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The Moses Myth, Beyond Biblical History

 Research on the myth of Moses may not resolve anxieties about whether Moses existed, but it does suggest that across centuries and continents, Moses has retained strong links to written tradition and polemics about group identity.

By Brian Britt
Associate Professor and Director
Religious Studies Program
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
July 2004

Moses is not just for biblicists anymore. Research on the historical Moses, with implications for the Pentateuch, continues, but a new set of questions on the cultural legacy of Moses has emerged in recent scholarship. Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939), dismissed by historians and psychologists both, has lately inspired a whole literature on tradition, memory, and the possibility that group memories can be repressed and recovered. The discredited historical claims of Freud’s book have been replaced by a search for continuity across centuries of divergent versions of Moses. Is Moses merely a floating signifier, a name conveniently attached to many disparate figures, or can we identify some common thread running through every story about him?

Current discussion of the historical Moses reflects the division between maximalists, who accept much of the Bible as historically valid, and minimalists, who accept very little. The modern father of the minimalists is Martin Noth, who argued in the 1940s that the only reliable traditions about Moses were his marriage to a Midianite and his burial place. The minimalist position can now be found in Giovanni Garbini’s Myth and History in the Bible (JSOT Supp 362, Sheffield, 2003), which places the biblical Moses no earlier than 700 BCE and the idea of Moses as a lawgiver closer to 150 BCE. Modern maximalists tend to follow in the footsteps of William Albright, with some dating him as early as the Amarna period (14th century BCE) and the earliest stages of the Yahweh cult. Contrary to the impression given by television documentaries, maximalists have little evidence in their favor, though James K. Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford, 1999) makes as good a case as any. Barring dramatic new discoveries of evidence or interpretation, the division between minimalists and maximalists is not likely to be resolved. In fact, both camps increasingly place the Bible at the center of polemics over theology and ideology (evangelical Christianity and nationalism, e.g.).

But while the divide between minimalists and maximalists threatens gridlock, an entirely different approach to Moses has begun to flourish. The subject of these studies is the myth of Moses: legends, retellings, and elaborations of the biblical figure. In hagiography, midrash, sermons, popular novels and films, the mythic Moses neither accepts nor rejects the historicity of the biblical text. Instead, the strands of this myth have proliferated by adapting the biblical Moses to many purposes, from Jewish, Hellenistic, and Muslim identity to liberation from slavery and oppression.

The methods for studying the Moses myth are less well established than traditional biblical scholarship. Beside resistance to any kind of new research, this work faces the challenge of making such categories as nation, ethnicity, violence, tradition, narration, and poetry as relevant to the biblical text as they are to contemporary readers. Such studies go beyond historiographic debates on the Bible to consider its cultural relevance and legacy for the present. Ilana Pardes’ The Biography of Ancient Israel (Univerity of California, 2000), for instance, argues that the biblical Moses personifies the origin of Israel as a nation. Projects like Pardes’ and Regina Schwartz’s The Curse of Cain (University of Chicago, 1997) run the risk of being anachronistic, applying contemporary terms to ancient texts, but they confront issues common to ancient Israel and contemporary monotheistic cultures. Such claims to continuity with the ancient past are gaining currency as prevailing theories of secularism and modernity face growing criticism today.

The Moses myth is so widespread that writing about him entails writing about culture. Recent books on the Moses myth include Dale Allison’s The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Fortress, 1993), an excellent study of Moses in the Gospel of Matthew; Jan Assmann’s brilliant Moses the Egyptian (Harvard University Press, 1997); and Melanie Wright’s study of popular culture, Moses in America (Oxford University Press, 2003). All of these studies go beyond the obvious point that each generation makes Moses in its own image by exploring how and why these images are made. The new Moses studies also shift from the search for the historical Moses to current preoccupations with memory, traditions, and representation. No longer a topic only for biblical historians, the study of Moses has, like the study of tradition itself, become interdisciplinary. Biblical scholarship joins literary theory and cultural studies, philosophy borrows from psychoanalysis and Judaic studies, ancient history merges with modern intellectual history. Such work generates not only new interpretations but new categories and methods, such as Assmann’s "mnemohistory," the history of memory.

In different ways, the studies of Moses are studies of memory itself. Moses is not just a part of tradition but a symbol of it. For example, the Song of Moses (in Deuteronomy 32), taught to the Israelites at the end of Moses’ life, is so memorable, so "catchy," that it cannot be forgotten. Once the people have heard it, it plays in their heads forever as a "witness" against religious unfaithfulness. Yet the Song is also a tradition of forgetting, since it confronts Israel with the forgotten covenant. Like the Torah of Moses, of which it is a part, the Song of Moses is a text that stands for a person and draws power from that person. Later elaborations of the Moses myth would build on this biblical foundation, making him the author of many texts and endowing him with manifold talents, ethnicities, and crises to resolve. Regardless of whether Moses existed, he must be invented and reinvented, again and again.

