The Date of the Exodus
Three thousand years ago, the date of the Exodus was cited in the Book of Kings as a reference point for the beginning of Solomon’s temple construction in Jerusalem: …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)
It is well established that Solomon’s reign began in 971-970 BC (Kitchen 2001), making 967-966 BC his fourth year. Adding the 480 years gives the date of 1447-6 BC. Interestingly, the Greek Septuagint Bible gives 440 years, the difference likely being whether the counting starts from the beginning or end of the 40-year Exodus event.
The manner of the date’s mention in the Bible implies that it was revered as a keystone of Hebrew history and had been carefully preserved. The way it is written in the Hebrew implies that it is intended to be a precise figure.1 The date also correlates with the length of Israel’s period of Judges (Young and Wood 2008), with Jephthah’s argument in Judges 11:26,2 and with the Jewish Sabbatical and Jubilee calendar (Young 2003).
However, despite its seeming bedrock character, the 1446 BC date has largely been ignored or maligned by the modern theorists. One reason is the lack of evidence for the Exodus in the corresponding Egyptian timeframe, that of the 18th Dynasty (1550-1352 BC).3 The Egyptian history of this period also does not harmonize with the biblical depiction of an Egypt crippled by plagues and a destroyed army. Yet, the biblical date has not changed in three millennia, while the proposed Egyptian chronology has remained in a state of flux, with four major downward dating revisions in the last 100 years (Stewart 1999, 319).
Have historians been looking for Exodus evidence in the wrong timeframe of Egyptian history? Based on the proposition that the Exodus did not precede the 15th-century, scholars have not tended to look for clues much before the 18th Dynasty.
However, the scene has been changing more recently due to the growing realization that there are deep-seated problems with the conventional Egyptian chronology. A number of investigators (e.g., Courville 1971, Aling 1981, James 1991, Rohl 1995, Stewart 1999, Ashton and Down 2006) have challenged the “orthodox” view, pointing out that portions of the chronology are unrealistically expanded, which has pushed the preceding Egyptian history further back in time than is justified.
The most glaring problems lie in, and just prior to, the Third Intermediate Period (TIP), which consists of Dynasties 21-25, classically dated 1069-664 BC. In this regard, the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, which does not propose a revised chronology, notes that
No pharaonic king-lists include the 21st-25th Dynasties…. A sound historical framework for these centuries has proved more difficult to establish than for any other major period of Egyptian history. (Taylor 2002, 330)
Rectification of the problems associated with the TIP deletes more than 300 years from the Egyptian timeline, causing the prior dynasties to shift forward. Such a change brings the 12th Dynasty into alignment with the 215-year Israelite sojourn4 in Egypt. Using this frame of reference, parallels with the biblical account can be seen in the historical and archaeological data of the 12th Dynasty. In particular, the hitherto inexplicable demise of the powerful 12th Dynasty, and the ruinous hiatus in Egyptian history that followed, are explained by the plagues, the loss of the slave workforce, and the destruction of the army.
Explaining the Biblical Exodus Date
The 480-year date of 1 Kings 6:1 requires some computation to translate it into our calendar system. The reign of King Solomon can be calculated from the biblical king lists and their correlations with the contemporary Assyrian chronology. The Assyrian chronology is fixed by several astronomical events, the earliest being an eclipse of the sun in 763 BC (Thiele 1983, 69).
Solomon was the third king of Israel, following Saul and David. The years of Solomon’s reign were 971-931 BC (Kitchen 2001). The fourth year, second month of Solomon’s reign mentioned in 1 Kings 6:1 would coincide with the spring of 967 BC (Young 2003, 601). Adding 479 years (480 years inclusive) to 967 BC yields 1446 BC as the year of the Exodus.
The Exodus was preceded by a 215 year Israelite sojourn in Egypt, with about the latter half being spent in slavery. Figure 1 compares the biblical timeline with the pertinent dynasties of the conventional Egyptian chronology. In this scenario, part of the Israelite sojourn and the Exodus would align with the 18th Dynasty. However, the biblical and Egyptian histories for this period are not complimentary. For example, Moses traveled to the Egyptian capital5 to confront pharaoh on almost a daily basis. The 18th dynasty capital at Thebes was much too distant, lying about 350 air miles south of the Israelite land of Goshen in the Nile Delta.
