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Exodus Sidebar: More on Moses and Sargon

Exodus Sidebar: More on Moses and Sargon June 12, 2021

I think that Dave Armstrong believes that the purpose of my existence is merely to answer his articles that he writes against me. I hate to burst his bubble, but I have other things to do with my life that take something of a priority over responding to him. On the rare occasion that I do read his articles, I will respond. To give you the context for this piece, I am reposting a series debunking the Exodus account and I wrote one on how the Moses story is a clear appropriation of the pre-existing Sargon of Akkad myth, most likely during the construction of the Bible in the period of Babylonian exile in the late 500s BCE.

In my article, I also added the little nugget that pitch was generally unavailable in the Nile area at the time that Moses was supposed to have existed, and this adds to the evidence that the verses concerning the birth of Moses look to be “stolen” wholesale from the Sargon myth. Armstrong supposedly refuted my claims by focusing solely on the idea of pitch being unavailable in the Nile at the time and came to refute that point and therefore my whole broader case. I then replied to this and also pointed out that he was ignoring my points on the appropriation of Sargon birth myth. He has now responded to that piece.

Before I bring in Armstrong’s case, I would like to answer a point brought up by one of his supporters on his blog, Paul Hoffer, and a regular Christian commented here.

Hoffer stated:

And let’s take the case of Sargon the Akkad. He was a historic figure who predated Moses. However, the stories about him being abandoned in a basket all post-date when Moses supposedly lived. The oldest Sargon in a basket stories date back only to 934-605 BC well after when Moses purportedly walked the earth. Did you ever consider the possibility that some Assyrian king may have had the Sargon story re-written to be more like Moses’ birth story rather than vice-a-versa in order to make Sargon as cool as Moses?

Similar to what a commenter here said in quoting the Logos blog:

Some assume that the biblical story of Moses’ birth was based on the Sargon Birth Legend, but this is unlikely. Although ancient Sumerian accounts of Sargon the Great date back to his lifetime, the legendary account of his birth is known from only four fragmentary tablets—three from the Neo-Assyrian period (934–605 bc) and one from the Neo-Babylonian period (626–539 bc). During the Neo-Assyrian period an Assyrian king took the name Sargon II and likely commanded the legends to be written about his namesake (722–705 bc). By doing so, he would have linked himself to the ancient hero and glorified himself as a “revived Sargon” figure. This would suggest that the birth legend was composed for propaganda purposes well after the biblical story of Moses.

Armstrong adds some wholly dubious thinking to this in concluding:

Thus, even in this estimate of the date of the writing or compiling of the Torah, the account would be roughly contemporary with the Sargon birth-legend, which is based on a Cuneiform tablet from the library of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC). It’s not at all clear, then, that the Bible borrowed wholesale from a legend that came from their mortal enemies, the Assyrians. The likelihood is much more so that the opposite was the case: that the Assyrian legend is based on either the written biblical account of Moses’ birth or else unwritten oral traditions of the same event that would have been circulating for about 550 years (from the estimated death-date of Moses) before the advent of the 7th century BC.

Let’s just put this to bed before dealing with other stuff in a future post. What Armstrong is saying here is something like this: “because the earliest extant evidence of the Sargon myth is from somewhere between 669 and 631 BCE, and we know that Moses died 700 years before this, the Moses story must form the foundations for the later Sargon of Akkad myth.”

I probably don’t need to tell you why this is so utterly ridiculous as a conclusion. But I will. The first glaring point is that Moses is just assumed to be a historical character that existed at the time claimed and this is sort of set in stone. Done and dusted. Evidence is required and dated for Sargon, but Moses? Tumbleweed.

Before I start proper, let me pull Armstrong up on a false claim from that last quote:

That the cuneiform was found in the library of King Ashurbanipal who reigned in the mid-660s does not mean it was actually dated to then, which is what Armstrong conveniently does. It is dated to the 8th century BCE. Armstrong tries a fast one here (or is being sloppy), thus incorrectly dating the cuneiform evidence by 150 years or so, and incorrectly claiming it was roughly contemporary with the construction of the Exodus account. Which it is not.

And so it goes on.

