I won't be discussing the entirety of the blog, most of which I admittedly only skimmed. Instead I will focus on one specific section that discusses the Egyptian Exodus and the historical problems of the biblical account. Both Zeligman's questions and Bentzi's responses can be found in this post. If you want, you can read it in full, but I'll summarize it below. I read this post in full several times, figuring it's better to deal with one thing carefully than many things sloppily. However, in thinking about my response, I decided against providing a refutation, which would require several trips back to the library, and instead provide a reason why Bentzi's explanation in this topic is not convincing to me. Perhaps, more useful, I will provide examples of how I could be convinced. It's always worthwhile to be open to new information and ideas, so I'll outline what information I would need to reach the conclusion that Bentzi's hypothesis is reasonable.
Summary of Discussion
Zeligman's question is regarding that the Exodus account in the Torah doesn't appear to align with our current reconstruction of Egyptian history. This raises a problem regarding the historicity of the biblical event, something that I discussed in one of my more popular posts here. Before I get to Bentzi's answer, I will take a brief detour to describe some of the more common apologetic answers to this problem.
One approach is to simply ignore the contradictory evidence. Assume or state that no contradictions exist between the Biblical account and modern scholarship. This is an approach that is used by less scrupulous organizations who assume that their audience doesn't have enough information to know otherwise. Of course this does not work once the contradictory information is known, so after reading Zeligman's section, or any other section, this type of approach is inadequate.
Another common apologetic path is to call into question the historical consensus. The apologist attempts to discredit the entire field of Egyptology and Ancient Near East studies. Often this will include quote-mining of individuals describing the difficulty or even uselessness of archaeology. Sometimes it will even call into question scientific methodology altogether. I discussed this tendency in one of my previous posts. This approach is very strongly on display in this response to Zeligman by Meir Goldberg. (Of course notice the strong hypocrisy of Meir. In one section he derides archaeology as useless to discount contradictory issues, and then in the next is not shy about using archaeological results as supporting evidence in other areas.) Thankfully Bentzi does not go this route, so I don't need to respond, although I am considering a post on stuff like Carbon Dating analysis, which as a physicist I understand well.
A third option resolves the contradiction by morphing the Torah to fit into the historical framework. This is the approach favored by religious academics who trust in the consensus view of Egyptian history. For example, one common way they dodge the historical problems is to argue for a reduction of the numbers involved in the historical Exodus, something I discussed here. The main argument I have with this approach is on textual grounds. But Bentzi doesn't go this route either.
What Bentzi does do is an attempt to "correct" the historical consensus. He attempts to find one piece of information that the historians missed that when applied fixes the discrepancies. The correction Bentzi proposes is with regards to the calendar system used in the historical reconstruction. He proposes a factor of two difference between the Egyptian recorded history and the Biblical recorded history, allowing one to find parallels between Biblical stories and Egyptian records.
Alternate Historical Timelines
Anyone who's spent time reading about ancient history in some depth knows about the difficulties of reconstructing a timeline. The most detailed ways of reconstructing a chronology, from king's lists and various ledgers and inscriptions are sometimes shaky. Often we can cross-reference using information from other kingdoms. So if the Egyptian king mentions a Hittite king, and we see some similar information in Hittite records, we can gain some confidence that those two chronologies sync at that point. Of course difficulties arise when kings have the same name, or when the syncing points don't quite agree with each other. Therefore there's some suspicion regarding details of reconstructions.
Despite these difficulties, historians have come up with a standard chronology for the various Ancient Near East kingdoms (Egypt, Hatti, Assyria, Sumeria, Greece and Babylon). These chronologies have uncertainties due to the events above, but typically these differences are in the order of 30-50 years. These problems have often prompted people to claim that the entire chronological records are useless and we should instead look at large scale revisions to the chronology. Typically, these revisions should serve to harmonize problems in the internal Egyptian chronology relative to some other chronology (like say the Hittites or Assyrians). Bentzi and others attempt to revise the Egyptian chronology with the sole goal of harmonizing with the Biblical chronology.
Bentzi's revision is new to me, however there is a more common one used in the evangelical Christian world (which Bentzi references as justification.) The chronology is offered by Rohl in his book "Pharaohs and Kings" and popularized by the Christian film "Patterns of Evidence." The claim is that large sections of the Egyptian timeline need to be shifted so that the Exodus aligns with the Hyksos event. This requires about a 350 year shift, which is then fixed on the other end by smashing a bunch of Egyptian dynasties (20th through 25th) into rival co-regencies.
