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Pearce’s Potshots #29: No Pitch / Bitumen in Moses’ Egypt?

Pearce’s Potshots #29: No Pitch / Bitumen in Moses’ Egypt? May 26, 2021

Atheist anti-theist polemicist Jonathan MS Pearce wrote in his screed, “Debunking the Exodus II: A Ridiculous Story with Ridiculous Claims” (5-19-21):

Moses is born and for 8 months his mother conceals him before sending him down the river for the Pharaoh’s daughter to find him and bring him up in secret. [This part of the Bible was written when the Israelites were in Babylonian Exile and the probability is that they stile stories off their captors and surrounding cultures. This story is a re-telling of the earlier birth story of King Sargon of Akkad, a Sumerian king who was the illegitimate son of a priestess. She brought him forth in secret and placed him in a basket of reeds on the river. He was found by Akki the irrigator who raised him as his own son. This is defended by the mention of a pitch basket in both stories – pitch was not available in Egypt at the time of Moses, but was in Sumeria. Also similar to Osiris’ birth.]

The red font is his own. He explains that “writing in red” signifies why he thinks “the claim is entirely improbable”.

In his earlier post,The Exodus Debunked: Moses’ Birth” (3-7-18), Pearce claimed much more:

One reason we know that the direction of appropriation goes from Sumerian to biblical, Sargon to Moses, is the mention of pitch. Rather like camels, this is an anachronism in the Exodus story. This source elucidatesfurther:

. . . Was Moses to quick to transcribe Sargon’s birth account without fully aware that bitumen does not exist in the Nile delta? The lower Sumer valley, today known as Kuwait, has a large supply of bitumen that seeps through the ground, from Kuwait’s large oil deposits. The ancients used this heat source to smelter copper, gold and their most sought after metal, bismuth, which they mined in the neighbouring regions. Ancient people in the area also used bitumen as mortar in their temple construction.

Contrary to Moses account, bitumen does not exist in the Nile river or the Nile delta. In Moses haste to plagiarize Sargon’s birth account he failed to realize that the Nile and the Euphrates have a different geology. A simple mistake, but with huge ramifications.

Therefore, it seems highly probable that the Moses account was based on the earlier life of King Sargon of Akkad. Whilst this does not invalidate the Exodus as a whole (rather like the nativity accounts for Jesus don’t necessarily invalidate the life of Jesus as a whole), it does add further fuel to the cumulative case that there is no historical basis for the Exodus accounts.

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Exodus 2:2-3 (RSV) The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. [3] And when she could hide him no longer she took for him a basket made of bulrushes, and daubed it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds at the river’s brink.

Bitumen and pitch are essentially synonymous terms (tar and asphalt also similarly used). We see this in the Wikipedia article, “Pitch (resin)”:

Pitch is a viscoelasticpolymer which can be natural or manufactured, derived from petroleumcoal taror plants. Various forms of pitch may also be called tar, bitumen, or asphalt. Pitch produced from plants is also known as resin. Some products made from plant resin are also known as rosin.

Likewise, Wikipedia (“Asphalt”):

Asphalt, also known as bitumen . . . is a sticky, black, highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum. It may be found in natural deposits or may be a refined product, and is classed as a pitch. Before the 20th century, the term asphaltum was also used. The word is derived from the Ancient Greek ἄσφαλτος ásphaltos. . . .

The use of natural bitumen for waterproofing, and as an adhesive dates at least to the fifth millennium BC, with a crop storage basket discovered in Mehrgarh, of the Indus Valley Civilization, lined with it. . . .

In the ancient Middle East, the Sumerians used natural bitumen deposits for mortar between bricks and stones, to cement parts of carvings, such as eyes, into place, for ship caulking, and for waterproofing. The Greek historian Herodotus said hot bitumen was used as mortar in the walls of Babylon. . . .

Bitumen was used by ancient Egyptians to embalm mummies. The Persian word for asphalt is moom, which is related to the English word mummy. The Egyptians’ primary source of bitumen was the Dead Sea, which the Romans knew as Palus Asphaltites (Asphalt Lake).

Now, I  think the incorrect information Pearce is parroting (in order to mock the accuracy of the Bible, as usual), comes from historical data more or less proving that the Egyptians didn’t use bitumen for mummification before about 1000 BC: some 300 years after Moses. I found that bit of information confirmed in the scientific article, “The significance of petroleum bitumen in ancient Egyptian mummies”, by K. A. Clark, S. Ikram, and R. P. Evershed, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 10-28-16. It unambiguously stated:

Significantly, none of the mummies dating before ca 1000 BC contained detectable bitumen biomarkers. . . .

The earliest evidence obtained herein for detectable bitumen was obtained from the Glasgow male mummy (MTB G44), which dates to the Early Third Intermediate Period (ca 1064–927 BC; figure 3b). . . .

