First of all, there is no conspiracy. A review of “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” (1)

First of all, there is no conspiracy. A review of “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” (1) February 16, 2015

patterns of evidenceI’ve been asked a few times in recent weeks if I would comment on the recently released documentary Patterns of Evidence: Exodus.  

I wasn’t able to see the film, since it has not been widely released, but I perused the film’s website, watched trailers, and read reactions.

It struck me rather quickly that the film would likely rehash and repackage arguments for the historical accuracy of the exodus story in the Bible. Fine. Whatever.

I was more concerned, though, that the film would give the impression that something new was happening here, and that the historical veracity of the Bible has been successfully defended, or at least serious doubt cast on the “so-called scholarly consensus,” thus rendering it dismissible, at least in the court of popular opinion (with or without seeing the movie).

Over the last few weeks, I feel that my suspicions have been confirmed. If the entire film becomes readily (and cheaply) available, I will watch it in its entirety. If anything changes my perceptions, I’ll let you know.

The documentary claims to want to create “dialogue” by handling evidence “fair-mindedly” and letting the audience decide for themselves whether the exodus happened. In the same breath, the documentary claims to “show the evidence that the scholars don’t want the world to see – because it could cause them to shift their long-held positions.”

This kind of conspiracy-theory rhetoric isn’t encouraging.

The documentary is aimed at challenging the scholarly consensus that the exodus from Egypt, along with the conquest of Canaan and the Patriarchal narratives, are not historical.

First, this assertion needs to be nuanced.

The scholarly consensus (and it is a consensus) is not that “nothing happened” and the biblical narrative was woven out of whole cloth.  

Many–I would say most–biblical scholars and historians would say that the biblical narrative echoes real, though distant, historical events. (For the record, that’s my opinion, too.)

In other words, “something happened.” The sticking point is how much and what can be shown on archaeological grounds to corroborate the exodus and conquest narratives.

The consensus view is that the biblical narratives do not depict “what happened” if someone were there with the proverbial video camera recording the birth of the people of Israel. Rather–as it is often put–these biblical narratives “mythicize” the long distant past, i.e., they present us with Israel’s reflections on its origins from a much later vantage point.

Among biblical scholars and historians, that much is not controversial. Even some evangelical scholars would be generally at ease with this assessment (e.g., James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen), though they would want to qualify their view considerably.

But a “strong scholarly consensus” certainly exists. The exodus and conquest narratives do far more than “report history.”

The reason this scholarly consensus exists is that the archaeological evidence for the exodus and conquest is, to put the best face on it, circumstantial. Mostly, however, the evidence for either episode seems to be either non-existent or contrary to the biblical depiction (the latter especially with respect to the conquest of Canaan).

Most all biblical scholars think the Israelites began writing their national epic (which eventually became the Hebrew Bible or OldTBTMS Testament) some time after the establishment of their monarchy (perhaps in the 10th century BCE, not long after the time of David). This process continued over the centuries and came to an end several hundred years later, after the captives returned from Babylonian exile (in 539 BCE).

This is why the biblical accounts of Israel’s monarchy and exile regularly mention specific individuals and events that can be corroborated with other ancient writings

We do not see this corroboration with the stories of Israel’s origins, its “deep past,” like the exodus. (I lay all this out in more detail for a general audience in The Bible Tells Me So.)

Again, this doesn’t mean “nothing happened” but that we simply don’t have anything resembling clear outside corroboration.

My point: I’m not sure what evidence the film will point us to that biblical scholars “don’t want the world to see” to protect their pet theories.

I am all for reassessing evidence, looking at things from a different angle, especially when new evidence comes to light. That’s what scholars do, and so should everyone.

And if there were real reasons for casting serious, scholarly, doubt on the consensus concerning the exodus, I would be thrilled. But there isn’t. 

Judging from what I’ve seen and read, the only “new” evidence brought forward in the documentary seems to be a minority theory that began gaining (and then losing) traction in the 1990s, often called the “New Chronology.”

The Wikipedia article on the New Chronology is very good if you want some background. The gist is that a respected Egyptologist David Rohl has called into question the scholarly consensus on Egypt’s chronology.

