Jesus, Moses and Elijah

The question I’d like to discuss in this thread is: how much of the Old Testament (or Tanach) is essential to Christianity? The question is a vital one, as a major reason why many young people reject belief in Christianity is that they no longer believe the stories in the Bible about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and other figures. On the other hand, Christianity is a religion firmly grounded in the Hebrew Bible: attempts by the heretic Marcion to jettison the Old Testament were condemned by the early Church, in the mid-second century. But we have to face facts: many of the stories in the Old Testament have no historical basis. That raises the question: are there any figures and/or events in the Old Testament whose historicity is absolutely vital to the Christian faith? For example, what about Moses and Elijah?

In the New Testament, Jesus, his disciples and Jesus’ contemporaries frequently refer to the figures of Moses and Elijah. When Jesus talks about marriage and divorce, he cites Moses, and when discussing who people say he is, his disciples mention Elijah. Perhaps the most famous event in the New Testament relating to Moses and Elijah is the Transfiguration, which is described in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36), as well as the Second Epistle of Peter (2 Peter 1:16–18). In the story, Jesus and three of his apostles, Peter, James, John, go up a mountain to pray. On the mountain, Jesus’ appearance is suddenly transfigured, and he becomes radiant. The prophets Moses and Elijah suddenly appear next to Jesus, and he converses with them. A voice from a cloud (presumably God the Father) then calls Jesus “my beloved Son,” and tells the apostles to listen to him.

The Transfiguration is a central event in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and we are told that three apostles saw and heard Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah. But what if Moses and/or Elijah never existed in the first place? How would that affect the Christian faith?

The question is no idle one. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the historicity of the Exodus, for instance:

The traditions behind the Exodus story can be traced in the writings of the 8th-century BCE prophets, beyond which their history is obscured by centuries of transmission.[5][6] No historical basis for the biblical Exodus story exists;[7] instead, archaeology suggests a native Canaanite origin for ancient Israel.[8]

After a century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists[33] the consensus of modern scholars is that the Bible does not give an accurate account of the origins of Israel.[34]There is no indication that the Israelites ever lived in Ancient Egypt, and the Sinai Peninsula shows almost no sign of any occupation for the entire 2nd millennium BCE (even Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites are said to have spent 38 years, was uninhabited prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy).[35] In contrast to the absence of evidence for the Egyptian captivity and wilderness wanderings, there are ample signs of Israel’s evolution within Canaan from native Canaanite roots.[36][37] While a few scholars discuss the historicity, or at least plausibility, of the Exodus story, the majority of archaeologists have abandoned it, in the phrase used by archaeologist William Dever, as “a fruitless pursuit”.[38][39]

No Exodus, no Moses. What about Elijah? He is a prophet who is supposed to have lived in the ninth century B.C., but the stories about his life may date from 300 years later, throwing doubt on their historical reliability:

According to Susanne Otto, the Elijah stories were added to the Deuteronomistic History in four stages. The first stage dates from the final edition of the History, about 560 BC, when the three stories of Naboth’s vineyard, the death of Ahaziah, and the story of Jehu’s coup were included to embody the themes of the reliability of God’s word and the cycle of Baal worship and religious reform in the history of the Northern Kingdom. The narratives about the Omride wars were added shortly afterwards to illustrate a newly introduced theme, that the attitude of the king towards God determines the fate of Israel. According to Otto, 1 Kings 17–18 was added in early post-Exilic times (after 538 BC) to demonstrate the possibility of a new life in community with God after the time of judgment. Additionally, Otto suggests that in the fifth century BC, 1 Kings 19:1–18 and the remaining Elisha stories were inserted to give prophecy a legitimate foundation in the history of Israel. The foregoing Otto analysis is heavily disputed amongst biblical scholars.[43]

Otto’s theories remain speculative, but the general view of scholars is that 1 and 2 Kings were written a good two centuries after the time when Elijah is supposed to have lived, throwing doubt on their historical reliability:

Scholars tend to treat the books as made up of a first edition from the late 7th century BCE and a second and final edition from the mid 6th century BCE.[2][3]

Earlier layers of editing have been proposed, but no general agreement exists on the subject.

