Exodus Sidebar: Refuting Armstrong’s “Refutation” on Pitch (but Oddly Not Sargon…)

Exodus Sidebar: Refuting Armstrong’s “Refutation” on Pitch (but Oddly Not Sargon…) June 11, 2021

Oh David, David, David.

David “I love science as much as any atheist” Armstrong likes to see himself as the white knight, tackling my “screeds” articles and refuting them. Except, this is rarely what actually happens. He recently claimed to have refuted me on camels but after further inspection, er, hadn’t.

In my last piece on Moses, I carefully recount how the Moses story is based on the pre-existing Mesopotamian Sargon of Akkad myth, where the baby Sargon is placed in a whicker basket, covered in pitch, sent down the river, found by someone else who brings him up where he then takes on great status.

The story is so unbelievably similar in detail to the Moses story that for this to happen twice in similar areas and times is too unbelievable to be true. In fact, neither are true, and the Moses story was almost certainly stolen off the surrounding culture when the Hebrews were in Babylonian exile, when critical scholars believe the Bible was compiled.

This seems very uncontroversial since this is what happens historically and anthropological throughout the world and throughout time. Unless you are a Christian (or literalist Jew). In which case, such obvious mythical evolution cannot possibly be true.

I wrote a 2500-word piece on this that included the 250-word section at the end on whether pitch was available contemporaneously in the Nile region at the time. This was an additional nugget to my piece, but not the main thrust at all.

Armstrong, rightly in and of itself, takes my claim about pitch on. He claims to have refuted it, using many rhetorical flourishes to do so. We are all victim of that – I have done it here already. Armstrong’s flourishes include:

As long as Pearce keeps lying 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 lies continue to be exposed for what they are. Or he can get honest and act in a 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 intellectual dishonesty (upon 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.

And so on. The difference is that I am aware I am doing it and will admit to it because I am confident I can back my position up.

And my position is this: the Moses story is an appropriation of a pre-existing hero birth story that fits entirely in with the construction of the Bible as a vehicle for cultural identity in a time of crisis (exile), and with known anthropology. I would suggest Armstrong reads, for example, the first two chapters of Otto Rank’s classic The Myth Of The Birth Of The Hero: A Psychological Interpretation Of Mythology.

The problem is, Armstrong is fallaciously concentrating on a non-crucial aspect of my case, claiming he has disproved it, and then thinking job done on the rest of my case. I forget the name of this fallacy that is often used in formal debate as an underhand debate strategy (akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater). But this what he has done. I challenged him to consider my actual case about Sargon.

His reply was hilarious:

Me: And by “get to your piece” I mean your claim about pitch because you have conveniently ignored EVERYTHING else mentioned in this piece. This article is about Moses being a copy of Sargon of Akkad. You talk about pitch and then claim to have refuted me… So I might bother to get to it if you can bother refuting the stuff about Sargon.

Armstrong: Right. I have no interest in that argument. I’m interested in what archaeology can show us about biblical claims.

This is incredible. Armstrong claims he is (by inference, only?) interested in archaeological claims I make, and not biblical-historical ones.

Wow.

Because that is literally not the case in virtually every other article he has written. This is er, what’s the phrase…oh, yes, “intellectual dishonesty”. “I’m only interested in debunking an ancillary claim of yours in the hope that my rhetoric fools readers into thinking I have debunked your main claim, which I refuse to do because it looks too difficult.”

That’s the context, folks.

Let me remind you of one of the Sargon excerpts:

Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I. My mother was a vestal, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains. In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates, my mother, the vestal, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth. She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch, and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me. The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier. Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart, Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son, Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener. In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king, and for forty-five years I held kingly sway. (Rank, p.14)

There is interesting etymology of Moses, here, too, in meaning (as according to Exodus “because I drew him out of the water”) “the one who draws out”. In his paper “A Structuralist Exercise: The Problem of Moses’ Name”[1], Michael Carroll directly connects Moses’ name to the Sargon (birth) myth.

