The Date of the Exodus (1/2)

February 19, 2015

Despite over a century of detailed investigation, the date of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt remains a topic of extensive debate within scholarship.[1] Scholarly discussion focuses on exegetical concerns such as the interpretation of chronological data in the Old Testament, the correct identification of toponyms (place names), and the relationship between textual and archaeological data. This initial article summarizes the emergence of the two most commonly proposed dates.

History of Interpretation

Throughout the 19th century, Rameses II was considered the pharaoh under whom the Hebrews were enslaved, and his son Merneptah the pharaoh of the exodus.[2]  However, discovery of the Merneptah Stele, referring to Israel as a recognized people settled in Canaan by the 14th century, invalidated this view.

‘This new data appeared to require that Israel had already been settled there by the end of the 13th century BC. Placing Israel in Canaan this early in the reign of Merneptah raised obstacles for his having been the pharaoh of the Exodus. Israel obviously could not have left Egypt in the first year of Merneptah’s reign, wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and then appeared in Canaan as a settled ethnic group in his fifth year.’[3]

A revised interpretation identified Ramases II as the pharaoh of the exodus, a view which remained dominant throughout the rest of the 19th century, up to the 1920s.[4] [5] In 1925 a 15th century date was proposed.

‘This approach seems to have been pioneered initially by James Jack, who challenged the 13th-century BC date in his 1925 book, The Date of the Exodus in the Light of External Evidence. Jack argued that both biblical and extrabiblical evidence pointed to a mid-15th century BC date.’[6]

Textual Evidence

The early date rests principally on an application of the chronology given in 1 Kings 6:1, which appears to date the exodus 480 years before the reign of Solomon.[7] Since there is considerable agreement that Solomon’s reign started at around 960-960 BCE, counting 480 years back from this date places the exodus at c.1440 BCE. A second text seen as corroborating the early date is Judges 11:26, in which Jephthah’s claim that Israel had already been in Canaan for at least three hundred years[8] would appear to suggest an early date for the exodus.[9]

The late date receives textual support from Exodus 1:11, which refers specifically to the Hebrews building Pithom and Rameses for the Pharaoh.[10] Unlike 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26, this text rests on an absolute rather than a relative date; the construction of buildings at Pithom and Rameses.

‘Late-date theorists argue that, since the Exodus account used the name by which the city was known for about two centuries only (c. 1300–1100 B.C.), the Hebrew tradition of the exodus must also date from that period. In such an event Rameses II would have been the pharaoh of the oppression, and his son Merneptah (1224?–1214 B.C.) the pharaoh of the exodus.’[11]

Archaeological Evidence for the Conquest

In the absence of direct archaeological evidence for the Hebrew settlement in Goshen, and the lack of Egyptian records describing the Hebrews as an enslaved ethnic group, or the plagues, or subsequent exodus, attempts to date the exodus using archaeological evidence focused on dating the Hebrew entry into Canaan, searching for evidence of conquest.

Attempts have been made by proponents for both dates, and interpretation of the archaeological record has been much contested. In the 1930s, archaeologist John Garstang’s excavations of Tell es-Sultan led him to conclude there was strong evidence for a Hebrew destruction of Jericho before 1400 BCE, lending weight to an early date exodus.[12]

However, Kathleen Kenyon’s subsequent investigation of the site re-dated the destruction to around 1500 BCE, too early for the Hebrews.[13] Efforts by Bryant Wood to defend Garstang’s dating and attribute the destruction of Jericho to an early date Hebrew conquest,[14] [15] have not gained any significant scholarly acceptance outside evangelical circles. Contemporary with Garstang, archaeologist Wiliam Albright arrived at a late date for the exodus, on the basis of his investigations of Canaanite archaeological sites.[16]

In response to acknowledged difficulties harmonizing an early date with the archaeological record, in the 1970s John Bimson proposed a Hebrew conquest during the end of the Middle Bronze Age, which seemed to fit the Biblical record more closely.[17] However, Bimson’s interpretation was critiqued strongly by many scholars.

‘The critique of Bimson’s proposal came from numerous quarters. Bietak objected that his suggested alteration was only fifty years, therefore still in the sixteenth century, and could not be stretched as far as Bimson needed it to be. B. Halpern objected that the changes suggested by Bimson would leave a reduced time span for LB I that could not possibly accommodate the archaeological data.’ [18]

Archaeological evidence for destruction and occupation layers supporting a late date exodus, was considered more abundant.