The question of Elijah’s historicity is an important one, for it touches on the issue of when the Israelites first started worshiping Yahweh alone. And in that respect, the story of Elijah may well be anachronistic: worship of Yahweh alone may have only begun 100 years after the time when he lived:

The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with Elijah in the 9th century BCE, but more likely with the prophet Hosea in the 8th; even then it remained the concern of a small party before gaining ascendancy in the exilic and early post-exilic period.[64] The early supporters of this faction are widely regarded as being monolatrists rather than true monotheists;[79] they did not believe that Yahweh was the only god in existence, but instead believed that he was the only god the people of Israel should worship.[80] Finally, in the national crisis of the exile, the followers of Yahweh went a step further and outright denied that the other deities aside from Yahweh even existed, thus marking the transition from monolatrism to true monotheism.[11]

So here’s the problem. We have a well-attested miracle in the New Testament (the Transfiguration) in which Moses and Elijah are said to have appeared and conversed with Jesus, but the general verdict of Biblical scholars today seems to be that Moses didn’t exist at all (and if he did exist, he almost certainly pre-dated the Israelite worship of Yahweh), while the stories in the Bible about prophet Elijah were written centuries after he lived, and in any event, he may not have worshiped Yahweh alone. In short: Moses appears to have been mythical, while Elijah is at least semi-mythical. And if we look at the list of miracles worked in the Old Testament, we find that nearly all of them are associated with either Moses (and his successor, Joshua) or Elijah (and his successor, Elisha). Take those away, as well as the miracle stories associated with the prophet Daniel (whose existence is denied by most scholars), and there’s very little left in the way of Old Testament miracles.

What I want to know is: can Christianity live with this kind of hard-nosed scholarly skepticism about Moses and Elijah? If we accept the view of many scholars, then we have to throw out the Old Testament miracles, as well as virtually everything in Israel’s and Judah’s history, prior to about 750 B.C. (except for the existence of King David - even Solomon’s existence is disputed). That still leaves us with prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and the minor prophets (such as Hosea and Amos), and of course, the figures of Ezra and Nehemiah. But in essence, it leaves us with a reliable (or semi-reliable) Old Testament history that’s only about 300 years in length (omitting the deuterocanonical books), from around 750 B.C. to 400 B.C. Before that time, nearly everything is murky.

There’s another problem which arises for Christians. Did the Transfiguration happen at all, or was it made up? After all, if Moses didn’t exist, then Jesus could hardly have spoken to him, could he? But surely, it makes no sense for a Christian to affirm the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, while at the same time believing that the story of the Transfiguration was made up. Thus we see that scholarly skepticism about the existence of Moses and Elijah strikes at the very heart of Christianity. Or does it?

Recently, I came across a very helpful series of articles on the Transfiguration by the late Biblical scholar, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., which I would strongly urge readers to peruse. The series is titled, What really happened at the Transfiguration? In his series of articles, Fr. Murphy-O’Connor argues that there are two versions of the story: a Markan version referring to Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, and an alternative Lukan version, which originally had Jesus conversing with two men (who were really angels):

“It happened after these words, about eight days, taking with him Peter and John and James, he went up the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered. And behold, two men talked with him, 'who appearing in glory spoke of his ‘exodus’ which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him saw his glory and the two men standing with him. And when they parted from him, Jesus was found alone."

Luke, argues Fr. Murphy-O’Connor, had access to this more primitive version of the story, but he also had Mark’s Gospel in front of him, so he tried to conflate the two accounts, in a rather awkward fashion. But if we reconstruct the original version of the Transfiguration, the figures of Moses and Elijah are absent. (Fr. Murphy-O’Connor also thinks the angels in Luke’s primitive account were a literary device, but that need not concern us here.)

In short: Christians can still believe in the reality of the Transfiguration, without having to affirm the historicity of Moses and Elijah. And while it is true that Jesus spoke of Moses and Elijah, he could well have simply been talking to the Jews of his day, at their level. He knew that they believed the Law was written by Moses, and he did not want to ruffle any feathers by suggesting that it wasn’t. That would have been rude and utterly pointless.

So it seems that the Christian faith is tied to a 300-year-thick sequence of events in the Old Testament (from about 750 B.C. to 400 B.C.), but not to any Old Testament miracles. Nor do Christians need to accept the reality of Moses or Elijah. At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve reached. What do readers think?

A final reflection: if someone were to ask me what the greatest miracle of the Old Testament is, I’d say: the emergence of belief in a transcendent Deity Who alone created the universe, and Who is a God of justice and love. In particular, the fact that it was the Jews (and the Jews alone) among all the peoples of antiquity, who managed to eradicate female infanticide, because they believed that God abominated the practice, strikes me as a miracle in itself. Thoughts?

