Exodus and Conquest -- Myth or Reality? Can Archaeology Provide the Answer? A re-examination of the evidence suggests that the archaeology of this period is incompatible with the biblical narrative, and the campaign of conquest related in the Book of Joshua. Bimson's own research concludes that a date for these events in the late 15th century would bring the narrative into accord with the archaeology of the Middle Bronze Age and the traditional biblical date for the Exodus of c.
Bimson To begin by grasping the nettle offered by the second half of our title, it has to be said that archaeology cannot usually tell us whether biblical traditions are historical or mythological. Archaeology is not, strictly speaking, a science although it employs scientific tools. One can rarely set up controlled experiments to test whether particular events biblical or otherwise actually happened. Rather, the archaeologist is at the mercy of the surviving evidence, and this imposes quite severe limits on what can be deduced with certainty.
In the case of the cities of the Ancient Near East, limited time and resources mean that the archaeologist can only excavate a relatively small proportion of a tell the Arabic term for a ruin-mound, in Hebrew spelt tel.
For example, Yigael Yadin estimated that to excavate every level of the tell of Hazor in northern Galilee in its entirety would take eight hundred years!
This emphasizes the small proportion which can be uncovered in a few seasons. Furthermore, only a limited amount of buried material survives the centuries for the archaeologist to discover it. Archaeology therefore has serious limitations when it comes to answering the kind of question posed in our title. One cannot guarantee that the appropriate evidence has survived, or if it has that the archaeologist will find it.
On the positive side, however, archaeology can significantly affect the balance of probabilities. I hope to show that it suggests the basic historicity of those biblical traditions which deal with the origins of Israel in Canaan. Those traditions, contained in the books Exodus-Joshua and referred to many times in the Prophets and the Psalms relate that the Hebrews suffered slavery in Egypt and were led to freedom by Moses at a time of dramatic natural catastrophes; after forty years spent in the area south of Canaan, they migrated northwards through Transjordan, crossed the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua and conquered several key fortified cities.
Today most biblical scholars and archaeologists doubt the historicity of even this basic outline of events. The biblical traditions as we have them are seen as the result of a long and complex process of development, only taking their final shape during or after the Babylonian exile 6th century BC and reflecting the political and theological concerns of that late period.
Most scholars are therefore pessimistic about the possibility that these traditions preserve historical facts from a much earlier time. The majority view today is that the nation Israel arose within Canaan as an indigenous development. Gottwald is typical of many in affirming that the traditions concerning Israel's origins outside the land of Canaan are of questionable historical credibility [ Lemche is confident that in its present form the account of Israel's pre-Palestinian existence Ahlstrsm states that the story of the Exodus from Egypt is concerned with mythology rather than with a detailed reporting of historical facts [Ahlstrsm: The term "mythology," when used in this context, is not intended to denigrate the biblical traditions, but simply to say that they embody religious convictions rather than true history.
Nevertheless, in view of the way in which the traditions of Israel's origins pervade the Hebrew Bible, it is worth challenging such a view. The scepticism of these scholars is based in part on the view that the traditions took shape at such a late period that they cannot possibly contain historical reminiscences from almost a thousand years before [Lemche: This view cannot be challenged here; suffice it to say that many scholars reject it, believing that at least some of the traditions concerning Israel's early history, especially those preserved in poetic form, do go back to the time before the monarchy [Cross; Freedman; Halpern].
However, another source of such scepticism is undoubtedly the perceived clash between the biblical traditions and archaeological evidence. Searching for evidence that Israel's conquest of Canaan occurred at the close of the Late Bronze Age end of 13th century BC , scholars have failed to find any convincing correlations.
It is no longer possible to offer even a reasonable defense of the Conquest narratives" [Lemche: It is my contention that the failure to find appropriate evidence of Israel's conquest of Canaan is actually the result of looking for it in the wrong archaeological period.
I have therefore tried in recent years to reopen the question of the date of the Exodus and Conquest. The first part of this paper is devoted to challenging the conventionally accepted date in the 13th century BC and defending an alternative date some two centuries earlier -- a date suggested by the Bible itself.
That date has remained the majority view. Even some of those scholars who reject the historicity of the Exodus and Conquest traditions still look to the decades around BC as the time when Israel emerged as a recognizable entity in Canaan. I will argue here that retention of the 13th-century date is an example of scholarly inertia, and that the evidence in its favour has long since been eroded away. The evidence of Exodus 1: The occurrence of this name in Exodus 1: The first thing to note is that the Hebrew Bible does not use the name Raamses with chronological rigour.
It uses it in Genesis By anyone's reckoning this must have been before any king called Ramesses ruled Egypt,  so the name is clearly being used retrospectively here just as a modern historian might speak to Julius Caesar crossing the English Channel, or the Romans building York, neither name having been in use at the time referred to. We have a very clear biblical example of such retrospective usage in Genesis In short, the name itself does not provide the date of the building activity in which the Hebrews were engaged, only the date when the narrative was last worked over by an editorial hand.
Against the use of Exodus 1: Both these verses have been either interpreted as symbolic or otherwise explained away on the strength of evidence favouring a later date [e. But as that evidence has now evaporated, the 15th-century date should be reconsidered. In connection with Exodus 1: The site of Pi-Ramesse already had a long history of occupation before Ramesses II built the Delta-residence bearing his name.
