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Historical Problems with the Hebrew Bible: The Exodus Narrative

In response to a question about the problems posed to critical scholars by the Hebrew Bible I have so far provided two posts, one involving the surviving manuscripts (do we know what the authors originally said?) and the other with apparent discrepancies (where accounts appear to be at odds with one another).   I will now provide a couple of posts dealing with the equally big problem that the Hebrew Bible narrates events that probably did not take place, at least as described.   Today I will provide a chunk from my forthcoming book on the Bible about the exodus event under Moses, in which Moses led the children of Israel out from their slavery in Egypt and a great miracle transpired at the parting of the Sea of Reeds (traditionally called the Red Sea), where the children of Israel were allowed to cross on dry land before the waters rushed back destroying Pharaoh’s entire army (as narrated in Exodus 14).  It’s an absolutely amazing, terrific story.  But it does not appear to be historical.  Here are some reasons why:

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Exodus from a Historical Perspective

It has proved difficult for biblical scholars to establish when these events are to have taken place.  The most common dating of the exodus event places it around 1250 BCE, both because the text indicates that the Israelites had been in Egypt for 430 years (which would coincide roughly with the narrative of Genesis, when Joseph would have gone to Egypt at the beginning of the 17th century BCE, according to the chronology we adopted there) and because of two other considerations.

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Historical Problems with the Hebrew Bible: The Conquest of Canaan
Inconsistencies in the Hebrew Bible

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Deaconess  June 9, 2013

    That was very interesting…thank you Prof Ehrman. My favorite book of all time from the Unity Church library is “Finding Yourself in Transition” by Robert Brumet. The book gives a metaphysical interpretation of the exodus which I found extremely helpful during a time of great change in my life.

  2. Avatar
    TomTerrific  June 9, 2013

    These threads on contradictions and problems with scripture are fascinating, but aren’t they of interest mainly to those who consider the Bible, particularly the King James version, inerrant? And that would be a small but noisy bunch of fundamentalists, who, if you look at them and their beliefs, are heretics?

    If you look at the Christian Bible as a big picture of a bunch of stories trying to convey ideas, inerrancy isn’t a problem.

    I am really looking forward to your take on how the Old Testament was included in Xtn scripture.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      My sense is that people who think the Bible is inerrant would not be interested in these issues at all! 🙂

      But they are of more importance than simply for the question of the inspiration of Scripture. They are also important because (a) they show us that these are literary texts, not historically accurate texts, and so need to be read for what they can tell us as literature (just like all other great literature) and (b) they can help us understand the historical development — the actual, historical development — of ancient Israel, when the texts are used critically. That matters for anyone interested in history, whether a Jew, Christian, or other.

  3. Avatar
    maxhirez  June 9, 2013

    One of my favorite NOVA episodes is “The Bible’s Buried Secrets,” in which the archaeology and texts are compared and Wm. Dever’s hypothesis is put forth that a small group of slaves escaped Egypt, adopted the Shasu God Yah as they travelled to Canaan, and that their story became the narrative for the Israelite historical identity of ex-Canaanites migrating to the hills from the city-states. Where does the mass of scholarship stand in relation to this group of ideas? There are also several fringe ideas about Moses actually being the heretic monotheist Pharoah Akenaten or his priest Osarseph which are popular with the black helicopter crowd-do you have any favorite nutball versions of biblical history?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      I’m attracted to Dever’s views, as are many other scholars; but there are lots and lots of shcolars who find these views far too skeptical. As to the nutballs — I avoid them!

      • Avatar
        qaelith2112  June 15, 2013

        Dever is actually quite moderate compared to the minimalists!! I’ve always been perplexed by those who found him “too skeptical”. Those, unfortunately, would prefer to take the text at face value and assume that events happened as written — most of those scholars tend to dismiss the Documentary Hypothesis, don’t accept that some tale or another might have simply been an etiology, etc.

        I favor Dever’s views as well — I’m persuaded that there was in fact a historical David and a lineage of monarchs, rather than the view of the minimalists who contend that much of that history was entirely fabricated during the exile. The OT minimalists would seem to have something in common with the Jesus Mythicists. I’d guess there is probably quite a bit of overlap between the two groups.

  4. gmatthews
    gmatthews  June 10, 2013

    There was a fantastic (in my opinion!) program on NOVA on PBS a few years ago that discussed this very topic, that is to say, the origins of the Israelites in Egypt as well as associated topics such as the origins of Moses, time frame of the Exodus, origins of Yahweh, origins of the Israelites as a people in general as well as a few other things. As far as I can remember it was not a defense of any Biblical account and entirely scholarly as opposed to something you might find from Simcha Jacobovici (eg, that pile of garbage he produced a couple years ago on the Exodus). A couple of interesting topics discussed was the theory that the Israelites were originally just Canaanites who escaped or left Egypt and later invented the Exodus (or it developed from legend over time, can’t remember); and, the Egyptian origins of the Moses. The program, The Bible’s Buried Secrets, is free to view on the PBS web site: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/bibles-buried-secrets.html. I hope it’s ok to post this external link. I figured PBS was probably safe 🙂

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 10, 2013

    Just general reading of the Exodus story results in thinking that this story may by legend rather than history. How do so many live off manna for so long? Anyway, it’s good to have even more evidence, provided in this blog, to confirm that it is legendary. Thanks.