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I suppose they could just be archetypal figures that appear. Perhaps similar to us seeing a vision of Aslan the lion. Aslan does not exist except in CS Lewis’s fiction, but this would not prevent him from appear in a vision or a miracle with symbolic importance.

However I do not any reason to doubt that Moses and Elijah were real people. I read what you’ve written, I’m not sure why you think it is convincing.

What do you think @jongarvey and @deuteroKJ? Is this true? It seems to be fairly a strange problem because the story of Moses itself is where the Yahweh name is revealed to Israel. It seems to be a strange complain that he pre-dated the Yahweh worship of Israel.

Even if we grant Moses was not real, why couldn’t Jesus have appeared next to a vision of Moses? I’m not sure what the problem is here. Moses is clearly an archetype of the Law and Elijah is one of the Prophets. The more interesting question to me is how the disciples would have recognized them as Moses and Elijah, because they certainly did not have any photographs lying around…

What am I missing…?

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None.

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If, if, if.

I just recall that, at the time of the Arian controversy, nearly all the biblical scholars, and the emperor too, believed that Jesus was only a created being. There was, however, Athanasius drifting in and out of exile, and he won the day.

That, of course, is assuming that it’s actually true that there is such rampant hyperskepticism amongst biblical scholars, when if anything it’s confidence in the old critical methodology that has stumbled. A few years ago Denis Lamoureux claimed that no reputable OT scholars believed in a historical Adam, since when I’ve read half a dozen books by reputable OT scholars who do.

If the transfiguration and Moses were made up, it’s very simple - Christianity is based on willful lies. However, “These things were not done in a corner.”

So, say, transfiguration and Moses were made up but Jesus is the Son of God and he did resurrect, how is Christianity based on lies?

Sorry, what reason is there to think Jesus’ transfiguration was made up? I get the stuff about OT. But if the transfiguration didn’t occur, this would make Orthodox theology, especially the theology of the uncreated light, Gregory Palamas, St Simeon the New Theologian, the experience of thr saints very difficult to make sense of. I see no reason to doubt the historicity of Moses. Citing his appearance in the transfiguration IS a legitimate reason to think he existed though Plantinga-esque defeaters could, of course, be offered. If Adam showed up in the transfiguration, that would be more difficult for me.

Oh, just read the top post more closely. Yes, that’s very interesting! Thank you! One way to keep a central event in Christianity.

Sorry, I meant Moses only, as for transfiguration, I don’t know why I wrote it.

As for the historicity of Moses, I don’t know, however I do believe that Jews, or at least some parts of them, were slaves in Egypt at some period of time.

@Mark
You might as well ask if Christianity would make any sense if Zoroastrianism never existed!

No duality of good and evil?
No angels?
No divine realm in the sky, instead of in the underworld?
All these influences popped up when old school Judaism bumped into the Magi caste of priests.

The Enochian school emerged… the Parisee were named after Persia (the Farsee/Parsee)… and the Essenes became the highest practice of “zoroastrian import” into Judaism.

The Transfiguration is not a hold-over from pre-Exile Jerusalem.

If you insist otherwise, the closest match to it is Tyre… with its mythology that a mortal throwing himself into a sacred fire “divinizes” the righteous!

Hi @swamidass, @jongarvey, @Djordje and @Mark:

Thanks very much for your comments. I’d like to break up my lengthy reply into two installments. The first installment will deal with Moses, and the second with the Transfiguration.

First of all, I’d like to make it clear that very little is certain in Biblical scholarship. Moses still has his stalwart defenders, among them Professor Richard Elliott Friedman, who holds a Th.D from Harvard, and who is the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and the Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus of the University of California. In an interview with reformjudaism.org, titled, The Exodus Is Not Fiction, Friedman sets forth his own hypothesis: namely, that it was not all 12 tribes of Israel, but just one tribe (the Levites) who departed, and their departure was later than commonly believed: in the 12th or 11th century B.C., the Song of Deborah lists the ten tribes of Israel whom Deborah summoned to battle, but curiously omits the Levites, which leads Friedman to suggest that they hadn’t arrived in Israel yet: they were still in Egypt. The other tribes were in Israel all along. Friedman has recently written a book titled, The Exodus, in which he sets forth his views and defends his intriguing hypothesis. However, Friedman is skeptical of the Exodus miracles: he writes that “the ten plagues may be a fairy tale.” An excerpt from his latest book can be viewed here.

