Debunking the Exodus I: Chronology

Debunking the Exodus I: Chronology May 17, 2021

I am re-running my “Debunking the Exodus” series for some of my newer readers.

“…In the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come  out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month Zif, which [is] the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD.” (1 Kings 6:1 KJV)

The Exodus account is one of the key stories of the Bible, creating a foundation upon what so much else in the Bible is built. Without the truth of the Exodus, the truth of Moses, the Mosaic Law and any number of other claims are brought into suspicion. When the tagline to an article on the subject reads, “The Exodus is so fundamental to us and our Jewish sources that it is embarrassing that there is no evidence outside of the Bible to support it” then you have to start wondering.

This article provides a backdrop to the issues of chronology, issues that are individually covered in many of the other pieces (indeed, the camel article is an issue of chronology, as will be one of the Philistines).

I am going to revisit this subject with a number of articles, such as one concerning camels, and the last one a general illustration of the nonsense of the whole story. There will be one on the philosophical issues with Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. I want to compile them all into a series as I have done with the Nativity and Easter (Please grab my books on the Nativity and the Resurrection.)

The basis for a lot of what I will be telling you will come from my friend and Skeptic Ink Network colleague Rebecca Bradley and her chapter, “The Credibility of the Exodus”, in John Loftus’ Christianity in the Light of Science (for which I also contribute a chapter on free will – labelled by some as the best in the book!). I intend to turn this series into a book like my Nativity and Resurrection ones, co-authoring it with Bradley.

There has been much written about the chronology of ancient Egypt and it is still very much a work in progress. Young Earth Creationists and Biblical Maximalists (those who try to maximise the veracity of the Bible in and through archaeology by using it circularly as a foundation to benchmarking dates, as opposed to Biblical Minimalists) try very hard to massage and co-opt in order to harmonise. Trying to tie in the enslavement of the Hebrew people and the position of vizier that Joseph took on with the utter lack of evidence for such things outside of the Bible is a difficult pastime.  There are king lists in Egyptian history that record the names and lengths of rulership of the Pharaohs. As Bradley states:

But, whereas Egyptologists have been able to expand, refine, and partly validate Egypt’s timeline with a wealth of other evidence – everything from seal impressions to structures, acres of inscriptions, astronomical observations, archaeological deposits dateable by scientific methods, pottery sequences, cross-referencing data from Egypt’s contemporaries, and so forth – those seeking to date the Exodus, finding themselves on the wrong side of the archeological evidence, have little concrete to go on outside the pages of the biblical account. Unfortunately, the internal evidence from the book of Exodus creates more problems than it solves. (p. 258)

Obviously, Christians don’t like hearing this and claim that the lack of evidence doesn’t really show anything. Take these comments from my last piece, by Christian defenders:

“There is no evidence of this in Egyptian artwork, archaeology or anything. Nothing at all.”

Why would the Egyptians make something so thoroughly humiliating as the Exodus a matter of public record? Do we have any other examples of them doing such a thing?


Imagine if our only accounts of Alexander were the ones in the Quran and the Iskandarmah. Those accounts are full of things demonstrably wrong, leading some to conclude nothing in the accounts is true and Alexander never existed.

The idea is that these articles and claims I am making, on the basis of a lot of research, don’t disprove anything – no, but it lends towards a cumulative case. I am presenting, as I have with the Nativity and Easter accounts, a thesis that states that the events most probably never happened (or in the other two cases, were so wildly different to the claims as to be synonymous with not happening) based on Bayesian analysis of the data to produce a probability. That’s what historians do. We can’t prove that Julius Caesar was stabbed in the back in the way he was, but we can assess all the evidence, both background and consequent, in order to come up with the most probable explanation of what happened.

Back to the chronology.

Eminent biblical scholar Michael Coogan, author of The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (published by Oxford University Press, p.), stated:

We should observe that the biblical sources for the earlier periods are remarkably unspecific. Although pharaohs of Egypt are described as having had dealings with biblical figures such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses, none of the pharaohs referred to in the books of Genesis and Exodus is named by the biblical writers, so that we cannot fit them into the well-established chronology of ancient Egypt. Nor do Egyptian sources make any mention of the biblical figures. As a result, scholars have no conclusive answers to such questions as these: When did Abraham live or did he even exist? When did the Exodus from Egypt take place, if at all?

