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February 6, 2015 3:34 pm

Why We Know So Little About Moses and Jesus

avatar by Bernard Starr

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Pharaoh's Daughter Finding Baby Moses by Konstantin Flavitsky. The lack of information about Moses and Jesus are leaving people wondering if they really did exist. Photo: Wikipedia.

The dearth of information about the formative influences on towering biblical figures such as Moses and Jesus has invited some skeptics to question whether they actually existed. Scriptures give sketchy incidents in the lives of Moses and Jesus, but why weren’t the descriptions more extensive? Indeed why so many blanks? Wouldn’t the details of their early lives explain how experiences shaped their personalities and the way in which their lives played out?

These questions reflect modern thinking about human development and personality but not the view through most of history. The sharp difference in perspective became clear to me when I conducted an informal experiment years ago with my developmental psychology students at Brooklyn College. I paired my young college students and asked them to construct a list of questions they would pose to their partners for writing a psychological profile: “What would you need to know to understand what makes your partner tick?”

I was amazed when time and again these teens and young adults came up with lists of questions that implicitly reinvented Freudian psychology, as well as notions from other prominent contemporary psychological thinkers. Later I did the same exercise with adults of all ages with the same results. Typically, they wanted to know about personal experiences, particularly in infancy and the early childhood years: “Where did you grow up? Were you rich or poor? How many siblings did you have? Where were you in the birth order — oldest, youngest, only child? Did you get along with your siblings? Were you a planned or wanted child? What was your relationship with your parents? Did you feel loved or rejected? What kind of emotional supports did you have? Did you feel deprived? Any personality conflicts at home or in school? Did you experience any emotional traumas? What did you worry about? What were your experiences of success, achievement, inspiration, failure, and disappointment? Did you have a life plan? What were your dreams and ambitions? Were you happy? What made you angry or frustrated? Any mentors or role models?” And the list of possible shaping experiences goes on and on.

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To most of us these questions are obvious. We know that biology may tip us in a particular direction but that who we are is to a great extent the result of our experiences — what happens to us as we grow up. However, the idea that experience plays a large part in shaping our personalities is obvious only if you were born after 1900, when modern psychology and psychiatry began to flourish. The further back in history you go, the less likely that my students’ questions would have been asked at all — and some of the queries would have seemed strange or irrelevantly intrusive.

Childhood researcher and author Lloyd deMause discovered, much to his surprise, that virtually nothing was written about childhood through most of history, simply because those “obvious” questions were never asked or addressed. Historian Elizabeth Wirth Marvick notes that as late as the seventeenth century, when learned men engaged in extensive correspondence and commentary about their times, they “continued to overlook the lives of children around them.” Even French imaginative literature, she says, “ignored the infant and small child.”

The observations of deMause and Marvick are reflected in bible stories. The Torah (Old Testament) tells us about Moses’ birth after Pharaoh’s edict to kill all newborn Jewish male children. We learn that he is saved when his mother, Jochebed, places him in a basket and floats him down the Nile past the spot where she knows Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing. The princess rescues Moses and raises him as her own as a prince of Egypt. This vignette about the childhood of Moses is told in a few hundred words in the Book of Exodus. We next encounter Moses as an adult. The Bible then gives us a rapid-fire sequence of events: Moses kills a guard who is mistreating Jewish slaves. He goes into exile fearing for his own life. Then he marries Zipporah, who bears him a son, Gershom. Soon afterwards, God speaks to Moses, who then becomes Moses the prophet who God sends to Egypt to set the Israelites free.

We learn about the birth of Jesus in two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke). After the manger scene and the escape to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s edict to kill all children age two and younger (Matthew 2:13-14), we hear nothing further about the early childhood of Jesus. He briefly appears at age twelve debating the sages at the temple in Jerusalem but promptly disappears from the Gospels for eighteen years. He resurfaces at about age thirty to begin his ministry.

These tidbits would be unsatisfying to my students for constructing psychological biographies of Moses and Jesus. Nothing about their early experiences that might provide clues to understanding how their personalities were shaped. The Bible leaps from the brief chronology of events, in the case of Moses, to Moses morphing into the adult prophet. Did anything in his youth or young adulthood prepare him for his monumental role? Did it matter if he was “toilet” trained early or late or how long he was breast-fed? What about the impact of adoption? Did he feel rejected by his parents? Children whose parents give them away often experience painful feelings of rejection, no matter what the circumstances. Did he experience other emotional traumas, or interpersonal influences that might forecast future traits and behaviors? Would any of that information, if available, shed light on Moses, man and prophet? If so, why don’t we know about it? We can ask similar questions about Jesus.

Is it possible that my students and others were smart enough to know what information is required to explain personality but that the authors of the Bibles — God, the Gospel writers, other sages, or whoever — weren’t? How can we explain the “obvious” omissions?

