Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 8, the Chaeremon Theory

Emperor Nero, who was tutored by Chaeremon

For Part 1, Introduction go here

For Part 2, Merneptah and the Book of Judges go here

For Part 3, The Problem of Solomon’s Chronology go here

For Part 4, The 430-year Sojourn go here

For Part 5, The 400 years of slavery go here

For Part 6, The Hyksos Theory go here

For Part 7, The Osarseph Theory, go here

Chaeremon, an Egyptian priest who tutored Emperor Nero, wrote a version of the Exodus story that had a number of similarities to Manetho’s Osarseph story but had enough differences to suggest that he worked from a different source than Manetho did. If so, then there would have been multiple versions of Egyptian Exodus accounts in the Egyptian libraries. You may want to first reread the Osarseph theory in Part 7 to refresh your recollection as there will be some references to that installment.

Chaeremon wrote in the first century and was a contemporary of Josephus. The latter was responsible for preserving Chaeremon’s account. (See Against Apion 1.32–33. You can read Josephus’s account and his comments here.) Here is what he says.

Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 7, the Osarseph Theory

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family. (Photo from KMT magazine.)

For Part 1, Introduction go here

For Part 2, Merneptah and the Book of Judges go here

For Part 3, The Problem of Solomon’s Chronology go here

For Part 4, The 430-year Sojourn go here

For Part 5, The 400 years of slavery go here

For Part 6, The Hyksos Theory go here

It is relatively common among biblical and Egyptological scholars to claim that there is no Egyptian evidence indicating the Exodus took place. This isn’t actually true. The problem is that the Egyptian account is embarrassing to biblical and Egyptological scholars and they would prefer that it didn’t exist. We’ll get to the reason for that below.

From about the third century B.C.E. through the first century C.E. Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, and Roman historians produced a body of literature describing an Egyptian point of view about the events leading to the Exodus. Not all of these stories look alike, with very different characters in the narratives, but a case can be made that despite the very different details they can all be traced back to the writings of Manetho, a third-century B.C.E. Egyptian priest and historian. I won’t be exploring all of the stories in this series, but I do cover many of them in my book The Moses Mystery. In the present series, I will just cover two of the stories.

In this installment, I’ll look at the version attributed to Manetho by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. (Manetho’s manuscript is lost to history and we have only later redactions appearing in various historical writings.) In the next installment, I’ll look at a different version preserved by Chaeremon, a tutor to Emperor Nero. That version is also preserved by Josephus.

I’ll begin with the Manetho story. It appears in Josephus’s Contra Apionem, I. 26–31, §§ 227–287. (PDF of Josephus’s Contra Apionem here.) The implications aren’t immediately obvious and require historical context. It is the implications of the story that are highly controversial. It’s a long narrative and, in the interest of space, I’ll just summarize the highlights.

According to Josephus, Manetho said that the Jewish ancestors came to Egypt and gained mastery over the country but that at a later date they were driven out of Egypt, occupied Judea, founded Jerusalem, and built the Temple. So we begin the narrative with a twist. The Egyptians didn’t try to keep the Israelites in Egypt as slaves. The Egyptians drove them out because they were dominating Egypt.

Despite this initial twist, Josephus says that up to this point Manetho followed the chronicles, but then he introduced legends and gossip about the Jews. He did this to confuse the Hebrews with a crowd of Egyptians, who, for leprosy and other maladies, were banished from the country.

After denouncing Manetho for some allegedly clumsy history of the Egyptian kings (probably due to redactors rather than Manetho himself), Josephus accuses Manetho of inserting a fictitious king named Amenophis into the record. Amenophis is the Greek rendering of the Egyptian name Amenhotep. This king Amenophis had a desire to look upon the gods. A seer advised the king that he could see the gods if he would cleanse the land of lepers and other polluted peoples. (These would be the Egyptians that Josephus claims were being deliberately confused with the Jews.)

The king rounded up over 80,000 such individuals, segregated them from the other Egyptians, and put them to work in the stone quarries. But the seer became frightened at what happened and feared that the people would be outraged if they learned about it. He predicted that the polluted ones would join with allies and seize control of Egypt for thirteen years. He then wrote down what happened and committed suicide.

