"The Exodus was to Israel as the Norman Conquest is to England or the American Revolution to the United States: a pivotal event that serves as a historical watershed."
So Murray Adamthwaite of Australia's University of Melbourne captures the reason Judaism celebrates Passover each spring.
But some Jews doubt the Exodus ever occurred. And if God never liberated Israel from Egypt, does it make any sense to partake of the unleavened bread and wine?
Experts who argue about the Hebrew Bible's history fall into four camps. "Reductionists" or "minimalists" say the Scriptures were mostly fiction, written far after the supposed events to boost nationalism. "Maximalists," largely conservative Christians, say the Bible is truthful and credible.
In between are two camps that see history mingled with legend, one highly skeptical, the other somewhat skeptical. Call them "middle maximalists" and "middle minimalists." New books by Jewish archaeologists typify the two middle stances:
--"What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?" (Eerdmans) by the University of Arizona's William G. Dever says the Hebrew Bible "cannot be taken at face value as history in the modern sense" but contains much reliable information from David and Solomon onward.
--"The Bible Unearthed" (Free Press), by Israel Finkelstein, archaeology chairman at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and co-author Neil Asher Silberman, is more skeptical but doesn't embrace total minimalism.
Neither book finds much basis for the Exodus, however, mainly because ancient Egyptian records don't report it and archaeologists have found no remains from the Sinai wanderings.
Finkelstein and Silberman write that it's impossible to say whether the biblical story might preserve some "vague memories," but that mostly it reflects the politics of the seventh century B.C. when it was written.
"The saga of Israel's Exodus from Egypt is neither historical truth nor literary fiction. It is a powerful expression of memory and hope, born in a world in the midst of change," they state.
Dever writes that archaeologists generally see investigation of the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit." He said most think Israel emerged from indigenous Canaanites, without the Exodus or Sinai wanderings, and no one can prove a Moses-like figure existed.
Richard Elliott Friedman of the University of California, San Diego, takes no stand on that in his new "Commentary on the Torah" (HarperSanFrancisco), but says Moses' name offers a clue.
The name was indisputably Egyptian, not Hebrew. One could argue that the biblical writers invented the name to sound authentic, he writes. But that's implausible because the Hebrew says the Egyptian princess chose the name Moses "because I drew him from the water."
A good topic for discussion at this year's Seder.
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