The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit F3

In The Exodus Decoded, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici tries to draw a three-way connection between the Tempest Stela of the Egyptian king Ahmose, the biblical story of the ten plagues on Egypt, and the Bronze Age eruption of Thera (now called Santorini). Jacobovici claims:

  1. “The Bible says that the God of Israel passed judgment on the gods of Egypt.”
  2. “And the stela confirms that the statues of the gods of Egypt were toppled to the ground.”
  3. “Earthquakes are known to accompany volcanic eruptions like Santorini.”
  4. Therefore, “[i]t seems that the stela and the Bible are describing the results of an earthquake, or more precisely, what scientists now call an ‘earthquake storm.’”

The previous installment in this series debunked claims 1 and 2 in this list. The current installment will examine claims 3 and 4—keeping in mind that my expertise lies in biblical studies, not in volcanology or seismology.

A thunderstorm above Santorini

A thunderstorm above Santorini (photo by Wikimedia Commons contributor Klearchos Kapoutsis, used under a Creative Commons license)

Seismic activity and volcanic activity can go together. However, Jacobovici’s phrasing—”Earthquakes are known to accompany volcanic eruptions”—doesn’t deliver a complete picture. According to the volcanic hazards primer by C. M. Riley posted online by the geology department at Michigan Tech, two types of earthquakes that can “accompany” volcanoes. The primer explains:

Earthquakes produced by stress changes in solid rock due to the injection or withdrawal of magma (molton [sic] rock) are called volcano-tectonic earthquakes (Chouet, 1993). These earthquakes can cause land to subside and can produce large ground cracks. These earthquakes can occur as rock is moving to fill in spaces where magma is no longer present. Volcano-tectonic earthquakes don’t indicate that the volcano will be erupting but can occur at anytime.

The second category of volcanic earthquakes are long period earthquakes which are produced by the injection of magma into surrounding rock. These earthquakes are a result of pressure changes during the unsteady transport of the magma. When magma injection is sustained a lot of earthquakes are produced (Chouet, 1993). This type of activity indicates that a volcano is about to erupt. Scientists use seismographs to record the signal from these earthquakes. This signal is known as volcanic tremor.

One crucial thing to note about these earthquakes that “accompany” volcanic eruptions is that both types precede the eruption of the volcano, and research indicates that this was so in the case of the Bronze Age Santorini eruption. Karen Polinger Foster and Robert K. Ritner (“Texts, Storms, and the Thera Eruption,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 55 [1996]: 1–14), who support a connection between the Santorini eruption and Ahmose’s Tempest Stela, state that

An earthquake, caused by plates shifting under the Aegean, probably set the Bronze Age eruption in motion. A few months to two years later, a small precursory ash fall heralded the dramatic, Plinian phase of the eruption … (2, emphasis added)

Malcolm Wiener (in James P. Allen and Malcolm H. Wiener, “Separate Lives: The Ahmose Tempest Stela and the Theran Eruption,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 57 [1998]: 1–28)—who opposes a connection between the Santorini eruption and Ahmose’s Tempest Stela—provides slightly more detail, but agrees in the main:

The second earthquake at Akrotiri apparent in the archaeological record struck three months to two years before the eruption; damage from this quake was already under repair at the time fumes at the beginning of the eruption drove the populace away. (A few scholars have suggested a longer time interval, based on what they perceive as a possible humus layer between the earthquake and the eruption.) (22–23, emphasis added)

The problem with Jacobovici’s reconstruction is obvious: his version events requires the volcanic eruption to precede the earthquakes, but the eruption-then-earthquake pattern holds neither in the typical scenario nor in the specific historical case of Thera’s Bronze Age eruption. If the darkness of the Tempest Stela connects with the darkness of the ninth plague, as Jacobovici claims, and if the earthquake most proxmiate to the Santorini volcano caused idols to topple in Egypt in connection with the tenth plague, as Jacobovici claims, then this suggests that the tenth plague happened three months to two years before the ninth plague! Once again, Jacobovici’s reconstructions contort the chronologies of his sources beyond plausibility—almost beyond recognition. Even if we set aside the plagues, the connection between the earthquake and the Tempest Stela’s catastrophe is quite strained. As Wiener writes,

It is perhaps particularly difficult to understand why an earthquake and a great storm putatively caused by a volcanic eruption not less than three months later at the least should be perceived as one event (or even two closely related events) by the Stela’s author. (23)

Moreover, there are some indications that the pre-Thera earthquake might not have been strong enough to cause the kind of damage in Egypt that Jacobovici—and Foster and Ritner—envision:

This quake, which Foster and Ritner suggest may have been responsible for the destruction of structures in both Lower and Upper Egypt, had only limited effects at Thera; the largest building exposed to date, three-story high Xeste IV, was left standing in good condition. (Wiener, 23)

It really is hard to believe than the pre-eruption earthquake at Thera barely damaged a three-story building near the volcano but toppled buildings over 850 km away.

