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.

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