Patterns of evidence: Exodus. A review
A new film shows evidence of the Hebrew occupation of ancient Egypt
Because of the wealth of artifacts, plus famous landmarks like the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx, many people are fascinated with Egyptian history. Often, scholars use Egyptian history as a ‘clock’ to calibrate all the surrounding ancient civilizations and this same chronology has been raised as a problem for biblical accuracy—which some say has no solution.
The traditional dates assigned to ancient Egyptian chronology are being used to increase skepticism in the Bible’s account of history. If one speaks with any secular archaeologist today, they will tell you there is no evidence at all of any Hebrew settlement in Egypt, and thus, their Exodus from this country. Like the theory of evolution, traditional conventions are the ruling paradigm and are accepted as fact. These dates and the seeming lack of evidence of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt have created false histories—like seemingly insurmountable reefs upon which the faith of many have been shipwrecked.
Let me say from the outset, as one who has more than a passing interest in the Bible’s history, and in recent times a growing interest in Egyptian chronology, I was skeptical that any documentary or film to do with this subject would be balanced. Most Christian books or videos on the subject usually pay homage to a particular revisionist’s view. It’s understandable though in one sense. The terms ‘Egypt’ and ‘Pharaoh’ are mentioned hundreds of times in the Pentateuch alone although the pharaohs' names are not specifically mentioned. Coupled with the alleged lack of any Egyptian ‘evidence’ of the Hebrews, it is an issue that has plagued Bible believers for a century. As such, when one feels they have solved these problems it may be perceived as a major accomplishment and one’s own raison d’etre can often be tied to same. But, sadly, facts are often shoehorned into one’s particular pet revision. I was expecting more of the same with this film. But I am pleased to say my fears were not realized.
The need for revision
Patterns of Evidence does not spend a great deal of time discussing any one particular revision of Egyptian dates, although it does feature David Rohl quite heavily as a consultant. Rohl is an expert on Egyptian history, and although an agnostic, he believes that the Bible’s account of the Hebrews in Egypt is real history. Rohl, in his books, A Test of Time: The Bible From Myth to History and Pharaohs And Kings: A Biblical Quest among others, strongly argues for a reduction in years assigned to Egyptian chronology. I had some concerns at the heavy featuring of Rohl (he was obviously instrumental in the making of this movie), because there are many biblical scholars who strongly disagree with his revisions as they would also affect traditional Ancient Near East dates. However, at the end, the film fairly shows that there are several people who have different ideas and revisions.1 In any case, supporting any one view was not the major focus of the documentary. It majored on whether there is any archaeological evidence for the Hebrews in Egypt during the time of the pharaonic dynasties, and that the need for a revision in time, in general, is a key to determining their presence.
Patterns of Evidence features an impressive lineup of scholars that includes archaeologists (both secular and biblical), historians, theologians—and it also features the President and Prime Ministers of Israel, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu (respectively). The scene is set when both a Jewish archaeologist and Rabbi David Wolpe claim that the Exodus did not happen as written. Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (perhaps the world’s largest Jewish congregation) and has been described by some as one of the most influential Rabbis in America.2 The film posits the question ‘If the two great religions of the world are based upon historical events that did not actually happen, then what are the consequences?’ Are these religions, in effect, lies? We agree that the consequences of rewriting history are grave, because, in the same way, the creation vs evolution debate is not so much about science but more about two competing histories. It’s a premise that the atheists clearly understand only too well, and it helps explain why the Bible’s history is under so much attack today. Rohl remarks that the Greek historian Herodotus is regarded by many as the first true historian. He wrote about his own travels to Egypt, for instance. However, Rohl argues that Moses was the greatest historian and that the Bible is really the world’s first history book spanning some 4,000 years. We’d certainly agree with that!
A personal journey
The documentary records the personal journey by filmmaker Tim Mahoney. His desire is to find out the truth about those Bible stories that he had been brought up with as a child, and he confesses to being a tad skeptical at the outset. This is a trait only too familiar for those who’ve received a public education today and along with it a secular view of history. While in Egypt he encounters field experts who maintain that there is no archaeological evidence of Hebrew occupation or that the Exodus ever happened. Without providing too much of a spoiler, it is simply not that clear cut. This is because a lot of evidence that could very easily refer to the Hebrews is ignored or just dismissed from a chronological timing point of view. In other words ‘This mention of a people group could not be referring to the Hebrews because it is 200 years too early.’
This chronological timing error is due to the widely-held view that the Exodus took place during the reign of Ramses II (commonly called Ramses the Great). In Egyptian chronology and the Bible: Do the dates ascribed to the Egyptian dynasties falsify the date of biblical creation? I wrote:
Hollywood and popular culture loves to display Ramses II as the pharaoh of the Exodus in Moses’ time. One main reason is because Exodus 1:11 states that the Israelites built the store cities of Pithom and Raamses (Pi-Ramses). The latter usually gets associated with Ramses II (the Great), and thus, many liberal scholars use this to favour a ‘late Exodus’ date of c. 1267 BC.
