Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

Of Papyri and Plagues

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My congregation, Young Israel of Phoenix, recently began receiving copies of Toras Avigdor, a weekly booklet featuring the teachings of the late Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l on the weekly parashah (Torah reading). While perusing the issue about Parashas Bo, which contains the three final and most devastating of the Ten Plagues – locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn – I came across a section that decried the secular history of ancient Egypt as being riddled with inaccuracies , particularly insofar as their chronologies for Egypt differ substantially from the Jewish chronology because going back to the Greek historian Herodotus, the secular historians erred in their calculations, not realizing (or not believing) that there was a 500-year gap in the Egyptian records during which the country lay desolate after the Ten Plagues. As evidence, Rav Miller submits a document I had never heard of, the Papyrus of Ipuwer. At least in some quarters, the papyrus is believed to be the recollections of an ancient Egyptian sage who was an eyewitness to the Plagues. Rav Miller cites quotes such as “The River is blood … Blood is everywhere … Men shrink in disgust from tasting … That is our water … What shall we do? Everything is in ruination! … The land is turned over like a potter’s wheel … there is no end to the noise … trees are destroyed … no fruit nor herbs are found … gates, walls, and columns are consumed by fire … the land is left over to its weariness like the cutting of the flax … the cattle moan … all the animals, their hearts weep … there is no light in the land,” taken from the book The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage From a Hieratic Papyrus in Leiden, by Alan Henderson Gardiner, originally published in 1909.

What follows is my attempt to simplify and clarify a considerably more detailed analysis of the critical issue of the timeline as established by the Bible and contrast it with alternative timelines proposed by archaeologists and historians (henceforth referred to as secular timelines).

In order to establish that the Papyrus of Ipuwer is indeed an account of the Ten Plagues, we need to reconcile a difference of centuries between the Biblical timeline and the Egyptian records. The standard Biblical timeline, constructed from the genealogy of lifespans and death years recorded in the Torah, dates the Exodus (hence the Ten Plagues) at 1313/1312 BCE and identifies the Pharaoh of the Exodus as Rameses II (see for example, Rabbi Ken Spiro’s book Crash Course in Jewish History (pub. Targum Press Inc./, 2010, revised 2011)), in agreement with Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie “The Ten Commandments.”

Here is where the difficulty comes in. The Egyptian chronology was established by archaeologists and historians and is determined in accordance with the Christian calendar, which, as Rabbi Spiro wrote in the Author’s Note to his book, differs from the Jewish chronology by as much as 164 years during the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian periods, but coincides with it by the Roman period. Why? Rabbi Spiro explains:

“The Jewish dating system is taken primarily from a book called Seder Olam Rabbah , dating back to the second century C.E. and attributed to Rabbi Yosef  ben Halafta. The sources for the dates in this book come[s] from rabbinic traditions recorded in the Talmud, as well as from numerous chronologies recorded in the Bible.

“It is also essential to remember that traditional Jewish chronologies (since the beginning of the Jewish calendar almost 6,000 years ago) have always been based on absolute and highly accurate astronomical phenomena: the movement of the moon about the Earth (months) and that of the Earth about the sun (years). A combination of an unbroken tradition of the Bible and an accurate, astronomical time-based system gives traditional Jewish chronology a high degree of accuracy, especially when it comes to the major events of Jewish history.”

Rabbi Spiro goes on to observe that prior to the twentieth century adoption of the Christian calendar by the entire world, the calendar became less reliable as we go back in time. Lacking accurate historical records, and trying to reconcile different calendar systems based on different criteria for each empire means that there is no non-Jewish equivalent to the Jewish calendrical system. He continues:

“So how do we get the chronology that historians use today?

“Historians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worked backwards and pieced it together. Data from records of ancient Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia, and Egypt (including chronicles of major events such as battles between empires) were combined with archaeological finds and major astronomical phenomena such as solar eclipses, and dates were then calculated by applying various scientific dating methods.

“Because there are margins of error in virtually all of these dating systems and much is open to interpretation, significant debates erupted among various scholars that continue to this day. Therefore, the chronologies used by modern historians are by no means 100 percent accurate, and we often find disagreements as to the exact dates of major ancient events and dynasties.” Consequently, Rabbi Spiro follows the Jewish chronology, and so do we.

Given this caveat, we can now proceed to examine chronologies produced by different scholars, bearing in mind that since we can’t make absolute determinations, all we can do is to find whether it is reasonably possible that the Ipuwer papyrus was written after the Exodus.

Since there is no Jewish chronology for the papyrus, we have to determine its secular calendar date and see how it matches up with the Jewish calendar date. This process is complicated because there are conflicting proposed dates for the Exodus. As a preliminary, we observe that any proposed timeline must satisfy the condition that as specified by the pasuk [verse] I Kings 6:1, there should be 480 years between the Exodus and King Solomon’s initiating construction of the First Temple, which was in the fourth year of his reign (also specified in the same verse).

Since that time interval is fixed, the secular and Biblical timelines must be related by a constant shift, so that the position of the Apuwer Papyrus relative to the Exodus (before or after) should be the same for either timeline.

