Thursday, April 10, 2014

Passover's Historical Dilemma

Traditional Passover Seder
Today, after more than 3,000 years, the escape of Hebrew slaves from Egypt remains the cornerstone of Jewish faith.  Jews will meet against this April for the Passover holiday to re-tell the story of the mass exodus.  At every Passover Seder, the ritualistic meal, they tell each other that if their forefathers had not left Egypt then “they, their children and their children’s children” might still be slaves to pharaoh. 

The brief victory song that Miriam, the priestess who helped lead the march, sang after the slaves finally reached freedom, is part of everyday Jewish religious services.  “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously,” Miriam recited in one of the oldest writings in the Bible.  “Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15: 20-21)

SS Exodus
In addition, the account of the Exodus included in the second book of the Bible is a regular reading in both Jewish and Christian services. The name given to the escape of the slaves, exodus, resonates in recent history. The name of the ship that tried to bring Jews freed from Nazi concentration camps to Israel after World War 11, for example, was named Exodus.  When Falasha Jews from Ethiopia were brought to Israel in the mid-1950s, their leaders likened the event to the Exodus to get reluctant followers to board planes for the Holy Land. 

Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ mythical victory over death, is directly tied to Passover.  Jesus supposedly was crucified at the start of the annual holiday.

But, did Exodus really take place?  No one knows.  Archaeologists have tried for years to pinpoint the exact date of this climactic event and failed. 

There a multiple reasons for that.  The passage of years has meant any remnant of the thousands of people who may have participated in the Exodus has disappeared.  No relics have ever turned up to
Sinai Desert
help with the dating.  People wandering in a desert supposedly for 40 years should have left residues of campfires, graves and other evidence.  While artifacts have been found in the Sinai Desert, all are far older than the second millennium B.C.E.  Nothing from the appropriate time period has ever been found.

No independent sources mention Moses, the great leader of the Exodus.  No evidence has been found that the land now known as Israel was ever invaded by Moses’ successor, Joshua.

The Bible offers minimal assistance, other than stories.  According to the opening book, Genesis, Hebrews migrated to Egypt under a man named Jacob, the grandson of the first Jew, Abraham.  Jacob’s son Joseph had reached a prominent position in Egypt and encouraged his family to join him.  The second book of the Bible, known in English as Exodus, describes the arrival of a new leader “who knew not Joseph” and who enslaved the descendants of the Hebrews who had accepted Jacob’s invitation.

The sacred text does not provide the name of that Egyptian leader, calling him simply “pharaoh.”  It offers few hints as to the sequence of events, relying on general terms like “400 years.”  Since “4” is a holy number in Judaism, its use typically refers to an unknown number of years rather than a specific time period.

Moses a la Charlton Heston
In the biblical account, Moses is the son of Hebrew slaves, but is raised in the palace by a princess who finds him floating in a basket in the Nile River.  He is forced to flee to safety after killing an Egyptian overseer who is whipping slaves.  There, Moses has a confrontation with God, who tells him to go back to Egypt and free his people.  With his brother, Aaron, Moses boldly faces the pharaoh, who is loath to lose his slaves.  As a result, the kingdom is hit by 10 successive plagues.  The final one, death of the first born of all humans and animals, forces the pharaoh to release the Jews.  However, by the time the escaping Jews reached the Red Sea, the pharaoh has changed his mind again.  Moses rescues the Jews by parting the water and allowing the Jews to pass through safely.  Pharaoh and his men are drowned when the waters rush back.

Even that tidbit was no help.  Ancient writers already knew no pharaoh in Egypt history was recorded as having drowned. 

Demetrius, whose third century B.C.E. history survives in fragments mentioned by other writers, made the first known attempt to determine that date.  He placed the Exodus 215 years after the Jews first arrived there, or around 1200 B.C.E. in his chronology.  His dates relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the sacred texts that began in the late second century B.C.E.

Next, the anonymous author of the book of Jubilees, written around 100 B.C.E, based his argument on a year with only 364 days and concluded that Exodus took place 2,410 years after creation or in the year 1478 B.C.E.

 Josephus, the famed historian of the first century C.E., wrote that the Jews “left Egypt on the 15th day of the lunar month Xanthicus, 430 years after our forefather Abraham came into Canaan, but 215 years only after Jacob removed into Egypt.”  (Antiquity of the Jews: 2:15:2). 

He quoted Manetho, the Egyptian historian of the third century B.C.E., who placed the Jews in Egypt during the time when foreign shepherd kings, called Hyksos, conquered the land.  Manetho identified the pharaoh as Ahmose (Antiquities: 1:94)   Not satisfied with that answer, Josephus also linked the Jewish exodus to Ramses the Great (13th century) and Amenhotep IV (14th century).

In the end, filtering through the various claims, Josephus placed the Exodus around 1552 B.C.E.

In contrast, near the end of the first century C.E., a Jewish writer named Eupolemus decided Exodus took place in 1738 B.C.E. 

Several decades after that, Jose ben Halafia wrote a history titled Book of the Order of the World.  In it, the Jewish author starts with the creation of the world and locates the Exodus in 1440 B.C.E.

Non-Jewish writers joined the fun and came up with a wide array of dates, ranging from 1700 B.C.E. by the Roman historian Tacitus to 1570-1550 B.C.E. by the Greek “father” of history Herodotus and 1290 B.C.E. by the Greek writer Chaeremo.

Once the Christian religion was established, early Church fathers began to add their ideas.  Africanus, writing in the 3rd century C.E., liked the 1550 B.C.E. date.  So did Hippolytus, Clement of Rome and Theophilus.  On the other hand, the first Church historian, Eusebius, came up with 1446 B.C.E.

In more modern times, English archaeologist Flinders Petrie suggested 1449 B.C.E. was the correct date.

In reality, no date is probably accurate.  Considering the lack of any evidence of either an exodus or a subsequent invasion of the land now known as Israel, historians today largely accept that Passover was a result of an amalgamation of various stories, inflated into a universal idea.

That doesn’t mean that Seder plates should be retired.  Instead, Passover should focus on its central theme, freedom, a motif that encouraged African slaves in the South before the Civil War and other enslaved people worldwide, and continues to radiate through all cultures.

That’s a concept well worth celebrating and which easily trumps the dearth of supporting facts.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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