There seems to be a two-pronged approach from the varied Christian community: an early and a late date. The early date of around 1450 BCE (Egypt’s early Eighteenth Dynasty, based mainly on 1 Kings 6:1) plays off against the later one of about 1290 BCE (Nineteenth Dynasty). Solomon’s temple is invoked here for the early date, some 480 years after the Exodus in 966 BCE. The later date is more concerned with archaeology and doing away with some anachronisms in the other date. There is some elbow room that allows multiple pharaohs to be proposed for the time.

The whole notion that there are two utterly different proposals for timing is enough to cast some serious doubt on the claims made in the Bible. There is simply no clear option for when it happened with regard to extra-biblical sources. As Egyptologist Donald B. Redford states in Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (p. 409-10):

Whoever supplied the geographical information that now adorns the story had no information earlier than the Saite period (seventh to sixth centuries B.C.). The eastern Delta and Sinai he describes are those of the 26th Dynasty kings and the early Persian overlords: his toponyms reflect the renewed interest in the eastern frontier evidenced for this period by fort building and canalization. He knows of “Goshen” of the Qedarite Arabs, and a legendary “Land of Ramesses.” He cannot locate the Egyptian court to anything but the largest and most famous city in his own day in the northeastern Delta, namely Tanis, the royal residence from about 1070 to 725 B.C. (cf. Psalm 78:12, 43), which survives as a metropolis into Roman times; and he mistakenly presses into service the adjacent marshy tract “the reed-(lake)” as the “Reed-sea,” the scene of Israel’s miraculous passage to safety. The route he is familiar with is that which traverses the same tract as the canal of Necho II (610-594 B.C.) from Bubastis to the Bitter Lakes; then he moves north in his mind’s eye past the famous fort at Migdol to Lake Sirbonis (Ba’al Saphon) where Horus had already in the mythical past thrown Seth out of Egypt. In short, with respect to the geography of the Exodus, the post-Exilic compiler of the present Biblical version had no genuinely ancient details. He felt constrained to supply them from the Egypt of his own day and, significantly perhaps, cited several places where Asiatic elements and especially Judaean mercenaries resided in the sixth and fifth centuries.

When we move beyond toponymy, the Egyptian origin of specific details and even the Egyptian locale of the tale become very hazy indeed.

Finkelstein and Silberman, in The Bible Unearthed, are equally dubious (p. 36-8):

The critical textual scholars who had identified distinct sources underlying the text of Genesis insisted that the patriarchal narratives were put into writing at a relatively late date, at the time of the monarchy (tenth-eighth centuries BCE) or even later, in exilic and post-exilic days (sixth-fifth centuries BCE). The German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen argued that the stories of the patriarchs in both the J and E documents reflected the concerns of the later Israelite monarchy, which were projected onto the lives of legendary fathers in a largely mythical past. The biblical stories should thus be regarded as a national mythology with no more historical basis than the Homeric saga of Odysseus’s travels or Virgil’s saga of Aeneas’s founding of Rome. In more recent decades, the American biblical scholars John Van Seters and Thomas Thompson further challenged the supposed archaeological evidence for the historical patriarchs in the second millennium BCE. They argued that even if the later texts contained some early traditions, the selection and arrangement of stories expressed a clear message by the biblical editors at the time of compilation, rather than preserving a reliable historical account.

But when did that compilation take place? The biblical text reveals some clear clues that can narrow down the time of its final composition. Take the repeated mention of camels, for instance. The stories of the patriarchs are packed with camels, usually herds of camels; but as in the story of Joseph’s sale by his brothers into slavery (Genesis 37:25), camels are also described as beasts of burden used in caravan trade. We now know through archaeological research that camels were not domesticated as beasts of burden earlier than the late second millennium and were not widely used in that capacity in the ancient Near East until well after 1000 BCE. And an even more telling detail – the camel caravan carrying “gum, balm, and myrrh,” in the Joseph story – reveals an obvious familiarity with the main products of the lucrative Arabian trade that flourished under the supervision of the Assyrian empire in the eighth-seventh centuries BCE.

Indeed, excavations at the site of Tell Jemmeh in the southern coastal plain of Israel – a particularly important entrepot on the main caravan route between Arabia and the Mediterranean – revealed a dramatic increase in the number of camel bones in the seventh century. The bones were almost exclusively of mature animals, suggesting that they were from traveling beasts of burden, not from locally raised herds (among which the bones of young animals would also be found). Indeed, precisely at this time, Assyrian sources describe camels being used as pack animals in caravans. It was only then that camels became a common enough feature of the landscape to be included as an incidental detail in a literary narrative.

