As part of my debunking the Exodus series, I’ve been involved in a prolonged debate with Dave Armstrong, in particular, regarding…pretty much everything I have stated. Let me give you a super-quick synopsis of where we are at. One of my arguments was that the Moses birth story was appropriated from the surrounding culture when the Torah was originally written in the exilic period in the 500s BCE. The Sargon birth myth predates the Moses birth myth on account of Sargon being an actual historical figure existing 1000 years before Moses and the birth myth of Sargon, as far as earliest extant evidence for it, pre-dating evidence for the Moses myth by at least 450 years.
As an ancillary piece of data to support this mainstream thesis (since none of what I have said above is in the remote bit controversial and is accepted by mainstream non-literalist scholars), I presented the claim that pitch was not known in the Nile River area at the time of Moses’ supposed birth and life. However, it was widely available in the Mesopotamian area where the Sumerian story of Sargon of Akkad and his mythical birth was developed. This is just another nugget of evidence to support the mainstream thesis.
Throwing stuff at the walls to see what sticks
Dave Armstrong, Catholic apologist and apparent biblical literalist, took umbrage with my claims, initially ignoring all of the arguments around Sargon of Akkad and concentrating solely on whether pitch was available in the Nile River area or not at the time in question. When pressed, he did eventually engage with the Sargon arguments, but I’m pretty sure you will agree with me that he didn’t really have a leg to stand on. (And I responded to theist Verbose Stoic on the same topic.)
Over different posts and comments, he has hit me with a whole bunch of sources to support his claim that pitch was either widely available or at least somewhat available at the time and place in question – the Nile River area in Egypt’s during the New Kingdom era. He claims I did not read some of his supposed “refutations” in one or some of his articles. This is absolutely true.
In fact, I only found out about one of his claims concerning a number of his sources through a comment he gave me in a thread yesterday. This was because the pitch stuff he was hitting me with was in the second half of the Sargon article that he wrote to “refute” me. This is where you shouldn’t cry wolf. I read only of this Armstrong article. I a using induction here to work out what the probability of Armstrong providing a decent argument is and whether it is worth putting all of my effort into reading all of his pieces. And his manipulation of data and usage of sources is so often utterly dubious and disingenuous that I’ve learnt is not to take him as seriously as he would like.
When you get halfway down an article on Sargon and his application of skepticism and hopefully robust use of sources is so incredibly poor, then you have no desire to read the rest of the article. I gave up on that article halfway through and thus didn’t read his subsequent pitch claims. Did I miss anything? Not really.
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)?
- The Moses story is correct, even if the actual narrative claims are unlikely (given the priors of such extraordinary claims), and given the small probability of pitch being available in the time and place and it being used for those purposes.
- The Moses story is appropriated, 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.
So where are we at now? I will not talk about the vast majority of the sources that Dave has hit me with over this debate because I have shown them to be either completely irrelevant or certainly not what Dave thinks they are. I mean, if anything is to come out of this discussion over time, it is how to use sources correctly and to be rather more careful when throwing as many sources at the wall to see what sticks, because you don’t look very academic or astute. Armstrong through an awful lot of the wall, most of which I cleared off with relative ease.
So what stuck?
Armstrong did produce some evidence to show that raw bitumen has been found in Egypt over time, including the time relevant to Moses’ supposed life. He really thought this was magnificent evidence and I did have to take him through it, showing that there was absolutely no evidence of pitch being used either to caulk baskets or even in glueing tools together, a more common use of pitch on this small scale, in Egypt and at this time. None. The only evidence of this was in Israel and other countries, but not when and where Armstrong needed it. What the paper showed is that there had been uncommon (not a lot at all has been found) trade of raw bitumen material to Egypt over time. They are basically found a few chunks here and there. The authors guessed at what it could have been used for in Egypt only on account of what it was used for elsewhere in the world. But there is no evidence of it being used and there is certainly no evidence of widespread usage anywhere in Egypt over the required time period.
