Merneptah Stela – Excerpt from the forthcoming “The Bible Trial”

Rabbi Joseph Reinman has been kind enough to allow us to post selections from his forthcoming book – The Bible Trial. The following is the sixth and final in a series of excerpts that we have posted.

On Monday morning, Calabrese called his next witness to the stand. He was a tall, rail-thin man with a deeply sunburned face.

Calabrese greeted him with his customary smile.

“Can you give us your name and occupation, sir?”

“Dr. Jamison Potemkin,” said the witness in a surprisingly deep voice. “I’m professor of biblical archaeology at the University of Rhode Island.”

“Dr. Potemkin,” said Calabrese, “I understand that archaeology can be a technical and arcane field. Is that not so?”

“It can be for amateurs. For the true archaeologist, all the minutiae are exceedingly interesting.”

“No doubt,” said Calabrese. “Most of us here in this courtroom are just amateurs, so I’ll ask you to couch your answers in layman’s terms.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Very well. Based on your knowledge of biblical archaeology, would you say the Bible is a reliable historical source?”

“When you say the Bible, you’re covering a very long period, from the creation story until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 b.c.e. and beyond. Your question has to be more specific.”

“That’s fine. I’ll ask specific questions. Dr. Potemkin, before we go on to talk about archaeology, two quick points about chronology. First, the Bible states that Pharaoh Shishak went up against Jerusalem in the fifth year of the reign of King Rehoboam, son of King Solomon. In what year did Shishak conduct his campaign against the Kingdom of Judah?

“It was 925 b.c.e.”

“That means that Solomon died in 930 b.c.e. Is that consistent with the conventional chronology?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Does anyone in the academic community question the conventional chronology as you’ve explained it to this court?”

“No, sir. It’s universally accepted.”

“Thank you. Now let’s go on to more serious issues –”

Dexter was on his feet. “Your honor, Counsel has introduced new testimony,” said Dexter. “I’d like to cross-examine.”

“Go ahead, counselor,” said the judge.

Dexter bowed his head slightly and turned to the witness. “Dr. Potemkin, how do we know that Shishak invaded Judah in 925 b.c.e.?”

The witness bit his lip and remained silent.

“Isn’t it true, Dr. Potemkin,” said Dexter, “that this is one of the points of synchronicity by which Egyptian chronology is established? Isn’t the date for Shishak’s campaign derived from the conventional chronology of Israel and Judah rather than the other way around?”

The witness nodded. “Yes.”

“So all of ancient chronology is a muddle, isn’t it?” said Dexter.

Calabrese stood up. “Objection, your honor!”

“I withdraw the question,” said Dexter and went back to his seat. “You can continue.”

Calabrese took a deep breath. He riffled through some papers on his table and scribbled some notes. Finally, he put down his pen and returned to the witness.

“Dr. Potemkin,” he said, “you were making a distinction between different parts of the Bible when we were … uh … interrupted before. Please continue with the point you were making.”

“I was saying that … Look, if we limit ourselves to Israelite history and start with the Patriarchs, the Bible covers a period of well over a thousand years. Some radical minimalists deny all Israelite history, saying it was all invented during the Hellenistic period under the Greeks. I do not subscribe to that school of thought. Nor do most moderate professional archaeologists.”

“All right.”

“As we come closer to the modern era, we find corroboration of the biblical account from extra-biblical sources. Aramean, Moabite and Assyrian inscriptions mention Israelite kings. We have coins, seals and other remnants of what we call the material culture.”

“From excavations?”

“Yes, of course. But as you go back further, there is practically no outside corroboration of the Biblical account. There was a time when archaeologists believed archaeology would confirm the biblical story, but in recent generations, we’ve come to the conclusion that archaeology supports the view that the early accounts of the Bible are pure fiction.”

“You mean there was no Israel in ancient times?”

“We know there was an Israel in 1207 b.c.e.,” said the witness. “The famous Merneptah Stela mentioned an Israel in the Judean hills.”

“And what is the Merneptah Stela?”

