Does it matter whether or not the Exodus of Moses actually took place? In a recent screed in Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald mocked the historicity of the Bible, questioning whether or not it was even possible to understand Scripture’s meaning at all. Rebuttals to the piece appeared immediately and forcefully. I, for one, noted the irony that such a poorly researched article passed muster at a magazine that once featured stellar religion reporting under legendary editor Kenneth Woodward. The controversy over Eichenwald’s article served to remind us that the Bible's truthfulness remains on the front burner of national debate.
And a new documentary will likely spur that debate. Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus, a film more than a decade in the making, appeared in about 700 US theaters last week. Directed and produced by Timothy P. Mahoney, it explores a central issue at the heart of the debate over the Bible’s historical reliability: whether or not Moses led Israel out of bondage in Egypt, through the Red Sea on dry ground, and into the wilderness of Shur (Ex. 15:22). Mahoney is not an Old Testament scholar, an archeologist, or a theologian. Rather, he is a lay evangelical Christian who admits he sometimes doubts that the Exodus was a real historical event. He appears on screen as himself, asking a difficult question: Can I trust the biblical text that I hold in my hands?
To answer this, Mahoney travels to the Middle East to interview prominent scholars such as Mansour Baraik, Director General of Antiquities at Luxor in Egypt, and Israel Finkelstein, a prominent archeologist at Tel Aviv University. These and other experts tell us that they see little if any correlation between the events described in Exodus and what they and others have found in the archeological record.
The film also gives screen time to Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s largest Jewish congregations. Wolpe articulates his view that faith need not correspond with historical or scientific fact, especially in the case of the Exodus recounted in Torah. He isn’t “black and white” about the issue, though. “The extent to which the story has a historical core is very hard to say,” he tells radio talk-show host Michael Medved. “But my deeper conviction about it is that whether [the story] was true, it is true, and those are two different things.”
Mahoney explores whether there is any evidence that Jews lived in Egypt at the time of Rameses. The answer he gets from scholars is, once again, “no.” He connects the dots to explain the serious implications—if the scholars are right that is: “No Jews in Egypt means no Exodus. No Exodus means the foundation of Judaism is a myth. And for Christians it means that Jesus Christ and the writers of the New Testament got it wrong because they all accepted the reality of Moses and the Exodus and built their teachings on them.”
That’s precisely right. At several points in the Gospels, Jesus refers to Moses and his commandments as though Moses really wrote them. At the Last Supper, Jesus connected his physical death—blood and body—with that of Moses’ Passover Lamb sparing the life of the Israelites during the Plague of the Firstborn. Did Jesus predicate his own sacrificial death on the cross upon an event that never occurred? If that is the case, the entire covenantal nature of the biblical narrative falls apart. Jesus of Nazareth cannot be “the new Moses” if Moses never existed. What we’re left with is the Messiah of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar—one who simply dies on the cross. Cut to the credits.
The Historical Reality of Redemption
Not only does Christian faith rest squarely on the historicity of the Moses account. So does the foundation of law and order in Western society. Our traditions of common law and jurisprudence go back to Jewish notions of covenant. Without Moses, we lose divine sanction for limits on government and the power of human authorities. What is the goal of this constitutionalism rooted in Torah? According to the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, it “seeks to prevent tyranny and to guarantee liberty and rights of individuals on which free society depends.” Everyone who cares about liberty, then, has purchase in the debate over Exodus. Were the teachings of Moses from Moses? Were they rooted in a transcendent source? Those are some pretty important questions.
It is also serendipitous that Mahoney’s film hit theaters on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We as a the nation remembered the life and legacy of the leader of the civil rights movement, gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. King repeatedly cast the struggle for civil rights against the historicity of the backdrop of the Exodus. He clearly thought of the Exodus as a historical account that paralleled the experience of African Americans in the United States. The night before his assassination, King preached what would be his last sermon. He began like this:
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.
The bondage of the Israelites and God’s deliverance of them out of Pharaoh’s grip weren't matters of indifference to King and his band of heroes in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The historical reality of redemption mattered deeply to them. There was real slavery and real redemption. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” was not an abstraction or poetic sentiment.
Mahoney himself employs the tools of a journalist throughout Patterns of Evidence. He interviews experts, considers various scenarios, and comes to his own conclusion about the historicity of Moses and the Torah. Most important, we see the film’s protagonist go back to the biblical text itself. And yes, Mahoney lets his own faith guide him. That’s a win in my book. Did the Exodus really happen? Christianity Today readers will not be surprised to learn that Mahoney answers with a hard-won “yes.” But Mahoney and executive producer David Wessner’s approach is not cookie-cutter apologetics. The skeptics are not treated as strawmen, but rather are respected as fellow travelers in the exploration of historical truth. That in and of itself is reason enough to engage the film.
The seriousness of the issues at stake should encourage Christians to watch the documentary with their friends and draw their own conclusions. Certainly the nation’s attention has been drawn once again to Exodus in light of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. In recent interviews about the film, Scott brushed aside suggestions that the story was based on the past. When controversy erupted in light of the question of whether the film was faithful to the biblical text, leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz began its story with this glib line: “. . . it is quite clear that there is no historical evidence to support the historicity of the biblical account of Exodus.” Really? Mahoney and quite a few scholars would like a word with you.
One positive outcome for believers watching Patterns of Evidence (available for pre-order on DVD) is that it could generate other serious conversations about the basis of faith. Could this be a “Restore to Factory Settings” moment for evangelicals? Perhaps. We certainly could use it. If I don’t miss my guess, many Christians who still go to church might go years without thinking through any challenges to traditional faith. Some preachers have been culturally conditioned to steer clear of talking about doubt, opting instead for pious, devotional talk. In this scenario, Western Christians are awkwardly cast as Carol Burnett as Norma Desmond in the classic film Sunset Boulevard: We pretend everything is fine, that we’re still living in our glory days, when our friends are embarrassed for us that we’ve lost it and kind of let ourselves go.
In a 2011 interview with Columbia Journalism Review, celebrated filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War) says that the documentarian’s task is to help audiences “rediscover reality.” He observed:
Someone comes up to you and they say, “Well, I’m a postmodernist. I really don’t care about truth, truth is subjective, or there are all kinds of different versions of truth: your truth, my truth, someone else’s truth.” And then so you say to them, “Well, then it doesn’t matter to you who pulled the trigger? It doesn’t matter to you whether someone committed murder or not or someone in jail is innocent or not? That’s just a matter of personal opinion?”
Truth matters. People want to know the answers: the who, the what, the when, the how, and the why. And without providing those little truths, they may never learn of the ultimate Truth behind them.
Gregory Alan Thornbury is president of The King’s College in New York City and author of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry (Crossway).