Were the Egyptian pyramids built before the Flood?
Published: 5 December 2019 (GMT+10)
Many people have asked us about a YouTube video entitled Were the Pyramids Built Before the Flood? by Nathan Hoffman. Over the space of a half hour, he makes multiple erroneous statements, applies several misdirections, and makes many grand assertions that are simply not based upon fact. His main thesis is that the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament has the correct chronology and the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) originated from deliberate Jewish tampering. It takes him a while to get to the main point, however, because he starts off talking about Egyptian history and the pyramids.1 However, he makes multiple errors that he could have avoided if he had been more familiar with text criticism and the history of this debate, which is almost as old as the Church itself.
We normally don’t respond to YouTube videos, but so many people have asked us about Hoffman’s video that we have decided to make an exception to our normal policy. His channel includes a few other videos, notably one claiming there is no law stating that US citizens must pay income tax. We will see that it is as ill-advised to take text criticism advice from Hoffman as it is to take tax advice from him.
One challenge inherent to responding to misinformation is that it is possible to make a statement that includes multiple incorrect assumptions in one sentence, each one requiring a lot of time to correct. Throughout the video, Hoffman makes statements that seem plausible on the surface, but his errors take some time to unravel, and the answer sometimes requires knowledge in specialized fields. As a result, we will be linking to articles that explain some of these concepts more fully, and we would ask that you read the linked articles to fully understand our arguments (particularly before commenting below).
A superficial examination of biblical and Egyptian chronology seems to indicate that the pyramids were constructed several hundred years before Noah’s Flood. However, the pyramids sit on top of a thick sedimentary rock layer that we believe was laid down by the Flood. This limestone was quarried to construct the great pyramids, and it even contains marine fossils. It would be impossible for even monuments of the size of the pyramids to survive a cataclysmic event like the global Flood. How do we reconcile the biblical chronology with the archaeological evidence?
Hoffman asserts we can solve this dating problem by a combination of revising Egyptian chronology while using the LXX chronology in Genesis 11. Unfortunately, characteristic of many online presenters, he is more concerned about finding a cute video clip to paper over a bad argument, while at the same time insulting anyone who disagrees with him, than he is with accuracy and fair argumentation.
A more careful analysis of the issues reveals that the solution lies not in adopting a different biblical chronology but in recognizing several key facts.
Egyptian history is inflated
The first solution to the ‘date’ of the pyramids is to realize that Egyptian history is inflated. Egyptian chronology is a hugely complicated subject. Our attempt to summarize the issues turned out to be a mammoth article, precisely because there are so many elements involved. However, essentially everyone agrees that Egyptian chronology is inflated, including most serious secular Egyptologists.
Hoffman references Patterns of Evidence, which is an excellent documentary we carry. However, only recognizing the inflation in one point covered by the documentary doesn’t go far enough. Hoffman’s proposed harmonization would still put much Egyptian prehistory before the Flood. The LXX has a longer chronology, which is more accepting of secular Egyptian history, but it does not fix all the problems.
In fact, the pyramids probably fit in a small window around Abraham’s lifetime. The era of large-scale pyramid-building was almost certainly over by the time Joseph arrived in Egypt. There are lots of variables that we need to consider and it’s beyond the scope of this article to do that. We are only attempting to respond to the specific points that Hoffman raised.
Inept textual analysis
No one should be ridiculed for not being able to do good textual analysis—unless they claim to be doing good textual analysis. It is clear that Hoffman does not know the first thing about analyzing textual variants or how to tell which one is more original.
First, he fails to understand and differentiate among the different types of evidence. It is important to define terms correctly. A manuscript is a handwritten document that contains a text. The text is a particular reading, considered separately from the manuscripts in which it is preserved. There are three main text families, each with a different version of the Genesis 5 and 11 chronogenealogies—the LXX, the MT, and the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). Even though we often cannot know exactly when the unique readings of the MT, LXX, or SP came into being, the manuscripts that contain them can be dated by various means. Hoffman correctly notes that the LXX manuscripts are earlier than the MT manuscripts, though he incorrectly conflates the Masoretic text with the 11th century Leningrad codex (a manuscript).2 After making this glaring error, he concludes the LXX text is earlier, but he fails to consider any other types of evidence.
The text is not only preserved in manuscript form. It’s also preserved in quotes and allusions. So when Jerome (347–420 AD) chooses to use the MT for his translation into Latin (the Vulgate), we know the text existed in the late 300s when Jerome wrote, even though we don’t have a manuscript surviving that early. Yet this is not the only, nor the earliest, evidence for the MT.
