I wrote about this topic last summer here and here, when I gave a conference paper on the much-hypothesised effect of the Bronze Age volcano Thera (now called Santorini) on ancient Egypt and the Exodus. The reason I’m returning to it again is because of some challenges I received recently, which prompted me to return to the evidence. I was accused of promoting a religious agenda over science. My response is that quite the opposite is true. Some of the mythology surrounding Thera has taken on the status of a near-religious belief, a belief that is, by and large, not borne out by the scientific evidence, as I try to explain here.
Many books, scientific articles, TV documentaries, etc, have appeared over the last few decades claiming that the C17 BCE eruption of this volcano created all of the conditions necessary to explain the miraculous events of the Exodus naturalistically. For instance, the ash cloud from the eruption is said to have completely engulfed Egypt, and provided the sequence of events that we know as the Plagues of Egypt (e.g. the Plague of Darkness). Most spectacular of all, a gigantic tsunami from the eruption is said to have been what enabled the Israelites to cross a lagoon on the Mediterranean coast (the “Sea of Reeds”), while it drowned the pursuing Egyptians. That’s the well-known idea, which has been recycled many times with variations to take account of changing attitudes towards the date of the eruption (which has been refined from the C15 BCE back to the late C17). I call these ideas the “Thera theories”.
The Thera theories are wonderfully evocative, and wonderfully appealing, because they suggest that modern science can explain ancient mysteries, catastrophes and miracles. Many people are drawn to them because these theories suggest some historical substance behind the biblical stories, as well as providing an explanation for a murky period of history, all without needing to call upon supernatural activity. My own opinion is that, whatever you think about divine action, the big problem with the Thera theories is that we have almost no evidence to suggest that the eruption of Thera had the impact on Egypt required by the Thera theories. Instead, it’s thought that the enormous ash cloud from Thera was mostly carried due east, hundreds of miles to the north of Egypt, and that no substantial tsunami reached the Egyptian coast. Apart from some minute traces of volcanic glass found in a handful of places in the Nile Delta, and some pieces of pumice washed up on the shore, there is no evidence of Thera in Egypt.
There’s also the question of whether the Thera theories actually make for very good readings of the Exodus text: they take some details literally while completely ignoring others. It’s fair to say that the Thera theories form part of a much wider controversy about naturalistic readings of biblical texts. On the whole, I am sceptical.
So last week I was challenged about my scepticism towards the Thera theories. It was pointed out to me by a very widely-read supporter of the Thera theories that there is abundant physical evidence of the eruption of Thera in Egypt. Indeed, whole Egyptian cities had been wiped out by the volcano, it was said. I was aware that back in 2007 some amazing reports had appeared in news items on the internet concerning an archaeological dig at Tell Hebua near the Sinai coast, where apparently volcanic ash and “lava” (sic) had been found in abundance. Here is one of them, from the National Geographic, with the amazing title “Ancient Egypt Cities Leveled by Massive Volcano, Lava Find Suggests”.
Since these 2007 reports weren’t followed up by articles in the scholarly literature (to my knowledge), I’d always assumed that the claims were largely wishful thinking. Certainly, the archaeologists I know working in Egypt weren’t aware of any substance behind them. However, I realised last week that I had to look into this properly.
Closer reading of the 2007 press reports made it clear that there was a certain degree of controversy surrounding the interpretation of the archaeology. The main point seems to be that the “lava” discovered amounted to some small pieces of pumice. The majority view of the press reports (the one that supplied the eye-catching headlines) seemed to imply that this pumice had been blown by the force of the eruption all the way from the Aegean, where, along with the clouds of ash, it had covered Egypt and destroyed cities. The other view (mentioned in passing) was the sceptical one, which maintained that Egypt had never experienced the eruption directly, but that the pumice had probably been carried slowly by wind and waves from the Aegean, and then washed ashore on the Egyptian coast. Since pumice is a valuable industrial material, it would have been collected by hand from the seashore for use in cleaning, etc, and that’s how it came to be in the ruins.
My suspicion was that the second minority view is the correct one. And indeed, my further investigations corroborate this. Archaeologists working on the site confirmed that they do not interpret the above evidence in terms of the Theran eruption affecting Tell Hebua. The ash that was reported back in 2007 probably has a human origin, perhaps coming from a military defeat, and the pumice was almost certainly collected from the everyday flotsam and jetsam washed up on the Egyptian seashore. Quite a lot of this kind of pumice has been discovered in Egyptian archaeological sites, and (even worse for the Thera theories) it originates from a variety of volcanoes that erupted in the Bronze Age, not just Thera. All this means that it’s looking unlikely that there’s any substance behind the 2007 headlines which claim that Thera destroyed Egyptian cities. We are back to reading the Exodus narrative in the old tried-and-trusted ways of historical-critical analysis.
What interested me finally was to learn that the reason I was being challenged about all this was because it was assumed that my scepticism of the Thera theories stems from a faith-based agenda, i.e. that I want to maintain a supernatural explanation for the events of the Exodus against a naturalistic explanation. In other words, it was assumed that I’m sceptical of ‘science’ (in the form of the Thera theories) because I have a ‘religious’ agenda. Now I openly admit that I have a religious agenda: I am a scientist who is also a biblical scholar who is also a Christian. I cannot easily disentangle those identities.
– That religious agenda is part of what makes me all the more concerned (as a scientist) to uphold science as science, with its concern for evidence foremost, and its reluctance to build speculation upon speculation. The Thera theories clearly fall into the latter category, and to my mind do not constitute science. The eruption of Thera, on the other hand, is one of the most demonstrable scientific facts of the ancient world. What we don’t know (because there’s almost no evidence) is the effect it had on human civilisations at the time.
– That religious agenda is also part of what makes me all the more concerned (as a biblical scholar), to be cautious about claims to know ‘what really happened’ in the Exodus. I do not believe we possess those kinds of texts or that kind of evidence.
– That religious agenda is also part of what makes me all the more concerned (as a Christian) to avoid selectively literal readings of the Bible (e.g. the Thera theories). The Thera theories are not only bad science, they are bad theology.