Incorrect axioms

Let me just introduce you, in case you don’t know, to the terms biblical minimalism and biblical maximalism:

There are two main positions on the historicity of the Exodus in modern scholarship.[3] The majority position is that the biblical Exodus narrative has some historical basis, although there is little of historical worth in the biblical narrative.[8][25][1] The other position, often associated with the school of Biblical minimalism,[26][27] is that the biblical exodus traditions are the invention of the exilic and post-exilic Jewish community, with little to no historical basis.[28] The biblical Exodus narrative is best understood as a founding myth of the Jewish people, providing an ideological foundation for their culture and institutions, not an accurate depiction of the history of the Israelites.[29][1] The view that the biblical narrative is essentially correct unless it can explicitly be proven wrong (Biblical maximalism) is today held by “few, if any […] in mainstream scholarship, only on the more fundamentalist fringes.”[3]

First of all, a little history on the figure of Sargon of Akkad:

Sargon of Akkad (/ˈsɑːrɡɒn/Akkadian��� Šar-ru-gi),[3] also known as Sargon the Great,[4] was the first ruler of the Akkadian Empire, known for his conquests of the Sumerian city-states in the 24th to 23rd centuries BC.[2] He is sometimes identified as the first person in recorded history to rule over an empire.

He was the founder of the “Sargonic” or “Old Akkadian” dynasty, which ruled for about a century after his death until the Gutian conquest of Sumer.[5] The Sumerian king list makes him the cup-bearer to king Ur-Zababa of Kish.[6] He is not to be confused with Sargon I, a later king of the Old Assyrian period.[7]

His empire is thought to have included most of Mesopotamia, parts of the Levant, besides incursions into Hurrite and Elamite territory, ruling from his (archaeologically as yet unidentified) capital, Akkad (also Agade).

Sargon appears as a legendary figure in Neo-Assyrian literature of the 8th to 7th centuries BC. Tablets with fragments of a Sargon Birth Legend were found in the Library of Ashurbanipal.[8][9][10]

Here’s a hint: try to look at the world and decipher the evolution of stories and ideas from a neutral anthropological point of view, not from starting with the truth of the Bible, historically speaking, and going from that supposedly immutable foundation. This then famously also skews dating of biblical archaeology.

Armstrong later provides evidence for an early Torah construction by providing a source that says there was “intellectual infrastructure” that could support an early Torah construction. This is, obviously, very, very weak. It’s like saying, well there was militaristic infrastructure for World War III in the 1950s, and this supports my claim that World War III actually happened in the 1950s. Meh.

But the jump he does from that to this is incredible:

If one takes that view, then the Moses story clearly predates that of the Sargon myth, and your view — which you so zealously defend and think is an airtight argument — collapses.

“intellectual infrastructure” (i.e., not actual positive evidence) “clearly” shows something?

What? This isn’t academic analysis, this is apologetics. Cheap apologetics.

I don’t think this jump of worthy of any other comment beyond: “Are you actually being serious?”

Getting it very wrong

First of all, it’s worth noting that the Louvre museum in Paris has a stele concerning Sargon’s victories and reign dating to 2300 BCE. We have actual contemporaneous evidence of the existence of this man from 1000 years before Moses was supposed to have existed. This is a historical figure, after all. Moses isn’t.

Let me remind you of Hoffer’s claim:

The oldest Sargon in a basket stories date back only to 934-605 BC well after when Moses purportedly walked the earth.

Soooo, evidence for Sargon comes after when Moses “purportedly” walked on Earth, so, therefore, Moses predates Sargon…

Just wow.

I just can’t believe these people can fool themselves in this way. This is being utterly dishonest…to themselves.

The Logos blog does the same:

This would suggest that the birth legend was composed for propaganda purposes well after the biblical story of Moses.

This is all such terrible argumentation, and certainly falls under apologetics as opposed to academia. And not very good apologetics. Again, the “well after the biblical story of Moses” is well after the biblical story was set, but the same approach is not granted for Sargon. This blatantly disingenuous approach is stark – obvious – but they do it anyway.

Let’s actually compare apples to apples.

Getting the dates right

The earliest extant copies of Exodus come from the Dead Sea Scrolls, with the earliest single fragment dating to around 250 BCE.

This is the earliest evidence for Moses existing. 250 BCE. Let that sink in.

