Today I offer an article by guest author Krista Bontrager.
In his film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus, documentary filmmaker Timothy Mahoney recreates his search for the historical truth behind the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. I previewed this film at a theatrical release in February 2015. The documentary is now widely available for rent and purchase, and I’ve noticed that it’s been getting some promotion within the Christian apologetics community because of its compelling presentation of the historical accuracy of the Bible.
Building a Case
The archaeological case for the exodus event has been notoriously sketchy. Given the scale of events described in the Bible, many people think an extra-biblical record of the exodus must have been left behind. But the archaeological evidence has been lacking. The key focus of Mahoney’s documentary is to explore the timing of the exodus and whether the proposed dates align with the biblical and archaeological data. In its quest to investigate the date debate, the documentary asks some critical questions: Who was the pharaoh during Joseph’s life? Who were the pharaohs during Moses’ birth and the exodus event?
The Pros and Cons
From a production standpoint, Patterns of Evidence is well done. The debate surrounding the dating of the exodus event is fairly complex, so going into the theater, I was curious to see how Mahoney would handle this. To his credit, I think he did a fine job of crafting a compelling visual case that lands viewers in a posture to consider an alternative dating framework. Given how many people within the apologetics community are promoting the documentary, I’d say that Mahoney’s efforts were effective.
Mahoney interviews prominent Egyptologists on all sides of the conversation about the early date and late date theories. The early date (c. 1450 BC) is generally thought to be a better fit for the biblical data based on the verse that says there were 480 years between the exodus and the fourth year of Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 6:1). But the archeological evidence supporting the early date has been fairly thin, whereas the late date (c. 1250 BC) is generally viewed as the mainstream scholarly position. However, I feel the film unfairly characterizes the conversation as merely being one between conservative Bible adherents (early date) and liberal academics (late date). Even prominent Christians working in this area have supported the late date, including Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier.
Even though Hoffmeier is interviewed as one of the experts in the documentary, the filmmakers unfortunately set up the conversation as a false dilemma: how liberal academic scholars are squeezing out scholars who take a more literal, historical approach based on the chronology of 1 Kings 6:1. This is an oversimplification of the academic landscape; it’s more nuanced than that.
A case in point: The documentary focuses much of its attention on presenting the research of British Egyptologist David Rohl. Rohl does not claim to be a Christian, but he has published numerous materials marshalling the case for the early date—a perspective that is clearly out of step with the mainstream archaeological community. Rohl’s long-term academic project has been to advocate a restructuring of the entire chronology of Egyptian history. Does Rohl present some evidence that has been verified by other reputable archaeologists? Yes. But other aspects of his case are more speculative, and the film neglects to discuss this issue. Neither does it address the reasons behind the resistance among Rohl’s colleagues for his proposed restructuring of the Egyptian chronology, other than to attribute it to the establishment’s dislike of new ideas.
That’s not to say that everything presented in Patterns of Evidence is speculative. There is good work being done right now in Lower Egypt that does seem to be bringing new evidence to light. The preliminary results comport nicely with some of the biblical details and do fit with the early date, but I stress the word preliminary. The wheels of archaeology are sometimes slow to turn because of the painstaking processes involved in verification and peer review. And to Mahoney’s credit, some of this information is presented in Patterns of Evidence. But it’s often hard to discern the more established features of the early date position from the rather novel interpretations offered by Rohl.
A Word of Caution
In light of these issues, I have a couple of cautions to consider about recommending this resource in ministry contexts. It’s critical to understand that significant parts of the case presented in the film are largely based on the theory of one Egyptologist (Rohl). As a general principle, whenever I see one scholar standing alone in their interpretation of a large amount of data, I am automatically cautious. I don’t immediately reject it, but I do want to probe what others in the discipline think about this theory.
With regard to apologetics ministry content, when I’m recommending a resource to laypeople who may not have an awareness of the intricacies involved in a particular debate, I am careful to only recommend resources that have the best, most substantiated data behind them. I don’t often recommend resources that present arguments that are highly controversial among other reputable Christian scholars in the same discipline. Why? Because I know from my background in filmmaking that documentaries of this sort require wide-scale oversimplification in order to translate scholarly material into the video medium. This practice almost always leads to distortions and inaccuracies, unless the filmmakers are highly intentional to guard against it.
I’m not an expert in biblical archaeology, but I have researched this particular topic enough to know that the issues surrounding it are complex and that good Bible-believing Christians who affirm the historical accuracy of Scripture differ in their interpretation of the evidence. I’ve also observed some disturbing fruit coming forth from some Christians who watch this documentary. Laypeople come away from it believing that the exodus timing debate is simply the result of overzealous researchers who want to disprove the Bible. To frame the conversation as one where the more reasonable (and conservative) interpretation is being bypassed by the scientific establishment who are promoting a liberal academic agenda approaches the straw man fallacy.
From what I’ve observed, Patterns of Evidence is creating a deeper divide between Christians and mainstream science. Instead of demonstrating the amazing progress that mainstream biblical archaeology is making in corroborating the historical accuracy of the Bible, Patterns of Evidence promotes a truncated view of how scientific inquiry actually works. It leaves Christians with increased suspicions about how the data is being engaged at an academic level.
As a lay observer who follows conversations on biblical archaeology on an informal basis, I find it interesting that other experts in the field, such as Charles Aling and Gordon Govier (advocates of the early date), also offer some cautions about this documentary.1
For now, I think it’s important that Christians deal fairly and accurately with the best evidence that’s currently available. Though Patterns of Evidence is compelling, I would like to encourage the apologetics community to exercise due caution in its recommendation of this resource.
By Krista Bontrager
Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.
- Gordon Govier and Charles Aling, “Patterns of Exodus Evidence, Part 1,” The Book and the Spade (podcast), accessed June 18, 2016, http://www.radioscribe.com/1464tbts.mp3; Gordon Govier and Charles Aling, “Patterns of Exodus Evidence, Part 2,” The Book and the Spade (podcast), accessed June 18, 2016, http://www.radioscribe.com/1465tbts.mp3.