A Test of Time – David Rohl

“The Bible – From Myth to History”

A few years ago I took a year-long course with my church for training in leadership and ministry. One of the many benefits was having the chance to learn from those who have been at it a long time, especially Roger Forster; in turn what he brought very often was the wealth and extent of the books he has read over the many years informing us about all kinds of areas of Christianity and the Bible.

One of the books he mentioned to us was A Test of Time by David Rohl. Published in 1995, one of its principle aims was to put forward a case for a ‘New Chronology’ in Egyptology to account for some anomalies and thereby to discover a case for real evidence for the historicity of the Bible going back as far as the Genesis accounts of Joseph.

It was this latter consequence which was obviously of special interest to Roger and to me also when I found the book in a local Oxfam bookshop! As the book makes clear, the conventional chronology used by archaeologists turned up little in the way of evidence for the Israelites prior to Solomon. But with an inaccurate dating system, Rohl argues, archaeologists could have been looking in the correct places for evidence, but at the wrong time. There is something like 300 years missing in the conventional chronology which puts the Israelite history a little further back than originally proposed, and which consequently turns up evidence at the right times in the right places.

If this doesn’t quite make sense yet, try to imagine an archaeological dig of a site. The layers represent years as often things get built on top, dust sweeps over and things stratify. If you expect to find Israelite evidence at layer C (for argument’s sake) and don’t find any you might conclude that the history is bunkum. But if your chronology is incorrect the evidence might be lying a little deeper at layer D.

This is it in a nutshell, described extremely roughly where Rohl can provide archaeological terminology, context and concrete dating schemes for everything. Though I was unfamiliar with the issues, yet with a little persistence I found I was able to understand the flow of his argument for the New Chronology and even enjoy the adventure of it. Not for nothing did the Sunday Times Magazine once call him the ‘real Indiana Jones’.

Having established the proposal, he uncovers extensive evidence for Israelite history, largely in reverse order: Solomon, David, then jumping back to Moses before then looking forward at the Exodus and conquest of Canaan, before finally going backwards again to discover Joseph ‘the vizier of Egypt’. The journey is exciting, especially towards the end with the descriptions of a gigantic ‘department of administration’ built by Joseph in preparation for the years of famine in Egypt as described in Genesis. It’s a little tough going at various points if you’re not an ancient historian or archaeologist familiar with the issues, but just a little persistence should see you through and it is well worth it. (Having said that, there are extensive Appendices into which I have not yet ventured…perhaps some time I will…)

If you’re at all interested in the historicity of the ancient Biblical accounts, I would highly recommend that you check this book out. It’s worth knowing that the New Chronology Rohl proposed wasn’t exactly received with whoops and cheers, which Rohl put down mainly to academic reticence to being driven out of one’s comfort zone. He has a reputation as a maverick. But the wealth of evidence he amounts in support of his view is clearly something to be contended with.

According to Rohl’s Wikipedia entry (assign to it the level of credibility that you will) the New Chronology was

‘criticized as no longer tenable in early 2010 after the release of a radiocarbon date study for artifacts linked to specific pharaohs’ reigns. However, if correct, the same study would also refute portions of the Old Chronology with findings that would push the dates for several kings earlier. Regardless, proponents of the New Chronology have since noted several problems with the radiocarbon dating itself, including reliance on questionable and unpublished tree-ring data (dendrochronology) for calibration and use of assumptions about the sequence and lengths of Egyptian reigns.’

In fact, one of the aforementioned Appendices is devoted to refuting calibrated C-14 as a dating method, so it appears that Rohl had already preempted the arguments that would be made in this area when he originally published the volume. I am not clear on where the argument has reached in academia, and it appears that Rohl has moved to Spain and picked up his guitar, shortly to retire. However there are other scholars working with the New Chronology, and I hope to keep my ear to the ground to see if anything more develops in this area.

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