Patterns of Evidence: Exodus


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.

22 thoughts on “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus”

  1. I agree: “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” is a very well done documentary, with no shortage of opposing experts. Contrast that approach with anything you see on the History Channel or PBS. And although ISIS has been rightly criticized for destroying ancient artifacts, other groups have similarly attempted to wipe out evidence of Jewish presence. Anyone remember Jerusalem in AD 70?

  2. I had just recently noticed this on Netflix and had added it to my watch list. I just haven’t seen it yet. I’m wary of documentaries on biblical themes because many are either informed by liberal Bible scholars, “hoaxy” Christian treasure hunters, or UFO theorists. So I look forward to seeing this one based on your review.

  3. This is quite interesting. Thank you for sharing this. Have you read David Down’s book, Unwrapping the Pharoahs? He’s a Christian archaeologist who also suggests a different timeline for the Israelite’s time in Egypt.

  4. Thanks for the review. I’d be interested to read more on the evidence for Joseph’s tomb. Do you know the name of the city or have any links for it?

  5. So, I watched the first 25 minutes or so. I have not been able to finish the documentary yet, but I found it odd that he went directly to the revisionist, Rohl. Bryant Wood has some really good material on the Exodus, and is a field archaeologist. He has an article in the book “giving the sense” if you are interested.

    He has argued that the site of Ai should not be located where it presently is, and that is the reason for the paucity of evidence at the assumed site. Second, Wood also has looked at the work of Garstang, and Kenyon and argued that Kenyon was wrong to put the destruction that Garstang found a century prior. He argues that on the basis of pottery at the site. Anyway, maybe he is interviewed, but if he wasn’t the documentary misses a very interesting voice in the continuing debate over the exodus and conquest.

    1. Bryant Wood is interviewed in the documentary. That’s one thing I liked about the documentary. It includes many voices with different conclusions.

  6. The information about what is possibly Joseph’s tomb has been around for a very long time. Readers can keep up on such things by subscribing to Bible and Spade. Bryant Wood has had a number of articles about the fit between OT chronology and the standard Egyptian dating agreeing on things like Joseph’s (possible) tomb and the Middle and New Kingdom Pharaoh’s residences in the Delta area. Yes, one shouldn’t expect to find evidence of the exodus from the time when the Israelites were in their own land under the judges.

  7. I am showing the documentary to our adult Sunday School class. I think it is one of most well-made and balanced Biblical documentaries ever made. I hope he makes more like them.

  8. I find the subject matter interesting for a number of reason. Have you had the opportunity to read any of Immanuel Velikovsky’s books on his portrayal of the history of those times? I have read three of them. However, it is the one on the exodus that I found interesting. In particular, his premise that the chronology being used for Egypt was wrong. He made a quite relevant point that historical events (on a broad scale) don’t replicate themselves identically. Yet, he shows that to keep the standard chronology of Egypt, one has to separate by nearly a thousand years, two nearly identical renderings of some historical events. He presents the hypothesis that these renderings are of the same event, which in turn shortens the standard chronology used for Egypt by nearly 1000 years.

    Whether or not his scholarship is accurate or even valid, he does raise a number of interesting questions and highlights quite a number of inconsistencies within the standard chronology.

    Even though, his methods were/are considered anathema to the broader scientific community (and as a result, allows many of the “crazies” to make more of his theories/hypotheses than they should), he certainly predicted Venusian climatology correctly before actual evidence became available. He also gave reasonable explanations for a variety of known examples of findings that are not explained by conventional theories.

    Was he correct in the broad strokes? I find it interesting that I can find no experiments done or being planned that would discredit his premises. His premises are just rejected out of hand.

    Your reference to the Ipuwer Papyrus is extensively covered in his book with the other available evidence. It was only part of the collected evidence he provided. All of which, you could find and study for yourself.

    I have not seen this documentary and may put it on my to-do list for the future.