“It’s a large stone monument commissioned by Pharaoh Merneptah. The monument is densely inscribed with Merneptah’s glorious military victories. On the stela, Israel is identified as a people rather than a state, so this was probably at the very beginning of its development as a nation. Other than that, we hear nothing about Israel in the Egyptian record. There is no mention of the settlement of a patriarchal Israelite family in Egypt.”

“I see.”

“It’s also preposterous that an Israelite named Joseph would become the second most powerful person in Egypt. There is absolutely no mention of the bondage of Israelites in Egypt. There’s no record of an Exodus. There’s no record of many travels and encampments in the desert for forty years.”

“How about the War of Conquest under Joshua?”

“There’s no record of a military conquest of Canaan. No record of a wide-scale destruction of Canaanite cities. No Israelite inscriptions from this period confirming any of the Bible’s claims. In fact, we’ve never found any Israelite inscriptions, although we’ve found inscriptions from just about every nation in the area; it certainly shows the lack of sophistication of any Israelite kingdoms that may have existed in ancient times.”

“It does make you think, doesn’t it?” said Calabrese. “Go on.”

“Yes, where was I? Ah, yes. The Bible reports that the Israelites besieged and destroyed the city of Jericho, but the archaeological record, according to the prestigious archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon, shows that Jericho was not even inhabited at that time. That last discovery was the last nail in the coffin of the maximalists such as William Albright and his school.”

“You’ve made many provocative points, Dr. Potemkin. I’d like to review them one by one, if you please. You say it is unlikely that an Israelite such as Joseph would rise to a position of supreme power in Egypt.”

“Pure fantasy. Romantic fiction.”

“And you say that there’s no record of Israelites enslaved in Egypt?”

“According to the Bible, Israelites in large numbers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, were enslaved in Egypt. Now, the Egyptians kept meticulous records. They left huge archives that include records of government affairs, military records and business. One would expect that the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people would be recorded. But it isn’t. Not a trace of their having been there, not a trace of their having escaped into the desert.”

“And you said something about no records of their encampments.”

“That’s right,” said the witness. “According to the Bible, the Israelites camped at forty-two places in the desert before entering Canaan. We found no trace of such an encampment anywhere. You might say that we cannot be sure of the exact locations of these places. Two of the places, however, can be identified with reasonable assurance – Kadesh Barne’a and Etzion Geber. Yet in neither of these has a single thirteenth century pottery sherd been found.”

“And the Biblical story of the conquest of Canaan?”

“The archaeological record shows that there was no violent conquest. It is true that the Canaanite city of Hazor was destroyed. But there’s no record of thirteenth century destruction for the other cities recorded as conquered in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Joshua. As for the famous story of the siege of Jericho and the sounding of the ram’s horn that brought its walls tumbling down, there’s no archaeological record of habitation in Jericho at that time.”

Calabrese stroked his chin. “Tell me, Dr. Potemkin, is there a record of an increase of population in the thirteenth century?”

“Yes, there was apparently a significant increase in population, mostly in the Judean hill country. But even so, the population came nowhere close to the hundreds of thousands reported by the Bible. According to archaeological data, the population in the thirteenth century b.c.e. was approximately 45,000 in 250 sites. By the eight century b.c.e. the total population of Judah and Israel was about 160,000 in 500 sites.”

“Not very great numbers indeed, Dr. Potemkin. Obviously, the Bible’s figures cannot be taken seriously. But nonetheless, as you have said, there was undeniably a significant population increase in these lands in the thirteenth century. How do you account for that increase?”

“There are different opinions among archaeologists. All agree there was an influx of a different population group, because the luxury implements and fine ceramic pottery of the sophisticated Canaanite cities were replaced by rough and primitive implements and ceramics.

“Who were these new people?”

“The German scholar Albrecht Alt suggests that the new arrivals were the result of peaceful infiltration of peoples from surrounding areas. George Mendenhall suggests there was a peasant revolt in the Canaanite cities. This theory was dismissed, because no archaeological evidence supports it. Israel Finkelstein suggests they are the result of the resedentarization of nomads.”

“The what? Can you explain that, Dr. Potemkin?”

