The Jewish faith, like the Christian faith, is rooted in history. The founding event for Judaism was the Exodus from Egypt, and the founding event for Christianity was the death and resurrection of Christ.
Both of these occurred in history—not an imaginary, mythical “time of the gods” for which no dates can be given.
In the case of the Crucifixion, we can be specific about when it happened. The general range of years is commemorated when we recite the Creed and say that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” That places the event during his term as Roman governor, between A.D. 26 and 36.
But we can be even more specific, and additional clues tell us that the exact year was A.D. 33 (though some argue for 30).
What about the Exodus? If it’s a historical event, can we say when it happened?
Yes, though there is more flexibility because it occurred farther back in time, and our sources don’t allow us to determine with as much precision as we can the Crucifixion. Also, not everyone reads the evidence the same way, which produces debates—like the debate between A.D. 30 and 33 for the Crucifixion.
Types of evidence
To determine when the Exodus happened, we need evidence, and we have two types: literary and archaeological.
The literary (written) evidence comes principally from the Hebrew Bible, though there are also Egyptian sources that need to be taken into consideration.
When it comes to archaeological evidence, we have important information coming both from both Egypt and the Holy Land.
The temple argument
One argument for dating the Exodus is based on 1 Kings 6:1, which says:
In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord.
Solomon began reigning around 972 B.C., so his fourth year would be 968. If this was the 480th year since the Exodus, we should back up 479 years, putting us in 1446 B.C.
This would have been during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III, making him the pharaoh of the Exodus.
The Jephthah argument
A related argument is based on a speech given by one of Israel’s judges, who were warrior-chieftains whom God raised up in the period before Israel had a king.
In Judges 11:26, the judge Jephthah is addressing a foreign leader named Sihon, and he says:
While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not deliver them within that time?
This dates the arrival of the Israelites in these territories to 300 years earlier, at the end of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, allowing us another potential way of dating the Exodus.
The problem is, we don’t know precisely when Jephthah lived. The chronology of Judges is uncertain, because time periods were commonly reckoned by the reigns of kings in the ancient world, and the judges were not kings.
If we assume that Jephthah lived about a century before Solomon and then add 340 years, we arrive at the same general period in the 1400s.
The genealogical argument
Genealogies are important in the Old Testament, and in 1 Chronicles 6:33-37 we have a genealogy describing the ancestry of a man named Heman, who lived in David’s time.
The genealogy goes back to a man named Korah, who lived during the Exodus, and it contains nineteen ancestors of Heman, representing nineteen generations.
If we add a generation to move from the time of David to that of his son, Solomon, that gives us twenty generations. If we further assume that each generation represents twenty-five years, that would represent a period of 500 years, which is close to 480, suggesting the same general time frame.
Examining the arguments
The arguments for a 1400s B.C. date for the Exodus may at first appear convincing, but there are reasons to question them.
Because there was no equivalent for the B.C./A.D. system in the ancient world, time was commonly reckoned by how long a given king reigned, and determining lengthy periods of time meant stitching together the reigns of different kings.
But before 1049 B.C., when King Saul came to the throne, the Israelites didn’t have kings, and so dates before this time are estimates.
The Bible also frequently uses symbolic numbers, such as twelve (the number of the tribes of Israel) and forty (the length of an ideal generation).
When we apply these principles to the arguments mentioned above, we see that they are not as conclusive as one might think.
Revisiting the temple argument
The dating of Solomon’s temple after the Exodus looks like it is based on two known symbolic numbers (12 x 40 = 480).
We also know that, in the ancient Near East, it was common at the dedication of temples to give them symbolic dates relative to some ancient event.
Scholars refer to these as Distanzan-gaben (German, “distance information”). The point, however, is that the numbers were symbolic estimates rather than precise, literal figures.
Neither is Jephthah to be relied upon. He was the son of a prostitute (Judg. 11:1) and thus uneducated. He is portrayed as a profoundly foolish man (vv. 29-40).
