The Bible and Egyptian History
CONCERN is sometimes expressed over the difficulty in harmonizing the historical passages of the Bible with the system of chronology founded on ancient records—those of Egypt, for example. Naturally, such concern can be justified only if the secular annals are factual, exact and consistently reliable. Where, then, do we stand in this respect? Does Egypt’s early history offer a reliable standard? Of more than passing interest, too, is the question, How does the Bible record compare with those secular annals?
Egyptian history, as Bible readers know, was directly related to Biblical history over a considerable period—from the time of Abraham’s early visit to Egypt right through to the time the Jews fled there after Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon. That period included the astonishing series of calamitous blows that came upon Egypt in swift succession and the subsequent march of the Israelites to freedom in face of the overwhelming power of Pharaoh and his army. The Bible’s account is set forth clearly and factually. But what about the records of Egypt?
For information on ancient Egyptian history modern historians rely principally on certain documents in the form of Egyptian king lists. Among these are: the fragmentary Palermo Stone, listing what are supposed to be the first five dynasties of Egyptian history; the Turin Papyrus, very incomplete and giving a list of kings and their reigns from the time of the “Old Kingdom” into the “New Kingdom”; and miscellaneous lists inscribed in stone, none of which are in a really complete state. In order to coordinate these fragmentary records and set up a chronological sequence, historians depend heavily on the writings of Manetho, an Egyptian priest of the third century B.C.E.
But the trouble is, Manetho’s writings have not survived to our day. We have to rely on references to and quotations from his work in the writings of later historians, such as Josephus of the first century C.E., Sextus Julius Africanus of the third century C.E., Eusebius of the fourth century C.E., and Syncellus of the eighth or ninth century C.E. And what makes matters even more difficult, those historians were frequently inaccurate in their quotations. According to Professor W. G. Waddell, their quotations from Manetho are “fragmentary and often distorted,” with the result that “it is extremely difficult to reach certainty in regard to what is authentic Manetho and what is spurious or corrupt.”
After showing that Manetho’s source material included some unhistorical traditions and legends, often without regard to chronological order, Professor Waddell says: “There were many errors in Manetho’s work from the very beginning: all are not due to the perversions of scribes and revisers. Many of the lengths of reigns have been found impossible: in some cases the names and sequence of kings as given by Manetho have proved untenable in the light of monumental evidence.”—Manetho (1940), pages vii, xvii, xx, xxi, xxv.
This matter of king lists is a knotty problem, for when all are taken into account the years of Egyptian history are magnified into an incredible total. Thus, The Encyclopædia Britannica (1965 ed., Vol. 5, pp. 722, 723) says of these lists: “ . . . they have to be used with caution when attempting to reconstruct the chronological framework of Egyptian history; in certain epochs, for instance, it appears that rival kings or even whole dynasties, listed consecutively by Manetho, were ruling at the same time.”
RECONSTRUCTING EGYPTIAN HISTORY
Thus it has been necessary for Egyptologists to reconstruct and revise their views of Egyptian history, not once, but often, during the past hundred years or so. Note, now, how various authorities on Egyptology, generally contemporary, have arrived at widely different conclusions on the date of the first ruling dynasty, supposedly begun by the unification of Egypt under King Menes.
According to 1st Dynasty Begins
Champollion 5867 B.C.E.
Mariette 5004 “
Lauth 4157 “
Lepsius 3892 “
Breasted 3400 “
Meyer 3180 “
Wilkinson 2320 “
Palmer 2224 “
Add to this variety the date presently popular among historians of about 2900 B.C.E.
The Egyptians developed astronomy to some extent, and we have Egyptian texts dealing with lunar phases and the rising of the Dog Star (Sothis). These have been pressed into service, by combining these with other fragmentary data, to build up a chronological table giving approximate dates for the various dynasties as follows:
Predynastic Cultures c.3000-2850 B.C.E.
Dynasties I to VI c.2850-2200 “
Dynasties VII to XII c.2200-1786 “
Dynasties XIII to XX c.1786-1085 “
Dynasties XXI to XXXI c.1085-332 “
While it might be hoped that the use of astronomical data would give a precise chronology, this is not the case. The rising of the Dog Star (used to calculate the years of a “Sothic period”) is not constant in retardation. A slight miscalculation of one day can throw a date off about a hundred and twenty years. The observations based on the naked-eye observance of the Egyptians were certainly not as accurate as modern-day telescopic observations and could easily have been a day wrong.
Why do Egyptian records fail to provide any information about the Exodus and the stirring events that preceded it? This is really not surprising, since, as Professor of Egyptology J. A. Wilson states, “Egyptian records were always positive, emphasizing the successes of the pharaoh or the god, whereas failures and defeats were never mentioned, except in some context of the distant past.” (The World History of the Jewish People, 1964, Vol. I, pp. 338, 339) The Egyptians were not above destroying records of a previous reign if the information was distasteful to the pharaoh then in power. Thus, after the death of Queen Hatshepsut, Thutmose III had her names and representations chiseled out of the monumental reliefs.
The pharaoh who ruled at the time of the Exodus is not named in the Bible; hence, efforts to identify him are based on conjecture. This, in part, explains why modern calculations of the date of the Exodus among secular historians vary from 1441 B.C.E. to 1225 B.C.E.—a difference of more than two hundred years. And it becomes quite evident that in their present state secular calculations relative to Egyptian chronology can in no way pose any serious challenge to the Bible’s count of time.
