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Cite as: Ross, Sara. 2007. Biblical Archaeology and Pseudoarchaeology: In Pursuit of Exodus. PARA Research Paper A-06.

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Biblical Archaeology and Pseudoarchaeology:  In Pursuit of Exodus


Sara Ross

May 21, 2007


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Biblical archaeology encompasses a wide variety of often disparate approaches, methodologies, and agendas.  Unfortunately, within this generally reputable field are alarming instances of pseudoarchaeology where a biased selection of evidence has occurred in order to reach preordained conclusions usually in support of either the literal truth or historical accuracy of the Bible.  This faulty application of the scientific method is readily observed in some of the biblical archaeology dealing with the Biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.  While the Bible should not be discounted as a source of important textual information, it is problematic to emphasize the Bible as factual while manipulating other sources of information such as archaeological evidence to fit biblically literal preordained conclusions.  This paper will address biblical pseudoarchaeology, the pseudoarchaeology of Exodus, as well as non-pseudoarchaeological use of the Bible for hypothesis generation.   In addition, this will be accomplished through analysis of evidence of possible early Israelite settlements in Israel and Canaan as well as alternate explanations for the existence of the Exodus narratives.


Biblical archaeology focuses on the time, places, material remains, and written documents from the Near East that are either directly related or contextually relevant to biblical text (Hoffmeier and Millard 2004:xi).  While sometimes considered synonymous with the archaeology of Palestine or referred to as Near Eastern archaeology, its central characteristic is its inextricable link to biblical subject matter (Hoffmeier and Millard 2004:x-xi).  At the same time, biblical archaeology, as its name suggests, uses archaeology as the primary basis for reconstructing the past and as a result must respect the scientific boundaries that archaeology entails.  Archaeological evidence, for example, when treated in the requisite scientific manner, should be free from bias, prejudice, and preordained conclusions (Kochavi 1985:58). 


The marriage between science and religion in biblical archaeology can, as a result, prove to be problematic.  While it would be incorrect to separate all biblical archaeologists into two disparate groups, there are two distinct sides to biblical archaeology; many scholars are found somewhere in the middle but can sometimes be at the extremes as well.  These two approaches are often characterized as Minimalist versus Maximalist biblical archaeology (Scolnic 2005:189). 


Minimalist biblical archaeologists, on the one hand, approach the archaeological record from a scientific perspective where the scientific method is rigorously applied in gathering evidence to test a hypothesis which can then be accepted for the time being or discarded.  Objectivity is expected of scientifically rigorous archaeology where biases should ideally not influence the archaeologist and evidence should not be selected to fit a desired conclusion.  The evidence provided by the archaeological record will form the basis of any conclusions drawn by Minimal biblical archaeologists, whether or not these conclusions support biblical accounts (Scolnic 2005:189). 


On the other hand, Maximalist biblical archaeologists approach the archaeological record from a religious perspective where the assumption of literal truth or the historical accuracy of the Bible forms the basis for desired conclusions (Scolnic 2005:189).  Evidence is carefully selected in order to affirm biblical accuracy and any lack of evidence or opposing evidence is attributed to faulty archaeology, such as inadequate dating methods or inaccurate site selection (Scolnic 2005:189).  As a result, the ability of Maximalist biblical archaeologists to correctly apply the scientific method is compromised.  


When archaeologists do not apply the scientific method properly, draw conclusions before evidence is collected, and ignore contrary evidence in favour of preordained conclusions, it is clear that mainstream archaeology is no longer being practiced and that the realms of pseudoarchaeology have been entered.  Biblical pseudoarchaeology is an especially dangerous form of pseudoscience as it is practiced by many professional academics (Caiger 1946).  Caiger warns that it has always been tempting for biblical archaeologists who seek to demonstrate biblical accuracy to:


…press the evidence unduly…; to embroider the less colourful discoveries so as to rouse popular interest; to overemphasize, when in doubt, that interpretation of the evidence which most suits [their] own pet theories; to indulge in wishful thinking as to what the monuments, inscriptions, and unburied treasures of the Biblical past really do substantiate.  (1946:62)


It is certain that many archaeologists have particular theories they prefer but science is meant to control for the bias of the researcher in favour of truth.  Religiously biased use of the archaeological record cannot be accepted into mainstream archaeology or science as it does not abide by the rules of science and objectivity (Hoerth 1998:13-30).


Unfortunately manipulation of the archaeological record by biblical archaeologists still finds its way into the popular consciousness of portions of the population who seek to validate similar theories and beliefs as espoused, and apparently proved, by these trained academics.  The new ‘facts’ generated by biblical archaeology can then also be taught and reproduced by religious authorities.  In such cases these unscientific theories often come to be considered as equal or as more reputable than other archaeological research that seeks scientifically to constantly refine itself and does not amplify or manipulate evidence (Hoerth 1998:13-30).  Pseudoarchaeological biblical archaeology thus infiltrates what is generally known and believed about issues such as the Exodus and can push out unpopular but correct archaeological discoveries that may also disprove Biblical accuracy. 


Before considering the specific occurrences of pseudoarchaeology in the archaeology of Exodus, it is first helpful to understand why pseudoarchaeology is more widespread and accepted in biblical archaeology than in many other forms of archaeology.  Rather than the marginalized status that much pseudoarchaeology has within archaeology, biblical pseudoarchaeology is alarmingly central in biblical issues such as Exodus.  For example, in Andean archaeology, there is not a significant group of professional academics who seriously study alien astronaut theories as fact and regularly alter and manipulate the archaeological record in order to arrive at their desired conclusions.  The proponents of such theories may even be quite popular but they do not enjoy the same credibility and support as biblical pseudoarchaeologists.


The temptations facing archaeologists outlined by Caiger outlined above appear to be strong enough to lure a very large number of biblical archaeologists (1946:62).  This underlines the preoccupation among a significant portion of biblical archaeologists to substantiate claims to biblical accuracy.  Such preoccupations are a result of the intimate relationship between these biblical archaeologists and conservative or fundamentalist Christianity.  By no means is it correct to claim that Christianity in general endorses biblical pseudoarchaeology, but it is nevertheless accurate that many Christian denominations believe in the accuracy of the Bible.  As a result, many Christians are quite invested in biblical archaeology as it is directly related to their faith.  This creates a large basis of support for biblical pseudoarchaeologists who may belong or may at least be supported by such Christian denominations.  For much the same reasons that Creationism continues to exist in the face of reason and modern science, so too does biblical pseudoarchaeology. 


Feder suggests that religion is one of the six main causes of archaeological fraud (1990:11).  Christianity can trace its roots back to antiquity and the Exodus account and, as a result, Feder explains that believers may experiment with archaeology in the attempt to prove the validity of their religious beliefs through use of the archaeological record (1990:11).  However, Caiger has demonstrated that this tendency towards pseudoarchaeological reasoning is not just the domain of archaeological dabblers but also professional archaeologists (Caiger 1946).  The notion of a small lie or factual adjustment does not seem to deter proponents of biblical accuracy who may often point to the greater good of Christianity in general to justify their actions (Feder 1990:11).  It seems an inextricable aspect of human nature that when someone is utterly convinced of something, whether it is true or false, it is awfully difficult to change their mind.  In much the same way, overwhelming evidence in opposition to biblical pseudoarchaeology does not seem to deter those who endorse it and practice it.


            As mentioned previously, the central problem of Maximalist biblical archaeologists, or biblical pseudoarchaeologists, is their mistaken use of archaeology to confirm, prove, or authenticate the Bible.  Hoerth traces this use of archaeology back to the nineteenth century when biblical archaeology was created to answer questions raised for Christian believers in light of Near Eastern discoveries (1998:19).  At this early stage biblical critics were guilty of several incorrect conclusions that biblical archaeology was able to identify and correct (Hoerthe 1998:19).  For example, when early archaeologists were not able to find evidence for the existence of the Hittites, they were a bit too quick to conclude that the Hittites could not have existed (Hoerthe 1998:19).  When archaeologists did eventually find evidence for the existence of the Hittites, many conservative Christians began to grow increasingly suspicious of any academics that were critical of the total historicity of the Bible (Hoerthe 1998:19).  Biblical archaeology, Maximalist biblical archaeology that is, had found its support amongst biblical literalists as it started to be seen as the champion of their cause. 


