Saturday, 8 March 2008

Moses on Drugs: A Brave New Theory or Extremely Bad Science?

Moses by Jusepe de Ribero in 1638. Image from Wikipedia

Joel Kontinen

It has become easy to predict when Easter is coming even without looking at a calendar. Each year we get to hear about some new astounding discovery and the authors of the sensational find get their moment of fame and occasionally some extra money, also.

This time last year the Discovery Channel announced “the archaeological discovery of the century”. The find turned out to be a commercial for the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Filmmakers James Cameron and Simca Jacobovici bypassed the peer review process and took their evidence (two empty ossuaries or bone boxes) straight to the media. At the end, almost all serious scholars dismissed the discovery as mere hype with little if any substance behind it. There was no hard evidence that the boxes had ever contained the earthly remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

In 2006 it was the Jesus Walked on Ice hypothesis that was actually published in a scientific journal. The idea of anyone walking on an ice floe on a lake that obviously never freezes is rather bizarre.

For a change, this year’s hype is about the Old Testament. Benny Shannon, a professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published a 24-page paper in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture in which he suggested that Moses’ experience at Mount Sinai was caused by drugs. The paper, Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis is an updated and a more detailed version of his 2002 paper Entheogens: Reflections on ‘Psychoactive Sacramentials’, which was mostly about shamanism and the use of psychoactive plants in various non-Christian religions, such as the use of hallucination-inducing plants by some native American tribes, but it also included a discussion on Moses and his Sinai experience. The present paper focuses more on Judaism and the exodus.

Nothing in the biblical text about the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai even hints of any kind of hallucination. Shannon acknowledges this. However, he says that two plants, Peganum Harmala and Mimosa hostilis, which now grow in the Sinai Peninsula can potentially cause hallucinations. Shannon tries to see parallels between some of the details (such as fire) in the Exodus text with for instance the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the use of LSD but it seems that he is jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

Professor Shannon is honest enough to disclose that his “finding” is based on his presuppositions. He reveals that he does not think that the Mount Sinai event (i.e. when Moses received the Law) could be historically reliable or that it could be a myth so for him the only remaining alternative is that it was the result of a hallucination caused by a plant growing in the Sinai Peninsula.

While it is true that some religions do use drugs that produce hallucinations, Shannon’s hypothesis seems to have nothing to do with real science and everything with his own past.

Shannon acknowledged that in 1991 he tried ayahuasca, a tropical plant that causes strong hallucinations, during a religious ceremony in Brazil. This seems to be the only real reason for supposing that Moses might have experimented with something similar.

It might be good to keep in mind that the novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), whom Shannon mentions in his new paper and who is remembered for his Brave New World (1932), admitted experimenting with mescalin and LSD. But this does not necessarily mean that Huxley produced all his literary works under the influence of drugs. The case for Moses’ use of drugs is even weaker.

There is an expression known as March Madness. In this case, it seems to have more to do with professor Shannon, his past and his bizarre hypothesis than with Moses. His Brave New Theory turns out to be extremely bad science.


AFP News: Moses was high on drugs: Israeli researcher. 4 March 2008.

Shannon, Benny. 2002. Entheogens. Reflections on ‘Psychoactive Sacramentals’. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9:4, 85-94.

Shannon, Benny, 2008. Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis. Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, 1:1, 51-74 (March 2008).