There are three different Pharaohs noted in the book of Exodus: that of 1:8, that of 2:15, and that of 5:1 et al. None of these Pharaohs is named, making their identification disputed. Some suggest that Moses intentionally decided not to name Pharaohs in order to snub these mighty kings who claimed to be gods on earth—although “Pharaoh” almost seems to function as a proper name in the Pentateuchal narratives.

Identifying the Pharaoh of the exodus necessitates following four paths of investigation, and seeing where all the data points line up. These paths of evidence include: (1) the date of the exodus according to the Bible; (2) the historical circumstances of the exodus according to the Bible; (3) the dates of reigning Pharaohs according to the chronology of ancient Egypt; and (4) the historical circumstances of ancient Egypt. Other evidence could also be added, such as for the date of the conquest of Canaan, but this additional evidence will be related to the four points just noted. To find the correct date, one must prioritize the biblical evidence, and allow this to inform one’s understanding of Egyptian history and chronology. Unfortunately, the most common evangelical identifications of the Pharaoh of the exodus make fundamental errors in their methodology, and ultimately place greater confidence in the claims of secular archaeologists than in the claims of Scripture.

The first common error is to suggest the Bible does not give a clear or reliable date for the exodus. A date and a Pharaoh of the exodus is then proposed by forming theories based on certain historical indicators in the biblical text in combination with the narrative of ancient Near Eastern history that is propounded by archaeologists who have an anti-biblical worldview and agenda. Scholars who commit this error hold that the exodus occurred sometime in the thirteenth century BC (ca. 1275 BC), within the conventional dates for the reign of Ramesses II (1290–1224 BC). This is based in part on the mention of the word “Rameses” (with two different spellings) twice in Exodus, which is likely associated with a city where Ramesses II conducted extensive construction work.[1] Perhaps just as important to these scholars are theories about the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan, and archaeological dates of occupational levels at sites in Canaan/Israel. However, these theories must dismiss in some way the clear statement in 1 Kings 6:1 that there were 480 years between the exodus and the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign (cf. Judg 11:26). There is wide agreement among scholars that biblical and extrabiblical data can be combined to yield a date of 966 or 965 BC for the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. Counting backwards 480 years from this date places the exodus in 1446 or 1445 BC, and the thirteenth century BC date can be dismissed as incompatible with Scripture. It is important to note that scholars of this persuasion typically only accept certain historical indicators in the Bible—in this instance, the name “Rameses/Raamses,” while dismissing as “metaphorical” or inaccurate the many other indicators that don’t fit the theory. In essence, the identification of Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the exodus is rooted in a low view of scriptural authority.[2]

Many evangelical scholars accept the 1446/1445 BC date for the exodus, but commit a second error which again results in a misidentification of the Pharaoh of the exodus. This is the error of accepting the secular (conventional) chronology of ancient Egypt, which either ignores or intentionally contradicts biblical chronological data and is instead based on an assumed evolutionary history of man. Simply matching a Pharaoh from this timeline with the biblical calendar date for the exodus results in the identification of Thutmose III (reigned ca. 1479–1426 BC in the conventional chronology) as the Pharaoh of the exodus. The problem is, the historical circumstances of Thutmose III’s reign in no way fit the biblical data for what happened at the time of the exodus. There is no evidence for a large population of Semitic slaves in Egypt at that time, nor is there any evidence for a collapse of Egyptian civilization due to the plagues and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea (cf. Deut 11:4). In fact, if Thutmose III was the Pharaoh of the exodus, he and his army survived the Red Sea event quite nicely, for Thutmose III undertook vast campaigns of conquest and is considered by many scholars to have been the most powerful of all the Pharaohs (along with his powerful son and successor, Amenhotep II). Because of this incompatibility between the history of Thutmose III and the biblical history of the exodus, it is clear that the view that Thutmose III was the Pharaoh of the exodus, like the view that Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the exodus, is another capitulation to the authority of secular archaeology over Scripture.

