According to their own tradition, the Jews are said to have escaped from slavery in Egypt. According to Egyptian (Manetho and Chaeremon), Greek (Hecataeus and Poseidonus of Apamea), and Roman (Tacitus) historians of antiquity (as well as one historian who straddled all three cultures: the Greco-Egyptian historian Apion, who studied in Alexandria and settled in Rome), however, the Jews are said to have descended from lepers (referring both to those actually suffering from leprosy as well as troublesome elements in society) that were expelled from Egypt to live in the desert, much like the British sent their fringe elements to the colonies. The Jewish people are said to have formed much of their culture in reaction to the Egyptians and as a result of the peculiarities surrounding their banishment. Some traditions they continued from Egypt, such as the burial of the dead and the belief in the importance of the physical body for resurrection. The Jews also adopted male circumcision as a mark of their people—a practice whose earliest recorded use is found in Egypt. Other times they are said to have intentionally developed traditions in opposition to the Egyptians—in part as a result of their resenting their banishment. Tacitus points to their sacrificing of oxen, which the Egyptians associated with the god Apis, as well as of rams, a symbol associated with Amun.
As for traditions resulting as peculiarities from their banishment, Tacitus suggests that their refraining from swine related to their having been plagued by leprosy (as pigs are prone to skin diseases in the desert), their frequent fasts to their wandering without food, and their unleavened bread to their hurried acquisition of corn. Perhaps more significant examples of traditions formed opposite to those of the Egyptians and in accordance with the material conditions of their time of wandering would be commands against graven images and the worship of multiple deities. Their refraining from the use of material images or symbolism may be a result of the fact that they 1) in their poverty resented and could not compete with the Egyptians and so inverted the value to feel themselves justified and 2) in their sickness could not stand to associate divinity with anything a part of the material or temporal world. Another example is their obsession with the idea that God has only one form and face and their taking as antithetical any conception of divinity other than their own tribal deity—as opposed to the Egyptian belief that Amun-Ra, the formless all-powerful creator behind the universe, had many manifestations. This would seem to suggest that Judaism may have started out an Egyptian-lite religion, the elaborate pantheon of the Egyptians being too much to maintain for a wandering tribe and the need for a return to the essential and basic having taken hold.
We should note, before moving on, that the views expressed by these historians of antiquity are not necessarily accurate, though they may be. I am presenting them for the sake of completeness, since otherwise we would have only the Jews' own account of their relationships with these different groups, which has no special position. Some have claimed that the view that the Jews descended from lepers is merely an early example of antisemitism—and this may or may not be true, either.
Gary Greenberg, the President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York, presents a number of reasons in his book The Moses Mystery why he thinks the early Jews actually were likely to have suffered from leprosy. To begin with, leprosy was a serious problem at the time and many cultures had difficulties with it. Secondly, even in the Biblical account of the Exodus, the Jews are said to have brought plagues to the Egyptians (the famous Ten Plagues). Third, Moses's hand is said to have appeared “leprous as snow” (Exodus 4:6), and his face is said to have become so disturbing for people to look at that he had to hide it behind a veil whenever out in public (Exodus 34:30-35). Both of these things are associated in the Bible with his having had contact with the Hebrew God. Fourth, when Moses's siblings Aaron and Miriam challenged his authority, God is said to have struck Miriam with leprosy (Numbers 12). Greenberg suggests that originally the passage probably had God strike both Miriam and Aaron with leprosy (since they both challenged Moses together) but that this was later changed so as not to render the Aaronian priesthood illegitimate under Jewish law. And finally, the book of Leviticus devotes more space to the question of how to deal with leprosy than with any other problem. In fact, the section on leprosy takes up more space in the Bible than the entire story of Moses's life. (Greenberg, The Moses Mystery, 195-198)
If they did come out of Egypt, monotheism would not be entirely unprecedented for them. Amenhotep IV (who later changed his name to Akhenaten—“Effective Spirit of Aten”) instituted a form of monotheism that worshiped only Aten (the sun disk, the visible embodiment of Re-Herakhte) and forbade graven images during his reign around 200 years before the appearance of Judaism in the archaeological record—though Atenism was intentionally abandoned shortly after Akhenaten’s death. This actually makes it seem likely that the Exodus and Jewish monotheism happened in the reverse order than as just described. Professor Donald B. Redford of Pennsylvania State University, in his book Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, suggests that the term “lepers” referred to the adherents of Atenism who were expelled for not converting back. These would then be the people from whom the Jews descended. According to Manetho their leader was a priest from Heliopolis whose birth name was Osarseph—after the Heliopolian god Osiris—but which he later changed to Moses—an Egyptian name that means "son" or “is born” and was often used as part of the names of pharaohs or gods.