Bentzi offers something a bit different, he proposes that all the Egyptian chronologies are actually off by a multiplicative factor before about 400-450 BCE. He places the Exodus way back in Egyptian chronology, into the 6th Dynasty (conventionally around 2200 BCE). This revision is much more drastic than Rohl's and anyone should be very skeptical about it. So in that sense, I will say now some of the reasons for my skepticism, and how I could be convinced.
Does it Actually Fix More Problems than it Creates?
This is probably the most important question. For example of a problem. Egyptian, Babylonian and the Tanach (Jer. 46:26) record the campaign of Nebuchadnezzar against Egypt. Jeremiah prophesizes that Nebuchadnezzar will win, but he does not succeed in conquering Egypt. Historically, Nebuchadnezzar's second campaign against Egypt occurs in 573 BCE. According to Bentzi's timeline, this should appear in the Egyptian records at 500 BCE, which is after the Persian occupation at 532 BCE. In the revised timeline this event now disagrees with all three sources.
There are numerous other events, that now get skewed badly by the revised chronology. We have lots of correspondences between Egypt and Hatti, the two major powers in the Middle Bronze Age. In particular, we have lots of descriptions between dynastic marriages between rulers. We know of one princess that went from Hatti to Egypt right before Hattusa was destroyed. An event described by Egyptian and Hittite records.
These are just two examples, there are many more problems that arise in the relative chronologies that are far worse than the problems in the conventional chronologies. This is unsurprising, because a lot of the conventional chronologies purpose is to minimize these discrepancies. So, in order to convince me that an alternate chronology is better, I would need a demonstration that either the relative chronologies between Egypt, Hatti, Assyria and Babylon all align better with any new chronology, or at least an explanation for why I shouldn't worry about the new worse discrepancies.
Carbon Dating Analysis
There is yet another reference point besides relative chronological comparisons. That is carbon dating. Carbon dating gives an absolute date for an event. There are, of course uncertainties, and depending on the time of the event, these uncertainties can range up to around plus or minus 100 years. Therefore, overall, it is difficult to resolve some of the discrepancies in the conventional chronology. However, many of the predictions of Bentzi (or even Rohl's) chronologies differ by amounts that carbon dating can separate. Just a few examples are necessary here.
The Hyksos capital at Avaris, current day Tel-el-Daba has had numerous excavations, mostly by Bietak. Kutschera, Bietak and others have summarized the radio-carbon analysis in their paper, "A Chronology of Tel el Daba." In this paper they argue that there is indeed a discrepancy between the carbon analysis and the Egyptian Chronology. But this discrepancy is roughly 120 years.
Similar issues arise with radio carbon dating from one of the major geological events of this time period, the eruption of the Thera volcano. Again, we see a discrepancy of about 100 years. But in this case, as in Avaris, the results indicate that the standard chronology does indeed fit better than either Rohl's or Bentzi's revised efforts. One of the experts on the Thera explosion, Manning states the following, possibly referencing Rohl:
High-quality radiocarbon dating also offers the independent means to test and reject the several publications of the last decade which have argued that conventional Egyptian (and wider ancient Near Eastern) historical chronology is incorrect. (source, hat-tip to reddit user Flubb for this reference)So, in order for an alternate chronology to be convincing, it needs to produce an honest treatment of radiocarbon analysis and show that the new chronology produces a better match. Also, personally I know enough about radio-carbon dating, it's strengths and limitations, that I don't find the broad critiques of it in Meir Goldberg's post to be convincing in the least. Nevertheless, if you can convincingly show that radiocarbon analysis, at least in this region, should not be trusted at all, that could nullify this point. This is a very high bar though, and I would not expect success on this avenue.
Other Fixed Points
Fixed points in archaeology are hard to come by, yet there are a few. The most obvious being records of celestial phenomena, like solar and lunar eclipses which we can determine absolute dates for via astronomy. Records of eclipses are rare in Egypt, so this path is not so fruitful. Nevertheless, there are records in Babylon, Greece and Assyria that can be used to sync those chronologies together. If the revision of the Egyptian chronology also requires revising the chronology of one of these nations, then proper reckoning of these fixed points is necessary.
Justification for the Adjustment
Rohl's sole justification for his correction is to align with the Biblical account. Bentzi's main justification is the same, yet he offers some speculation behind why the multiplicative factor of two is used. Quoting directly:
For example, it could be that ancient kings had multiple names, and the historians compiling their lists understood the different names to represent different and separate kings. Or another possibility is that we/they misunderstood the term ‘king’; in later societies, there was only one king at a time and the second-in-command had a different title. It could be that in ancient Egypt, both the Ruler and his second-in-command were referred to, and recorded, as ‘King’. In which case, the ‘kings’ didn’t rule consecutively, but rather co-currently – which would again, divide the given times by half.Both of these points need some substantiation before I can even buy the premise that they are reasonable. Do we have any indication that kings had multiple names? Or that Egyptians valued the second in command? Do these ideas fit in the structure of the kings lists or monumental inscriptions? Rohl explains the discrepancies via co-regencies to compress many rival dynasties together, and there at least is some justification for that behavior. Concurrent dynasties are proposed in the conventional chronology as well, although not to the same extent. What is the justification for these speculations? Any supporting evidence would make the argument stronger. Without the evidence though, the argument is exceedingly unconvincing to me.