Throughout most of history the prevailing belief was that people are shaped not by experiences but by destiny — meaning who you are is pre-determined. In the Bhagavad-Gita — the Hindu Scripture dating back thousands of years — personality is attributed to a mix of the three inborn personality types called the gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas), plus the karmic traits carried over from previous lives. Today, we call that view the biological or nature explanation: You’re wired to be who you are, with inborn tendencies and characteristics that supersede personal experiences and direct you to particular experiences..

According to the destiny view, if you survive to adulthood — no small feat when we consider the huge child mortality rates through much of history — you will become the person of your inborn and predetermined destiny. If that’s the case, why even bother to examine life experiences? They would have little explanatory value. Moses was simply destined to be a prophet, and according to Christian Scripture Jesus was meant to be the Messiah.

That way of looking at personality changed with modern psychology, which placed its bets heavily on experience to explain how we become who we are. In 1913, behavioral psychologist John Watson took the classical conditioning principle of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov to an extreme, proclaiming: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up [his conditioning-laboratory world] and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

The experiential view offered hopeful strategies for change. Simply put, if experience caused your mental suffering and conflicts then changing experiences should bring relief. And who knows what subtle experiences from the past might be the culprit holding you back. Freud and his followers, also exponents of the experiential view, delved into memories of these subtle experiences, with the hope that re-imagining them from a different perspective might change their impact.

Author Mark Twain may have presaged modern psychological thinking. In his 1881 historical novel, The Prince and the Pauper, Twain captivated readers around the world with the notion that a prince becomes princely not by nature but by nurture.

Returning to Moses and Jesus, the quest continues among biblical scholars to find the missing pieces in the biographies of these sages. That search may prove futile given the prevailing view of human nature in biblical eras. At the same time the absence of this information does not inform the historicity of Moses, Jesus, and others who predate modern psychological understanding of human development.

Bernard Starr, PhD is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity and How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.” He is also author of “Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality and Psychology to be Truly Free.”

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  • Louis Evanson

    What is jewish? Who are the real jews of the bible story,did anyone leave a photograph of Jesus,Moses or any of the many prophets of the bible.According to research done by many scholars,the jews of today adopted that religion in the eight century.To be perpetrating a fraud for so many centuries is an abomination to the very God we all worship.We can trace back to the presence of people other than black Africans in the region where so many of the biblical occurrences took place. The bible story and the occurrences in the bible, should be represented by just the written word,or people of any race should represent the bible characters.The bible story represents occurrences that took place during that time,but just attributing it all to one race makes it seem fictitious and fraudulent.

  • The Bible does not give us much information about the early life of Moses.

    But Judaism’s sacred oral traditions: the two Talmuds and Midrashim, help to fill in that gap.

  • Perry

    The reason why there is no record of the lives of Moses and Jesus is simple: Neither existed. Both Judaism and Christianity were created by spiritual leaders in order to control the great unwashed public.

  • Julian Clovelley

    We know a surprising amount about the Jesus of the Bible – but it is very difficult to get Fundamentalists who rely on emotional unreason (which they label “faith”) – and the more traditional denominations, such as Roman Catholics and more reactionary sections of the Anglican Commune, to accept the findings of scholarship. Look what even a moderate like Bishop Spong goes through, including death threats

    For example we know that there is no record of the original content of the New Testament Gospels likely to predate the Ryland fragment P52, a fragment of a codex containing the Gospel of John, or part of it, and most credibly dated between about 120AD and 150AD.

    We know that the Nativity accounts are pure mythology, including the doctrine of the Virgin birth, which scientific impossibility seems to arise from a simple mistranslation of an actually irrelevant Hebrew prophecy talking about something else entirely. We know that the Paulists, including Paul himself (presuming he actually existed, which is by no means certain), reshaped the religion of the Followers of the Way, the sect that appears to have been early Christianity and was originally part of mainstream Judaism. We know that the Paulist faction became dominant, despite the earlier protests of the Judean Christians, because Jerusalem and Judea fell in the war against Rome in 70AD.

    We know that the Gospels were written after Paul’s missionary activities in Ephesus and Asia minor (Turkey) and his likely date of death or retirement(sic). We can reasonably assume that “Paul’s” synthesis of the new Christianity drew from the religious influences of his home in Asia Minor, including the mystery cults of the Roman Empire. From these and such influences as Orphic mythology significant factors including Atonement appear to have been drawn. We can also see the role of Oracle and Prophecy in the early Church – practices later condemned in order presumably to fix the religion. One of the most noticeable instances is Paul’s account of the Last Supper – which points to the probability that the Last Supper legend in its present form originates with the Paulists. This includes the antisemitic character picture of Judas Iscariot all of the antisemitism in fact

    On this basis we can reasonably assume that the Jesus of the Bible is predominantly, if not entirely, a literary theological invention, shaped by “Paul”, who was himself claimed in the Bible to be a member of the Emperor’s household, as one intended to appeal to – and be accepted by, the Roman Empire.

