Pop-Apologetics and Biblical Archaeology

I am of two opinions regarding Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus by Evangelical filmmaker Timothy Mahoney. A product of his crisis of faith upon learning of the lack of archaeological evidence for the biblical Exodus event, I see Mahoney’s documentary as popularizing the contrarian view of two British scholars regarding the standard chronology of Egypt’s history. I also see it as demonstrating the weakness of what is known as evidential apologetics. On the other hand, there is a place for giving the consensus of skeptical scholarship a run for its money.

That’s exactly what this film tries to do. It was promoted on politically conservative talk shows, like that of my personal favorite, the Roman Catholic Bill Bennett (listen here), and two Jewish conservative pundits are featured in Mahoney’s work: Michael Medved debates a Rabbi who denies the historicity of the Exodus account in the documentary, and Dennis Prager steals the show on a typical Fox News panel lead by Fox personality Gretchen Carlson. Fox religion analyst Father Jonathan Morris, female evangelist Anne Graham Lotz and pop-scholar and humorist Eric Metaxas round out the panel. This panel seems stacked specifically for the purpose of briefing the viewers on the apologetic virtues of challenging the consensus, while admitting the lack of conclusiveness in the alternative view presented. Supportive statements by evidentialist apologist Norman Geisler and Archaeological Study Bible editor Walter Kaiser further embolden the apologetic appeal of the documentary.

John Bimson and David Rohl have been challenging the status quo on the chronology of Egypt for years. Bimson’s work reaches as far back as 1978, when his book Redating the Exodus “proposed that the end of the Middle Bronze Age provides the best matching evidence for the biblical Conquest and that the dates assigned to this period should be substantially revised.” His day job is that of Old Testament Ph.D. Tutor at Trinity College in Bristol, England.

Egyptologist and Author David Rohl’s work is much more recent. His books contain disputed claims that counter the consensus on the chronology of ancient Egypt and Palestine. He’s also produced a TV documentary called Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest. Much is made of Rohl’s agnosticism, intended to lend credibility to his controversial work.

In his documentary, Timothy Mahoney first of all appeals to the notion that real science looks for patterns of evidence, hence the title, and portrays six stages of Israel’s time in Egypt as the pattern which must be watched for in the Egyptian chronology. If I recall correctly, these stages are Arrival, Multiplication, Slavery, Judgment, Exodus and Conquest (I’m a terrible note-taker!).  The consensus view is that Israel resided in Egypt during the era known as the New Kingdom (circa 1550-1069 BC—comprising the 18th-20th Egyptian dynasties). A primary reason for this era being supported by the consensus is the fact that Raamses reigned during this era, and one of the store cities Scripture says the Israelites built is called by his name. “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses” (Exodus 1:11b). The problem is, this pattern of events in the biblical account of Israel in Egypt has not been uncovered in the New Kingdom excavations.

Bimson and Rohl counter that the Scriptural name for the city is an anachronism because it was the name of the city at the time of the writing of the book of Exodus, rather than the actual name of the city the Israelites in fact built. The later name, they assert, would have been given to help the original readers of Exodus to locate the city. Plausible enough. They also look to impressive findings which date back to the Middle Kingdom (circa 2125-1773 BC). The ancient city of Avaris is chief among these findings. The site where the city of Raamses was excavated, which Scripture states the Israelites built, contains no evidence of Semitic peoples living there. However, the Middle Kingdom city of Avaris was dug up under the New Kingdom city of Raamses. In this lower site, artifacts and structures reflecting Syro-Palestinian culture are found. There is even a tomb which Bimson and Rohl and others suggest may have been the tomb of Joseph for various compelling and dramatic reasons.

Appeal is made to a document called the Ipuwer Papyrus, which contains writings which Egyptologists conclude is referring to the destruction of Memphis during the Old Kingdom, but wishful thinking Bible believers want to believe is an account of the plagues which preceded the Exodus. A number of other similar finds which predate the New Kingdom which most skeptical and believing scholars believe is the legitimate time of the biblical Exodus are pointed to as being consistent with each of the six stages of Israel’s Egyptian residency.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe the biblical account of Israel’s stay in Egypt is historical. I do believe they were enslaved, that there were plagues which judged the gods of Egypt and that the Israelites indeed engaged in an exodus, a forty year sojourn in the wilderness and the conquest of Canaan. I am simply suspicious of efforts like this to popularize contrarian views which attempt to find positive evidence of every major event in Scripture. While it is true that much evidence consistent with the Old Testament’s historical narratives has been found, not everything has. I am persuaded that what has been found is sufficient to make a legitimate case for the historicity of the Bible in general, and even sufficient enough that we can trust that events like the Exodus truly happened despite the lack of tangible evidence. Such may indeed surface one day, but we must not rush to judgment about every superficial similarity and make more out of the evidence than may legitimately be made. The point is, our faith in the historicity of the Bible should not rest finally on the ground of sufficient archaeological evidence. It should rest on the self-attesting unity of the books of the Bible as an anthology of writings by various authors writing centuries apart from each other, which yet brought together reveal the history of God’s covenantal relationship with and redemption of his chosen people, those who share the faith of their father Abraham, a unity and consistency of which the Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts (1 Corinthians 2).

To be sure, scholarly consensus deserves to be questioned. That’s what keeps the experts accountable and honest. But I’m not so sure the best means of doing so is by following every contrarian position that comes down the pike just for the sake of having a reason to dispute the status quo of scholarship. Scripture is sufficient to demonstrate its historicity and its inspiration. Evidence is nice, but insufficient and unnecessary. Like scientific theories, interpretations of archaeological evidence are subject to change, and one is wise to not put his faith in the sufficiency of evidence, but rather receive by faith the Scriptures for what they are, the Word of God. This is what the apostle Paul affirms in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 when he writes, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

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2 responses

  1. Absolutely, evidence supporting Biblical events is great for apologetics. However, all the evidence in the world won’t convict someone of their sin if they are coming from a worldview that elevates human reasoning above God. What a relief that we don’t have to be able to explain every piece of artifact that comes our way. Our job is to show unbelievers that their presuppositions are wrong and to point them to Christ who has given us everything we need to know for salvation in His Word.

  2. Well said, Rachel. Scripture commends faith in God’s Word, not faith in human ability to prove every jot and tittle of it in terms of archaeological evidence. The evidence we have sufficiently demonstrates Scripture’s basic historical credibility. We don’t need it all, but we may well gain more and more as the centuries unfold.

    Credo ut intelligam–Believe to understand…”so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).

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