Last month we began a two-part series on the Exodus by reviewing Ridley Scott’s 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings. This week the Nile Scribes continue the series with a discussion of the Exodus according to a documentary released the same year.
Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus
In the 2014 documentary Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus, filmmaker Timothy Mahoney goes to Egypt in search of “the Bible affirming evidence” for the Exodus narrative. Mahoney’s journey around the world includes stops at Thebes, Avaris, Lahun, Leiden, and Jericho, and interviews with renowned Egyptologists Maarten Raven, James Hoffmeier, David Rohl, Manfred Bietak, and Kent Weeks. What is surprising is that the documentary gives viewers the impression that the Egyptology community is made up of ‘Exodus deniers’. However, James Hoffmeier conducted a small, personal survey a few years ago and found that 19 of the 25 Egyptologists he polled believed that the Israelite story of an Exodus out of Egypt is true . Nevertheless, for the filmmaker it is a personal journey, saying at one point:
“On the one hand, it’s exciting to be making a film that searches for the truth about the Exodus. On the other hand, I must admit I am a reluctant participant. I never wanted to go to the Middle East. I never wanted to be involved in controversy because it means taking on the giants of archaeology, religion, and tradition.”
A Different Pharaoh of the Exodus
The documentary begins by addressing the traditional view of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC) as the pharaoh of the Exodus. In popular culture, he is the king in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: God’s and Kings. This is due to the two cities that appear in the Biblical story: Pithom and Ramesses. The city of Ramesses is equated with Per-Ramesses, the new Delta capital of the Nineteenth Dynasty, now identified as the modern site of Qantir, while Pithom is more difficult to pinpoint geographically. Nevertheless, a wide range of dates has been proposed over the last century for this event: from as early as the late Old Kingdom (ca. 2,100 BC) to as late as the sixth century BC in the Saïte Period. The debate continues.
Patterns of Evidence casts a shadow over the consensus of Ramesses II and instead adopts David Rohl’s less-traditional interpretation of the Exodus narrative. Rohl assigns the Exodus event to a much earlier period of Egyptian history, placing Joseph’s arrival in Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty reign of Amenemhat III (1818-1873 BC) in the Middle Kingdom and the Exodus event during the Thirteenth Dynasty reign of Dudimose (c. seventeenth century BC). Shortly after the documentary’s release Rohl published a book further expounding on these ideas, Exodus: Myth or History?, with Thinking Man Films & Media, the producers of the documentary.
The Problem of Ancient Names
One of the obvious challenges of the documentary and Rohl’s book concerns the terminology employed throughout. As we will see, the documentary emphasises the Middle Kingdom as the time of the Exodus. We are required then to ask: how can we identify the Proto-Israelites  during this time period? We know that Syro-Palestinian groups were beginning to make their way into Egypt at the end of the First Intermediate Period. Since the earliest times, Egyptians have called these groups of Near Eastern foreigners Aamu (Egyptian ʾʒm.w) or “Asiatic,” which does not denote a precise ethnicity.
Aside from the Aamu, we should add the terms shasu (Eg. šʒsw) and habiru (Eg. ʾprw) as they are often cited in connection to the Israelites. While the Shasu are usually regarded as groups of bedouins who dwelled in the areas around the Sinai Peninsula and reached east into Palestine, the situation for the Habiru is significantly different. Their precise origins are obscure and scholars situate them in Syria-Palestine as a social, rather than ethnic, group of persons who roamed the countryside (peasants, landless, exiles). Because of their geographic origin and their similarity in name to the “Hebrews,” they have been suggested to be connected to the later Israelites. The earliest that we find mention of them in Egyptian texts is in the early New Kingdom, a date which is significantly later than the documentary suggests for the Exodus. Rohl goes as far as to say that during the time of the Exodus in the Middle Kingdom they were very similar to the Proto-Israelites, though by the time of the New Kingdom they were the “brigands” as we understand them today.
Kahun, a ‘Semitic settlement’?
The documentary places much weight on the town of Kahun located near the Fayoum pyramid of Senwosret II as an example of a Semitic settlement in Egypt. The site of Kahun saw much attention in the Middle Kingdom as a planned settlement for the community who built and managed the mortuary cult of the deceased king at his pyramid complex nearby. William Flinders Petrie was among the first to excavate at the site back in the late nineteenth century, where he unearthed a plethora of useful settlement material. Among his finds were objects of foreign origin such as weights and ceramic vessels. The presence of foreigners at Kahun is best attested, however, in surviving textual records that identify persons of foreign origin living as servants in Egyptian households. Further analyses of these texts have shown that these foreigners also held positions in temple administrations: it seems that they had established themselves well in Egyptian society.
David Rohl sees the majority of the population at Kahun as Semitic workmen. He asserts that these workmen helped with the construction of the Bahr Yussef channel that leads into the Faiyum depression, possibly even under the orders of Joseph himself. Rohl also argues that Kahun was abandoned very suddenly at the end of the Middle Kingdom, which would fit the Exodus narrative. Unfortunately, identifying the exact origins of Kahun’s foreign population remains problematic. The objects of foreign origin may have arrived at the site through the appearance of the foreigners, but they could also have been traded to Kahun from abroad. Petrie was also of the opinion that the site was abandoned after the Thirteenth Dynasty only to see occupation resume again in the Eighteenth Dynasty. Recent studies, however, seem to suggest that Kahun’s population did decrease in the late Middle Kingdom, but the site certainly did not become abandoned as Rohl proposes.
