Liberal (and many Moderate) Christians agree: The Exodus from Egypt did Not Happen.

Below is the opening statement of a debate between two Christians (one a moderate and one a fundamentalist on the Historicity of the Exodus).  I am very much looking forward to this debate for several reasons.  It will be interesting to see how the fundamentalist deals with the overwhelming evidence that clearly demonstrates that the Exodus is nothing more than an ancient tale.  And it will be even more interesting to me to see how the moderate deals with the fact that Jesus and Paul believed that this event was an historical fact and that Jesus was the fulfillment of a non-event:  The Passover.

Copied from  Theology Web

First, I want to thank Mike for having this debate as well as TheologyWeb for hosting it. The question before us is “Did the Exodus take place as described in the Bible?” The answer is no, and there are compelling reasons that make it, as I’ve said, “blatantly obvious” that no such event took place.

Moreover, there is convincing evidence that no Exodus ever took place, period. The Jews were not slaves in Egypt, nor did they escape said bondage. The Exodus, as the Old Testament tells it, is a theological narrative with little basis in historical truth. That does not mean it is worthless. It does mean, however, that attempts to read it in a strictly literal way fail.

The first issue the Exodus has to overcome is dating. The Bible suggests the Exodus took place 486 years prior to the construction of Solomon’s Temple. This suggests a date of 1486 BC. However, such a date would fail. The route of the Exodus does not suggest a date in the 15th century BC. Rather, it suggests a date in the 7th or 8th centuries BC. However, based on both archaeological data and the Bible itself, a date later than roughly 1210 BC is too late. Moreover, if the Exodus were to happen in 1486, it would happen at the apex of Egyptian power. Both the Sinai and what is now Israel were heavily fortified. Indeed, the Amarna letters recount the capture of two escaped slaves, but are completely silent as to the 2-3 million Jews wandering the desert.

However, such issues have not dissuaded some scholars. The American scholar W.F. Albright suggested a date from 1250-1200 BC. However, such a date runs into the same problems. First and foremost, according to the Merneptah Stele, the Israelites are present in the land by 1208 BC. Albright’s thesis also fails due to archaeological considerations, namely, if the Israelites enter the land at that time, the Book of Joshua’s description of the conquest (which Albright strongly supported) cannot be true, as, while there are destruction layers at sites such as Bethel, there is a conspicuously missing one at Jericho.

Second, the tradition is almost assuredly a late one. The vast majority of the references in the Bible appear to be post-exilic. Moreover, anachronisms in the text suggest it is being written later. For example, the city of Pithom was not named as such until the 6th century BC. Prior to that, it seems to have been called Tel el-Maskhuta, which was not occupied from the 16th to the 7th centuries. The other option, the nearby site of Tel el-Rahbata, was not occupied until 1200 BC, which is at least 8 years too late for the Israelites to have built the city. Moreover, as I have stated above, the route of the Exodus in the Bible shows signs of being a 7th or 8th century construction, with the text showing little knowledge of the area either in the 15th century BC or in the 7th century BC.

Third, the Egyptian texts are mysteriously silent regarding the escape of the Israelite nation as well as a series of plagues and the death of their Pharaoh. A typical response to this is that ANE cultures often did not record defeats. This is demonstrably untrue. ANE cultures would often take their defeats and record them as though they had offended their gods. This is particularly on display in the Books of Kings, where the Deuteronomistic historian does not blame Judah’s defeats on its vast military inferiority, but on its offending YHWH through its worship of Baal/other heathen gods.

Fourth, there is a complete lack of archaeological evidence for any prolonged sojourn in the wilderness. For example, the text recounts the Israelites spending 38 years at Kadesh. Mike has brought up a recent BAR article claiming that Kadesh was inhabited in one of the times the Exodus could have occurred. This would be a strong refutation of my position, if it weren’t misguided. The pottery found at Kadesh was Egyptian, not Israelite/Canaanite. Archaeologists, most notable Finklestein, have found, time and again, that early Israelite pottery is very similar to Canaanite pottery; there is little if any difference between the two material cultures. If the Exodus truly occurred in the way the Bible suggests, we would have evidence. We do not have evidence, and, when a place is supposedly occupied for 38 years, evidence should appear.

Fifth, and finally, there is no reason to suppose an Exodus to understand the origins of Israel. All evidence suggests that the ancient Israelites were merely a different form of Canaanite, believing in a similar religious system, with the large difference centering on the position of YHWH.

Overall, the Exodus can conclusively shown to not have happened in the way described in the Bible. I do not rule out some memory of an escape from bondage, nor do I rule out some sort of much smaller exodus, but the Biblical one did not take place.


4 thoughts on “Liberal (and many Moderate) Christians agree: The Exodus from Egypt did Not Happen.

  1. I am the author of this post on TWeb, and I stand by it.

    I encourage people to read Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?, by Lester Grabbe. My points in the above post are a combination of points made in the book as well as items I've seen people defending the Exodus (e.g. Hoffmeier and Kitchen) continuously bring up.

    Also, a minor error, it should read “most notably Finklestein,” referring to Israel Finklestein.


  2. Hi Stein,

    After your debate with Mike ends, I hope you will come back and comment on how the non-historicity of the Exodus reflects on Jesus and Paul who both appear to have believed it to have been a real historical event.


  3. I think there a number of ways to get around that issue. One of them involves Christology, and others involve how God would give revelation.

    I actually should state that my remark about Israelite Origins comes from William Dever's What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Grabbe's book is more technical (and expensive!), so if you're not already familiar with archaeology, I recommend Dever's.


  4. Well, when you have the time, I'd love to have you go into detail regarding your “ways around” the issue that Jesus believed that the Exodus and the Passover were real, historical events when modern archeological evidence says these alleged events never happened.


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