Moses and Myth

I got a correspondence this morning from a reader who identified himself as having been raised in a strictly orthodox Jewish environment. One argument that he had often heard concerned the historicity of the stories about Moses, the Exodus, and the delivery of the Law at Mt. Sinai. I cannot reproduce these arguments here since they were quite detailed. However, the basically amounted to saying that it is unreasonable to hold that these stories were fabrications and that there just is no reasonable way that such fictions could have been passed off as the truth. Surely, anyone concocting such stories would be laughed at, or worse. In short, however improbable such stories may seem to skeptics, it is even more improbable that they could have been made up and foisted on people who knew better. Here is my reply:

I cannot respond to the argument at the same length that you present it. However, it seems to me to vastly underestimate the known human capacity for fabrication. We know from many examples that stories of an extraordinary nature can arise and spread very quickly—within a generation—even when eyewitnesses are alive who could contradict the story. Here are three quick examples:

  1. In December 1945 a flight of TBF Avenger dive bombers took off on a routine training mission from the Fort Lauderdale AFB. This was the famous “Flight Nineteen” that soon entered folklore. The flight had navigation problems, could not find land, and eventually had to ditch in the sea. The flight and all personnel were lost without a trace. Within thirty years, a story had circulated and then appeared in print claiming that Flight Nineteen had been lost in bizarre circumstances in the “Bermuda Triangle.” These records reported radio transmissions from the flight back to the Ft. Lauderdale control tower reporting all sorts of paranormal events and weird experiences. The PBS science program Nova did a critical investigation of these claims and found former Air Force personnel who had been in the control tower during the entirety of the incidents with Flight Nineteen. They flatly contradicted the claims about bizarre radio transmissions and all the weird phenomena. There is no reason to think that the flight was not lost due to bad navigation and bad weather.
  2. Soon after Charles Darwin’s death, the rumor spread that on his deathbed he had renounced evolutionary theory and accepted Christ as his savior. The story grew with the telling until, some 33 years after Darwin’s death, one “Lady Hope” wrote an account claiming that she had interviewed Darwin shortly before his death and that he had regretted his theory and accepted Christian salvation. Evangelical publications picked up on these accounts and spread them widely for years afterwards. The Darwin children, who were present during their father’s final illness and death, vigorously denied these allegations, yet they continued to spread, becoming an evangelical legend.
  3. In the early decades of the 19th Century, George Washington was admired almost as a cult figure. One of his admirers of the period, the famous Parson Weems, concocted stories about Washington’s childhood. The most famous of these tales was the one about young George cutting down his father’s cherry tree. When confronted, young George replied, “Father I cannot tell a lie” and confessed the deed. Of course, this never happened. It was pure fiction. Further it was written at a time when there were people still alive who had known Washington personally. Yet the story became entrenched as a legend.

Obviously, such examples could be easily multiplied. The upshot is that the human mind, as Francis Bacon observed, “Is not a dry [unbiased] light.” Or, as modern researchers in cognitive science have shown repeatedly by experimental evidence, the brain is a belief-forming engine. It forms beliefs and then looks for confirming evidence while discounting disconfirming evidence. We believe stories that make us or our ancestors look like important people or which otherwise appeal to our sense of pride or self-righteousness.

Just as the brain is a belief-generator, so cultures are myth-generators. In addition to the studies of cognitive scientists, folklorists can show how all sorts of tales originate and spread until “everybody knows” that they are so. Everybody has a friend who has a friend who saw it happen—so they say. The phenomenon of “urban legends” shows this. The upshot is that it is not at all difficult to see how the stories of Moses and the Exodus could have grown over time by the usual process of telling, re-telling, and re-re-telling, with an accumulation of apparently “factual” detail.

As another example consider how the process of transmission of tales about the Trojan War eventually produced The Iliad. The characters in the Iliad are so convincing and the events so powerfully rendered, that there is a strong temptation to believe that the account is historical in its details, though it certainly is not. Beliefs about the past are particularly susceptible to being mythologized. You cannot visit the past, and in a society that had not yet developed the profession of the critical historian, your only access was through the tales that were told. You then pass on the tales to the next generation—maybe adding some parts here and there in perfectly good faith. You are only telling it the way it MUST have been. The result, after many generations, is tall tales enshrined as truth.