UNHOLY MOSES: Conservative Scholars Defuse Triablogue's Bombast

Sometimes amateurs don’t know enough to know they don’t know enough. A luminous example of this phenomenon is offered by Triablogue’s, Postmortem on Avalos, which has assembled a collection of conservative scholars to prove that I was wrong about Sargon.

To review briefly, I provided four irrefutable conclusions in my post of July 14, 2008 Moses is a Basket Case of Bad History:

I. There is no actual evidence that a Moses river-story was present in the seventh century BCE.

II. There is plenty of evidence that the Sargon river-story was present in the seventh century BCE.

III. Sargon’s presence in actual documents can be attested from the late third millennium BCE and far into the first millennium BCE.

IV. Moses’ presence cannot be found in any extra-biblical record before around 1-3 centuries BCE.

So, Triablogue assembled a group of conservative scholars, and then characterized the conclusions of this solemn assembly as follows: “Notice that although different scholars offer different explanations, not a single scholar I cite agrees with Hector's explanation.”

So let’s examine the statements of each major respondent collected by Triablogue one by one, and see if they were able to refute my main claims enumerated above. I will devote Part I of this post to these scholars.

In Part II, I will disassemble some other comments made on the Sargon issue by Triablogue in their post, Holy Moses.


1. Duane Garrett

He promises a commentary that will defeat Brian Lewis’s claims. Promises do not an argument make.

2. James Hoffmeier

He actually refuses to argue his side. He just declares that I am so “ideologically committed” that he does not to even want to offer evidence in his response. So why does Triablogue consider Dr. Hoffmeier’s obvious retreat from my challenge as evidence for its side?

Yet, in another statement, Dr. Hoffmeier agrees that the Sargon legend “may well be the earliest example of the expose[d] child motif.” That would mean that my claim about the Sargon story predating the Moses story has been vindicated by Triablogue’s own expert.

I have considered the Egyptian evidence that Hoffmeier offers, and I have found some factual errors in his claims. For example, Triablogue cites Hoffmeier for their claim that the Hebrew word gome' in Exodus 2:3 is an Egyptian loanword. As Triablogue states: “ The first term, gome' is an Egyptian word that means ‘papyrus.’”

Triablogue, of course, cannot tell you if this is true or not as they are just relying on Hoffmeier. There has been plenty of debate about whether the Egyptian word identified by Dr. Hoffmeier is, in fact, the source of the Hebrew word, but I do think Dr. Hoffmeier’s linguistic evidence is strong on this point.

However, Dr. Hoffmeier also makes it appear as though his collection of Egyptian loanwords would not be known to later writers (Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition [New York: Oxford, 1996]) p. 140):

"Furthermore, it seems unlikely that a scribe during the late Judaean monarchy or the exilic period (or later) would have been familiar with these Egyptian terms."

Can Triablogue tell you whether this is true or not? No. They would have to know enough about Hebrew/Aramaic Jewish literature in the postexilic period to evaluate this claim.

The exilic period would be from about 586 to 538 BCE, and the 400s BCE would span part of the post-exilic period.

The fact is that we find the word gome’, translated precisely as “papyrus(-reed),” in Document 15 (line 15) of the Aramaic papyri from the Jewish colony at Elephantine (Egypt) published in A. E. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (1923; Reprint, Osnabr├╝ck: Otto Zeller, 1967), pp. 45-47 + p. 281. This Jewish Aramaic document is dated to about 441 BCE based on similarities to other precisely dated documents (sometimes these documents include the year). More importantly, why did Dr. Hoffmeier omit this fact?

Thus, Dr. Hoffmeier’s efforts to restrict the knowledge of gome’ to pre-exilic Hebrew writings fails. Indeed, the use of gome' does not preclude a Jewish writer of the post-exilic period from composing a story about Moses using that Egyptian loanword.

And while Egyptian loanwords may offer evidence of an Egyptian source or context, this does not make it a context of 1400-1200 BCE. And it does not preclude also a Mesopotamian source that might have provided some preceding motifs for the Moses story. I have already offered evidence for Mesopotamian parallels that Triablogue does not address (e.g., the ana ittishu laws).

3. Richard Hess

Hess states “The Sargon Story is as Avalos says.” And so how did Triablogue conclude that not one expert agreed with me?

Moreover, Hess agrees that there is no historical evidence for Moses from his time outside of the Bible. What he offers is HOPE that one day we will find it.

In addition, I do not state that Moses did not exist. I do claim that there is no evidence for the existence of Moses from his time anywhere outside of the Bible. That is a true statement, and neither Hess nor Triablogue has offered us a single historical source to refute this statement.