Avaris and the ‘Coat of Many Colours’
Avaris is well-known for its importance in the late Middle Kingdom through the Second Intermediate Period – the time frame of the documentary’s Exodus narrative. Beginning at the end of the First Intermediate Period, there was a long period of foreigners from the Near East immigrating into Egypt, settling in places around the Delta and Middle Egypt. Excavations at Avaris, conducted by an Austrian team under the direction of Manfred Bietak (who is featured in the documentary), uncovered a Syro-Palestinian population living alongside the Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian settlement established by Amenemhat I (1939-1910 BC). Members of this community remained at Avaris and would later style themselves as Egyptian kings to form the so-called “Hyksos” Fifteenth Dynasty.
Perhaps the most tantalising piece of evidence presented throughout the documentary is the fragmented colossal statue of an Asiatic dignitary discovered at the site over twenty years ago. This colossal figure wears a clearly non-Egyptian hairstyle and the faint remains of painted, patterned garment can be seen on his shoulder. The statue’s discovery in an Egyptian-style tomb from the late-Twelfth Dynasty  has excited many proponents of the Exodus event, and prompted David Rohl to associate the statue with the Biblical figure of Joseph in the documentary on account of his “coat of many colours.” Identifying the statue as Joseph is a far cry from identifying his land of origin, however, especially as colourful garments like this one were likely worn by much of the Syro-Palestinian population living at Avaris during the Twelfth Dynasty. For example, the documentary does not point out the statue’s similarity to the Syro-Palestinian figures in relief scenes from the contemporaneous tomb of Khnumhotep at Beni Hasan.
Reconciling Myth and Historicity
In researching the Exodus and seeing the differing viewpoints on the historicity of this narrative, we are struck by some oddities. Many Egyptologists have grown up in the Western World and are intimately familiar with Christian traditions and stories. Our own associations with these narratives prompts some of us to condemn the views of early, biblically-oriented scholars who so vehemently argued for the veracity of these accounts, while many of us simply tend not to engage in conversations about them. We may never be able to prove the Exodus’ historicity, but we are reminded that:
“Myths can be profoundly true, at least metaphorically, especially when they are couched in a form that has gripped the imagination of countless millions of people for more than 2,000 years. These are stories that still resonate with us—stories about liberation from tyranny; about the power of an apparently insigniﬁcant people to change the course of history…” 
Is it really so important whether the Exodus happened during the reign of Thutmose III as opposed to that of Ramesses II, for example? Does the ambiguity of its specific time and place take away from the validity of the event? Perhaps it was a compendium of events, which in memory amalgamated into a single, dramatic product. Our sources may never agree and often our interpretation depends on our approach towards the evidence. After all, each of us has a different agenda to pursue, consciously or not. We suppose this can be said about many controversial topics.
Our Thoughts on the Documentary
Filmmaker Timothy Mahoney tells his viewers that he is on a quest to find the truth, wherever the patterns of evidence may lead him. What he means, of course, is that he is on a quest to prove that the Exodus really happened, even if it means suggesting that Egyptology is guilty of inadvertent, or perhaps malicious, incompetence. Patterns of Evidence presents the historicity of the Exodus as a truly life-or-death situation, wasting no subtleties on the definitions of Myth or History. The biblical narrative is accepted as fact because it has to be: Mahoney dramatically dismisses the idea that a person’s faith could be based on anything other than absolute, provable Truth.
We agreed with Kent Weeks’ pessimistic assessment of the reliability of Egyptian chronology – he is well-acquainted with the issues we still face when organising events into a dependable timeline. When the filmmakers were faced with the problem of fitting the Exodus narrative into the Egyptian timeline, however, the only apparent solution was to shift our understanding of Egyptian history by several hundred years. The filmmakers want you to believe that the biblical narrative must be true, therefore the Egyptian timeline should be adjusted to agree with the events of the Exodus. This interpretation rests heavily on David Rohl’s ‘New Chronology,’ which is certainly not the consensus of scholarship in our field, while “mainstream” ideas of the Exodus did not see much discussion in the documentary. We had high hopes that this documentary would deliver an apolitical analysis of the Exodus, but unfortunately we won’t be recommending this to anyone.
- Hoffmeier, J. 2015. “Egyptologists and the Israelite Exodus from Egypt.” In Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, edited by T.E. Levy, T. Schneider, and W.H. C. Propp. Heidelberg: Springer – page 205.
- Why Proto-Israelites and not Israelites? For the Middle Kingdom, there is no concrete evidence of Israelites in Egypt as they are not fully attested in Egypt until the twelfth century BC.
- Bietak, M. 1996. Avaris: The Capital of the Hyksos. London: The British Museum Press – page 20.
- Dever, W.G. 2015. “The Exodus and the Bible: What Was Known; What Was Remembered; What Was Forgotten?” In Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, edited by T.E. Levy, T. Schneider, and W.H. C. Propp. Heidelberg: Springer – page 406.
Taylor and Thomas are grateful to our Patrons for helping us cover the costs of Nile Scribes. This week we want to thank our Patreon sponsor Brian Jamison – we couldn’t do it without you!