            By the beginning of the twentieth century, liberal scholars of the day who did not support biblical literalism, had been taught to exercise greater caution in developing critical statements and had begun to investigate the use of archaeology to illuminate the Bible as a useful textual source (Hoerthe 1998:19).  Unfortunately this shift appears to have gone unnoticed by biblical literalists and conservative Christians, who continued to criticize the previous faults in analysis that biblical critics had demonstrated years before (Hoerthe 1998:19). 


This negative view of archaeology that some Christians have has been further exacerbated by a common tendency to assume too much from pseudoarchaeology and archaeology in general (Hoerthe 1998:20).  The notion that archaeology both confirms and authenticates the Bible, as originally promoted by books such as Halley’s Bible Handbook by Henry Halley (1965), is problematic as scientists should always be open to new evidence.   However most of what Minimalist biblical archaeologists find is considered dubious at best by many Christian supporters of biblical accuracy and historicity.  At the same time, any sort of evidence discovered by Maximal biblical archaeologists is embraced and added to the selective list of “facts” proving the accuracy of the Bible.


            While biblical literalists and pseudoarchaeology supporters in general are known to have alternative beliefs pertaining to what science has conclusively demonstrated, they are generally very critical of archaeologists who are thought not to give adequate consideration to these unscientific theories.  Scolnic demonstrates this view in his accusations against scholars and archaeologists who are critical of the accuracy of Exodus (2005:90).  Scolnic explains that these archaeologists will often purposefully make identifications to make the Bible appear false (2005:90).  He goes so far as to criticize and discount the ‘claims’ of Donald Redford, leading Egyptologist and critic of the historicity of the Bible, by simply accusing him of having a “biblical or religious axe to grind” (2005:90).  This demonstrates much of the irony that is involved in the Exodus debate as well as between archaeologists and pseudoarchaeologists in general.  Biblical archaeologists who base their work on rigorous use of the scientific method are often accused of being unreceptive to the possibilities of alternate theories relating to Exodus, predominantly pseudoarchaeological ones.  However, the same criticism can be turned on biblical pseudoarchaeologists and their supporters as they themselves are choosing to ignore scientific evidence in favour of their theories.


            The debate as to the accuracy of the Exodus account can often inspire even harsher criticism from the biblical pseudoarchaeological field.  When religious beliefs are countered, sentiments tend to run high.  Scolnic, for example, accuses Minimalist biblical archaeologists of denying the enslavement of Israelites in the same way that present day anti-Semitic rhetoric vilifies Israel or denies the Holocaust (2005:102).  This is a serious accusation to make and demonstrates how strongly many feel when it comes to criticism of the historical accuracy of Exodus.  With such defensive accusations and behaviour, it seems as though Maximalist biblical archaeologists and their supporters must not have much conclusive evidence for the accuracy of Exodus and thus feel threatened by Minimalist biblical archaeologists and their scientific weapons.


            The background and debate between Minimalist and Maximalist biblical archaeology has been explored and, as a result, it is now possible to effectively evaluate what archaeological evidence exists for the Exodus.  However, archaeological research relating to Exodus is both complex and well-documented and, due to spatial restrictions, it is impossible to encompass all the work that has been done in this area.  For excellent and in depth material on this topic, please refer to William Steibing’s 1989 publication Out of the Desert?  Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest Narratives and Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman’s 2001 publication The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s new Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts.


The Exodus account is interesting to analyze for accuracy as there are many aspects that might be probable if not accurate.  At the same time, however, there are also gaping errors in the narratives that make it impossible for the Exodus account to be historically accurate.  As a result, reconstruction of the past in this case is best accomplished by using the Bible as a textual guideline for what may have occurred while placing greater emphasis on the actual archaeological evidence available (Callaway 1985:72).  There certainly may be numerous kernels of truth to be gleaned from the scriptures but the greatest problem with the Exodus story is in its extremely vague account of history (Finkelstein 2001:65).  As a result it is very difficult to even decide on a single period of time when it might have taken place (Finkelstein 2001:64).  Biblical archaeologists are working hard to determine what truths exist in the Exodus story and much has been discovered that is of interest to those who have based their faith on the Bible.  Those who insist on the historical accuracy of the Bible and ignore these finds are discounting valuable evidence that can be used to reconstruct the past. 