Hess offers us this rationale: “X can be historical even if there is no evidence for the historicity of X.” That is fine, but just apply that to everyone else. King Arthur may be historical despite lack of evidence for his historicity. Superman may be historical despite lack of evidence for his historicity. Sasquatch may be historical despite lack of evidence for his historicity.

This is the difference between rigorous history and wishful thinking. We minimalists will only declare something historical when we find actual evidence for it.

Hess also does not address my discussion, in The End of Biblical Studies, of the House of David inscription, which also contradicts biblical history, depending on certain readings. In that book, I also pointed out that King Arthur has inscriptions mentioning him, but no one considers Arthur to be the historical figure described by Medieval historians.

4. John Currid

Apparently Triablogue is now so ideologically committed that they cannot realize that Currid is refuting their notion that the Moses story preceded similar Near Eastern legends. What Currid says, however, is that the Egyptian legends are more important than the Mesopotamian legends. Currid says that the author of the Moses story was using some common “motifs” found in other birth stories. But motifs imply literary, not necessarily historical, features.

5. Allen Ross

He apparently also sees the story of Moses may be drawing on at least some literary, rather than historical motifs, of earlier stories:

"While we may not be dealing with a genre of story-telling here, it is possible that Exodus 2 might have drawn on some of the motifs and forms of the other account to describe the actual event in the sparing of Moses--if they knew of it. If so it would show that Moses was cast in the form of the greats of the past."

6. Alan Millard

I am not sure that he offers a strong endorsement of historicity:

"The story of the foundling rising to eminence may be a motif of folklore, but that is surely because it is a story that occurs repeatedly in real life."

Fictional novels and folklore are replete with things that happen all the time. This does not make any particular incident in novels historical.

7. Tremper Longman

He offers another weak endorsement of historicity:

“While certainly a folklore theme, the practice of placing a child in the river may have been a widely practiced form of abandonment, similar to the more modern practice of leaving a child on the doorstep of a house.”

Just as with Millard’s comment, there is a difference between the occurrence of a general phenomenon (abandonment) and the occurrence of a specific instance of that phenomenon (Moses’ abandonment). Proving the general occurrence of a phenomenon does not constitute proof of the specific occurrence of a phenomenon.

The fact that people fly in jet airplanes does not mean that specific instances depicted in the movie, Airplane, actually happened. Comprende?

8. Reuters

What in there disagrees with anything I have said about foundling wheels in the Middle Ages?


The fusillade from Triablogue’s Holy Moses post makes it all the more apparent that we are dealing with amateurs who are very ill-read even in the scholarship they cite. Triabloguers apparently are not even reading directly some of the scholars they cite for evidence. Just a few examples.

1. They cite Lewis through another source, and do not address the direct quote I have from Lewis where he leaves the Legend of Sargon’s composition open to a wider range of dates. Apparently, Triablogue writers cannot afford to buy the book or find a library with the book.

2. Emanuel Tov is cited, but not directly, to prove that he has discussed the problematic nature of the Urtext. Triablogue is apparently unaware that, in The End of Biblical Studies (pp. 79-80), I already critique Tov’s change in his definitions of "Urtext" from the first edition of his manual to the second edition of his manual.

3. Triablogue ascribes a belief to Cyrus Gordon, but it does not cite where he is supposed to have expressed this belief.

I won’t bother to respond to all of the items found in Holy Moses, but here are a few of the more amusing ones.

A. "As to Hebrews living in Babylon, that's an allusion to the Documentary Hypothesis, a theory which even a secular Jew like Cyrus Gordon didn't take seriously. So Avalos is simply propping up one bad argument with another bad argument."

What? Why would the Hebrews living in Babylon be necessarily an allusion to the Documentary Hypothesis? We have plenty of evidence for Hebrews living in Babylon. Has Triablogue ever heard the Babylonian captivity or of the Murashu documents?

If Triablogue believes in the historicity of its own Bible, then surely it must know that Abraham comes from Mesopotamia, and that the Hebrews were taken to Babylon and they lived there (see 2 Kings 25, Ezekiel 1, Ezra, Daniel, etc.)

I am not an advocate of the Documentary Hypothesis, at least not in the classical form. I believe that there are many more sources than what was posited by the classic Documentary Hypothesis (J, E, D and P).

And why cite Cyrus Gordon as an authority here? Apparently, Triablogue is unaware that Cyrus Gordon thought the Hebrews (or Phoenicians) had made it all the way to North America, but perhaps Triablogue has not heard of the controversy over the Paraiba inscriptions that involved Gordon.