The first century pseudepigraphal work Life of Adam and Eve alludes to the MT chronology, meaning that the MT already existed at that time. There is also evidence that the other text types existed much earlier than their oldest extant manuscripts. Jubilees, which uses the SP chronology, was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, thus we know it existed before the time of Christ even though the earliest existing SP manuscript is from the 12th century. The earliest substantial LXX manuscripts (Siniaticus and Vaticanus) date to about AD 350. Demetrius the Chronographer (in a quote preserved by Eusebius) places the LXX chronology in the second century BC. Therefore, all three texts have attestation much earlier than the first preserved manuscript.
Having established that all these texts are early, we must now analyze the texts themselves to determine which is most likely original. In our article Textual Traditions and Biblical Chronology, our analysis led us to conclude that the LXX and SP most likely originated from a Masoretic-like original.
We have also analyzed multiple claims from LXX proponents and have found their best arguments to be quite weak. This does not mean that LXX advocates wouldn’t be able to do a proper analysis and put forward a better argument, but we have not seen any LXX advocate even try to do so. We refuted the argument that an early 2nd century Jewish leader named Rabbi Akiba originated the MT chronology in order to mess with a chiliastic timing of the Messiah’s arrival.3 We concluded this was impossible because 1) the MT variant existed before Akiba, 2) the necessary change involved several layers of impossible events, and 3) it conflicts with what we know Akiba actually did. See The Masoretic Text of Genesis 5 and 11 is Still the Most Reliable for more information.
Even though several important LXX advocates claim the changes were made for eschatological reasons, Hoffman has a completely different reason why Jews might have created the Masoretic text.
Hebrews 5–7 compares Jesus to the ancient king and priest of Salem (later Jerusalem) named Melchizedek. He was originally described in Genesis 14, and appears again in the OT only in Psalm 110:4. After defeating a large army and rescuing his nephew Lot, Abraham gives a tenth of all the spoils to him. The theology of Melchizedek is both interesting and difficult to understand, because we are not given much information about him.4 But the author of Hebrews cites Melchizedek as a precedent for Jesus’ non-Levitical priesthood. Hoffman claims the Jews changed the genealogy so Melchizedek could be Shem (a son of Noah and an ancestor of the Jewish people).
If Melchizedek was Abraham’s ancestor, he is also the ancestor of Aaron, the first high priest of Israel. Thus, if the Levitical priesthood came from Melchizedek, Aaron himself would have been ‘a priest after the order of Melchizedek’. However, this argument goes nowhere, first because many Christian theologians of the past had no problem associating Shem and Melchizedek. Second, even in the MT chronology Melchizedek is probably still not Shem (Hebrews 7:3). Third, Melchizedek still supersedes Aaron. Jesus is still a “better” priest.
Hoffman thinks the MT was created around 60 AD, in the wake of the writing of the biblical book of Hebrews. But this would require someone to intercept the book of Hebrews very early in its existence, before it became widely known, decide it was a massively important work, and then convince the Jewish establishment that they needed to change the Torah to fix the problem. There is a laughable lack of evidence for this.
Another problem with this is that early Christians could not agree on which text, LXX or MT, was original. Some Christians accused the Jews of shortening the genealogies, creating the MT variant, but for reasons completely disconnected from either eschatology or the priesthood. And other Christians (e.g. Augustine) argued just as strongly that the MT variant was original and that it was the Alexandrian Jews who changed the text to make the LXX. Given that Christians were able to make theological arguments for Christ from both texts, it follows that neither one was anti-Christian.
Does the MT give enough time for population growth before Babel?
Hoffman claims the MT timeline does not give enough time for the population to grow from eight people to a population large enough to build the tower of Babel. However, when we examine the assumptions behind this claim, he falls far short of a good argument.
First, he uses a population growth formula that simply isn’t accurate when you’re talking about very small populations. You can’t apply a specific “rate of growth” to very small populations. For example, if all three of Noah’s daughters-in-law have children one year, that’s huge population growth. Likewise, if none of them do the next year, that’s zero population growth. And if a kid gets kicked in the head by a donkey and dies, that has a disproportionate effect on population size when the population is very small. You need a large enough population that random events don’t disproportionately skew the population growth rate. Anyone familiar with statistics knows that random factors have an oversized effect when dealing with small sample sizes. He seems not to have taken this into account.
