Did Jewish Slaves Build the Pyramids?

It's a popular story, but all the documentary and historical evidence tells us that no Jews were in Egypt at the time of the pyramids.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, History & Pseudohistory, Religion

Skeptoid #191
February 2, 2010
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Jews in Egypt
Popular mythology tells us that Jewish slaves built the pyramids under the whips of the Pharaohs
(Photo credit: iStockPhoto.com/ElsvanderGun)

The stories we hear in Sunday school seem to form the basis for the popular belief that Jewish slaves were forced to build the pyramids in Egypt, but they were saved when they left Egypt in a mass Exodus. That's the story I was raised to believe, and it's what's been repeated innumerable times by Hollywood. In 1956, Charlton Heston as Moses went head to head with Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramesses II in The Ten Commandments, having been placed into the Nile in a basket as a baby to escape death by Ramesses' edict that all newborn Hebrew sons be killed. More than 40 years later, DreamWorks told the same story in the animated Prince of Egypt, and the babies died again.

In 1977, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin visited Egypt's National Museum in Cairo and stated "We built the pyramids." Perhaps to the surprise of a lot of people, this sparked outrage throughout the Egyptian people, proud that they had built the pyramids. The belief that Jews built the pyramids may be prominent throughout Christian and Jewish populations, but it's certainly not the way anyone in Egypt remembers things.

Pop culture has a way of blurring pseudohistory and real history, and many people end up never hearing the real history at all; and are left with only the pseudohistory and no reason to doubt it. This is not only unfortunate, it's dangerous. In the words of Primo Levi inscribed front and center inside Berlin's Holocaust Museum, "It happened, therefore it can happen again." 20th century Jewish history is probably the most important, and hardest learned, lesson that humanity has ever had the misfortune to be dealt. Forgetting or distorting history is always wrong, and is never in anyone's best interest.

I've heard some Christians say the Bible is a literal historical document, thus Jewish slaves built the pyramids (the Bible actually doesn't mention pyramids at all, this came from Herodotus. See below. - BD); and I've heard some non-religious historians say there's no evidence that there were ever Jews in ancient Egypt. Both can't be true. To find the truth, we need to take a critical look at the archaeological and historical evidence for the history of Jews in Egypt. In order to do this responsibly, we first have to put aside any ideological motivations that would taint our efforts. We're not going to say such research is sacrilegious because it seeks to disprove the Bible or the Torah; we're not going to say such research is a moral imperative because religious accounts are deceptive; and we're not going to pretend that such research is racially motivated against either Jews or Egyptians. We simply want to know what really happened, because true history is vital.

One of the first things you find out is that it's important to get our definitions right. Terms like Jew and Hebrew are thrown around a lot in these histories, and they're not the same thing. A Jew is someone who practices the Jewish religion. A Hebrew is someone who speaks the Hebrew language. An Israelite is a citizen of Israel. A Semite is a member of an ethnic group characterized by any of the Semitic languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Assyrian, and many smaller groups throughout Africa and the Middle East. You can be some or all of these things. An Israelite need not be a Jew, and a Jew need not be a Hebrew. Confusion over the use of these terms complicates research. Hebrews could be well integrated into a non-Jewish society, but modern reporting might refer to them as Jews, which can be significantly misleading.

Now, there are more than just a single question we're trying to answer here. Were the Jews slaves in ancient Egypt? Were the pyramids built by these slaves? Did the Exodus happen as is commonly believed?

The biggest and most obvious evidence — the pyramids themselves — are an easy starting point. Their age is well established. The bulk of the Giza Necropolis, consisting of such famous landmarks as the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the Sphinx, are among Egypt's oldest large pyramids and were completed around 2540 BCE. Most of Egypt's large pyramids were built over a 900 year period from about 2650 BCE to about 1750 BCE.

We also know quite a lot about the labor force that built the pyramids. The best estimates are that 10,000 men spent 30 years building the Great Pyramid. They lived in good housing at the foot of the pyramid, and when they died, they received honored burials in stone tombs near the pyramid in thanks for their contribution. This information is relatively new, as the first of these worker tombs was only discovered in 1990. They ate well and received the best medical care. And, also unlike slaves, they were well paid. The pyramid builders were recruited from poor communities and worked shifts of three months (including farmers who worked during the months when the Nile flooded their farms), distributing the pharaoh's wealth out to where it was needed most. Each day, 21 cattle and 23 sheep were slaughtered to feed the workers, enough for each man to eat meat at least weekly. Virtually every fact about the workers that archaeology has shown us rules out the use of slave labor on the pyramids.

