I don’t watch many documentaries. There are two main reasons. First, I think video is an inefficient way to learn. I can learn more quickly by reading, and I tend to remember what I read better than what I watch. In addition, it is hard to check references and confirm facts while watching a video. It is much easier to do so while reading.
The other reason is that documentaries are often incredibly biased. For example, I enjoyed Ben Stein’s documentary (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed), but it was not objective in any way. It is clear that Stein had made up his mind before he made his film, and the film was shot in such a way as to present his view in the most positive light possible. While written sources of information can be just as biased, the video medium adds more opportunity to slant things because you can manipulate lighting, sound, etc., to make people who disagree with you look bad while at the same time, making the people who agree with you look really good.
Nevertheless, a very dear friend of mine (who is a historian) asked me to watch the documentary Patterns of Evidence: Exodus with her. I agreed, and overall, I am glad that I did. The movie is about director Tim Mahoney’s search for archaeological evidence concerning the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as discussed in the Old Testament. Many archaeologists say that such a search is fruitless, because there is no evidence that anything like the Exodus ever occurred in Egypt. Indeed, as historian Dr. Baruch Halpern says:
The actual evidence concerning the Exodus resembles the evidence for the unicorn.
However, if the Exodus occurred as discussed in the Bible, one would think there would be archaeological evidence for it. Since the historical accuracy of the Bible is important to Mahoney (and many Christians throughout the world), he decided to see if historians and archaeologists like Dr. Halpern are correct. As a result, he traveled around the world to interview archaeologists and historians to see what they thought and to look at the evidence for himself.
While Mahoney believes the Exodus really did happen and the Bible accurately describes it, he interviews many archaeologists and historians (and even a rabbi) who don’t agree. Unlike many documentary directors, however, he doesn’t make those individuals look bad. He doesn’t argue with them, and he doesn’t use lighting or other effects to portray them in a negative way. He lets them have their say and treats them with respect. Of course, he interviews other historians and archaeologists who do agree with him, but once again, he doesn’t use the video medium to portray them as any better than those who disagree with him. I applaud Mahoney for that.
In the end, the documentary has a very interesting premise. It suggests that archaeologists have been looking for the Exodus in the wrong time period. Most archaeologists think that the Exodus was supposed to have occurred during the reign of Ramses II, because the Bible says that when the Israelites were slaves of Egypt, they built the cities Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11). In addition, in discussing the Exodus, Numbers 33:3 says that the Israelites “journeyed from Ramses.” Mahoney tries to make the case that the Exodus happened earlier than the reign of Rameses II, and the references to Rameses in the Bible were used because they would be more recognizable to the reader.
He says that if you look for the pattern of events discussed in the Bible (a large Semite settlement corresponding to the time of Joseph, a time of plenty for the Semites, a time of slavery for the Semites, and then a mass disappearance of Semites), you find that exact pattern, but much earlier than the time of Ramses II. This is where the documentary gets its title. Mahoney looks for the pattern of evidence rather than looking at the archaeological evidence associated with a specific time period. He finds that pattern, but it happened long before most archaeologists think it should have.
There is still a problem, however. Based on biblical chronology, most theologians say the Exodus occurred around 1450 BC. However, the pattern that Mahoney finds is much older than that, at least according to standard Egyptian chronology. However, Mahoney suggests that standard Egyptian chronology needs to be revised, and some scholars (like David Rohl, a British Egyptologist who describes himself as an agnostic) agree. According to them, if standard Egyptian chronology is adjusted, the pattern of evidence could fit with the Biblical chronology.
Overall, I thought that the documentary put forth a lot of good evidence. I can’t possibly go into all of it here, but I want to briefly discuss one line of evidence regarding the initial part of the pattern – the presence of Joseph in Egypt. The documentary discusses an archaeological dig that has uncovered a city that contained many, many Semites. In that city is a large palace that has a curious blend of Egyptian and Semitic styles. In the gardens of this palace, there are 12 graves. 11 of them are typical Semite graves, but one is in the shape of a small pyramid. This indicates that the person buried there was important to the Egyptians.
The remains of the body are gone, but there is a ruined statue in the entrance. It is twice as large as a normal human being, which once again indicates the person’s importance. The hairstyle of the person depicted in the statue is Semitic, and the hair color is red. The person has a throw-stick (a symbol of Pharaoh’s authority) on his chest, and he is wearing what appears to be a coat of many colors. The documentary, of course, concludes that this is Joseph’s tomb, and the 11 other tombs belong to his brothers. His remains are gone, because the Bible tells us that Moses took them during the Exodus (Exodus 13:19). The statue was ruined because of the Egyptians’ anger towards the Jews after the Exodus. I found this evidence incredibly compelling, and I had no idea that it existed until I watched the documentary.
While I found most of the evidence presented in the documentary to be solid, there was one really flimsy piece of evidence that I don’t think should have been included at all. Mahoney discusses the Ipuwer Papyrus, which is a document that describes chaos in Egypt. Some of the terrible things discussed in the document resemble the plagues that God visited on Egypt right before the Exodus, and Mahoney tries to make the case that it is a historical document that confirms those plagues. However, based on what was presented in the documentary, I don’t think such a case can be made at all. That was the only really weak piece of evidence presented in the documentary.
The documentary didn’t come to a firm conclusion regarding the timing of the Exodus, which I think is good. Based on my limited knowledge of Egyptian archaeology, I don’t think that’s possible yet. However, I do think that the overall pattern of evidence is strong, and I would encourage you to watch the documentary.