  6. Avatar
    Forrest  June 10, 2013

    The late Siegfried H Horn agreed that 600,000 men plus an equal number of women and children which might include up to 2,500,000 was impossible. His solution to this was that the aleph which is translated as 1,000 could be translated as squads, companies, or some much smaller units. Therefore the Israelites coming coming out of Egypt would be far smaller in number.

    If that were accurate how would that impact this discussion?

    Interested in your thoughts.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      Yes, it certainly would change things. I don’t know of any translators who thinks that’s what it means, but yes it would change things.

  7. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 10, 2013

    I’m confused. You say it was Menerptah’s grandfather, Pharaoh Seti I (1294-1279) who would have first enslaved the Israelites, and his son Seti’s son, Ramses II (1279-1213) who would have been the Pharaoh at the time of the exodus. How could this be if the Iarealites were enslaved for 400 some years?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      Sorry — according to this theory they were in Egypt for 400 years, but were not enslaved the entire time.

  8. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  June 10, 2013

    Yeah, the logistics of this endeavor (especially also the food required) would have been crazy! lol

    Also, how long would it have taken 2-3 million people to cross a more or less narrow straight through the Sea of Reeds? 😀

    And why didn’t YHWH simply teleport them to the other side (or immediately into Israel)? Oh my, it’s so much fun to treat these ancient myths as ‘history’.

  9. Avatar
    samchahal  June 10, 2013

    Hi Bart, a off key question if I can: You mentioned in a previous post that the earliest surviving texts we have of the NT Gospels date to around 300 CE, how about the letters of Paul? Whats the earliest copy we have and how are scholars convinced that 7 of the 13 letters are actaully written by Paul and authentic? Do we have several copies which have no differences in text? please advise,

    thanks

    Sam

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      The earliest surviving texts are from the second century. The earliest ms with chunks of Paul is P46, around 200 CE. The question of whether Paul wrote the letters or not is unrelated to the question of which manuscripts we have.

  10. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 10, 2013

    Also if Menerptah had laid waste to Israel near the end of the 13th century, were the Children of Israel not living there then? Isn’t this about the time Joshua was kicking butt all over the land of Canaan? And if I remember my history, this was near the end of the Bronze Age and the whole area had declined as traffic dropped off along the trade routes and the Egyptians were having trouble with the “sea people”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      Yes, that’s part of the point. The Menerptah stele calls into question the biblical accounts of what happened (under Joshua, e.g.), but it confirms that there was an Israel in the land.

  11. Avatar
    gavm  June 10, 2013

    the only decent evidence i think there for the exodus is the names. Moses and Aaron are Egyptian names Moses is from Raamses). Professor Christine Hayes from Yale talks about this on youtube. there are non magical explanations for this but it is interesting

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 10, 2013

    Is there any truth to two things I read (somewhere) years ago?

    1. The Egyptians didn’t have the institution of slavery – they conscripted their own people (doubtless not including the upper classes) to perform public works such as pyramid-building. Comparable to a military draft today. If Hebrews were being forced to participate, it wasn’t technically “slavery,” and Egyptians were being forced to do the same things.

    2. The etymology of the word “Hebrew” indicates that it referred (originally, at least) to people who hired themselves out by the day.

    By the way, I know the stories about Moses’ birth were cribbed from legends about at least one other Middle Eastern hero, though I’ve forgotten the name or names. I was surprised by your saying the majority of scholars don’t agree with you that the historicity of Moses is comparable to that of King Arthur.

    I remember, a few years ago, its being amusing that two very different books/theories about Moses came out at the same time. One claimed the story of Moses and, I think, the entire Pentateuch, had been written – and understood, at the time – as fiction. By a female author. The other maintained the whole story was true, except for one teensy detail: Moses wasn’t really a Jew – he was the rightful Pharaoh!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      1. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Last time I was in Egypt my tour guide, who seemed like a smart enough guy, told me that the pyramids were built by hired labor. I don’t know what the scholars say about it.

      2. No, I don’t think that’s what the word Hebrew means.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 10, 2013

    I might add that the information that the offspring of Jacob could not have expanded to over 2.5 million in just a few generations is quite helpful and is a new idea/concept for me. Thanks

  14. talitakum
    talitakum  June 10, 2013

    Your post is provocative (and historically accurate), I like it. I try to be even more provocative: can you tell us the name of some jewish scholars who agree on the fact that exodus never happened?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      I’d suggest you read Silberman and Finkelstein, Unearthing the Bible.

      • talitakum
        talitakum  June 11, 2013

        Well, when talking of ‘New Testament scholars’ usually you don’t include archeologists… In any case you provided a good example of ‘minimalist approach’ from Jewish scholars (although not strictly scholars of Biblical texts).

