Egyptian History and the Bible

What is the relationship between the stories of the Bible and Egyptian history?

Are solid historical and cultural connections between Egypt and the Old Testament?

Did the Egyptians and the Hebrews borrow from one another's myths and culture?

These are questions that students have frequently asked me in my Who Wrote the Old Testament class. This article and the linked articles will answer these important and interesting questions.

Below: Giza Pyramid complex, Cairo

Giza Pyramid complex, giza pyramids

Establishing a Chronology for Egyptian History

Ian Shaw

According to Professor Ian Shaw, senior lecturer in Egyptian Archaeology at the University of Liverpool in England, "all history is clearly reliant on some form of chronological framework."

One of the greatest challenges with Egyptian history is the question of establishing a reliable timeline. Scholars must pay close attention to issues of chronology. At the same time they must address other problems such as the lack of material evidence of early humans in the region and the increasing destruction of historical sites in the face of contemporary urban growth

Current research in the field shows that at many points in time Egypt was less culturally unified and centralized than was assumed by older scholarship. It appears that cultural and political changes took place at different speeds in the various regions of the country.

How do modern scholars construct chronologies for Egyptian history?

According to Dr. Shaw Egyptologists must combine three basic approaches...

* Relative dating methods, such as stratigraphic excavations and the "sequence-dating" of artifacts.

* Chronologies based on calendars and astronomical records obtained from ancient texts.

* Radiometric dating methods, such as radiocarbon dating and thermo-luminescence, by which particular types of artifacts and organic remains can be assigned dates based on the measurement of radioactive accumulation or decay.

Ian Shaw

For a full explanation see The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (2004) edited by Dr. Ian Shaw.

Shaw and the thirteen contributors combine archaeological and textual evidence into a complete patchwork of material culture and politics. Shaw writes, "All ancient history tends to be more or less fragmentary and elusive, but the sheer diversity of Egyptian sources occasionally allows certain historical episodes or ways of life to spring very sharply and vividly into focus."

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A Basic Chronology of Ancient Egyptian History

The Naqada Period (c. 4000-3200 BCE)

The Emergence of the Egyptian State (c. 3200-2686 BCE)

The Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2160 BCE)

The First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-2055 BCE)

The Middle Kingdom Renaissance (c. 2055-1650 BCE)

The Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BCE)

The 18th Dynasty before the Amarna Period (c. 1550-1352 BCE)

The Amarna Period and the Later New Kingdom (c. 1352-1069 BCE)

The Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BCE)

The Late Period (664-332 BCE)

The Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE)

The Roman Period (30 BCE-395 CE)

Israel in Egypt: The Current Debate

A growing number of Old Testament scholars question the historical accuracy of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, as described in the Book of Exodus, because of the alleged lack of historical and archaeological evidence in Egypt. However, many of those advancing these claims are not specialists in the study of Egyptian history, culture, and archaeology.

James Hoffmeier

James K Hoffmeier Ph.D., professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern History and Archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois has reexamined the most current Egyptological evidence. He argues convincingly that it supports the biblical record concerning Israel in Egypt.

This exciting research substantially contributes to the discussion on the subject of Israel's presence in Egypt. Hoffmeier affirms the Old Testament as a valuable historical source.

According to the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Hoffmeier's work "is an important contribution to the study of the Hebrew experience in Egypt. Its two major strengths are the author's powerful refutation of hyper-critical views on the narrative and his presentation of the latest Egyptological data."

Myths of the Bible

Gary Greenburg, President of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Education, has shown how Egyptian history and literature strongly influenced early biblical history; especially the Creation, flood and patriarchal narratives.

Greenberg insists, “The lack of attention to Egyptian influences on the Bible by both biblical scholars and Egyptologists is unfortunate. A conscious and deliberate effort exists to keep the two spheres separate, yet the Bible shows a long and continuous relationship between Israel and Egypt.”

Most students of the Bible know little of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, but a basic knowledge of will enrich your Old Testament background studies.

What is the relationship between the stories of the Bible and Egyptian mythology? Did the Egyptians and the Hebrews borrowed from one another's myths and culture?

Did the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis influence the writers of the New Testament as a source to explain the Christian ideas of the Messiah and his resurrection?

Egyptian influences on the Old Testament

Ancient Egypt map

The Old Testament setting for Israel’s formative years is in Egypt, living an Egyptian lifestyle, and educated in Egyptian mythology and ideas for centuries prior to the Exodus. According to the Biblical narrative...

* Joseph is Grand Vizier of Egypt. He marries to the daughter of the chief priest of On (Heliopolis), one of the most influential Egyptian religious and educational centers.

* Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph's sons, were half-Egyptian and educated as Egyptians.

* Moses was raised and educated in the Egyptian royal court.

* Many members of the tribe of Levi have Egyptian names (including Moses).

Later in the Kingdom Period...

* King Solomon marries a pharaoh’s daughter and builds an Egyptian temple in Jerusalem for her. It is reasonable to suppose she maintained a retinue of Egyptian priests to administer to the temple’s cult functions.

Most scholars agree that ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths anticipate biblical concepts of Creation...

* In Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Hebrew traditions, water is the primal substance out of which the universe developed.

* In Egyptian cosmology even after creation the primal waters continue to surround the world, separated from it by the vault of the sky (Nut) and confined to subterranean regions by the overlying earth (Geb).

* The Egyptian notion of waters gathered above the atmosphere and below the earth is essentially the same as that presented in Genesis: “So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it.” (Gen. 1:7)

The Bronze Age Sumerian and later Babylonian city-states typically remained relatively small and autonomous; the Egyptians create the first unified national state in the mid-third millennium BCE.

Many Egyptologists believe that monotheism first emerged in Egyptian history during the supposed Hebrew sojourn in Egypt...

Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten, ruled Egypt 1364-1347 BCE. He scandalized the Egyptian priesthood by ordering that only a single deity, the sun god Aten, be universally acknowledged.

The Plagues of Egypt imposed on ancient Egypt by Yahweh to convince Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites go… were they fact or fiction?

The biblical account of the Plagues of Egypt reflects events described in an ancient Egyptian document known as the Ipuwer Papyrus.

Why does Egypt's chief archaeologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass claim the Exodus was a myth?

Material Evidence Placing Israel in the Context of Egyptian History

Merneptah Stele

The Merneptah Stele in the Cairo Museum is dated c. 1213-1203 BCE. Merneptah was son and successor to Ramases II. The stele contains the first extra-biblical reference to Israel’s existence:

“Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.”

Seal of King Hoshea, Hoshea seal

The significant cultural influence of Egypt on Canaan from long before and after the Exodus is demonstrated by this fascinating artifact from the eighth-century BCE. This is a seal of a Hebrew official from the court of King Hoshea of Israel (c. 732-721 BCE).

The seal shows the official dressed in typical Egyptian dress standing over an Egyptian winged-disk icon. This is hard evidence that Egyptian ideas heavily influenced the royal court of the kingdom of Israel.

One of the most important finds of modern archaeology is the famous Rosetta Stone discovered in 1799. It is a large, flat slab of basalt inscribed with the same message in three scripts – Greek, hieroglyphic, and demotic. The stone dates from the early 2nd cent. BCE.

In the 1820s, a French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, deciphered the inscriptions and thereby discovered the key to reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. Champollion’s breakthrough allowed scholars for the first time to understand previously inaccessible works of Egyptian literature. Scholars have since translated many Egyptian documents that relate to the biblical text.

Additional aspects of the fascinating relationship between ancient Egyptian history, mythology and culture is explored in articles linked to this page. New articles will be added that will expand your knowledge of this important field in Old Testament background studies.

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