    Looking at the Gospel accounts – which scholars are overwhelmingly certain are not eyewitness accounts, we can see a story progressively shaped around the myth(sic) of Moses. The parallels are obvious – the anticipation of his coming, his miraculous preservation at birth, the slaughter of the innocents, the raising of the serpent in the wilderness, which is an image used to “predict” the crucifixion, the performance of miracles, the temptations, the retreat into the wilderness, and so on.

    The Jesus of the Bible is clearly recognisable from the Bible itself as myth. The mountains of theology and pseudo scholarship and dogma – and the persecution of heresy and Gnosticism over two thousand years, are merely cover ups for that reality. Christianity might likely have fizzled out if it had not been recruited by Constantine, then residing in York in England, as his spearhead to seize power in one of the Roman Empire’s routine civil wars.

    Under Constantine’s demands, Orthodox creeds and a covering “history” were constructed to make Christianity the parallel, and supporting, power in the Byzantine Empire

    This is the Jesus we know so much about – a mythological and Bardic creation that evolved with or without a real initial historical figure. We can even point to another possible source in Josephus account of the rescue of crucified friends in Jerusalem during the Roman actions there. Josephus tells us one survived – there’s a thing. But his account might be a little late to have inspired the Jesus resurrection story, unless the Gospels in their present form were written even later than currently believed – which some scholars suggest.

    I come from a Christian background. I have had to accept that most of the Christian story is pure and obvious myth. Fundamentalism and traditionalism made that recognition traumatic and difficult. Parental pressure made it emotionally disturbing. The parallel with the evolution of the Moses story is obvious. One starts with the scholarly recognition that there is no evidence for the Exodus, nor for the enslavement of Hebrews in Egypt. One adds to that the historical evidence that Caanan was in fact a province of Egypt and not a separate region, and that the accounts were transmitted in oral form and not systematised until the eighth to sixth centuries BCE anything up to a thousand years after the imagined events. They are Foundation myths

    The bottom line is that neither Christianity nor Judaism can handle their own mythical base. They clutch at straws to claim it is all “history” and end up looking ridiculous. In grasping for sanity a person recognising the role of mythology comes under such emotional attack that it is quite likely he will walk away from all of it. Political movements such as the Christian Conservative Right and Zionism muddy the field by using Fundamentalist interpretation as a vehicle for political extremism. As a result the drift away becomes a Tsunami of exit

    Yes we know a lot about Jesus and Moses – just as we know a lot about Orpheus and Hercules, Odysseus and Agamemnon, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. Unfortunately it is not what the religions want us to know and believe – so they invented “faith” to over-ride evidence and common sense. This trick is best demonstrated in Christianity in the Book of Hebrews

    It’s chapter 11 “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen. For therein the elders had witness borne to them”

    Faith in this dysfunctional definition (for genuine faith IS based on evidence) displaces the role of evidence and makes it impossible to automatically recognise fiction – until one day – in some of us – the penny drops and we realise that what we are looking at are the techniques of vacuum cleaner salesmanship. That is when we really know both Jesus and Moses and can truly appreciate the content of the spiritual understandings for whose transmission they were created. Unreasoned faith as a vehicle for belief and this form of “belief” as a motivation for action is a danger best viewed in Leni Reifenstahl’s Film “Triumph des Willens”(1935)

    No, genuine scholars do not search for the missing pieces of the biographies of their sages. Most of them have long got beyond that. What is happening in the modern creation of a separate “Jewish History” is a reversion to a process long completed and superseded by reasoned analysis. Your real scholars are the ones Zionism rejects

    And therein is the unreason that will eventually cause Zionism to self implode. You can’t sell a vacuum forever. People see through it, and where there is no other option, walk away, leaving only the extreme Fundamentalists – who cause so much trouble that one day the Prodigal sons return – not so much to be reconciled – but to sort the mess out that made them leave, to reclaim for Reason the community that is their birthright.

    Or as Arnie put it as a catch phrase in his films – “I’ll be back”

  • David Fried

    Everything you say is true, but strangely irrelevant. We know nothing about the formative influences on Moses because even his adult personality and character are essentially irrelevant. God did not chose Moses as his instrument to free the Israelite slaves because of any specific traits he possessed. There is simply no suggestion in the Bible (as opposed to later Jewish tradition) that Abraham, Moses or any of the prophets were chosen for their particular virtues. (Noah is an exception; he was the best man in his generation, which may not have been saying much.) Presumably this is why Moses is left out of the Haggadah altogether.

    The same applies, more or less, to Jesus. We have no idea why God chose to incarnate himself in Jesus rather than, say, Brian; or why in the year one. Presumably the divine inspiration manifested by the adult Jesus was an emanation of his divinity, and had little to do with his toilet-training.

    The point is that both Testaments are theological documents which embody a theological viewpoint on human events. That’s reason enough for them to omit so much that we would like to know from our secular standpoint.

  • I also believe that a persons place of birth decides his future. If you were born in a very rich country then you have more chance of a “future
    ” than if you were born in a poor country for sure.

    Interesting article wish I could read the latest book published.

    Yigael. From Malta EU

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