    1. The only thing I have read by Velikovsky is Worlds in Collision, and that turned me off of him. Much of what he has written in that book is contradicted by observation. For example, he claimed that the clouds in Venus are made of hydrocarbons or carbohydrates. We know that is false. Indeed, in 1969, the journal Science published an experiment designed specifically to test that idea. The abstract reads:

      Infrared reflection spectra of hydrocarbon clouds and frosts now give a critical test of Velikovsky’s prediction that Venus is surrounded by a dense envelope of hydrocarbon clouds and dusts. Venus does not exhibit an absorption feature near 2.4 microns, although such a feature is prominent in every hydrocarbon spectrum observed.

      [William T. Plummer, “Venus Clouds: Test for Hydrocarbons,” Science 163:1191-1192, 1969]

      We now know that Venus’s atmosphere is almost exactly opposite of what Velikovsky suggested. It is dominated by carbon dioxide and is definitely not a reducing atmosphere. We also know that it is heated by an intense greenhouse effect that is ongoing, not because of a past event, as Velikovsky suggested. So scientists didn’t just reject Velikovsky’s ideas out of hand. They tested them and found them to be wrong, at least the ones related to astronomy.

      1. Jay,

        You miss the point about what he said. Irrespective of whether or not his actual atmospheric determination was ultimately correct, what he proposed was found in terms of temperature, etc. This was in the face of the conditions that were thought to be there at the time by the common scientific understanding.

        What was and still is amazing is that he came up with a new model that did predict specific characteristics (found in the aftermath). The fact that later evidence discovered that shows parts of his model wrong should not be considered a problem. It should be considered as a part of the development of new models to be presented.

        What follows is an example and comments and can be TL;DR if you want to. You are also welcome to remove the following, if it doesn’t add to the discussion at hand.

        I’ll give you an example that we see today which I’m sure you would have more detailed understanding. The model used for investigation of sub-atomic particles. The standard model give some predictions about the “particles” to be found, and they have found corresponding entities. However, the model itself is incorrect and/or incomplete. We can see this in the areas in which it fails. The binding energy of nuclei is one such area. Another problematic feature is that it requires too many “magic” numbers. It has basic assumptions that, at the core, are wrong.

        Now from my perspective, the model has an underlying assumption which is not treated well (as in discussed in any clear manner). The assumption is that the entities found are to be treated as unit particles, instead of as systems of particles. It is always acknowledged that each of these fundamental particles will decay, but the model treats them as a basic entity (force carrier, etc).

        So what does this assumption lead to? Well higher and higher energy experiments to find the more fundamental particles in nature.

        What if we turned this on its head and said that these particles are not fundamental but really are just combinations of the basic particles? In exactly the same way we did for atoms, where would this lead us.

        In likewise fashion, Velikovsky turn the then standard model on its head and came up with a completely different model. Considering, the data he had available, this is still an outstanding achievement.

        We don’t discredit Copernicus for what he got wrong, nor do we discredit Newton for what he got wrong. We credit both of these men and other like them for what they got “right”. It is interesting that Velikovsky was treated in much the same way as various scientists today who opposed the prevailing theories of our time.

        What we should be doing is seeing what he did get right and determine if we can learn from this ourselves.

        Science, in and of itself, is not hard. However, I see many ideas presented today that at there core are based on a particular form of sleight-of-hand, called mathematics. Mathematics is a useful tool, but it has its limits (pun intended). Singularities and continuity are specific sleight-of-hands that provide simplicity. While being trained as an engineer, one was trained in always keeping in mind that the concepts of continuity and singularities are artifices by which we can get solutions. They don’t exist in reality. Unfortunately, much of theoretical physics relies on singularities and continuity as if they actually exist, not as simplifications by which we gain understanding.

        1. But I guess that’s the issue. Velikovsky got very little right. He did make a few accurate predictions, but most of the predictions he made in Worlds in Collision turned out to be wrong. In fact, about the only thing he got right was that Venus had a high surface temperature, and that was speculated in the scientific community long before Velikovsky suggested it.

        2. Can you direct to a comprehensive critique that demonstrates this? I would like to see such and compare for myself.

        3. Ta, I had a quick look at both. Some criticism given in each on the face of it looks good, but other parts have assumptions that may or may not be true. I’ll need to have a closer look.

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