It wasn't until almost 2,000 years after the Great Pyramid received its capstone that the earliest known record shows evidence of Jews in Egypt, and they were neither Hebrews nor Israelites. They were a garrison of soldiers from the Persian Empire, stationed on Elephantine, an island in the Nile, beginning in about 650 BCE. They fought alongside the Pharaoh's soldiers in the Nubian campaign, and later became the principal trade portal between Egypt and Nubia. Their history is known from the Elephantine Papyri discovered in 1903, which are in Aramaic, not Hebrew; and their religious beliefs appear to have been a mixture of Judaism and pagan polytheism. Archival records recovered include proof that they observed Shabbat and Passover, and also records of interfaith marriages. In perhaps the strangest reversal from pop pseudohistory, the papyri include evidence that at least some of the Jewish settlers at Elephantine owned Egyptian slaves.

Other documentation also identifies the Elephantine garrison as the earliest immigration of Jews into Egypt. The Letter of Aristeas, written in Greece in the second century BCE, records that Jews had been sent into Egypt to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his campaign against the Nubians. Psammetichus I ruled Egypt from 664 to 610 BCE, which perfectly matches the archaeological dating of the Elephantine garrison in 650.

If Jews were not in Egypt at the time of the pyramids, what about Israelites or Hebrews? Israel itself did not exist until approximately 1100 BCE when various Semitic tribes joined in Canaan to form a single independent kingdom, at least 600 years after the completion of the last of Egypt's large pyramids. Thus it is not possible for any Israelites to have been in Egypt at the time, either slave or free; as there was not yet any such thing as an Israelite. It was about this same time in history that the earliest evidence of the Hebrew language appeared: The Gezer Calendar, inscribed in limestone, and discovered in 1908. And so the history of Israel is very closely tied to that of Hebrews, and for the past 3,000 years, they've been essentially one culture.

But if neither Jews nor Israelites nor Hebrews were in Egypt until so many centuries after the pyramids were built, how could such a gross historical error become so deeply ingrained in popular knowledge? The story of Jewish slaves building the pyramids originated with Herodotus of Greece in about 450 BCE. He's often called the "Father of History" as he was among the first historians to take the business seriously and thoroughly document his work. Herodotus reported in his Book II of The Histories that the pyramids were built in 30 years by 100,000 Jewish slaves [In point of fact, Herodotus only says 100,000 workers. He does not mention either Jews or slaves. So even this popular belief seems to be in error, and the origin of the idea of Jews building the pyramids remains a mystery - BD]. Unfortunately, in his time, the line between historical fact and historical fiction was a blurry one. The value of the study of history was not so much to preserve history, as it was to furnish material for great tales; and a result, Herodotus was also called the "Father of Lies" and other Greek historians of the period also grouped under the term "liars". Many of Herodotus' writings are considered to be fanciful by modern scholars. Coincidentally, the text of the Book of Exodus was finalized at just about exactly the same time as Herodotus wrote The Histories. Obviously, the same information about what had been going on in Egypt 2,000 years before was available to both authors.

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Which brings us to the final question: Was there a mass Exodus of Jewish slaves out of Egypt? There is no record of any such thing ever happening, and the simple reason is that there is no time in which it could have happened. No Egyptian record contains a single reference to anything in Exodus; and by the time there were enough Jews living in Egypt to constitute an Exodus, the time of the pyramids was long over. And Pharaoh Ramesses can be let off the hook as well: With apologies to Yul Brynner, no documentary or archaeological evidence links any of the Pharaohs bearing this name with plagues or Jewish slaves or edicts to kill babies. Indeed, the earliest, Ramesses I, wasn't even born until more than a thousand years after the Great Pyramid was completed. His grandson, the great Ramesses II, lived even later.

Some historians have attempted to rationalize the Exodus by drawing parallels to certain cities and trade centers that grew and shrank over the centuries for various reasons. Perhaps one of these economic shifts inspired the story of Exodus. Well, perhaps it did, but the nature of such a migration is, quite obviously, fundamentally different than that depicted in Exodus.

The pseudohistory of ancient Egypt is disrespectful to both Jews and Egyptians. It depicts the Jews as helpless slaves whose only contribution was sweat and broken backs, when in fact the earliest Jewish immigrants were respected allies to the Pharaoh and provided Egypt with a valuable service of both trade and defense. The pseudohistory also takes away from the Egyptians their due credit for construction of humanity's greatest architectural achievement, and portrays them as evil, bloodthirsty slavemasters. Pretty much every culture in the world at that period in history included slavery and conflict, and the Egyptians probably weren't any better or worse than most peoples.

Understanding history is essential to understanding ourselves. Although a story like Exodus is profoundly important to so many people throughout the world, the history it describes is false; and the faithful are best advised to seek value in it other than as a mere list of events. Doing so opens the door to a better comprehension of who we are as humans, and it's that shared history that will always unite us — no matter our race, color, or culture. It's just one little more service provided by good science.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Awad, M. "Egypt tombs suggest pyramids not built by slaves." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 2 Feb. 2010. <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6091E720100111>

Comay, J. The Diaspora Story: The Epic of the Jewish People Among the Nations. New York: Random House, 1983.