Then there is the issue of the Philistines. We hear of them in connection with Isaac’s encounter with “Abimelech, king of the Philistines,” at the city of Gerar (Genesis 26:1). The Philistines, a group of migrants from the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean, had not established their settlements along the coastal plain of Canaan until sometime after 1200 BCE. Their cities prospered in the eleventh and tenth centuries and continued to dominate the area well into the Assyrian period. The mention of Gerar as a Philistine city in the narratives of Isaac and the mention of the city (without the Philistine attribution) in the stories of Abraham (Genesis 20:1) suggest that it had a special importance or at least was widely known at the time of the composition of the patriarchal narratives. Gerar is today identified with Tel Haror northwest of Beersheba, and excavations there have shown that in the Iron Age I – the early phase of Philistine history – it was no more than a small, quite insignificant village. But by the late eighth and seventh century BCE, it had become a strong, heavily fortified Assyrian administrative stronghold in the south, an obvious landmark.

Were these incongruous details merely late insertions into early traditions or were they indications that both the details and the narrative were late? Many scholars – particularly those who supported the idea of the “historical” patriarchs – considered them to be incidental details. But as Thomas Thompson put it as early as the 1970s, the specific references in the text to cities, neighboring peoples, and familiar places are precisely those aspects that distinguish the patriarchal stories from completely mythical folk-tales. They are crucially important for identifying the date and message of the text. In other words, the “anachronisms” are far more important for dating and understanding the meaning and historical context of the stories of the patriarchs than the search for ancient bedouin or mathematical calculations of the patriarchs’ ages and genealogies.

So the combination of camels, Arabian goods, Philistines, and Gerar – as well as other places and nations mentioned in the patriarchal stories in Genesis – are highly significant. All the clues point to a time of composition many centuries after the time in which the Bible reports the lives of the patriarchs took place. These and other anachronisms suggest an intensive period of writing the patriarchal narratives in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE.

Pretty damning. And they continue (p. 56-7):

The expulsion of the Hyksos is generally dated, on the basis of Egyptian records and the archaeological evidence of destroyed cities in Canaan, to around 1570 BCE. As we mentioned in the last chapter in discussing the dating of the age of the patriarchs, I Kings 6:1 tells us that the start of the construction of the Temple in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign took place 480 years after the Exodus. According to a correlation of the regnal dates of Israelite kings with outside Egyptian and Assyrian sources, this would roughly place the Exodus in 1440 BCE. That is more than a hundred years after the date of the Egyptian expulsion of the Hyksos, around 1570 BCE. But there is an even more serious complication. The Bible speaks explicitly about the forced labor projects of the children of Israel and mentions, in particular, the construction of the city of Raamses (Exodus 1:11). In the fifteenth century BCE such a name is inconceivable. The first pharaoh named Ramesses came to the throne only in 1320 BCE – more than a century after the traditional biblical date. As a result, many scholars have tended to dismiss the literal value of the biblical dating, suggesting that the figure 480 was little more than a symbolic length of time, representing the life spans of twelve generations, each lasting the tradiional forty years. This highly schematized chronology puts the building of the Temple about halfway between the end of the first exile (in Egypt) and the end of the second exile (in Babylon).

However, most scholars saw the specific biblical reference to the name Ramesses as a detail that preserved an authentic historical memory. In other words, they argued that the Exodus must have occurred in the thirteenth century BCE. And there were other specific details of the biblical Exodus story that pointed to the same era. First, Egyptian sources report that the city of Pi-Ramesses (“The House of Ramesses”) was built in the delta in the days of the great Egyptian king Ramesses II, who ruled 1279-1213 BCE, and that Semites were apparently employed in its construction. Second, and perhaps most important, the earliest mention of Israel in an extrabiblical text was found in Egypt in the stele describing the campaign of Pharaoh Merneptah – the son of Ramesses II – in Canaan at the very end of the thirteenth century BCE. The inscription tells of a destructive Egyptian campaign into Canaan, in the course of which a people named Israel were decimated to the extent that the pharaoh boasted that Israel’s “seed is not!” The boast was clearly an empty one, but it did indicate that some group known as Israel was already in Canaan by that time. In fact, dozens of settlements that were linked with the early Israelites appeared in the hill country of Canaan around that time. So if a historical Exodus took place, scholars have argued, it must have occurred in the late thirteenth century BCE.

