REVIEW ARTICLE ON DAVID ROHL’S WORK
FOR NEW LIFE MAGAZINE, MELBOURNE
by Anthony van der Elst (Chairman of the Institute for the Study of Interdisciplinary Sciences)
The Old Testament is pure myth. There were no Israelites in Egypt. Moses never existed. The Exodus never happened. Joshua and the Israelites did not conquer the Promised Land. There was no mighty warrior-king called David, and though Solomon might have been an impoverished tribal chieftain he was certainly no merchant prince with a high-born Egyptian wife. This was the view of modern scholarship at the beginning of the 1990s.
Little archaeological evidence was accepted as corroborating biblical stories, and for most of the last 200 years the academic trend had been to reduce the value of the Old Testament from historically useful narrative to worthless fiction. The most published, most translated, most famous writings were no better than Harry Potter and any scholar with the temerity to suggest that they were even a potential source of real history was derided as a crank. … But things were about to change.
In 1992 an assertive academic, Professor Thomas L. Thompson of Copenhagen University, published a book proclaiming the uselessness of the Bible to historical research, confidently denying the existence of such figures as David and Solomon. Within a few months, however, he learned that Professor Avraham Biran, excavating Tel Dan in northern Israel, had discovered fragments of a stela, probably dating to late 8th century BC, which referred to the 'House of David'. The myth was fighting back.
There had long been a sense of unease that something was rotten with the state of ancient Near Eastern history when, in 1995, a gifted and compelling voice demanded critical re-examination of the evidence. Crucial assumptions, handed on down through the years from professor to student, had received little such examination. Inconveniently obscure or confused periods tidied generations ago into ‘Dark Ages’ or ‘Intermediate Periods’ had become straight-jackets creaking with the double strain of unresolved contradictions and the insistent questions of modern scholarship. With his first book, A Test of Time, British Egyptologist David Rohl burst upon the scene and, in the words of the Sunday Times, 'set the academic world on its ear'.
Ancient Egypt – more specifically Egyptian chronology – is at the heart of the issue, for it is to Egypt that historians look to establish the principal timeline for Near East history. Addicted to record-keeping, Egypt also built higher and carved deeper than anyone else. Leaving the most impressive footprint in the sands of Time, it is Egypt that sets the reference points against which the chronologies of nearby peoples are correlated. If conventional Egyptian chronology rules out an event in the biblical lands, convention says it stays ruled out. But what if convention is wrong? Working in several different historical and scientific disciplines, Rohl and a number of colleagues are now developing an alternative chronology for the ancient world and, in the process, demonstrating that it is perfectly possible to fit much of the biblical story into a feasible archaeological framework.
Rohl is certainly not the first to question orthodoxy; flaws in conventional chronology have been exposed repeatedly. But the hour required the man … and Rohl was the man – organized, able, imaginative and tough; unafraid to challenge the sacred cows of Egyptology. A consummate communicator, Rohl writes and lectures brilliantly and is one of that rare breed of scholars who can talk to a lay public without condescension and with real passion. Reading Rohl, watching his television programmes or listening to his lectures, one is impressed by a wide-ranging mind completely at home in a familiar landscape. His obvious mastery of the subject, the clarity with which he lays bare the disturbing inconsistencies he is challenging, his impressive marshalling of facts and the lucidity of his arguments mark him out as an important voice in archaeology.
Because Rohl communicates better than anyone else in his field, he is generally regarded as the natural leader of the ‘New Chronology’ movement – although that movement is by no means as homogeneous or even as comradely as you might suppose! The New Chronology proposes that the conventional timeline of Ancient Egypt has become over-extended by perhaps as much as 350 years. This is not as extraordinary as you might imagine and influential scholars are indeed beginning to challenge the orthodox dating as it applies to biblical investigation. The leading Israeli archaeologist, Professor Israel Finkelstein, currently excavating Megiddo, is arguing for a revision of Solomonic archaeology by around 100 years, moving him from Iron Age IIA to the earlier Iron Age IB. But while Rohl would certainly approve the direction of the change, a mere 100 years lands the wealthy builder-king in the most impoverished part of the Iron Age without a major public building in sight! New Chronologists, going further than Finkelstein and adopting lower dates for Egypt’s New Kingdom, synchronize Solomon’s reign with the Late Bronze Age IIB when cities like Megiddo were at their cultural heights.
The collapse of ‘phantom’ years has fascinating and far-reaching consequences as the historical events and personalities that were sitting on top of them drop down in time to fill the space. To see how Rohl figures it out you will have to read A Test of Time. It has much to do with parallel dynasties, overlapping tombs, the removal of royal mummies to secret hiding places at dead of night, and the interpretation of some of the most striking and magnificent monumental inscriptions of the ancient world. Sometimes an explanation is as simple as early Egyptologists arbitrarily adding a few years to ‘fill a gap’; sometimes it seems that the historicity of the Bible rests on nothing more than a dispute over the number of mummified Apis bulls or the popular nickname of Ramesses the Great.
Rohl is not afraid to follow the logic of an argument. Again and again he points out startling synchronisms between attested events in Egyptian history and biblical (and extra-biblical) accounts – once that history has been redated using the New Chronology timeline. Readers will have to make their own judgments, but the number of matches is impressive. So striking, indeed, that the accusation has been made that it all works too suspiciously well. Rohl’s answer is to enquire mildly: ‘Why shouldn’t the truth work well?’
What truths might these be? Follow Rohl and you will be offered the reality of the origins of the early Israelites. Patriarch Joseph in his coat-of-many-colours is firmly placed in the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhat III and identified as the vizier who solved the problem of excessive Nile floods by channelling waters into the Faiyum Basin. Today that channel is still there and its traditional name is the Bahr Yussef (‘waterway of Joseph’). An elegant palace unearthed by Professor Manfred Bietak and his Austrian team in the Egyptian delta capital of Avaris is a strong candidate for the vizier’s home. Leaving aside the significance of the 12 pillars forming the entrance colonnade, the archaeologists found the remains of a large pyramid tomb, clearly that of an unusually important person, containing within it the violently defaced head and shoulders of a colossal statue of the missing occupant. Analysis of pigment traces show that the face was painted in the pale ochre traditionally used to indicate a Levantine ‘Asiatic’, and that the coat was geometrically striped in black, red, blue and white, again identifying the wearer as a tribal leader from the Semitic-speaking north. Bietak was surprised to find the tomb almost completely empty, with no body and no grave goods. Except for the vengeful attack on the statue, the tomb had been cleared rather than ransacked. Rohl reminds us that when the Israelite slaves won their freedom and departed from Raamses (Avaris) 'Moses took with him the bones of Joseph' [Exodus 13:19]. The statue was left behind, a mute target of Egyptian frustration then – an eloquent witness now.
Turning to the question of Moses, Rohl reminds us of the words of Roland de Vaux: ‘... it has to be acknowledged that, if Moses is suppressed, the religion and even the existence of Israel are impossible to explain’. A full and absorbing account of the evidence follows in which the Pharaohs of the Oppression and Exodus are identified and the city of the Israelite Bondage located and explored, including a reassessment of archaeological findings consistent (using New Chronology) with the disasters associated with the Tenth Plague tradition of the Exodus.
The Conquest, too, was always there, says Rohl, but scholars had not looked in the correct place on the historical timeline. The big problem was Jericho. When Kenyon conducted her famous excavation in the 1950s, she discovered a city whose fortified walls had indeed tumbled down and a destruction layer of impressive proportion buried in the Middle Bronze IIB stratum. The trouble was that convention set Joshua at the end of the Late Bronze Age, after the walled city had lain abandoned for centuries. With nothing to conquer, Joshua had to be myth too. But the New Chronology dates Joshua to the end of the Middle Bronze Age when the walls really did come tumblin’ down ...
Rohl argues cogently that the biblical Pharaoh Shishak, plunderer of Jerusalem, is wrongly identified in the conventional scheme. His candidate is Ramesses II. The reign of Akhenaten is reassigned too, making him contemporary with Saul and David and the Israelite Early Monarchy. Indeed, the very clay of the Bible Lands is made to speak as cuneiform tablets, the famous Amarna Letters found in Akhenaten’s Records Office, take on extraordinary significance, telling the story of an insubordinate vassal chieftain (Saul) loudly complaining of Habiru troublemakers in the hill-country south of Jerusalem (David and his Hebrews) before getting himself killed in circumstances consistent with the biblical account of the Battle of Gilboa. The argument is persuasive and the tablets telling the story can be gazed upon in the British Museum – unrecognized by the institution privileged to house them.
Rohl’s challenge has attracted a fair amount of criticism from the ‘establishment’ – perhaps unfair is the more proper adjective, for much of it has been grubby and unworthy of the academic positions his critics hold. Some objections betray an acceptance by the official mind of the grotesquely erroneous idea that imagination is hostile to science. The worst suggest that the New Chronology is viewed as a mortal threat to long-held academic and intellectual positions. Rohl is philosophical, reminding us that Sir Mortimer Wheeler described archaeology as a vendetta, not a science.
