Back in 2015, news surfaced that (then) presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson had, in a 1998 Andrews University graduation ceremony, stated that the great pyramid was built under the supervision of Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who had risen to power in Egypt as pharaoh’s chief administrator (Genesis 41). Needless to say, the news caused quite a stir.
Biblical scholars of many theological persuasions were quick to ridicule the idea. As one such scholar, James Tabor, noted:
What the mainstream “progressive secularist” media, as Carson labels it, does not realize is that such ideas are quite common among mainstream Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian circles—connected to theories about how biblical archaeology confirms the Bible’s historical reliability. Dr. Carson’s assertion at the 1998 Andrews University graduation ceremony speaks for itself and is totally within the parameters of the commonly held views of history, archaeology, and biblical “literalism.” (Tabor, 2015)
Did the Israelites Build the Pyramids? The Source of the Claim
Carson’s view is related to a more common idea—that the major monuments known from ancient Egypt were built by Israelites during the period of Israelite bondage in that country. The Bible is quite clear that the descendants of Jacob—his twelve sons and their families—spent centuries in Egypt, a major portion of which included involuntary servitude. God had foretold this circumstance to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, before Jacob was even born:
Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” (Gen 15:13)
Initially, Jacob and his sons and their families were welcomed in Egypt by pharaoh (Gen 45:16-20; 47:7-12) due to his respect and affection for Joseph, a son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery years earlier by his contemptible brothers (Genesis 37). Circumstances changed, though, after the death of both Joseph and pharaoh:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore, they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel (Exodus 1:8-12).
Despite the clarity of this reversal of fortune, the Bible nowhere claims that Israelites built any pyramid or temple in ancient Egypt. The biblical text only says that the Israelites “built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses” (Exod 1:11). The Bible in fact never actually mentions a pyramid.
But perhaps the Bible doesn’t give us all the necessary data. Is it possible that the Israelites did indeed build the great pyramid? Does a literal reading of the Bible make such a proposition plausible?
Did the Israelites Build the Pyramids? An Evaluation
The short answer to the questions above is no—there is no evidence in the Bible that the Israelites built the pyramids. In fact, a straightforward reading of the Bible renders the idea impossible.
Demonstrating how the Bible itself refutes the belief that the Israelites built the pyramids isn’t difficult. First, we need to establish the Bible’s own chronology. Following that, we need only to synchronize the Bible’s chronology with that of ancient Egypt. The chronology can be reconstructed as follows, taking all the biblical numbers literally (at face value) for the sake of analysis. We’ll group the Bible’s chronological information in several periods then “do the math” that results:
From Abraham to the end of Joseph’s life
Consequently, from the time Abraham left Haran to the end of Jacob’s life (and the height of Joseph’s influence), 307 years elapsed. Adding 75 to this number to move backward to Abraham’s birth, we get 382 years from the birth of Abraham to the death of Jacob (and toward the end of Joseph’s time in Egypt).
From Joseph to the Exodus under Moses
We are told in Exodus 12:40 that the Israelite sojourn in Egypt lasted 430 years. Since God had said in Gen. 15:13 that Israel would be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, not 430, the difference is taken by many scholars to indicate that the bondage in Egypt began thirty years after Jacob arrived in Egypt. Given the previous information, if this suggestion (about the 430) by scholars is correct, Joseph lived thirteen years more in Egypt after Jacob died.
The last forty years of the 430-year period noted in Exodus 12:40 would have been the time Moses lived in Egypt, since Acts 7:23 puts him at the age of forty when he ran afoul of Pharaoh and had to flee Egypt. Exodus 7:7 and Acts 7:30 establish the fact that forty years after Moses had fled Egypt he returned, having been commissioned by God to demand that Pharaoh give the Israelites their freedom. After leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses lived another forty years—the period of the wilderness wandering—and died at the age of 120 (Deut. 29:5; 31:2; 34:7).
So, we can now summarize three important observations of biblical time
Relating this Information to Real Time and Ancient Egyptian Chronology
The key Bible passage in linking the biblical data to “real BC time” and ancient Egyptian chronology is 1 Kings 6:1. It tells us that the fourth year of Solomon’s reign was the 480th anniversary of the exodus from Egypt (the end of the bondage). Solomon’s reign can be reliably dated via Assyrian astronomy and chronology, as Assyrian history overlapped with the history of Israel following Solomon’s death. Solomon ascended to the throne in 970 BC, making his fourth year 966 BC and the 480th anniversary of the Exodus 1446 BC by a literal reckoning of the Bible’s own chronology (966 480, but moving backward in time).
Now we can add some of the numbers associated with the Israelite bondage to complete the chronological picture. Adding (moving backward in time) the 400 years of Egypt’s enslavement (Gen 15:13) to 1446 BC gives us a date of 1846 BC for Joseph’s death. Since Joseph lived 110 years (Gen. 50:22), his lifespan would work out to 1956–1846 BC.
That’s the deathblow to the idea that the Israelites built the pyramids.
Why? According to Egyptian records (king lists and their associated chronology), the pyramids in Egypt were built during the Old Kingdom (when Khufu—namesake of the Great Pyramid—reigned as pharaoh). The Egyptian Old Kingdom dates from 2649–2150 BC; Khufu’s reign was ca. 2589–2566 BC. That means the pyramids were standing centuries before Joseph was ever born. According to the biblical numbers above, they were standing well before Abraham was born.
How do we know Egyptian chronology with certainty? The short answer is astronomical correlations with celestial observations in Egyptian texts with the reigns of pharaohs in ancient Egyptian king lists.
Did the Israelites Build the Pyramids? Conclusion
It is important to note that the biblical and Egyptian chronologies have synchronisms that make the correlation of the two histories possible. The most famous is the identification of the Egyptian king Shishak, whose life overlapped with Solomon (1 Kings 11:40; 14:25), with the pharaoh Sheshonq (943–922 BC). Some scholars dispute this correlation, but rejecting this correlation makes the case for Joseph being in the pyramid age worse, not better.
The bottom line is that, if one accepts the biblical record at face value, what Dr. Carson believes about the pyramids is impossible—according to the Bible’s own numbers. So biblical literalism contra Dr. Tabor, will not produce what Carson believes. It will result in its rejection.
James Tabor, “Did Joseph Build the Great Pyramid at Giza?” Huffington Post blog, Nov 11, 2015
Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology: Principles of Time Reckoning in the Ancient World and Problems of Chronology in the Bible (revised edition; Peabody, MA, 1998)
Andrew Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology (Concordia Publishing House, 2011)
Rodger C. Young and Andrew Steinmann, “Correlation of Select Classical Sources Related to the Trojan War with Assyrian and Biblical Chronologies,” Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament 1.2 (2012): 223-248
Edwin Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Kregel Academic, 1983)
Kenneth A. Kitchen, "How We Know When Solomon Ruled," Biblical Archaeology Review 27.5 (2001)
Kenneth A. Kitchen, “Egypt, History of: Chronology,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Edited by David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992)
Erik Hornung, Rolf Krauss, and David Warburton, eds. Ancient Egyptian Chronology (Leiden: Brill, 2006)