Now, Friedman may be entirely correct in his claim that Moses was a real person and that the Exodus was a real event. Nevertheless, many scholars in the field are skeptical, as Friedman himself acknowledges in his latest book. Back in 2001, Conservative rabbi David Wolpe gave a memorable sermon titled Passover!, in which he declared:

The truth is that virtually every modern archaeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.

Meanwhile, another rabbi, Lee Levine, who was also an archaeologist, described the Exodus account as “a folk tradition with little or no historical basis.

That same year, the American archaeologist William Dever wrote a book titled, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, in which he dismissed the Exodus:

Archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has been discarded as a fruitless pursuit. Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness. A Moses-like figure may have existed. . . . But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage.

Friedman neatly sums up Dever’s argument: “No exodus, no evidence, probably no Moses.”

And that’s not all. In 2013, Reform Judaism published an article by S. David Sperling, professor of Bible at HUC-JIR in New York, titled, Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?, in which he concluded:

In short, the biblical writers invented the idea that the Israelites lived in Egypt in order to impel them to maintain their distinctiveness in Canaan. And the story of servitude in Egypt is an allegory of servitude to Egypt. Our ancestors, among others, did perform forced labor for Egyptian taskmasters, but they were never slaves in Egypt.

It appears that the prevailing mood among archaeologists is still one of skepticism. In a 2014 article in The Guardian, titled, Man versus myth: does it matter if the Moses story is based on fact?, religion correspondent Andrew Brown roundly asserts:

There is no historical figure of Moses, and no reason from archaeology or history to suppose any of the exodus story is true…

… “Moses himself has about as much historic reality as King Arthur,” British archaeologist Philip Davies famously concluded. A more moderate conclusion comes from the historian Tom Holland: “The likelihood that the biblical story records an actual event is fairly small.”…

Some features of what would become Judaism were clearly established a very long time ago. But there is no archaeological evidence for the bloodthirsty genocide of the Canaanites and the sacking of their cities, described with such relish in the book of Joshua, and even if David and Saul and Solomon all existed, they must have been mere tribal leaders and not the kings that appear in the Bible.

In 2015, Philip Davies wrote a book titled, In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’: A Study in Biblical Origins, in which he summarized the scholarly consensus regarding Israel (see here). In a nutshell: there was no political entity named Israel before the late 11th century; the people who formed this entity came from diverse backgrounds; the settlement process was basically a peaceful one; ethnic affiliations were loose and vague; and the Biblical account of the settlement of Israel is not an accurate one.

Some archaeologists have recently argued that archaeology can neither prove nor disprove the Exodus. And they may be right. But it can certainly disprove traditionally accepted accounts of the Exodus, such as the claim that 603,550 Israelite men left Egypt.

I believe that as Christians, we need to confront the real possibility that the Exodus didn’t happen and that Moses didn’t exist. We need to ask ourselves: how would that affect our faith? The aim of the OP has been to argue that the non-existence of Moses (or for that matter, Elijah) would not mean curtains for Christianity. It would necessitate a somewhat painful process of psychological adjustment for many believers who grew up with the Biblical stories, but (I would argue) a bearable one.

Thus I must respectfully disagree with @jongarvey when he writes:

If the transfiguration and Moses were made up, it’s very simple - Christianity is based on willful lies.

In my next (much shorter) installment, I’ll discuss the Transfiguration.

To be continued…

This one doesn’t really matter to me much anyway. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I don’t believe in the Canaanite genocide, or, at least in God ordained one.

Hi @swamidass, @jongarvey, @Djordje and @Mark:

Back again. Regarding the Transfiguration, I’d like to draw your attention to what I wrote in my OP:

In short: Christians can still believe in the reality of the Transfiguration, without having to affirm the historicity of Moses and Elijah.

I am therefore perplexed that some readers seem to be interpreting my article as suggesting that there was no Transfiguration. Indeed, I would strongly oppose that conclusion, for if that event proved to be fictional, then how could one argue with a straight face that the Resurrection of Jesus was historical? As I wrote in my OP:

But surely, it makes no sense for a Christian to affirm the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, while at the same time believing that the story of the Transfiguration was made up.