After some period of hardship, the polluted ones begged the king to allow them to live in the deserted city of Avaris, which had been the capitol of the “shepherd kings” before they were driven out of the country. As noted in Part 6 (go here,) Josephus’s “shepherd-kings” were the Hyksos rulers of Egypt, whose expulsion from Egypt he equated with the Exodus. The king consented.

Using the city as a base, the polluted ones planned a revolution. The polluted ones fortified the city and prepared for war. They appointed as their leader a priest from Heliopolis named Osarseph. This priest declared that they shouldn’t worship the Egyptian gods and that they should destroy and consume the sacred animals. He also challenged many other Egyptian laws and customs.

Osarseph sent messages to the “shepherd kings” in Jerusalem and promised them all sorts of benefits in Egypt if they joined with him against the king. A deal was reached and 200,000 soldiers joined Osarseph and the polluted ones in Avaris. When the king learned of the invasion he remembered the prophecy and issued orders. The Egyptian priests were to gather the sacred animals and hide the images of the gods.

As to his five-year-old son, “Sethos also called Ramesses,” the child was sent into hiding. Amenophis raised an army of 300,000 warriors and marched out against the invading army. But at the last minute, fearing that he would be violating the prophecy of the gods by going to war, he got cold feet and he retreated to the city of Memphis, bringing with him the sacred animals. From Memphis he went to Ethiopia, to wait out the thirteen years.

The alliance of Shepherds and polluted ones seized control of the country and brutalized the people, making the earlier Shepherd rule seem like a paradise. They burned villages, pillaged the temples, and butchered the beasts. Manetho, according to Josephus, says “it is said that the priest who framed their constitution and their laws was a native of Heliopolis, named Osarseph after the god Osiris, worshipped at Heliopolis; but when he joined this people he changed his name and was called Moses [emphasis added].

This is a key controversial point. Manetho identifies Moses as an Egyptian priest who led a rebellion against the country’s ruling class. Thirteen years later, according to the prophecy, Amenophis’s son, “Sethos also called Ramesses,” raised an army and forced the alliance of Shepherds and polluted ones out of Egypt.

Josephus makes several arguments that challenge Manetho’s accounts, several of them based on what he considers logical flaws in the story, most of which I pass over here. Since Josephus had previously described the Shepherds as the Israelites who left Egypt, he argued that it is clear that the people who initially opposed Amenophis were Egyptians, not Hebrews. In opposition to this rebuttal to Manetho, it should be noted that the bible placed the start of the Israelite nation in Egypt, when Jacob, also known as Israel, moved there with his family. For at least two centuries or more, depending on one’s chronological theories, the Israelites were for all practical purposes an Egyptian people, who did not even know the name of the Israelite god until after the Exodus. Josephus also offered an argument that it would be unlikely that the Shepherds would have joined with the polluted ones, although that seems to be rather a weak counterclaim. Other objections had some merit.

As to Moses being Osarseph, Josephus argued that “the Egyptians regard him as a wonderful, even a divine being, but wish to claim him as their own by an incredible calumny, alleging that he belonged to Heliopolis and was dismissed from his priesthood there owing to leprosy.” Moses, however, according to the biblical account, was raised as a member of the royal family and would have almost certainly been educated at Heliopolis, a chief educational center for the Egyptian elite.

Josephus then added that Moses belonged 518 years earlier, when the Shepherds were expelled from Egypt. (Manetho’s chronology was badly distorted by redactors, and he assigned 518 years to the Hyksos kings, although we now know the entire Hyksos era was less than two hundred years, and the effective control of Egypt by the Hyksos lasted only about a century)

I want to make a couple of brief observations about three points in the story, and then get down to what causes controversy about this episode, other than just the name of Moses being inserted into the account. One is the desire to see the gods. Another is about leprosy. The third is about the child being hidden away.

In Exodus, Moses expressed a desire to see God. As a result, he suffered some sort of skin disease. Consequently, he wore a mask over his mouth.

The wearing of a mask over the mouth was a standard regulation in Leviticus for persons suffering from leprosy. Both his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, according to the biblical account, were stricken with leprosy and Moses had to intervene with god to have them cured. Furthermore, the book of Leviticus devotes a large portion of its narrative to dealing with the problem of leprosy. So, the connection to Israelites having leprosy has literary parallels in the bible.

