This Sunday, the Discovery Channel will show Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?, in which a team of archeologists led by professor Kent Weeks will investigate the tomb of the princes of Rameses II, who is believed to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. One of the findings to be shown on the program is the skull of Amun-her-khepeshef, whom Weeks identifies as the firstborn son of Rameses II. If the identification is correct, could archeology show that the tenth plague killed the Pharaoh's firstborn son?
The tomb in which it was found, KV 5, has already yielded the remains of six sons of Rameses II, and there may be more. In 1995, it was widely heralded as a major discovery when Weeks learned the tomb held much more than was originally thought. Since major archeological discoveries can be tricky, we talked to noted Egyptologist James Hoffmeier, professor of Old Testament and ancient near eastern history and archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Hoffmeier is author of Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition.
Is Rameses II generally considered the Pharaoh of Exodus? How would we know?
It depends. Within evangelical scholarship there is a divide over a 15th century date for the Exodus. If it occurred around 1450 BC, that's the 18th dynasty, not the 19th dynasty of Rameses. But there are other groups of evangelical scholars who would take the reference in Exodus 1:11 literally. That says [the Israelites] "built the city of Rameses," which indicates the building of the capital city of Rameses II.
So if you're in this camp within the evangelical scholarly community, then Rameses II is a very good candidate for the pharaoh of the Exodus.
But there's disagreement?
There are those who want to take I Kings 6:1 literallythat it's 480 years from the fourth year of King Solomon to the Exodus. If you take that literally, you can't take Exodus 1:11 literally. You have to say the [city of] Rameses was not originally there, and Exodus 1:11 refers to another city, and later scribes simply give it that name. My point is you have to decide which text literally because you can't take them both literally.
My preference is [Exodus 1:11.] It's harder to try to explain away the name of a place than it is a number, because sometimes the numbers of the Bible are used in a symbolic way.
Is there archeological evidence that Hebrews were in Egypt?
We don't have any evidence. What we do know is that from the 16th century B.C. down the next couple hundred years, the northeastern delta of Egypt had significant Semitic populations. It would be very easy to have the Hebrews among that group.
Where in Egypt's history do Rameses II, and possibly the Exodus, fit in?
Under Rameses II, Egypt was very powerful, controlling Palestine and Syria up to central Syria. Then there was the big battle with the Hittites at Kadesh, and that led to a treaty with the Hittites. Along with the Hittites, Egypt was the dominant power at that time.
Thousands of years later, it seems that it would be hard to tell how someone in Egypt died, especially whether or not God killed him. What can you tell by archeology?
I personally don't know if the oldest son of Rameses was Amun-her-knepeshef, and I'm not sure that his body has been discovered. But if you have the mummy, you can do all kinds of things in terms CAT scans and various things. Certain things could be done if you have the body, but I'm not sure if his body is available. I haven't heard anything about what was found in tomb 5, where Weeks is working, or if the site was undisturbed. I have a friend who's working there, but I haven't heard anything about mummified remains. But that's the big secret they're keeping.
The Discovery Channel program is focused around the work of Kent Weeks. He's the one excavating the tomb of the princes of Rameses, which was discovered around 10 to 12 years ago. I know Weeks is a very cautious scholar, so I don't expect him to go out on a limb and make some preposterous claim.Because he lives and works in Egypt, he's probably not going to say something that's is too pro-Bible. Egyptians get a little nervous about that kind of thing, so I don't expect anything stunning to come out.
But obviously these are tantalizing headlines. They've got evidence that something might tell us about the death of the firstborn. I'm anxious to see what it is.
How much weight should a Christian place on archeological evidence?
It depends. Often there are disputed interpretations of data. Reading texts, there can be disputes in the meanings of words. Interpretations can change as our interpretation of the Bible can change as we get a better knowledge of Greek or Hebrew or things that we thought we understood in the days of the King James Bible, we now in the light of new linguistic evidence have clearer understanding. I think that's true of any academic discipline.
So the sun can rise and set on archeology, but it certainly can help us.
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More about the Discovery Channel's Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? is available from their website, including previews, a Rameses user guide, Rameses reconstructed, the tomb, and much more. The program is Sunday, Dec. 5, 9-11 p.m., eastern time.