Faultlines along the eastern Mediterranean, as shown in The Exodus Decoded

Faultlines along the eastern Mediterranean, as shown in The Exodus Decoded

The historical pre-Thera earthquake cannot plausibly be linked directly with the tenth plague, the parting of the Red Sea, and so on. Jacobovici’s hypothesis requires an earthquake after the Santorini eruption. Jacobovici shows awareness of this, for he invokes the concept of an “earthquake storm.” “Earthquake storm” is a term coined by geophysicist Amos Nur, who explains it on-camera in The Exodus Decoded. Basically, the idea is that an earthquake—and it doesn’t have to be a big one—can trigger another earthquake, and so on in series. These “storms” can extend over a short or long period of time. The time between quakes in an earthquake storm can be as short as a few hours or as long as several years (Nur and others have connected a triplet of quakes in Turkey in 1939, 1942, and 1967 into such a sequence). Jacobovici doesn’t really explain this in detail when introducing the concept and showing the brief clip of Nur explaining what an earthquake storm is, but what Jacobovici’s scenario requires is that a pre-eruption earthquake diagnostic of the Santorini explosion set off—or was itself an intermediate step in—a whole series of earthquakes connected in one of these earthquake storms.

There’s nothing inherently improbable in the idea that a series of linked earthquakes could wrack the eastern Mediterranean. Professor Nur, in fact, postulates that exactly such an earthquake storm, spanning the decades from about 1225–1175 BC, violently disrupted life in the Aegean, Anatolia, and the Levant:

In conclusion, large earthquakes could have and probably did contribute to the physical and political collapse of the great population centres at the end of the Bronze Age. This probably happened by a storm of earthquakes that swept the eastern Mediterranean between 1225 B.C. to 1175 B.C. If true, these earthquakes physically damaged many of the urban centres involved. This damage rendered these centres militarily vulnerable or defenseless, thus inviting attacks not so much by powerful, distant, scheming Sea People, but by indigenous or neighbouring populations. These attacks led in turn to political and social collapse of the centres followed by a dark age of recovery and rebuilding lasting a few hundred years (and just in time for another earthquake storm). (Amos Nur, “The End of the Bronze Age by Large Earthquakes,” pp. 140–147 in Natural Catastrophes during Bronze Age Civilisations: Archaeological, Geological, Astronomical and Cultural Perspectives [ed. B. Peiser, T. Palmer, and M. Bailey; 1998], cited in Mark Rose, “Godzilla’s Attacking Babylon!” Archaeology online feature, September 22, 1999)

Yet Jacobovici’s use of Nur’s idea of earthquake storms raises some difficulties. First, Nur’s thesis itself rests almost entirely on analogy. The reasoning (as published in Amos Nur and Eric H. Cline, “Poseidon’s Horses: Plate Tectonics and Earthquake Storms in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean,” Journal of Archaeological Science 27 [2000]: 43–63), goes like this (quoting the abstract in full):

In light of the accumulated evidence now published, the oft-denigrated suggestion that major earthquakes took place in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean areas during the late 13th and early 12th centuries BC must be reconsidered. A new study of earthquakes occurring in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean region during the 20th century, utilizing data recorded since the invention of seismic tracking devices, shows that this area is criss-crossed with major fault lines and that numerous temblors of magnitude 6.5 (enough to destroy modern buildings, let alone those of antiquity) occur frequently. It can be demonstrated that such major earthquakes often occur in groups, known as “sequences” or “storms”, in which one large quake is followed days, months, or even years later by others elsewhere on the now-weakened fault line. When a map of the areas in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean region affected (i.e. shaken) by 20th century BC earthquakes of magnitude 6.5 and greater and with an intensity of VII or greater is overlaid on Robert Drews’ map of sites destroyed in these same regions during the so-called “Catastrophe” near the end of the Late Bronze Age, it is readily apparent that virtually all of these LBA sites lie within the affected (“high-shaking”) areas. While the evidence is not conclusive, based on these new data we would suggest that an “earthquake storm” may have occurred in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean during the years 1225–1175 BC. This “storm” may have interacted with the other forces at work in these areas c. 1200 BC and merits consideration by archaeologists and prehistorians.

In other words, we know that a series of earthquakes rumbled across the region in the 20th century CE; sites more or less along the same broad path experienced destruction near the end of the Late Bronze Age; therefore the possibility that the LBA of these sites might be connected to an earthquake merits consideration. Nur and others have put forward criteria by which one might diagnose an earthquake as the cause of a destruction in the ancient world, and while these may be plausible, they ultimately remain speculative. As Rose writes:

For example, it isn’t enough to say that the North Anatolian Fault is dangerous and might have unzipped between 1225 and 1175—you need to prove that it did so at that time and, beyond, that, show how precisely it would have ended civilization as they knew it, from the immediate effects to ripples through political, economic, and social spheres on local and regional levels. Collapse is too vague a word (about 7.5 on the vagueness scale). Similarly, it isn’t enough to say x, y, and z problems existed in a civilization and then a catastrophe pushed everything over the edge (the blunderbuss approach). If you don’t have solid evidence for a catastrophe or for its effects you are telling a story. And that’s what we have to be careful of in reading any of the recent catastrophic books.

