Osarseph // or Osarsiph // (Koinē Greek: Ὀσαρσίφ) is a legendary figure of Ancient Egypt who has been equated with Moses. His story was recounted by the Ptolemaic Egyptian historian Manetho in his Aigyptiaca (first half of the 3rd century BC); Manetho's work is lost, but the 1st century AD Jewish historian Josephus quotes extensively from it.
The story depicts Osarseph as a renegade Egyptian priest who leads an army of lepers and other unclean people against a pharaoh named Amenophis; the pharaoh is driven out of the country and the leper-army, in alliance with the Hyksos (whose story is also told by Manetho) ravage Egypt, committing many sacrileges against the gods, before Amenophis returns and expels them. Towards the end of the story Osarseph changes his name to Moses.
Also much debated is the question of what, if any, historical reality might lie behind the Osarseph story. The story has been linked with anti-Jewish propaganda of the second and first centuries BCE as an inversion of the Exodus story, but an influential study by Egyptologist Jan Assmann has suggested that no single historical incident or person lies behind the legend, and that it represents instead a conflation of several historical traumas, notably the religious reforms of Akhenaten (Amenophis IV).
The story of Osarseph is known from two long quotations from the Aigyptiaca, a history of Egypt by the Egyptian historian Manetho, in Josephus's Against Apion. The first is Manetho's account of the expulsion of the Hyksos (the name is given by Manetho) and their settlement in Judea, where they found the city of Jerusalem. Josephus then draws the conclusion that Manetho's Hyksos were the Jews of the Exodus, although Manetho himself makes no such connection.
The second, set some two hundred years later, tells the story of Osarseph. According to Josephus, Manetho described Osarseph as a tyrannical high priest of Osiris at Heliopolis. Pharaoh Amenophis had a desire to see the gods, but in order to do so he first had to cleanse Egypt of lepers and other polluted people, setting 80,000 of them to work in the stone quarries, and then confining them to Avaris, the former Hyksos capital in the Eastern Delta. There Osarseph became their leader and ordered them to give up the worship of the gods and eat the meat of the holy animals. The Osarsephites then invited the Hyksos back into Egypt, and together with their new allies drove Amenophis and his son Ramses into exile in Nubia and instituted a 13-year reign of religious oppression: towns and temples were devastated, the images of the gods destroyed, the sanctuaries turned into kitchens and the sacred animals roasted over fires, until eventually Amenophis and Rameses returned to expel the lepers and the Hyksos and restore the old Egyptian religion. Towards the end of the story Manetho reports that Osarseph took the name "Moses".
Three interpretations have been proposed for the story: the first, as a memory of the Amarna period; the second, as a memory of the Hyksos; and the third, as an anti-Jewish propaganda. Each explanation has evidence to support it: the name of the pharaoh, Amenophis, and the religious character of the conflict fit the Amarna reform of Egyptian religion; the name of Avaris and possibly the name Osarseph fit the Hyksos period; and the overall plot is an apparent inversion of the Jewish story of the Exodus casting the Jews in a bad light. No one theory, however, can explain all the elements. An influential proposition by Egyptologist Jan Assmann suggests that the story has no single origin but rather combines numerous historical experiences, notably the Amarna and Hyksos periods, into a folk memory. (An alternative theory that identifies Osarseph with the historical figure of Chancellor Bay, an alleged Syrian usurper of the Egyptian throne after the Nineteenth Dynasty, is generally rejected.
It is possible that Osarseph story, or at least the point at which Osarseph changes his name to Moses, is an alteration to Manetho's original history made in the 1st century BC when anti-Jewish sentiment was running high in Egypt, since without this Manetho's history has no mention of the Jews at all. If the story is an original part of Manetho's history of Egypt, the question arises of where he could have heard it, as the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Torah (i.e., the Exodus narrative) had not been made when he was writing. It is possible that he had an oral (Jewish) informant, or possibly an otherwise unknown pre-Septuagint translation.
- Safrai, Shmuel (1974). The Jewish People in the First Century: Historical Geography, Political History, Social, Cultural and Religious Life and Institutions. Uitgeverij Van Gorcum. p. 1113. ISBN 978-90-232-1436-6.
- Assmann, Jan (2003). The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Harvard University Press. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-674-01211-0.
- Translation of "Against Apion"
- Jan Assmann, "Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism" (First Harvard University Press, 1997)p.30
- Arthur J. Droge, Josephus Between Greeks and Barbarians, in Louis H. Feldman and John R. Levison (eds), "Josephus' Contra Apionem: studies in its character and context..." (Brill, 1996) p.135-6, and fn.14 on p.136
- Shmuel Safrai, Shemuel Safrai, M. Stern, (eds), "The Jewish people in the first century" (Van Gorcum Fortress Press, 1976) p.1113
- Jan Assmann, "Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism" (First Harvard University Press, 1997)
- Jan Assmann, Andrew Jenkins, "The mind of Egypt: history and meaning in the time of the Pharaohs" p.227
- Rainer Albertz, Bob Becking, "Yahwism after the exile: perspectives on Israelite religion in the Persian era", p.71
- John Granger Cook, "The interpretation of the Old Testament in Greco-Roman paganism", pp.6-11