Archaeology and the Exodus Story as a “Mnemo-Narrative” (and no cracks about “finding mnemo” please)

Below is a half-hour video passed on to me a while back by an archaeologist friend of mine. It is of a lecture given by Israeli archaeologist Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University.

The lecture is entitled, “Can Archaeological Correlates for the Mnemo-Narrative of Exodus be Found?” I think I embed the video properly, but if not, you can click the link above.

I find this sort of thing fascinating. Maeir’s main point is that the exodus story in the Bible is the end product of  narratives (plural) that came down to the biblical writer from different times and which he compiled into a narrative (singular). He compares the exodus story to an archaeological tell–dig down and you go further back in time to earlier stages of the story.

Part of Maeir’s lecture focuses on what he feels are misuses of archaeology by those who seek to find correlation between archaeological findings and the biblical narrative. One of the problems with that approach is that the “biblical narrative,” though still capable of depicting history, is nevertheless a memory–a “mnemo-narrative.”

Following the work of such scholars as Jan Assmann, Maeir points out that memories are not simply reports of events but reconstructions of events.

Common experience will bear this out when we think of how we recall the past as individuals. We, often unwittingly, shape our retelling of the past to reflect how we see the past and ourselves in general. We collapse together discreet events, we invent dialogue, etc., not to deceive but to in an effort to bring the past into our current experience of ourselves.

Understanding the biblical story of the exodus as a mnemo-narrative, Maeir argues, helps explain why there is no archaeological support for it–even though an event of this magnitude could not stay in hiding for long.

Based on how these things are normally handled in the ancient world, one would expect Egyptian sources not to ignore the departure of about 2,000,000 slaves and the crippling of the Egyptian power base (as in the plagues). They would need to explain it, i.e., they would have to spin it, as, say, an indication that their gods were angry with them for some failure. That is a common way that ancient cultures “explained” military defeat. The worse the defeat, the better an explanation was needed.

Maeir reasons that archaeology and the biblical narrative do not match up not so much because nothing happened, but because of the nature of the biblical narrative as a mnemo-narrative. The exodus story that we have is the result of a process of “remembering” the past through ongoing reception and appropriation over time. Those memories were–as are all memories–transformed and shaped by those very communities that embrace and transmit them.

Seeking correspondence between archaeology and the biblical narrative of the exodus is, therefore, misguided, for it treats the biblical narrative is a single-layered report handed down essentially unchanged from early on and that can be placed side-by-side with potential archaeological remains.

Put another way, the exodus story we have in the Bible, whatever its historical foundation might be, is a story that is not open to archaeological verification because the story reflects more how later Israelite communities came to understand the past in view of their present purposes for remembering.

On one level, there is nothing tremendously new here, though Maeir helpfully brings the study of memory to bear on the perennial issue of archaeology and the Bible.

Any thoughts on this, especially from those who might be abreast of biblical archaeology and the process of memory?

 

  • mhelbert

    Peter, Not sure if this is a similar process. But, if we simply take a look at how the U.S. history is remembered and presented by different groups. Say, white/privileged; African American; Native American we can come up with variances that do not line up with known physical locations and events. Israel’s self-disclosure and identity in Scriptures written hundreds of years after the ‘event’ would seem to fit very well with Maeir’s assertion. Thanx for this.

  • Babel brother

    If this did not happen, then is the Passover a fairy tale? If it is, does Christ’s sacrifice as the lamb of God have its foundation on a fairy tale?

    If everything we encounter in the OT are just stories made up by people centuries later, is the Judeo-Christian story no better than the stories of the native Americans or any other tribal group? Is there really no God involved in this? Are we just putting off the inevitable – acceptance of atheism?

    • Matthew Hamilton

      The video is loading for me right now, so I haven’t watched it yet (cursed 3mps internet), so I don’t know how much he covers what Dr. Enns summarized as “dig down and you go further back in time …,” but there is a difference between being “just stories made up by people centuries later” and having threads woven through them from various times; while an ancient 9th or 10th century thread (which may be based on 11th or 12th century oral tradition) might lay at the bottom of the Exodus story, it certainly was built upon by later traditions. Just because a story is added to or changed doesn’t mean that ridiculous theories (Copenhagen) must be concocted that the entire narrative was a work of Hellenistic Jewish fiction.

