In April 2001, 42-year-old Rabbi David Wolpe, regarded as one of the leading Jewish prelates and thinkers in America, dropped a bombshell. Speaking before his congregation, Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, he admitted that he had little reason to believe that there was much historical basis to the Exodus narrative. As reported in the Los Angeles Times
“The truth is that virtually every modern archaeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”
The fact that Wolpe was speaking on Passover itself – the Jewish festival which commemorates the Exodus – and that the Los Angeles Times was there to cover his sermon, goes a long way to explaining the purpose of Wolpe’s sudden admission: he was engaging in an act of political and theological revisionism (some might even say sabotage) – attempting to bring Judaism into line with modern scholarship and archaeological research, which, he later averred, had found nothing in 200 years to corroborate the Biblical account of the Israelite departure from Egypt.
The characterization of the Exodus as a fanciful myth has of course some telling consequences. Among them is that many of the greatest events of the Biblical period may never have actually occurred. It would mean that there was no historical Moses, no Ten Plagues, no slaughter of the first born, no parting of the Red Sea, no desert wandering, no fall of Jericho and no conquest of the land of Canaan. It could also just possibly mean that there was no ‘ historical’ Ten Commandments at all.
Without sufficient archaeological evidence to corroborate the Exodus, the entire story can be regarded as no more than a heroic narrative woven out of whole cloth by later chroniclers to lend both legitimacy and purpose to the Israelite claim to the land of Israel. This of course plays into the hands of an assorted range of secularists, atheists, anti-Semites and Israel bashers who are looking for exactly such a quote from a major Jewish leader to either delegitimize the State of Israel, smear Judaism or else deny the Jewish people’s historical claims to the land.
Wolpe’s admission naturally whipped up a firestorm in the American Jewish community but he was quickly supported by many contemporary Biblical scholars who bewailed the absence of an authoritative archaeological record and who had to sadly admit that the archaeologists may be right.
But what if Biblical archaeology has made some fundamental errors about the historical occurrence of the Exodus?
It is almost universally accepted that the Exodus, if it occurred at all, took place in the 13th Century BCE, during the reign of the greatest of Ancient Egypt’s builders – Rameses II. And it is true enough that in this period there is scant archaeological evidence to buttress the Exodus story.
Yet is it possible that Biblical archaeologists for the past 100 years have been looking in the wrong time period? Could it be that they may have been off the historical mark on the Exodus by up to 300 years? And if so, what would they find if they looked there?
That is the starting point for Tim Mahoney’s elegant documentary Patterns of Evidence, a film which records the personal journey of a film maker seeking to uncover the truth about the Exodus. His journey takes him to several countries – to archaeological sites in Egypt and Israel, to the halls of academia in the United States, England and Germany while attempting to maintain an objective mind -free, as much as possible, of the pitfalls of bias and prejudice which at one time or another afflicts almost every historical academic discipline.
At the beginning of the film Mahoney outlines his mission: “I didn’t go with a preconceived conclusion, but I was willing to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt as we searched for the truth. I went to the top people in the world and said: ‘Tell me what you know about this story and what does the archaeology tell you.’ I talked with both sides – people who can’t see any evidence for Exodus and people who see the evidence. It became a balanced approach.”
As the film proceeds the evidence mounts that the period of the Middle Kingdom,(2050 BCE and 1652 BCE) if assessed to be the correct chronological time for the Exodus, rather than the New Kingdom (1570–1070 BCE) provides a trove evidence for the existence of a slave tribe which resided in the Nile Delta, its sudden departure from the historical recor , graves which might belong to the twelve sons of Jacob and one grave of which is missing its sarcophagus and might be the grave of the Biblical Joseph.
The film reveals is that there is a body of scholarship – although substantially in the minority, which has found that there is abundant evidence to validate the Exodus, but only if the chronology is shifted back 250 years. Included in such evidence is a papyrus dated from that time period which recounts an episode of blood in the River Nile and plagues of insects descending on the Nile Delta. In addition to this hieroglyphics on stelae indicating the existence of the Biblical Joseph and grave sites offering a glimpse into the slave life of the ancient homeland of Azair – the Biblical Goshen – all of which offer tantalizing evidence to support the Middle Kingdom hypothesis.