Who cares?

Once you do that, you have to reassess all the chronologies of all the other nations around Egypt so they match up–including Israel’s. According to Rohl, refiguring Egypt’s chronology would require Israel’s chronology to be backed up about 300 years.

Who cares?

This makes it possible to line up somewhat better the stories of Joseph, exodus, and conquest with some corroborating archaeological evidence. (For example, the period of Joseph would line up somewhat with the “Hyksos” period and the fall of Jericho could be placed in the 15th century when there was actually a populated city there.)

David Rohl is a well respected Egyptologist, and his views were not dismissed out of hand. They have been substantively and fairly engaged, in part because Egyptologists by and large don’t really care about how things line up with biblical chronologies.

Nevertheless it is fair to say that the New Chronology has not gained wider academic support, in large part because it creates more problems than it solves, and is therefore not a good basis for essentially realigning ancient Near Eastern chronology as a whole–even if on the popular level some might want to run with with it. (See Wikipedia article.)

I am making a point of this because the film’s director/producer Tim Mahoney seems to have run with it. 

But let’s let Egyptologists and others go back and forth about all that. What interests me is how this film seems poised to support–and in fact already is supporting–a culture war mentality around the Bible and the non-negotiable theological need for it to be historically accurate, or else. For my tastes we’ve had quite enough of that to last us another Christendom or two.

I am concerned that a fringe academic idea is going to be used by conservatives, eager to seek any way to “defend the Bible,” as “evidence” that the scholarly consensus is just plain wrong (“See, we told you!”), and that those who robotically continue to hold to the consensus, those liberal academics, are the real fundamentalists–blinded by their own ideology and unwilling to join evangelicals in maintaining a true open mind.

It’s this culture-war mentality I want to look at.

Tomorrow, we look at the film’s own website to see the stated rationale for making this documentary.  The culture-war rhetoric is unguarded, which in my view further renders suspect any claim to encouraging dialogue, popular or academic.

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  • Johannes Richter

    Looking forward to your discussion of the documentary’s motives. It is disturbing when phrases like “evidence that the scholars don’t want the world to see” seep into apologetics, thinly disguised as objective scientific enquiry. The falseness of that claim completely undermines any credibility their argument might have had. Once you have become sensitive to that kind of rhetoric, it is impossible to ignore it.

    The reference to “university campuses” is unmistakeably from the culture-war vocabulary which pits university professors as an intellectually arrogant elite against the informed believer, where ‘being informed’ is akin to having a kind of gnostic knowledge that will protect you from all kinds of conspiracies.

    • Stephen W

      “The” scholars are akin to “the” scientists – a nebulous group of shadowy figures who collectively believe the same thing (and who don’t actually exist).

      • Mark K

        Are these two groups related to the ubiquitous and infamous “they”?

        • Preston Garrison

          It’s all a plot by Big Pharma. Or something.

  • Steven M. Espinosa

    Peter, thanks for being a voice other than the rigid historical, inerrant view of the Bible, you are truly a voice in the (internet) wilderness! I feel this rigid, locked down view drives too many people away. Someone (maybe it was you) once said that the people that hold this rigid view of the Bible use it as a conversation ender (the bible says this, and that’s it), instead of a conversation starter, sad. I just finished “The Bible tells me so” great read! I’ll have to read more of your stuff.

  • Andrew Dowling

    This is so true: “What interests me is how this film seems poised to support–and in fact already is supporting–a culture war mentality around the Bible and the non-negotiable theological need for it to be historically accurate, or else. For my tastes we’ve had quite enough of that to last us another Christendom or two.”

    I did have to note this “I am concerned that a fringe academic idea is going to be used by conservatives,”

    Really? What would ever lead you to that conclusion? 🙂

    On the positive side, this kind of circling the wagons “expose of the truth” and the very fact this documentary is being made tells me they feel they are losing ground. That gives me hope. I mean, can anyone ever imagine this getting made in the 1980s? To even give forum for skeptics then would’ve not been seriously considered.

