A British scientist is making two claims about Jewish history this Passover season that could surely spark discussion over the Seder meal.
Colin J. Humphreys of Cambridge University has concluded that science backs traditional beliefs that the Israelites' exodus from Egypt was led by Moses pretty much the way the Bible and the Haggadah ritual tell it.
He also says that Mt. Sinai, where Scripture says Moses received God's Law, is in Saudi Arabia, not Egypt's Sinai Peninsula -- thus moving a key site for Judaism into the nation where Islam was founded.
Humphreys' approach is to read the Book of Exodus as literally as possible and search for scientific explanations of what is recorded.
The biblical account of the mountain's shaking and emitting fire and smoke (Exodus 19:18) must mean that the holy mount was an active volcano, he said. He has carefully examined ancient and modern records to fix the site.
His candidate is Mt. Bedr in northwestern Saudi Arabia, because there were no volcanoes in what was later named the Sinai Peninsula. For different reasons, other scholars also have suggested that the Mt. Sinai of the Bible was in Arabia.
Humphreys also thinks that near Mt. Bedr, Moses experienced God's call at the "burning bush." He suggests that the phenomenon was caused by flammable natural gas or volcanic gas escaping from a small vent in the ground.
That style of close, literal reading of the Book of Exodus is far out of fashion among most archeologists as well as among Conservative and Reform Jews, though it may be welcomed by Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians.
Humphreys details his ideas in a new book, "The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories" (HarperSanFrancisco).
The 61-year-old academic brings a solid intellectual reputation in his own fields of physics and materials science to the table, though admittedly amateur status in archeology and Bible scholarship.
Humphreys doesn't feel his lack of expertise is a problem: He believes that gives him an open mind. "I am not preconditioned to accept standard interpretations," he said.
By contrast, some prominent Jewish archeologists, such as William Dever, of the University of Arizona, and Israel Finkelstein, at Tel Aviv University, treat the Exodus story as primarily an inspiring national fiction, rather than history.
Dever's new book, "Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?" (Eerdmans) says that, although the Exodus story "may rest on some historical foundations, however minimal," the Israelites didn't develop -- at least not primarily -- from a people fleeing Egypt.
A churchgoing Baptist, Humphreys says he was fully prepared to find biblical mistakes and signs that the Exodus story had been written many centuries after the events, as scholars like Dever believe.
The Book of Exodus obviously underwent later editing, Humphreys concludes. But he believes that the evidence strongly suggests that eyewitness material might have come from Moses himself. The book is "amazingly accurate and coherent," he says, and the mind-boggling events happened.
As with other writers, he proposes a series of possible natural causes to explain events the Bible attributes to miracles, such as the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea
Some argue that such explanations undercut the idea of miracles. Humphreys disagrees. He believes that nature produced the occurrences with just the right timing, and Israel, reasonably enough, regarded this as miraculous.
Natural explanations only bolster Exodus, he says.