Additionally, in both stories, the desire to see God has some ramifications. Moses suffered a skin disease and the pharaoh eventually went into hiding. Donald Redford, a highly respected Egyptologist, contends that “’seeing the gods’ and the desire to do so are themes well known in Egyptian literature (Pharaonic King-Lists, Annals and Day-Books, 250). That the bible claims Moses shared this desire doesn’t necessarily prove that the Osarseph story is true, but it does suggest literary connections between the biblical narrative and Egyptian literary traditions, which is interesting in its own right.

Lastly, Moses was famously hidden away as a child to avoid being put to death by an oppressive ruler, left the country as an adult out of fear of being arrested for murder, and returned many years later to confront and defeat the oppressors. The Osarseph story provides a mirror image of that narrative. The child “Sethos also known as Ramesses” was hidden away from the oppressive ruler to avoid being put to death and returned as an adult to confront and defeat the oppressor. In the Osarseph story, however, it is the child’s father who flees the country to avoid punishment because of his behavior. If one wants to find parallels between the Osarseph story and the Exodus account, they are present.

Putting aside any arguments for the credibility of the Manetho story, most critics of the Osarseph story simply reject it as an obvious fiction not worthy of comment (although little argument is provided for this opinion.) It helps that the assertion that Osarseph was Moses consists of a single sentence that is easily removable without disrupting the remaining Egyptian narrative. Most go as far as to say that enemies of Judaea invented the charge to discredit the Hebrew nation, that some scribe maliciously inserted the Osarseph-Moses passage into a Manetho text that subsequently received wide circulation before it found its way into Josephus’s hands.

After all, attacking the Jewish people for refusing honors to the non-Jewish gods was something of a cottage industry in the Greco-Roman era. In fact, Josephus wrote Contra Apionem to specifically refute anti-Jewish attacks by the Egyptian writer Apion, who engaged in scurrilous condemnations of the Jewish people.

Redford, while rejecting the historicity of the Osarseph story, does, though, trace it back to pre-Manetho literary traditions that Manetho tapped into, giving the underlying narrative an even earlier historical provenance. Two common literary traditions, he says, “invasion” and Plague/expulsion,” can be traced back to pre-Manetho times (Redford, 291.)

The invasion theme is usually an after-effect of the Hyksos era, which surfaces here in the Osarseph story and in other Egyptian literature. Redford does note, however, that there are some details in the Manetho account that vary from earlier versions of the plague/expulsion theme. Nevertheless, Redford writes, “I do not think this secondary hodge-podge derives from Manetho himself. In all likelihood, he is here, as elsewhere simply paraphrasing, if not translating, a demotic original which he found among his library sources.”

So, given that the story may be easily dismissible, whether true or not, what is the hubbub about. The problem is the history that forms the background to this narrative. Egyptologists readily admit that Manetho’s tale presents a disguised (white-washed?) account of events under pharaoh Akhenaten. This pharaoh’s fame stems from the fact that he introduced a form of monotheism into Egyptian religion, declaring the Aten to be the sole god.

He sent hordes of workers to chisel out the names of other deities from monuments and challenged the domination of the Amen cult that controlled Egyptian religious practices in the Eighteenth Dynasty. After he died there was a counter-revolution and his successor, the child known as Tutankhamen, whose original name was Tutankhaten, served as a bridge from which the Amen cult reasserted authority. Shortly thereafter, the Amen cult under Pharaoh Horemheb began a campaign of oppression and persecution towards those who were prominent in the Aten cult or who remained followers of his teachings.

Akhenaten’s name was originally Amenhotep, the fourth pharaoh of that dynasty with the same name. This is the name Greeks rendered as Amenophis, the name of the pharaoh in the Osarseph story who fled the country. In Akhenaten’s fifth year on the throne, he changed his name to Akhenaten and began his attack on the Amen cult elites. His revolution lasted for thirteen years and ended when he died.

Notably, in the Osarseph story, the reign of terror begins in the fifth year of Amenophis’s son, Sethos also called Ramesses,” and ends thirteen years later when the child returns and expels the polluted ones and their Hyksos allies. Clearly, the child functions as a placeholder for Akhenaten’s revolutionary time frame and serves to eliminate Akhenaten as the perpetrator of his religious revolution, casting blame instead on the polluted ones and the Hyksos invaders.