Support Among Egyptologists
The tasks I laid out are probably impossible for any layman, and certainly impossible for a Rabbinical student studying for Smicha. The time and knowledge required are tremendous. However, this problem can be short-circuited by finding support for this proposal among Egyptologists, people that have spent their lives worrying about these exact chronologies. Indeed, in my mind this is one of the biggest weaknesses of Rohl's proposed chronologies. No other Egyptologist takes it seriously. It is a huge problem for him that Kitchen, one of the Egyptologists who has high regard for the historicity of the Bible, disagrees strongly with Rohl.
This is the first time I've ever heard of Bentzi's argument. I don't know whether he came up with it himself, in which case, it is very clever of him. Cleverness does not equal truth though. In order for the argument to really have legs, it needs to gain at least a foothold of acceptance among the people who know Egyptian history the best. Absent that, even if Bentzi can deflect all my layman critiques, I still would have difficulty finding it convincing. If the argument is one of those, "if the Egyptologists only thought of it, of course they'd accept it" then indeed there will be some who actually do accept it. Right now there doesn't seem to be much appetite for a wide scale alteration to the chronology for the reasons I specified above. But if it changes, then I will surely change my view along with the consensus.
Bentzi asked that I post this response sent to me via email. Here it is unedited.
It is has often struck me, in historical research and other areas, the importance of even the minor details, and the strong influence they can have in shaping the conclusions that one reaches.
A good example of this, is with regard to the date usually given to the death of Alexander the Great, 323 BCE – a date so well established that it is often used as a reference point to establish the correct date of other historical events.
As I’ve mentioned in another area of my blog, there is a well known story, mentioned in Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Midrash Hagadol, as well as in Josephus' works written a few centuries earlier, about the meeting between Shimon Hatzaddik and Alexander the Great. Part of that story is that Shimon Hatzaddik made two promises to Alexander: the first, that the Kohanim would name their male children born in the next year after him, which essentially turned Alexander into a Jewish name that is still used until today, and secondly, that the Jewish nation would start counting the date which they would use to date their documents, from the date of this meeting – Minyan Shtarot. And this became Jewish practice as well, although this practice was slowly dropped by different communities over time, usually as a result of suffering persecution, until our times where there are no communities that still keep it (to the best of my knowledge).
The main problem with this story from a historical perspective, is the date given to it. This episode is dated to the year 312 BCE in Jewish sources, while it is currently accepted that Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, nine years earlier – which would lead most people to reject at least the Jewish date attributed to it, if not the entirety of that story.
But the reason why I don't, is because of what R’ Yosef Kapach writes in his edition of Mishneh Torah L’HaRambam, (Volume 6, page 43, end of footnote 49), that: “this year, meaning 5747 (which is when he wrote his commentary), is the 2298th year of shtarot (1986/7 minus 2298 is 312/11 BCE) … and we, those exiled to Yemen, remain the only ones who are faithful to the covenant of our forefathers, and their promise, and we were accustomed in Ketubot, in Gittin, in contracts and in letters to each other, to only write the date of the shtarot.”
And I personally find this to be a very strong proof for the correct date, as there are present here the combination of two advantageous points: firstly, that this date was used in such important documents as Gittin, where if the incorrect date is written, it invalidates the Get (מדרבנן), so the Rabbis involved would have been exceedingly careful that they used the correct date, and secondly, that this dating system was also used in regular letters and correspondence, which then means that it was also used on a frequent basis, unlike Gittin which may have only occurred a handful of times in a generation.
The reason why I am mentioning the above, is for two reasons:
Firstly, this illustrates why I can find it acceptable (and obviously only in certain cases) if the historical communities’ conclusions are somewhat different than mine. I think that it is completely false to charge these experts as being stupid, or untrustworthy or have evil intentions etc. and on the contrary, I hold them in high regard, but being that they are only human and not infallible, it can happen in certain cases that I may stumble over certain details that the wider community does not have access to, which then will allow me to come to a different conclusion than them. After all, how many Greek historians ever heard of R’ Yosef Kapach and his works? And even if there are some that have, how many of them would have come across this bit of information tucked into a footnote in the sixth volume?
