Basket Cases: Moses, Sargon, and Karna


The whole biblical Exodus story of the Jews exiled to Egypt where a leader Moses finally led them out of captivity is a myth. Part of that myth is that Moses was born to a Jewish woman (Levite) in Egypt at a time that the Pharaoh commanded all Jewish male babies be killed. So that Jewish woman, hid her child then at 3 months old, when she could no longer hide him, put him in a basket and sent him down a river. Then ironically the daughter of the Pharaoh saw the child and adopted it as her own. Only later would that child help his people escape from the Pharaoh. (Exodus 2)



Sargon the Great, King of Akkadian around 2,300 BCE also had a similar legendary story about his birth. But earliest legend story we have is from the 7th century BCE found in the Library of Ashurbanipal. He was born as the illegitimate son of a priestess or low class woman. In shame she secretly hid her child and then placed in a basket of reeds and floated him down a river where baby Sargon was found by a man and raised as his own son — only later to become a great King and leader — like Moses.

-- click to enlarge --

— click to enlarge —


My daughter and I are now reading the Mahabharata were a similar basket story came up. I copied the page with the picture on it for you.

In this story, a virgin is impregnated by the sun god (sound Christian?). In shame the child is sent down a river and found by a charioteer (low caste) who found him a famous teacher of war. This child was Karna who would become major warrior in the Mahabharata.

Karna_basketClouds of Oral Traditions

Below I point out the source of the three basket Karna, Sargon and Moses (probably in that chronological order). I also added “Clouds of Oral Traditions” temporarily to my diagram to emphasize that written traditions often are patched together from very long oral traditions — often oral traditions that intermingle.  I know my diagram is busy, but I hope it helps again illustrate that stories can either be the result of sharing and remixing or spontaneous creation of similar concepts in diverse cultures.




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

26 responses to “Basket Cases: Moses, Sargon, and Karna

  1. Hi sabio. confident pronouncement of a myth I see. I’m suprised that when many similar stories abound the first conclusion seems usually to be its a myth, rather than representations of an actual event. I also see your timeline (unspurisingly) puts the Torah etc well this side of 1000BC. I’m wathicng wtih interest as low chronolgy starts to creak as more evidence comes to light. I’m a little sad this probably won’t be resolved in my life time but who knows…
    best, cct

  2. @ clapham
    (1) Moses
    It would take a lot of post to cover exactly why I think the Moses story is fabricated. But apparently, most Jewish scholars think so too. And actually, a great many Christian scholars do. But you are right, I am not trying to prove it here. Just showing you there are lots of basket stories.

    (2) Torah’s Dates
    This book would be informative:
    The Formation of Jewish Canon: Timothy Lim.
    Check Wiki — “Dating the BIble” for a summary. Not that wiki is any authority but I don’t have time to tour you through the research.

    Dating the Torah — as with the Mahabharata and others — is tough. We have extant texts alluding to earlier times. So, do we go only with the extant texts, or the references for when earlier texts existed or buy into the writer’s perspective of the time they say they are writing in. Plus, there is the whole oral tradition issue.

    Why don’t you draw a diagram and justify the dates with up-to-date research on your site — then come back and let me know and I will take a look.

    All I ask is that whatever standards you use to evaluate other religions in terms of anthropology, textual analysis and such, you do to your own.

  3. We read about Sargon in my kids’ homeschool history book. I was shocked at the similarities.

  4. @ Alice
    Either accidental or shared source or copying or …. but it is interesting.
    Certainly if you want to compete with a culture, you can steel from them.

    @ Clapham<
    See this post:
    The whole blog is very challenging to evangelicals and more.

  5. @ sabio. thansk for that link, i started reading it but to be honest i find these polemic blogs a bit tiresome. The same is often true of Christian blogs but often you can tell whats coming from the opening lines. I enjoy a reasoned blog, like yours but I try avoid the utterly ungracious ones. We’re all entitled to our views but most people don’t regard Jesus as a bigot. In fact, I suggest that the gretest moral characters of our time, such as Ghandi, regard him as a great teacher. So to be honest i’m not going to really bother with someone who’s opening line is that Jesus was a bigot.
    I am however familar with a lot of the arguments about archeology and egyptoloy, as well as the debate about low chronology. You may have seen my post on the dust that hasn’t settled yet, with a link to a national geographic article called the kings of controversy about Israel finkelsten and low chronology.
    The problem with low chronology is that it largely relies on teh lack of evidence. But the more people dig (like Garfinkel and Levy), the more the seemingly solid foundation starts to slip away.
    If my appetite reurns I’ll read a little more of the link…I wish i had all day to do this!