Actually, Nur and Cline claim in the 2000 article only “a reasonable statistical probability that an ‘earthquake storm’ could have been in part responsible for at least some of the damage seen at a number of these sites” (61). Although Nur clearly considers this hypothesis worthy of full consideration, he states his conclusions carefully. Still, that doesn’t improve the actual evidence for a late Bronze Age earthquake storm; Nur relies on circumstantial evidence even if some of it (e.g., his contrasts between sites that were almost surely destroyed by invaders and sites that he thinks were likely damaged or destroyed by earthquake) is persuasive and carefully developed. The lack of direct evidence, however, remains problematic.

Clearly, however, jacobovici’s use of Nur’s model creates much bigger problems than Nur’s model itself. Although Nur has indeed posited an earthquake storm running in a west-to-east pattern across the Aegean, Anatolia, and Levant around 1225–1175 BC, this earthquake storm lies well outside the time frame where Jacobovici needs it to occur. Jacobovici needs to find a similar storm occurring some 275–325 years earlier than Nur’s. According to a report in New Scientist from December 20, 1997, Nur has posited that similar storms have recurred along the same path once about every 400 years. If so, that would put the earlier storm around 1625–1575 BC—corresponding rather well with the geophysical (as opposed to archaeological) date for the Santorini explosion: around 1650–1625 BCE. I haven’t located any published work by Nur that discusses this cyclical pattern, so I don’t know how he’d react to the suggestion that one of these Mediterranean earthquake storms happened c. 1500 BC. I’d be surprised if Nur, a prominent geophysicist, accepted the c. 1500 BC date for the Santorini eruption over the 17th-century date, and through a little Googling I know at least that some of his students who have put their research papers on the internet cite 1650–1625 BC as the date of the Santorini eruption (though this doesn’t necessarily reflect what Nur tells them in class). The important point here isn’t so much Nur’s opinion as Jacobovici’s sleight of hand: he takes Nur’s suggestion of a 1225–1175 BC earthquake storm (supported chiefly by circumstantial archaeological evidence in the form of collapsed structures that Nur believes fit the criteria for earthquake damage), and applies it to a hypothetical c. 1500 BC earthquake storm that Nur does not posit and for which there no evidence exists, unless you accept Jacobovici’s unusual reading of the Ahmose Tempest Stela and the biblical exodus story. In the final analysis, Jacobovici’s “argument” amounts to this:

  1. An “earthquake storm” happened in the Aegean and Turkey in the 20th century, and one may have happened in 1225–1175 BC in the same region.
  2. An earthquake might produce some phenomena similar to the biblical descriptions of some of the ten plagues.
  3. The Ahmose Tempest Stela mentions damaged temples and toppled idols. An earthquake could cause such phenomena.
  4. The biblical story speaks of a “judgment on all the gods of Egypt,” which could imply toppling their idols.
  5. Therefore, the biblical story and the Tempest Stela reflect the occurrence of an otherwise unknown earthquake storm.

In brief, there’s no real evidence for such an earthquake storm around 1500 BC. What one would need to support such a claim circumstantially would be widespread destruction that meets the criteria Nur and Cline describe in the 2000 article above, but Jacobovici does not give us that. The Nile delta region and parts southward along the river are in the “high shaking” zone charted by Nur and Cline. If there had been such a destructive earthquake storm c. 1500 BC, we should see widespread archaeological evidence of destruction in that time period all along the path charted by Nur and Cline (from southern Greece across to Crete, Anatolia, Cypress, and down through Syria-Palestine toward the Gulf of Aqaba). But all Jacobovici gives us is, “An earthquake could help to explain texts A and B, therefore there must have been an earthquake storm, which explains texts A and B.” The reasoning is as circular as a volcano’s caldera.

By the way, Jacobovici’s repeated claims that this is a “new” theory, never proposed in its particulars “until now,” is quite put in perspective by this item from The Daily Telegraph, November 12, 2002:

Fresh evidence that the Biblical plagues and the parting of the Red Sea were natural events rather than myths or miracles is to be presented in a new BBC documentary. Moses, which will be broadcast next month, will suggest that much of the Bible story can be explained by a single natural disaster, a huge volcanic eruption on the Greek island of Santorini in the 16th century BC. [..] Dr Daniel Stanley, an oceanographer has found volcanic shards in Egypt that he believes are linked to the explosion. [..] Computer simulations by Mike Rampino, a climate modeller from New York University, show that the resulting ash cloud could have plunged the area into darkness, as well as generating lightning and hail, two of the 10 plagues.

Read the whole story on the Telegraph web site. Truly, in the words of Qohelet, “There is nothing new under the sun”—or (outside of some really slick special effects) in The Exodus Decoded.