In his speech to Sihon, Jephthah gets things wrong (including the name of the god Sihon, whom he worshiped!), and his estimate of 300 years may not be reliable.
He may be exaggerating to increase Israel’s claim on the territories under discussion, and the fact ancients often counted parts for wholes means that the time could have been much shorter.
Revisiting the genealogy
The genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:33-37 is not a good guide for measuring time. Israelite genealogies were legal rather than purely biological, and they allowed people to be posthumously adopted from one tribe into another.
That happens in this genealogy. As one of David’s singers in the temple, Heman needs to be a Levite, but he’s a descendant of Samuel, who was an Ephraimite. As a result, Heman and seven of his ancestors are posthumously stitched onto a Levite line going back to Korah.
This is confirmed by the fact 1 Samuel 1:1 names these ancestors and attributes them to Ephraim rather than Levi. We thus have a composite genealogy that can’t be used to get a literal generation count.
Political and archaeological problems
While these considerations do not rule out a 1400s date for the Exodus, we need to look further and see if there are arguments that support a different date.
One problem is political. During the eighteenth dynasty, Egypt had significant control over the Holy Land. In fact, we have correspondence from local Canaanite kings to pharaohs such as Amenhotep III and Akhenaten that reveal the political situation. Basically, the local Canaanite kings were vassals of Egypt—they were local rulers who owed allegiance and paid tribute to the pharaoh.
The political situation in the eighteenth dynasty thus reflects a period before the Israelite conquest of the land.
The same is illustrated by the archaeological record, which does not show distinctively Israelite houses or settlements, and there is no mention of Israel in the records of the time. This suggests the Exodus happened after the eighteenth dynasty.
What the Israelites built
One of the most significant clues about the timing of the Exodus is found in the Bible itself.
Exodus 1:11 records that the sons of Israel “built for pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses.” These are Hebraized versions of Egyptian names, and we know about these cities from Egyptian records and archaeology.
Pithom is from the Egyptian Pi-Atum or “House of Atum.” It is named after the temple it contained for the god Atum, who was one of the Egyptian solar deities as well as a creator-god.
More significant is Raamses. This is the site known in other ancient sources as Pi-Ramesses (“House of Ramesses”), and the name is a dead giveaway for the period in which it was built: the nineteenth dynasty, which was founded by the first pharaoh named Ramesses and which included Ramesses the Great.
This is confirmed by archaeology. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen writes:
Ramesses I reigned only sixteen months and built no cities. None of the [other pharaohs named Ramesses] founded major cities either, with but one exception. He was Ramesses II, grandson of I, who was the builder of the vast city Pi-Ramesse A-nakhtu, “Domain of Ramesses II, Great in Victory.” . . .
Here, and here alone, is the basis of a city which, with its workshops and storage magazines for palace, temples, and other institutions, can well qualify as one of the are-miskenoth, or “store-cities,” of Exod. 1:11. In biblical usage, such miskenoth were in effect depots for storage of supplies and revenue paid in kind (grain, oil, wine, etc.) in Egypt (On the Reliability of the Old Testament, ch. 6).
This indicates the Israelites were still in Egypt during the time of Ramesses II, which began in 1279 B.C.
Not really Raamses?
To avoid this conclusion, advocates of a 1400s date for the Exodus use one of two strategies.
Those who believe that Moses wrote Exodus and did so in the 1400s must argue that the text of the book originally contained a different name, which was later replaced by copyists who substituted the name Raamses and removed the original name.
Those who believe in a 1400s date but are open to the idea of the book being written later have another option: they could hold that the biblical author used the name Raamses for the site, even though it would not have been in use when the Exodus actually happened.
Either way, the city of Pi-Ramesses did not exist in the 1400s, so on both strategies they must hold that this name was being applied to a different city.
The common proposal is that it was a site known as Avaris, which had been the capital of the Hyksos.