As we have stated, there are two competing timelines for the Exodus, Biblical and scholarly. For Rabbi Spiro’s Biblical chronology, the relevant dates as determined by the commentator Abarbanel are 832 BCE for the fourth year of Solomon’s reign and 1312 BCE, 480 years earlier, for the Exodus, obtained using the timeline for Judges for the former, and the timeline from Adam to Moses for the latter. Writing in the Jerusalem Post in 2015, Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg attempted to combine the Biblical date for the Exodus and the scholarly (historical/archaeological) date for the building of the first follows: “… according to the Book of Kings 6:1, the Temple of Solomon was built 480 years, which means 12 biblical generations, after the Exodus. But in actual years that is better counted as 360 years, or 30 years per generation, rather than 40, and that would place the Temple at about 970 BCE, quite contemporary to when most scholars place it, at around 950 BCE.
“The date of the Exodus at about 1330 BCE also fits in well with the fall of the walls of Jericho, which its British excavator Kathleen Kenyon placed during the fourteenth century BCE.
“The Egyptian records do not mention the Exodus, but from their literature it can be deduced that the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten was the pharaoh of the Oppression and his young son-in- law Tutankhamun, the pharaoh of the Exodus.” (Imagine that: King Tut?) Mr. Rosenberg’s argument has a flaw: the pasuk says explicitly 480 years, not 12 generations.

For the scholarly dates, the calculation is more complicated. Starting from I Kings 6:1 as previously stated, we can use Edwin R. Thiele’s chronology developed in his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Chicago, later published under the title of The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (1965).” He found that most of the discrepancies between dating systems can be resolved by taking into account differences in recording the years of a king’s reign [regnal years] There are two different methods of reckoning regnal years: the accession year method and the non-accession year method. Under the accession year method, if a king died in the middle of a year, the period to the end of that year would be called the “accession year” of the new king, whose Year 1 would begin at the new year. Under the non-accession year method, the period to the end of the year would be Year 1 of the new king and Year 2 would begin at the start of the new year. Israel used the non-accession method, while Judah used the accession method until Athaliah seized power in Judah, when Israel’s non-accession method appears to have been adopted in Judah. Thiele also concluded that Israel counted years starting in the spring month of Nisan, while Judah counted years starting in the autumn month of Tishri.

From there, “Thiele showed that the 14 years between Ahab and Jehu were really 12 years, as dated by Assyrian chronology. This enabled him to date their reigns precisely, for Ahab is mentioned in the Kurk Stele which records the Assyrian advance into Syria/Israel at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC, and Jehu is mentioned on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III paying tribute in 841 BC.”

Once all the chronologies were synchronized, Thiele determined that the kingdom was divided at Solomon’s death in 931 BCE after a reign of 40 years, which means that he came to the throne in 971 BCE. According to Thiele, dates that are given in the text concerning the building of the Temple show that Solomon used a Tishri calendar to measure those regnal years (Thiele 1965: 29). His reign was calculated according to the accession year system, hence Year 1 started the year after he came to the throne. Thus 971/970 BCE was his accession year and 970/969 BCE was his first full regnal year (Thiele 1965: 28–30). That makes 967/966 BCE his fourth year. The Exodus occurred in the spring and Solomon’s Temple building began in the spring (the month after Passover), so the building began in the spring of 966 BCE, between the two Tishri new years. This gives us the starting point from which to figure backwards, the spring of 966 BCE. “The time period to add to this date is the 480 years that are given in 1 Kings 6:1. This goes back to the time when ‘the Israelites had come out of Egypt.’ Adding those 480 years dates the Exodus to the spring of 1446.”

Similarly, Dr. Douglas Petrovich accepted the Biblical account of the Exodus and sought “… to determine the pharaoh of the exodus based on chronological and biographical requirements.” Writing in the Creation Blog, based on his results, Abigail L. asserted that there is widespread agreement that Solomon’s building the First Temple began in 967 or 966 BCE, leading to a date for the Exodus of 1446 or 1445 BCE, as we have already seen. She added, “The Jubilee cycles present another line of evidence for the early-date view. Leviticus 25:2–10 states that every 50 year was to be a Jubilee year for the Israelites. The Jubilee cycles were to begin when the Israelites entered the promised land. Since they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, they would have entered the promised land in 1406 or 1405 BC. The Talmud records the dates of later Jubilee cycles, and calculating backward results in a date of 1406 BC for the beginning of the first.”

By yet another approach, Anne Habermehl, an independent researcher associated with the Creationist movement, did a detailed analysis, beginning with identifying the Biblical Joseph as the vizier Imhotep, to rearrange the Egyptian chronology to conclude that the 6th Dynasty and the 12th Dynasty, both of which ended in disaster, were actually concurrent, one in the north of Egypt and the other in the south. She ended up with an estimate of 1450 BCE for the Exodus.

Further discussion of these results can be found here and here.

The only known extant copy of the Papyrus is dated as 13th century BCE, but it’s believed to be a copy of an older document. Thus our end result is that we can’t determine conclusively that the Ipuwer Papyrus came later and is indeed an eyewitness account of the Plagues.

In closing, I should mention that either revised chronology carries forward the date of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the First Temple from 586 BCE to 422 BCE, thereby moving the construction of the Second Temple from 516 BCE to 352 BCE. That result is a subject for another time, as is the effect, if any, of the revision on the chronology before Moses.

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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