The Bible portrays Moses as one of the most influential figures in Israelite history. His leadership in the legal and religious life of Israel cannot be denied. The legacy Moses left in the early formation of Israel can be distorted but not destroyed, it can be denied but not ignored.
For this reason, many scholars have attempted to evaluate Moses’ legacy by studying his life and work. Those scholars who claim to have found him in Egyptian records have developed widely differing descriptions of Moses. Those who have made efforts to find him in history have concluded that, despite all evidence to the contrary, he never existed.
One recent attempt at finding Moses in Egyptian history was made by Graham Phillips in his book The Moses Legacy (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2002). I would like to thank one of my readers for calling my attention to this book and to Phillips’ attempt at identifying Moses with Egyptian characters.
The Biblical record is clear in identifying Moses as belonging to the people of Israel. According to the book of Exodus, Moses was born in Egypt at the time when an unnamed pharaoh made the people of Israel work as slaves and then decided to kill the newborn male children of the Hebrews.
In addition, the Bible says that Moses’ parents were Amram and Jochebed, from the tribe of Levi, and that they bore, in addition to Moses, Aaron and Miriam. After Moses was born, his mother Jochebed and his sister Miriam saved Moses’ life by putting him in a basket made of bulrushes. Miriam placed the basket among the reeds by the river bank where the daughter of pharaoh was bathing.
Pharaoh’s daughter saved baby Moses and eventually adopted him as her son and he eventually grew up as a prince of Egypt (Exodus 2:14).
Phillips, however, is not happy with the biblical description of Moses. He argues that there is no Egyptian record of a Moses living during the reign of Amenhotep III, nor in the record of any Egyptian pharaoh.
According to Phillips, the Biblical story of Moses makes no sense because, if pharaoh’s daughter wished to keep Moses’ Hebrew identity secret, “which she must have done, since the pharaoh ordered the killing of the Hebrew babies,” she would not give him a Hebrew name (p. 107-108), as the author of the book of Exodus makes it to be in Exodus 2:10. In addition, Phillips says that it is improbable that pharaoh’s daughter would adopt an Israelite child since in ancient Egypt “the bloodline of the royal family was strictly controlled and manipulated.” Phillips wrote:
“The pharaohs were considered gods and their daughters could only conceive children with someone of the king’s choice: very often himself. Adoption was out of the question. At the same time, it is inconceivable that a pharaoh’s daughter would be allowed to adopt a son” (p. 109).
For this reason, Phillips believes that the Biblical narrative about Moses is an invented history in order to make the person of Moses acceptable to later Israelites. The reason the Biblical narrative was concocted as it appears in the book of Exodus was to hide the fact that Moses was a native Egyptian.
The name “Moses” is not a Hebrew name. The name Moses is an Egyptian name which means “son of” or “begotten of.” The suffix appears in the names of several Egyptian pharaohs such as Ahmoses and Thutmosis. Thus, Phillips concludes that Moses was an Egyptian, not a Hebrew: “If Moses was a prince at the Egyptian court then he is far more likely to have been a native Egyptian” (p. 109).
Phillips identifies Moses with Thutmosis. Thutmosis, like Moses (according to Josephus), commanded the Egyptian army against the Ethiopians. Thutmosis, like Moses, left the Egyptian court and disappeared for several years. After listing other similarities between Thutmosis and Moses, Phillips concludes: “If the Exodus took place during the reign of Amonhotep III, then Prince Tuthmoses is the best candidate by far for the historical Moses” (p. 112).
However, Phillips acknowledges that there is a problem placing the Exodus during the reign of Amenhotep III. According to Phillips, Hebrew religion was already practiced in Egypt even before Moses returned to Egypt with the new knowledge about God.
Phillips believes that Hebrew religion influenced the rise of Atenism. Atenism was the worship of Aten as the one supreme god of Egypt. According to Phillips, Atenism was so similar to Hebrew religion that it was directly inspired by Hebrew religion. Thus, when Akhenaten established the cult of Aten in Egypt, it had already been present in Egypt for more than one hundred years.
In light of the similarity between Atenism and Hebrew religion, Phillips concludes:
“If it [Atenism] was inspired by the Hebrew religion then it would seem that if Moses existed then he lived before Atenism came into being in the early fifteenth century BCE. Yet, as we have seen, there is much evidence to place the Exodus in the mid-fourteenth century BCE, during Amonhotep’s reign. If the Old Testament account of Moses first revealing God to the Israelites in any way reflects historical events, then there must have been two Moses’ [sic]: one who led them to freedom at the time of the Thera eruption about 1360 BCE, and another, earlier Moses, who first revealed God to the Israelites at some point before Atenism made its appearance around a hundred years earlier” (p. 120).
Phillips believes that there are two distinct historical periods in the Exodus story, a period that also involves two pharaohs: the pharaoh who enslaved the Hebrews and the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus and that many years elapsed between the enslavement of the Hebrews and their exodus from Egypt. This two distinct historical periods also means that there were two Moses figures, each separated by at least one hundred years.
If there were two Moseses, and the first one was Thutmosis, who was the second Moses? Phillips believes that he was Kamose, the daughter of Termut (the Thermuthis of Josephus?). According to Phillips, Termutis was a Syrian princess who became part of Thutmosis III’s harem and received the honorary title “daughter of pharaoh.” Termuth became a tutor to several court officials, including Kamose, an unknown figure who became the chief steward of the pharaoh of Egypt. According to Phillips, Kamoses was the original Moses, the Moses who met God at the burning bush. In his description of Kamose, Phillips gives six reasons Kamose was the first Moses (p. 127):
1. His parentage is unknown and seems to have been lower class, even foreign.
2. He was raised by a “daughter of pharaoh” with the same name as Moses’ adopted mother.
3. He held high office at the pharaoh’s court.
4. He was in close contact with foreign slaves, which might have included the Israelites.
5. He left office mysteriously and seems to have been disgraced.
6. His eventual whereabouts are unknown.
After studying the Egyptian evidence for Moses, Phillips concludes:
“Two men called Mose [sic]: one discovered God and inspired the Israelites with a new religion, the other freed the Israelites and revealed God’s laws. It is understandable that later they became confused as one man– a man who was required to live to well over a hundred years of age” (p. 127).
In his conclusion, Phillips wrote:
“The historical Moses seems to have been two separate men: one who lived in the mid-fifteen century BCE and another around a century later. The first Moses discovered God in the burning bush and the second led the Israelites out of Egypt” (p. 129).
What can I say about such a preposterous theory about Moses? This theory has no merit. Phillips’ views can only be accepted if one is willing to completely distort the Biblical record.
Brevard S. Childs (The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary [The Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974]), emphasized that in order to understand the person of Moses and the ultimate significance of his work it is necessary to study seriously the final form of the biblical text.
It is true that the Biblical narrative describing the person and work of Moses are not autobiographical nor biographical in nature. However, the reader should not be overly pessimistic or skeptical about Moses and his work.
Although the name or the work of Moses are not mentioned in any records from the Ancient Near East, and although no Egyptian monument or text mentions his name, gives a record of his birth, or tells about his work in delivering Israel, the biblical traditions are still reliable source material about Moses and his work. Although the debate will continue about the historical reliability of the biblical text or the existence of Moses, there is no compelling reason to deny that the Moses of the Bible was the Moses of the Bible.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary