Anyone who thinks reading the Bible is boring has never read the story of Joseph (Gen 37–50). Filled with action, suspense, irony and intrigue, this narrative is biblical storytelling at its best. Some would say that such literary artistry smacks of fiction.1 Others consider it fictional since there is no archaeological evidence that Joseph ever existed, let alone ruled Egypt at Pharaoh’s right hand. So how does ancient history and archaeology help us understand the story of Joseph? And does the evidence point to fiction or the basis of a true story?
Some like to use history and archaeology to prove or disprove the accuracy of the Bible. My studies in ancient history started out along those lines—seeking proof of the existence of Joseph to defend the accuracy of the Bible. Along the way, I learned that my quest for direct confirmation of the stories of Genesis was in vain, but history and archaeology consistently illuminated a plausible historical core at the center of the story. While we may never find “Joseph was here” scratched on the wall of an ancient Egyptian alley, the Joseph story is packed with historical details that can be verified.
The Joseph story fits in history between 2000–1600 bc.2 This range of dates places the story in the Middle Kingdom or Second Intermediate Period of Egypt’s history.3 Ironically, one scholar who believes the Joseph story is fiction concedes that “the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period have bequeathed us precious little evidence.”4 So while there’s no evidence Joseph existed, there’s no evidence that he didn’t. Most people never “existed” based on who left written evidence thousands of years later. Will there be any proof that any of us existed 4000 years from now? As Carl Sagan famously said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”5
While archaeology may never provide definitive proof of the life of Joseph, it confirms elements of the story—even tiny, easily overlooked details—are historically plausible.
Genesis 37:28 tells us that Joseph’s brothers sold him to a passing caravan for 20 pieces of silver. Did the brothers get a fair deal? What was the going rate for selling your brother into slavery back then? Fortunately, enough ancient receipts survived—since they were inscribed on stone or clay—for historians to calculate that the average price of a slave was 20 pieces of silver in the 18th century bc: the exact amount Joseph was sold for. Before that time, slaves were cheaper; a few hundred years later, inflation made them more expensive.6
Ancient Egyptian art, such as the tomb painting of Khnum-Hotep at Beni Hassan, shows that Semitic people came from Canaan into Egypt, and ancient correspondence in the Amarna letters indicates that Semitic people could rise to positions of power.7 This fits with the end of Joseph’s life, which is flavored by Egyptian culture. He even dies at the age of 110—the ideal age in Egyptian culture, but a bit young for a patriarch (Jacob died at age 147, according to Gen 47:28). Following his death, he is embalmed and placed in a coffin—Egyptian, not Canaanite, burial practices (Gen 50:26).8 Of all the stories of the Old Testament, the story of Joseph has the richest Egyptian coloring.9
While archaeology and history suggest that the Joseph narrative is based on a true story, they cannot prove the Bible is accurate; belief is a commitment. I’ve made this commitment because the evidence shows that the cultural details of one of the most finely-crafted literary compositions of the Old Testament ring true.
The Amarna letters are an archive of around 400 letters from rulers of Canaan and Syria to Pharaoh. They were discovered in 1887 at el-Amarna—the site of Pharaoh Akhenaton’s capital city in the 14th century bc. The letters provide important details about Egyptian and Canaanite diplomatic connections. Logos.com/Amarna
The tomb of Khnum-Hotep is located in Beni Hassan, Egypt—on the eastern shore of the Nile River, 160 miles south of Cairo. It is carved in a limestone cliff on the east bank of the Nile. Khnum-Hoteps was a governor of the Egyptian Antelope Province. The wall paintings in the tomb were first published by French scholar Francois Champollion in 1845. Several of the paintings depict culture and international trade akin to what is described in Genesis.
1. The opinion of Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pgs. 422–429. ↩
2. This is calculated starting from the invasion of Shishak in 925 bc: 925 + 5 + 36 + 480 + 430 = 1876 bc (1 Kgs 6:1; 11:42; 14:25; and Exod 12:40). Dating these events is complicated, hence the range from 2000–1600 bc. ↩
3. Charles F. Aling, “Joseph in Egypt: Part I,” Artifax 15:3 (2000), pgs. 20–21.↩
4. Redford, pg. 71.↩
5. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York: Random House, Inc., 1996), pgs. 213–214.↩
6. Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1966), pgs. 52–53 and Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pgs. 313–372 and 567. ↩
7. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., A History of Israel (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), pg. 69; Joseph P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), pgs. 71–72.↩
8. Kaiser, pg. 73.↩
9. Aling, pg. 20.↩