      • Pofarmer

        No, but at a certain point, even an oral tradition that may have been based on something that happens becomes fiction. Parts are added to it to give it meaning, to make it fit the “needs” of the community, etc, etc, and the historical basis is pretty much completely lost in the myth. At that point, it doesn’t really matter if the story is entirely fictional or not, because you can’t tease out what parts are real one what aren’t.

    • John W. Morehead

      I’m not sure why Evangelicals argue in this slippery slope kind of way. New Testament studies would apply to Christ’s work in death and resurrection regardless of how we interpret the Exodus story. The point of all of this is to try to be better at taking the texts on their own cultural and theological terms, not imposing our assumptions on them. This requires an openness to serious changes in perspective, but it need not lead down the slope to atheism.

      • al

        I agree that a literalistic interpretation is problematic – and, slippery slop arguments are overrated. Life is a slippery slope, Evangelicals better just get used to it :-) But, much of this discussion seems to imply that the OT narratives are pure fiction. In the NT, Jesus is seen talking with Moses – did that happen? Or, was that fiction made up by the NT authors? I think there is only so much pliability in the stories before they become pure fantasy.

        So, I don’t see this as a slippery slope in the classic sense of “if Adam isn’t real, then the entire infrastructure collapses”. That to me is silly. But, I do think there is a breaking point at some point: for instance, I believe Marcus Borg says that it isn’t even necessary for Christ to have been risen. Borg can believe that, but I no longer think he is espousing Christianity if he does.

        This discussion seems more of a defense of the Axial age representing the time when humanity began to apply the golden rule, and therefore the OT is just another man-made realization of this, on equal footing with Hinduism, Confucianism, and other religions. None of those religions can be thought to point to Christ as far as I know. What makes Judaism special? And therefore, if its just writing from centuries later how in the world does it point to a coming Christ? This would seem to indicate that there is no revelation of any sort in the writings.

        Am I missing something?

        • Pofarmer

          “This would seem to indicate that there is no revelation of any sort in the writings.

          Am I missing something?”

          Yes, the fact that it’s really, really easy to fulfill “revelations” when you are writing the story centuries after the original stories were written down, and have them in front of you to pick from which ones you want to fulfill, some of them even fulfilled incorrectly, because the NT authors were reading from another translation than the original. The NT authors had plenty of time to hone their stories after the death of Jesus till the time the first written scriptures emerged. Add to this that the Gospels have definate patterns as Greek poetry, and it kind of all comes together. Richard Carrier and Bart Ehrman both have good youtube videos describing the literary qualities of the Gospels.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Please, Richard Carrier strains logic with his fanciful notions of Jesus as myth. At least Ehrman, who is a respectable scholar, notes that one has to grasp at straws in denying his historicity. Just as a conservative scholar like a Daniel Wallace throws away their credibility because their apologetic beliefs cloud their scholarship, Carrier is the classic case of an atheist with an ax to grind against any aspect of Christianity being true, and his scholarly integrity gets washed down the drain in the process.

          • Pofarmer

            THat may be, but all I’m talking about here is the structure of the gospels as classic greek literature. I also just finished a book by randal helms called ” gospel myths” which demonstrates how many of the miracles in the gospels are repeats of miracles from the OT prophets.

          • Andrew Dowling

            You won’t get argument from me about that. Much biblical scholarship has long known about how the Gospel writers create literary/theological frameworks that made sense to them and their respective communities regarding how they saw Jesus (Matthew clearly paints Jesus as a new Moses and many of his stories fit that narrative). My issue is that some people see that, for example, a certain miracle story of Jesus is woven from prior sources to make a theological point (and thus not appropriate to be seen as history in the modern sense) and then the leap is made that the Gospels are pure fiction. It’s not that straightforward . .they are neither pure myth or pure history but a unique combination of both. And I find many of the stories of Jesus to convey truths of his teachings and impact even though many are likely to not be straight history.

