Dating the Israelite Exodus from Egypt

Posted by David Gadbois

In 2014 a filmmaker named Timothy Mahoney released the documentary Patterns of Evidence, seeking to demonstrate the historical veracity of the Exodus account, largely through its sympathetic treatment (if not outright endorsement) of a revisionist timeline known as the New Chronology, an idea that has its genesis in English Egyptologist David Rohl.  Mahoney is not a scholar but claims to have spent over a decade of research on the film, and while he seems very well-meaning it must be said that this thesis does more harm than good to those believers and unbelievers who are making an honest inquiry into the matter.

The movie has since made its way to Netflix, and has become influential to many evangelicals.  Unfortunately, this is leading many people down the blind alley of the New Chronology.  This scheme down-dates the traditional Egyptian chronology by several centuries.  There is no need to embrace a revisionist timeline.  It is imperative that we, as Christians, handle the matters of biblical history with great care, so that in our apologetic witness we would not give reason for skeptics to cast doubt on the biblical testimony.  The truth matters and, indeed, God is truth.

The dating of Israel’s exodus from Egypt is a fairly daunting issue even for scholars who specialize in the relevant historical fields and devote their lives to such issues.  It is even more daunting for laymen such as myself to sift through such matters.  But we can at least consider an overview of the positions held by sound, contemporary scholars.

At this time Ted Wright, Bryant Wood, Charles Ailing, and Douglas Petrovich are at the forefront in defending a 15th century exodus from Egypt (1446/7 BC).

On the other side, favoring a 13th century exodus under the pharaoh Ramses II, are Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier (as of at least 2007).  While their conclusions may not be correct, I consider their motives and expertise unimpeachable.

John Currid does seem warm to the idea of a 13th century exodus in the EP Study Commentary of Exodus vol. 1 (2014, first published in 2000), but nonetheless concludes “For now, the date of the exodus and the conquest must remain an open question.  More evidence is needed.  I would agree with Waltke that a definitive verdict cannot be arrived at ‘until more data puts the date of the conquest beyond reasonable doubt.  If that be true, either date is an acceptable working hypothesis, and neither date should be held dogmatically.'”

From what I can tell, Bruce Waltke seems to have gone from a firm 15th century advocate to saying that the matter is “uncertain” in his OT Theology (2007).

More recently, Duane Garrett has echoed this uncertainty in his Exodus commentary (Kregel Exegetical Library, 2014).  He provides a helpful, up-to-date, and balanced overview of the various positions, and covers the merits of not only the Early Date (15th century) and Late Date (13th century) but also a Very Early Date (16th century) and a Very Late Date (12th century).  He only dismisses “radical revisions to Egyptian chronology and history carried out by amateurs and by a few unconventional scholars” such as David Rohl (p. 102, see fn).

I mention the above names for several reasons: 1.  because they are alive and can be expected to express reasonably up-to-date scholarship 2.  because they are reformed or evangelical, as best as I can tell, or at least are highly sympathetic to the biblical account.  As such I believe they are arguing in good faith.  3.  because they have relevant specialization and expertise on the subject.  As far as I can tell, everyone listed except Wright and Kitchen have PhD’s in relevant fields, and collectively the breadth of their expertise covers ANE history, religions, archeology, semitic languages, Egyptology, middle Egyptian, and so on.

The most relevant, direct evangelical exchange on the subject is probably the back-and-forth between Bryant Wood and James Hoffmeier found in JETS 48/3 and 50/2 (here and here).

The most interesting recent developments on the archaeological side of the issue, that post-date the above literature, come from Douglas Petrovich.  He has maintained for some time that the pharaoh of the Exodus is Amenhotep II, and that the timing was 1446 B.C. (Amenhotep II and the Historicity of the Exodus-Pharaoh, TMSJ 17/1).  Moreover, he holds that the Israelites departed from their dwelling place in the archaeological site now known as Avaris.  In this he is in line with the views of Bryant Wood.  He just recently earned his PhD in ANE history and archeology from the University of Toronto (where Wood and Hoffmeier also earned their doctorates), and made a bit of news last year when he claimed that ancient Hebrew was the first proto-consonantal alphabet and derivative of Egyptian hieroglyphics.  He published the case for this thesis in The World’s Oldest Alphabet:  Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script.

This finding goes back to only 2012. With the names of three biblical characters in view on the materials he studied, the implications obviously go above and beyond the nature of the written Hebrew language.

Moreover, he believes that recent Austrian-led archaeological digs at Avaris have turned up evidence that the site was abruptly abandoned during the reign of Amenhotep II.  He made this case in  The Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 5/2.  He intended to write a book, “Evidence of Israelites in Egypt”, based on this and other recent archaeological evidence.  After inquiring about the status of the book via e-mail correspondence to Dr. Petrovich, he wrote back and indicated that the timing of publication of this book is currently uncertain.  He decided to publish the book on the Hebrew alphabet first, since he considered that thesis to be more unassailable in the scholarly community.

I can only mention in passing that there is, likewise, recent archaeological evidence that has surfaced regarding Israel’s conquest of Canaan in a compatible time-frame, for instance at the site of Ai.

Hopefully the Lord will continue to bless this generation as more archaeological work is done and the data continue to shed light on this difficult topic.  For now, I would assert that the revisionist timeline of Rohl is an unnecessary diversion.  It would be far wiser to pay attention to the work of the solid evangelical scholars mentioned above.  In that regard, I believe that the legitimacy of criticisms of the historicity of the exodus on the basis of archaeological evidence is quickly evaporating.

 ***Post script.  I would not want to dissuade anyone who is reasonably informed and of a discerning spirit to view Patterns of Evidence.  It is an entertaining documentary, with very high production values, and it does retain redeeming features:  the archaeology of Jericho, Joseph’s tomb, the Merneptah Stele, the Berlin Fragment, and interviews with a handful of conservative scholars.

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