  6. @ clapham
    Yes, I agree.
    When blogs start out attacking, they are very hard to read. I slip into that error sometimes myself — especially if recently being pissed off at something in the news or some bigoted thing said to me or my kids or which I overhear.

    Yeah, it sounds like you are much more up on the chronology issue than I am. I will have to try and compile a post which links to pros and cons on the issue.

    Do you have any good sites or books which argue PRO a real Moses in light of present counter evidence (or lack) which is offered? Thanx.

    Concerning Jesus a great moral teacher or not. I guess it depends on what teachings and what “Great” means. In my recent Harischandra & the Book of Job post, Gandhi saw Harishchandra as one of his great role model, yet I tell why I would have some very deep problems with that. No one’s teachings are perfect — in my view. No one’s life is perfect either. But people like heros to inspire them to shoot higher– I get that and maybe it ain’t too bad.

    Yeah, I wish I could do more blogging too. I sneaking this in while working — the patient load just took a short drop. BTW, may I ask, where do you live in England?

    BTW, I left you a question back on the other post about evil spirits being the presence that nonbelievers feels when they feel some divine presence. Are you checking the “Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.” box on posts? Anyway, hope to hear your answer on that. Thanx for dropping in.

  7. It is fascinating to hear all these stories.

    I live in a small community where the dominant culture is Evangelical Christianity. I find it entertaining, yet often frustrating, to hear many of them explain their beliefs as if they just suddenly appeared in history through some divine intervention without any influences from other cultures. One needs only to read and study their own history, and the histories of other cultures, to realize that what is believed today is an outcome of much influencing, give and take and/or conquer. With Christmas upon us, many here are reminding others(this is mostly just preaching to the choir) about the reason for the season, which they believe is Jesus. I am afraid(ok maybe I am not) that I have burst a few bubbles by sharing that December 25th is not the birthday of Jesus and that that idea was taken from a much older practice and worship of Mithra, the ‘pagan’ Sun god, and that most of what Christianity is and does today is taken from this older worship.

    As you may have gathered, I am not a very popular person in my community, at least not positively.

  8. @ CalledtoQuestion
    Well, you are popular here.
    I taught my kids to tell their friends that they celebrate Yule Tide. Happy Yule Tide greetings! As you know, Yule Tide was absorbed by Christians to convince pagans to convert. Here is a Christian “Yule Tide” hymn. So I am all for grabbing it back and making the Winter Holiday season, fun and universal. Of course, I’d like it out of the hands of commercialism too but …

  9. While at a shopping centre, in the city last week, I made sure to cover all my basis’ by wishing the clerk Season greetings, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Birthday Mithra and Happy Holidays(Am I missing any?).

    To which she replied, “gesundheit!”.

    I couldn’t have said it better.

  10. @calledtoquestion

    Where did you learn all that about Mithraism?

  11. So, consoledreader, while you are asking questions, may I ask why you changed your name from drkshadow to “consolereader” and why you started at new blog? I loved the movie Ikuru, btw.

    As for your question, I found this on wiki:
    ^ “Roman Religion”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 07-04-2011. “For a time, coins and other monuments continued to link Christian doctrines with the worship of the Sun, to which Constantine had been addicted previously. But even when this phase came to an end, Roman paganism continued to exert other, permanent influences, great and small….The ecclesiastical calendar retains numerous remnants of pre-Christian festivals—notably Christmas, which blends elements

    Now, what are your thoughts?
    Looking forward to CalltoQuestions answer too! 😉

  12. Much of what I learned about Mithraism was through humanities class, then from a few Persian friends, and of course the internet. Mithraism, in Rome, was one of many religions known as the ‘Mystery’ religion and supposedly had its roots in Zoroastrianism, though there is some debate about this. Mithraism heavily influenced Christianity, in fact the two groups even held services in neighbouring buildings(I imagine this is where the influence kicked in.). There are so many similarities. In fact, even within its roots in ancient Persia and Zoroastrianism, you can already see some of the influences, from this religion, on what the Jews were just beginning in Judaism. Interesting stuff, especially when sharing with the very conservative Christian(tee he, so fun!).