        • John W. Morehead

          Again, I appreciate the concerns, but we need to grapple not only with the evidence, but Evangelical assumptions as well. This particular discussion did not imply that the OT narratives are all fiction. The discussion was related to the Exodus. We have assumed a literal historical event with a corresponding “fulfillment” in the NT. But what if that’s not the way it was understood by Israel as she constructed her theological memories and narratives and is an imposition on our understanding of history and theology? This need not mean there was no historical Moses, so I see no conflict with the idea of the law and prophets testifying to Jesus (here symbols can serve as well in the NT narrative as historical figures I would think as well; not my view but an interpretive possibility).

          We also seem to have the assumption that something must be historically (and scientifically) literal or there is no value and it is just fantasy. The Bible draws upon ancient near eastern mythology and incorporates and transforms this, so there is value to myth even if it is not historical. Again, the challenge is our assumptions rather than the text it seems to me.

          Certainly there are limits to how far one can go, and I wouldn’t agree with Marcus Borg. Historic Christianity in my reading has always presupposed a literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus, and on this I think scholars like N.T. Wright are correct. But let’s not confuse new attempts at grappling with the Exodus story as a compromise of Christianity akin to a progressive or liberal expression of it, and something bereft of revelation.

          • thehermit

            Or let’s. think of the calming effect it would have on..oh let’s see…the whole planet.

        • Andrew Dowling

          This demonstrates why the traditional orthodox christian narrative of Christianity being the ‘climax’ of Judaism being foretold through OT revelation needs to be put out to pasture.

        • Thehermit

          Yes, man has always used the golden rule. Sometimes it was broken, but for the most part it comes from our need to collectively associate in altruistic fashion. Very little of which is demonstrated in the bible,either testament. Revelation seems to happen when beliefs need more,propping up.

      • Thehermit

        Do you mean up the slope? As this would be an improvement. Yes, it must be up the slope.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Pete,
    Thanks for highlighting this lecture by Aren Maeir, it clearly summarizes many issues. He closes with the idea of the ideal Moses being more important and longer lasting that the real Moses. Perhaps this is where we can begin to see the self-revelation if YHWH in all of this careful science. Somehow, despite the great lack of particular evidence (what trees were there we cannot know) the forest of divine revelation must be made clear. To have a chance of moving literalists and even semi-literalists, this scientific narrative will have to be supplemented with a robust theology of how God’s voice is still involved in the well-worked biblical narrative. As a scientist this all makes a great deal of sense – it’s even liberating. As a believer, the theological work of clearly showing how a self-revealing, personal, relational God was involved awaits. This is another great example of how, for Christians, the Incarnation of God as Christ must always be our starting point. But we Christians cannot forget or ignore that this same God spoke and continues to speak to Jews and others through the First Testament narratives.

  • Matthew Hamilton

    Dr. Enns,

    I am curious, what is your take on Childs’ canonical criticism? I am currently reading his Intro to the OT as Scripture (should of read it in undergrad, but alas!), and am curious what role, if any, you feel it should have in this discussion.

  • mark

    Obviously this post should be read along with the recent one that raised the issue of reading the OT “in light of Christ.” Is reading a mnemo-narrative as a “foreshadowing” of Christ in fact a falsification of that mnemo-narrative?

    The mere fact that Jesus drew upon the imagery of the Israelite scriptures doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read those writings–including the mnemo-narratives among them–as what they were, as what they were originally intended to be. Only when we do that can we “place [the Israelite scriptures] within the total context of human history as understood from the perspective of God’s self revelation in Jesus.”

    • mark

      My view is that this is the only approach than will make sense of the role of these writings in our Christian faith, in light of modern science and social science.

  • Derek

    Peter, you state:

    “Based on how these things are normally handled in the ancient world, one would expect Egyptian sources not to ignore the departure of about 2,000,000 slaves and the crippling of the Egyptian power base (as in the plagues). They would need to explain it, i.e., they would have to spin it..”

    Is that true though? What about Akhenaten? According to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/akhenaten_01.shtml

    ————————————————–

    Over time, the process of restoration of traditional cults turned to whole-scale obliteration of all things associated with Akhenaten. His image and names were removed from monuments. His temples were dismantled and the stone reused in the foundations of other more orthodox royal building projects. The city of Akhetaten gradually crumbled back into the desert. His name and those of his immediate successors were omitted from official king-lists so that they remained virtually unknown until the archaeological discoveries at Akhetaten and in the tomb of Tutankhamun made these kings amongst the most famous of all rulers of ancient Egypt

    ————————————————–

    So it seems to me they tried to erase him, which would be the same thing as ignoring him after the fact. Moreover, silence was a way to shame others or indicate you didn’t think they deserved honor, which also makes sense in that context.