In his book 101 Myths of the Bible, Greenberg suggests that the name Moses was what was left when the more obviously Egyptian part of the name was expunged from the record to hide its origin and nature (Greenberg, 101 Myths of the Bible, 204). This argument had been fleshed out in his earlier work The Moses Mystery, in which he argued that Osarseph was the chief priest during the reign of Akhenaten, and that he would have changed his name just as Akhenaten (originally Amenhotep IV) did to something that fit with the new religion—either Ramose (Re is born) or Hormose (Horus is born). Either of these would have been acceptable in accordance with the worship of Re-Herakhte (Re the Horizon Horus) and would have shortened to Moses when the Re or Horus component was removed. He further argues that Moses was forced out of Egypt with his followers after losing a religious and political feud with Akhenaten's successors. Greenberg shows how the birth and death chronology in Genesis matches up impressively with the dates associated with the Egyptian dynasties and the reigns of different pharaohs. In 101 Myths, Greenberg discusses in detail how the foundation of the Old Testament is derived from earlier Egyptian myths. Often times Egyptian gods would become forces of nature or heroic human beings in the modified Jewish versions of the stories.
As a religioustolerance.org article on the relation between Horus and Jesus points out, the line from the Bible “Yet I am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt, and thou shalt know no god but me: for there is no savior beside me” (Hosea 13:4) may have a completely different meaning than that usually assumed. Yet this is not the complete story, as it fails to take into consideration the influence of the Levantine pantheon on the formation of the Jewish tribal deity. An Egyptian inscription from 1390-1352 BCE mentions the “Shasu of Yhw,” the Shasu being a nomadic people from the Levant region and Yhw being their (or one of their) god(s). In 101 Myths Greenberg describes how local myths (and later the myths of other empiric powers such as Babylon) came to have influence on the Biblical narrative.
In any event, we do know that the Exodus, if it happened at all, never happened quite the way the Jews described. If their claims were true we would find evidence of it in the archaeological record, but it doesn't seem to be there in the time range that the Bible suggests. What is more, the Jewish account claims that the Jews traveled around Sinai after they escaped Egyptian rule, however the archaeological record shows that Egypt was in full control of the Sinai region at the time most scholars think the Exodus must have occurred. The details of this are both very important and beyond the scope of this article, so I will direct my readers to a full explanation of it by Paul Tobin here:
The early end of the spectrum for when the Exodus is thought to have occurred is based on the fact that the Bible describes the Jews as having been put to work in the city of Ramses. This is universally taken to be the city Pi-Ramses, which was established under the reign of Ramses II, whose reign began in 1279 BCE—so it is thought that the Exodus could not have occurred earlier than this. But Greenberg argues that the reference to the city of Ramses is anachronistic. Either at or very close to the site where Pi-Ramses was established was the city of Avaris. Greenberg argues that this was the city in which the Jews were put to work, and that the name Ramses was used simply because that was the name of the city the scribe writing the story—decades later—knew at the time. This would be the same as if someone today where to write a story about someone living in the city of New York in 1650. It's the right city, but the wrong name. At the time, NYC was called New Amsterdam. In support of this theory, Greenberg points out that in Manetho's presentation of the story of Osarseph, he says that the lepers were sent to live in the city of Avaris.
Greenberg further suggests that the real reason scholars reject the possibility of an early date for the Exodus is because they want to build a wall between Akhenaten, who was a tyrant, and Moses, who's looked upon more fondly. But an early date for the Exodus would make this quite difficult to do—as it would seem highly unlikely that two monotheistic prophets would have been in ancient Egypt at the same time and had no connection to one another.
Here is another article on the same website, “The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager,” which explains why the Jewish account of the Kingdoms of David and Solomon are also shown to be inaccurate through archaeology:
Greenberg's position on this, as presented in The Moses Mystery, in that it involves some connection between Egypt and the origin of the Jewish people, is a minority view at this point—though a scholarly and well researched one (and of course, simply being in the minority does not itself invalidate one's position by any means). The current view of mainstream scholarship is that there is no connection between the ancient Israelites and any tribe that could have traveled from Egypt. Israelite culture is thought to have developed independently, and the story of the Exodus, as well as the stories of Moses, David, and Solomon in general, are thought to be latter mythological constructions. Thus anyone seeking to seriously assert that there is any thread of truth at all to the story of the Exodus (a position which I myself have affection for, given the literature from the ancient Israelites, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans) has their work cut out for them. Reading The Moses Mystery would be a good place to start.
It would seem important to take a moment to consider what these findings mean for Judaism. Many cultures in their infancy, not unlike actual infants, tend to think of themselves as the center of the world. It may be that this is an important means by which cultures establish themselves. As humanity grows up, however, and we face the possibility of a truly global civilization, these ideas seem more and more archaic and repulsive. Learning that the biblical stories of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, etc, are not historically accurate accounts but rather were the product of a process of myth-making long after the facts they claim to report undermines the belief in the Jews as a chosen people and even in the Jewish God—since the vision at Mount Sinai and any number of other events are unlikely to have actually occurred. But so what? The end of old tribal narratives opens the door for something better—something that will bring us all together.
If you identify with the message of this article, please email it to people, tell your friends, even print out copies to pass around. Together we can raise awareness. Thank you.