    Hope that answers your question, or maybe I went to far?

  13. Hi all. I’m still surprised to hear that its a new idea to many that there are common elements in various religions. It certainly shouldn’t be a surprise to evangelical Christians, like me. I can’t think of a single slightly-more-than-basic “truth” of any sort that doesn’t have various competing theories (which still have the same core) around it. But i’m even more surprised when people reach the conclusion that this means they are all made up. Rather than undermining the truth of theism, the almost universal tradition of it, often with many similar themes) to my mind would suggest it is true, if perhaps misunderstood.
    This is another one of those universals that a naturalist world view needs to put in the category of illusion, or useful but ultimately untrue evolutionary tool. Its a bit like the ice of evil – it must be simply a label we put on things rather than a real thing itself.

  14. @ sabio I definitely don;t want to claim expertise on chronology. The leading author on low chronology (As far as i can tell) is a guy called Israel Finkelstein. On the Biblical side is the not at all ambiguously named Biblical Archeology Society. They publish periodicals and have some free ebooks on the site, some better than others. I’ve not come across anything actually written on moses but i haven’t really looked for it. If i get a chance i’ll do some digging.
    re location I’m in London. Clapham Common is a big green space nearby.

  15. @ Clapham,

    Your comment about common elements in various religions was a bit abstract and hard to follow — though I could guess, especially being an ex-evangelical of sorts at one time. So I made this picture to aid our dialogue.
    Help me fix it up if you’d like.
    I see you saying —

    Look, the shared stuff is usually A or B, so why do Atheists always run to C. That stories/myths resemble each other point to Yahweh. In “A”, Indian stories just see a fuzzy version of the truth. In “B”, Yahweh intervened in some place and people hear this and change the story or make it their own, while the Bible (Israel’s version) is the true story. Thus the ‘universalism’ is God in the background trying to speak to everyone.

    My version:

    A & B happen without heavenly connection. People either do similar things or borrow, steal or share with each other.

    Boy, mine sounds boring, doesn’t it?
    Hope you like the diagram — I will post it as a separate post after readers help me add more options or improve the ones I have.

    PS — please go back and answer my question on the other post — sorry, lots to keep track of.

  16. @clapham common tree

    It surprises me too! I have found, and perhaps it is just a difference of location or demographics(or something like that), that the Evangelicals I know, and I would presume a good number of North American Evangelicals, are very surprised to hear such stories. Sure they may admit that much of history has been a balance of give and take between cultures, but when it comes to Christianity it is as a religion (sorry not a religion, a “relationship”) divinely established without any human interference at all. The idea of it being influenced by other religions is ground shaking and foundation breaking for many.

    While this commonality between religions may produce warm squishy feelings, this should not, necessarily, be confused with proof of a grander divinity. I do not think that it should be surprising for many to reach the conclusion of it all being, as the apostle Paul would say, “Skubala”. After all a majority of North American culture is heavily influenced by Christianity, particularly evangelicals (Like the influence of Wormtongue over Theoden, in Lord of the Rings). I am often having to deconstruct the minds of many atheist’s as much as the evangelicals. It’s a lot of work.:)

  17. @ sabio. Good pics – how do you generate graphics so quickly? I think that is more or less right. There are some technicalities in the phrasing that I would tinker with, but in the context of this thread it’s good. Like some of the creation myths are similar – maybe they are retellings of the same event.
    But your view could be true as well.
    I should also say that I don’t adhere to the all religions lead to the same god school of thought ( I think logically that can’t possibly be true given what each says). And I also don’t adhere to the Yahweh with a broken telephone school – although that could well be the case in some situations.
    But if we hold that Romans 1 says that god can be perceived by all, then it should not surprise Christians to see religions with similar elements. And if we hold that morality is also objective we should not be surprised to see eg the 10 commandments pop up elsewhere. Rather than weaken our faith, IMHO these should strengthen it. I’ll pop over to the other post now.