… we can determine the probable date of the Exodus from Scripture … A biblical text for the Exodus is 1 Kings 6:1 which says:
“In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord.”
Most evangelical scholars generally believe the date for the commencement of the building of the Temple (the fourth year of Solomon’s reign) is in May 967 or 966 BC. This would place the Exodus at around 1446 or 1445 BC. To prefer a late Exodus date of 1267 BC, the 480th year referred to in Scripture would have to be allegorized.
Mahoney then visits the site of ancient Avaris in northern Egypt and meets with renowned Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak who has been digging in Egypt for over 25 years. Avaris sits directly south and even partly underneath the later city that Ramses II established, and Bietak says this city was occupied by what the Egyptians would call ‘Asiatics’.
Bietak (a non-believer) says:
“We uncovered the remains of a huge town of 250 hectares with a population of 25,000–30,000 individuals. These were people who originated from Canaan, Syria–Palestine. Originally they may have come here as subjects of the Egyptian crown or with the blessing of the Egyptian crown. Obviously, this town enjoyed something like a special status, like a free zone, something like that.”
In addition, they have uncovered 12 tombs of leaders (12 tribes) and a lot of other evidence that circumstantially seems to fit very well with the biblical account where the pharaoh of the day allowed the Hebrews to freely settle in Egypt. Their method of burial is also unlike Egyptian practices of the day. Bietak goes on to say that there is evidence of sheepherders having roamed around in the area. But amazingly Bietak then displays his bias when he says he does not think this is a settlement of Hebrews as described in the Bible because it is too early (if Ramses II is the pharaoh of the Exodus). It is an apt example of how presuppositions play a part in interpreting facts even in the area of archaeology.
The wrong pharaoh
It is true that Ramses left no record of a Hebrew people or an Exodus. But if he is the wrong pharaoh then obviously one would not expect to find anything. So, departing from Ramses II and rather than just look for evidence of the Exodus in particular, Mahoney tries to look for historical patterns of evidence stretching back before the Exodus, such as the arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt. And he finds plenty.
In addition, the film highlights other circumstantial evidence that might support the biblical account such as the Ipuwer papyrus. This is a document housed in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Netherlands that possibly refers to some of the plagues of Moses’ time (although written from an Egyptian perspective). Again, this is rejected by the director of said museum because he believes it precedes Ramses II, and thus, is too soon. Also the Brooklyn papyrus mentions the names of some Egyptian slaves that are synonymous with Hebrew names mentioned in the Bible. But most significant is the mention of the nation of Israel from the Merneptah Stele, which was written very shortly after Ramses II’s death during the reign of Ramses’ successor, Merneptah. If Ramses II was the pharaoh of the Exodus then Rohl says this mention of Israel as a nation is too soon for Israel’s establishment—especially given the 40 years of wandering before entering the Promised Land. In addition, there was time needed to conquer cities in that land. However, the information on this stele is not a problem if the Exodus is moved backward in time from Ramses II as many evangelicals believe needs to be done. Most of the aforementioned items though are circumstantial and once again there is a lot of debate about their validity from other Bible scholars. This includes the Merneptah Stele, because although it mentions Israel some say it does not qualify them as a complete nation yet. The film highlighted how scholars outright rejected even the remotest possibility that any of these artifacts had to do with the Hebrew people, because it conflicts with established chronology, which is firmly fixed in stone (pun intended).
Where the traditional dates come from
The established Egyptian chronologies rely on one major problematic source; the Egyptian historian Manetho. This was discussed in my Egyptian Chronology article. It would be well worth reading this article to be more acquainted with these problems, as it even shows how supposed Egyptian history (gleaned from artifacts) actually conflicts with itself. But regardless, Manetho’s chronology is still used as the major reference guide for Egyptian history. And like the theory of evolution, nothing is seemingly allowed to challenge it.
For the same reasons that secular scientists will ‘not allow a divine foot in the door’, one cannot help sense the resistance that secular archaeologists have to any information that might support the Bible’s history. After all if the Bible’s history is true, it might mean God really exists and for many that is not an acceptable consideration.
One needs to be careful about jumping on the bandwagon of any chronological revision of Egypt that seemingly solves all the problems. It’s all too easy to be convinced before one hears any contradictory information. The fact that there are a plethora of views among good, Bible-believing scholars, only serves to highlight just how difficult this all is. Obviously, they cannot all be correct. And while not supporting one person's particular revision, this documentary clearly demonstrates the overdue need for a revision. For the Bible-believing Christian, this documentary is well made, worth seeing and should be an encouragement.
Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus will have a second showing in US theaters on 29 January 2015. See Fathom Events' website for a list of theaters.
References and notes
- For example, see David Rohl’s Revised Egyptian Chronology: A View From Palestine, biblearchaeology.org/post/2007/05/23/David-Rohls-Revised-Egyptian-Chronology-A-View-From-Palestine.aspx, 6 January, 2015. Return to text.
- Rabbi David Wolpe, America’s Most Influential Rabbi, 2012 (Newsweek), thelavinagency.com/speaker-rabbi-david-wolpe.html, 2 January, 2015. Return to text.