Although proponents of the Thutmose III view often claim faithful adherence to the biblical chronology, this is only the case for the statement in 1 Kings 6:1. These scholars actually argue strenuously against the chronology from the Deluge to Abraham that is presented in Genesis 11. Either major problems with the Hebrew text of that chapter are hypothesized, or else the historicity of its genealogy is dismissed altogether. This is because if Genesis 11 is accepted as literal, accurate history, adding up the numbers results in 2417 BC as the date when the Deluge ended, and approximately 2317 BC for the dispersion of the nations from Babylon (Babel), which means there was less than 900 years of history from the beginning of Egyptian civilization until the exodus from Egypt in 1446 BC. However, the common date given for the first king of the first dynasty of united Egypt is 3100 BC, with rulers of upper and lower Egypt preceding him as part of a prehistory which spans more than 2,000 years. Most Bible scholars assume that it is impossible to compress the events and rulers in the conventional chronology of Egypt into the far shorter biblical chronology, and as a result they assume that the genealogy of Genesis 11 is wrong in some way. Ultimately, they have more confidence in the claims of secular archaeologists than in the reliability of Scripture. Their firm belief in the accuracy of the conventional chronology of ancient Egypt is the reason why they stand by the identification of Thutmose III as the Pharaoh of the exodus in spite of the way in which the history of Egypt during his reign does not seem to allow for the events described in the book of Exodus. This view also runs into problems with finding archaeological evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan under Joshua, since archaeological sites in Canaan/Israel are dated in early periods by connecting them with contemporaneous periods of Egyptian history (Middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, etc.).

Thus, in order to identify the Pharaoh of the exodus correctly, it is necessary to calculate the date of the exodus from the Bible (contra the Ramesses II theory), but this is not enough. It is also necessary to calculate Egyptian chronology according to the biblical timescale, and in accordance with biblical history (contra the Thutmose III theory). Specifically, it is necessary to look for evidence of a period in ancient Egypt that matches the biblical description of a large population of Semitic slaves living in the land of Goshen, followed by cataclysmic plagues and the abrupt departure of the Semitic population, followed by a collapse of Egyptian power. If this period is correctly identified, then the date of this period of Egyptian history can be established according to the biblical chronology, and earlier and subsequent Egyptian history can be filled in naturally according to the biblical timescale. The Pharaoh of the exodus will be one who is not succeeded by his firstborn son, and whose death marks a sudden collapse of Egyptian civilization.

The reality is that while dates in Egyptian chronology may be presented very dogmatically by modern scholars, the extrabiblical evidence for these dates is not at all clear-cut, and has been interpreted in many different ways. The proper way to construct a chronology of ancient Egypt is to use the Bible as one’s starting point, rather than Darwinian evolution. Guided by the Bible, scholars can place the rulers and events of Egyptian history into a chronological framework that fits both the biblical data and the extrabiblical archaeological and literary evidence. In fact, an agnostic scholar who views the Bible as largely historical, David Rohl, has done extensive work on a “new chronology” which shows that the most natural way to interpret the archaeology of ancient Egypt is in a way that fits biblical chronology and history. Rohl and others have shown that the picture of consecutive Egyptian dynasties that is often presented is much too oversimplified. Dynasties often overlapped; at times Egypt was divided into multiple parts, with four or even up to twelve kings reigning at the same time. There are also issues with interpreting Egyptian astronomical records in view of Egyptian calendar reforms. The result is a far shorter Egyptian chronology—one which comports with the biblical timescale. Further, since ancient Greek, Cypriot, Hittite, and Canaanite dates are dependent on Egyptian chronology, a compression of the conventional Egyptian chronology also results in a downward revision of the other chronologies. Rohl identifies the Pharaoh of the exodus with Dudimose, who reigned near the end of the 13th dynasty. In support of this, Rohl cites Manetho (quoted by Josephus), who calls the Pharaoh of the exodus “Tutimaeus” (= Dudimose?). In Rohl’s reconstruction, the 13th dynasty ended with the invasion of the Hyksos, whom he identifies with the biblical Amalekites (cf. Num 24:20). Rohl identifies the pre-Hyksos Asiatics who lived at Avaris in the land of Goshen as the Israelites. Rohl’s theory has much to commend itself, although he advocates the “short” Egyptian sojourn (215 years), in contradiction of Exodus 12:40-41.