Chronology is a main area that has motivated Maximalist biblical archaeologists to begin selecting and manipulating evidence to fit their preordained conclusions in order to verify what they believe must be true to confirm the accuracy of biblical sources that for them must be accurate to validate their faith.  The clues provided by the Bible for the date of the Exodus do not match up and, as a result, require a fair amount of pseudoarchaeological work to create a chronology that fits with non-biblical sources.  For example, I Kings 6:1 mentions that the construction of Solomon’s Temple occurred in the fourth year of his reign and took place 480 years after the Exodus.  When this is compared to regnal dates from Egyptian and Assyrian sources, the date for the Exodus would appear to be around 1440 B.C.E. (Finkelstein 2001:56).  However the Bible also mentions in Exodus 1:11 that one of the particular forced labour projects involving the Israelites was the construction of the city of Raamses.  A name such as Raamses would have been inconceivable before as well as during the fifteenth century B.C.E. during which the Israelites would have to have left Egypt if biblical dating were accurate (Finkelstein 2001:56). 


There are many other suggested dates for the Exodus but what is important to note is that at least one of the chronological clues from the Bible is wrong and if the historical accuracy of the Bible is to be proved, evidence must be adjusted accordingly.  As a result, it appears that a much better strategy would be to draw possibly useful information from the Bible in order to reconstruct the past instead of attempting to force chronological accuracy which is not present.  It is apparent that while the Bible may recount true aspects of Israelite history and sites in the region, the events of the Exodus simply do not correspond with the archaeological evidence that has been uncovered.  Maximalist biblical archaeologists consider archaeology to be at fault in failing to find the correct evidence (Scolnic 2005:189).  However if rigid biblical accuracy is avoided, much may be learned about evidence that does exist for the history of the Israelites and the Bible.


Most biblical archaeologists, scholars, and historians agree that an exodus took place and that biblical accounts are not entirely fictional (Stiebing 1989:197-198).  They have acknowledged that kernels of truth do exist but that actual evidence for an exodus points towards one that was on a much smaller scale than indicated by the Bible (Stiebing 1989:197-198).  The Merneptah Stele or “Israel Stele” is the only non-biblical and reliable source that indicates that an entity called Israel in fact existed in Palestine’s central hill country near the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E. (Stiebing 1989).  Stiebing explains that the hieroglyphic determinative that was used in reference to Israel indicates they were a ‘people’ and not a ‘land’ or a ‘place’ (1989:196).  He goes on to suggest that it is likely that “Israel” was considered to be either a nonsedentary group or possibly a partially sedentary group (Steibing 1989:196).  Archaeology has added to this through settlement surveys and excavations indicating that Israel arose within Canaan and was formed by a number of tribes of primarily Canaanite background who eventually united to form the coalition of Israel (Kochavi 1985; Mazar 1985; Stiebing 1989:197). 


Insofar as the actual Exodus is concerned, many scholars consider the accounts to be at least loosely based on an event that occurred early in Israelite history (Stiebing 1989:197-198).  First of all, it is not at odds with history for groups to flee to Egypt in times of famine and the Egyptians were known to often put these groups to work on labour projects (Finkelstein 2001).  Exodus 2:10 refers to Israelite construction of a city called Per-Ramesses which was abandoned about the same time that the Israelite monarchy began (Stiebing 1989:198).  Furthermore, Humphreys (2003) has conducted an interesting study where he has attributed natural causes to all of the miracles recounted in Exodus, including the biblical plagues of Egypt.  This of course does not suggest that these events occurred but only that they may have been based on the memory of a true experience that was retained until the time the narratives were written.  In addition, the influential Israelite god Yahweh is a significant non-Canaanite element within what now appears to have been a predominantly Canaanite group (Stiebing 1989:198).  Stiebing suggests that this indicates the significant influence of a group from outside of Palestine who worshiped this god (1989:198). 


While the magnitude of the biblical Exodus is problematic, the notion of a much smaller scale exodus is more plausible.  The Bible itself indicates in Exodus 1:15 that there were only two midwives required for the births of Hebrew children which would indicate that they were a much smaller group than the 600,000 estimated in Exodus 12:37-38 (Stiebing 1989:198).  In addition the Bible states in Exodus 17:8-13 that the Israelites required divine aid in order to overcome a seminomadic tribe which could not have been very large (Stiebing 1989:197).  This further supports the notion of a much smaller group of Israelites than the Bible indicates. 


These among other indications have lead scholars to suggest that the Israelite exodus from Egypt may have been based on the experience of a group of originally non-Israelite individuals from outside of Canaan who were eventually incorporated into Israel (Stiebing 1989:198).  It is however necessary to note that such a scenario, while plausible, is difficult to demonstrate archaeologically for a variety of reasons.  Not only would the existence of a group meeting these specifications need to first be established, it would also be necessary to demonstrate the incorporation of this group into the coalition of Israel.  Nevertheless, the appropriation and essentialization of this outside group’s Exodus narrative by the newly formed coalition of Israel would not be surprising as this would have helped to create a distinct national identity to unify its diverse population base (Stiebing 1989:199).  In this sense, the appropriation of a particular history such as the Exodus could also have been useful in creating ethnic boundaries between the newly formed Israelite kingdom and could have helped to differentiate it from the surrounding Canaanite groups from where Israel had originated.


While there are numerous other possible scenarios for Exodus, this example is meant to highlight the utility of biblical narratives in illuminating the past when combined with scientifically rigorous archaeology.  Such a source of important textual information should not be discounted.  However it is also important to avoid the pitfalls of pseudoarchaeology that arise when the Bible is taken as historically and literally accurate. Hoerthe suggests that biblical archaeology’s greatest value is its potential in increasing understanding of the cultural and material setting surrounding Exodus and other biblical accounts (1998:21).  Whether the Bible is believed to be accurate or not, scientifically rigorous archaeology does not need to be seen as an enemy but should instead be seen as a possible tool in illuminating scripture and using the Bible to aid in reconstruction of a feasible past.  The Bible is a document of faith and does not need to be an accurate historical record of the past to be considered valid by those who choose to follow it as a religious text (Sarna 1986:7).



References Cited


1983  The Holy Bible, New King James Version.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc.


Caiger, Stephen L.

            1946  Archaeological Fact and Fancy.  The Biblical Archaeologist 9(3):62-67.


Callaway, Joseph A.

1985    Response to The Israelite Settlement in Canaan in the Light of

Archaeological Excavations.  In Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, April 1984, edited by Janet Amitai, pp. 72-78.  Jerusalem, Israel: Ben Zvi Printing Enterprises Ltd.


Feder, Kenneth L.

1990    Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. 

New York, New York: McGraw-Hill


Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Ascher Silberman

2001    The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the

Origin of Its Sacred Texts.  New York, New York: The Free Press.


Halley, Henry H.

            1965  Halley’s Bible Handbook.  Twenty-fourth edition.  Grand Rapids,

                      Michigan: Zondervan. 


Hoerth, Alfred J

1998    Archaeology and the Old Testament.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker



Hoffmeier, James K. and Alan Millard.

2004    Preface.  In The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing

Methodologies and Assumptions.  The Proceedings of a Symposium, August 12-14, 2001, at Trinity International University, edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard, pp. x-xii.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


Humphreys, Colin J.

2002    The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary

Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories.  New York, New York: HarperSanFrancisco.


Kochavi, Moshe

1985    The Israelite Settlement in Canaan in the Light of Archaeological Surveys. 

In Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, April 1984, edited by Janet Amitai, pp. 54-60.  Jerusalem, Israel: Ben Zvi Printing Enterprises Ltd.


Mazar, Amihai

1985    The Israelite Settlement in Canaan in the Light of Archaeological

Excavations. In Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, April 1984, edited by Janet Amitai, pp. 61-71.  Jerusalem, Israel: Ben Zvi Printing Enterprises Ltd.



Sarna, Nahum M.

1986    Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel.  New York, New York:

Schocken Books. 


Scolnic, Benjamin Edidin

2005    If the Egyptians Drowned in the Red Sea Where are the Pharoah’s Chariots: Exploring the Historical Dimension of the Bible, Studies in Judaism.  Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc. 


Stiebing, Jr., William H.

1989    Out of the Desert?  Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest Narratives. 

Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books.