There simply is no archaeological evidence at all. The only evidence comes from religious claims presented as (mythico-)historical accounts.

On the other hand, we have actual contemporaneous evidence for Sargon’s real and historical existence in around 2300 BCE.

But the stories of his life – stories that are admittedly often clearly mythical overlays – came into existence much later. The Sargon birth story is clearly, clearly a myth. Obviously so. You’d be foolish to think it wasn’t. But because of cultural baggage, because that story has been fed to us in Moses-form since we were young children, the Moses version has bypassed our veto mechanisms, it has bypassed our evaluations of what is plausible and what is implausible. I discuss this here: Again, Why Do Normal People Believe Ridiculous Things?

Sargon’s birth account exists on cuneiform from the Neo-Assyrian period (ca. 911-612 BCE), and seems to be from the 8th Century BCE. So although the evidence for Sargon’s birth story, where Sargon existed as an actual king in 2300 BCE comes from a cuneiform from the 700s BCE, Moses supposedly existed much later, in 1400 BCE-ish, and there is no archaeological evidence for him as a person, and the birth myth is evidenced only very late, in 250 BCE.

Sargon’s evidence (and existence) is much earlier than the evidence we have for Moses, who appears to be mythical anyway as there is no actual positive archaeological evidence for his existence.

This all fits in, unsurprisingly, with the prevailing historical thesis: that the Moses birth myth is drawn from the pre-existing Sargon myth.

This also fits in with other things we are pretty sure of: the provenance of the Tower of Babel story as pre-existing, like the Moses story, in Sumerian myths (and also Assyrian!), Noah bring lifted from Tablet XII of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and so on. Christians have a tough time accepting this, obviously (see case in hand, here!).

Let’s return to the Logos blog as utilised by a Christian commenter on my own article:

During the Neo-Assyrian period an Assyrian king took the name Sargon II and likely commanded the legends to be written about his namesake (722–705 bc). By doing so, he would have linked himself to the ancient hero and glorified himself as a “revived Sargon” figure. This would suggest that the birth legend was composed for propaganda purposes well after the biblical story of Moses.

This is perfectly plausible, but the Sargon story still pre-dates the Babylonian Exile (late 500s BCE), and the compilation of the Pentateuch and Exodus, by well over a hundred years. So even if it was propaganda in provenance, the Moses story still looks to be based on it.

Similarities of the accounts

Armstrong’s next attempt is also weak. He tries to say the similarities between the accounts (that I list here and here) are not strong, that they are perhaps mere coincidence.

No. No way.

I won’t detail his claims as they really aren’t worth my time.

So, a baby boy is sent down the river by his mother in a pitch basket of reeds to be found by someone else, brought up in secret by someone else, in a royal family, as their own son to then go on and become a ruler.

For this to happen twice in the same geographic area twice in space of a millennium is just too coincidental for me to be at all comfortable with. He charitably claims this is “much ado about nothing” but I’m not having it. This is Grade A delusion.

But here he is also trying to throw as much at the wall as possible to see what sticks, even if (as is the case here) his solutions are mutually exclusive; i.e., that the Sargon myth is based on the Moses story (as opposed to vice versa), but also that they are coincidental and independent!

Much of this is covered in my previous pieces, so I will leave it there. If you really want to believe that Moses predates Sargon, or that the two myths are merely coincidental, and if you want to ignore the how the evidences and dates work for each claim, and if you really want to start with the axiom of the truth and historical veracity of the Moses stories and work from there…then I can’t help you. But you’re just not being honest with yourself or the data.

And…

I just have to mention this:

“The universe has existed and will exist forever” — except that the vast majority of cosmologists disagree, since they hold the Big Bang theory, which says that the universe had a finite beginning and will have an ending as well.

Jesus wept. You should see this comment in the context of that part of his article. Armstrong fundamentally does not understand the Big Bang and what it tells us in and of itself. And claims he’s Mr Science, and my use of sources is “a joke” and “embarrassing”.

Hey ho. Decide for yourself who has a better grip on explanations of the known data.

EDIT: I’ve been alerted to the fact that Armstrong has deleted at least some of his dating claims on his original article. This is, of course, really encouraging as he recognises that they weren’t as accurate as as one would like. I only heard about this through a commenter below.

 


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