And the above point is very relevant to this topic of Egyptian history as well, as although I haven’t mentioned this clearly on my blog yet, the main reason why I have found the historicity problem so troubling is more from a logical perspective than a religious one (although the religious angle is definitely a factor). Namely, that once I have been exposed to great religious figures in our generation - as I have detailed in an earlier section on my blog - whom, among their many other admirable traits, exhibited a great devotion to, and sacrificed greatly for, the value of truth, and once I additionally extrapolate that the religious figures of previous times were at least as great, if not greater, than them (in line with religious tradition), why is it that the books that should be the most truthful and honest, are precisely some of the most ahistorical and false books about those times ever to be written?
The approach that I have suggested gives me an answer to this, but the reason why it doesn’t bother me that the historical community hasn’t come up with this particular answer yet themselves, is because, in addition to my having access to certain works that they may not have access to (and even if they do have access to them, there are reasons why I take such works more seriously than they do), I am also coming from a different angle and have a different respect for the Biblical sources, for reasons that are simply not well known to the historical community.
Secondly, the above also explains why I agree with basically everything you have written. Since in order to reach the truth, one must take into account and explain all of the details, and cannot ignore them or dismiss them without having a really good reason to do so, it remains my responsibility to see if my approach fits with the many details and facts that are related to it.
I find it encouraging that so far, in the narrower context of Egyptian history, my approach answers a number of historical puzzles, such as: the dating of the Ipuwer Papyrus (not that I am trying to say that it is an account of the Ten Plagues, but at least, it isn’t dated to the wrong era); the cryptic statement of Manetho about seventy kings ruling within seventy days; the migration of the Amorites out of Israel at that time; the appearance of the origins of the Hebrew alphabet, Ktav Ivri, at that time; the similarity of so many Ancient Canaanite customs with Jewish ones, as the people who we currently call Ancient Canaanites were really Israelites; the similarity of the Torah to the Code of Hammurabi, not that we copied it from him, but he copied it from us; the reference to the Hapiru in the Amarna letters, which reflects the actions described in Nach at the time of King David, as well as the Biblical references that the term that was used by the surrounding nations to refer to the Jews at that time was 'Ivrim', among others (Ramses II, Hittite wars, Israel Stele etc).
However, the real test of my approach will be to apply it to the wider Mesopotamian history, as you have rightly pointed out, and see if it manages to answer many more questions than it creates, especially as when currently there is the very significant issue of carbon dating that does not fit with my approach. And as you’ve pointed out, this is a very complex issue, not only because there are the different “strands” of chronologies from neighboring nations that depend on, and intersect with each other, but there is also the additional issue of the disagreement of Jewish sources and others with regard to Persian history, which is related to the dates given to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, which is one of the two remaining major questions in Naftali’s letter that I still do not know the answer to (the other being shafan/arnevet).
But since many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of accepting something that the wider scientific/historical community does not, which equally applies to some other topics that I have written about, I am planning to take a number of steps to deal with that, and even in my assessment, the place for me to start would be here, in the subject of Biblical vs. Egyptian history. I have no issue at all if a reader would like to forward this idea to an Egyptologist, but I think that I first have to flesh-it-out a bit more, and go considerably deeper, before I do that myself. But it will take me some time to do so, especially if I wish to research this with the thoroughness that I prefer, but if I end up publishing something in this regard, I will, G-d willing, let you know.
Finally, if it turns out that my approach does hold up with regard to the wider Mesopotamian history, it would create an interesting question of whether dates derived from historical records should be given more weight than those derived from carbon dating or vice versa. But I guess that we’ll get to discuss that when, and if, we come to cross that bridge.
I won't respond to this in full. The back in forth will go on forever. I'll just point out that the Rabbi he's referring to as the "great religious figure in our generation" is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I thought about adding that in, but decided that would be undue tampering with his response. I add it here for the purpose of context.
If Bentzi continues working on this approach, I would encourage he start with two areas. On the one side, the radiocarbon results need to be dealt with, which we both agree on. But this is very difficult for an outsider who does not have access to the samples, radiocarbon testing labs, the complex Bayesian fitting models like "Oxcal," or the expertise (presumably) to evaluate all these things. Therefore, we are forced to deal with the results as published, which are going to be heavily problematic for Bentzi's approach as far as I can see. But maybe he can find a way forward.
The second approach is more practical and accessible and might be a better starting point. It is possible for find translations for all of the Amarna letters, and while Bentzi says they agree better with the time of David than a pre-Israelite time, I am skeptical about that claim. Nevertheless, he should certainly take the time to read through all of them (they're short and formulaic, so you can do it in a few hours) and point out the ones that fit better with his proposed chronology rather than the conventional one.