“Of course. Dr. Finkelstein suggested that, because of difficult times, many city people abandoned urban life and became nomadic shepherds. Then, in the thirteenth century, they decided to settle down again to a sedentary life. Therefore, we find a sudden increase in the population. Nomads do not register in the archaeological record, but cities, towns and villages do. I subscribe to this point of view. The Israelites were originally Canaanites.”

“Hmm. Interesting. One more question, Dr. Potemkin. The Bible reports that King David and King Solomon ruled over a large and glorious kingdom. Does archaeology support or contradict this view?”

“The Bible reports that King Solomon rebuilt the northern cities of Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer. In all these places, archaeologists uncovered monumental palace remains. They also had characteristic city gates that had three chambers on each side. These came to be identified as the Solomonic architectural style.”

“So was that corroboration?”

“No. At first, there was some excitement, as many thought they’d found corroboration for the Bible. But it was a false alarm. The sites were tested with carbon-14 dating, and it was discovered that the ruins were over a century younger, well after the time of David and Solomon. It appears that Israel under David and Solomon was at best a backward mountain kingdom.”

“So to sum up, Dr. Potemkin?”

“Archaeology has demonstrated that Israel began very modestly in the hill country of Judah and did not reach the level of a respectable regional kingdom until late in its history. The Bible is a fantasy.”

“Thank you, Dr. Potemkin. No more questions.”

Dexter stood up and walked slowly toward the witness.

“Dr. Potemkin, you have made a blanket statement,” said Dexter, “that there was no significant Israelite presence in Egypt. Your basis for this sweeping generalization is that there’s no record of it. Would you consider this negative evidence?”

“I suppose.”

“Isn’t it a rule in archaeology and in general that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? Isn’t it generally assumed that negative evidence only proves that you have not yet found anything but that you very well may?”

“This is true. Nonetheless, you would expect to see some record.”

“Where would you expect to find such records?”

“On papyrus rolls from Egyptian archives.”

“And since the Israelites were in the Nile Delta, isn’t that where you would expect to find such records? Like in Heliopolis or Pi-Ramesse?”

“Yes,” said the witness.

“Now we know that such archives existed,” said Dexter, “from tomb records in the dry sands of Saqqara, isn’t that so?”


“So what happened to those archives?” asked Dexter innocently.

“They have not survived.”

“Why not?” said Dexter.

“Because the climate is wet and the ground is muddy.”

“I see. So how many papyri from these archives have survived?”


“Nothing? Not even a scrap?”

“Not even a scrap.”

“So there could have been volumes of records of Israelites, but nothing has remained, isn’t that so?”

The witness refused to concede the point. “You would still expect to see some record somewhere. Just something.”

“Are there records for Semites infiltrating Egypt in times of drought and famine?”


“Do Egyptian inscriptions identify different Semitic groups?”

“No, they’re all called Semites.”

“And there are inscriptions in the tomb of the vizier of Thutmose III of Semites making bricks, aren’t there?”

“Yes,” said the witness. “But they’re described as prisoners of war.”

“But don’t we have a basis for Egyptians using captive Semites for forced labor? Doesn’t the Bible speak of an erub rab, a mixed multitude, joining the Israelites in the Exodus? Couldn’t these have been other captive Semitic peoples as well as disgruntled Egyptians?”

The witness shrugged. “Anything could be. We don’t believe it.”

“Dr. Potemkin, this court is not interested in your beliefs,” said Dexter sternly. “We are looking for facts. And so far you have given us hardly any facts. You say the Joseph story is romantic fiction, that it would have been impossible for a Semite to rise to such power in Egypt. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that is correct.”

“How about Aper-El, vizier to Amenhotep III and Akhenaten? Wasn’t he a Semite?”

“Maybe. His name would indicate he was.”

“So if Aper-El could be vizier, why couldn’t Joseph? In fact, didn’t Jaroslav Cerny observe that during the Ramesside era it became quite common for men of foreign origin to serve in high office at court?”

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3 Responses to Merneptah Stela – Excerpt from the forthcoming “The Bible Trial”

  1. Dina says:

    I am looking forward to reading this book.

  2. lucky says:

    Was that book ever released? Where can I read it?

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