This history goes back to the 19th century BC, but is not unbroken. The site shows little evidence of occupation between the end of the Hyksos period c. This apparent gap in occupation would seem to seriously damage the case for a 15th-century Exodus.
However, it would be unwise to assume the abandonment of the site on the basis of present evidence. We need to recall the limitations of archaeology, as outlined in our Introduction. In the present case those limitations are well summed up in the dictum that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. This is an important reminder that archaeological evidence can be extremely elusive at sites in the Eastern Delta.
This is widely acknowledged, but is sometimes conveniently forgotten when the lack of evidence can be used to bolster a favourite theory. The site of Pi-Ramesse, in today's Khata'na-Qantir district, covered an area of perhaps square kilometres [Bietak Furthermore, in many places ancient occupation-levels have been destroyed during the last hundred years through peasants digging for sebakh soil used as fertilizer and for brick-making.
The area has been greatly despoiled since it was explored and described by F. Lloyd Griffith and E. Naville in the s [Bietak Most importantly, as W.
Shea has pointed out, logic would suggest that some part of the site was occupied in the 15th century BC; Thutmose III, Amenophis II and Thutmose IV between them conducted well over twenty campaigns into Asia, and one would expect that they had a base of operations somewhere in this vicinity [Shea: The site lay at a strategic point on the eastern side of the Nile's easternmost arm, where there was an important route junction the name of the place in the Middle Kingdom was R3w3ty, "Mouth of the Two Roads".
It is therefore highly probable that an energetic pharaoh such as Thutmose III would have maintained a supply-base there for his many campaigns into Syria-Palestine.
Indeed, the statement in Exodus 1: It should also be noted that what evidence we already have is against a complete gap in occupation for most of the 18th Dynasty. Bietak, the excavator of Tell ed-Dab'a in the south of the Pi-Ramesse area , has unearthed what he calls "a massive filling wall" which he dates tentively to the "early 18th Dynasty" [Bietak So evidence of 15th-century activity may await discovery somewhere in the area if the occupation-levels have not been destroyed by sebakh-digging.
Turning to the site of Pithom, two candidates have traditionally been considered for this identification: Kitchen, in the most recent and detailed study of this question , argues convincingly for Tell er-Retabah. Goedicke has conducted excavations there and he reports finding remains of mud-brick buildings which he dates to the first half of the 18th Dynasty [Goedicke ].
Full publication is still awaited, so the details cannot yet be assessed, but in this case building activity in the right period seems fairly certain. We have no evidence of a pharaonic residence-city in the Eastern Delta at this time, and this has long been seen as a stumbling-block for the early dating of the Exodus. However, in a forthcoming paper H.
Goedicke will publish inscriptional evidence for the existence in the Eastern Delta, during the 18th Dynasty, of what he calls "a royal domicile [used] during the recurrent tours of inspection the Egyptian king was supposed to do". In short, archaeological evidence from the Eastern Delta, although not so clear-cut as we would like, does not rule out a 15th-century Exodus, as has so often been maintained. Evidence from Transjordan According to the biblical traditions in Numbers , after spending forty years in the area south of Canaan, the Hebrews moved north through Transjordan in order to enter Canaan from the east.
Those traditions relate that the migrating Hebrews encountered various peoples during their northward trek; Edomites, Moabites, Amorites and the inhabitants of Bashan. With the latter two groups they even fought battles in which they conquered certain cities. Glueck from the s onwards, led Glueck to the conclusion that most of the region was without a settled population between the 19th and 13th centuries BC [Glueck Pottery from the middle and Late Bronze Ages appeared to be absent or very scarce over much of the region.
Glueck was followed by many other scholars in concluding that Israel's clashes with kingdoms east of the Jordan could not have happened before the 13th century BC [e.
However, as a result of further surveys and full-scale excavations conducted during the last thirty years, Glueck's theory of an occupational gap has died the death of a thousand qualifications. There appears to have been some reduction in the population during the periods in question, but certainly not an absence of settlement. In fact Glueck himself revised his views shortly before he died [ Unfortunately some scholars have lagged so far behind that as recently as the imaginary gap in occupation was cited against the 15th-century date for the Exodus [Stiebing: The truth is that the evidence from Transjordan is quite neutral as far as dating the Exodus is concerned; it cannot prove a 15th-century date but it no longer constitutes evidence against it.
The argument from 13th-century destructions in Canaan Between and excavations in Palestine uncovered evidence that a number of cities were destroyed at or near the end of the LBA Late Bronze Age , i. These included cities which the Bible says were taken by the incoming Israelites: The fall of all these cities was dated to around BC, and seemed to provide evidence for a wave of destruction at that time.
Therefore there seemed to be good grounds for viewing these destructions as the work of the Israelites under Joshua. Furthermore, with Conquest dated to c. This neat scenario has now been eroded utterly. The LBA destructions can no longer all be dated to the same time. Indeed, a recent study by B.
Wood [; a], analysing the pottery from a great many sites, shows that there were three waves of destruction spanning roughly a century. Of the places mentioned in the Bible as taken by Israel, it included only one: