A Levantine Asiatic with a colorful coat from tomb 3 at Beni Hasan.

The Tomb of Joseph, Good or Bad Biblical Scholarship?

One of the occupational hazards of being both an Egyptologist and a Bible scholar is that one is frequently confronted with fringe theories.  And typically I don’t feel the need to pay those views a lot of attention.  Yet, some views have been affirmed by otherwise respectable scholars that are not so good.  Thomas S. McCall (a ThD in Semitic languages and Old Testament) published an article affirming the work of David Rohl who claimed that the tomb of Joseph had been discovered.  But is this good or bad biblical scholarship?


David Rohl and his “New Chronology”

McCall in his article endorses a view of chronology held by Rohl.  Both believe that the Exodus occurred around 1450 BC, a date consistent with the “early Exodus” perspective. Unfortunately, McCall is not alone in his support of Rohl.  Many Christian ministries have endorsed Rohl’s views.

For most Egyptologists, a 1450 BC date would place the Exodus during the reign of Thutmosis III (mid New Kingdom).  However, McCall and Rohl have a divergent view of chronology.   Rohl believes that the Exodus occurred instead during the reign of Dudimose (a king that reigned 2 years at the end of the Middle Kingdom). 

This “new chronology” blithely ignores all the synchronistic evidence.  And there is a lot of evidence that precludes Rohl’s chronology from serious consideration (e.g. the Amarna letters).  Rohl is definitely outside of the mainstream of modern archaeology and scholarship.


The Tomb of Joseph?

But what about the so-called tomb of Joseph?  Regrettably, all that remains are fragments of a single statue.  These fragments suggest part of a Semitic hair style and a varicolored tunic.  From the account of Joseph having a varicolored tunic (Gen 37:3) and this being the tomb of an important Semite, McCall and Rohl conclude that this must be the tomb of Joseph.

I think that there are problems with how McCall and Rohl arrived at this conclusion.  First is the problem of Joseph’s varicolored tunic.  Joseph had a varicolored tunic that was a gift from Jacob.  But his brothers took Joseph’s tunic and they covered it in goat’s blood to prove to their father that Joseph was dead (Gen 37:23, 31-32).  Nothing in the biblical text suggests that Joseph obtained another varicolored tunic.

The other issue is that many Semites had varicolored tunics.  For example, from tomb 3 at Beni Hasan, a painting portrays an Asiatic wearing a varicolored tunic while he tends an ibex (see featured picture).  This is a problem since the location of Rohl’s so-called tomb of Joseph was at Avaris, a predominantly Semite culture.  Many people could have had varicolored tunics, and thus a varicolored tunic would not have been an identifying symbol.

How can we know that this is the tomb of Joseph versus any other Hyksos or Asiatic official?  We can’t.  The evidence is simply insufficient to determine one way or the other.


Scholarship Gone Bad

So why does McCall accept Rohl’s chronology?  Because what Rohl says fits with a chronology that McCall expects from the Bible.  The problem here is confirmation bias.

Biblical studies is by no means alone in having confirmation bias.  But when bible scholars seek to take an apologetic approach to their research, the desire to prove what they already think is true often becomes a driving imperative.  This often leads them down wrong paths by ignoring contradictory evidence in the pursuit of evidence that supports their position.

Now, I think that there is evidence that supports various aspects of the biblical texts.  However, making the purpose of our scholarship the finding (or manufacture) of evidence does more harm than good.  As responsible scholars, we must carefully weigh the evidence both for and against whatever hypothesis we may hold, and then go with the evidence.  This way we can learn about biblical texts in ways that may not have even occurred to us.

I honestly think that starting with specific dates and looking for evidence that fits is really poor scholarship. What if your chronology is wrong?  What if we are reading the biblical texts in a way that is different from what the ancient writer intended?  What if by some chance you find the real Joseph?  In McCall’s case, his acceptance of Rohl’s defective chronology is almost certainly wrong.

McCall and Rohl are looking to find Joseph, and that is what both find in spite of the evidence.  While I believe that Joseph was a real person, I just don’t think that either Rohl’s chronology or his evidence is sound.  This is why confirmation bias is such a terrible thing.  Confirmation bias blinds us to any hard truths or bad scholarship that might be before us.

Chronology is like the internal mechanism of a pocket watch.

