Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Literary analysis as an alternative to archaeological findings

I am presently enjoying a series of 48 lectures about ancient Egypt by Professor Bob Brier. I really enjoy his presentations and found his approach to biblical archaeology, and to the authenticity of the Joseph story, interesting. He points out that there has been no archaeological evidence (so far) of the presence of the early Israelites in Egypt. However, he said that if you have no physical evidence, you can at least conduct a literary analysis to see if the story "holds water".

He pointed out several key aspects of the Joseph story that indicates to him that whoever wrote the story at least had a very good knowledge of Egypt. For example, he mentioned that in the Coptic version of the story (he had previously explained that Coptic is the ancient Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet), the word for "magicians" that Pharaoh consulted to interpret his dreams would be translated as "dwellers in the house of life". He said in ancient Egypt, a temple was called the house of life so this passage is really referring to the priests. In actual fact, ancient Egyptian priests kept texts used for dream interpretation in the "house of life". People desiring to have a dream interpreted would go to a priest in the house of life where the priest would consult the texts for the proper interpretation. So, this part of the story is accurate to the time period and culture.

Another example he pointed out was the name of the Egyptian man who purchased Joseph. He said Potiphar was an accurate example of an Egyptian name. The third example he mentioned was the pharaoh awarding a gold ring to Joseph to symbolize his authority. He said that in ancient Egypt, a highly placed official was usually given a gold signet ring by the pharaoh as a token of the new official's authority so even that small detail was accurate. He also mentioned that, even though there was no archaeological evidence of the presence of ancient Israelites, there was an inscription that recorded a famine that lasted for seven years. So, although this type of analysis cannot verify the actual existence of an Israelite named Joseph, the story was obviously related to or recorded by someone with extensive knowledge of Egyptian culture from that period.