The biblical Moses is not as central to the Bible as many people think. No more than fourteen chapters of the 167 chapters of the Pentateuch, which is also known as the "Torah of Moses," deal primarily with the story of Moses' life, and even these chapters bear faint resemblance to conventional ideas of biography or hagiography. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (Continuum/ T &T Clark International), the biblical Moses is an uncanny figure; the narratives around his birth, commission, leadership, and death challenge the reader to disentangle the man from the myth. In this way, biblical texts stimulate biblical tradition, which depends on unceasing streams of commentary. Conversely, the post-biblical myth of Moses points back to the biblical texts of Moses, the basis for his legend and legitimacy. To the first-century writers Philo and Josephus, Moses represented the pinnacle of Jewish tradition, and their Hellenistic biographies elevate him far above the Bible. Most biographies of Moses, from late antiquity to the present, resemble the portraits of Philo and Josephus, placing the life story of the great man at the center of tradition. Rabbinic Judaism, on the other hand, remained much closer to the biblical tradition in which Moses always stands second to a tradition of text, covenant, and God.

Moses’ biblical portrait suggests a struggle between a legendary hero and a flawed servant charged with resolving disputes and inaugurating written traditions. Both these elements—polemic and writing—follow Moses into his post-biblical rewritings, even those that depart radically from the details of the Bible. As Freud observes in his study of Moses, something of a tradition remains even in its forgetting. Biographies of Moses that depart radically from the biblical account may reflect the way traditions have of neutralizing and forgetting what they enshrine, but their variety may also reflect a robust tradition capable of adapting to change. My book pursues this question of biblical tradition by relating post-biblical representations of Moses—in fiction, art, film, and scholarship—to the uncanny Moses of the Bible.

If we accept Alasdair MacIntyre’s definition of tradition as "historically extended, socially embodied argument," then the wide range of issues over which Moses has been contested reveals unexpected continuities.1 The Moses of novels by Zora Neale Hurston and Howard Fast, a champion of racial equality, thus resembles the Hellenistic, Jewish Moses of Philo and Josephus more closely than one may think. And even though these post-biblical versions of the Moses story ignore the uncanny features of the biblical text, their depictions of Moses as a polemical figure at the center of a written tradition carry on biblical tradition, even unwittingly. The transformation and persistence of memory, theorized by Freud and Assmann, can explain this variety: traditions are more likely to be displaced or transformed than simply eliminated. As I show in my book, the most modern versions of the Moses story can paradoxically be the most traditional, for the biblical Moses is already a composite figure who serves as a nexus for ancient debates.

In her Preface to Tell My Horse, Hurston comments on the many African-American stories that identify Moses as a powerful magician:

It is more probable that there is a tradition of Moses as the great father of magic scattered over Africa and Asia. Perhaps some of his feats recorded in the Pentateuch are the folk beliefs of such a character grouped about a man for it is well established that if a memory is great enough, other memories will cluster about it, and those in turn will bring their suites of memories to gather about this focal point, because perhaps, they are all scattered parts of the one thing like Plato’s concept of the perfect thing.2

Hurston’s work on non-biblical Moses stories generated insights into biblical tradition not unlike those of her contemporary Freud. But while Freud struggled to explain how the myth of Moses changed over time, Hurston drew from ethnographic fieldwork on orally transmitted folklore. What did the Moses of modern Europe and the African diaspora have in common, other than a name? The question awaits further research. Definitive studies of Moses in Africa, Asia, and Islamic tradition have yet to be written,3 but like the myth of the ten lost tribes, the myth of Moses is likely to prove as persistent and uncanny as the biblical text itself.

Debates on the historical Moses will continue, but in the absence of startling new interpretations of the evidence, this work will likely reach a standstill. Research on the myth of Moses may not resolve anxieties about whether Moses existed, but it does suggest that across centuries and continents, Moses has retained strong links to written tradition and polemics about group identity. Sorting this evidence in light of biblical scholarship promises to yield insights into complexities of myth, memory, and biblical tradition.


(back)1MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 222.

(back)2Hurston, "Tell My Horse", in Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1995) 378.

(back)3Though Brannon Wheeler’s Moses in the Quran and Islamic Exegesis (Routledge: 2002) is a ground-breaking work in this area.