Groundhog: Latest Breakthrough in Chronology

The field of chronology has developed with very little regard to theory or practice.  It used to be that anyone could develop a chronology without having to prove their assertions.  Even today, the field remains awash in untestable and unproven theories.  Recently, my research achieved a breakthrough that solved a serious deficiency in the practice of chronology.

The Problem of Chronology

The fundamental problem was that anyone could develop a chronology without any rigor.  Even conservative theories from otherwise respectable academics often had the same epistemological basis as the lunatic theories.  Theories asserted to be true couldn’t be shown to be true or false.  Prior to 2017 the “sniff  test” of plausibility was the best that scholars thought that they could hope for.

During my PhD studies I was a research assistant under Kenneth A. Kitchen. As I watched Professor Kitchen work, I noticed how mechanical chronology creation could be.  Based upon my observations of how Kitchen constructed chronologies, I began to work on Groundhog: Chronology Test Laboratory in 2014.

At first I tried to create a program that could simply reconstruct Kitchen’s chronological process with a computer.  But the deeper I got into it, I observed several things about chronology that were never before documented in any meaningful way.

My Observations

(1) Theories of chronology are essentially the dates or reign-lengths ascribed to the various kings of the ancient Near East.  This is the subjective data or hypothesis that any particular modern scholar would be trying to prove.   These numbers vary with each tested theory.

(2) Kings in the ancient Near East sent letters and treaties to each other.  These documents created synchronisms.  A synchronism is a relationship between two people that shows that they lived at the same time.

Regardless of the dates assigned to the reigns of the kings, synchronisms are static.  Synchronisms do not change.  The marriage contract between Ramesses II and Hattusili III is a synchronism that will never change regardless of the dates assigned.   Synchronisms are the objective data.

(3) If we have a subjective hypothesis and objective data, designing an experiment to test the hypothesis against the data, provided that the data is sufficient, becomes possible.  In the ancient Near East, about 500 kings and 150 synchronisms are attested well enough for this purpose.  This provides a sufficient basis for testing.

Development of Groundhog

Having the pieces in place, I developed a software platform with the ability to take a chronology and test it for internal consistency.  Using Groundhog, one can reconstruct a chronology and test it against the 150 synchronisms.  This test  produces a result that shows the chronology to be internally consistent or not.  While this test does not show if a chronology is true, it can show if a chronology must be false.

For the first time, a chronology can be tested objectively, rejecting certain theories from further consideration.  This new tool can also assist human operators to eliminate errors from a chronology that are caused by an inability to factor the consequences of extended interdependencies.   And finally, Groundhog introduces to the field a theoretical basis and methodological praxis that has been sorely lacking.

For more information about Groundhog see the project web site at http://www.groundhogchronology.com

The Palermo stone and a clock set against a starscape

Chronology: Why it Matters.

What is chronology

Simply defined chronology is the science (or art) of arranging things in order of time.  It is primarily concerned with the arrangement of past events and persons in an cohesive, logical order of occurrence.  Chronology deals with three things: (1) the order of events, (2) the length events runs, and (3) the grouping of events. The story of chronology begins long before the origin of the wheel (ca 2500 BCE) and even before the invention of writing (ca. 3000 BCE).  If we believe the Mesopotamian chronicles, chronology began with an oral tradition concerning the kings of the distant past. Before the advent of precise record keeping, people were keeping track of the sequences of actors.  The archaeological record confirms the real existence of some kings thought at one time to be strictly mythological, e.g., Gilgamesh.  The oral tradition has preserved the sequence of actors at least in some semblance.

Why chronology matters

No study is more fundamental to the questions of “who are we?” and “where did we come from?” than chronology.  It is difficult to answer these questions, but this study affords us the opportunity for a few precious answers.  And as we glean the distant past, we can gain these insights by studying the archaeological and textual remains of our ancestors. Chronology is not simply an attempt of modern peoples to understand the past.  It is a need that taps deep into what it means to be human.  No other animal seeks connection to the past or gains significance by being part of an unbroken chain of causal events. The need to know where we come from owes its existence to the human faculty of externalizing our existence.  Our existence is extended to the continuity of our community.  However, this drive to know where our ancestors came from was not the same as what we would now consider to be history.  The peoples of the ancient world had a sense of history but it is not history as we know it. The preceding blog was an abridged excerpt out of the book that I am currently writing.