The Merneptah stele contains the first appearance of the name Israel in any surviving ancient text. This again raises the basic questions: Who were the Semites in Egypt? Can they be regarded as Israelite in any meaningful sense? No mention of the name Israel has been found in any of the inscriptions or documents connected with the Hyksos period. Nor is it mentioned in later Egyptian inscriptions, or in an extensive fourteenth century BCE cuneiform archive found at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, whose nearly four hundred letters describe in detail the social, political, and demographic conditions in Canaan at that time. As we will argue in a later chapter, the Israelites emerged only gradually as a distinct group in Canaan, beginning at the end of the thirteenth century BCE. There is no recognizable archaeological evidence of Israelite presence in Egypt immediately before that time.

Some apologists, such as the creationist Dr Gerald Aardsma (nuclear physicist), gerrymander dates with mental contortions. Such as hoc rationalisations appear to be commonplace:

Aardsma may be regarded as something of a crank, even by other, Exodus-believers, but he is not alone in [roposing convenient reinterpretations of the data. For example, William Shea, supporting the traditional “early date” of 1450 BCE, proposed Amenhotep II as the pharaoh of the Exodus; but, to get around the awkward fact that Amenhotep II reigned for many years after the putative Red Sea disaster and is still with us in mummified form, Shea made a novel suggestion. The pharaoh in question was actually two pharaohs with exactly the same name; when the first died ignominiously in the Red Sea, the second was installed secretly and seamlessly as part of a cover-up of Egypt’s shame. Shea attributed Amenhotep IIB’s military campaigns in Syria to the need to refill Egypt’s treasury after the Israelites walked off with so much of Egypt’s riches, though one would expect more difficulty waging war when one’s army had recently drowned in the Red Sea. (p. 260)

However, in doing so, they also present good arguments against the two more traditional datings! This link is worth checking out to get more detail on the archaeological issues with both attempted datings mentioned above. Gary Greenberg, in proposing new dates, also provides good argumentation against the two traditional datings. It seems Christians end up being their own worst enemies.

You may see a similar technique in Aardsma’s claim to the “double-ruling” of Quirinius, as erroneously claimed by nativity apologists. They have form in ad hoc rationalising any old theory that gets them from A to B with scant regard for precedent or evidence.

This last point in the quote above is one of those points that you could easily not think of or pass over (heh). There would be no army if the Exodus account is to be believed. But this does not fit with what we know of the military campaigns of Egypt, at least in terms of this early dating.

So many Christians have done so much work to harmonise the dates and stake their claim on a final date that you only have to do a quick Google search to show how they think it is all wrapped up and sorted… Some are simply going out on a limb:

These are the main points of the biblical narrative, which are repeated and confirmed time and time again in a wide range of contexts. They must, therefore, be the facts exactly as they happened. On the basis of this narrative, there are no alternatives: the Jews have crossed the Red Sea along the shoals across the Gulf of Suez. Moses’ escape plan had to be based upon elements about which he was absolutely certain; it is unreasonable to suppose that he could or would count on accidental happenings beyond the norm. Not one of the Jewish tribal chiefs would have been prepared to risk the lives of his people and his own by following Moses just in the hope that one day or another a wind would arise strong enough to dry up the Red Sea or any other stretch of water… and that such a wind would last just long enough to allow his people to cross, graciously dying down as soon as the inevitable pursuers reached the middle of the crossing. This is a widely spread theory, but it is quite absurd.

Moses must have had knowledge of some Red Sea phenomenon that existed at that time but does not happen now. The epoch in which these events occurred is very important to this analysis: it was said to be in the third or fourth year of the reign of Merenptah, towards the end of the 13th century BC, more than three thousand years ago.

Here, Roy Zuck (an early dater) looks to the controversy and the way believers fight it out:

Those who opt for the late date of the Exodus do so primarily on the basis of archaeological evidence. And yet that evidence is always colored by the presuppositions and prejudices of those interpreting the raw data. On the side are those who opt for the early date of the Exodus. They do so primarily because of the biblical data. So what is the answer? All truth is God’s truth, yet the only truth which can be known absolutely is the truth which God chooses to reveal as His Word. Thus the biblical evidence must be the primary evidence. For this reason the writer accepts the early date of Exodus as being the better alternative.

In other words, when the Bible is pitted against the very real and tangible evidence of archaeology, the Bible wins.

Reconciling Egyptian dynastic history with the Exodus is simply not possible, at least, not unless you want to play fast and loose with known facts. As Bradley says, “the biblical details are strewn all over the timeline derived from fatal anachronisms…” (p. 259).

[This article is already long, and could be far longer. Hopefully, delving into a few of the links can give you more information concerning the chronology and the issues concerning it. Happy reading!]

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