Friday, October 26, 2007

Mount Sinai (Jebel-Musa): Historical Evidence

I thought this would be an interesting question to take up for those of you who, like myself, have an interest in biblical archaeology. Like the Ark of the Covenant (and, to a lesser extent, Noah's Ark), the location of the Mount Sinai of the Scriptures has been a source of controversy for generations. Unlike the Ark of the Covenant, for which many explanations have been formed (see my Ark of the Covenant series on the sidebar), only two real contenders for the Scriptural Mount Sinai have ever been put forward: the traditional site is a mountain in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula called Jebel-Musa ("mountain of Moses") on which is situated the famous Byzantine monastery of St. Catherine. The other site, put forward as the true location of Sinai on and off in recent centuries, is a mountain called Jebel-al-Lawz in the Hejaz region of what is now Saudi Arabia, just across the sea from the Sinai Peninsula over the Gulf of Aqaba. There are other sites put forward by different people, but these two are the only real contenders.

Let me first say, before examining the merits of either of these two positions, that I do not believe that there is any theological import to either. There is no theological, historical or ecclesiological reason why I ought to be in favor or one site over another. It certainly sometimes happens that long-standing Catholic traditions about locations and relics and things of that nature can turn out to be errant (like the "Donation of Constantine"). It is also true that longstanding Catholic archaeological traditions are very often trustworthy; each case is individual. The important thing is that nothing regarding my faith or the powers of the Church is dependent in any way on the location of Mount Sinai. Therefore, I am open to either possibility. To tell you the truth, my mind is not made up on which is really the true location.

In this article, I will look at just the historical evidence for the traditional site, in the Egyptian Sinai at Jebel-Musa. I will go over the historical proofs cited for this location and then critique them. Next time, I will look at the Scriptural evidence for or against the traditional site.

First, what about the establishment of the monastery out there in the Sinai? Why did the first monks choose to settle there, and does this say anything about the historical veracity of the site? Christian monks had been in the Sinai since the earliest monastic periods. It was the Empress St. Helena (c. 330) who decided to establish a monastery on the spot in order to protect the desert monks from raids by local nomads. The reason the present location was chosen was because the local monks pointed out to St. Helena what they believed to be the location of the burning bush, and thus the monastery was erected around that site. This shows that by 330, there was already a tradition that Jebel-Musa was Mt. Sinai. Later polemicists (from about 1750 on) claimed that Constantine used a seer to find the site, but this seems unsubstantiated.

Justinian replaced the monastery-church with a larger, fortified monastery in 550 (it did not take the name St. Catherine's until the 13th century). So it is clear that from the earliest Christian ages, Christian pilgrims and monks believed that Jebel-Musa was Mount Sinai. But between the time of Moses (1400 BC) and the establishment of the church by Helena (330 AD) is a stretch of time almost 1700 years long; is the fact that early Christian hermits thought Jebel-Musa was Mount Sinai any real proof of the fact? Is there any earlier, Jewish evidence that Jebel-Musa is Mount Sinai?

Rabbinic literature of the period 100-200 AD describes Mt. Sinai as being 36 Roman miles from Paran; a later Christian pilgrim Egeria, who visited Jebel-Musa around 381-384, stated in her diary that the distance was 35 Roman miles, almost exactly the same distance as specified by the rabbis. This seems to indicate that well before the Christian monastic period, Jewish sages (at least prior to 100 AD) had identified Jebel-Musa as Mount Sinai. Furthermore, Josephus, writing in the 1st century, says in his work Against Apion that "Moses went up to a mountain that lay between Egypt and Arabia, which was called Sinai...." (Against Apion, 2:2 [2:5]). This demonstrates that in Josephus' time (c. 60 AD), it was a common assertion among learned Jews that Mt. Sinai was located "between Egypt and Arabia," which would seem to indicate the geographic Sinai Peninsula. This does not point to Jebel-Musa specifically, but shows that the site was at least believed to be in the Sinai Peninsula. Furthermore, the fact that Josephus repeats the teaching of the rabbis shows that the belief must go back even earlier than that, since Josephus is repeating what was standard rabbinic belief. Thus, I think we could safely say that the earliest confirmed placement of Mt, Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula in Judaism can be placed sometime between 100 BC - 30 AD (the Pharasaic period).

We know that historically, no other location was proposed for Mount Sinai other than Jebel-Musa until 1845, when another site was put forth by Prussian Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius. So, we have no other contenders for the title of Mount Sinai from around 100 BC to 1845 AD, an impressive span of time. But again, even at our earliest confirmed dating of Sinai as Jebel-Musa (c. 100 BC), we still have at least a 1300 gap between the events of the Exodus and the placement of Mount Sinai, a very long period in which the territory of the Sinai was ruled by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Ptolemies and finally the Romans. Not to mention the fact that it was always home to bands of marauding tribes. That is a long, and confused history, and the possibility exists that place names could have gotten mixed up or lost over the ages.

Map of the traditional Exodus route, Jebel Musa in the south

Even so, though we have a placement of Mount Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula by about 100 BC, it is not until the rabbinic literature of the century from 100-200 AD that we have any identification of Mount Sinai specifically with Jebel-Musa. This is a very long gap of time from the original events and leaves much uncertainty in our designation of Jebel-Musa as Mount Sinai.

Now, though we have not yet gone into the Scriptural evidence, what can we say about the historical evidence? Let's look at the pro's and con's of the Jebel-Musa site.

Historical Evidence in Favor of Jebel-Musa

1) Earliest site identified with Mount Sinai and no other claimants until 1845.

2) Hallowed by Christian and Jewish tradition.

All the evidence in favor of Jebel-Musa boils down to these two points: tradition, and the fact that there were no other claimans to the title until recently. But do these facts alone establish the veracity of the claim? Let's look at some of the historical evidence against Mount Sinai being Jebel-Musa:

Historical Evidence Against Jebel-Musa

1) Josephus says that Mount Sinai was "the highest of all the mountains thereabout," (Antiquities of the Jews, 2:12) which if true, would point not to Jebel-Musa (7,497 feet), but to a nearby mountain, Mt. Catherine (8,625 feet). It should be pointed out that the monastery of St. Catherine is at the foot of Mt. Catherine, not at the foot of Jebel-Musa, but it is Jebel-Musa that is today held to be the biblical Mount Sinai.

2) Sinai appears to have been part of the Egyptian empire at the time; if this is true, it would not make sense for Moses to flee to the Sinai if it was part of Egypt. The Exodus implies that Moses took the people "out of the land of Egypt," not into an adjacent territory that was still part of Egypt. How would that deliver them? This seems to indicate that Mount Sinai was not in the Sinai Peninsula.

3) Jebel-Musa is situated in the center of a great mass of mountains; there are no plains nearby that would be able to support the massive amounts of people and animals that the Exodus requires.

At best, it seems that the historical evidence in favor of Jebel-Musa is of the weakest kind (an argument from silence) and that the three arguments against it are very weighty. But are they insurmountable? Next time, we will look at the Scriptural evidence regarding Jebel-Musa and see if we can throw any light on the matter.

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