Kraeling, E. Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri: New Documents of the Fifth Century B.C. From the Jewish Colony At Elephantine. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Lindenberger, J., Richards, K. Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

Omer, I. "Investigating the Origin of the Ancient Jewish Community at Elephantine: A Review." Ancient Sudan-Nubia. Ibrahim Omer, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2010. <http://www.ancientsudan.org/articles_jewish_elephantine.html>

Porten, B. Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Did Jewish Slaves Build the Pyramids?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 2 Feb 2010. Web. 29 May 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4191>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 397 comments

There were no Jews during that time period. Nor were there Israelites. But there were lots of Canaanites who were in Egypt for various reasons. Canaanites regularly fled to Egypt during times of famine in their own land. Some were merchants who traded with Egyptians. And some were sold as slaves to Egyptians.

At some point, a small group of Canaanites probably left Egypt and return to Canaan. How they came to identify as a new nation and as followers of a monotheistic god will never be known. But at some point, their descendants became Judeans.

Obviously most of the Exodus story is not historically accurate. But there probably is some factual basis in an ancestral memory that joined with exaggerated mythical accounts to become the foundational story of the Jews.

Karen D., Burke, VA
September 17, 2014 12:38pm

Interestingly, the word "Pharaoh" is a Hebrew word which comes only from the Bible.

WillCD, Denver, Colorado
November 23, 2014 6:55am

Considering the religious significance of royal tombs ( I've heard them called resurrection machines) and the necessity of preserving the royal body for the eternal life of the king & continuing survival of Egypt/the world, it would have been crazy to entrust the work to unwilling workers in the form of slaves (and even crazier to trust slaves of a different belief system) pocture one of them indcribing #%^+ Osiris in some hidden corner - onfuriating the god and ruining the royal afterlife.

I enjoyed learning this bit of false history had a connection to Heroditus. He was also the source of the unlikely story that Cleopatra committed suicide - either by snakebite or by poison hidden in a hair comb. Par Brown did some interesting research debunking the timeline of the alleged suicide and the 2 alleged poisons.

Trish, Vancouver Wa
November 23, 2014 12:08pm

This is a great article outlining obvious problems which many archeologists and historians find contained in the Pentateuch. In this case, the problems outlined are related specifically to the story of Israelite slavery in Egypt and the subsequent exodus. There many-many more problems which archeologists and historians find contained in the Pentateuch, but to address those in this response might take away from the essence of the article.
I am a believing Catholic but in no way feel bound to believe in this mythical story anymore. In addition, I choose to completely reject the entire Pentateuch, the book of Joshua, and the book of judges outright. I also question the bulk of the content found in the the book of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The evidence on the ground [lack of evidence in most cases] not only stand against these mythological books, but support alternate events and chronologies. It would be foolish to keep on believing in, what is after all, nothing more than tall tails.
It might be a great surprise to most that the key researchers and trumpeters of facts are Israeli Jews. Why would Israeli Jews be interested in discrediting the Torah and the holy books? In part, because they are fed up with the lies they have been told about their own historical identity.
Million of people over the centuries, many of whom are Americans, lost their lives because of these tall tails. Many more will loose their lives atill, I am sure.
Brian, thank you for your courage. Keep it up

Engineer, Los Angeles, CA
November 24, 2014 10:22am

As far as the building o the Pyramids is concerned. They. the Egyptians had the knowledge of how to use pulleys, pulley blocks, levers and yes mathematics. They also understood leverage, and beyond all doubt had tools that even today we do have in existence that cut granite in a precision of 100/100ths 0f an inch. And now i read where there those out there that have the nerve to say slaves done it.
As an example there is a stone that now lies on it's side that many engineers have tried to device a tool that is hard enough to put as much as a scratch on it, and still to this day have not been able to produce a tool that will do it. Yes I do not doubt that laborers sculptured out this stone , but it is certain they were highly skilled and had tools back then that were superior to what we have today, and that is a fact my friend. I might add that a Frenchman named Jaun Pierre (spelling) whom as i am is curious as to how did they do it and has relentlessly pursued to solve this riddle and hired a team of mathematicians, archeologist, engineers, Egyptologist , and computer aided designers to research this, and has made surprising discoveries that have proven some of the previous theories wrong. I having done engineering and design for years, also agree with his team that they used counter weights and levers, and sand friction t overcome the weight of he stones that in some cases weighted 50 to 70 tons, and were lifted to as high as 100 meters or more.

