Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Compartmentalization Observed in the Wild

At the Conservative Passover seder I attended this year, the woman next to me told me that she is a middle-school ancient history teacher. I asked her if that included Egypt, and she said, "Of course."

"Let me ask you something," I said. "Is there any evidence that the Jews were ever in Egypt, outside of Jewish sources?"

She smiled and said, "You know, I was talking to my Rabbi a few days ago about how the anthropological record compares to some of the events recorded in the Torah. Basically, we decided that faith is faith and anthropology is anthropology. But faith is still important."

(Previously on compartmentalization.)

24 comments:

Orthoprax said...

JA,

""Is there any evidence that the Jews were ever in Egypt, outside of Jewish sources?""

I know this is not the topic of your post, but I don't know why skeptics are so eager to throw out Jewish sources. I really cannot imagine how the story of slavery and the Exodus could exist if it weren't based on real events.

CyberKitten said...

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

One of the defining characteristics of humankind I think..... [laughs]

orthoprax said: I really cannot imagine how the story of slavery and the Exodus could exist if it weren't based on real events.

Really....? I suggest you read more fiction then.... There are many stories out there actually *not* based on real events. Humans are story tellers after all....

Random said...

A couple of questions on this. Firstly, I'm with Orthoprax - why are you automatically dismissing the validity of Jewish sources?

And secondly, as I understand it the role of the ancient Hebrews in Egypt was pretty much that of slaves, downtrodden labourers and other persons of no account. Do the ancient Egyptian records spend so much time discussing such people that the absence of any mention of the Hebrews becomes curious? It's my understanding (I am not an anthropologist though) that this is hardly the case, and they actually spend most of their time boasting about the doings of various kings and other great men. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, in other words.

bankman said...

I know this is not the topic of your post, but I don't know why skeptics are so eager to throw out Christian sources. I really cannot imagine how the story of Jesus and his resurection could exist if it weren't based on real events.

Jewish Atheist said...

I'm not "eager" to throw out Jewish sources. I was just asking about other ones. And from what I understand, there aren't any for the Exodus.

Now obviously I don't believe that two million or so Hebrews suddenly left Egypt after ten miraculous plagues while walking through a split sea which miraculously collapsed behind them on the Egyptians only to live in a desert for 40 years sustained by manna.

Could there have been a small tribe of (proto-)hebrews who did indeed flee Egypt. Sure, why not? Could the story have been completely made up by a group Caananites to explain their relationship with the regional power? Also possible.

Regardless, I don't think anybody who believes the Orthodox version has a leg to stand on, to say the least.

asher said...

Jewish Atheist is right. This whole story was made up by a couple of tribes of Cannanites and we have believed it all this time. You'd really think the Egyptians could disprove this fairy tale pretty easily but why should they even care?

In the words of Barak Obama, "Leave me alone and let me eat my waffle" (matzo)

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Really....? I suggest you read more fiction then.... There are many stories out there actually *not* based on real events. Humans are story tellers after all...."

Yes..but this is a story of a nation's history, not a random piece of fiction. You think the idea that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt was made up from nothing?

Hell, I think we'd give the Iliad historical credit that the Greeks were actually at war with Troy. It's likewise difficult to imagine that not being based on historical events.

Same as the Aztec migration story, the Hindu Kurukshetra War and Plato's stories about Socrates.


Bankman,

"I know this is not the topic of your post, but I don't know why skeptics are so eager to throw out Christian sources. I really cannot imagine how the story of Jesus and his resurection could exist if it weren't based on real events."

Quite right. I don't understand why some people are so eager to believe that the Jesus described in the Gospels had no historical basis. He probably did exist and did preach the things written about him. Obviously the miraculous stuff we ought to be more critical about.


JA,

"I'm not "eager" to throw out Jewish sources. I was just asking about other ones. And from what I understand, there aren't any for the Exodus."

None specifically that I know of. But there are actually circumstantial pieces which corroborate Semites being slaves in Egypt and things of that nature. And of course the Hyksos story is fascinating.

But I think that if the Torah had been the historical text of a people with less-significant cultural influence, skeptics would be far more willing to give its basic story much more credence. Not the miraculous stuff, obviously, but the basic course of events could be taken at face value.

miki said...

All cultures gloss over historical embarrassments and defeats. All cultures also accentuate and mythologize percieved victories. So I guess the exodus probably represents one extreme, but not necessarily a total fiction.

Jewish Sceptic said...

Orthoprax,

"I don't know why skeptics are so eager to throw out Jewish sources."
The same reason you don't take a used car salesman at his word. It's standard practise within history - and anything else really - to consider the source before you believe it.