Indeed, Carroll states (p. 776-7):

Rank (1959[1909]) long ago made the point that ”placing the hero on a body of water at birth” is an element found in hero stories from a great variety of historically unrelated cultures. The simple fact that both Moses and Sargon are abandoned on water at birth is, therefore, not in itself evidence of historical connection between the two stories. Nevertheless, the fact that the two stories are so similar in so many details (the placing of the infant into a reed basket sealed with bitumen, abandonment upon a major river, being found by a foster parent at the river’s edge), plus the fact that the Sargon story was well known in the ancient Middle East circa 1000 B.C., when the Moses legend was taking shape, have suggested to many scholars that the story of Moses’ birth was in fact directly modeled upon the story of Sargon‘s birth. Sometimes this hypothesis has been stated quite boldly (as in Frazer 1919:450-451); often it is only implicit (Gray 1971 :38). But it is a hypothesis that is by no means novel….

That the story of Sargon’s birth and the story of Moses’ birth are related has, of course, been obvious for over a century.

Indeed, he draws on his previous work (and what is known as the “Transformation Rule”, as seen in the Genesis accounts, to explain why biblical stories (for example) that are lifted from elsewhere exchange prominent details. So in the Moses story, Akki the Irrigator is lowly, and this gets transformed into someone of much higher standing. Indeed, this feeds into his theorising as to how the Moses name and etymology developed. Check out his paper.

As “The True History of Ancient Civilizations/Sumerians/Akkadians/Egyptians” states of the Sumerians:

The Sumerians, who lived in the lower Mesopotamian valley, were the first humans to have a written language. They wrote about everyday life on their clay tablets, but also wrote a series of tablets called the creation tablets. They wrote that Man was formed of clay and the women was formed from his rib. They wrote about man’s search for everlasting life, and the tree of knowledge, with an evil snake that tried to gain control of the tree. The “Garden of Eden” comes from the Sumerian word “Gu-Edina”, which means Banks of Eden, a fertile valley between two Sumerian cities. This valley is near the city of Eridu, mans first city, where it’s burial mounds can still be seen today in southern Iraq. The original account on a clay tablet of Noah and the great flood, can be viewed in the Royal British Museum in London. All these accounts were written over 2500 years before Moses wrote the book of Genesis, so how was it that Moses account is a carbon copy of these clay tablets?

Indeed, Noah, the Tower of Babel and Moses all predate the Bible, seen in Sumerian writing before the Bible was composed. Hmmm. Suspect.

Alas, as interesting as this is – and I want to go on because this sort of analysis and highlighting the connection between the two myths is fascinating – I must respond to the ancillary pitch allegations. He’s not interested in historical accuracy of all (biblical) things, just this little thing.

My larger point is this: The Moses story is obviously a rehash of the Sargon story. You could only doubt this if you were a committed Christian (or Jew) and admitting this meant the entire foundation upon which you belief fraework was built would unravel.

Ah. I get it now, Dave.

Pitch

Armstrong cherry-picked what he took issue with. This is what I said:

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 elucidates further:

In Moses own account in Exodus 2:1-3 it compares as, “But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.”  Notice the account of Sargon and the Bibles account of Moses are exactly the same, even the the use of bitumen on the reed basket is the same, with the only difference being the river Euphrates being exchanged for Nile.

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.

Let’s remind ourselves of Moses’ supposed dates:

Generally Moses is seen as a legendary figure, whilst retaining the possibility that Moses or a Moses-like figure existed in the 13th century BCE.[11][12][13][14][15]Rabbinical Judaism calculated a lifespan of Moses corresponding to 1391–1271 BCE;[16]Jerome suggested 1592 BCE,[17] and James Ussher suggested 1571 BCE as his birth year.[18][note 2]

So somewhere between 2171-1571 BCE. (Already, Armstrong is outside of what people generally believe, but that us to be expected.)

Did pitch exist in the Nile area in between those dates, and was it used for waterproofing?

As Armstrong points out, pitch was known in the Indus Valley area (not relevant), Sumeria (very relevant since this is the cultural milieu of Sargon of Akkad) and “Ancient Egypt”. How ancient, and in the right places? Dave’s source states:

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).

So, pitch was used by Sumerians at the correct time for waterproofing, and by Egyptians at a non-specified time in embalming – mummification.

The next bit is glorious. Armstrong’s source is in italics to differentiate it from his own writing:

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.

Apparently, that wins him the argument. None of this is about waterproofing. The source relies a lot on radiocarbon dating and mass spectrometry – so I hope Armstrong and his supporters also defend its use in evolutionary theory, right?

This is a really important point: Armstrong’s case is built on science that creationists do not accept. So if you are a creationist lauding Armstrong’s case, you are being dishonest and employing double standards.