  • I am so happy to see a film like this one has finally been made – I’ve been arguing the so-called “New Chronology” for decades now…And I’ve been doing so, not only because archeology supports an Exodus around 1446 B.C., but because that is when the Bible states it took place (1st Kings 6:1)…So let the Bible stand or fall on the specific date it gives for the Exodus…But scholars – fearing the accuracy of the Bible – have, for the past 70 years, fixated on “Pi-Ramses” (Ex 12:37) as the name of the storehouse city the Hebrews left from and, as a consequence, claim the Exodus took place under Pharaoh Ramses II…It is obvious that the Hebrews left from Avaris the ancient capital of the Hyksos kings. Centuries later, after “Avaris” had been changed to “Pi-Ramses,” and even more centuries had passed the name and location of “Avaris” was lost to the collective memory of, not just the Egyptians, but the Hebrews now living in Canaan as well. Consequently, as they did many times in the Tanakh (Old Testament), Hebrew scribes redacted “Avaris” to “Pi-Ramses.” Even though biblical scholars have known this for centuries, secular archeologists have refused to even acknowledge the many known redactions in the Tanakh and, as a consequence, fixated on “Pi-Ramses” being rebuilt by Ramses, thus the Pharaoh of the Exodus had to be Ramses II around 1240 B.C…It is scholarship like that that makes one question the professionalism of many archeologists working in the Holy Land…

    • Dr. Donny

      Unfortunately, your commentary provides the rest of us poor, dumb readers with nothing but a bunch of assertions. Phrases such as “it is obvious”, “lost to the collective memory”, “biblical scholars have known this for centuries” and so forth require at least minimal factual support for you to be taken seriously. Also, it is not clear to me why “secular” archaeologists, who by definition specialize in non-textual evidence of the past, would be expected to be aware of the “many known redactions in the Tanakh”. The fact that a fellow true believer decides to make a movie which supports your view does not provide any sort of real confirmation. So please enlighten the rest of us ignorant readers of this blog as to the evidential, logical, and convincing data you have – and please do not refer to material from ICR, CRS, AIG or any other such well-known biblical “experts”.

      • Wow – I didn’t mean to cause your panties to get in such a bind!…Moreover, I didn’t think anything I said could be taken in a negative sense or even personal as I said nothing, in my opinion, that was personal – or even untrue?…To begin, to argue that archeologists working in the Holy Land, simply because some may be “secularists,” would not be familiar with the many redactions of the Tanakh would, in my opinion, be saying that “secular” archeologists digging in the Holy Land are less than prepared at the least?. I am quite sure that if said secularist archeologists were digging in Egypt he would be familiar with Egyptian history, texts, etc. But somehow that rule doesn’t work in the Holy Land?… Obviously I have not seen the movie yet, thus I expressed my optimism that someone had finally made a documentary using the New Chronology versus the hundreds of History Channel documentaries on the Exodus using the Minimalist Chronology which secular archeologists like to push so much. Nowhere did I claim that this movie would prove the New Chronology nor did I say the evidence they will use wouldn’t be stretched, distorted, etc. Apparently, though, it pisses you off that they even made a documentary using the New Chronology as your “Fellow true believer” shot makes apparent…If a “fellow true believer” made yet another documentary using the Minimalist Chronology that, I assume, would be just fine with you though?…It is men like you who confined Galileo because he dared to put forth something different and new…The knowledge that “Pi-Ramesse” was once called “Avaris” was lost to the collective memory of Egyptians and Hebrews after six or seven hundred years – is accurate and any Egyptologist would confirm that. Hell, the collective memory of the Egyptians, by the time of Ramses the Great, has lost who had built the Great Pyramid and why as they believed it had been built by Osiris. So it is no big thing for a nation of people to forget, after six or seven centuries, the name of an ancient city whose name has been changed, no more so than for an entire country with a continuous priesthood to forget why they built the greatest monument ever built by man…So now I’m forbidden to refer to anything done by ICR, CRS, AIG or any other well known Christian scientific institution – as if Christians somehow are incapable of doing good science? Okay, but then you can’t refer to any work done by any secular scientist or secular institution – It is completely asinine for you to even infer that Christians scientists are somehow inferior to their secular brethren…Your obvious disdain for Christians, your obvious belief that you, somehow, are smarter than all the Christians on the planet is not only obvious, elitist, hateful and wrong

