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Image 1: Moses being found in his basket

By: Zahra’a Al-Alawi

Moses is a prophet central to Judaism and important in Christianity and Islam. Moses was said to be found in the river Nile in Egypt by the daughter or wife (Islamic belief) of the pharaoh at the time. We could then assume that the name is an ancient Egyptian one (as opposed to a Hebrew one) if she is the one who named her. The most popular belief is that he lived around the year 1300BC which is in the new kingdom period of ancient Egyptian history.

The name Moses is Musa in Arabic and Moshe in Hebrew. So how was it actually pronounced in his time? And what does this name really mean? We asked the British Egyptologist, currently a professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London, Stephen Quirke, to find out more.

The way Ancient Egyptian works is that in its written form (much like Arabic and Hebrew) it does not include vowels. Since the only remaining form we have of it is written we cannot know much about how words are pronounced. Regarding our current knowledge on pronunciation Quirke said

“I hope that colleagues in Egypt can lead on this research because Egyptian Arabic still keeps many influences from the ancient Egyptian language. At the moment I think we have to try to read as neutrally as we can the individual sounds given by the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (so, in this case, m-s)”

We know that the sounds that make up the word Moses is the ancient Egyptian verb ms, so we can learn about it’s meaning by looking at these two letters when used together.

Ms was used as a name or as part of a name for very many people in the New Kingdom period of ancient Egyptian history” says Quirke. Ms means ‘to give birth’, so for example Rames means Ra (the sun God) is the one who gave birth (to me). To understand this better look at the breakdown in image 2 of the two names Ramse and Ramessu (often shortened to Ramses). Moses is another name where ms is used but this time without other consonants. Used alone, this could mean ‘the one who has been born’ or more specifically ‘newborn’. The American Egyptologist James Hoffmeier wrote a book in 1996 titled ‘Israel in Egypt: the evidence for the authenticity of the Exodus tradition’ in which he provides a useful summary of the main debates, and he seems to support these two meanings ‘the one who has been born’ and ‘(newborn) child’.

Image 2: Breakdown of the name meanings

Quirke suggests another meaning for the word, explaining this further he said

“I wondered whether there might be a connection with another ancient Egyptian word with the same sound ms (but written with a different set of hieroglyphs) and meaning ‘to bring’, which might give a meaning ‘the one who has been brought’.”

So in summary:

  • We are not sure exactly how Moses was pronounced but we can try and decipher the meaning by looking at the meaning of the ancient Egyptian verb ms
  • Ms could mean to give birth or the one who has been born
  • Ms could also mean to bring or the one who has been brought