JA,
I don't know how accurate this is, but Jews may have been in ancient Egypt, probably as nomads...


If the exodus took place between 1300-1200BC then this may be a reference to the Egyptian-Israel rivalry...

What I find interesting is that under the related links, I can pretty much read the moabite stele which is transcribed into modern Hebrew letters. Similarities to Hebrew are uncanny..

American Goy said...

Just found your blog.

To say something on topic:
It always amazes me that Jews, after all that propaganda drummed into them with the Sunday school, the "we are special" meme, actually start believing it.

Every nation needs a historical myth - every single one.

USA, Soviet Union, Holland, Nazi Germany, Bulgaria, Roman Empire...

There isn't one nation in the world which has not invented for itself a historical narrative which sometimes (gasp! shock!) uses parts of actual (naa-awww!) history (but mostly doesn't).

But of course, Jews being special and all, only focusing on Israel and Judaism and their history (to the point where World War 2 becomes the study of Shoah only) missed that fact about all other nations having historical myths (gasp shock naa-aaaw etc etc).

BEAJ said...

After watching the Bible Unearthed video series which is up on Youtube, I'm more than convinced that there was no way the Exodus happened. In fact, Jews were an ethnicity long before they were a monotheistic religion (which happened sometimes between 650-450 BC). This was a time when people started buying into the great fake stories of their ancestry.

Every religion is founded on events which never happened. There isn't one ancient religion that is fact based. Even Jesus was most likely an invention of Paul or someone like Paul. He became human in a few generations as the believers kept adding to the story.

Tigerboy said...

Beaj-

Thank you so much for providing the link to "The Bible Unearthed" videos. Fascinating stuff.

Something I found most interesting is that, if this account is to be believed, it would seem that the real rise of Judaism and the real rise of Christianity came about in a very similar fashion. Both religions first gained true importance around the consolidation of political power.

Hezekiah and Josiah were both kings of disparate factions of Israelite peoples. The power center of Judah shifts from the North to Jerusalem. In the Christian case, Constantine was administering the Roman Empire from far Constantinople. Both situations were about using myths to gather the reins of power. Reinforcing mythology solidified the kingdom.

Don't fight the old stories. USE the old stories to bring the masses more solidly into the political fold.

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."
-- Seneca

(Some regard this as an unattributable quote, but it is quite accurate in its observation of how religion is used as a tool of the politician.)

Anonymous said...

Orthoprax, It seems to me that the problem is that the Jewish sources aren't corroborated (for the most part) by other sources or by archeological evidence, and that the Jewish sources require you to assume that miracles occurred.

Ichabod Chrain

Anonymous said...

bankman said...
"I really cannot imagine how the story of Jesus and his resurection could exist if it weren't based on real events."

So, I take it that you feel the same way about the stories about Mithras, Dionysus, Orpheus, Persephone, Osiris, Herakles... Really, their stories --especially their resurrections-- must have been based on "real" events, too. And they must have truly been deities, too, since only gods and the miraculously blessed can die and come back to life. Because who would or could make up something like that?

[/sarcasm]

MTran

jewish philosopher said...

JA, are you getting cranky because of what's happening to Obama? It's a shame; I originally thought he was pretty good.

Orthoprax said...

IC,

"It seems to me that the problem is that the Jewish sources aren't corroborated (for the most part) by other sources or by archeological evidence, and that the Jewish sources require you to assume that miracles occurred."

You don't need to assume any such thing. I don't claim to know exactly how it "really went down" but I think it unreasonable to conclude that the national history was based on nothing.

Take away the miracles and huge numbers and what about the stories are inherently unbelievable? Escape from Egyptian servitude? Survival in the wilderness? Religious instruction? Conquest of the land?

MTan,

"So, I take it that you feel the same way about the stories about Mithras, Dionysus, Orpheus, Persephone, Osiris, Herakles..."

If you want to respond to what I said instead of making specious analogies you are free to do so.

Why would a nation make up a story about Egyptian slavery as an explanation for their origins?

Orthoprax said...

Heh, oh wait, you were responding to Bankman's specious analogy with your then apt analogy.

Tigerboy said...

Except, that is not the proper way to study anything. One doesn't ask "Is it possible?" One asks "What does the evidence show?"

"Is it possible?" may be a good hypothesis, but then one is compelled to ask "What does the evidence show?"

And, Mtran's list:

"Mithras, Dionysus, Orpheus, Persephone, Osiris, Herakles... Really, their stories --especially their resurrections-- must have been based on "real" events, too."

clearly illustrates human's propensity for myth. (and not just about resurrections, either. The virgin birth, the crucifixion on a cross or tree, the wandering in the wilderness, and many other examples all supposedly happened to lots of other "people of interest."