        • Dr. Donny

          You seem incapable of short, to-the-point responses. Despite your assumption that by taking issue with you I must be anti-Christian, I actually attend an evangelistic Bible church (20+ years). However, I look for the truth where it is. And it ain’t with fundy groups like ICR, etc. Only someone who knows zippo about science (and I have four STEM degrees) would call them “well known Christian scientific organizations”. Try Biologos, the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), and Reasons to Believe if you want to hear from Christians who are real scientists. Your claim that one must accept the New Chronology or the “minimalist chronology” is a false dichotomy since the latter is not only incorrectly titled by you but the almost-universally accepted chronology among archaeologists and non-fundy Christian scholars. Your relation of the chronology debate to the Galileo situation is not only a false comparison but shows a lack of knowledge of church history. It was the (Catholic) Jesuits, the intellectual elite of the seventeenth century, who led the charge against Galileo as part of the counter-Reformation. Finally, if you want to use the failure of “collective memory” excuse, one can then logically invalidate Genesis 1-11 since it supposedly occurred thousands of years before the Israelites wrote it down, so how could it have been correctly remembered? Sorry I yanked your chain, but may I respectfully suggest you read more widely and write less.

          • Talk about someone who “is incapable of short, to the point responses?” You are kind of like the ‘pot calling the kettle black?’…Anyway, I just reread my previous reply to you and nowhere did I mention whether you were or were not a “Christian?”…So, dude, you have to get past allowing your panties to get all bound up when there is no reason to do so…Okay, in your opinion Christian “groups” like “ICR” are “fundy groups?” I have no idea what “fundy” is, but you failed to show how the science being done at ICR is somehow less than the science being done at a secular institution? I have reservations of whether or not you can do that since ICR goes above and beyond the normal standards, so, I have to assume, you are simply hating on ICR for no other reason than they are a Christian organization that adheres to a special creation account?…And if that is true, then I would also have to question whether or not you actually do “attend an Evangelical Bible Church” as I have never heard any “Evangelical Church” referred to like that?…Are you a fraud masquerading as a Christian who dislikes Christian scientists?…Furthermore, show me where I made the ‘claim that one must accept the New Chronology?” I simply said that is the chronology that I adhere to, and that I was glad to see someone finally do a new documentary using the New Chronology?…You sure you have all those advanced degrees, because you seem to have problems comprehending what you read?…I thought my Galileo analogy was a very good one – It was narrow minded and superstitious men who, because Galileo did not agree with their unscientific conclusions, had him put under house arrest and silenced. You would do the same thing to Creationists from Christian organizations you do not agree with. So, if the shoe fits – wear it!…That “collective memory” piece I put on you blew your mind, didn’t it? 🙂 I love it when I can go places with my mind that men who claim to have such advanced degrees as you do can never go with their minds. So they become petty and abusive as a result of their perceived limitations…

          • Dr. Donny

            Alas, you have won. I give up. I went to your website and clearly you are much smarter, wiser and a better Christian than I. You are correct – you indeed can go places with your mind that a lowly person such as I could never hope to go. I would humbly suggest, however, that you drop the usage of “panties” and “dude” from your blogs as they tend to dim your intellectual aura. Peace be with you.

  • Darach Conneely

    Is there a revised chronology available based on varve and dendrochronology calibrated Carbon 14 tests? And where does the Thera eruption fit?

    • A lot of discussion on dendrochronology can be found here:

      • Darach Conneely

        Thanks, but it is results from the latest C14 tests I’m looking for. These should be able to give a consistent chronology across the Mediterranean, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

        • My understanding is that they discuss the latest results. Let me know if you find something more recent.

  • Lars

    This post is nothing more than a thinly-disguised full-frontal attack on the veracity of the Bible. Of course, it would be written on Valentine’s and embrace a certain ‘shades of gray’ approach to scripture. I, for one, refuse to be held in bondage by apostate apologists or have the the vast majority of mainstream academic elites telling me what to think when that instruction so obviously seeks to cast doubt on my exceptionalism. Just report the newest facts, please. I’ll decide. Also, can you let us know if this movie is in 3D?

