Seminary Program

This is where we post the essays from many of our Universal Life Church Seminary students. When students finish a ULC course, they write a comprehensive essay about their experiences with the course, what they learned, didn't learn, were inspired by, etc. Here are their essays.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Biblical Egyptology

This course is a rigorous introduction to the field of Biblical Egyptology and explores in some detail questions concerning the historicity of Moses and the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It provides the student with an overview of Egyptian history beginning with the Predynastic period which began about 4000 BCE and ending with the Graeco-Roman period. It discusses difficulties and controversies concerning dating and transparently explores the opinions of various scholars and schools of thought. It goes beyond merely regurgitating information to explore the sources of information such as the various king’s lists and the problems with those sources. It also provides a brief overview of the gods of Egypt and theories concerning the origin of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. 

A major portion of the course is concerned with the evidence concerning Moses and the historicity of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as described in the Bible. Various theories are mentioned including Graham Phillips’s belief that Thutmose IV was Moses or rather, one of two “Moses” personalities. 
One of the more interesting theories is that Moses was originally a priest at Heliopolis named Osarseph who changed his name to Moses when he joined with his own people according to Manetho who was the Egyptian High Priest of the Sun God. This is particularly interesting because of the name change under Akhneton which would have caused Osarseph to become Ramoses – which the author points out would have been represented in hieratic as simply ms. I find this theory particularly intriguing since we read about Joseph marrying the daughter of the high priest of On (Heliopolis) where the sun god, Ra, was worshipped.
Then there are also the ideas that Senmut, vizier to Hatshepsut or Thutmoses III, was the historical Moses. (Although some have proposed him as Solomon but the dates do not work out right.) And the idea that Sinhue may have been Moses is supported by the parallels between the story of the two men. According to Berkeley, Sinhue was Ra-hotep which would have been the equivalent of Moses. And then there is the amazing analysis and commentary of the Star Priest statue with the conjecture that it might actually represent Moses.

I find all of this information fascinating. The course opens the door to a number of fascinating questions and issues including the nature and origin of writing, the relationship of the Egyptians and Hebrews with other ancient people, questions of Egyptian history, and questions of Biblical history. He also provides the student with an impressive bibliography for further research. This course is well worth the tuition and effort for anyone who is seriously interested in ancient Egypt or the early Biblical period.

It does raise for me three specific questions or areas of inquiry. These concern the language of the Egyptians and Hebrews, the identity of the Hebrews and the role of Mesopotamia, and the question of the relevance of this information theologically.

As for language, the author mentioned two points that I found particularly interesting. He mentions that Moses may have written the Pentateuch in cuneiform and he notes the absence of any bilingual dictionaries.
The idea that Moses may have written the Pentateuch in cuneiform is fascinating because it points again to the importance of Mesopotamia in the origin and development of the Biblical teachings. But it also points to a greater role of Mesopotamian culture in Egypt than is usually given by most authors who tend to treat Egypt as a totally separate culture that arose without the influence of other societies. Of course we know from archaeology that there were cities and significant cultural development in southwest Asia that preceded the Predynastic period of Egypt. The archaeological evidence from Jericho in Palestine and Catal Huyuk in what is now Turkey shows cities with domesticated animals, grain storage, and religious shrines many thousands of years prior to Predynastic Egypt. Similarly, the Sumerian civilization (which itself was lost to memory until modern times) has revealed through the libraries of cuneiform tablets found in the late nineteenth century that it had a sophisticated system of schools, economics, justice, and writing prior to the rise of the Egyptian civilization. It seems likely that these ancient cultures played some role in the development of Egypt and it is clear that Mesopotamian culture played a role in the development of the Hebrew culture and religion. This is evident in such parallels as the story of Utnapishtim with that of Noah. 

The Mesopotamian evidence on the Hebrew culture and religion is also explicit in the Biblical text where we find that the patriarchs of the Hebrew people – Abraham and Eber – came from Mesopotamia. Abram came from the Mesopotamian city – Ur of the Chaldees and it seems that his ancestors were resident there or in other Mesopotamian cities. One of his ancestors, Eber, was apparently recognized as the ancestor of the Hebrew people – some of them preceded Abraham to the Levant where he would become known as a Hebrew. It would be several more generations before a portion of his descendants would become known as Israelites.

In any case it seems likely that the writing method of Mesopotamia – cuneiform would have been a likely method for the original writing of the Hebrew scriptures. The Aramaic alphabet which would later become the source of most of the world’s alphabets including those of the Greeks, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabs, and later even the Romans and the Copts. But prior to the rise and spread of Aramaic (which did not occur until the late Babylonian and early Persian period) cuneiform was used to produce libraries of clay tablets that included business records, religious texts, medical references, material medica, literature, legal texts, and a large number of divinatory texts. Given that the Sumerian developed the oldest form of writing so-far discovered and that it was influential to the Indus River and even in China, it seems likely that it was influential on the development of the sacred writing of the Egyptians and among the literate classes who conducted business and diplomatic relations with the cultures of Anatolia and Mesopotamia.
As for the absence of dictionaries I have no clear answers but I do have some thoughts. It is not surprising to me that there would be no bilingual Greek-Egyptian dictionaries. The Greeks in their arrogance never at any time expressed any interest in the languages of non-Greeks. They never acknowledged their debts to other cultures including the Sumerians and Persians, even when those borrowings were significant as with the teachings and practices at the temple of Asclepius. In fact, it would be surprising to find any evidence of Greek interest in the languages of the rest of the world. 