Second, the one major difference between the MT and LXX is that the LXX has people having children much later than in the MT (most of the children in Genesis 11 are born 100 years later in the LXX), so it’s not all that clear that having more time in his scenario helps the population problem.
As an aside, if people were routinely having children in their 100s just a few generations before Abraham, why was Sarah past her childbearing years by the time she was 60? This is yet another factor that suggests the LXX dates have been tampered with.
This still leaves the question: how did they have enough people to build the Tower of Babel? In the MT chronology, it appears to have been built during the lifetime of a man named Peleg, a 5th-generation descendant of Noah who was born about a century after the Flood. To know how many people would be needed, we have to ask how large a tower we’re talking about. Often, the Tower of Babel is thought to be a huge ziggurat, but that’s assuming that Babel was in ancient Babylon. This is a very common thought among local flood advocates and compromising theologians, many of whom believe that Genesis is a corrupted form of the legends of ancient southern Mesopotamia.
A ziggurat would take a large population, with a significant division of labor among them, but that would require a large cultivated agricultural region around it. You could easily get to a population of a couple hundred people within a century after the Flood, especially if the first generation is still reproducing at the same time as the second and following generations.5 But it would be very difficult to have a population large enough to build a ziggurat of the scale we see in ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Yet, assuming the Tower of Babel is a ziggurat is a grand mistake. A population in the hundreds allows for some division of labor, some excess crop production, and the release of some individuals from the labors of farming to specialize in tower building. We don’t know the scale of the plans, nor how far they got in building it. It could even have been like a medieval cathedral, which was planned to take several generations to build. We simply don’t know.
But Jesus and Paul used the LXX!
Hoffman states that Jesus and the NT authors used the LXX, showing that the LXX is more trustworthy. However, the New Testament authors spoke and wrote in Greek and were writing to Greek-speaking audiences. It should not surprise us that they used the LXX, which is the Greek translation of the OT, which would match what the majority of their readers would be using. It’s the same reason why, when we are writing in English, we use an English translation, even though we know of many shortcomings inherent in every translation.
We aren’t the first to have this debate
Hoffman seems to have a passing familiarity with some historical facts that are convenient for his argument. But a more scholarly view of history gives us important perspective. Christians have realized there were differences between the biblical manuscripts as soon as they started looking seriously at them. We start to see evidence of the debate about manuscripts in the early centuries, almost as soon as Christians stopped being persecuted for their faith. Over and over again, the Christians with the best grasp of Hebrew and the most access to the different manuscripts came to the conclusion that it was the Masoretic that was the most reliable. As we said above, it formed the basis of Jerome’s Vulgate, which was the most influential Bible in the Western church for 1,000 years. The MT also formed the basis for all the Reformation and post-Reformation translations of the Old Testament from Hebrew into various world languages.
Textual criticism has a long history. Godly Christians have been looking at the various texts for nearly 2,000 years, trying to see which is most probably original. And Christians have arrived at both sides of the debate—so this is not a debate about who is saved and who isn’t. But chronology is important, which is why we keep writing articles about it. And like most informed Christians of generations past, we have come to the conclusion that the Masoretic is most probably original when it comes to the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies.
Were the Pyramids built before the Flood? No, they weren’t. And we don’t need the LXX to understand why.
References and notes
- By way of background, when people refer to ‘the pyramids’, they generally mean the great pyramids of Khufu (father), Khafre (son) and Menkaure (grandson) on the Giza plateau near Cairo. Most people are unaware of the fact that over 130 pyramids remain in Egypt, and some would have been constructed even before the great pyramids (e.g., the Step Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid, and the Red Pyramid). And some pyramids are not made from limestone at all, but mud bricks. Return to text.
- In fact, while the Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete manuscript, the oldest Masoretic manuscripts are 9th century; the Aleppo codex, another significant manuscript, which was complete until the Torah was lost in 1947, is from the 10th century. Return to text.
- Chiliasm is an apocalyptic scheme that tries to place the arrival of the Messiah after 6,000 years of history, after which His 1,000-year reign is inaugurated. This corresponds to the seven days of creation week. Return to text.
- For example, see footnote 14 in Extensive Mixing Among Israelites and non-Israelites in Biblical History. Return to text.
- Carter, R. and Hardy C., Modelling biblical human population growth, J Creation 28(1):72–79, 2015. Return to text.