Art Resource

Moses raises his staff triumphantly as the Israelites emerge unscathed after crossing through the parted waters of the Red Sea in this woodcut from the 15th-century Gutenberg Bible.

Told by God to “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians …” Moses obeys, drowning Pharaoh and his army, left.

Was the Exodus a central event in the history of the ancient Israelites or just the experience of a small group? According to sociologist-Bible scholar Norman Gottwald and many other scholars, the Book of Exodus records the experiences of a small “Mosaic-levitical” band and not the common history of the Israelites—most of whom remained in Canaan during the Egyptian captivity.

Gottwald, a proponent of the historical cultural materialism of Karl Marx, argues that this group played a key leadership role in an internal “peasants revolt” that saw the indigenous Israelites overthrow their Canaanite masters in the 13th century B.C.

The Gutenberg Bible—the Latin Vulgate translation—was the first printed book. Produced in Mainz, Germany, only 20 copies of the original 180 still survive, including six in the United States.