    • Dr. Donny

      Even better, it is in 4D since it looks into the past to see what only a few special people know to be the “real” truth about the Bible.

  • Eric Weiss
  • Jeff Y

    I read Rohl’s book when it came out (a gift). I found it fascinating and actually seemed plausible but I also have some issues now – such as his attempt to find geographical location for Eden. And, I find the culture war mentality and circling the wagons approach to be very troubling. It creates far more problems than it ever solves. It often shuts off minds – “I’ve watched the film, I believe it, that settles it” – that then leads to heresy hunting of anyone who diverges from the received view (received from hearing one preacher or watching one film that suits one’s biases). This is the greatest problem with the response to such films. Better to read alternative perspectives honorably than just one that caricatures the opposing view.

    At the same time, I am sympathetic to many who don’t even hold to an inerrancy view of Scripture (similar, say, to the likes of Marshall – who see the text as inspired but don’t buy into the “inerrant” concept – as Marshall puts it, one core problem is it is in danger of ‘dying the death of a thousand qualifications’) but may still see the importance of establishing the Exodus and invasion as an historical event (even if it has hyperbole within).

    And, whether it matters to all or not, it matters to them. At the same time the consensus of scholarship must always be open to evidence (whether this film does that is another matter). The scholarly consensus has been wrong before – that’s why there are scientific revolutions. Thomas Kuhn’s important book recognizes as well that there is often a built in bias among scholars themselves that resists anything opposing the consensus (I also recall the days that scholars criticized Luke for using the term “politarchs” in Acts 17 which appeared to have no historical support – until the term was found on in inscriptions at Thessalonica).

    This is why I find absolute (or worse, condescending) pronouncements by many, based on scholarly consensus, to be problematic. Views should always be held with a significant degree of humility and tentativeness. It’s a challenge for both left and right.

  • Rohl wasn’t the only archaeologist to challenge accepted chronology. Five archaeologists wrote the book Centuries of Darkness, detailing how accepted chronology results in inexplicable “dark ages” for ANE and ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Unlike Rohl, they think chronology cannot be revised by more than 250 years.

    Strongest resitance has come from Kitchen, so it would be incorrect to say that the “conspiracy” is theological. Here is a link to their replies to their critics, including Kitchen:

    • peteenns

      Not sure if you are addressing my post, Bilbo, but I never said or implied the conspiracy was fueled by academics, but by those who use the scholarship to achieve other ends.

      Kitchen puzzles me, on more than on issue.

      • Usually conservative Christians blame people with some theologcial axe to grind for a conspiracy. I assume that is what this film will try to do. Given that Kitchen is an evangelical Christian, that would be a difficult charge to make stick. But if the thesis of Centuries of Darkness is correct, then I think much of Kitchen’s meticulous work reconstructing the Third Intermediate Period would go up in smoke. That would be enough to rouse the wrath of many a scholar.

  • Two of my comments here have disappeared? Were they deleted? If so, why?

  • I think I’m entitled to an answer of why my comments are being deleted. I haven’t used foul language, nor said anything derogatory. I have only tried to add information, that Rohl is not the only archaeologist who thinks ancient chronology needs to be revised. What is so objectionable about that?

    • peteenns

      Chill, Bilbo. I moderate comments and it takes me time to get to them. Don’t you get some notification that your comment is awaiting moderation, or something?

      • Ah, there they are. It seems to work differently here. There’s a notification that my comment is awaiting moderation. I check back and my comment is gone, which makes me think it was deleted. Sorry about that.

        • peteenns

          I absolve you of all sin and guilt.

          • Mark K

            Who cares? 😉

        • Lars

          It’s gotten better, believe it or not. It used to say “Your comment is awaiting PayPal” before Patheos wised up.

  • Seraphim Hamilton

    I don’t believe Rohl says that the time of Joseph corroborates with the Hyksos period. Instead, the Hyksos are identified with the Amalekites, so that they invaded Egypt immediately after Egypt had been smote by the plagues of the exodus. This is then corroborated with a passage from Manetho which says that Egypt was “struck by God” (it uses the singular form) which allowed the Hyksos to conquer Egypt without a fight.

