Some time ago my friend Mary Jo was facilitating in our Egyptian exhibit with a young couple. The young man and woman wanted Mary Jo to tell them more about the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt. Specifically, they wanted to learn more about how the ancient Jews built the pyramids. Mary Jo answered quite correctly that we have no evidence that the Hebrews were involved with pyramid building.
Now, as one might imagine, this is a topic that pops up frequently in our exhibit. Some docents are well versed in the subject, some don’t really care to discuss it in fear of offending visitors. It is never our intent to offend. Our intent is to inform and educate. So, as I stress to prospective docents whom I train, we must be honest. Diplomatic but honest. Mary Jo herself is particularly good at doing this. But she was a bit nonplussed when the couple with whom she was speaking seemed offended and argumentative. They didn’t want to believe her information. They had walked off before I could get the chance to take part (and side with Mary Jo—I love a spirited argument).
I enjoy talking about the Bible in our exhibit. For the most part I meet people who are very open minded and want to know the facts. I’m only too happy to share the facts. I’ve discussed these matters with everyone from Christians who have a layperson’s interest to Orthodox rabbis who’ve forgotten more about the Old Testament than I’ll ever learn.
So when I heard about Mary Jo’s encounter, I thought it might make for a useful article on my blog. I wanted to write it sooner, but as my previous article expressed, I’ve been dealing with some weighty health issues lately. This, the 4th of July, is a good opportunity to write the article at long last. It’s either that or do nothing but watch some reruns of NCIS.
That said, who really built the pyramids of Egypt? And what’s the origin of the myth that ancient Jews built them? The latter answer I’ve known for many years, and the former answer I’ve been researching for much longer. And along the way I’ve learned a great deal about all extremes of the myth.
When thinking of ancient Egypt most people picture the Great Pyramid of Giza, the biggest of them all. It was erected in Dynasty 4 for a powerful king named Khufu (c. 2540 BCE). Consequently many regular folks think this is the pyramid the Hebrews were forced to build.
All of us docents hear this, practically every day we’re there. And it’s a worthy topic to discuss. It might be wrong, but at least it’s grounded in something plausible on the face of it. I’d much rather discuss that than aliens building the pyramid or that the pyramid was some sort of high-tech power plant, topics which are divorced from reality. We won’t waste time on them here—we’re sticking with the Hebrews (although there’s always material for future articles).
Well, then, where did the myth start? Why do so many people take it as fact that Hebrews built these incredible Egyptian monuments in the Early Bronze Age? It must be Hollywood, right? Well, Hollywood has done much to perpetuate the myth, but movies aren’t the origin.
In the first century CE, when Rome ruled the world, there was a prominent Jewish man from Galilee named Joseph ben Matityahu who became a general of Hebrew forces in the first Jewish uprising against Rome. He surrendered to Roman forces in 67 CE. In short order Matityahu was granted his freedom and took the name Titus Flavius Josephus—the “Flavius” portion being the family name of the Roman emperor Vespasian.
Matityahu, now Josephus, spent the rest of his life writing histories of the Hebrews for a largely Roman audience, to make his people and heritage better understood to Rome. Josephus was a prolific writer…and we can blame him for the origin of the pyramid myth. Yes, it really does go back that far in time. In Book II of his work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes:
…they set them [Hebrews] also to build pyramids: and by all this wore them out, and forced them to learn all sorts of mechanical arts, and to accustom themselves to hard labour.
So that’s where it starts. Down through history, the error was compiled and compounded. Now, Josephus was a brilliant man and well educated, so much of his tracts on Jewish custom and law are arguably reliable. But as with other writers of late antiquity, the farther back in time an event was that he wrote about, the less accurate it tends to be. And the pyramids of Egypt do indeed date far back in time. They were already remarkably ancient by the time Josephus lived.
