No non-biblical evidence of the Exodus? Meet Manetho. This third-century BCE Egyptian priest/historian from Heliopolis wrote about the Exodus with a hint of the 10 plagues. So why is he not believed? I agree with those scholars who think he should be, and I will explain why.
Manetho wrote a “History of Egypt,” thought to be the first of its kind. It is long lost. But Josephus preserved excerpts of it, mainly in order to prove that the Jews were here long before the Greeks and Romans. These excerpts included a list of the first 30 dynasties of ancient Egypt and their Pharaohs. Even though this list has incorrect information about many of the pharaohs, much of it has proven to be an essential framework for scholars’ reconstruction of the kings of ancient Egypt. So, in significant ways he is a respectable source.
Manetho blended into the list of kings two accounts of events said to have occurred between the mid-17th century to sometime in the 14th century. The first account tells of the expulsion from Egypt of the foreign rulers called the “Hyksos”—which is how modern scholars first learned of them—and the second is about the exodus of “lepers” from Egypt. It is the second account that most interests us, but very briefly the first account records that the Hyksos brutally invaded Egypt, ruled for a long period of time, were beaten back to their capital Avaris by one native Egyptian Pharaoh and then expelled by another, and finally founded and settled in … Judea/Jerusalem! Scholars find numerous conflations of seemingly unrelated pieces of ancient Egyptian history in this account, the last being the confusion of the Hyksos with the Jews. But they generally accept Manetho’s claim that he based this account on information drawn from priestly historical records.
Not so the second account. Here are excerpts (using W.G. Waddell’s translation, with my highlighting):
[The Pharaoh] Amenophis [was told by his seer/advisor that the gods wanted him to] cleanse the whole land of lepers and other polluted persons. The king … assembled all those in Egypt whose bodies were wasted by disease …. These he cast into the stone-quarries to the east of the Nile, there to work segregated from the rest of the Egyptians. Then this wise seer Amenophis was filled with dread of divine wrath against himself and the king, [so upon his advice Amenophis agreed to release these slaves] and assign to them as a dwelling-place and a refuge the deserted city of the Shepherds [i.e., the Hyksos], Avaris. … They appointed as their leader one of the priests of Heliopolis called Osarsiph [who] changed his name and was called Moses. … He made it a law that they should neither worship the gods nor refrain from any of the animals prescribed as especially sacred in Egypt … and that they should have [social relations] with none save those of their own confederacy. [They also “roasted the sacred animals which the [Egyptians] worshipped.”] After framing a great number of laws like these, completely opposed to Egyptian custom, he ordered them with their multitude of hands, to repair the walls of the city and make ready for war against King Amenophis. … He sent an embassy to the Shepherds who had been expelled by Tethmosis, in the city called Jerusalem [asking them to join the lepers in attacking Egypt, which they did. The lepers and their allies ruled Egypt for 13 years, after which they left the land because they were defeated by Amenophis’s army and allies, although Amenophis himself did not enter the battle but beat a hasty retreat to Memphis].
This account eerily echoes many biblical passages. Like the Israelites, the lepers were enslaved but later released. They chose a leader named “Moses.” This Moses prescribed laws that appear to be right out of the Torah: worshipping gods sacred to the Egyptians was prohibited (essentially the First Commandment [Exod. 20:3-5]); the lepers roasted sacred animals (the Paschal lamb is to be roasted [Exod. 12:8-9]); and they were enjoined from following Egyptian customs (looks like Lev. 18:3). Manetho’s source seems to have been offended by the requirement that the lepers included animals sacred to the Egyptians among those they sacrificed and consumed (Waddell, 127), which rings biblically true given Exod. 8:22. Amenophis left the battle and returned home safely, which is consistent with Rabbi Nechemia’s opinion in the Mechilta that the biblical Pharaoh did not drown. And note the assertion that the lepers (Israelites) allied themselves with Egypt’s enemy the Hyksos, waged war against Egypt, and later left Egypt after briefly ruling it. This should strike a bell! It is precisely what the new king (Exod. 1:10) accused the Israelites of planning. It is almost as if Manetho or his sources wove a fictitious scenario in order to prove the biblical new king’s fears to have been well-founded.
Manetho is controversial. Josephus himself called the second account lies and nonsense, claiming that Manetho admitted to basing it on legends. He would undoubtedly have agreed with historian Victor Tcherikover and others that Manetho’s account was anti-Semitic. Many scholars contend that the original Manetho was corrupted by a later “pseudo-Manetho,” and possibly even by Josephus. But many other scholars, the late classicist Louis H. Feldman among them, note that Josephus’s purpose in discussing Manetho’s accounts was to counter anti-Semitic tracts written by other authors, so it seems unlikely that Josephus would have undermined his own work by forging accounts in Manetho’s name or relying on a corrupted version of Manetho. Indeed, it is evident that Josephus was upset that Manetho had included the second account portraying the Jews as lepers, but he felt compelled to acknowledge it and went to great lengths to discredit it.
The second account does contain some classical anti-Semitic accusations but, as Professor Feldman noted, it speaks admirably of Moses. If anything, the anti-Semitic overtones speak to the account’s historical basis: if the 10 plagues and Exodus did in fact occur, who would expect the ancient Egyptians and their priests to remember the Israelites fondly? (One gets the impression that many of Manetho’s modern-day detractors work from the presumption that the Exodus and events surrounding it never happened.) And the account contains too many accurate reflections of Torah passages, as noted above, for Manetho to have made them up without a knowledgeable source. I suppose Manetho might have obtained the account’s biblical detail from Jews he knew, but even if he knew Jews who were familiar with the Torah it is hard to imagine what questions he might have asked that would have elicited these particular fragments of the Torah. Another possibility is that he saw early drafts of the Septuagint, but Feldman and others doubt that, and it would have required more than a passing familiarity with the text to find and choose the passages mirrored in the Manetho account. To my mind, this leaves one other possibility: that Manetho drew from fact-based oral traditions that were transmitted by Heliopolitan priests dating back to the time of the Exodus or shortly thereafter.
If Manetho’s accounts are authentic reflections of how the Egyptians remembered the Exodus, they testify that Thutmose III/Hatshepsut, and then Amenophis III, were key players in the enslavement of the Israelites and their liberation from slavery. In a previous column, I wrote about the possibility that Hatshepsut’s inscription takes credit for ridding Egypt of the Israelites by enslaving them. That is exactly what happened in Manetho’s second account—and Josephus picks up on this in his criticism: Amenophis was told by the gods to rid Egypt of the lepers. He did so by enslaving them. How biblical!
By Ira Friedman
Ira Friedman, a retired attorney, is an independent researcher with an interest in the intersection of the Torah and ancient Egyptian history.