Bronze-level articleEvidence for the Exodus

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Not to be confused with our article on the Book of Exodus.
We are told that these people spent 40 years wandering around in the desert — they escaped, as slaves from Egypt, and so forth. There is not a shred of archaeological or historical evidence, outside of the Bible, that this is even true! That it ever even happened! You would think that if a people spent 40 years wandering around in the desert they'd leave some archaeological evidence? There's absolutely none. There's no evidence that somebody named Moses even existed.
Michael Shermer[1]

This article examines the Young Earth creationist and Biblical literalist claims regarding the historical reality of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, as well as the evidence relating to such claims.

Mainstream history and archaeology now consider the Exodus never to have happened, and the story to be an entirely fictional narrative put together between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE.[2] Christian and Jewish literalists do not accept this.

A detailed examination of the innumerable issues raised by the fringe Velikovsky and Rohl alternate chronologies is beyond the scope of this article, and will not be attempted here.

Contents

[edit] Mainstream scholarly consensus

See the main article on this topic: Old Testament#Evidence for the Old Testament
...I'm not trying to say that: now, I have proven that the Bible is authorative, is historically accurate — of course not. You still have to have faith.
Dr. Paul L. Maier[wp][3]

Despite being regarded in Judaism as the primary factual historical narrative of the origin of the religion, culture and ethnicity, Exodus is now accepted by scholars as having been compiled in the 8th–7th centuries BCE from stories dating possibly as far back as the 13th century BCE, with further polishing in the 6th–5th centuries BCE, as a theological and political manifesto to unite the Israelites in the then‐current battle for territory against Egypt.[4]

Archaeologists from the 19th century onward were actually surprised not to find any evidence whatsoever for the events of Exodus. By the 1970s, archaeologists had largely given up regarding the Bible as any use at all as a field guide.

The archaeological evidence of local Canaanite, rather than Egyptian, origins of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel is "overwhelming," and leaves "no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40‐year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness."[5] The culture of the earliest Israelite settlements is Canaanite, their cult objects are of the Canaanite god El, the pottery is in the local Canaanite tradition, and the alphabet is early Canaanite. Almost the sole marker distinguishing Israelite villages from Canaanite sites is an absence of pig bones.

It is considered possible that those Canaanites who started regarding themselves as the Israelites were joined or led by a small group of Semites from Egypt, possibly carrying stories that made it into Exodus. As the tribe expanded, they may have begun to clash with neighbors, perhaps sparking the tales of conflict in Joshua and Judges.

William Dever, an archaeologist normally associated with the more conservative end of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, has labeled the question of the historicity of Exodus “dead.” Israeli archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog provides the current consensus view on the historicity of the Exodus;[6]

The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction — made in the seventh century [BCE] — of a history that never happened.

Professor of Ancient History and Archaeology Eric H. Cline[wp] also summarizes the scholarly consensus in his book Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (published by Oxford University Press and winner of the 2011 Biblical Archaeology Society's "Best Popular Book on Archaeology");[7]

Despite attempts by a number of biblical archaeologists — and an even larger number of amateur enthusiasts — over the years, credible direct archaeological evidence for the Exodus has yet to be found.

While it can be argued that such evidence would be difficult to find, since nomads generally do not leave behind permanent installations, archaeologists have discovered and excavated nomadic emplacements from other periods in the Sinai desert.

So if there were archaeological remains to be found from the Exodus, one would have expected them to be found by now. And yet, thus far there is no trace of the biblical "600,000 men on foot, besides children" plus "a mixed crowd...and live stock in great numbers" (Exod. 12:37-38) who wandered for forty years in the desert.

[edit] Dates given for the Exodus

As always with the Bible, the complete lack of specificity regarding anything it claims to have happened has resulted in a variety of incompatible dates being put forward for the Exodus.

[edit] James Ussher/Paul Hansen: 1491 BCE

This is what theists actually believe.