    I would also direct readers to check out a well sourced article by apologist JP holding on the historicity of the exodus here:

    http://www.tektonics.org/af/exoduslogistics.html

    • Troy Avery

      The removal of an unpopular king wasn’t the same as dealing a military defeat. The removal of Ahkenaten was meant to shame Ahkenaten himself. The shame of losing to the Hebrews would not have been ignored, it would have been spun in a way to create an explanation to the populace. That is the purpose of such spin. There would have been a questioning populace in Egypt, wanting answers as to why this was allowed to happen. This is why the spin would have occurred. Not to tell future generations what happened, but to assuage the fears and concerns of the current one.

  • beau_quilter

    Isn’t the archaeological evidence for the lack of an historical exodus, pretty old hat by now? And well documented in The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman?

  • ctrace

    So Scripture being God-breathed plays no role in how you see it? Or does that just take the fun out of it for scholars?

    • Trevor

      the *doctrine* of inspiration =/= plenary verbal or dictation *theories*

      • ctrace

        You’re conflating the what and the how. The Bible does not make the what a matter of contention.

  • James

    C.S. Lewis believed the collective memory got hazier (from a human perspective) the farther back in time it probed. It makes sense. And it does not conflict with divine ‘inspiration’ that occurs at many levels, some quite hidden.

  • ostriphobe

    Maeir says there is “no archaeological support for the Exodus.” Admittedly there is not much, but none …. ? Then he spouts at length such gobbledegook as, “having to ‘forget’ in order to ‘remember’.” I would suggest he stick with archaeology and leave psychology alone?

    But back to archaeology and the Exodus; no, there is not much evidence. However, there is another field of study that confirms the internal chronology of the Old Testament. This area has been misunderstood and/or ignored and I am referring to the systematic count of Sabbatic years. (Shmita – Heb) It dovetails with the records of the Judges, Kings, Captivity and Maccabean periods, and yes, the Exodus.

    I believe that precise dates can be offered for the Exodus and most major Biblical events from Abraham forwards.

    • Grotoff

      From the early Judean and Israelite kings, the chronology is more or less recoverable. But from Solomon and before? The evidence is practically non-existent. Could a kingdom have arisen in the Levant shortly after the Bronze Age Collapse broke the powers of empires there? Yes. Does this confirm that David was more than an powerful chieftain? No. Does this support the Exodus account? No, not even a little.

  • Don Bryant

    Thanks for posting this. As a conservative evangelical the absence of historical and archaeological evidence for the Exodus as a “simple” event of history gnaws at me. Two million people escaping Egypt (as the figure is commonly given) is too huge an event – not to mention two million wandering in the wilderness for 40 years! My seminary gave this short shrif – “nothing here to see, people. Next topic.” But the issue has never left my mind.

  • John

    Hey, Peter. I have a background in Anthropology and Archaeology. Believe it or not, there is evidence supporting the biblical Exodus.
    For example, the story of Joseph that precedes it is par none spot on to Egyptian traditions dating to Dynasty XII, backed by archaeological digs such as Buhen, Tell el-Mashkhuta, and others that verify the presence of Asiatics during the 2nd Intermediate Period and before, when Joseph would have been around.
    Also, the “New King” of Exodus refers to the Hyksos, which fits perfectly in the chronology of Egyptian history.
    Having studied Egyptian history, Egypt is famous for not recording events, and lying about their own history. Ramses II was famed for losing the Battle of Kadesh, and then spreading propaganda that he won.
    There is proof that Asiatics (which Egyptians made no distinction between Hebrew and Canaanite) came into the Eastern Delta during the 2nd Intermediate Period, which was right before the Hyksos took over, who “knew not Joseph”.
    The biggest thing is this, right after Amenemhat III Egypt starts worshipping one God. The “all in all” “above all” “greater than all gods” “beginning and the end” God. Akenhaten and Tutenkhaten worshipped one God and were monotheistic. This happening right after a period of silence in Egyptian heiroglyphics and the Hyksos taking over.
    After Tutenkhaten, for the next couple hundred years around the Late/Middle Bronze Age, there’s a trail of destruction layers from Canaan to the Levant, where Israel is. Excavations at Hazor is an example of this. This would be where Joshua came from Moses and went straight from Egypt, through Canaan, to the Levant where Israel was.
    So the history really isn’t a problem here. It’s more compelling to see history playing out how the Bible says it did.