Could Akhenaten be connected to the Exodus? The Jewish tradition that would place the Exodus in the year 131 (see Part 4: The 430-Year Sojourn here) places it right at the end of the counter-revolution against Akhenaten’s religious reforms. Yet, no scholar, Jewish or otherwise, wants to study what this date means for the historical context of the Exodus. They just don’t want to trace the origins of Judaism and Christianity to a pagan religious revolution. Every academic theory of the Exodus tries to place it either well before or long after the Akhenaton era. I’ll have more to say about the connection between Akhenaten and the Exodus in a later installment.

Coming up next: Part 8, The Chaeremon Theory.

Update: The Case for a Proto Gospel

The Case for a Proto-Gospel, my peer-reviewed study of gospel origins, is a lengthy (over 700 pages) scholarly study published by Peter Lang, the academic publisher. Such a large book is expensive to produce and commands a high price.  The hardcover version currently sells on Amazon for $147. As such, it is much too expensive for most of the people who like to follow my work. I have been negotiating with the publisher and they have agreed, verbally so far but a contract is in the works, to release a paperback edition to be (hopefully) available by this Spring and sell for no more than $60. While still not cheap, it should make the book accessible to more of my readers.

In related news, Olegs Andrejevs, author of Apocalypticism in the Synoptic Sayings Source: A Reassessment of Q’s Stratigraphy, sends me this note based on an upcoming review of my book. “Greenberg’s massive book will be required reading for everyone interested in the relationship between John and the synoptic gospels. I welcome his attempt to draw the academic community’s attention to the extraordinary complexity of the data involved in the discussion.”

NTA Note on “The Case for a Proto-Gospel”

I’m pleased to see that New Testament Abstracts, a leading research tool in New Testament studies, has included an abstract for my The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John in its most recent issue, (65/2 2021). It is serendipitously located on a page featuring a book by Bart Ehrman, Craig A. Evans and Robert Stewart. Here’s the listing.

New Testament Abstracts 65/2 • 2021

Gary Greenberg, The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source behind Mark and John, Studies in Biblical Literature 172 (New York—Bern: Lang, 2020, $114.95/€95.80) xvii and 719 pp., 22 tables. Bibliographies. Indexed. LCN: 2019029929. ISBN: 978-1-4331-6605-1.

Noting that NT scholars believe with near unanimity that substantial differences in style, content, and verbal description between John and the Synoptics preclude any literary relationship between them, Greenberg, author of Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John (2018), proposes that Mark, John, and Luke all knew a now-lost written proto-Gospel. After a 35-page introduction, he discusses Mark 6 and 8 and John 6, the paralytic on the mat (Mk 2:1-12; Jn 5), true kindred and the devil (Mk 3:20-35; Jn 8:31-59), you can’t go home again (Mk 6:1-6, Jn 4:44; 6:42; 7:15), the mission begins (Mk 1; Jn 1–4), Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem, the plot to kill Jesus, the Jewish trial of Jesus, the Lazarus conundrum (Jn 11:1-44; Lk 16:19-31; Mk 1:40-45; 5:22-24, 35-43), the Roman proceedings, the crucifixion, the day of Preparation, and the resurrection. Then he presents a proposed reconstructed proto-Gospel with brief commentary. He concludes that Mark and John most probably have a literary relationship based on a shared written source, since almost every non-speech episode in John has a literary parallel in Mark, the two Gospels agree on sequential order in approximately two-thirds of such stories, and in several stories outside the sequential order several details also follow a common sequential order.

Who or what are the “Generations of the Heavens and the Earth in Genesis 2:4a?

It is widely accepted among scholars of the Jewish scriptures, that the book of Genesis has two separate Creation stories, one following after the other. The first story deals with the seven days of Creation and source-critical scholars assign this to the P (Priestly) source. The second begins immediately after with the story of the Garden of Eden and is assigned to the J (Jahwist) source. The stories are inconsistent in several ways and differ on the order and substance of Creation. The problem I want to discuss today is the issue of where the P source ends and the J source begins.

The critical passage is Genesis 2:4a, which reads,  “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” For context, I will list this verse with the preceding verse and the following verse. I’ll place the key verse in italics.

  • So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Genesis 2:3)
  • These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. (Genesis 2:4a)
  • In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; (Genesis 2:4b–5)

The majority of scholars, I am told, see Genesis 2:4a as the end of the P source. But a minority see it as the beginning of the J source that follows immediately after. If we look solely at the text at face value, you can make a case for either side.

