James Tabor has a short, interesting piece over on the Huffington Post about where Dr. Ben Carson’s idea that the pyramids were the storehouses Joseph built to hold grain. It’s worth a read, though I have some correctives to offer to both Drs. Tabor and Carson.
First, there is this statement by Tabor:
What the mainstream “progressive secularist” media, as Carson labels it, does not realize is that such ideas are quite common among mainstream Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian circles–connected to theories about how biblical archaeology confirms the Bible’s historical reliability. Dr. Carson’s assertion at the 1998 Andrews University graduation ceremony speaks for itself and is totally within the parameters of the commonly held views of history, archaeology, and biblical “literalism.”
My own initial exposure to Christianity came as a teenager. My context was the fundamentalism Tabor notes in the above quotation. I was part of that through high school and my college years. Not once did I ever hear the idea that Joseph built the pyramids. Consequently, while I’m guessing you could find some fundamentalist pastors or believers who’d say such a thing, it’s simply wrong to imply that biblical literalism leads to this demonstrably false idea. And as far as evangelicals go, I know of no evangelical scholar who would affirm Carson’s idea — and I know a lot of them. Many of them in fact take the mainstream “late” date of the chronology of the exodus (13th century B.C., nowhere near Joseph; see below). But having said that, some biblical literalists would say such this — but not because the Bible teaches it (there is no biblical mention of the pyramids, for example). They believe it because a preacher said it at some point.
Second, I’m light years from being a “progressive secularist” (Dr. Carson’s label for those who dispute his belief), but Dr. Carson’s idea is bogus — not only because of Egyptological data, but biblical literalism contradicts it. Since I know something about the biblical-archaeological tradition at St. Andrews University (an Adventist school – Carson’s tradition), I’d challenge him to produce one Adventist OT scholar who agrees with him.
Demonstrating the fallacy of Carson’s belief isn’t difficult. First we need to establish the Bible’s own chronology. Following that, we need only to synchronize the Bible’s chronology with that of ancient Egypt. The chronology can be reconstructed as follows, taking all the biblical numbers literally for the sake of our discussion:
From Abraham to the end of Joseph’s life
- Abraham was 75 when he left Haran to journey to Canaan (Gen 12:4)
- 25 years later, Abraham and Sarah had Isaac (Gen 21:5); Abraham was then 100
- 60 years later (Isaac was 60), Jacob was born (Gen 25:26)
- 130 years later, Jacob is found in Egypt under the care of Joseph (Gen 49:7)
- Jacob dies 17 years later at the age of 147 (Gen 47:28); Joseph is still is Egypt (Gen 48-50)
- Consequently, from the time Abraham left Haran to the end of Jacob’s life (and the height of Joseph’s influence), 307 years elapsed. Adding 75 to this number to move backward to Abraham’s birth, we get 382 years from the birth of Abraham to the death of Jacob (and toward the end of Joseph’s time in Egypt).
From Joseph to the Exodus under Moses
We are told in Exodus 12:40 that the Israelite sojourn in Egypt lasted 430 years (Exod 12:40). Since God had said in Gen. 15:13 that Israel would be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, not 430, the difference is taken by many scholars to indicate that the bondage in Egypt began thirty years after Jacob arrived in Egypt. Given the previous information, if this suggestion (about the 430) by scholars is correct, Joseph lived thirteen years more in Egypt after Jacob died.
The last forty years of the 430 year period noted in Exod. 12:40 would have been the time Moses lived in Egypt, since Acts 7:23 puts him at the age of forty when he ran afoul of Pharaoh and had to flee Egypt. Exodus 7:7 and Acts 7:30 establish the fact that forty years after Moses had fled Egypt he returned, having been commissioned by God to demand that Pharaoh give the Israelites their freedom. After leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses lived another forty years—the period of the wilderness wandering—and died at the age of 120 (Deut. 29:5; 31:2; 34:7).
So we can now summarize three important observations of biblical time:
- From the birth of Abraham to the death of Jacob = 382 years
- ca. 13 years after Jacob died, Joseph died.
- The Israelite bondage period occurred from the time Joseph died until the exodus—400 years (Gen 15:13)
The Key Passage and the Key Egyptian Synchronism
The key passage in bridging the time from the exodus into the time of Israel’s kings is 1 Kings 6:1. It tells us that the fourth year of Solomon’s reign was the 480th anniversary of the exodus from Egypt. The beginning of Solomon’s reign can be reliably dated to 970 B.C., making the 480th anniversary of the exodus 966 B.C. Adding 480 years (backward in time) from 966 B.C. gives us 1446 B.C. for the date of the exodus, per a literal reading of all these numbers (this date is the “early” date for the exodus). Adding (again backward in time) the 400 years of Egypt’s enslavement (Gen 15:13) to 1446 B.C. gives us a date of 1846 B.C. for Joseph’s death. Since Joseph lived 110 years (Gen. 50:22), his lifespan would work out to 1956 B.C. – 1846 B.C.
And that’s the problem. The pyramids in Egypt were built during the Old Kingdom in Egypt (when Khufu—namesake of the Great Pyramid—reigned as pharaoh). The Old Kingdom era in Egypt dates from 2649 B.C. – 2150 B.C. (Khufu’s reign was ca. 2589-2566 B.C.). The pyramids were standing centuries before Joseph was ever born. According to the biblical numbers above, they were standing well before Abraham was born.
How do we know Egyptian chronology with certainty? The short answer is astronomical correlations with celestial observations in Egyptian texts and ancient Egyptian king lists that record the reign lengths of the pharaohs.
It is important to note that the biblical and Egyptian chronologies have synchronisms that make the correlation of the two histories possible. The most famous is the identification of the Egyptian king Shishak, whose life overlapped with Solomon (1 Kings 11:40; 14:25), with the pharaoh Sheshonq (943-922 B.C.). (Some scholars dispute this correlation, but rejecting this correlation makes the case for Joseph being in the pyramid age worse, not better).
The bottom line is that, if one accepts the biblical record at face value, what Dr. Carson believes about the pyramids is impossible—according to the Bible’s own numbers. So biblical literalism, contra Dr. Tabor, will not produce what Carson believes. Nevertheless, some biblical literalists will believe this sort of thing. But that’s because they are ignorant of how the Bible undermines the idea.