James Ussher gave a date of 1491 BCE for the Exodus in his 1654 work, Annales Veteris Testamenti: A Prima Mundi Origine Deducti.[8] Ussher's work very strongly influences the chronology advocated by Paul Hansen of Answers in Genesis, who uses the same date.[9]

A 1491 BCE date would put the exodus in the early 18th Dynasty, during the reign of Thutmose II according to standard chronology[10], though a date early in the reign of Hatshepsut or late in the reign of Thutmose I would be within the +/− 10 year margin of error given by Shaw for the New Kingdom period.[10]

[edit] Immanuel Velikovsky/David Rohl: New Chronology, Reign of Dudimose

Rohl and Velikovsky both date the Exodus to Dudimose, final ruler of the 13th Dynasty at the very end of the Middle Kingdom, at the time of the Hyksos rise to power in the Delta region. Both based their dates on the alternative chronologies, the Revised Chronology of Velikovsky, and New Chronology of Rohl, both of which shift the accepted chronology forward by several centuries, in the case of Rohl from c.1690 BCE to 1450–1446 BCE, with the exodus occurring in 1447/1446 BCE.

[edit] Various: Reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 BCE)

The reign of Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great) has long been considered a candidate for the Exodus, due to the biblical reference to the city of Per‐Ramesses[11], which was largely constructed during his reign.[12]. Ramesses II reigned for just over 66 years, circa 1279–1213 BCE.[10]

[edit] Various: Reign of Merenptah 1213–1203 BCE

Merenptah (sometimes spelt Meneptah) is one of the "old favourites" for being the "Pharaoh of the Exodus", and his reign is used by adherents of both conventional[13] and also (less commonly) in the New Chronology. Conventional chronology gives Merenptah's reign as c.1213–1203 BCE,[10] or 888–875 BCE in Rhol‐world.

[edit] The issues

[edit] Egyptian record keeping

Dr. Paul L. Maier[wp]: Critics often say there's no record of their crossing the Red Sea and that sort of thing - totally understandable why. Because the Egyptians never recorded any reverses, or any defeats, of any kind. This would diminish the glory of the pharaoh! So, can you imagine the pharaoh in charge saying "By the way, on my watch - under my administration - hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves were able to escape when we wanted them to stay in Egypt"? I mean, they're not going to record this!
Michael Shermer: Ok, maybe the Egyptians were embarassed or whatever, but... that is not an answer to the sceptic's challenge. That's just saying that it's true because there's no evidence for it.
Penn & Teller: Bullshit![1]

It is unlikely that the 603,550 adult males plus women and children mentioned in the Exodus story would have gone unremarked by contemporary Egyptian records. That's easily 2 million people (assuming one man, one woman, 1.5 children, which is very conservative).[14] But no Egyptian account mentions them. Or the plagues, which would be similarly unlikely not to have been recorded. There is no evidence of any of this. Given the standard of Egyptian record keeping of the time, this is an absence that would require explanation.

Bible literalists claim that it did happen, but that the Egyptians destroyed all the records, for reasons generally unspecified, though embarrassment has been offered. This is contrary to the normal archaeological practice of testing a theory against the evidence, rather than the evidence against the theory.

The alleged refusal by the Egyptians to record the events of the Exodus isn't the only problem, as pointed out by eminent biblical scholar Michael Coogan[wp], author of The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (published by Oxford University Press);[15]

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?

[edit] Archeological digs dispute Exodus

Map of sites discussed in this article
See the main article on this topic: Old Testament#Evidence for the Old Testament

The Book of Numbers gives a list of sites at which the Hebrews allegedly settled, in Sinai and its immediate surroundings, during the Exodus. Of these sites, a select few can be pinpointed relatively well by description and deduction. Two such sites are the Biblical Kadesh Barnea, modern Ein Qadis, and Ezion Geber, on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Jordan, just outside Eilat. Both sites have been investigated archaeologically, and found to have been founded during the Ancient Near Eastern Late Iron Age — no earlier than 700/800 BCE,[16] with the obvious exception of early neolithic/nomadic activity.

However, many if not most of the places mentioned in the Exodus did not exist within the same chronological period as one another. Pithom (Per‐Atum/Tckenu) and Raamses (Per‐Ramesses), the two "treasure cities" claimed to have been built by the Hebrews, never existed at the same time. Pithom did not exist as a significant settlement before the 26th Dynasty. Prior to this, the settlement was known as Tckenu, and was still referred to as such in the Ptolemaic period. It was an obscure garrison town which mainly, if not exclusively, served as a waystation for Egyptian expeditions. Even in its enlarged Roman state, the town barely registered on either Egyptian or Greco–Roman accounts.[12] Per‐Ramesses, the Royal Residence of the Ramessides, was abandoned at the end of the New Kingdom, centuries earlier.[12]

Another example is the Exodus portrayal of Edom. Edom was not yet a nation. In fact, the region wasn't even inhabited yet. The place the Hebrews stop at wasn't even built until 800 BCE, as the earliest Iron Age settlements (copper mining camps) date to the 9th or 10th century BCE according to radiocarbon dating done by Thomas Levy[wp] (the previous estimates having been placed some 300 years later)[17] and the main excavated sites have been dated between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. However, the latest the Exodus could have occurred and still be biblically accurate is in the 13th century BCE, meaning that if the radiocarbon dating is contested, the settlements would be estimated to be from the 12th or 13th century BCE, thus additionally slimming the "window of opportunity" for Exodus to have taken place.