THE CASE FOR THE BIBLE
The whole approach of the Bible writers testifies to their consciousness of the importance of time measurement. Note, for example, the genealogical record in the fifth chapter of the Bible book of Genesis 5. How thoroughly each generation is tied in with the next! Nothing is left to chance. We learn the age of each one listed, both at the time of fathering his heir and at the time of his death. There is nothing comparable to this in Egyptian annals.
Contrasting with the laboriously built-up chronology of Egypt, the Bible gives an outstandingly coherent and detailed history stretching through thousands of years. It presents a graphic, true-to-life account of the nation of Israel from its birth onward, portraying with candor its strengths and its weaknesses, its successes and failures, its right worship and its rank apostasy into pagan religion, its blessings and its calamities. And, while this honesty does not of itself ensure the accuracy of its chronology, it does give sound basis for confidence in the integrity of its writers.
Often overlooked is the fact that the Bible writers cite in support of some of their facts historical annals such as “the book of the Wars of Jehovah” (Num. 21:14, 15), “the book of the affairs of the days of the kings of Israel” (1 Ki. 14:19; 2 Ki. 15:31), “the book of the affairs of the times of the kings of Judah” (1 Ki. 14:29; 2 Ki. 24:5), “the book of the affairs of Solomon” (1 Ki. 11:41), as well as fourteen or more references to similar annals or official records cited by Ezra and Nehemiah. So Bible writers were not depending on memory or oral tradition. There is evidence that their data were carefully researched and documented.
There were factors, too, that operated to keep Bible writers, and all Israelites, for that matter, ever conscious of the count of time. The Mosaic law featured many events that called for accurate timing: the Atonement Day, the numerous feast days, the sabbath and Jubilee years. Days, months, years, seven-year and fifty-year periods were all carefully noted as long as the nation adhered to the Law. After all, individual Israelites, who had fallen into poverty and had been forced to relinquish their landed property, could repossess such property on that fiftieth year.—Lev. 25:2-5, 8-16, 25-31.
Another powerful reason for Bible writers and the people in general to keep track of time features was the frequent pronouncement of prophecies inspired by their God—prophecies specifically relating to some date in the future. People would mark and wait for the fulfillment of those events. At the time of Jesus’ birth we may be sure that the man Simeon was not the only one of whom it might be said that he was “righteous and reverent, waiting for Israel’s consolation.”—Luke 2:25.
But some may object that the Bible’s original documents are not available, that in the course of time much copying and revising may have seriously affected the accuracy of the record. On this score we do well to recall how extremely meticulous were the Bible copyists and scribes who multiplied available copies of the Scriptures. To them it was a matter involving God’s favor or disfavor, life or death. They had to check and double-check, even going to the extent of counting lines, words and letters on each page of copy.
Graphically illustrating the essential accuracy of the Bible books as they have come down to us in this twentieth century, we have the recent find of scrolls in the Qumram caves near the Dead Sea. One of these is a well-preserved copy of the entire Bible book of Isaiah, recorded on seventeen pieces of parchment. Before its discovery, the oldest Hebrew text of Isaiah was one dating from the tenth century C.E. Here now was a scroll from about the first century C.E., and yet the amazing fact is that, when compared with our modern texts of Isaiah, only very minor differences appear, differences of negligible importance.
NO REAL COMPARISON
It should be evident that Egypt’s secular annals in the form in which they have come down to us fail to qualify as a standard for measuring the accuracy of Bible timekeeping. The care, the truthfulness and the integrity of the Egyptian scribes are by no means above suspicion. Says Professor J. A. Wilson (in The World History of the Jewish People, 1964, Vol. I, pp. 280, 281): “A warning should be issued about the precise historical value of Egyptian inscriptions. That was a world of . . . divine myths and miracles.” Then, after suggesting that the scribes were not above juggling the chronology of events to add praise to the particular monarch in power, he adds: “The historian will accept his data at face value, unless there is clear reason for distrust; but he must be ready to modify his acceptance as soon as new materials put the previous interpretation in a new light.”
The chronological structure that modern historians have built up from Egyptian sources is still very shaky. As Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge observed: “The information which has been obtained from native Egyptian monuments as to dates is, at present, insufficient to enable us to correct the mistakes in the figures of Manetho’s List which are due to the carelessness or ignorance of copyists, and until some other means of doing this is found, it is idle to shuffle and torture his figures, as many writers on Egyptian chronology are pleased to do.” (A History of Egypt, 1902, Vol. I, Preface, p. xvi) A half century later, historians admit that “Egyptian chronology is still in a state of flux, . . . .” (Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1955, Introduction, p. xvii) Professor J. A. Wilson states that it is only after 663 B.C.E. that Egyptian chronology becomes “fairly precise” and that the “farther back one goes, the greater the margin of disagreement [among scholars] becomes.”—The World History of the Jewish People, 1964, Vol. I, p. 268; The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1962, Vol. II, p. 43.
There is, then, no reason to feel doubt about the accuracy of the Biblical chronology simply because certain secular records do not harmonize with it. To the contrary, only when the secular chronology harmonizes with the Bible record may we rightly feel a measure of confidence in the ancient secular dating. This is certainly true regarding the records of ancient Egypt.