Having argued his hypothesis in A Test of Time and brought it to an international audience through the acclaimed TV series, Pharaohs & Kings, Rohl turned to the first book of the Old Testament and attempted to reconstruct it as history within his new chronological framework. Where A Test of Time (published as Pharaohs and Kings in the USA) focused specifically on the problems of Egyptian chronology and its impact on the historicity of the Old Testament, his next two books would show how a revised chronology might re-establish certain biblical texts as proper historical narratives based on actual events and real people.
In Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation (1998), Rohl examines the sources of the book of Genesis together with corroborative textual and archaeological evidence from the beginnings of history in Mesopotamia. He tells the story of Adam’s people migrating out of the Zagros Mountains and eventually making their way to the swampy shores of the Persian Gulf. He charts the rise of the first civilization and finds confirmation of substantial elements of Genesis in the epic literature of ancient Sumer. Eden, Nod, Babel, the Deluge and Nimrod are all examined and found to have an historical basis, once stripped of mythic packaging.
In Legend, Rohl also advances an interesting hypothesis. Stemming directly from his own pioneering work in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, he discovers Mesopotamian origins for the pre-dynastic ancestors of the pyramid-builders. In 1908 Arthur Weigall, Inspector General of Antiquities in Luxor, found remarkable rock-carvings in the desert wadis east of Edfu. Among typical inscriptions were a multitude of prehistoric boat depictions. Strange boats. Boats with high prows; sea-going vessels, warlike and manned by many men. Some appeared to be dragged over the desert surface with long ropes, and figures of commanding stature bestrode the decks. The Great War intervening, it was not until 1936 that the German ethnographer Hans Winkler set out to discover more of this rock art, publishing his first report a year later. A second world war put paid to further expeditions when Winkler was killed on the Eastern Front weeks before the cessation of hostilities. Sixty years later David Rohl recognized the importance of these prehistoric images and set up the Eastern Desert Survey to search out the earlier discoveries and locate new sites. After directing and leading ten explorations, Rohl is now a world expert on these boat-pictures and believes them to be tangible evidence of a powerful Mesopotamian influx into Upper Egypt 5,000 years ago, their warships being literally dragged from the Red Sea to the Nile.
Rohl’s third book, The Lost Testament (2002), published in paperback (and in the USA) under the title From Eden to Exile, is a synthesis of all his previous work, drawing on the full range of sources, re-telling the epic story from a professional historian’s perspective and set against a real geographical and cultural background. The years of wandering in Sinai after the Exodus form an important section of The Lost Testament and it is worth remarking at this point that the accuracy and depth of the descriptive detail is often the result of intimate personal acquaintance with the terrain. For Rohl is not some cloistered academic pontificating from an institutional armchair; he has personally explored these places – often many times. He knows the colour of the desert at sunrise and the smell that rises from the hot stones of the Sinai mountains after a light rain; he has camped with the Bedouin and tasted the bitter waters of Marah; he has stood gazing at the head of cow-goddess Hathor carved from a rock on the heights of Serabit el-Khadim. Here he took the photograph that appears in The Lost Testament. Perhaps it was here, too, that he was struck by the significance of the golden calf made by the Hebrew slaves rescued by Joshua from the copper and turquoise mines of western Sinai.
Rohl has taken most of the photographs in his books. And what a fine photographer he is too. Why is this important? The eye is ‘the best witness’, said Dryden. Something you learn by direct seeing is called an observation; and observations always lie at the back of evidence. Rohl understands how to harness the power of visual imagery and the design of his books is distinguished by remarkable photography and first-class graphics.
Rohl is a fiendishly clever writer. He even manages the trick of occasionally letting his readers get ahead of him so that they work out a conclusion before he suggests it. No wonder his arguments are persuasive – you worked them out for yourself! As a detective story for intelligent, inquisitive people his seminal work, A Test of Time, is unmatched. If you know nothing of ancient history, fear not; it is the most agreeable rite-of-passage imaginable. Hundreds of thousands of readers have been gripped by it and will attest to having had a Eureka! moment when they realized that Egyptology was not only graspable, but actually made sense. This is a book that thinks. Of course it simplifies the subject for the layman and there are far too many issues and conundrums for even New Chronologists to agree upon, but it is so crammed with ideas and information and mystery and romance and excitement that I honestly believe that you will have the best time ever trying to find out. If I were the Egyptian Minister of Tourism, I’d send a copy to everyone on the planet.