Thera, Egypt, and the Exodus

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”.

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Exodus conference lectures on YouTube

I mentioned a few posts ago that I’d been invited to a superb conference on the Exodus at the University of California San Diego (Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination; 31 May – 1 June, 2013). The full talks and lectures are available on YouTube, here –

And my talk (on the legendary volcano Thera and its possible contribution to the Exodus) is this one –

Exodus again

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been invited to take part in a conference on the Exodus and its relation with ancient Egypt, entitled Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination, and held at the University of California San Diego. Well I’ve just returned, and am still reflecting on a lot of what was said. It was an excellent opportunity to take stock corporately on a very active field of research which is still split by fundamental disagreements. Partly, the disagreements arose because of the wide range of disciplines represented, each with very different aims and objectives (Egyptologists, archaeologists, biblical scholars, and earth scientists. I fell into the latter category, but was also slightly unusual in being a theologian). This was a major strength though, and I wonder if there has ever been a gathering of such breadth to consider the many questions involved in this pre-eminent story in Jewish and Christian religious history.

The main question, which came up again and again, was – did it really happen? And if so, how? While there were many who wanted to affirm the Exodus as an historical event to some degree (even if it only meant the minimal affirmation of acknowledging a handful of slaves escaping over the Sinai), there were many who felt that even this was going way beyond what it is possible to claim from the text. The latter felt it more appropriate to speak of the Exodus as a mythic tradition in the consciousness of Israel as a young nation.

I spoke in the ‘Science’ session, where various earth scientists presented their ideas on the possibility that the events described in the book of Exodus (especially the sea crossing) were influenced or caused by geological phenomena such as volcanoes and tsunamis. I spoke about the legendary Bronze Age volcano Thera, and the many explanations that have been constructed from it for the Exodus, the destruction of Atlantis, and many other cataclysms of the ancient world. As one of the few theologians present, I was less interested in trying to say ‘what really happened’ than in drawing out the sub texts of some of the protagonists, and trying to point out that the way we approach the historicity of the Exodus is driven by methodological and theological presuppositions.

The many lectures will be available on the internet, and the proceedings will be published online before long, and I will post details when they become available.

It was an excellent conference, and thanks are due to Tom Levy, Brad Sparks, and everyone else involved in organising and supporting it.