B. "To my knowledge, our earliest copy of books 1-6 from the Annals of Tacitus dates to the 9C. And books 11-16 date to an 11C MS. Is Avalos just as sceptical of Tacitus as he is of Moses?"

I already discuss why we cannot trust automatically what Tacitus and many other Roman authors have to say. What they say has to be checked against data from the actual time of the Roman empire. See The End of Biblical Studies, pp. 115-121 and 215, n. 34.

C. "Since, however, he repays my discreet loving-kindness with this resentful outburst, I'm now compelled to divulge the further fact that he's published no fewer than three—count 'em, three!—titles with Prometheus Books! Oh the shame!"

This presumes that there is a stigma attached to Prometheus. I was just stating a simple fact that the publishers Triablogue regards as authoritative have also published some of my work. Various well-known scholars have written for Prometheus, including Richard Freund, director of the Bethsaida Excavations, and Gerd L├╝demann.

Apparently, Triablogue doesn’t mind Christian presses publishing biblical scholarship, but somehow atheist presses cannot be respectable in biblical scholarship. For Dr. Tremper Longman, for example, I also count no fewer than three---count ‘em three!—titles with NAV Press. Is this really a scholarly press? I find their mission statement to be mostly ministerial rather than scholarly:

"to advance the Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom into the nations through spiritual generations of laborers living and discipling among the lost."

What we should divulge, of course, is that Hayes and Co. have published ZERO (count them) significant items, in any respectable press or peer-reviewed journal. Triablogue doesn’t count.

D. "There is no actual evidence that a Moses river-story was present in the seventh century BCE.’ That would only be pertinent if you assume a liberal view of Scripture, according to which the final text was the end-product of centuries of oral development and subsequent redaction.”

First, notice that Triablogue could not cite one piece of evidence for the existence of Moses even in the seventh century BCE.

My conclusion is not dependent on whether my view of scripture is liberal or not. It depends on whether we have any actual artifact with a Moses river-story from the seventh century BCE. There either is or is not an artifact from that century with a Moses Story.

This is no different from saying that we have no evidence for a Bill Clinton presidency story in the eighteenth century. There either is actual evidence or there is not. The truth won’t depend on whether one is a liberal democrat or a right-wing zealot.

E. “Where, exactly, is the parallel? Sunshine is a luminous phenomenon. Starlight and moonlight are luminous phenomenon. A torch is a luminous phenomenon. A campfire is a luminous phenomenon. This is a good example of parallelomania.”

Again, this shows how little Triablogue knows about Akkadian words and literature. My claim is that Moses and Sargon share a motif of seeing a luminous phenomenon (Akkadian word: nurum).

The word nurum, especially when used in omens and sacred literature, is quite specifically applied to divine phenomena. Thus, in the Enuma elish, the Babylonian creation story, we have a reference to the nuru sha ilani("the light of the gods") in Tablet 6, line 148.

You don’t write an omen text saying Sargon saw a nurum if that meant just ordinary moonlight. An omen text, by its very nature, suggests that there is something special and meaningful about what he saw.

This is even clearer in another omen also quoted by Lewis (Legend of Sargon, p. 139), which reads: “omen of Sargon who marched into the land of Marhas[h]I and (to whom) Is[h]tar appeared in a burst? of light.” Again, the word “burst” might be unclear, but not so the word for “light” which is the same Akkadian word (written here with the Sumerogram: ZALAG2) used in the omen I quoted before.

Thus, it is clear that both Moses and Sargon share a motif in which a divine being appears to them in association with some divine luminous phenomenon.

Instead of being an example of parallelomania gone astray, it is an example of the sheer and profound ignorance of Near Eastern and Sargonic literature exhibited by Triablogue.

F. “‘In fact, I have written extensively on science and religion.’ So has Ken Ham.”

Yes, we need to differentiate writing in respectable scientific publications, such as Mercury: The Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, from sectarian creationist drivel. Here is another instance where Triablogue lacks sufficient training to identify the difference. This is truly ironic because they otherwise extol the difference between Prometheus press and Oxford University Press, both of which include work of mine.


A post-mortem is given when someone or something has died. My four following claims are still alive:

I. There is no actual evidence that a Moses river-story was present in the seventh century BCE.

II. There is plenty of evidence that the Sargon river-story was present in the seventh century BCE.

III. Sargon’s presence in actual documents can be attested from the late third millennium BCE and far into the first millennium BCE.

IV. Moses’ presence cannot be found in any extra-biblical record before around 1-3 centuries BCE.

So, if there is anything that has died, it is Triablogue’s illusion that an assembly of eminent conservative scholars were going to deal a mortal blow to my four claims. May Triablogue’s ignorance rest in peace.