Who Was the Moses of the Bible?

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.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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21 Responses to Who Was the Moses of the Bible?

  1. I looked at this for a thesis I wrote a few years ago now. Phillips is certainly bordering on lunacy…I think Sigmund Freud kicked off this line of thinking in the "modern era" with his "Moses and Monotheism" book, identifying Moses with Akhenaten (i.e. Amenophis IV). Jan Assmann wrote an interesting (though, I think flawed) book entitled Moses the Egyptian, and Yerushalmi's "Freud's Moses" is a good critique.Another off the wall book on the topic is Osman's "Moses and Akhenaten". It is a shame that such odd theses are put forward, because I think there is an interesting link between Atenism and Yahwism (if one accepts early solar elements to Yahwism). Interesting stuff! Love the blog, by the way! Thanks!

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  2. Lewis,

    Thank you for this information. What was the title of your thesis?I have not read the books you mentioned in your comment. Maybe someday I will take some time off and read some of them, especially Freud's book.Thank you for contributing to this discussion. And thank you for the nice words about my blog.

    Claude Mariottini

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  3. Scorp says:

    I having something bordering on lunacy for you Lewis, how about Akhenaten's impetus for monotheism was necessarily his own iniative, but the boy King thought to be his son, King Tut. Maurice Cotterell, a fellow Englishman of yours, wrote the book The Tutankhamun Prophecies where he decoded King Tut's treasures (by chance they hadn't been found and pillage?) and found that like Jesus, King Tut was a messianic figure born of virgin birth and prophesized his return. How about the King of the Egyptians returned to as the King of the Jews to continue what he started in Egypt, but was again rejected. How King Tut's nursing mom was the only tomb ever found with a lion mummy in it. Lion of Judah?

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  4. Adam Stuart says:

    Dr. Mariottini,

    On September 9th you closed the discussion on your post “Immanuel Velikovsky and the History of Israel” and left a comment (note) in bold capital letters. The note appeared following a comment from me that morning. The closure of the post and your use of bold capital letters suggest to me that you may have been upset in some way by my comment. I am sorry if that was the case. Please understand that it was not my intention to upset you. I appreciate your efforts this summer in reviewing three of Velikovsky’s books and hosting related comments from me and others at your blog. I enjoy reading and commenting at your blog on Velikovsky-related and other topics and have done so in a spirit of helpfulness. Also I have been again and again impressed by how frequently you have posted high quality and very interesting material.I suggest that preposterous theories relating to the Exodus, such as the theory that you discussed in your post above (and certain minimalist ideas), have too often been proposed and gained followings due to the failure of the archaeological establishment to give adequate attention to ideas of Velikovsky on chronology and similar ideas by Donovan Courville, archaeologist David Down, Egyptologist David Rohl, and others. It appears that the conventional chronology of ancient Egypt leads people to try to force-fit the Exodus into periods of Egyptian history where it does not fit, such as in the 18th or 19th dynasty. The conventional chronology of ancient Egypt seems to be the problem here. If the conventional chronology remains entrenched in academia then more preposterous theories can be expected in the future. Despite what is probably a widespread lack of familiarity amongst professional scholars regarding Velikovsky’s ‘Oedipus and Akhnaton’, Velikovsky has already proven in ‘Oedipus and Akhnaton’ that Akhnaton was essentially the historical Oedipus. Velikovsky went above and beyond what was necessary to prove that the Oedipus legend is based on events and people in the era of Akhnaton. A likely reason for the similarities between Atenism and Hebrew religion is that Akhaton (per works of Velikovsky and others) probably lived in or close to the 9th century BC in the time of the Hebrew prophets. Akhnaton was likely, like Oedipus, raised abroad. He may thus have come into contact with foreign ideas. Did Atenism influence Hebrew religion or did Hebrew religion influence Atenism? In ‘Oedipus and Akhnaton’ Velikovsky critiques Freud and discusses ‘Moses and Monotheism’. I suggest, Dr. Mariottini, that in the coming months you read ‘Oedipus and Akhnaton’, which I do not think you have read (please correct my understanding if it is incorrect). ‘Oedipus and Akhnaton’ contains brilliant ideas, erudite documentation, archaeology, romance, and tragedy. It is a very enjoyable book, praised by many reviewers in the past.