Evaluating this view
There are problems with this view. First, we have no evidence that the manuscripts of Exodus were ever changed to update the name of the cities that the Israelites built. This is simply speculation.
Second, while Avaris is near Pi-Ramesses, the two were not the same. This poses a problem for the 1400s date, even if you allow that the book was written after the name Raamses was in circulation.
Third, the name didn’t stay in circulation long, because Raamses was abandoned around 1130 B.C., so it was only the famous royal residence for a little over a century. Why would the biblical author substitute in the name of a site that was no longer famous?
Ultimately, it comes down to which data you choose to emphasize—the numerical data or the name-based data. A straightforward reading of the number 480 would put the Exodus in the 1400s, but a straightforward reading of the place name Raamses would put it in the 1200s. So, we have to make a choice.
Given that dates before Israel had kings are estimates, and given the Old Testament’s use of symbolic numbers, most scholars have concluded that it is more likely that the Israelites would remember the precise names of the cities they built for the Egyptians than that they would remember the precise number of years it had been.
As a result, most scholars place the Exodus in the 1200s, during the reign of Ramesses II. The fact his was an unusually long reign also had consequences. As he aged, his power and force of will began to slip, giving the Israelites a greater opportunity to leave.
The Merneptah Stele
Many scholars see confirmation for this in a monument erected by Ramesses II successor, Merneptah. He was his father’s thirteenth son, and he came to the throne only because Ramesses II reigned so long that all his older brothers had died (including, yes, the firstborn).
As a result, Merneptah was older than normal and reigned only ten years, but he was vigorous enough to lead the armies into battle, and afterward he commissioned a stele (tombstone-shaped monument) to record his victories.
The Merneptah Stele preserves the first written record of Israel outside the Bible. It says in part:
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome.
Gezer has been captured.
Yano’am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.
This shows Israel was an independent entity by the time of Merneptah (r. 1213-1203).
Further, Egyptian writing includes special signs to indicate what kind of entity a thing is, and the sign used for Israel indicates a foreign people that is not settled in a land—as compared to the other groups that have signs indicating they were settled.
This suggests Merneptah may have attacked Israel during the wandering in the wilderness before the Israelites conquered the Promised Land.
One last theory
Recently, some scholars have proposed a date for the Exodus in the twentieth dynasty, during the reign of Ramesses III (r. 1186-1155).
The argument is based on archaeological evidence that a new people was coming into the Holy Land in the 1100s B.C.
Further, Ramesses’s ability to project force into Canaan was slipping, as he was faced with invasions from “the Sea Peoples,” which included the Philistines.
A problem for this theory is that the Merneptah Stele points to Israel being a separate people living in Canaan during the late 1200s.
Also, it would severely compress the timeline, with only a bit more than a century between the departure from Egypt and King Saul taking the throne in 1049. That seems entirely too short a period to contain the events from Exodus to 1 Samuel.
Consequently, most scholars hold that the evidence best supports the Exodus taking place in the 1200s, with Ramesses II as the pharaoh of the Exodus.
Sidebar 1: A Timeline of Ancient Egypt
To understand when the Exodus occurred, we need to know the overall scope of Egyptian history.
Prehistoric Egypt – 10,000 to 3150 B.C.
Archaeological evidence reveals humans in Egypt, though they had no developed writing system. The area was much wetter than now. As it dried, people were forced to concentrate around the Nile River and its delta.
Early Dynastic Period – 3150 to 2686 B.C.
Upper and Lower Egypt are united under a single ruling monarch. Hieroglyphic writing allows the beginning of the historical period.
Old Kingdom – 2686 to 2181 B.C.
A golden age in Egypt. The pyramids are built during this time, which was before Abraham was born (so pictures of Israelite slaves building the pyramids are mistaken).
First Intermediate Period – 2181 to 2055 B.C.
Egyptian government falls apart, leading to a period of chaos when the land is ruled by different factions.