On the one hand, it could be a concluding statement for what preceded it. On the other, it could be an introduction for what follows. However, the term “these are the generations of “is a literary formula that appears at least ten times in Genesis and an additional time in Ruth. The KJV uses the translation “These are the generations of…” The NRSV substitutes “descendants” for “generations” in all the KJV instances except for Gen 2:4a, clearly attempting to disassociate Genesis 2:4a from the rest of the occasions in which the same phrase is used. Here is the list of the other occasions. For consistency, I’ll use the KJV translation.

  • Genesis 2:4: These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,
  • Genesis 6:9–10: These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
  • Genesis 10.1: Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood.
  • Genesis 11:10: These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood:
  • Genesis 11:27: Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot.
  • Genesis 25:12: Now these are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s handmaid, bare unto Abraham:
  • Genesis 25:19: And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begat Isaac:
  • Genesis 36:1–2: Now these are the generations of Esau, who is Edom. Esau took his wives of the daughters of Canaan; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite;
  • Genesis 36:9: And these are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in mount Seir:
  • Genesis 37:2: These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.
  • Ruth 4:18: Now these are the generations of Pharez: Pharez begat Hezron,

In each case after Genesis 2:4a, “these are the generations of” serves to introduce a family, members of a family, and/or stories about a family. Why should Genesis 2:4a be treated any differently? The reason is that to treat Genesis 2:4a in the same way creates a major theological embarrassment.

If we treat Genesis 2:4a in the same way that we treat the key phrase on the other occasions, then “heavens and earth” would have to be parents of someone, and the story that follows would be about the parents and their children. But “heavens and earth” can only be parents if they are beings that bear children. The phrase implies that we are talking about deities associated with Heaven and/or Earth and who have had children (more deities). This is highly problematic for a religion that teaches some form of monotheism.

A redactor appears to have accidentally left in a clue that the J Creation stories about Adam and Eve and their families were originally stories about deities and their children. More specifically, the implication is that Adam and Eve were originally deities associated with Heaven and Earth, and their children were also deities.

So, which deities were they? In the Babylonian Creation story known as Enuma Elish, heaven and earth are the severed portions of a water dragon’s corpse. That doesn’t sound anything like the Garden of Eden couple. Babylonian sources are overly relied upon anyway. So where else should we look?

In my forthcoming book, Genesis Chronology and Egyptian King-lists Vol. II, the Mythic Period, I argue that the two deities are the Egyptian gods Geb, a male who is the Earth, and Nut, a female who is the Heavens. That would make Adam a stand-in for Geb, and Eve a stand-in for Nut. Both sets of parents had three children. Adam and Eve were the parents of Cain, Abel, and Seth. Geb and Nut were the parents of Osiris, Horus, and Set, three of Egypt’s most important deities. In each family, one of the brothers killed one of the others.

I’m not going to go into all the arguments here. I hope to have the book out and available in the early portion of 2022. Hope you’ll be curious enough to buy it.

How long did Jesus’ mission last? Mark versus John

It is usually argued that the synoptic version of Jesus’ mission lasted less than a year while John’s gospel depicts a mission that lasted more than two years, crossing over three different Passovers. This is not technically true. The so-called short mission thesis is based on the lack of specific time markers in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Now, the absence of time markers may accurately reflect a short mission but its also possible that Mark may have removed time markers and Matthew and Luke simply accepted mark’s chronological arrangement. It’s also possible that John may have inserted time markers where none may have existed. Let me give an example of how this problem could have arisen.

Manetho’s Chronology and the Septuagint Version of Genesis 5

Genesis 5 presents a chronological record of Patriarchal births and deaths from Adam to Noah’s Flood. The chronology is presented in such a way that if you had a starting date for Adam, you could set a date for each of the births and deaths. Genesis 11 continues the chronology from the end of the Flood to the birth of Abraham. (For a detailed study of Genesis 5 and 11 see my “Genesis Chronology and Egyptian King-Lists.”

The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. The almost universally accepted consensus is that the work was begun in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the reign of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II (283–246 B.C.E.) and was completed sometime in the second century B.C.E. Alexandria was a major center of intellectual activity. The Septuagint was the bible used by the authors of the Gospels.

While the Septuagint is based on some versions of the Hebrew books of the bible (there was no single official canonical version of any of the books of the bible at that time), there are many differences between it and the standard Masoretic text used by Jews and modern scholars. One significant difference is in the chronological record of Genesis 5.