Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Rethinking the Exodus

I saw this film and met the film-maker a few months ago.  I was very impressed by it and wholeheartedly recommend seeing it.  Here are my thoughts on it which I recently posted on HuffPo:

In his classic "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," physicist, historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn introduced the world to the term "paradigm shift." He posited that rather than developing in a linear, step by step fashion, science tends to undergo periodic revolutions that wholly reshape how we understand the earlier research.

He divided the revolution pattern into five distinct phases:

1. The pre-paradigm phase, in which there is no consensus on any particular theory.
2. Normal Science, in which puzzles are solved within the context of the dominant paradigm.
3. The Crisis Phase, when after significant efforts of normal science within a paradigm fail.
4. Scientific revolution, the phase in which the underlying assumptions of the field are reexamined and a new paradigm is established.
5. Post-Revolution, the new paradigm's dominance is established and so scientists return to normal science, solving puzzles within the new paradigm.

Kuhn cited Atomism in Chemistry and the Copernican Revolution as classic examples of his theory. Today we can easily add cosmology, biology, neurology, food science and others to the list.
For scientists like Kuhn (and chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi) the scientific endeavor is inherently fraught with subjectivity and as such is a relativized discipline. People, no matter how intelligent, are biased and scientists, being people themselves, are no less subject to this phenomenon than anyone else. At its heart then, the inherent resistance to the cognitive dissonance caused by competing scientific models is much more of an emotional matter than a scientific one - it involves a willingness to accept and make peace with a reality that is unlike what was believed or hoped for. In this regard, Dr. Kuhn's five stages are akin to Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Mourning - a gradual process of letting go.

It's in that light that we should view the scientific evidence of the Biblical Exodus. The world of Archaeology has long held that the arc of Near Eastern history has been meticulously mapped and that no concrete evidence has ever emerged to suggest that there had been an actual mass migration out of Egypt. Until now - perhaps.

Filmmaker Tim Mahoney has spent the last twelve years exploring the state of our collective understanding of the evidence (or lack thereof) of the Biblical Exodus. He has traveled the globe and spoken to the world's leading experts on the topic. As a religious Christian it was a personal matter for him and one who's twists and turns caused him no small amount of doubt, fear and confusion. "Patterns of Evidence" is a feature length documentary that he has written and directed - and it details the conclusion that he drew at the end of his journey.

Like other scientific revolutions, the earlier paradigm is based on a certain set of assumptions - which if accurate will tell the true historical story. But if they are not, they can easily prevent the true story from ever coming to light.

As Mahoney recently explained:

"Mainstream archaeologists would say that if the Exodus ever happened, it happened at the time of Rameses, because of the biblical text that said the Israelites were building the city of Rameses. Yet when people understood Rameses lived around 1250 B.C., they didn't find evidence for this type of story in that time period."

"But other archaeologists said to look deeper," he continued. "Beneath the city of Rameses, was another city, much older, called Avaris. And that city was filled with Semitic people. It started very small, just as the Bible says, and over time it grew into one of the largest cities of that time. And that is where we find, I think, the early Israelites. That's the pattern that matches the story of the Bible. It's not at the time of Rameses, but it's at the location of Rameses."

Clearly that would be a significant detail.

Another fascinating line of thinking that he follows concerns the discovery of a royal tomb of an unknown figure who was of Semitic stock and of an area of housing that bears a striking resemblance to those in the area that the Hebrews were said to originate. Could this be evidence of Egypt's Goshen neighborhood that the Book of Genesis says the Hebrews settled in? Is it possible that the unusual tomb is that of the Biblical Joseph?

Mahoney again explains:

"The story of Joseph tells of how he was sold as a slave and came into Egypt and then he rose to become this leader, second in command in Egypt. Well, in Avaris, the archaeology shows a small group of Semitic-type people came in, and then there's this house that matches the area where they would have come from. On top of that house a palace was built. They had tombs behind this palace. And this palace had a statue, and it was the tomb of a Semitic leader."

"The interesting thing is this statue found in the remainder of this tomb, a pyramid tomb - which was only given to royalty types - why did a Semitic character have this? What some people are saying is that this matches the story, maybe that prestige that Joseph would have received."
He also points out that the tomb contains no bones - a detail that accords with the Biblical account but would be unlikely otherwise as thieves generally have no interest in the bones but only in whatever spoils the tomb might contain.

Patterns of Evidence is an engaging, visually pleasing and fascinating piece of film-making whatever one believes. It's meticulously presented and researched and gives a remarkable amount of air time to the detractors and as such cannot be accused of polemics or propagandizing.

Scientific revolutions take time. I sense that this may be the opening salvo in a brand new one.

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