‘Archaeological evidence from Canaanite sites such as Bethel, Debir, Lachish, and Hazor indicates destruction at 13th-century B.C. levels, a fact generally regarded as relating to the Hebrew occupation under Joshua.’[19]

Evidence from Philistine sites tends to favor a late rather than an early date for the exodus. Against that, however, must be set the fact that the major Philistine occupation of the southern Palestinian coastlands only occurred around 1175 B.C., in the time of Rameses III.’[20]

The Ongoing Dispute

By the 1970s the date of the exodus had ceased to become a significant concern within critical scholarship, as many commentators no longer believed in the essential historicity of the event. However, the issue continued to be debated hotly among evangelical and other faith professing scholars, as well as among a minority report of critical scholars and those professional archaeologists who considered the Biblical exodus account to preserve an essentially accurate historical core.

The second article in this series will compare and contrast the evidence and arguments advanced for each date, together with their respective counter-arguments.

[1]The date of the Exodus is one of the most debated topics in OT studies because of the ambiguous nature of the evidence.’, Shea, ‘Exodus, Date of the’, in Bromiley et al. (eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, volume 2 (1979–1988), 230.

[2] ‘With the identification of Ramesses II as the pharaoh of the oppression, his son Merneptah, who succeeded him on the throne, naturally became the pharaoh of the Exodus. Based on this reasoning, the biblical Exodus was securely located by scholars within the 19th Dynasty of Egypt (1293–1185 BC) throughout the nineteenth century.’, Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 31-32.

[3] Ibid., p. 32.

[4] ‘Up until about 1925, this position was widely held by scholars, both evangelical and otherwise.’, ibid., p. 32.

[5]At the beginning of the 20th century many scholars, both liberal and conservative, placed the date toward the end of the 13th century B.C.’, Harrison, ‘Exodus, The’, in Elwell & Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (1988), 742.

[6] Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 33.

[7] 1 Kings 6:1 In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, during the month Ziv (the second month), he began building the LORD’s temple.

[8] Judges 11:26 Israel has been living in Heshbon and its nearby towns, in Aroer and its nearby towns, and in all the cities along the Arnon for three hundred years! Why did you not reclaim them during that time?

[9] ‘If 1100 BC is taken as an approximate date for Jephthah’s activities, this would place the taking of the Transjordan under Moses (Numbers 21) around 1400 BC, about 40 years after the departure from Egypt.’, Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 33.

[10] Exodus 1:11 So they put foremen over the Israelites to oppress them with hard labor. As a result they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.

[11] Harrison, ‘Exodus, The’, in Elwell & Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (1988), 743.

[12] ‘Garstang identified several levels of debris there, indicating that the city had been rebuilt a number of times. He concluded that the one built about 1500 B.C. was the Jericho overthrown by Joshua’s forces (Jos 6). Garstang’s statement that Jericho had fallen before 1400 appeared to support the time frame of 1 Kings 6:1, and was received enthusiastically by supporters of the 15th-century B.C. date.’, ibid., p. 743.

[13] ‘Garstang’s discoveries at Jericho have been modified seriously by the subsequent work of another archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon. She found no trace of Late Bronze Age walls, which indicates that the city Garstang thought to have been conquered by Joshua was considerably earlier than his time. Unfortunately, the mound has been so ravaged by erosion and human pillaging that it reveals almost nothing about the Jericho of Joshua’s day, and thus does not help to simplify matters.’, ibid., p. 744.

[14] Wood, ‘Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence’, Biblical Archaeology Review, 16/2 (March/April 1990), 44-58.

[15] Wood, ‘The Walls of Jericho’, Bible and Spade 12/2 (1999).

[16] ‘The 13th-century exodus-conquest theory was formulated by William F. Albright in the 1930s, based largely on Palestinian archaeological evidence, and promoted by him throughout his career.’, Wood, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48/3 (2005), 473.

[17] ‘The Late Bronze Age (LB) was characterized by a problematic lack of fortified cities. The MB in Canaan, in sharp contrast, featured the massive and numerous walled cities that the books of Numbers and Joshua seem to suggest, and many of them were destroyed at the end of the period.’, Walton, ‘Exodus, Date of’, in Alexander & Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (2003), 259.

[18] Ibid., p. 259.

[19] Harrison, ‘Exodus, The’, in Elwell & Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (1988), 744.

[20] Ibid., p. 744.


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