    Adam Stuart

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  5. Adam,

    Thank you again for your comment. The reason I closed the comments on my post on “Immanuel Velikovsky and the History of Israel” is because I believe everything that needed to be said has been said more than once. The post had become a means for readers to continue to promote Velikovsky’s ideas, even though I had said more than once that I was not willing to accept Velikovsky’s theory. I had forgotten that when you post a comment to the blog, that capital letters mean that you are shouting. I was not shouting. My intention was to emphasize that I was not accepting any more comments on Velikovsky’s post.I am sorry to disappoint you but I probably will not take the time to read Oedipus and Akhnaton. I have a heavy schedule this Fall and cannot take the time to read this book. I believe it is time for me to direct my attention to other projects.Thank you for this stimulating dialogue and for your willingness to present Velikovsky’s ideas.

    Claude Mariottini

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  6. Nolan Mouton says:

    Hi Dr. Claude,

    I'm sure that Mr. Phillips has considered what the scripture states as the reason why Moses may not be mentioned in any Egyptian literature etc? After he killed the Egyptian who was beating the Hebrew, the Pharoah decided to kill Moses; so it would stand to reason that since Moses had rejected his position and inheritance as an Egyptian for heritage as an Hebrew, that the Pharoah would also remove his name from any and all Egyptian "honors" that might have been given in the past. And even in the movie, Pharoah has his name "stricken" and forbids anyone to speak the name Moses!Do you think this is a plausible argument?

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  7. Nolan,

    The idea that Moses was an Egyptian is a complete denial of what the Bible teaches. The movie is just a movie and it has little reality when it is compared with what the Bible teaches.Stay with the Bible.

    Claude Mariottini

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  8. Anonymous says:

    Dr Mariottini:I believe you are right to insist that the biblical traditions be honored – whatever happened, something happened to give us the Moses of the bible. It is reasonable to consider that what happened to give us the Moses of the bible is indeed the man himself, Moses of the bible. Israeli archaeologists say that the evidence for the historical Moses is so strong, that if he didn't exist, he must have had a twin brother by the same name. 😉 Johnny C Godowski (Ref Moses and Monotheism).

    It was here at Freud's thesis that Dr V began … finding that Akhnaton's life in its details corresponds to Oedipus, not Moses, he began looking earlier in the Egyptian dynasties for the Moses of the bible. As far as the book being reviewed, I found its insights intriguing, differences in chronological perspective notwithstanding. An honest attempt, given the chronology he had to work with.The insight about the syrian princess was fascinating.

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  9. Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comment. In interpreting the person of Moses, our only information is the Bible. If an interpretation contradicts the Bible, then we must reevaluate the interpretation.Even though I did not agree with Velikovsky's theory, his book is a fascinating reading. No wonder so many people are captivated by his views.

    Claude Mariottini

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  10. Adam Stuart says:

    Dr. Mariottini,

    Just to clarify, the September 15th comment above was written by Johnny C. Godowski; he did mention his name in the text of the comment.With regard to your September 14th comment to me (Adam) above, I am glad that when you wrote in capital letters you were not ‘shouting’. Thanks for the clarification.It was good of you to include, in your review of ‘Worlds in Collision’, a quote from Robert H. Pfeiffer, the late Chairman of the Department of Semitic Language and History at Harvard University who mentioned that Velikovsky “discloses immense erudition”. In Velikovsky’s posthumously published memoir ‘Stargazers and Gravediggers’, Pfeiffer is quoted as writing to Velikovsky the following in August 1942: “I regard your work—provocative as it is—of fundamental importance, whether its conclusions are accepted by competent scholars or whether it forces them to a far-reaching and searching reconsideration of the accepted ancient chronology.”

