I am endlessly fascinated by the ingenious naturalistic explanations that have been provided by scientists for the big miracle stories of the Bible. Even more fascinating is the fact that biblical scholars, by and large, do not give these explanations the time of day, usually preferring to look at the stories in terms of human history and the human imagination. One of the biggest points of disagreement here is the role played by the legendary volcano Thera (modern-day Santorini), which erupted in the Bronze Age and, so it has been said endlessly, is the source for the myths of Atlantis, the story of the Exodus, and any number of other ancient cataclysms and apocalypses.
While this disagreement illustrates nicely the very different ways that different kinds of professional can approach this normative text, it also gets to the heart of the endlessly-difficult question of ‘what really happened?’ If the professionals can’t agree, then is there any hope in answering it? My answer is something of a no and a yes at the same time.
I am at a conference in San Diego at the moment – Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination – soon to give a paper on my thoughts on Thera. It’s called ‘The Thera Theories: Science and the modern reception history of the Exodus’, and here’s the abstract:
While scholars continue to debate the tortuous historical and critical questions behind the narrative of the Exodus, a steady stream of publications has been appearing at the popular level that take much of the text at face value, and insist that it is to be understood in terms of natural catastrophes. Biblical scholars and archaeologists may highlight the complex human factors behind the genesis and evolution of the Exodus traditions, but the popular interpretations focus on the natural world, painting more-or-less apocalyptic scenarios informed by scientific research into volcanoes, earthquakes, and other spectacular natural phenomena. The eruption of Thera in the seventeenth century BCE has featured heavily, not least because it can also be invoked as an explanation for the myth of Atlantis, and the demise of Minoan civilisation.
Crucial questions arise here: what does the public fascination for such explanations (in the face of scholarly caution) tell us about the modern reception of the Exodus? And to what extent is this fascination (and attendant scepticism) mirrored in the interpretations of previous ages? How important is the motif of the remarkable marvel in the cultural handling of iconic traditions?
These are far-ranging questions, and this paper will begin to answer them by focussing on the case of Thera in particular. I will present an overview of the Theran models of the Exodus, and will examine some critical and receptive responses to them, in order to assess the significance of spectacle in the memory and reception history of the Exodus.