[edit] No sign of plagues in Egypt

For a description of the duress Egypt was allegedly under, see: Book of Exodus#The Ten Plagues

All of the dates put forward by advocates of the historicity of Exodus fail to correspond to any period of national chaos or collapse in Egypt, as would clearly be expected by such a series of disasters.

Ussher's 1491 BCE date corresponds with a time of ambitious Egyptian expansion. The reign of Hatshepsut was stable, peaceful and saw extensive construction projects and trading missions; this is known from actual material remains as well as Egyptian records. Her successor, Thutmose III, took Egypt to its greatest imperial extent, forging an empire from the Euphrates to the 4th and possibly the 5th cataract. These are not the signs of a nation that, just a few years before, had lost its entire harvest, its drinkable water, its army and its sons. There is no archaeological evidence at all of mass death and impoverishment in the early New Kingdom period.

The same holds true for the period of Ramesses II. Although there were a few brief reigns after Merenptah, and what appears to be an attempt to interfere with the line of succession (the Chancellor Bey affair), there is no evidence of national catastrophe. Not long after, during the reign of Ramesses III, the state was still able to construct numerous massive monuments (such as Medinet Habu and the temple of Ramesses III within the Karnak complex) and mount effective military campaigns on both land and sea.

[edit] Parting the Red Sea

See the main article on this topic: Epic of Gilgamesh#Biblical archaeology

According to a map produced by the British Admiralty, while a short distance to both north and south the sea is over 900m deep, opposite Nuweiba it is a "mere" 765m deep.[18] Even if some mechanism could be suggested to produce a channel through such a depth of water, sending hundreds of thousands or even millions of people of all ages, plus accompanying animals, down steep cliffs and coral dropoffs that typify the Gulf of Aqaba, and then up the other side is clearly infeasible.

Creationists do not attempt to explain how the Red Sea might be parted (beyond repeating "Goddidit"). Tsunamis can cause the sea to retreat, though nothing approaching the kind of scale required to expose seabed over 700m below sea level. Even if such an unlikely event were possible, the arrival of the wave itself shortly afterward would destroy everything within the vicinity, including those people both on the seabed and on either coastline as well.

The scale of the event required to displace the water of the Red Sea all the way down to the seafloor, some 700 meters deep, for long enough that a drained corridor may form would probably have to be on the scale of an asteroid impact - which carries with it other problems for the Hebrews hanging out on the beach at the time.

[edit] Or was it the Reed Sea?

Apologists who wish to defend the historicity of Exodus, but without the burden of the absolute implausibility of Moses having parted the Red Sea as described above, instead seek to direct us towards the Sea of Reeds explanation, arguing for an unfortunate "mistranslation" in the otherwise divinely proofread Bible:

People often have trouble with biblical miracles, including the stupendous ones like parting the waters of the Red Sea à la Cecil B. DeMille[wp] and so on... Probably didn't happen that way at all. Probably, they did not cross the fifty-sixty-seventy mile wide Red Sea; they crossed the Sea of Reeds, the "Reed Sea". Now, you get a good north wind or a good offshore breeze or so, it will dry up the land.
Dr. Paul L. Maier[wp][1]

The downside to this attempted diversion, however, quickly becomes apparent:

Once you buy the "Red/Reed"-thing, well... They walked across a low-tide marsh on a windy day. What's the miracle in that - the smell didn't annoy them? And why give us a podunk explanation for a miracle - if it isn't a miracle, it isn't God! If it isn't God, it's a bullshit story! ...Maier, you're pissing on your own feet.
Penn Jillette[1]

[edit] Pseudoarchaeologist claims

See the main article on this topic: Pseudoarchaeology#Biblical archaeology

Ron Wyatt was a self‐proclaimed "archaeologist" with no formal training in the subject who time and time again presented "evidence" for various aspects of the Exodus tale.

