One of the puzzles to which biblical scholars have periodically turned their attention is the location of Mount Sinai, where god gave Moses the Ten Commandments. In the Bible, Mount Horeb appears to be another name for Sinai. Those scholars who accept the documentary hypothesis of the first books of the Bible, the majority of contemporary Bible scholars, have offered an explanation. The documentary hypothesis suggests that the first five books of the Bible were composed by editing together manuscripts from four traditions (named J, E, P, and D) rather than being originally written as a single text basically as they appear today. That being the case, Sinai is the name used for the mountain of god in the J and P documents (for example, Exodus 19:11 or Leviticus 7:38) and Horeb in the E and D documents (Exodus 17:6 and 33:6).
However, whether one accepts the documentary hypothesis or not, the problem of locating Horeb/Sinai remains. Over the centuries, the location of the site of the giving of the law was lost, and the exact date of the Exodus has been a matter of considerable debate. The search for Sinai appears to have been a Christian concern; by the time the kingdom of Judah emerged, memory of the location of Sinai had been lost and was apparently of little concern. However, as early as the second century CE, Christians appear to have gone into the Sinai desert looking or it.
According to biblical accounts, the mountain was located some eleven days’ journey from Kadesh-barnea, and was located adjacent to a flat area large enough for the Hebrews to camp at its base. There is no agreement on the location of Kadesh-barnea and other sites mentioned in the biblical narrative relative to the Exodus. However, a variety of locations were examined, and during the fourth century, during the reign of the emperor Constantine (r. 306-337), the peak known as Jebel Musa was selected as the site. Its selection was not altogether based on its close conformity to biblical descriptions, however, but due to the visit of Constantine’s mother Helena (c. 248-c. 329) on her famous trip to the Holy Land. Along with Jerusalem and Bethlehem, she visited Jebel Musa and erected a tower and small church. The fixing of the site seems to have been confirmed to Helena in a dream. During the reign of the emperor Justinian I (438-565), it is said, a monastery was constructed at the site of the tower. It appears that, in fact, Justinian was responsible for building a castle-like structure, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, to protect the monks who had previously come to reside in the area.
Others have identified Sinai as the place near Midian (in the Arabian desert across the gulf of Aqaba from the Sinai Peninsula) where Moses had the experience of encountering God in a burning bush as recorded in Exodus 3. Paul identifies Arabia as the location of Sinai (Galatians 4:25). Some support to this idea was offered by the historian Josephus (c. 37-100 CE). Additional evidence is cited from the apparently volcanic nature of the mountain, which spewed forth fire and smoke while the Hebrews camped near it. Those who support the Midian location of Sinai/Horeb have identified it with the peak known as Jabel el Laws, noting its similarity with the mountain and adjacent land described in the Bible.
Amateur archeologist Ron Wyatt, famous for his search for Noah’s Ark, has championed the Midian site. He claims to have found parts from Egyptian chariots in the nearby Gulf of Aqaba, which would have been the place the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. He has also suggested the valley largely surrounded by Jabel el Laws’s volcanic rim is the place they camped when Moses received the Ten Commandments. Though the evidence is by no means conclusive, the Arabian desert site is certainly one possibility for the place described in the Book of Exodus.