It is interesting however that there are no bilingual dictionaries with Egyptian and languages recorded in cuneiform. We know that the Egyptians used cuneiform in their diplomacy and trade. I think there might be several possible explanations for the absence of dictionaries. First, the sacred writing of the Egyptians was just that – sacred and it probably never occurred to them to translate these writings into a secular form. What would be the point? Secondly, there is the reality that only a minority of the Egyptians would have been literate and most of those would have been priests with no interest in translation or writing in other tongues. Those literate in cuneiform would have comprised an even smaller number and they probably learned cuneiform from Mesopotamian clerks who even at that early date were members of guilds who learned writing in a very formalized manner in schools. This same approach would have been used to teach their Egyptian students and consisted of learning the cuneiform syllabary by rote on some sort of erasable tablet. In other words, the Egyptian users of cuneiform may have not felt the need for dictionaries. After all, dictionaries are not commonly found among any ancient cultures.

On the other hand it is a little surprising that there are not some sort of dictionaries or word lists found among the libraries of ancient Mesopotamia. And, there may be some sort of dictionaries to compare the multiple languages of southwest Asia which included Akkadian, Hittite, Mitanni, Elamite, and Old Persian. The problem here is that the impressive libraries of that area have only recently been rediscovered and there were undoubtedly many which remain lost. We know that Alexander the Great (or the Accursed if you were one of the victimized cultures) destroyed over 10,000 volumes of sacred writings at Persepolis. We also know that the Persians from Cyrus the Great until after the rise of Islam had schools and teaching hospitals and they made great efforts to collect and translate the writings of other cultures. Their libraries held millions of volumes in Samarqand, Bokhara, Baghdad, Tabriz, and elsewhere. Unfortunately many of these books were lost in the destructives wars of the Mongols, Timurlane, and the Arabs. A similar loss of culture can be seen in Egypt where the production of hieroglyphs and the practice of the ancient religion quickly declined under the rules of the Greeks and Romans. In fact, we can see from Coptic writings that Greek culture largely replaced that of Egypt in that the greatest portion of Coptic writings now known are either versions of the Illiad or commentaries on the Illiad.

Even at that I have to hope that there still lie more under the sands of the desert which like the Coptic writings at Nag Hammadi, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Persian writings of the Gobi desert will shed still more light on our understanding of ancient history.

It is clear that the ancient Hebrews and other Semites lived in a world that was much more complex and sophisticated than is sometimes supposed. The eastern end of the Mediterranean was connected by trade and conflict with Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. The author mentions how Jerusalem was a vassal state of Egypt by the mid-1330s BCE. The Bible mentions how the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians and later ruled by the more benign Persians. Each of these great civilizations influenced the Hebrews and Israelites and each of them also interacted with each other as allies, enemies and partners in trade. But the identity of these various groups of people is not always clear from the historical record.
The author mentions the Saka were called by the Babylonians Gimirri and by the Assyrians Khumri and speculates that they may have been the Lost Ten Tribes. The speculation then leads to the Welsh Celtic Kumery since the Welsh were Khumru or Cymry which may in turn may be connected to Kimmeroi or Cimmerian. Certainly there seems to be some connection between the Welsh and the Iranian people known as Cimmerian especially when we remember that Saka was the most common term for those Iranian nomads who would become known as Scythians in Europe. A Celtic-Iranian Scythian connection has been shown by archaeology as well as by linguistics, legend, and history. But what does this have to do with the Lost Ten Tribes?

The truth is that we do not know for certain how the various ethnic groups and nations of the ancient world developed. We know that they spoke different languages. The Hittites, Mitanni, Medes, Persians and other Iranian people spoke Indo-European languages akin to modern Persian. The Babylonians, Arameans, Arabs, and Hebrews spoke Semitic languages similar to those of modern Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Amharic. We know there were cultural differences in clothing and customs but there was also extensive interaction between cultures especially during the rule of the Persians. In at least one case we know of a sophisticated urbanite, Abram, who took his family to live a pastoral existence. The opposite probably occurred many times as well just as we know that Hittites lived in Egypt and Israel, Israelites and Greeks in Persia, and merchants connected everyone from Egypt to India.

The development of the Semites who in turn gave rise to the Hebrews who in turn gave rise to the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 tribes of Ishmael left little if any record. The relationship of these ancient peoples with others is scarcely mentioned in any record. We can of course explore the records including those of Egypt and attempt to understand the history and development of these people – including the story of Moses and the Exodus but at this point it is like a giant complex jig saw puzzle which is missing many parts. I think it is a fascinating realm of inquiry that is well worth pursuing although perhaps not possible without much more information than we now have available.

Finally I have to ask, Does it really matter? Do we need to know the identity of Moses from historic records? Do we need to know the details of the formation of the Hebrews and Israelites? I think we as humans need to ask and need to search for answers and that is just part of being human. But it is important theologically? Do we need to prove the historic validity of the Biblical record as ministers? I don’t think so. The historical truth of the Bible does not have any bearing for me on the importance or meaning of the teachings of the Bible. The historicity of Moses or Noah has no bearing on the wisdom of their respective covenants or laws. In fact, while I think it is an important and valid intellectual pursuit to explore theses questions of history, sociology, and anthropology, I can see that when taken to the extreme they distract from the core issues of Biblical teachings. Far too many people treat the Bible as a history or science text and focus far too much energy on “proving” the Bible by fighting evolution, archaeology, and other scholarship rather than adding wisdom to wisdom. They are focused on what is truly trivial when compared with the profound teachings of justice, compassion, grace, sacrifice, and wisdom that form the core of the Biblical teachings. I don’t think this course has taken this lesser road however and recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the background of the Holy Scriptures.

Rev Robert Nelson


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