Jesse C. Brown, Maricopa, Arizona
December 1, 2014 5:55pm

I am constantly amazed by one aspect of Pyramid construction - the extent to which some people regard the construction of a pile of rocks as miraculous. Give a toddler a pile of bricks and he'll work it out

The collapse of some earlier pyramids indicates that it was initially a hit and miss process - not the product of inspired - almost esoteric - knowledge and thought. It fell down so they changed the angle. A site needed to be leveled so they likely flooded it and set pegs at the height of the water level. They accidentally incorporated "pi" into their designs almost certainly by using the circumference of a wheel as the basis for one set of measurements and the diameter of that same wheel for another

And so it goes on. Cutting rock with early metal tools was laborious, but the manpower was there to do it when it wasn't required for war or agriculture - and tomb building kept it busy, away from thoughts of revolution. If you didn't have pulleys you built ramps. It is all a bit obvious really - no miracles, no miraculously perfect tools, no alien assistance, just hard, and rather pointless graft

The Pyramids aren't an example of human brilliance but of human stupidity - What a waste of time and effort they were. But we are the same - Our pyramid project is the trip to Mars - and we'll probably do it that and other projects too instead of providing fresh water, housing, food, medicine, education to all the worlds people

Peace! - now that would be a miracle

Phil, Sydney
December 23, 2014 4:24pm

There was no Exodus. A total fabrication. There is no records of any Jews building anything. They were never slaves in Egypt. The building of the pyramids was done as follows: First the granite was needed for the tomb. This war barged from another spot on the Nile From the Nile bank the blocks of granite were put on sleds. Water was poured in front of the sled to make it easier to move the sled. Try walking in dry sand and then try walking close to the ocean but not too far in and you will see how easy it is to walk or to drive an auto on the sand. The granite had been quarried using wood pieces. The wood was slipped into cracks of the granite and then water was dumped on the wood causing it to swell and break the granite. The granite blocks were then put into the tomb chamber. Next came the limestone blocks which were quarried very close to the location of the pyramids. The method was used to quarry them. To shape the blocks stone blocks were used just as they have been for centuries. Ramps were constructed for the lower blocks. For higher blocks a Egyptian designed pulley was used with a 10:1 ratio. Ropes were tied at both ends of a pole. One side was a basket and the other rope was tied around the block. To raise the block bags were filled with sand. lots of sand and help available. Nothing magical or aliens. The pyramids were designed based upon smaller pyramids that already had been built. There was no Exodus, no Moses.

Nicholas de Burgo, Ely, Nevada
January 5, 2015 8:11pm

Wow! It's amazing how one historian will find the "facts" to support his\her thoughts can be so different from another who also has facts to support his or her beliefs. I, having seen the stones on the side of the Red Sea showing crude carvings of the crossing of the Red Sea on dry land, and the demise of the Egyptian and his chariot.How about the mummified Pharaoh who was found with scabs "boil plagues" and the fact that his son died before him (the death of the first born)? I suppose it takes just as much "faith" to not believe the Israelites\Hebrews\Jews were never in Egypt as it does to believe they were there, and the exodus did happen. We will know the answers when we pass from this life and meet our God. As for myself,I know Gods word to be true despite any so called evidence to be the contrary.

Educated Believer, toledo
January 24, 2015 11:48am

The Bible mentions both the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid but not where one would expect. See http://www.sinai-horeb.com/
And it is true the Bible did not say Israel built the pyramids but Josephus did say they built some of them, "they set them [Israel] also to build pyramids..." (Antiq. II, 9:1). And pyramids were built till the time of Ahmose, the first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty when Israel would have been there.

Bible believer, Romania
January 29, 2015 8:01am

You are wrong "Educated Believer"

At the supposed time of the Exodus, Caanan appears to have been an Egyptian province. The Hebrews would never have left Egypt. There are no stepping stones or carvings attributable with any credibility to any specific event. Any artefacts found in the sea are readily attributed to having been aboard ships that sank there.

There are however very credible sources of the "determination" to consider the Torah as depicting events that actually happened. Not least is the Zionist land claim, not just for the Land of Israel but also for the West Bank. Zionism seeks to establish a justification for the existence of Israel prior to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1922 League of Nations Mandate, and the 1947 UN Partition Resolution - all of which were aimed at dealing with a violent situation, not at validating Jewish Myth

Judaism is a religion that contains within it a myth of origins. An adherent comes to believe that he is the direct descendant of Abraham to whom God gave the Promised land - a promise renewed by the Exodus. But I am sorry EB there is not one single solitary shred of evidence for any of it. There is no "Jewish Gene". The Jews themselves are demonstrably of very mixed blood - recent DNA studies have shown that even Ashkenazy Jews are a mixture of European and Levantine ancestors - the same as everyone else.

The Exodus myth has also been usurped throughout history to create an entirely false land claim. It's religion!

Phil, Sydney
March 3, 2015 6:48pm

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