The Passover narrative is one of the greatest stories ever told. More than any other biblical account, the escape of the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt is the foundational story of the Jewish faith and identity, one that all Jews are commanded to pass on from generation to generation.
Also, it never happened.
For decades now, most researchers have agreed that there is no evidence to suggest that the Exodus narrative reflects a specific historical event. Rather, it is an origin myth for the Jewish people that has been constructed, redacted, written and rewritten over centuries to include multiple layers of traditions, experiences and memories from a host of different sources and periods.
Peeling back those layers and attempting to interpret them with the help of archaeology and biblical scholarship can reveal a lot about the actual history of the early Israelites, probably more than a literal reading of the Passover story.
“It’s not a historical event, but it’s also not totally invented by someone sitting behind a desk,” explains Thomas Romer, a renowned expert in the Hebrew Bible and professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. “These are different traditions that are brought together to construct a foundation myth, which can be, in a way, related to some historical events,” he says.
Before digging for these kernels of historical truth, you might be wondering whence the assertion that the story of a large group of Hebrew slaves fleeing Egypt for the Promised Land is a myth.
There are multiple points where the Passover story doesn’t square with archaeological findings, but the broader issue is that the Bible simply gets the chronology and the geopolitics of the Levant wrong.
Egypt was here
Scholars have long been arguing about the date of the Exodus, but for the biblical chronology to hold any water, Moses must have led the Israelites out of Egypt sometime in the Late Bronze Age, between the 15th and 13th century B.C.E. – depending on whom you ask.