Hoffmeier is also quoted in a Christianity Today article from 1998, Did the Exodus Never Happen? | How two Egyptologists are countering scholars who want to turn the Old Testament into myth. (The article is now available through our Christianity Today Library.)
News elsewhere about Amun-her-khepeshef includes:
Pharaoh's legacy lives on | Archaeologists believe they have found the remains of four of those sons during the excavation of a tomb called KV5, the largest in Egypt's famed pharaonic burial ground, the Valley of the Kings, outside Thebes. (USA Today, Nov. 30, 2004)
Tomb may shed light on 10th plague | This is the skull of a man who the Hebrew Bible says was killed by the 10th of the horrible plagues God sent to convince pharaoh to free the Hebrew slaves. And if so, it contains an important new piece of forensic evidence: The skull has a depressed fracture on the left hand side which pathologists say clearly occurred at the time of death. (Boston Globe, Nov. 23, 2004)
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of archaeology includes:
CT Classic: Why We Dig the Holy Land | If biblical archaeology is not reinvigorated, Scripture-illuminating evidence will remain buried in the Middle East. (Sept. 26, 2003)
CT Classic: Listening to the Fifth Gospel | The sun-baked ruins of the Holy Land have a story to tell. (Sept. 25, 2003)
What Do the Stones Cry Out? | Beware of claims that archaeology disprovesor provesthe Bible is true. (Sept. 24, 2003)
Top Ten New Testament Archaeological Finds of the Past 150 Years | How do shrouds, boats, inscriptions, and other artifacts better help us understand the Christ of the Ages? (Sept. 23, 2003)
Bones of Contention | Why I still think the James bone box is likely to be authentic. (Sept. 22, 2003)
Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret | The James bone box controversy reveals the politics beneath the science. (Sept. 19, 2003)
Did the Exodus Never Happen? | How two Egyptologists are countering scholars who want to turn the Old Testament into myth (Sept. 7, 1998)
Ossuary Questions Remain | Israel Antiquities Authority says "brother of Jesus" inscription is a forgery, but supporters say its report may be flawed (June 20, 2003)
Weblog: Israeli Officials Say James Ossuary, Joash Tablet are Fakes | Israel's Antiquities Authority unanimously calls James Ossuary inscription a forgery (June 18, 2003)
Weblog: Apostle Paul's Shipwreck Makes Headlines | Former U.S. ambassador tries to block book (May 15, 2003)
Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however (Mar. 17, 2003)
The Unluckiest Church | Archaeologist predicts the future is grim for the ancient church's site (Feb. 6, 2003)
Christian History Corner: Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
The Dick Staub Interview: Dan Bahat on Jerusalem Archaeology | One of Israel's leading archaeologists talks about the importance of the Temple Mount and key historical finds in the Holy Land (Jan. 28, 2003)
Weblog: Experts Get a Closer Look at the James Ossuary (Nov. 26, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Goes on Display as New Findings Emerge (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Will Go to Toronto After All (Nov. 11, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Oded Golan Emerges to Defend Himself (Nov. 7, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Display Might Be Delayed (Nov. 6, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary 'Badly Damaged' en Route to Toronto (Nov. 4, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Contains Bone Fragments (Oct. 29, 2002)
Weblog: What Does James Ossuary Say About Mary? (Oct. 23, 2002)
Weblog: More Details Emerge on History of James's Bone Box (Oct. 22, 2002)
Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived | Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus (Oct. 21, 2002)
Herod's Stadium | Israeli archaeologists discover 2,000-year-old stadium. (Aug. 19, 2002)
Weblog: The Politics of a Hole in the Ground | U.S. News: Biblical archaeology matters politically (Dec. 19, 2001)
Bird Searches for Ark | World's highest-resolution commercial imaging satellite will investigate the "Ararat Anomaly." (Dec. 10, 2001)
Christian History Corner: Ghosts of the Temple | Soon after Jerusalem fell, the Roman Colosseum went up. Coincidence? (July 6, 2001)
Violence Puts Archaeologists Between Rocks, Hard Places | About half of the planned excavations in the Holy Land this summer have been canceled (June 27, 2001)