Middle Kingdom – 2055-1650 B.C.
The land is reunited under a single government, bringing about another golden age.
Second Intermediate Period – 1650-1550 B.C.
The government falls apart, producing another period of chaos. A faction ruling in the northern delta are the Hyksos or “foreign kings.” These were a Semitic people related to but distinct from the Israelites. The Joseph narrative (Gen. 37-50) is set in this period.
New Kingdom – 1550-1069 B.C.
The land is again reunited. Famous pharaohs like Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and Rameses II reign in this period. This is Egypt’s last great period of self-rule. The Exodus narrative (Exod. 1-19) is set during this period.
Third Intermediate Period – 1069-664 B.C.
A new period of chaos and rule by different factions.
Late Period – 664-332 B.C.
Egypt is briefly reunited by native pharaohs before being conquered by the Persian empire.
Ptolemaic Period – 332-30 B.C.
Alexander the Great conquers Egypt. After his death, it is ruled by a line of Greek pharaohs descended from Alexander’s general Ptolemy. Cleopatra is of this line and is the last Ptolemaic ruler. The Library of Alexandria is built during this period, and the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament is composed
Roman Period – 30 B.C.-A.D. 641
The emperor Augustus defeats Mark Anthony and Cleopatra and makes Egypt a province of the Roman Empire. Jesus lives during this period, which lasts until Egypt is conquered by Muslim forces.
Sidebar 2: The New Kingdom
All the common proposals for when the Exodus occurred place it in the period of Egypt’s New Kingdom, which ran from 1550 to 1069 B.C. This period contained three dynasties.
The Eighteenth Dynasty ran from 1550 to 1292 B.C. It was founded by Ahmose I, who drove out the Hyksos and reunited Egypt, ending the Second Intermediate period.
In addition to Thutmose III (r. 1458-1425), who may have been the pharaoh of the Exodus, the ancient country had other famous leaders. These included Hatshepsut, the mother of Thutmose III, who reigned as pharaoh before he came to power.
The pharaoh Akhenaten ruled a century after Thutmose III. Akhenaten is famous for having changed Egypt’s religion. He wanted everyone to worship a deity named Aten, who represented the solar disc. This change was not popular, and he is often referred to as the “heretic pharaoh.”
Akhenaten’s son—Tutankhamun—came to the throne as a boy and, under the influence of his advisors, restored the traditional religion. He is the famous King Tut, whose tomb was discovered in 1922. It was nearly intact and contained many art treasures.
The Nineteenth Dynasty, which ran from 1292 to 1186, was founded by Ramesses I. Its most famous leader was his grandson, Ramesses II or “Ramesses the Great” (r. 1279-1213) He may have been the pharaoh of the Exodus, and he reigned an astonishing sixty-six years, dying around age ninety. He is famous for battling the Hittite empire and for finally making peace with them and signing a treaty.
He is still remembered in Western literature. Based on his Greek name—Ozymandias—he became the subject of a famous sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley (below). Ramesses II’s son and successor, Merneptah, is famous for having commissioned a monument that preserves the first mention of Israel outside the Bible.
The Twentieth Dynasty ran from 1190 to 1077 B.C. It was the last strong dynasty in Egypt. A pharaoh named Setnakhte founded it, but all of his successors took the name Ramesses, seeking to recapture the glory of Ramesses II’s reign.
Of particular note is Ramesses III (r. 1186-1155), the strongest ruler of this dynasty. According to a recent proposal, he may have been the pharaoh of the Exodus.
He is more famous for having been the subject of a conspiracy within his royal court. Some of the wives in his harem instigated a plot to kill him with the assistance of court officials and black magic. They wanted to replace him with one of the sons of the lesser wives instead of the legitimate heir.
The conspirators succeeded in killing Ramesses III, but they failed in their other objective. The legitimate heir, Ramesses IV, assumed power, quashed the conspiracy, and executed those involved. We still have the trial records.
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
— Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)