  18. @ called to question. I’m evangelical as well but I sometimes share the frustration that I think some non Christians have with other evangelicals on some topics. I think the biggest problem is that we become defensive and then aggressive. A friend of mine has just moved from London to Texas to work in a church there so am looking forward to hearing what he sees there. I think it’s a real shame because often Christianity gets painted as being thoroughly brainless when I really don’t think it is. Although I am probably a great contributor to that problem. There have been some bright lights over the years, cs lewis here and Tim Keller in New York are two of my favourites!

  19. @clapham common tree.

    I agree, that a quick defensive response is a big problem. I appreciate your insight on the matter. I believe your friend will observe a vast difference between European evangelicalism and North American evangelicalism, especially in the southern United States. We’re talking about a place where Baptists decided against wine for communion and invented a substitute called “Welch’s” grape juice. Where Jesus miraculously turned water into wine North American evangelicalism has, in equal, miraculously turned wine back into water.

    Christianity, is in no way brainless, although there are definitely those out there that seem to prove otherwise(ahem..Mark Driscoll). The very fact that you are conversing on this blog site, indicates to me that you are not brainless. Some of the most intellectual individuals I know claim faith in Christianity (this could be due to the fact that I live in a community dominated by evangelicalism) but these intellectuals hold to a theology that claims relationships come before theology. I guess that makes them smart in my eyes.

  20. @ Evangelicals,
    So concerning the “Basket Cases”.
    What do you think is the picture for the Sargon – Moses similarities:
    (B) Model Hebrews borrowed Mesopotamian story for Moses
    (C) The Two Basket Stories developed independently.

    How about the Karna? A, B or C with Hebrew or Mesopotamia stuff?

    I think those questions make this post meaningful in a simple way.

  21. If I am not an evangelical, can I still answer?

    While it is difficult to accurately pin down either or, I tend to lean toward (B) Model Hebrews borrowed Mesopotamian story for Moses. Other stories of similarity can be observed through this Jewish-Mesopotamian relationship. the ‘flood’, the dualistic concept of the personification of evil through Satan, the two final destinations of humankind i.e.Heaven and Hell, and the appearance of a divine saviour at the end of time.

    I think it is all a conglomerate of faiths, beliefs and political ideas. Call it synchronism, if you will. An unintended combination, or, as I like to call it, society’s ‘Frankenstein’ ideology.

  22. i think it really happened in the bible – cant comment in the other. would be interested to see the claimed chronology of events rather than publication.
    @ called – interesting. i look forward to seeing how my friend goes. are you a christian under any particular label?

  23. @Sabio

    My old blog got associated with my real name.

  24. And I wanted to continue blogging, so I felt I reboot was in order.


    What kind of Humanities class was it? Where did you hear about the twelve disciples of Mithras specifically?

  25. @chapham common tree: I wouldn’t say I am a Christian at all, though in my past I was once a an avid evangelical. Call me ex-evangelical, post- Christian, call me whatever, people always do(I guess it is impossible to get away from labels.). 🙂 I am, who I am.

    @consoledreader: The Humanities class was called, Western Thought and Culture I: Before the Reformation. Which is where I read about the twelve ‘disciples’ or ‘followers’. Though there are similarities, between both religions, there is debate on many of them and how much influence they had on one another or if it just happens to be a coincidence. Regardless, it does make many in my circles surprised to hear of theses similarities.

    @sabio lantz: If you don’t mind me asking, in reference to one of your comments above, “…I am all for grabbing it back and making the Winter Holiday season, fun and universal.”. What does this all entail? What type of traditions do you practice during this time? Sorry, I am kind of in the holiday spirit and enjoy hearing what others do to celebrate the season. Yes, I am a sap.

  26. Is it possible that Sargon of Akkad was using the Israeli Moses’ story to bolster his status in his Empire? And the story was caught on by the authors of Mahabharat? Since Mahabharat depicts real/mythical wars in a developing Indo-Aryan ethno-cultural milieu, it is possible this story was transmitted from Babylon eastwards to Central Asia and/or Indus river.

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