When it comes to biblical history, you can divide scholars into two general camps: minimalists and maximalists. Minimalists believe almost nothing in the Old Testament is historically accurate. Maximalists believe the Old Testament is a reasonably accurate historical document.
Among the maximalists, there are two main competing theories about the date of the Exodus: early and late.
Disclaimer: This debate is complex. These notes only scratch the surface.
Early date – 1400s BC
Summary: Jacob went to Egypt 1876 BC; Exodus 1446 BC
- This theory takes the biblical numbers at face value.
- Solomon’s temple was built about 966 BC. (This date is generally agreed as “fixed” by scholars.)
- 1Kings 6:1 tells us this was 480 years after Exodus. This means the Exodus occurred in 1446 BC.
- The Israelites were in Egypt 430 years (Exodus 12:41; Acts 7:6). This means they arrived in 1876 BC.
- Proponents: David Rohl; Bryant Wood; John Bimson
- The documentary, Patterns of Evidence: Exodus by Timothy Mahoney, makes the case for the early date.
Late Date – 1200s BC
Summary: Jacob went to Egypt 1640 BC; Exodus 1210 BC
- This view takes the numbers in 1Kings 6:1 as symbolic.
- 40 signifies a generation: 480 / 40 = 12 generations. But more accurately a generation is about 20 years, making the time from temple to Exodus 240 years.
- Proponents: Kenneth Kitchen, James Hoffmeier, RK Harrison, Allan Millard.
- Books: Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition by James K Hoffmeier.
- Books: Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition by James K. Hoffmeier.
Factors in the debate
Arguments for the 1200s:
- Some archaeologists believe the cities the Israelites conquered during the time of Joshua do not have burn layers at the 1400 BC levels.
- Archaeologists believe the cities of Rameses and Pithom mentioned in Exodus 1:11 did not exist until 1200s.
- The cities of Rameses and Pithom were built by slave labor. Scholars think slaves were only used in Egypt about 150 years (1270-1120 BC).
- Rameses II (1290-1224 BC) built many projects in the east Delta using bricks.
- Hoffmeier argues there are at least three “biblical” chronologies (e.g. the List of Judges totals at least 633 years from Exodus to temple; and the Septuagint (LXX) numbers differ from the Masoretic text numbers).
Arguments for the 1400s:
- The city of Rameses is the same as the older city of Avaris. The author of Hebrews uses the newer name “Rameses” because that is the name his readers would be familiar with.
- There is archaeological evidence that a large tribe of Semitic shepherds lived at Avaris in the 1400s.
- Archaeologists have found an Egyptian-style palace at Avaris: a large house given only to someone the state wished to honor. The palace courtyard contains 12 graves with memorial chapels on top. One of of these graves was a Pyramid tomb. (Pyramids were reserved for kings and queens.) In this pyramid was a large statue of a Semitic man with a multi-colored coat but the tomb was empty. This palace is believed to be the house of Joseph.
- At the end of the famine all the wealth was concentrated in the hands of the Pharaoh (Genesis 47:23-26). This shift from power distributed across “Nomes” (districts) to the Pharaoh occurs during the Middle Kingdom, perhaps placing the famine in the reign of Amenemhat III.
- Some scholars believe the dates of the the Egyptian Old, Middle and New Kingdoms should be shifted 200 years. If this is true, the dates of the Middle Kingdom align with the archaeological evidence that places the Exodus in 1450.
Maps – Route of the Exodus
Route of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – Biblehistory.com
Flavius Josephus: The Antiquities of the Jews
BOOK II. Containing The Interval Of Two Hundred And Twenty Years. From The Death Of Isaac To The Exodus Out Of Egypt.