The earliest evidence for the presence of bitumen in a mummy balm derives from a single individual dating to the end of the New Kingdom (1250–1050 BC; [18]). The use of bitumen in balms becomes more prevalent during the Third Intermediate Period, ca 750 BC and was extensively used during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

That settles that! I love science as much as any atheist. I accept its settled conclusions. Polemical atheists can spew the lie that we Christians are “anti-science” all they like (and they do, believe me, as one who has engaged in hundreds of debates with them). Repetition of a slanderous lie doesn’t make it any more true (that’s the logical fallacy of ad nauseam or ad infinitum). But of course, mummification was not the only use of pitch / bitumen in ancient Egypt. Therein lies the rub, and Pearce’s blatant error. The same article also states:

Diodorus Siculus, in the first century BC [7], and Pliny [8], in the first century AD, mention bitumen when writing about the Dead Sea. The former mentions that bitumen was sold to the Egyptians for embalming but it is not mentioned when he discusses mummification. Herodotus [9], writing in the fifth century BC, and who of all the classical authors provides the most thorough descriptions of mummification, makes no mention of the use of bitumen during the process, but does describe its use in other contexts completely unrelated to preserving the dead. Strabo [10] reports the sources of bitumen common in the first century BC, and also refers to the substance when writing about the Dead Sea, and states: The Egyptians use the asphalt for embalming the dead. Until recently, it was thought that the trade route for the Egyptians to the Dead Sea was only available in Ptolemaic and later times [11], but archaeological discoveries and chemical analyses have revealed molecular evidence for trade during the earlier Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods (3900–2200 BC; [12]). Clearly, therefore, bitumen was available to the Egyptians, but its role in mummification is poorly documented.

The article provides a goldmine of other articles on the topic. Footnote 12 sends the reader to “Molecular archaeology: export of dead-sea asphalt to Canaan and Egypt in the Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age (4th-3rd Millennium BC)”, by  Connan J, Nissenbaum A, Dessort D., Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Vol. 56, Issue 7, July 1992, pp. 2743–2759. From this we learn information that definitively settles the issue of whether there was pitch in Egypt at the time of Moses’ birth. As to the date of the latter, I wrote in my Pearce’s Potshots #28:

Encyclopedia Britannica (“Moses”informs us that he “flourished 14th–13th century BCE”. . . . “the most probable date for the Exodus is about 1290 BCE.” Therefore, Moses’ birth was “probably . . . in the late 14th century BCE.” The latter is deduced from the Bible’s statement (Ex 7:7) that Moses was eighty in the year of the Exodus, which would makes his birthdate around 1370 BC, his death in 1250 BC . . . 

The article’s Abstract concluded:

Nine archaeological bitumens from excavations in Canaan, Sinai and Egypt (Tel Irani, Ein Zik, Palmahim, Tel Arad, Jerusalem, Ein Besor-Site H, Sheik Awad and Maadi), dated 3900–2200 Bc. And two natural asphalts of the Dead Sea area (Ein Gedi floating blocks and Nahal Heimar) have been compared . . . 

This study is the first evidence of the trade and export of raw bitumens from the Dead Sea area within Canaan and to Egyptian trading centers on the mainland route to Egypt between 3900 and 2200 BC, prior to the extensive utilization of bitumen for mummification in ancient Egypt.

There you have it, folks. The big mistake that Pearce and his sources made was to simply analyze whether pitch was present in Egypt, as a natural resource. But they completely (and pretty foolishly) neglected the factor of trade and commerce. Beyond that obvious consideration, Pearce might reply, “well, this is the ‘first evidence’ of what you are contending for. I simply missed it [busy doing lots of things, etc.], Big wow!” I suppose he could say that; except that the research dates from 1992, which by my math is 29 years ago. So we see that Pearce is right up with the latest science: all the while constantly blasting Christians for supposedly being hostile to it and not accepting its results.

We have nothing whatsoever to fear from science, because truth is truth. Science arrives at much truth in physical matters and immensely benefits mankind in so doing. The Bible (God’s revelation) also teaches truth: obtained by different — but equally valid and valuable — methods. True science always is harmonious with the Bible, and this is yet another of innumerable examples of that, just as I showed recently with regard to the dates of the domestication of camels in the ancient near east: rather spectacularly confirming the Bible.

And now we see that Pearce was dead-wrong again (“pitch was not available in Egypt at the time of Moses”). I have backed my reply with science. The Bible was accurate, as confirmed by the scientific findings reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Pearce was not only wrong, but dramatically / massively so: his calculations were off by 830-2530 years! That’s a pretty big whopper, ain’t it? Can you imagine the fuss and clamor that atheists would raise (filled with condescending mockery and sarcasm) if they established that we Christians were off by that many years? 

As long as Pearce keeps stating falsehoods about the Bible, I will keep exposing it. His choice. He can continue to embarrass himself and the atheist community if he likes. I don’t see what reward he gets out of that: as long as the falsehoods continue to be exposed for what they are. Or he can act in a more scholarly, objective fashion (as a self-described “philosopher” should) and retract and remove his erroneous statement. We all make mistakes. I have no problem with mistakes. But I have a big problem with refusing to be open to correction and intransigent refusal to retract statements that have been proven to be false. If you’re gonna extol the glories of science (as I do myself; I love it), than put your money where your mouth is, get consistent, and live with its results.

Lastly, whether pitch was present in Moses’ Egypt (or camels when Abraham visited there some 630 years earlier) will not cause any atheist an existential crisis. Their atheism is not brought down by either established historical fact. So they have no reason to not simply follow the scientific / historical truth in this respect. Nothing is at stake except for their intellectual credibility. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Science is one of the areas of inquiry where Christians and atheists can enthusiastically agree about many many things.

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Photo credit: Lldenke (5-1-00). Natural tar seeps at the McKittrick Oil Field, in California: western San Joaquin Valley. [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license]

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Summary: Atheist anti-theist polemicist Pearce mocks the Bible (as usual), claiming there was no pitch in Egypt in Moses’ time (used in his basket floated in the Nile). Wrong!: sez the latest science. 

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