    Adam Stuart

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  11. Johnny C says:

    Dr Mariottini,

    Thank you for your blog – each time I visit there is fascinating new insight I would not know where to find anywhere else. I believe you are right – where an interpretation conflicts with the bible, we must reconsider our interpretation. Insofar as the conventional chronology is in itself an interpretation that does indeed conflict with the bible, then as you say, and Pfeiffer affirms, it is time for competent scholars to begin that 'far-reaching and searching reconsideration…'

    Johnny C Godowski

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  12. Johnny,

    Thank you for your comment and for what you said about my blog.I do not believe the conventional chronology is in conflict with the Bible. I believe that revisionist chronologies are in conflict with the Bible.No major Egyptologist has accepted the lowering of Egyptian chronology by 600 years. If the problem is with Egyptian chronology, Egyptologists must work on this problem and come out with an acceptable consensus.

    Claude Mariottini

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  13. Johnny C says:

    Dr Mariottini,

    Thank you yet again. I may have perceived your intent incorrectly, but I thought you felt that Phillips was in conflict with the bible. In my understanding, Phillips has nothing personally against the bible per se, but is merely doing his level best as the scholar he is to find the Moses of the bible somewhere in the conventional history. It is only because of the traditional chronology he has been given that he is forced to – as I believe you have characterized it -conflict with the bible. Scholars like Phillips are not the root of the problem. The chronology is. That is why I say the chronology itself conflicts – it leads poor honest scholars like Phillips to conclusions that Biblical scholars such as yourself, and rightly I might add, find in conflict.I respect your current belief – of course you believe it or you would not teach it. That is what integrity means as a professor – one who teaches what one professes to believe. There are good reasons for beliefs – even differing ones. We have already discussed some of these. A growing number of competent scholars – John Bimson, even Colin Renfrew, have been discussing the need for a reconsideration. We may believe differently about chronology at the moment – when even experts in the field dissagree, it comes down to belief, and requisite investigation, evidence, and reconsideration.In this we both believe strongly and rightly – as you say – where in interpretation conflicts with the bible, we must reconsider.In your last comment, you also have my full agreement – If – the problem really is the chronology – then it is up to the community of competent scholars to find a consensus that is acceptable, and meets with all the evidence. Thank you and your blog for a most enlightening summer.The Rosh HaShana holiday is coming up. May we all be inscribed for a good year.

    Johnny C Godowski

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  14. Johnny,

    You said: "The Rosh HaShana holiday is coming up. May we all be inscribed for a good year."I say: "Amen to that."

    Claude Mariottini

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  15. Johnny C says:

    Dr Mariottini,

    Amen and Amen ! 🙂

    Johnny

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  16. Adam Stuart says:

    Dr. Mariottini,

    Amen and Amen. With apples and honey.:)

    Adam Stuart

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  17. There was a theory (by Osman) that Yuya (the Grand Vizier to Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III) was the Biblical Joseph and that his son Ay was Joseph's son Ephraim. (Yuya had another son called "Anen" – Menashe?)Ay became Vizier to Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten). So it could be that Akhenaten's monotheism was brought about by the INFLUENCE of Ay. As there were moves towards m onotheism even before Akhenaten (a gradual merger of deities), this could have been under the influence of Yuya.Yuya and Ay are non Egyptian names and Yuya's anatomy was non-Egyptian. There is some evidence that they were Semites from the Canaan/Syria area. If so then this would complement the Biblical narrative and show that the monotheistic Canaanites came close to converting the Egyptians to monotheism until the arrival of a Pharaoh who "knew not Joseph" who reversed the reforms.

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  18. Dear David,

    Thank you for sharing this information about Joseph in Egypt. Although this information is interesting, there is no historical evidence that Osman's theory is true. The origin of Akhenaten's monotheism remains a mystery. There is no historical evidence for monotheistic Canaanites.

    Claude Mariottini

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  19. There is evidence of a small number of monotheistic Canaanites: the Bible.

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  20. David,

    Contrary to Norman Gottwald's theory, the Israelites were not Canaanites.

    Claude Mariottini

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  21. So where did they come from (apart from their earlier origins in Ur)?

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