What's happening to ancient chronology?
The recent publication of Centuries of Darkness by Peter James (Jonathan Cape 1991) caused some controversy in the press and radio. It is not written from a Christian point of view but has important implications for the Old Testament in terms of its links with Egypt. The book tours around the Mediterranean and Near East pointing out chronological anomalies in the centuries around 1000 BC. The anomalies are mostly of the `dark age'type whereby civilisations disappear for a few hundred years and then reappear, often with somewhat similar cultural remains. James demonstrates that all these areas are dated by links to Egypt and that by the single expedient of shortening Egyptian chronology, the anomalies disappear. Egyptian chronology in this period is dated by a biblical synchronism, that of Pharaoh Shishak's attack on Judah in the fifth year of Rehoboam (c.925 BC - see I Kings 14:25, II Chronicles 12:2). Shishak is normally identified as Shoshenq I, founder of the XXIInd dynasty, and is in some ways a likely candidate. But, in view of the desirability of shortening all the dark ages, James suggests that Shishak was actually Ramesses III (normally dated c.1200 - 1165 BC), thereby removing about two and a half centuries from the dark ages. Ramesses III was nicknamed Sesi which was perhaps imperfectly transliterated as Shishak. Whilst this change does not affect biblical chronology it does affect the historical setting of biblical events and biblical archaeology. Archaeological levels in Israel are dated relative to the Egyptian remains found in them and they also would need to lose about 250 years. James suggests that the reduction should be made by shortening the Iron I, Iron IIA&B and Babylonian/Persian archaeological periods. One of the implications of this, although not spelt out in the book, would be that `Solomon's stables' at Megiddo would actually be Assyrian. Solomon would have been back in the Late Bronze Age.
This alteration of Egyptian dates would also affect the question of the identity of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, although that subject is only briefly considered in the book. Commentaries written by Christians often suggest that the Exodus Pharaoh was Ramasses II of Dynasty XIX. This Ramesses is the famous one whose statues can still be seen in Egypt. (Incidentally, he has also been suggested as a possible Shishak). The choice of Ramesses II is based on the Bible's naming of Raameses as one of the cities that the Israelite slaves were forced to build (Exodus 1:11) and also on a slight change in pottery style in Israel shortly after Ramesses II's time, supposedly coinciding with the Conquest under Joshua. However, this `Exodus'from Egypt and `Conquest' of Canaan have left virtually no trace of historical or archaeological evidence, and they are dated over two centuries after the Bible suggests (about 1450 BC). There are serious problems here, and the conclusion that many have come to is that Ramesses II was not the Pharaoh of the Exodus or anywhere near it.
So which Pharaoh was it? There are many differing views! According to Ahmed Osman's recent book Moses, Pharaoh of Egypt (Grafton, 1990), it was Akhenaten (towards the end of Dynasty XVIII), but this book is not to be taken seriously. Some evangelicals would put the Exodus early in the XVIIIth Dynasty, with the Conquest of Canaan at the end of the Middle Bronze Age when there were many town destructions in Israel. On the conventional chronology, this is fairly close to the biblical date in the 15th Century BC. John Bimson, of Trinity College, Bristol, has advocated this in his book Redating the Exodus and Conquest (Sheffield University Press, 1981). Recently, a somewhat similar position has been adopted by Bryant Wood in an article concerning Jericho in Biblical Archaeology Review(1990, 16(2), 44-58), which was well reported in the press. Older readers may also remember a major controversy in the 1950's concerning a book by Immanuel Velikovsky who put the Exodus in Dynasty XIII when Egypt fell to the Hyksos invaders, and linked it with astronomical catastrophe theories.
Are you now thoroughly confused?! Let's come to what really happened - that is to say, my own version! It is actually modified from Donovan Courville's book The Exodus Problem and its Ramifications (Challenge Books, Loma Linda, 1971). I consider that the Exodus occurred at the end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom in Dynasty VI. This puts it at c. 2200 BC on the overstretched conventional chronology, but really this was in the 15th Century BC. It was at this point that Egypt suffered some disaster which fragmented the country and plunged it into a dark age. Also, at about this time, in Canaan the Early Bronze Age civilisation was destroyed including Jericho. The Pharaoh of the Exodus may have been Mery-en-re Anty-em-saf II, the short-lived successor of the long-reigning Pepy II. This is all somewhat speculative, but to continue further back in time, Joseph could be identified with Imhotep, the Vizier of Zoser of Dynasty III. Abraham's visit to Egypt would be sometime at the beginnings of Egyptian civilisation in the Pre-Dynastic Period (normally dated about 3000 BC).
For those creationists who want to date the Flood c. 2400 BC (the strict `no gaps' Masoretic text date), all this is good news. For those who are prepared to stretch that date, the new developments may not matter too much. Nevertheless, we desire to see biblical events in their correct historical setting and many biblical commentaries attempt to provide such information. If any of the above is true then all such commentaries are giving incorrect information.
Bob Porter (1991)