especially the stories of the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, and of the wine God Dionysus…”
16. Analysis of the Dionysus evidence shows that big themes in early Judaism were later systematically suppressed for political reasons. Primarily, these important themes include the role of religion in helping people to enjoy life, and the role of religion in explaining nature.
War and Patriarchy
17. Ancient Israel was a tiny nation seeking peace and security in a region dominated by big aggressive empires, including in early days Babylon, Egypt, Assyria and Persia, and later Greece and Rome. Over the course of the Bronze and Iron Ages, war steadily escalated. Weapons of stone and wood were replaced by bronze from about 3000 BCE and then by the new higher technology of iron from about 1000 BCE. The emergence of iron technology meant that war became more frequent, large scale and violent. How could Israel protect itself?
18. My own speculation, and an area that I suggest Murdock could usefully further discuss, is that the evolution of the Moses stories match to the thesis that earlier more peaceable cultures, with greater social equality, freedom, diversity and pleasure, were replaced by warrior cultures, grounded in hierarchy, dogma, conformity and a puritanical patriarchal morality. Murdock discusses the patriarchal biblical agenda of the prophets in terms of the rise of megalomania, but it is important to recognise that the war myths of the Bible were suited to their political context, a context enframed in the myth of the fall from grace. As we now shift to a new global context, the stories that provide meaning for us today should also shift. As Murdock says, myth is not meaningless. However, finding the meaning in the myths of monotheism puts them in a dubious ethical light.
19. King Josiah is recorded in the Bible as smashing the female astral cult of Asherah. It appears that Josiah saw astral religion as incompatible with the need for a regimented patriarchal society that would obey a strict and severe morality. His political vision involved a promise from Yahweh to give Israel the land of Canaan. The divine deal of land for faith means that if the Israelites are unfaithful to God, they will lose the land. The Biblical prophets, such as Amos and Jeremiah, argued that the only way Israel could obtain military security was by radically distinguishing its monotheist religion from the polytheistic astral traditions then prevalent, and by using monotheism as a basis for ethical standards that would enable Israel to maintain cordial relations with its big dangerous neighbours. So the relatively more anarchic local freedoms of the Bronze Age and earlier times were gradually lost under the hierarchical imperial obedience of the Iron Age in service to ideas of national security.
Volcano, Storm and Wine Gods
20. This cultural evolution towards patriarchal regimentation set the scene for the construction of the Moses Myth. From relatively peaceful societies where religion had provided a controlled social structure for experience of ecstasy and a cosmology to interpret nature, the new conflicted times required that ecstasy be shunned as dangerous and dissolute, and that nature be placed within the supernatural framework of a violent God of wrath. This agenda of social control used the Moses story as its founding myth of a god of volcano and storm. But earlier Jewish religion was much more Dionysiac, recognising the importance of wine as a source of pleasure. And indeed, Murdock provides a fascinating array of common features between Moses and Dionysus. In an extraordinary list of 46 similarities between Moses and Dionysus drawn from sources such as Homer, Pausanius, Cicero, Diodorus, Apollodorus, Macrobius, Euripides, Strabo, Seneca, Arrian and other ancient and modern writers, Murdock demonstrates such detail of structure and intent as to show that the Moses myth was in large part constructed on Dionysian origins.
“Murdock provides a fascinating array of common features between Moses and Dionysus. In an extraordinary list of 46 similarities between Moses and Dionysus drawn from sources such as Homer, Pausanius, Cicero, Diodorus, Apollodorus, Macrobius, Euripides, Strabo, Seneca, Arrian and other ancient and modern writers…”
21. One of the hard things to appreciate in cultural evolution is that when older myths are suppressed, much evidence about them can be destroyed. Especially with oral transmission, as a society changes its prevailing views the evidence of the older ideas can be lost, except for traces in durable media such as stone. George Orwell puts this well in his novel 1984, when he says: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” So with the biblical authors of the Moses story, as in the story of King Josiah in the seventh century BCE, their control of the temple enabled them to conveniently “find” an ancient scroll, which we know today as the Book of Deuteronomy, one of the supposed five books of Moses. Deuteronomy was written to convey a plausible story about Israel’s past, so the kings could maintain control into the future. Gaps of many centuries are passed over in the Bible, but these gaps should give readers today reason to see the works as entirely fictional.
Enigmas and Prebiblical Motifs
22. Did Moses Exist? begins with the observation that the Church Father Origen of Alexandria told Celsus that the Egyptians veiled their knowledge of things in fable and allegory. Origen said: “The learned may penetrate into the significance of all Oriental mysteries, but the vulgar can only see the exterior symbol. It is allowed by all who have any knowledge of the Scriptures that everything is conveyed enigmatically.” The story of Moses is full of enigmas. The similarities to the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh, the story of Sargon, and the story of Dionysus illustrate that we are dealing with myth, not history. The veneration of a bronze snake on a pole is utterly contrary to the Genesis vision of the snake as evil and to Josiah’s later removal of this snake idol from the temple, but the raising up of the snake on the pole then becomes a central image for Jesus Christ, immediately before the famous line John 3:16. The magical wand used by Moses to make water gush from rock is a hermetic symbol like the rod of Hermes, the trident of Neptune and the bow of Mithras, producing what Jesus would call living water and what Paul would call the water of the supernatural Christ. The Ark of the Covenant is a highly mysterious symbol with antecedents in Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek myth.
“The similarities to the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh, the story of Sargon, and the story of Dionysus illustrate that we are dealing with myth, not history.”
23. To illustrate the controversy in all this material, one commentator has claimed that the suggestion the myth of Moses drew on stories of Dionysus should be dismissed as ludicrous. This example is well worth more detailed debate. There is evidence of the worship of Dionysus dating from the second millennium BCE, but Moses is not mentioned for nearly a thousand years after that. Dionysus was wildly popular across the Mediterranean, with hundreds of early extant mentions and images, figuring prominently in Homer and Hesiod, and filling the Moses role of lawgiver. The Greek historian Herodotus, fifth century BCE, says the cult of Dionysus came to Greece from Egypt, and that Dionysus was one of the main Gods of the Arabs. There is no mention of Moses before the Babylonian captivity. The Encyclopedia Judaica reports the cult of Dionysus was widespread among Jews. Grapes, the object of the Dionysus cult, were grown in Israel for thousands of years before Christ, featuring in the Christ Myth in the water to wine miracle at the wedding at Cana and in the transubstantiation of wine into the blood of Christ in the sacrament.
24. The range of ancient authors listed above indicate the abundant fertile sources for the Biblical authors to construct Moses as a divine hero. Murdock’s thesis about the cultural evolutionary antecedents for Moses applies sound scholarship to confront deep prejudice. Dismissal of this new systematic approach to biblical studies is careless, to put it mildly. This example alone of the connections between Moses and Dionysus shows that Murdock has provided fascinating insights into the nature of religious thought, and the need for a comprehensive paradigm shift in discussion of religious origins. Did Moses Exist? is a magnificent and courageous work of sound scholarship, based on deep insight into the actual nature of religious evolution.
“Murdock’s thesis about the cultural evolutionary antecedents for Moses applies sound scholarship to confront deep prejudice. Dismissal of this new systematic approach to biblical studies is careless, to put it mildly….
“Did Moses Exist? is a magnificent and courageous work of sound scholarship, based on deep insight into the actual nature of religious evolution.”
For more information, see Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver.