The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit B2

Ahmose-mummy-head

Photo from G. Elliot Smith, Catalogue of the Museum of Cairo: Royal Mummies, 1912, plate XII. Now in the public domain due to age; obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

As Exhibit B in The Exodus Decoded, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici presents the embalmed corpse of Ahmose, whom Jacobovici regards as the pharaoh of the exodus. Obviously, Ahmose’s corpse does not in itself provide any link whatsoever to biblical events, or to any historical events at all, for that matter. It’s just a dead body, though remarkably well-preserved by Egyptian mummification techniques. Watching on, the viewer soon learns that the mummy really stands in metonymically for two other factors, the name “Ahmose” itself and the connection between Ahmose I and the Hyksos. I discuss the name “Ahmose” and Ahmose I’s family history in a separate article (“The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit B1“). In this article, I’ll address the Hyksos connection.

After cutting away from Ahmose, Jacobovici takes his camera crew to the site of the Hyksos capital, Avaris, in the Nile delta region. After a catena of largely irrelevant video, Jacobovici plays a brief clip of Charles Pellegrino opining that the Hyksos expulsion and the biblical exodus are the same event, told from different points of view. Please note that Pellegrino is neither a biblical scholar nor an ancient Near Eastern historian nor an Egyptologist. The Exodus Decoded bills him simply as an “author.” His own web site describes his “eclectic literary works.” Pellegrino’s books include, according to an Amazon.com search:

  • Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Pellegrino (according to his web site—I haven’t read the book) argues that the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah reflects the real-life events of the eruption of Thera (Santorini)
  • Unearthing Atlantis: An Archaeological Odyssey to the Fabled Lost Civilization, in which Pellegrino tries to redate the destruction of Atlantas from 9000 years before Plato to 900 years before Plato, and connects it with the eruption of Thera (Santorini)
  • Ghosts of the Titanic
  • Ghosts of Vesuvius
  • The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History, co-authored with Simcha Jacobovici

Pellegrino has also written a number of novels. Clearly, Pellegrino writes prolifically; the reviews suggest that he also writes skillfully, producing engaging material. Even so, Pellegrino’s track record suggests an overly large preoccupation with the Thera (Santorini) volcano—in his view, one can trace not only the story of the ten plagues, but also the Greek tradition of Atlantis and the biblical tradition of Sodom and Gomorrah, back to that single event—and a tendency to turn unsubstantiated speculations into books.

Jacobovici downplays or dismisses the views of the real experts. Immediately after the Pellegrino clip, Jacobovici tells his audience,

But most scholars say that the Hyksos and the Israelites cannot be equated because the Hyksos left Egypt hundreds of years before Moses was born. These scholars also say that the chronology of ancient Egypt cannot be tampered with.

Then Bill Dever—an actual Syro-Palestinian archaeologist, though not an Egyptologist—appears on one of Jacobovici’s floating blue screens. Dever says:

You can play with Egyptian dates. You can move them up maybe ten years and down ten years, but you can’t move up and down fifty or a hundred years. That’s not possible. And yet many people try to do that. They try to adjust chronology to fit their predetermined notion of biblical history. You can’t do it.

Dever should have said “You can’t do it successfully,” because Jacobovici immediately goes on to adjust Egyptian dates by half-centuries or more. Jacobovici answers the virtual Dever as follows:

But maybe we have to. What if scholars are placing the exodus in the wrong time period? Imagine the confusion if in the future scholars date World War II to the 1990s. They’ll never find any evidence that it actually happened.

With this silly little remark, Jacobovici displays either ignorance of or complete disregard for the way historians and archaeologists actually work. If those future scholars somehow misunderstood their data and couldn’t find evidence of World War II in the 1990s, they would undoubtedly reassess their data and keep looking in other candidate periods. Archaeologists and historians attempting to reconstruction ancient Near Eastern history do the same thing. Moreover, historians and archaeologists who study the ancient Near East (or any other period) don’t sit in their studies, decide on an event to investigate, pick a date, and then go looking for data. Particularly with contemporary archaeologists working in Syria-Palestine, the procedure is more often to pick a site and carefully excavate it to learn as much as possible about the site’s inhabitants at as many periods of occupation as can be discerned. It’s filmmakers and authors like Jacobovici and Pellegrino who pick specific events, form a speculative scenario, and then try to find data to bolster their case.

Jacobovici continues: “Currently, most scholars date the exodus to 1270 BCE, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II. But some scholars are now breaking with that consensus.” Note Jacobovici’s use of the word “now.” He wants you to believe that arguments against an early- to mid-thirteenth century date for the exodus have just recently emerged among a handful of scholars. That’s not true. True, most scholars who still care about dating the exodus at all date it approximately to the second quarter of the thirteenth century BC. This consensus has emerged from careful consideration of the available evidence, and itself represented a “break” from an earlier consensus that placed the exodus in the fifteenth century BC. Scholars who take this view cite several lines of evidence, including these:

  • The Amarna letters give us a picture of a robust, if fractious, “Canaanite” (our term, not theirs) culture in the fourteenth century BC, with no signs of Israelites anywhere.
  • The “explosion” of hill country settlements features “four-room” pillared houses—a style of architecture still in use in seventh-century Jerusalem, and often taken as a sign of Israelite or “proto-Israelite” ethnicity (e.g., by the aforementioned Bill Dever, and also by Israel Finkelstein, despite other disagreements between these two Syro-Palestinian archaeologists)—appear in the archaeological record right around 1200 BC, and not earlier.
  • The first mention of a people group called “Israel” in the region later occupied by the Iron Age kingdom of Israel (whether in the Palestinian highlands or in Transjordan is debated) is found on the Merneptah Stela, erected in the last decade of the thirteenth century BC.
  • The city names in Exodus 1 point to the late nineteenth or early twentieth dynasties (the Ramessides), not to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth dynasties (Ahmose I’s family).

Scholars who want to find the exodus in history look to the thirteenth century not out of prejudice, and not out of a failure to consider alternatives, but because the archaeological (and, for some, biblical) evidence leads them there.

By the way, as a parade example of a scholar who “break[s] with that consensus,” Jacobovici presents John Bimson, who has argued unpersuasively for such a redating for more than twenty-five years (see his Redating the Exodus, Sheffield Academic Press, 1981). The Exodus Decoded doesn’t present anything new here. Bimson’s views have been tested and rejected by the scholarly majority on their merits. For Jacobovici to trot Bimson out as a brave renegade “now” departing from scholarly consensus both misleads the audience and plays with dates like the sparkly things at the end of a kaleidescope.

But Jacobovici’s skill set clearly includes treating a difference of several decades as unimportant. Note the not-so-sleight-of-hand that Jacobovici tries to pull next (yes, I intentionally use language that evokes the image of a “con man,” and you’ll shortly see why):

Professor Bimson’s calculations move the exodus from its present date to 1470 BCE, less than 100 years from the traditional date for the Hyksos expulsion. These are too close to write off as a coincidence. So we have a new date for the exodus: approximately 1500 BCE.

Then, after a one-liner from Donald Redford on a floating blue screen, Jacobovici repeats: “All right. Our new date for the exodus is 1500 BCE.” This “rounding off” is reckless, and also ignores Jacobovici’s own warnings. Less than five minutes earlier, when discussing hypothetical stupid scholars from the future, Jacobovici presented a variance of fifty years in the dating of Word War II to the 1990s instead of the 1940s as an intolerable source of hopeless historical confusion. Now, however, Jacobovici is ready to “round off” Bimson’s date by thirty years, from 1470 BC to 1500 BC. Moreover, 1500 BC lies some twenty-five years or so after Ahmose I’s death, by the conventional chronology.

Let’s lay this out plainly. Jacobovici wants to associate together the following events:

  • The storm described in the Tempest Stela, which seems to pertain to Ahmose’s regnal year, c. 1550 BC
  • The expulsion of the Hyksos, dated by various Egyptologists as early as Ahmose’s fourth regnal year (c. 1546 BC) or as late as his sixteenth year (c. 1534 BC)
  • The Israelite exodus from Egypt, dated by John Bimson to c. 1470 BC, by 1 Kings 6:1 to c. 1440 BC, and by most biblical scholars (among those who care about dating the exodus) to c. 1270 BC

In short, Jacobovici’s reconstruction doesn’t use plausible dates for any of the artifacts or events he wishes to bring together. The tempest described on the Tempest Stela predates the expulsion of the Hyksos by anywhere from three to fifteen years, which itself predates Bimson’s date for the exodus by sixty-five to seventy-six years, but Jacobovici splits the difference and rounds off all these dates to 1500 BC—an arbitrary procedure completely lacking in merit.