Initially, according to his own source, “it was thought that the trade route for the Egyptians to the Dead Sea was only available in Ptolemaic [330 BCE] and later times”[2] but there is now earlier evidence. Is this earlier evidence good for Armstrong? Not really.

So what of these mummies? Well, the Glasgow male mummy (MTB G44) does not fit into the timescale. A number of others did not include bitumen biomarkers, thus indicating its use was not widespread. The ones that did contain bitumen were described as “bituminous”, containing low levels thereof. The conclusion to his lauded paper?

It has been demonstrated that for the first 2000 years in which mummification was practised prior to the New Kingdom petroleum bitumen (or natural asphalt) was not used in embalming as a general practice. 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. Radiocarbon analyses have shown that even when present, balms were likely never wholly composed of bitumen. This might reflect its initial rarity, or the belief that some of the traditional materials had to be used if the mummification were to be efficacious. [My emphasis]

So Armstrong’s source actually supports my claim.

Cheers, Dave.

So his claim of my “blatant error” is blatantly erroneous.

Or is it?

Armstrong’s second piece [3], however, is a better defence of his position, although he only quotes the abstract. I have read the piece. The article shows that there is some (sparse) evidence of some raw material trade of Dead Sea asphalt to Egypt (with one piece being found in Maadi in the Nile region) dating back to somewhere between 3900 – 3100 BCE and through to more modern times. They don’t really know what it was used for (“Unfortunately, the utilization of the raw bitumen discovered in excavations cannot be discerned”), and guess at perhaps glueing to fix implements (evidenced in Arad, Israel) and perhaps caulking. AND the only actual example of bitumen caulking referenced in the paper is not actually in Egypt but in Samaria, Israel, in Gilgal. This would also accord with my claim: that “Israelite” biblical authors would be using their own cultural knowledge to project onto events that happened in Egypt! There is literally no evidence of the uses of this bitumen sparsely found in raw form in Egypt until it is used in embalming much later (and not in the dates that Armstrong then needs).

Generally, Egyptians didn’t need to caulk wood due to the climate, and used reeds and papryus. Pottery was sealed in the sun and didn’t need waterproofing.

Conclusion

Wow, a lot of effort for little payoff. What have I learnt? That Armstrong is disingenuous, and that’s putting it mildly, in his claims about refuting me, employing cherry-picking, and even then not reading his sources correctly.

Has his work made me change my mind? Broadly, no. I will concede this: there is a possibility pitch might have ended up in the Nile area in the time required and used for the purposes see out in Exodus. There is no positive evidence for this, only an inference from some raw material found once nearby, and then seemingly only as a rarity.

I have probably moved my probability analysis about 10%. So, thanks to Armstrong for making me more accurate. Was it worth it? You decide.

The question is this, and it’s a Bayesian one:

Which hypothesis is better suited to the claim of the use of a pitch basket (also in context with the rest of the details)?

  1. The Moses story is correct, even if the actually narrative claims are unlikely ‘9given the priors of such extraordinary claims), and given the small probability of pitch being available in the time and place and used for those purposes.
  2. The Moses story is stolen, as many stories are throughout the world, from a neighbouring culture (when exiled to them), including the narrative elements and the detail of pitch, used widely in that culture and their own, but highly unlikely to have been used in the time and place in which the story is actually set.

Overwhelmingly, my (cumulative) case supports 2. Option 1. is incredibly unlikely. Even more so, given the supernatural elements and given the poor levels of evidence to support such a set of extraordinary claims.

Unfortunately for him, where fools rush in and all that, he never seems to hit the mark he thinks he has. Of course, a couple of his commenters revel in it, but that’s to be expected.

So, Dave – if you’re going to litter your pieces with grand (Danth’s Law-style) rhetorical flourishes, make sure your claims back them up. Oh, and try refuting the Sargon stuff whilst you’re at it. I can almost feel the excitement in Dave’s pieces sometimes that exude “yes, I’ve got him!”

NOTES

[1] Carroll, Michael P., “A Structuralist Exercise: The Problem of Moses’ Name”, American Ethnologist, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Nov., 1985), pp. 775-778

[2] Forbes, RJ., 1955 Studies in ancient technology, Leiden, The NetherlandsBrill, source.

[3]  Connan J, Nissenbaum A, Dessort D., “Molecular archaeology: export of dead-sea asphalt to Canaan and Egypt in the Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age (4th-3rd Millennium BC)”Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Vol. 5

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