Was Moses a Myth?

June 19, 2014 | 9 comments

I received several recent e-mails from people asking for help answering the claim that Moses never existed but was simply copied from Babylonian mythology. Let’s take a look at the story of Moses’ birth so that we can better compare it to the ancient tale that critics say is the story’s true origin.

Moses vs. Sargon

According to the first chapter of Exodus, after Jacob and his family settled in Egypt they “grew and became prosperous.” Many years later a new Pharaoh rose to power who “knew nothing of Joseph” and, fearing the strength and numbers of the Israelites, forced them into slavery. Despite being cruelly mistreated, the Hebrews multiplied so abundantly that the Pharaoh ordered Egyptian midwives to kill the Hebrew male newborns.

Exodus 2 describes a certain Levite man and his wife who gave birth to a son and hid him from the Egyptians. When they could no longer keep his existence a secret, they had their daughter place the child in a basket floating among some reeds. As she watched from a distance, the girl saw the Pharaoh's daughter, who come to the river to bathe, discover the child. The Pharaoh's daughter accepted the onlooking girl's offer of her mother's services to nurse the child, and royal daughter named him Moses, which means “I drew him out of the water.”

Critics contend that this story is an imitation of an earlier myth about a hero of the ancient Akkadians named Sargon. Sargon recounts his own birth story as follows: “[My mother] laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch, and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me. The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier. Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart, Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son, Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener.”[1]

Objections to the myth theory

While the Sargon story has some similarities to the Moses story, there are several facts that show the story of Moses has an Egyptian origin and is not derived from the Babylonian story.

First, there are differences between the structure and theme of the narratives. While Moses is set in the river because he is of a race suffering genocide, Sargon seems to be set in the river because he is an obstacle to a princess retaining her position. Also, while Moses’s mother has him set gently in the reeds in the hopes of his being found, Sargon’s mother seems to want to kill the child. Sargon even reflects upon her intentions when he says her actions "did not drown me." 

The other fact that counts against the Moses story being borrowed from the Sargon story is that the Exodus account possesses Egyptian vocabulary. This would not be expected if the story had been borrowed from the Akkadians and then set in Egypt. For example, the name Moses shares a root with the Egyptian word mse, which means “to give birth.” The root can be seen in the name of several Pharaohs, including Thutmose and Ramesses. In addition, the Hebrew word for river in the Exodus account is not the usual word nahar, but the word hayeor, which is a Hebrew transliteration of the Egyptian word for Nile.

Finally, the Sargon story may have been composed in the eighth century B.C. to honor the Assyrian king Sargon II, who wanted to embellish his ancestral tradition. If this is true, it would place the story’s composition several hundred years after the book of Exodus was written, thus eliminating it as a source for the Moses story.[2]


[1] Otto Rank. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. (1909). Rank was a psychologist who studied birth and also dabbled in anthropology. He seems to be one of the early sources for this claim about Moses.

[2] Granted, critical scholars are likely to date the authorship of Exodus to being much later, even the seventh century B.C., but they are also likely to say that the miracles in Exodus could not, even in principle, have happened. There is a lot that can be said about this critical approach to the Old Testament that would need to be addressed in separate posts, so I won’t address it here.

After his conversion to the Catholic faith, Trent Horn pursued an undergraduate degree in history from Arizona State University.  He then earned a graduate degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College....

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Arturo Ortiz - Anaheim, California

Thank you Trent for this article. In my particular diocese sadly I have been informed that various people are taking classes that they need through the diocese. This is in order to get a certificate that they need for credentials.

The problem with these classes is that many of the people teaching these classes hold on to various heterodox beliefs. This is most definitely true in regards to the bible. Various of the people teaching biblical classes through these classes that are offered in the diocese have extensive biblical historical criticisms and these so called "teachers" hold beliefs such as Adam and Eve are made up "there is no such thing as original sin" "Moses is not real" The bible is not really the inerrant word of God "this person or that person didn't really write this book" and many more things.

June 19, 2014 at 2:46 pm PST
#2  Kevin Saito - Honolulu, Hawaii

I'm saddened that there are people who are injecting their personal beliefs into Church teachings. I'm not the most educated Catholic by any means but I tell people I don't know when I don't know. THEN I find out the answer and get back to the person with a question. Thank you, Mr. Horn for being there for me and other Catholics who want to learn the truth of our faith. God Bless you.

June 19, 2014 at 3:57 pm PST
#3  Liam Sutherland - pyongyang, P'yongyang Special City

::Comment Deleted::

June 19, 2014 at 4:13 pm PST
#4  Liam Sutherland - pyongyang, P'yongyang Special City

by the way sorry for the language I hope you can pray for my impurity as I am too. it is a differcult stage in my life for me (I am 23) and I have many friends who have turned there back on the lord !(pray for them) thoughts on how to clear my mind of these thoughts and recover my relationship with the lord

June 19, 2014 at 4:16 pm PST
#5  AJ Boggs - Buena Vista, Virginia

Arturo, if that's true, I suggest you talk with your priest and if possible, your bishop to see that these classes are no longer sponsored through the diocese.

June 20, 2014 at 7:02 am PST
#6  John Boulet - Owens Cross Roads, Alabama

@ Arturo Ortiz in Anaheim: As a contributor to Catholic Answers, I do what I can to stem the tide of misinformation, from both Catholics and non-Catholics. I keep educating my self, almost every day, in between my duties as husband and father, and as a physician. I speak up when I hear wrong things being said, trying my best to correct with charity.

As for contacting your Bishop: Maybe your parish priest is the best place to start. Maybe your parish's Director of Religious Education -- make an appointment and sit down for an hour to express your concerns. If the DRE is resistant to what you are saying, and you have spoken with your priest, then take it to the Diocesan offices.

Don't be overly optimistic. As a Baby Boomer, I'll tell you that we are fighting a decades-long rear-guard action. So many people have been badly catechized for so long, it will take many years to correct things. If you have the chance, I suggest you do what my wife did for five years: volunteer to teach catechism at about the 7th grade level -- that is when students are beginning to pick up & to lock into bad ideas. (My wife now home schools our four children and can't do the catechism classes any longer. As a physician, I work roughly 3/5ths of all weekends and can't do much hands-on here.)

Don't lose heart, know that this is a problem all over; but you are not alone in trying to correct things. May God inspire you to get involved in your little corner of the world and to help "fight the good fight."

June 22, 2014 at 7:48 am PST
#7  Berry Logan - ca, California


June 24, 2014 at 9:41 am PST
#8  Michael Rogala - Chicago, Illinois

Better to have a Hebrew scholar answer this. However, it precisely in keeping with the style of writing at the time to co-opt myths of surrounding cultures and attribute them to one's own national "hero".

One can see a continuation of this practice most pointedly in the Nativity narratives of Luke and Matthew.

August 11, 2014 at 1:55 pm PST
#9  Frank Maddalena - Milan, Milano

@ Micheal

The issue is quite debated, both regarding Moses, and the Exodus.

In general, Scholars believe that Moses existed, although of course you have those who say otherwise. The issue of Exodus has been long debated as well.

Usually, however, they refute the "parallelomania" theory. Also the idea that all the tales are myths are a wrong a priori assumption, usually stringly influenced by a biased naturalistic worldview.

Also these theories are often held by minimalists, whose methods also been stringly debated.

Naturally, historical science, is not like chemistry. The past is there, you cannot test it directly, you can only find documents and artifacts that might support a certain idea (and perhaps refute another).

August 25, 2014 at 10:39 am PST

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