That was why I quoted from Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s immensely helpful online article, What Really Happened at the Transfiguration?, which reconstructed the original event as follows:

A very plausible scenario can be outlined as follows: Jesus was convinced that he had a mission from God. As time went by, however, he became conscious that opposition to him was increasing. On the basis of what had happened to the prophets (Matthew 23:37) and to John the Baptist (Mark 6:17-29), he could foresee that his enemies too would bring about his death (Mark 8:31). Yet his work was not nearly complete. Crowds listened, but few understood, and the number of his disciples was small. This put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma because, as a Jew of his time, he believed that God controlled all the forces of history; even the actions of the wicked contributed to the realization of God’s plan (Isaiah 10:5-19). Thus, what God gave with one hand, he appeared to take away with the other. He had given Jesus a task to do, and at the same time appeared to be manipulating historical forces to ensure that it would not be completed. In great doubt and bewilderment, Jesus decided to withdraw to the top of a mountain to pray about his problem. As he prayed, he got the answer - and his face lit up! The glory that Peter and the others saw (Luke 9:32) was the radiant joy that accompanies the resolution of a terrible perplexity. In a flash of insight, he realized that his death would be the means whereby his ministry would be brought to fulfillment. His execution would not be the end of everything, but a saving event whose role in God’s plan would parallel that of the exodus from Egypt.

We cannot explain how Jesus reached this insight. Ordinary human experience would suggest that it was not by any logical process. Rather, he suddenly saw things from a different perspective.

Fr. Murphy-O’Connor goes on to suggest that Jesus drew on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to clarify his self - understanding as the Suffering Servant. At any rate, the key point is that Moses and Elijah did not figure in the original account of the Transfiguration, as Fr. Murphy-O’Connor convincingly demonstrates on textual grounds. Hence their non-existence would in no way undermine belief in the reality of the Transfiguration. That was what I wanted to say. Cheers.

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Good for you, @Djordje. I tried rationalizing the genocide in my mind for years. I’m glad I no longer feel the need to do that.

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OK - You are an eyewitness to the greatest event in history - a man has risen from the dead to a new kind of life, according to the dearest hopes of your people. His resurrection proves he is the Son of God.

But that’s not sufficient to comnstistute good news, so you make up a divine encounter on a mountain some time beforehand.

You know what? If someone needed to do the second, why would I believe the first?

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It helps that a lot of people within our church believe that “Jesus Christ is the Word of God and scripture bows to him”.

@vjtorley, the linked article here has high relevance to this conversation: When God Sees Red.

“Seek and ye shall find.”
So many authors, only one God.
Here’s a 2014 PhD. thesis defense that does a good job of summarizing the current postmodern environment’s approach to the timeless truth of the Bible.
https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://scholar.ufs.ac.za:8080/xmlui/bitstream/11660/2046/1/VanDerWaltJS.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwi62pTotKffAhWSFXwKHfiQD9k4ChAWMAN6BAgIEAE&usg=AOvVaw2apg7cO6Qfc9G7PaAducV0

These are not negotiable stories, truths or doctrines for Christianity.
“But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ —that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!’ However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, ’ Lord, who has believed our report?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” - -Romans 10:8-17 NASB

@jongarvey

I agree with @vjtorley. I accept the transfiguration, and moses and as historical. But your faith seems to me quite fragile.

What do you think of the resurrections of the saints at the crucifixion in Matthew? Are you with Norm Geisler on this? Craig and Licona don’t seem to have a problem seeing them as apocalyptic imagery and part of the genre of ancient biography.

This article by Craig has helped me keep my theology properly “webbed,” not putting one doctrine too close towards the center like Ehrman. I eventually did have to give up inerrancy but this provided a way for me to keep my faith. What Price Biblical Errancy? | Reasonable Faith

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Maybe. But it’s proved resilient over 53 years of challenges at work and home- without being fragile enough to have to give up bits of it to survive.

Whether Craig and Licona are right about Matthew’s report is a question of evidence, in this case about genre. I’m not convinced they make the literary case adequately, that is I don’t buy their explanation of why Matthew wrote what he did. That’s not fragility, but caution.

Fair question. In reply:

(i) the story of the divine encounter on the mountain wasn’t made up. I’m happy to believe that the voice of God on the mountain (“This is my beloved Son. Hear ye him”) was perfectly real, even if the part about Moses and Elijah was made up;

(ii) it was the apostles who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, but it wasn’t they who made up the bit about Moses and Elijah. It was Christians 30 years later who did that;

(iii) I would, however, agree that if the apostles themselves had made up the encounter with Moses and Elijah, that would undermine their claim to have witnessed Jesus’ resurrection.

Cheers.