Another Ancient Version of the Exodus Story, and Its Historical Implications

November 16, 2016 | Richard Tada
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In the early 3rd century BCE, the Egyptian priest Manetho wrote a Greek-language history of his homeland, then ruled by Alexander the Great’s successors, as a counterweight to what could be found in Greek writings, which by this time had already been informed by biblical accounts. His Babylonian contemporary Berossus did something similar for his own country. In Clio’s “Other” Sons, John Dillery examines the writings of both, known to us only in fragments cited by other ancient authors. Richard Tada writes in his review:

In [Manetho’s version of the Exodus], the pharaoh decided to cleanse Egypt of lepers and other “unclean” people, confining these unfortunates first in quarries, then in an abandoned city called Avaris. The lepers chose as their leader a priest named Osarseph, who proceeded to reject Egyptian culture just as that country had rejected him.

Osarseph ordered his followers to stop worshiping the gods of Egypt, and also to feel free to dine on the sacred animals of the country. Not satisfied with that, he also arranged to have the country invaded by making alliance with the “shepherds”—a group of people formerly expelled from Egypt, now living in Jerusalem. The lepers/shepherds tag team ravaged Egypt for thirteen years before the pharaoh’s forces finally overcame them and they retreated to Syria [a geographic designation that then included Israel]. But before they left, Osarseph changed his name to “Moses.” . . .

The Osarseph story was recorded by Josephus, writing in the 1st century CE. As a Jew, Josephus was incensed by the tale. . . . Scholarly opinion is divided about the authenticity of the “Osarseph” passage. . . . In [the] skeptical view, the story likely stems from an ancient debate between Egyptians and Jews about whose civilization was older—and hence, more likely to have influenced the ruling Greek culture. As part of this dispute, anti-Jewish polemicists rewrote sections of poor Manetho’s work, rather as if it were an ancient Wikipedia entry on Zionism. Dillery, by contrast, makes a case that the disputed quotations are genuine.

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