The movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, is one of the latest biblically inspired films to hit movie theaters. Directed by Ridley Scott, it tells the account of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt as depicted in the Book of Exodus. Egypt and Morocco have both banned the film citing "historical inaccuracies" and one fellow MoviePilot contributor has even put forward the hypothesis that the ban is a marketing scheme but what is the truth? Is there really something behind Egypt's and Morocco's indignation and should we be concerned?
One of the issues of concern is that of censorship. While nothing good can be said of censorship, we should not use this as a reason to think Egypt's or Morocco's opinionsare wrong. It helps to understand the history of ancient Egypt to better understand their actions.
A History of Egypt, the Jews and the Bible
The story of the Exodus is a popular one and one, if you are Christian, you have heard countless times in Sunday School. We have heard it so often and so frequently that we believe this story to be nothing but the unvarnished truth. But do we have any basis for believing this?
Not all of Christianity believes that the Bible is a historical account but in this debate there are going to be two main groups. The first is the Christian view of the Bible as a historical document. Everything written in both the Old and the New Testament is an exact historical account of what happened in the past. The second group is going to be the scientific community made up of historians and archaeologists who will say that is not the case. In this case, there is no evidence of Jews living in ancient Egypt. This is more than a matter of opinion that both sides must respect as these two polar opposite views can not both be correct. To find the truth we much go where the evidence takes us irrespective of our personal beliefs.
One question we must ask is, "Were there ever Jews living in Egypt?" and the answer to that is yes. The earliest accounts of Jews living in Egypt comes from the Elephantine Papyri, a collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts dating around 650BCE. The community of the time was founded as a military installation to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign; Jewish soldiers were allies and fought alongside Egyptian soldiers.
This is not the only historical account that backs this up. We also have the Letter of Aristeas, a second century BCE Greek manuscript that tells this account as being the earliest migration of Jews into Egypt. Based on these two accounts, we know when Jews first migrated to Egypt. Now we must ask ourselves when the Pyramids were built and whether the Jewish people could have built them, either willingly or unwillingly.
Building the Pyramids
The age of the Pyramids are well established. We know that most of the Pyramids were built over a 900-year period from about 2650 BCE to 1750 BCE. This means that the Pyramids were completed over a millennia before the Jewish people ever set foot in Egypt. If Jews didn't build the Pyramids, who did? It was the Egyptians.
Despite what the History Channel might tell you, the process and the work-force needed to build the Pyramids is well understood by archaeologists and historians. It was not due to ancient alien levitation technology and it certainly was not due to Hebrew slaves. Both ideas are equally preposterous.
Best estimates is that it took a labor-force of between 20,000-30,000 men working over 30 years to complete the Great Pyramid of Giza. The question is, "Were these men slaves?" and it turns out they were not. In 1990, a tourist on horseback discovered some mud-brick walls that would later prove to be significant. Archaeologists would soon discover that these walls were part of a chamber that held the buried remains of the pyramid builders. These tombs were built beside the Pharaoh's pyramids and while slavery did exist in Egypt at time, where these people were buried indicated that they were anything but slaves; slaves they would not have been allowed to be buried beside their king.
It is believed that a skeleton crew worked year-round but during the late-summer to early-autumn when the Nile flooded, a huge labor force became available as farmers could not work on their lands. Though they worked under extremely hard conditions, the pyramid builders were well-treated and well-paid. All workers were afforded good housing at the base of the pyramid, were given medical care and given weekly meat rations meaning they ate extremely well for the time. These builders, rather than being slaves, were also skilled craftsmen who believed that working on this monumental national project would also help gain favor in the after life. So far everything we know shows that slaves did not build the Pyramids.
The Myth of Exodus and the Bible
So if slaves did not build the Pyramids and Jews did not appear on the scene for centuries after the Pyramids were completed, how did the slavery story originate? For this we look to Herodotus, a 5th century BCE Greek historian, who was known for documenting his work and research and for this he is known as the "Father of History." Herodotus visited Egypt around 450 BCE and was told that some 100,000 men were forced as slaves to build the Great Pyramids.
It would seem that either Herodotus was either misinformed or he seriously embellished what he heard; it could be both. Almost no historian or scholar today of worth puts any stock into the writing or accounts of the time as it is widely known that historians of the time focused more on the story telling aspect of their field than preserving historical accounts.
So if Jewish people weren't in Egypt at the time the Pyramids were being built and the Pyramids were not built by slaves, could there be some truth to this mass migration? We expect myth and legend to contain some truth, after all. Maybe this even happened in some form but at a much later period of time. Again, the archaeological and scientific evidence is lacking and by all accounts, it never happened.
The Value of Truth and Historical Accuracy over Myth
We can see why Egypt is offended enough to ban the movie but does that mean this is the right course of action. Whatever their reasons, it's not to make the movie more popular or to generate an artificial controversy to make a movie more popular. I know many of you are thinking, "Well, even if the movie is based on a lie but it's up to people to decide whether to believe or not. Plus, this is people's religious beliefs which they are entitled to."
That may be true. There are many Christians who will defend this story and will probably be offended by this article. Some may even say that the movie should be shown for reasons of freedom of speech or religion. But consider this. A pseudo-history of ancient Egypt is not only disrespectful to present-day Egyptians but to present-day Jews. In fact, the portrayal of a Biblical story as fact and not myth is a disrespect to humanity as a whole!
Understanding history is essential to understanding both ourselves and others as a species. Though the Exodus story may be important to many people, that story is not only based on a lie but it steals credit from the early Egyptians of what is arguably one of humanity's greatest architectural achievements. But it goes much further. This story also portrays the Jewish people historically as a helpless and downtrodden people when they were anything but. They were allies of the Pharaoh and respected members of the community. Perpetuating this story as anything but a myth disrespects us all.
Of course, the issue of censorship is a complex one and saying that we should let people decide is far easier said than done. What if a movie studio had made a movie saying the Holocaust never happened and it was just a myth, should we be open and tolerant or should we demand historical accuracy?
Even if we can not get a historically accurate film, shouldn't we be allowed to at least say the film is based on a lie or is untrue? If so, then how is the story of Exodus any different? Despite one's religious convictions, religion should never be used as a "get out of jail" card to spread ideas that are wrong. So, while censorship may not be the answer, those affected should have the right to address everyone's misconceptions and tell the truth.
As much as I hate the idea of government censorship, it must be left to the people to decide. Unfortunately, not many are open to the reasons why Egypt might justifiably be indignant. We are seldom concerned when historical untruths applies to others. We are only concerned when it applies to us.