Field of Science

Moses: druggie or what?

The newswires are buzzing with a new hypothesis put forward by Benny Shanon (professor of cognitive psychology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) that the visions that Moses had were likely drug-induced. The paper actually appears in the first issue of a new journal, Time and Mind. No doubt the publishers were looking for some free publicity - and it looks like they got it. Religious types are grumbling at the sacrilege of it all

The paper is free to access (see link below), and has some interesting things to say. Prof Shanon has a long track record in the study of herbal hallucinogens, particularly in relation to mystical experiences. His theory is that the visions they generate are not culturally determined, but are a product of the specific pharmacological effects of the drug.

He points out that religions the world over have a central role for psychoactive drugs as a way to experience god or the spirit world. Not only the South American religions, but also religions of the old world such as Hinduism (soma, the magical nectar) and Zoroastrianism (Haoma). There's even some evidence of their use in early Christianity and Islam. The practice is so common that the term entheogen (something that brings you to your inner god) is frequently used in preference to the term psychoactive.

So if the ancient Hebrews had access to entheogenic plants, it would be rather surprising if they were not used as part of the mystical experience. Given this, what actual evidence is there in the Bible? Well, quite a lot - but most of it tendentious.

For example, the visions described (bright lights, time dilation, synaesthesia) show some similarities with the visions reported by individuals who have taken ayahuasca, a brew from South America that contains an alkaloid (DMT) and monoamine oxidase inhibitor and is a potent hallucinogen.

In one remarkable passage (Exodus 33:12-23), God is described as being visible, with a body and back but a face that can't be seen. Similarly, in Ayahuasca-induced hallucinations, human forms appear but the faces commonly cannot be made out.

There are also passages in the bible describing the use of acacia wood to make ritual artefacts. And acacia wood, when mixed with another shrub that has been suggested as the source of Soma, contains (like ayahuasca) both an alkaloid and a monoamine oxidase inhibitor.

So the ancient Hebrews had the means and the motivation for drug-induced religious experiences. And a lot of the Bible certainly sounds very trippy. Does all this add up to evidence that Moses was on drugs? Not really, but it's certainly possible.

The Bible was written long after Moses lived, and so contains only a folk memory. Assuming the visions described in the bible have some physical basis, then they might well describe the experience of drug-induced hallucinations. Why shouldn't they?


Shanon, B. Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis. Time and Mind, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008 , pp. 51-74(24)

1 comment:

  1. Disproving key historical events doesn't disprove much, because no religious scholar is going to argue that these events did take place historically and accurately. And those "religious types" have a point—you can insist that drugs made it appear that the Red Sea parted, but can drugs make the opposing army drown too? The assumption that these events actually happened in history and that disproving them disproves all religion is naive to me.

    And, as the third commenter says:
    "Most acid heads that I knew in high school didn’t come up with an entire code of morals and rituals when tripping. Occasionally they would come with some revelation that we are all one with God and death is an illusion, but no moral code."

    And I'm no religious fundamentalist.


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