Humans create myths around their heroes and their ideas.

So, we must look for evidence. Despite tremendous evidence about the Egyptian culture, no evidence of Jews in bondage.

Could that change? Sure! We might find proof that it is true.

But, until that time, ZERO evidence of the veracity of a story that clearly has an agenda, in one of the most studied areas of ancient history, it must, for now, be seen as a myth.

Abraham, David, Moses, Solomon . . . myths. Even a man that most non-Christians believe to be historical, Jesus, the argument can be made that he was mythical. Saul of Tarses, upon who's writings Christianity is based, probably thought of Jesus's birth, life, death, and resurrection, ALL taking place in the spiritual realm.

No physical evidence for any of it.

Orthoprax said...

Tigerboy,

"No physical evidence for any of it."

That's debatable, but not particularly my point. We have a written record about a nation's history and I say that it's more likely it be based on fact than be pure fiction.

A good comparison is the Iliad and the Trojan War. Take out all the miracles, demigods and extreme heroism and you're still left with a Greek-Troy war that probably happened.

One can make the argument that Socrates is mythological too - any physical evidence for him? None. But it's unreasonable to assume that Plato made him out from nothing.

Your extreme level of skepticism is unreasonable. Maybe Ben Franklin or Thomas Edison are myths. There will likely be people who'll suggest just that in a thousand years hence.

FedUp said...

There should be a groups of highly talented research scientists that completely develop this whole compartmentalization deal. Maybe if there was hard evidence on this kind of thing we'd have less moderates and more atheists.

Great post.

Tigerboy said...

orthoprax:

First of all, something can be based on historical people, or events, and still be totally steeped in mythos.

The narrative of the Bible is suspect, because it makes claims about supernatural events that we know to be ridiculous. The document has a clear bias. A clear agenda.

I never said there were no Jews in bondage in Egypt. In fact, I said we might yet find evidence, but we haven't thus far. Despite it being one of the most thoroughly studied places on the planet, nothing so far.

No evidence
+
One source which feels free to make outrageous and obviously false statements
=
GREAT SKEPTICISM

The life of Socrates was written about by at least three people who were his contemporaries. Neither Socrates, nor any of his biographers, are making supernatural claims. Could he be a myth?

Yes, in fact, he CAN be considered mythic. He is someone about whom stories have been told, stories that have been passed down through the ages. Do we know the absolute accuracy of these stories? Of course not! We think we "know" him to be a teacher, a wise man. We all "know" the story about him drinking hemlock. This is mythos.

Once again, myth and historicity are not mutually exclusive concepts.

But, Socrates' contemporary biographers make no outrageous, supernatural claims about him. We have far less reason to be skeptical of the veracity of what they say.

Your statements about Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison are a bit silly. Again, these figures ARE steeped in mythos. The story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree comes to mind. That is pure myth.

But no one does now, nor will anyone ever, question that these were absolutely historical people. There is endless hard evidence for it. We have their writings, their inventions, their signatures on assorted documents, various people painted their portraits, or took their picture, countless contemporaries recorded their movements and their statements.

Yes, there is mythos associated with these types of figures, and it most likely will continue to grow with time. But, there is no question that these people existed.

There is, similarly, no question that the Israelites existed. But any stories about their deeds and/or heroes, especially those contained in a book that is filled with absurd, supernatural claims, is NOT good history, it's myth.

Find some reliable evidence, and then it starts to be historical, as well.

We don't have that part. Not yet.

Orthoprax said...

Tigerboy,

"But no one does now, nor will anyone ever, question that these were absolutely historical people. There is endless hard evidence for it. We have their writings, their inventions, their signatures on assorted documents, various people painted their portraits, or took their picture, countless contemporaries recorded their movements and their statements."

Yes - _we_ do. But what if western civilization falls and these records become lost? If we were a less literate people and kept memories alive through story telling would the events be magnified and lose a measure of historical accuracy? Probably. This is what happened in Israel.

Could future people then say that the works and inventions of Edison and Franklin were only attributed to them by enthusiastic storytellers but in fact were created by unknown figures? Of course.

Obviously skepticism is called for - but what is not called for is extreme skepticism to the point where one objects to the reasonable belief that there is a measure of fact and a preponderance of history in the tales of old.

Anonymous said...

Well this is slightly off topic, but not too much so. The story about the Exodus from Egypt isn't the half of it. I just saw on Hirhurim that this year we get to make the bracha for the sun being in the same position as it was at the time of creation. I'm a bit skeptical, maybe extremely so, and if I can be skeptical of that I can be skeptical of a lot of other things Chazal tell us.

Anonymous said...

That last anonymous comment was by me, Ichabod Chrain