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 11, 2013

          There are archaeologists who work on first-century Palestine of course….

          • talitakum
            talitakum  June 13, 2013

            Of course. But usually you don’t include archaeologists in the list of NT scholars together with Sanders, Dunn, Meier, Wright, Allison, Ehrman, etc.
            There are actually Jewish scholars among NT scholars (G. Vermes, Amy-Jill Levine, P. Fredriksen, etc.), so I wonder if “OT Jewish scholars” confirm the historical facts you’re exposing in these posts.
            I’m not very familiar with OT studies, that’s why I’m asking. I know few names (Emmanuel Tov, Peter Schafer, D. Boyarin) but I’m not acquainted with such scholarship.
            So, put aside archaeologists , do “OT Jewish scholars” confirm the historical facts you’re exposing in these posts?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 13, 2013

            Depends which scholar you ask! It’s like asking “what do Christian scholars” think. Some do agree, most do not….

  15. Avatar
    raskel  June 11, 2013

    I guess I like NT stuff better than the OT because the NT is something of a historical puzzle/ whereas the OT you pretty much have to say legend most of the time (unless you’re dating the Book of Daniel.)

  16. Avatar
    FrankJay71  June 11, 2013

    Is the sense that the writers of the Pentateuch, and Exodus in general believed they were writing an accurate account of historical events. It seems that educated scribes would know that some of the “fact” they were writing were outlandish in light of the information on hand.
    Also, do you think there’s a kernel of truth in the story of Exodus? Why would Hebrew writers would include a story in which they are descended from slaves if there is no truth in it? What would be the purpose of placing Joseph and his descendents in Egypt for 400 years in the first place if a lot of the Pentateuch is about affirmin Gods promise to Abraham of the land of Israel?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 11, 2013

      I doubt if anyone in antiquity had sources available to check the accuracy of the story — if such a thing would have even occurred to someone at the time. My sense is that there may have been one of the groups that eventually made up Israel that escaped from a plight in Egypt, and this led to some VERY BIG exaggerations about their past. I talk about this a bit in today’s post.

  17. Avatar
    donmax  June 12, 2013

    Here’s a quote from someone I admire and occasionally agree with : “[Bible stories] are important because (a) they show us that these are literary texts, not historically accurate texts, and so need to be read for what they can tell us as literature (just like all other great literature) and (b) they can help us understand the historical development — the actual, historical development — of ancient Israel, when the texts are used critically. That matters for anyone interested in history, whether a Jew, Christian, or other.” Amen to that!!! I would add that the mass enslavement of Jews (Habirus?) is also a literary fiction, as is the notion that there rescuer was a Jewish/Egyptian prince.

  18. Avatar
    donmax  June 14, 2013

    Not really, Bart. I agree with you more than you might think. It’s just my nature to focus on the things that are important to me along the historical road “less taken.” Capish? 🙂

  19. Avatar
    evodevo  August 4, 2013

    The dating of the whole Exodus story to the 13th century is very unlikely from an archaeological point of view. Throughout the 13th century, the Hittites and the Egyptians vied for control of Canaan/Palestine/Retenu and were in and out, and back and forth repeatedly. There were Egyptian garrisons/temples in the Canaanite cities. (See Beth Shean – http://www.academia.edu/2579568/The_Egyptian_Garrison_Town_at_Beth_Shean) The Egyptian presence didn’t really end, at least at Beth Shean, until the reign of Rameses IV or later.
    Merneptah’s stele (~1200 BCE) states that: “The princes are prostrate, saying “Mercy”; no one raises his head among the Nine Bows; desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified; plundered is the Canaan with every evil; carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer; Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not; Hurru is become a widow for Egypt; all lands together they are pacified; everyone who was restless, he has been bound ….. ”

    Doesn’t sound much like an area where Joshua would be free to “conquer” the land of Canaan to me. I guess the fundamentalists are going to have to rethink their dates.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 5, 2013

      Most fundamentalists actually give a different date. But archaeology is not kind to any date, I’m afraid.

  20. Avatar
    JohnKesler  December 12, 2014

    Richard Elliott Friedman and some other scholars believe that only the tribe of Levi was in Egypt and brought Yahweh worship (perhaps acquired from Moses’ father-in-law Jethro–the Kenite hypothesis) to the El-worshiping Israelites. Exodus 6:2-3 claims that El and Yahweh were the same deity all along. Commending Friedman’s theory are his following points:
    1) Some Levites–Moses, Hophni, et al.–have Egyptian names.
    2) One of the oldest sources in the Bible, the Song of Deborah (Judges 9), makes no mention of Levi.
    3) Another of the Bible’s oldest sources, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), does not mention the number of people involved in the Exodus. The great numbers, 603,550 men, for example, come from the later Priestly writer.
    4) The Levites had no land inheritance, a fact consistent with their late arrival.
    5) The Levites are associated with violence in four different sources (Exodus 32, Genesis 49, Deut. 33, Genesis 34), so they may have insisted on being the priestly caste and getting a tithe in lieu of land. Yahweh was then appropriated as the God of Israel and conflated with El.

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