    • peteenns

      No one said Rohl makes this equation, Cherub. The equation is made by a number of conservative Christians: Hyksos period is consistent with the Joseph narrative, hence the historical credibility the Joseph narrative is established.

      • Seraphim Hamilton

        Lol, cherub.

        I thought you were saying the new chronology causes the Hyksos to align with Joseph. The movie (it pretty much follows Rohl to the tee but gives other voices a pretty fair shake in my opinion) puts Joseph 215 years before the Hyksos invasion (following the LXX) and identifies the Hyksos with the Amalekites.

  • Ross

    “Sigh”, slaps forehead and shakes head in despair..again.

    Generally, I just despair of this culture war, particularly when I get into discussions with the inerrantist heretics and lovingly refrain from hitting them with something solid. (a true challenge when the discussion occurs in a builders merchant next to the display of hammers). I find myself overwhelmingly pessimistic about there ever being any real way of overcoming the traditional “innerantamundalist” mindset and narratives.

    I have some sympathy as to why there is this paranoid conspiracy-theory mindset and have some understanding of its root. I look forward to Pete looking at the “culture-war mentality” and whether or not there is any way of tackling it positively and constructively. It would be nice to see a change from my pessimism to optimism about the future in all this.

    In the mean-time I’m glad to live in a land which is judgemental, not judgmental about it all.

  • Hopaulius

    I recall reading in a book by Harvard professor GE Wright a sentence very like, “The Exodus is the bedrock of biblical history.” So we can blame this obsession with history in part on very mainstream scholars of an earlier generation. The larger objection I have is with the equation commonly found in churches of nearly all persuasion, Word of God = words written in human languages in a book, in light of the fact that many of the words in said book eschew the notion that God can be contained within the categories of human thought and language.

  • This kind of conspiracy-theory rhetoric isn’t encouraging. It is what sells. I mean, for goodness sake, you’ve got the “History” channel (quotes now obligatory) with documentaries on mermaids and aliens?

  • Caleb G

    I heard about this movie and was interested in your take on it. Please give us a review of this film once you see it.

  • This isn’t so much a response to the article as it is to a few of the comments that deride certain conservative evangelicals as being too historically-oriented in their view of Scripture or caring about history too much.

    I’d say that, actually, such groups do not begin with history; they begin with theology. They have a certain theological framework about the Bible itself and what it’s supposed to be saying, then going to the OT scriptures. Whether the OT scriptures have that same self-consciousness or whether any of the original readers or writers would have seen things that way is irrelevant to them. The OT has to read like the newspaper, and this is because of theological commitments. A historical commitment, it seems to me, would be trying to read these ancient texts along similar lines as any other ancient texts.

    All that to say that I find most conservative evangelicals to be very ahistorical in their views of Scripture. The OT becomes a messy prototype for the Westminster Confession of Faith and does not speak on its own terms.

  • armchairauditor

    Does it really matter? They found Troy and that there were Trojan wars- it doesn’t mean that Homers Odyssey is true

    • peteenns

      But…but…but….Oh wait. Good point

      • Richard

        Mr. Enns the NT Wrighters:) seemed to write from the assumption that the Exodus was a historical event. I notice you are careful to acknowledge something likely happen, but what would be a helpful consensus for bible scholars and laypersons on the historicity of the Exodus?

    • Richard

      Sorry if this is a repeat, but it did not seem to post; or, is it that until Mr. Enns approves it it waits in unseen limbo? Not complaining, just trying again: Homer’s Odyssey is not historical tradition. Although, the point is granted, it seems problematic to over state the comparison.

  • V J

    The above article is useless. Until you have actually seen the entire movie nothing you say is worthy of listening to. You can’t comment on a movie when you’ve only seen the trailers, etc. It makes you sound too eager to criticize that which you know nothing of. It destroys your credibility.

  • Steven Law

    Your appeal to Wikipedia as a credible source of truth is disappointing.