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I've heard some Christians say the Bible is a literal historical document, thus Jewish slaves built the pyramids (the Bible actually doesn't mention pyramids at all, this came from Herodotus.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. 21 Dec 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4191>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 392 comments

local builders who were not slaves but conscripts working them the whole country was involved .

andy, glasgow
February 28, 2014 7:12pm

It is physically impossible for humans to be able to build the pyramids, Modern technology today could even make the pyramids that precise. There is no way we could pull that size of bricks up that step of an angle, and with so many people dying off everyday from lack of food, exhaustion and no way to repopulate that fast we simply wouldn't have enough people to build even one pyramid.

cam, Edmonton, AB
April 10, 2014 3:56pm

Wow I expected the comments on this article to be wild, and they did not disappoint.

I'll say this though: I'm an atheist and I never practiced any religion. But even I believed jewish slaves had build the Great Pyramids, largely because of that movie. Of course I never believed that there was a Moses or that he parted the Red Sea. But, perhaps the obviousness of that deception made the other one (that jewish slaves build the Great Pyramids) fly by under the radar. It would be like hearing the tale of Noah's Ark and finding it ridiculous because of the flood and gathering 2 of each animal on a boat. Then later you find out that boats didn't even exist at that time.

Krbiz, US
April 14, 2014 1:06pm

The people that said that this story is flawed because Israel didn't exist yet; obviously didn't read the bloody article all the way through before throwing stones. The latter part of the article clearly stated this fact. If you're going to be smug, imperious and dismissive, at least have your facts straight. **stepping down off the soap box** I found this article to be very interesting, and it made me want to learn more. Good on ya!!

Natalie Becka, Sydney, AU
April 30, 2014 5:37pm

The historicity of the Exodus story is dead... it did not happen, at least certainly not in anything close to the fashion it is mentioned in the Bible. There's no evidence of it in Egypt, no evidence of it in Sinai, and no evidence of it in the area of Canaan. Such a massive number of people, material goods and livestock would have left a large amount of evidence, and yet over a century of modern archaeology has turned up nothing indicating an exodus of this size, or even of a much smaller size. "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" is a true statement in many cases, but not something of this scale. Here, absence of evidence really does indicate that the story, interesting as it is, is a fiction.

Tim, Greenville
August 31, 2014 12:24pm

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

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