    • aj

      Thank you John for that affirmation. However, I would probably have to use the old Reagan quote of “trust but verify”. Can you provide any documentation of this idea? I would love to read it.

      • John

        Hey, AJ. What is your email address, I can send you documentation.

    • peteenns

      John, do you have training in archaeology? What you offer here is quite common among apologists, and is easily an regularly dismissed. Even very conservative but trained Christian archaeologists know they cannot offer Hyksos, “Asiatics,” Akenhaten, or Hazor as evidence supporting the exodus.

      • John

        Hey, Peter.
        I have trained four years in archaeology at a university.
        What is your email address? I wrote a discourse on the Story of Joseph you might find interesting.
        I did not know those things were used by apologists. I studied Egyptian history and just noticed those things myself.

  • Bryan Hodge

    The problem isn’t in saying that one can’t use the Exodus narrative as a single report, but in implying that archaeology provides us with such a thing, by which we must compare it in order to come up with a more accurate history.

    The reason why this is an issue is because all historical knowledge, whether ancient or modern, is a reconstruction. The event would not even survive in unadulterated form if someone had sat there and recorded it with a camera. We are still only getting a vantage point, the conversations that take place close up versus far away or far away versus close up, etc.

    The problem is when we start thinking that we have encountered the real event through our reconstructions, usually using a whole lot of speculation concerning time frames, potsherds, and burn layers, when we really have no possibility of resurrecting the past by such a means.

    Modern scholarship has gone a long way to take the speck out of the evidential-evangelical, apologist’s eye. It just needs to go further and take the log out of its own evidentialist-liberal, apologist’s eye.

    Reconstructing historical events is far more about the historian, ancient or modern, and his times/influences/theology, than it is about having real knowledge of the event–an impossible endeavor for finite minds to undertake successfully in the first place.

    Hence, asking whether we can verify any ancient claim that a historical event occurred is misguided. We can either believe or disbelieve the report and lift up our own reconstructions as more reliable. But as for them actually being more reliable? That depends upon whether you’re asking the believers or unbelievers on either side.

  • dman

    Ockam’s razor says the simplest explanation is that is that..it is a myth. A story similar to other cultures’ recounting great adventurous travels, which, though not meant as a lie, was not based on true events.rather as lessons, cultural enhancement etc. Sorry Guys but this explanation is just going too far prove something obviously mythical

    • Bryan Hodge

      dman, Can you point out another story like the exodus? The simplest explanation depends upon what you’re looking at. To generalize all supernatural stories as “myth” in the sense that you seem to be using the word discounts the simplest explanation that if so many people believe and reported such and such, then such and such must have occurred. That’s why you can’t apply Ockam’s razor to historiography, not even natural explanations of history, since no two historical events are ever alike. That’s why resurrecting the event as it occurred is not possible, either through archaeology or through reason. History is gone. You cannot analyze it with Ockam’s razor anymore than you can analyze crazy contemporary events with it and come out with an accurate knowledge of the event.

  • ostriphobe

    Even as we speak, Israel Antiquities Authority is releasing it findings on a significant centralized kingdom in Judah in the 10 century BCE. Since the Biblical record of the Kings has proved to be reliable, I see no reason why we should doubt the 450 years preceding it.

  • Carl Drews

    Peter Enns -

    Please do not encourage the erroneous idea that the Israelites numbered in the millions during the Exodus period. This is 2013, not 1925. You are a Biblical scholar and should know better. Here are a couple of references:

    Colin Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus (2003), pages 103-110).

    Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (2003), pages 264-265.

    James Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai (2005), pages 153-159.

    The total number of Israelites who crossed the yam suf (Red Sea) was about 20,000. But the Bible is not wrong; the original authors merely used a numeric system that we can understand as long as we are not slaves to King James literalism.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X