15-Nov-2002  Judaism / Judaism Today

Unearthing clues to the biblical past

Helen Jacobus

Restored statue of a Semite who occupied a high office in ancient Egypt. Could this be Joseph of Egypt?

Many archaeologists treat the Bible more as a work of myth than of history. Helen Jacobus meets the author of a new book, David Rohl, who argues why they are wrong.  Egyptologist David Rohl is well known for upsetting the academic world. While many scholars of ancient history see the Bible as little more than fiction, Rohl regards it as an historical document whose stories can tell us about real events and characters who lived thousands of years ago.

His best-known book, “A Test of Time: From Myth to History” was turned into a three-part television documentary, “Pharaohs and Kings.” It revealed, among other details, that a smashed-up, cult statue of a Semitic high official, or vizier, had been found in a mud-brick pyramid tomb in an area in Egypt where, according to the Bible, the Israelites had been enslaved. The vizier had pale skin, red hair and wore a coat of colours. Rohl argued the statue was a representation of Joseph.

His new book, “The Lost Testament,” synthesises all his research with archaeological findings, to retell the Bible epic from the Garden of Eden to the exile of the Jews in Babylon. It is, he says, the culmination of 25 years’ work.

Speaking in his drawing room in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, which is adorned with replicas of ancient Egyptian and classical Graeco-Roman artefacts, he declares: “The Bible should be treated like any other ancient document. My approach is: let’s look at the document and see what we can find out about the history of the period and see if it’s consistent with the archaeology, rather than approaching it like some mythical text in the first place.

“The whole basis upon which the Jewish religion rests is the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. That’s where it all began. And if that never happened, what do you do with the whole of Jewish tradition?”

As a child, Rohl had a “passion for ancient Egypt,” teaching himself hieroglyphics and the names of all the pharaohs. His mother encouraged his interest by taking him on an unforgettable trip down the Nile at the age of 10. Brought up as a Catholic, in Manchester, Rohl describes himself as “completely agnostic, with no religious beliefs as such.”

A successful career in the music industry, as a producer and engineer, enabled him to earn enough to return to his “first love,” and study for a degree in ancient history and Egyptology at University College London.

It was while doing his thesis on the last dynasties of pharaohs, from the 11th to the 5th centuries BCE, that he “found that scholars had artificially made the period too long.”

So he revised the dates downwards. The effect of that was to make the most famous pharaoh, Rameses II, not the pharaoh of the Exodus to whom Moses said “Let my people go,” in about 1279 BCE according to conventional dating, but a king contemporary with Solomon — in about 943 BCE. “By changing the dates of the pharaohs, such as Rameses II, there were obvious implications for biblical history,” he says.

Rohl, in fact, puts the Exodus around 1447 BCE, a couple of hundred years earlier than the conventional biblical dating. He describes his historical dating as the “New Chronology,” in contrast to the previously accepted “Old Chronology.” The “mistake” in the Old Chronology, he argues, stems from the Victorian era, when excavators “held the Bible in one hand, and the trowel in the other.”

Victorian biblical historians regarded Rameses II as the pharaoh of the Exodus, based on the names of cities mentioned in the Bible where the children of Israel were enslaved. But the cities of Pithom and Rameses, known as Pi-Ramesse to the ancients, Rohl says, were anachronistic city names for a far older name of the same place, Avaris. They were inserted by later text editors in antiquity, he suggests, so that people could identify the place.

To compound the error, Victorian historians also wrongly identified the Egyptian pharaoh Shoshenk I with the Shishak of the Bible, who sacked Solomon’s temple. “They added up dates of the kings before him to get a date for Rameses II, and thus a [wrong] date for Moses,” he maintains.

Rohl backs up his theory by pointing out that the archaeological dates for the destroyed walls of Jericho are in the 15th century BCE. But in the conventional system, Joshua is placed in 1200 BCE. “Archaeologists are looking in the right place, but in the wrong time,” he says.

He has a similar dispute with Professor Israel Finklestein, head of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, who has claimed there was no conquest of Canaan, no Joshua, and no Davidic nor Solomonic empire.

Although Rohl does not challenge Finklestein’s dates for David and Solomon — regarded by the Israeli as no more than tin-pot tribal chieftains — he believes that Israeli archaeologists have assigned incorrect archaeological eras to their kingdoms.

In other words, David and Solomon have been placed in the Iron Age, when there is a dearth of monuments and artefacts, a kind of archaeological Dark Ages in the Ancient Near East. But according to Rohl, King David and his son belong to the earlier Late Bronze Age, a period of great wealth.

“It’s like finding a Coca Cola tin and ascribing it to the Tudor period,” says Rohl, “and then, uncovering a skyscraper and concluding it was built in the reign of Elizabeth I.

“‘They say: ‘This is when Moses existed,’ and they look for evidence for the date and time, and there is no evidence. We say: ‘Moses was around in 1447 to 1450 BCE and there is evidence.’”

Rohl has also searched for the geographical basis of the Garden of Eden, as described in Genesis, and accordingly, he begins “The Lost Testament,” on the border between western Turkey and eastern Iran, where he has located what he says was the Garden, 7,000 years ago.

When he set out more than two decades ago, it was “to solve the puzzle of Egyptian chronology.” He had not expected his findings to have an impact on biblical chronology, too. “The Bible story is the heart and foundation of our culture. If the Egyptian chronology affected the Bible, it was important to investigate. I didn’t set out to prove that the Bible was true,” but he is now convinced that it is based on “real history.”

 “The Lost Testament: From Eden to Exile — The Five-Thousand Year History of the People of the Bible,” David Rohl, Century, £18.99

 David Rohl will be speaking on “The Bible — Myth or Reality?” at Northwood Synagogue, Murray Road, Northwood, Middlesex, on December 11, at 8pm.

For the rest of Rohl's views, see this week's edition of the JC.