Revised Egyptian Chronology
Modern Egyptian chronology is based on three main approaches: 1) relative archaeological dating methods such as stratigraphic excavation and artifact identification, 2) “absolute” chronologies based on calendar and astronomical records, and 3) carbon 14 radiometric dating. Each of these categories needs to be considered in any discussion of chronology revision.
1. Relative Dating
As mentioned above, there is evidence that the dating of the 20th -25th dynasties has been artificially expanded. This situation was set in motion when 19th-century Egyptologists set up arbitrary dynastic dates based on several faulty assumptions. Key among them were: 1) that Ramesses II of the 19th Dynasty was the Pharaoh of the Israelite oppression, and 2) that Shoshenk I of the 22nd Dynasty was the biblical King Shishak that invaded Jerusalem (1 Kings 14:25) about 925 BC (Rohl 1995, 138). Rohl (1995, chap. 7), for instance, makes a good case that Ramesses II was actually Shoshenk, meaning that Ramesses II (traditionally ca 1279-1213) has been dated about 300 years too early under the conventional chronology.
As a result of the arbitrary dynastic dates, Egyptologists placed a 400-year gap, called the Third Intermediate Period (TIP), between 1069 and 664 BC. The TIP then became a repository for a number of lesser known rulers and dynasties, whose tenures were capriciously stretched to fill the available time. Egyptologist Redford (1986, 316), for instance, observed that the 23rd Dynasty “has served as a ‘catch-all’ for otherwise difficult to place kings.”6
However, much archaeological data has now accumulated, both inside and outside of Egypt (e.g., James 1991, chap. 10), that indicates that the 405-year TIP should be reduced by some 250 years (James 1991, 257). In support of this proposition, David Rohl (1995, 137) cited three anomalies that call the conventional TIP chronology into question:
1) The sequences of Apis bull burials at Serapeum do not account for the lengthy TIP.
2) Mummies taken from the Royal Cache show that Dynasties 21 and 22 were partly
3) The royal burials at Tanis demonstrate that two different lines of pharaohs from two
different dynasties, 21 and 22, overlap by at least 141 years.
Using estimates based on the Genealogy of the Royal Architects found at Wadi Hammamat, Rohl (1995, 141) advocated a new chronology, lowering the 1270 BC reign of Ramesses II to 936 BC, a reduction of 334 years. This adjustment compresses sections of the 20th Dynasty and the 21st-25th Dynasties of the TIP, which exhibit various overlapping chronologies. The removal of this unaccounted time causes all prior dynasties to shift ahead about 330 years. As a result, the conventional 1773 BC ending of the 12th Dynasty is brought into rough alignment with the 1446 BC biblical date for the Exodus. This process is diagramed in Figure 2. [Not reproduced here].
Commensurate with this alignment, Stewart (1999) surmised that Amenemhat IV was the pharaoh of the Exodus. Amenemhat IV (conventionally dated 1786-1777) was the last male ruler of the 12th Dynasty. His 9 year rule ended obscurely. Queen Sobekneferu, his likely wife, or sister according to Manetho (Callender 2002, 170), was the final ruler of the 12th Dynasty. Her reign lasted less than four years. The tombs of Sobekneferu and Amenemhat IV have never been found.
Rohl (1998, 16) names Dudimose, the obscure final ruler of the 13th Dynasty, as the pharaoh of the Exodus. In the conventional chronology, the 13th Dynasty is listed as ending after 1650 BC, at least 123 years after the close of the 12th Dynasty. A similar proposition was originally made by Velikovsky (1952).
2. Absolute Dating
Before any shifting can be considered, the absolute dating that is purported to “anchor” the conventional Egyptian chronology needs to be addressed. There are three main dates:
1) 664 BC: the sacking of Thebes by Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, marking the close of the
25th Dynasty and the TIP.
2) 1541 BC: the 18th Dynasty Papyrus Ebers Sothic rising in the 9th year of Amenhotep I.
3) 1872 BC: the 12th Dynasty Illahun papyrus Sothic rising in the 7th year of Senusret III.
The 664 BC date for the sacking of Thebes is well documented (Rohl 1995, 119). It forms a secure late point on the Egyptian timeline (see Figure 2).
According to the Oxford Ancient History of Egypt, the Sothic dates are “the lynchpin of the reconstruction of the Egyptian calendar…” (Shaw 2002, 10). “Two Egyptian textual records of Sothic risings (dating from the reigns of Senusret III and Amenhotep I) form the basis of the conventional chronology of Egypt, which, in turn, influences that of the whole Mediterranean region” (ibid. 11).
