Jeremy Bowen, former BBC Middle East correspondent, begins the BBC documentary, Moses and the Exodus by pointing out that the Bible contains a “fantastic story” with numerous special effects: the burning bush, the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Because so much in the plague narrative smacks of the supranatural, Bowen declares, “A lot of people think that it is just a great work of fiction.” He then coyly asks a rhetorical question: Did Jewish scribes with vivid imaginations, writing in Jerusalem in about 600–300 B.C.E., make up a dramatic tale simply to give their people a history? BAR readers will recognize minimalist overtones in the question, but Brown continues by pointing out that, though modern scholars claim that the story is just a fantasy, new archaeological tools and the latest historical research have discovered stunning new evidence. He poses the production’s guiding question: Is there any basis in history for the story of Moses and the Exodus?
The show bows first to Biblical minimalists. The story of Moses in the basket is so similar to that of the legend about Sargon’s birth in Mesopotamia that it may have been borrowed by Israelites during the Babylonian Exile and dropped into the Bible’s narrative flow. Then it bows to traditionalists: James Hoffmeier, a well-known Egyptologist currently excavating in the Nile Delta, is interviewed. He points out that the words for basket, reeds, the name of the river [Hebrew Yeor, translated as river] and the very name Moses are Egyptian. Although Hoffmeier’s statement doesn’t establish the historicity of the story, it vouchsafes an authentic Egyptian setting.