By: Thomas E. Levy
Was there an Israelite Exodus from Egypt? Are there new ways to approach the Exodus from outside the Bible? The answer to the second question is yes. A new book presents findings from some of the world’s top scholars who met recently at University of California, San Diego, (UCSD). This was also the first time that physical scientists met with humanities scholars, archaeologists and computer specialists to discuss Israel’s Exodus from Egypt at a major international meeting convened just for this subject. The book represents the definitive statement of the most up-to-date research on the Exodus.
It had been more than 20 years since any symposium addressed Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. But during that time new data and new approaches have multiplied and a new examination was overdue. That conference and our new book on the Exodus has brought together a team of leading researchers across many fields to investigate one of the most enigmatic stories in world literature and history.
The research was presented at the 2013 Exodus symposium held at UCSD, then updated and published in 2015. The symposium included an exhibition of “Exodus Cyber-archaeology and the Future” (EX3), which showcased alternative interpretations of the Exodus at the Qualcomm Institute using high-tech display tools in a museum-of-the-future setting. Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, is published by Springer, one of the largest and most respected academic presses.
We were delighted to have archaeologists, Egyptologists, Biblical scholars, computer scientists, geoscientists and radiocarbon experts contribute their diverse approaches in a novel, transdisciplinary consideration. Topics included the ancient topography of the Nile and the Sinai, Egyptian text-and-picture parallels to the Exodus story, computer 3D simulations of seismic and volcanic events involving Parted Sea-type phenomena, the interface of the Exodus question with archaeological fieldwork on emergent Israel, the formation of Biblical literature, and the cultural memory of the Exodus in ancient Israel and beyond.
Many of the world’s leading scientists and scholars contributed to the book and conference. These included notables such as Jan Assmann (emeritus University of Heidelberg), widely considered the foremost Egyptologist today. Among the more than 50 scholars joining him were Egyptologist-archaeologist Manfred Bietak (University of Vienna) and archaeologists William Dever (emeritus University of Arizona), Israel Finkelstein (Tel Aviv University), and Lawrence Geraty (past President and current board member of ASOR). Bietak, Finkelstein and Geraty have spent decades excavating Biblical sites in Egypt and the Southern Levant. In the EX3 exhibition I presented my own work in Jordan, at Faynan and elsewhere, which has dramatically changed our understanding of the ancient Biblical world with the surprising picture of a large thriving copper industry in the days of the earliest Hebrew kings and a nomadic people ancient Egyptian documents refer to as the ‘Shasu’ nomads that also lived in this area. Many of the Biblical scholars and archaeologists discussed the possibility that the ancient Israelites were linked to some kind of Shasu tribal confederation – who are know to have worshipped Yahweh.
Scholars from fields once far from archaeology also presented their findings. Geologist Amos Salomon (Geological Survey of Israel) and geophysicist Steve Ward (University of California, Santa Cruz) discussed geophysical scenarios for the Parting of the Red / Reed Sea, such as tsunami from the Thera (Santorini) eruption, which were computer-modeled in 3D color animation and presented in the EX3 exhibition. Michael Dee, Christopher Bronk Ramsey and Thomas Higham of the Oxford radiocarbon lab discussed their latest findings, which help narrow the gap between advocates of “high” and “low” dates for the Exodus, long the subject of controversy. Malcolm Wiener (Institute for Aegean Prehistory) presented an alternative-dating framework for the Thera eruption, identifying some of the problems with the radiocarbon chronology.
A broad spectrum of views on the Exodus were argued ranging from the more skeptical such as Egyptologist Donald Redford (Penn State University) and archaeologist Aren Maeir (Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv) to the more conservative such as ASOR’s Geraty and Egyptologist James Hoffmeier (Trinity International University, Chicago). We had representatives of all sides – Biblical minimalists, centrists, and maximalists. All the consensus leaders were there at the UCSD conference and contributed to the 600 page conference volume.
Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective is a pioneering work of unprecedented breadth, combining archaeological discovery, quantitative methodology and literary analysis. The transdisciplinary or team science approach taken in the book made this project especially attractive to Springer. The combination of 44 contributions by an international group of scholars from diverse disciplines make the book the first such transdisciplinary study of ancient text and history.
The Bible’s grand narrative about Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is central to Biblical religion, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim identity, and the formation of the academic disciplines studying the Ancient Near East. It has also been a pervasive theme in artistic and popular imagination. EX3 also included a special HD “Boom box” style video on a large monitor of the Exodus theme in music ranging from Bob Marley to Hollywood’s Mel Brooks receiving the “15 Commandments” at Mount Sinai in ‘History of the World Part 1’. The book takes a truly ecumenical approach to a complex sacred narrative, explored though the lens of Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought and enhanced through this new transdisciplinary approach.
What were some of the most interesting results? If there is one underlying thread throughout the conference and the published papers it is the need to reevaluate the historicity of the Exodus in light of the new evidence and overlooked old evidence, using new tools of science and technology. Old-line scholars were reluctant to change. But some minds were changed, even if just a little. There was also considerable agreement that an Exodus event or series of events took place on a much smaller scale than the one depicted in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, many scholars discussed the role of ‘historical memory’ in the creation of the Exodus narrative.
Several scholars brought up a number of interesting Egyptian text narratives and pictorial representations as being possibly relevant to the Exodus. No one is saying ‘proof’ but very intriguing data have been brought to light. Scholars and laypersons should carefully study the evidence presented in the book, which contains many color pictures, maps and graphics.
I remain especially intrigued by the importance of geological phenenom, especially tsunami events and their possible connection with the Exodus. Geophysicists, volcanologists and computer modelers showed advanced 3D simulations not only of the volcanic explosion of Thera, but a wide range of geological and environmental processes that can create tsunamis such as continental shelf collapse, flash floods, earthquakes, sustained wind storms – all of which have documented historical examples presented by Ward, Salomon and others. These demonstrated how tsunami waves might have affected Egypt, perhaps giving rise to an Exodus event. Scholars also debated radiocarbon dates with the Oxford lab, which would affect the timing of the Thera scenario and whether it occurred at the same time as the Exodus.
The future of archaeology and Biblical studies lies in wedding the new tools of science and high technology with the traditional, classical humanities. I expect continuing collaboration of groups of scholars organized into a number of transdisciplinary teams focused on specific problems not only of the Exodus, but other enigmatic historical and archaeological problems, under the sponsorship of our new UCSD Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability.
The original conference and this new volume also open the doors to a wide audience who are captivated by revolutionary media, such as 3D immersive virtual-reality, and excited by innovative, Exodus-based research. Out of archaeology, ancient texts, science and technology there emerges an up-to-date picture of the Exodus for the 21st century, setting a new standard for collaborative research.
New developments make it possible for “scientific storytelling” to strengthen understanding of the relationship between a sacred text and the archaeological record. This is made possible by cyber-archaeology – the marriage of archaeology, computer science, engineering and the natural sciences. The rise of transdisciplinary (team science) is crucial in tackling new discoveries and creating powerful new syntheses in archaeology of the Holy Land. Examples include Thera, radiocarbon dating, Egyptian Exodus parallels, and more. Our findings on the far-flung copper industry of the highly debated 10th century BCE (the time of David, Solomon, the early Edomites and others) required team work across many disciplines using every new technique in science, archaeology, mapping, GIS (geographic information systems), radiocarbon dating and computer technology.
We are in store for more surprises in Biblically-related archaeology in the coming months.
Thomas E. Levy is distinguished professor of Anthropology at UCSD and founder-director of the newly established UC San Diego Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability (CCAS). The new center is under the Qualcomm Institute (QI) Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), where he is also associate director.
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