So what is keeping archaeologists from making this leap? Well, first all, this kind of revisionism messes up history big time since the dating of other civilizations is tied to the Ancient Egyptian chronology and calendar. Second, there are reputations to consider since if the key Biblical archaeologists have been getting their chronology wrong all these years what does it say about their credibility as historians? As we have seen repeatedly in recent years, money, reputation, career advancement and the quest for academic survival can often trump the search for truth in academia. Archaeologists have a great deal to protect in continuing to debunk the Bible as historical fact.
But as I watched the film I was visited by an uneasy feeling.
Arguing that secular scholars are completely wrong or that their opponents are completely right does not serve historical analysis too faithfully. Could it be that truth falls somewhere in between the position that Mahoney stakes out and the one traditionally advanced by Egyptologists? It is impossible to either know or to understand this from viewing a two hour film. Real historical research is pounded out in the dialogue between hundreds of articles and papers, and refined in the back and forth of peer review.
By viewing this documentary most people, for instance, would not know that the revised Egyptian chronology is not a new theory at all – is in fact decades old – and that it has been shown to create as many problems for biblical chronology as it solves.
And one thing other thing Mahoney fails to do is to examine in depth the reason Biblical scholarship focuses so intently on the New Kingdom rather than the Middle Kingdom to locate the story of the Exodus. After all, there is such a thing as carbon dating, as well as comparative literature from the period and other scientific indicators which might justify the time period almost universally accepted by the Biblical scholars. This question demanded much greater examination.
And of course there are then the philosophical arguments.
In the midst of narrator’s journey Mahoney comes across the writings of Sir Alan Henderson Gardiner – one of the world’s most famous Egyptologists, who admits that all we really have left of the great civilizations that once existed in the desert sands of the Middle East are mere ‘rags and tatters’ – the detritus of a civilization and not its essential core.
With so little evidence, not only for the Exodus story but for any civilization or event which once existed, how can archaeologists truly be sure of anything? Is it not true that the findings of archaeologists lead not to the re-creation of historical facts, but rather the establishment of theories that are rarely ever so water tight that they can never be challenged?
This kind of discussion also leads to some pretty heavy epistemological arguments, namely, how do we actually ever know anything? Aren’t those who accept the argument that the Exodus never happened merely transferring their faith from one written version of the past to a faith in another’s scientific methods that they can neither personally nor empirically verify nor corroborate?
I have always marveled at David Wolpe’s reasoning on this level: for surely, as a rabbi who believes in the existence of a G’d, he understands the philosophical contortions through which he must pass in order to state so affirmatively that the Biblical story is almost certainly myth. He is, after all, relying on research that he did not personally conduct and on a historical methodology for establishing a chronology with which he is probably unfamiliar. How can he be so sure that the perspective he has so wholesomely adopted was not itself refracted through bias and prejudice and which might be just as determined not to find any evidence of the Exodus as the film maker’s archaeological subjects are to find it?
People of faith don’t require archaeology to corroborate their beliefs. If we accept that archaeology is a notoriously inexact method of determining historical truth – given the ‘rags and tatters ‘ theory elucidated above, could it not be that the evidence of the Exodus is still waiting to be discovered beneath the mountains of sand and sediment in the Nile Delta?
Why then the rush to judgement when, in the absence of authoritative proof such as a contemporary manuscript, we have what is essentially a written historical narrative, composed many, many centuries closer to the events than we stand today and which operates as at least a tangential guide to understanding this era? This amounts to giving the Bible ‘the benefit of the doubt’ as Mahoney states in his introduction and it is what the pre-modern archaeologists certainly did.
The eagerness to debunk the Bible’s historical validity is a default intellectual reflex in today’s secular world- a world riven with satirists, deconstructionists and debunkers who gleefully skewer religion at every available opportunity.
But as Mahoney himself states in his book on the subject, the absence of evidence should never be regarded as evidence of absence. That is a credo that both sides of the divide of this important historical inquiry would be well advised to adopt.
Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone