A Treatise on the Date of the Exodus

The Date of the Exodus
Introduction to the Competing Theories

D. Cameron Alexander Moore

      Two schools of thought exist regarding the date of the Exodus: The early and late date theories. Three main arguments are advanced by those who support the late date (13th Century BC) for the Exodus. They are (1) the identification of Pithom and Raamses in Exod 1.1, (2) archaeological evidence pointing to the destruction of Jericho around 1230 BC, and (3) evidence from the Middle Bronze and Late Bronze age Transjordan, also known as Nelson Glueck's "Gap Theory." 1

      A discussion of all the archaeological data related to the dating of the Exodus is beyond the scope of this short treatise; 2 Therefore, the writer is providing a succinct exposition of the data advanced in support of the 1446 BC or early date hypothesis for the Exodus.

Evidence Cited to Support the Late Date

Pithom and Raamses

      To begin, it is necessary to discuss the textual data of Exod 1.11. Various writers have used the information present in the above text to support a late date for the Exodus. The main thrust of the text is that the Egyptians forced the Hebrews to construct the cities of Pithom and Raamses. Most who support the late date infer that the city was built just before the Exodus by order of Rameses II.3 To determine the validity of this inference, we need to review the evidence contained in the archaeological record.

      Supporters of the late date which hold such a position do so tenuously. One must assume a connection between the biblical reference and the archaeological record based on the similarity of the names Raamses and Ramesse. Against this position, Redford notes that if the name of the city were the royal residence of Rameses II as many contend, the prefix "Pi" would be present. The absence of the prefix caused him to doubt the validity of the claim that Exod 1.11 refers to the residence of Rameses II. 4 E. P. Uphill noted that,

"The use of the word Pi or Per is significant. It has a wide application in Egyptian texts being derived from pr, (House). . . . In a wider context still it stood for a large temple area or the domain of a particular god, cf. Per Amun, Per Re, Per Ptah, etc. This usage introduces an administrative concept and implies a much greater area than the actual temple and its immediate surrpounding."5a

Thus, it would seem that the lack of "Pi" or "Per" in front of the word Raamses of Exod 1.11, should cause one to reconsider the association of the biblical city with that of the archaeological city of Pi-Ramesse. This anomaly becomes more significant if the Egyptians' own use of these terms is taken into consideration.

      The second problem with the late date theory is that one must assume certain events are contemporaneous. That is, even if Raamses of Exod 1.11. and Pi-Pamesse are the same city, it does not follow that the chronological sequence of events recorded in the biblical narrative are dated to the reign of Rameses II. While most scholars accept the city of Qantir as the site of Pi-Ramesse, the work of L. Habachi, Manfred Bietak, Hans Goedicke, and others indicates that the Eighteenth Dynasty also occupied the site. 5 Excavations of MBIIA at Qantir show a pre-Hyskos6, Asiatic population of Canaanite origin beginning to settle in the delta area toward the end of the Twelfth Dynasty and into the Thirteenth.7; Tombs of that time have been found from the reign of Ammenemes III (1842-1798 BC). These and other tombs from the area have been dated to the eighteenth century due to MB IIA pottery.8:  This data indicates settlement in the area of Pi-Ramesse prior to the Ramesside kings.

      During the Middle Kingdom9, Qantir became the summer palace of the pharaohs of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties. In the Hyskos period, this same area was the summer capital of the Hyskos kings. After their expulsion in the sixteenth century BC, the early Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs re-occupied the site. As Qantir has been inhabited, at least since the time of the Hyskos kings, it seems improbable that slaves of the Ramesside period could have been responsible for Qantir's construction. A further illustration that Exod 1.11 does not require a thirteenth century date.

      Against the late date theory, Exod 1.7-14 implies that the work on Pithom and Raamses occurred prior to the birth of Moses, possibly early in the enslavement of the Hebrews. Bietak, remarking on the excavations at Quantir, stated,

The ten excavation campaigns so far . . . reveal the vital evidence which was previously missing, namely the presence of an extensive town-site belonging largely to an Asiatic (Canaanite) population with their own distinctive Syro-Palestinian Middle Bronze Age Culture II A and B.10

The significance of this statement can be more clearly understood with a general knowledge of the dating scale used. The generally accepted dates based on pottery remains for this area are as follows: EBIII (2450-2250), MBI (2250-1800), MBII (1800-1650), and LB (1650-1200). While these dates are relative for a given area, they do allow one to understand the relavance of archaeological discoveries. The force of Bietak's comments are that 1) we have remains of a Cannanite population from the period of roughly 1800 to 1650 BC present at Quantir, 2) If Qantir is bibilcal Ramesses, then we now have evidence of a possible slave force from which to construct store cities, and 3) this Cannanite population predates the Ramesside kings.

      With respect to the city of Pithom, Bimson cogently argues for an early date:

There are two possible sites for Biblical Pithom: Tell el-Maskhuta and Tell er-Retabah . . . We need not debate which of the two should be identified with Pithom. The important point is this: The same Syro-Palestinian (Middle Bronze II) culture which marks the early period at the site of Raamses has now been found at both these candidates for Pithom as well. At Tell el-Maskhuta (the site favored for Pithom by the majority of scholars), the early remains include probable grain storage facilities, perhaps explaining the term "store-cities."11

On the merits of the above, it can be stated that the names Pithom and Raamses in the biblical text do not mandate a late date but rather allow for an early date for the Exodus.

      Finally, the argument by Merrill deserves mention.

It is by no means certain that the city of Rameses was named after the Pharaoh of that name. In fact, Genesis 47.11 states that Jacob and his family settled in the land of Rameses when they entered Egypt in the nineteenth century; unless we postulate an anachronism, for which there is not the slightest proof, we must conclude that there was an area by that name before there was ever a Pharaoh Rameses. It could well be that there had been an ancient Ramesside dynasty long ages before the Ramessides of the Nineteenth Dynasty were named for them, the city also having taken this name. In any case, there is no need to assume that the mention of the city of Rameses proves that the Exodus must have taken place during the reign of Rameses II.12
Therefore it would seem that the textural, grammatical, and archaeological evidence does not necessarily support the late date of the Exodus, but rather would indicate that an early date as a strong possiblity.


      The Bible indicates that Jericho was the first city destroyed after the Israelites entered Canaan. As this occurred about forty years after the Exodus, the date of the fall of Jericho should provide some indication as to the date of the Exodus.

      Those who hold to a late date argue that Jericho lacks evidence of the conquest of Joshua. Yet, early excavation by John Garstang and Kenneth Kitchen at Jericho provides support fo the early date of the Exodus. Kathleen Kenyon indicated that there was occupation within some part of the fourteenth century BC but not in the thirteenth century. However, Kitchen noted that LBII levels appear to have been washed away; "during the four centures that the mound lay desolate from Joshua until Ahab's time."13

Copyright 1998 by D. Cameron Alexander Moore

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1 Hereinafter, generally accepted dating for the periods under discussion are denoted as MB and LB referring to the Middle Bronze and Late Bronze Age respectively.

2 See the works of such as Kenyon, Harding, Bietak, Dever, Kitchen, and Bimson for a detailed examination of the archaeological data.

3 See Albright Kitchen, Noth, Rowley, and Wright.

4 Donald B. Redford, "Exodus 1.11," Vetus Testamentum 13 (1963): 409-10.

5a E. P. Uphill, "Pithom and Raamses: Their Location and Significance," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 27 (1968): 292. See also, "Worterbuch der Agyptischen Sprache," I, 511.

5 The 18th Dynasty reigned from 1570 to 1293 BC. Whereas, Rameses II reigned during the 19th Dynasty, or roughly 1279 to 1212 BC.

6 The Hyskos were the Asiatic "Shepherd Kings" of Upper Egypt during the 1800 to 1700 BC.

7 Manfred Bietak, "The Middle Bronze Age of the Levant: An New approach to Relative and Absolute Chronology," in High Middle or Low? Acts of an International Colloquium on Absolute Chronology Held at the University of Göthenburg 20th-22nd August 1987, part 3, ed. Paul Åström (Göthenburg: Paul Åström, 1989), 82-88.

8 William F. Albright, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research,("BASOR") 99 (1945):9-18; BASOR, 179 (1965): 38-43; Manfred Bietak, Avaris and Piramesse: Archaeological Exploration in the Eastern Nile Delta. (London; Oxford University, 1979), 234-37; 247-56.

9 This period starts around 2050 and ends around 1875 BC.

10 M. Bietak, op cit. 232.

11 John J. Bimson, "Redating the Exodus," Biblical Archaeology Review "BAR" 14, no. 4 (1988): 43.

12 Eugene H. Merrill, "An Historical Survey of the Old Testament." (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 107.

13 Kenneth A. Kitchen, "Ancient Orient and Old Testament." (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1966), 62.

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