[edit] The "ancient" fortress of Nuweiba

Wyatt’s Exodus “proof” also rested on a supposedly "ancient" fort at Nuweiba, which blocked the Hebrews in on the beach‐head, leaving the sea as their only exit. The fort is, in fact, Ottoman, not Pharaonic, as a glance at Wyatt’s own photo clearly shows.[19]

[edit] Solomon’s pillar

Wyatt also claimed to have found a "Solomonic" column lying on the beach at Nuweiba in 1978, complete with a partially erased inscription by Solomon.[20] No publication of the inscription has ever been made, despite the granite column being accessible to anyone, standing on a concrete base in Nuweiba. It is, in fact, totally bare, with no evidence at all to support the idea it was made by Solomon. However, the architecture of the Levant of the time Solomon is claimed to have existed used individual square blocks, forming rectangular columns, completely unlike the round column of a single piece of stone Wyatt shows us.[21]

Another pillar that Wyatt claimed to have discovered in Saudi Arabia, on the opposite side of the crossing, has mysteriously vanished off the face of the earth, with no records of it by the Saudi or any other antiquities authorities.

[edit] Actual point of crossing

Between Nuweiba and Saudi Arabia lies a relatively shallow stretch of the otherwise very deep Gulf of Aqaba[wp]. This, Wyatt claimed, was the strongest sign yet that the Red Sea must have parted here, to allow an easy way across the waters.

Wyatt also claimed to have discovered the exact point at which the Israelites crossed the Red Sea while being pursued by the historically anonymous pharaoh and his army.

The basis of Wyatt's theory was first finding a beach that would seem appropriate for the event, and later by simply searching until something old in the sand was allegedly found - in this case, the remains of what Wyatt described as a wagon wheel submerged nearby.[22]

Wyatt claims to have dived in the area of Nuweiba in 1978, and later released a set of low resolution images of vaguely wheel shaped coral formations - what actually looks very much like a modern steel shut off/valve control wheel[20] as "proof" of his discovery.

Wyatt, who died in 1999, claimed to have brought one eight‐spoked wheel to the surface, and sent it to Nassif Mohammed Hassan at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He claimed that Hassan dated it to the 18th Dynasty.[20] However, no record of the wheel entering the museum has ever been found, the article itself has never been seen, and no photographs of it on the surface have ever been released.

[edit] Bibliography

  • United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, Admiralty Chart H2 73 0012 – El 'Aqaba to Duba and Ports on the Sinai Coast, UKHO, Taunton
  • The Catholic Encyclopaedia WWW Link
  • Hansen, P, Timeline from creation to JesusPDF Document
  • Finkelstein, I & Silberman, N (2001), The Bible Unearthed, The Free Press, New York
  • Gospel Pedlar, James Ussher: The Annals of the WorldPDF Document
  • Merling, D (1999), Did the Israelites Cross the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aqaba?WWW Link
  • Shaw, I (2000), Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Uphill, E P (1968), Pithom and Raamses: Their Location and Significance, JNES, Vol.27 No.4
  • Wyatt Archaeology, The Exodus ConspiracyWWW Link

[edit] Footnotes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, S02E01, The Bible - Fact or Fiction
  2. John McDermott, "Reading the Pentateuch" (Paulist Press, 2002) p.22
  3. Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, S02E01, The Bible - Fact or Fiction
  4. Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Free Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-684-86912-4. The Wikipedia article[wp] summarises it nicely.
  5. Dever, William G. (2002). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-2126-X.p.99
  6. Quoted in Sturgis It Ain't Necessarily So, pg. 74
  7. Dr. Eric Cline Wins 2011 Biblical Archaeology Society Publication Award - Best Popular Book on Archaeology
  8. Gospel Pedlar, Annals
  9. Hansen, Timeline
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Shaw, 2000 p480–489
  11. Exodus 1:11
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Uphill, 1968
  13. Catholic Encyclopaedia – Merenptah
  14. Studies of Ancient Egyptian suggest an average fertility rate of >6 in A.Egypt. See: Meskell (2002), Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt
  15. The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (2008), ISBN 978-0195305050, page 32.
  16. Finkelstein & Silberman, p63
  17. Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (2009), ISBN 0-19-534263-1, page 131.
  18. UKHO, Admiralty Chart
  19. http://www.wyattmuseum.com/images/wpe83.jpg
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Wyatt Archaeology, Conspiracy
  21. Merling, 1999
  22. WAR describes Wyatt's evidence of the Red Sea crossing


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