As for Ramesses II, Rohl identifies him with the biblical “Shishak” who was king of Egypt near the end of Solomon’s reign (1 Kgs 11:40), and who successfully invaded Judah in the fifth year of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:25; 2 Chr 12:2-9). According to Rohl’s chronology, the reign of Ramesses II began around 979 BC, late in the period of David’s reign. Based on a Hittite cuneiform tablet which records a treaty made with Ramesses II, Rohl suggests that Ramesses II was known as “Shysha” in the ancient Near East, which becomes “Shishak” in the Bible. According to Rohl, a relief at Karnak temple depicts a battle which Ramesses II fought with Israelites/Judeans, in which the Israelites are depicted in chariots. Since the Israelites did not acquire chariots until the reign of David or Solomon, Rohl argues that this battle cannot predate the united monarchy period.

Building largely on the work of David Rohl and John Bimson, evangelical filmmaker Tim Mahoney has done an excellent job of presenting the archaeological evidence for the Israelites in Egypt in the documentary film Patterns of Evidence: Exodus. In this film, Mahony embarks on a personal search for archaeological evidence of Israel’s exodus from Egypt in response to challenges from archaeologists who deny that the exodus event ever happened. Mahoney finds that there is abundant archaeological evidence for the biblical account of the Israelites journeying to Egypt, becoming a great nation there, being enslaved, leaving in a dramatic exodus, and conquering Canaan some 40-45 years later. However, this evidence is not recognized by scholars who are committed to interpreting archaeological data within the conventional chronological framework, since the evidence is not from the right time period. Mahoney shows that it is entirely reasonable to compress the conventional chronology, resulting in the evidence for the Israelites living in Egypt lining up with the biblical chronology.

While there is still considerable work to be done to bring the conventional Egyptian chronology and history fully into conformity with biblical chronology and history, believers can rest assured that when the evidence is correctly understood, the Bible stands as written and does not need to be allegorized or modified to fit with archaeology. The common identifications of the Pharaoh of the exodus with Ramesses II or Thutmose III are not possible from a biblical standpoint, and also do not ultimately fit the archaeological data. It does seem that the Hyksos are the biblical Amalekites, and that they invaded the largely-defenseless Egypt and ruled the Egyptians for 400 years (until the time of Saul) in an act of divine judgment following the departure of the Israelites. As for Rohl’s identification of the last major pre-Hyksos Pharaoh as Dudimose, this seems less certain, and provides a subject for further investigation by Bible-believing Egyptologists.

[1] There are actually five references to Rameses/Raamses in the Pentateuch: “the land of Rameses” (Gen 47:11), the store-city of “Raamses” (different spelling – Exod 1:11), and the site of “Rameses” (Exod 12:37; Num 33:3, 5). Some scholars point to this as evidence that the Pentateuch was written during or after the reign of Ramesses II (a.k.a. “Ramses,” “Rameses”). However, such a supposition is unnecessary, as there are numerous other instances throughout the Pentateuch of original place names being substituted for later names by a later inspired “updater” (possibly Ezra—see the Introduction to the Pentateuch). These updates were made so that later readers could understand the referents of the original place names. While various explanations have been offered, most likely the references to “Rameses” or “Raamses” in the Pentateuch are to the great city of Pi-Ramesses, which was located next to and encompassed Tell el-Dab‘a (Avaris), the center of Israelite civilization in the land of Goshen. Pi-Ramesses was one of the largest cities in the ancient Near East, and therefore is most likely the site named in the biblical text. Since Pi-Ramesses (Pi = “house [of]”) was built or greatly expanded by Ramesses II and his father Seti I, the references to a land of Ramesses or a city of Ramesses in the biblical text can be considered an inspired update to the original text of the Pentateuch, which likely read “Avaris.”

[2] Evangelical scholars who identify Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the exodus also typically follow many other naturalistic explanations of Old Testament history, such as for the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the appearance of God on Mount Sinai, and the crossing of the Jordan River. Dates, census figures, and historical details are routinely explained away as some sort of metaphor or literary device. Although such scholars claim to believe the Bible, their real confidence usually rests in naturalistic theories of science and archaeology.