I admitted that this would change my probability assessment of a pitch basket being used by a woman to put her own child in to send it down the river (honestly, just listen to this – Armstrong literally believes this mythical story is actually true!) to be incredibly fortuitously picked up by a member of the Royal household so that the baby could be brought up in secret and become an important political leader. Just like Sargon of Akkad. I changed the probability of pitch being used to caulk a basket in the Nile River area during this time by about 10%, moving it from incredibly unlikely indeed to very unlikely indeed. I thanked Armstrong for making me more accurate, though I’m not sure the time and effort put into all this was worth a 10% movement of probability on the pitch aspect alone (not the whole story probability).
The second gotcha moment that Armstrong thought he had concerned a letter from Rameses II to a Hittite king in the New Kingdom era mentioning a naval vessel with, amongst other things, supposedly a pitch-caulked hull. He also tried to bring in some other sources but I summarily dismissed them. I had already shown that Armstrong really should check his sources more carefully as he has a habit of not doing this, leaving it for me to point out that his sources are either not relevant or actually work against his thesis.
As such, his readers must think that because Armstrong is providing an answer – i.e., saying something – he must be providing the answer – i.e., a refutation. They, his readers, are not bothering to check his work, through confirmation bias. OF course, this could probably be levelled at most of my readers here. The question then is, who is more honest with their sources?
So, the second “gotcha”. This one was nuanced and I don’t blame him for not checking it because it was a French source. However, as I mentioned, I have a degree in French and was able to do a translation of the pertinent parts. I’ve also been helped hugely by another comment here who has delved even deeper into the sources, including the original German translation of the Akkadian letter. Here is Armstrong’s comment (his blockquote now in italics so as not to confuse matters):
You prove once again that you not only ignore answering my rebuttals, but don’t even read them in the first place (as you have now admitted several times):
“They wouldn’t have the first clue that pitch wasn’t particularly available in Egypt, and there is no evidence it was used at all for caulking, during the supposed Moses time.”
From my article:
But there is further compelling archaeological evidence closer to the time of Moses. Steve Vinson’s article, “Seafaring” [see link], in Elizabeth Frood and Willeke Wendrich (editors), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles, 2009, stated (my bolding):
A fascinating letter, in Akkadian, from the court of Ramses II [1303-1213 BC; r. 1279-1213, which overlaps the life of Moses] speaks of an Egyptian ship that had been sent to the Hittites, evidently for the purpose of allowing Hittite shipwrights to copy it (Fabre 2004: 96). The only constructional details we get are that the ship apparently had internal framing (ribs), and that it was caulked with pitch (Pomey 2006: 240), a practice now paralleled archaeologically by a water-proofing agent observed on some planks salvaged from New Kingdom sea-going ships found at Marsa Gawasis [see link on that] (Ward and Zazzaro fc.; cf. Vinson 1996: 200 for the practice in Greco-Roman antiquity and one occurrence in Roman Egypt). Whether this was a traditionally constructed Egyptian hull, or a new-style hull based on Eastern Mediterranean/Aegean principles, is unknown.
Fabre, David 2004 Seafaring in ancient Egypt. London: Periplus.
Pomey, Patrice 2006 Le rôle du dessin dans la conception des navires antiques: À propos de deux textes akkadiens. In L’Apport de l’Égypte à l’histoire des techniques: Méthodes, chronologie et comparaisons, Bibliothèque d’étude 142, ed. Bernard Mathieu, Dimitri Meeks, and Myriam Wissa, pp. 239 – 252. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Vinson, Steve 1996 Paktou/n and Pa,ktwsij as ship-construction terminology in Herodotus, Pollux, and documentary papyri. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 113, pp. 197 – 204.
Ward, Cheryl, and Chiara Zazzaro 2007 Finds: Ship evidence. In Harbor of the pharaohs to the land of Punt: Archaeological investigations at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt, 2001 – 2005, ed. Kathryn Bard, and Rodolfo Fattovich, pp. 135 – 153. Naples: Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”. fc. Evidence for Pharaonic seagoing ships at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.
The New Kingdom of Egypt is the period from 1570-1069 BC, which includes the entire lifetime of Moses.
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