The Sothic dates refer to the rare coincident rising of the star Sirius with the sun (termed a heliacal rising) on the first day of the Egyptian year, which marked the start of the Nile flooding. Because the Egyptian civil calendar did not use a leap year, the Sothic date fell behind the stellar (sidereal) year at a rate of about one day each four years. Theoretically, therefore, this heliacal rising event only occurred once every 1460 years (365 x 4).
Looking more closely, however, the accepted Sothic dates are based on a variety of tenuous assumptions. Moreover, the dates have been changed a number of times in the last century, and they are still disputed (e.g., Ward 1992, 60). Mackey (2003, 73) reviewed the checkered history of the Sothic dates and observed that “Sothic theory has absolutely bedeviled efforts to establish proper synchronisms throughout antiquity, especially when it is considered that the chronology of the other nations is usually assessed with reference to Egypt.” He concluded that a more acceptable alternative was needed.
O’mara (2003, 26, n20) suggested that Sirius may have been “schematic rather than astronomical/observational…that the matter is controversial and replete with uncertainty.” Given the lack of Egyptian astronomy sophistication mentioned by Ward (1992, 288), the “belief that the ancient Egyptians had actually used this Sothic period of 1,460 years as a kind of long-range calendar is pure supposition” (Mackey 2003, 70). Luft (2003, 203) called “everyone’s attention to the fact that the Egyptians of the 2nd Millennium BC did not create a period of any kind that could help in our searching for the absolute chronology.”
The inherent Sothic difficulties noted by Ward (1992, 63), led him to conclude that “a dependable, accurate, and acceptable absolute chronology for Egypt during the Bronze Age cannot be achieved with the evidence currently available.” Similarly, Rohl (1995, 135) listed a number of respected Egyptologists who have questioned the reliability of the Ebers Sothic date. In particular, Egyptologist Manfred Bietak noted that the “Sothis-date of the Year 9 of Amenhotep…is insecure and should not be used anymore.” Thus, it seems that the Sothic dates are anything but absolute.
3. Radiometric Dating
A 1989 review in Radiocarbon noted that incompatibility between carbon 14 dates and the archaeological and historical dates of Egypt and Mesopotamia was a significant problem (Weinstein 1989). In Egypt, carbon 14 dates are too early by one to three centuries, especially prior to the mid second millennium BC (Keenan 2002).
Even if the carbon 14 date appears to be in the “correct” range, the date is given as a band of years that is usually too broad to apply meaningfully to narrow chronology questions, such as the construction date of a building.
Another matter is that of “calibration,” whereby dendrochronology (tree ring dating) is applied to the carbon 14 data to give a “corrected” date. This process adds another set of variables, especially if the tree ring data are tied to climate factors and atmospherics that differed from the environment of the material being tested.
In light of these problems, Rohl (1995, 388) advocated using “uncalibrated dates in support of a relative, but not an absolute chronology.” Stewart (1999) found that non-calibrated Egyptian radiocarbon dates, which were about 300 years younger than the calibrated dates, agreed well with his revised (lower) Egyptian chronology for dynasties 11-19.7
This pattern is also seen in the Amarna radiocarbon dates, where the non-calibrated dates are about 250 years younger than the calibrated (Rocchi 1998). The mean of the non-calibrated Amarna dates is 1100 BC, which is close to Rohl’s (1995, 199) estimation that the Amarna period was contemporary with the rise of the Israelite monarchy ca 1000 BC.
Regarding the troubling correlation between calendar and radiometric dates in Egypt, the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt dryly observed that the relationship “has been relatively ambivalent over the years” (Shaw 2002, 2).
The biblical Exodus date given in 1 Kings 6:1 has not changed since it was recorded three millennia ago. The 1446 BC rendering of this date is substantiated by links between Israelite history and the astronomically-based Assyrian chronology.
Conversely, the conventional Egyptian chronology has been evolving since its inception. The supposed pillars of this framework, particularly the astronomical, are based on many tenuous assumptions that are far from absolute. For the second millennium BC, the calibrated Egyptian radiometric data seem to have generated as many questions as answers. Meanwhile, there is growing evidence of serious systemic chronology problems that demand some reconstruction of the conventional Egyptian framework.
The conundrum is that all of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East are dependent on the Egyptian chronology and there is a great deal of scholarly inertia to be overcome. Nevertheless, Egyptologists may need to consider a new building instead of continuing to merely move furniture within it.
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