Some adherents to the Bible play more loosely with the facts, and they can be clever. Exodus 1:11 talks about how Hebrew slaves built the store houses of Pithom and Ramses, and in their labors they made mud brick. Well, quite a few of the smaller pyramids are in fact made largely of mud brick, with stone exteriors and chambers. Well, there you go! So some historians and enthusiast. especially from early times, have figured that these mud-brick pyramids were older and less refined than the bigger masonry pyramids like the Great Pyramid, so the Hebrews must’ve built those mud-brick pyramids. It has some internal logic, right? The Egyptians must’ve been learning along the way and got better at their engineering and architecture, so their monuments got only bigger.
But cold-hard fact shows us the opposite is true. Those smaller mud-brick pyramids were built later. In Dynasty 4 Khufu was a truly powerful king who could marshal limitless resources and had the full measure of the state behind him. But by Dynasty 5 fortunes had changed and the Egyptian kings had become weaker. They did not have the power and wealth to erect massive monuments. Mud brick was cheaper and easier. A good example is one of my own favorites of the later pyramids, that of King Unis from the end of Dynasty 5:
It looks like little more than a big anthill today and is not so impressive on the outside. What makes it stand out is the full range of Pyramid Texts inscribed onto the walls of its interior chambers. That was not yet a tradition in Khufu’s early time. Unis was the first king to have these texts (religious funerary spells).
The Egyptians continued to erect smaller pyramids until the end of Dynasty 6, when the Old Kingdom ended and the government and country collapsed. It descended into civil war. Pyramids were still sporadically made through this troubled time, although still of mud brick. Egypt rebounded wonderfully in the Middle Kingdom (c. 1990 BCE) and more pyramids were erected, but still only of mud brick. No pyramid ever again would reach the height and grandeur of the Great Pyramid, even though kings of the Middle and New Kingdoms were arguably a lot more powerful than Khufu. The religion was changing at all levels, as the underworld god Osiris was embraced by all classes. Pyramids were no longer the focus they used to be.
But that’s neither here nor there. What were the Hebrews up to during all of this long stretch of history, if they weren’t building the pyramids? The answer is simple. They didn’t yet exist. One still sees folks trying to force them into an Egyptian context in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. For instance, you’ll see an image such as the following (and similar) often identified as Hebrew slaves in Egypt:
Such images on tomb and temple walls do in fact often depict slaves at work, but they’re not Hebrews. The inscriptions that often accompany them say they’re Syrians, Libyans, Nubians, and other such foreigners—but they’re not identified as Hebrews.
Almost every king of the New Kingdom in particular has been charged as the pharaoh of Exodus. The fact is, from the Egyptian perspective and outside the pages of the Old Testament, there is simply no evidence the Exodus even occurred. I don’t want to derail us with a long diatribe on the historicity of Exodus, mainly because I’ve already written an article on that (see “Exodus: Fact or Fiction?“).
But suffice it to say, most historians who try to fit Exodus into an historical timeframe tend to favor Ramesses II as that pharaoh. This has much to do with Exodus 1:11’s mention of the Hebrews having built the store cities of Pithom and Rameses (mentioned earlier). And the first recorded mention of a people called “Israel” appears on a large victory stela commissioned by Ramesses’ son and successor, Merneptah, in 1208 BCE:
This happens to meld nicely with archaeology of the Holy Land, which shows a people identifiable as “proto-Hebrew” starting to rise among Canaanite populations in the Levant at the tail-end of the Bronze Age.
So historically, temporally, and physically, the Hebrews could not have built the pyramids of Egypt. Well, then, who did? Was it aliens? Apologies, I’ve already promised we’re not going to go there.
That answer is also simple: the Egyptians built the pyramids. And they really weren’t slaves. Not technically. But they didn’t have much say in the matter. If a king needed soldiers for a military campaign or a lot of workers to build a big monument, he had all the manpower he needed. In an early period such as when Khufu reigned, men could be drafted into the military or into works projects; Egypt didn’t have a professional standing army until the New Kingdom. Word would go out from the court to the regional governors to raise manpower. In occasional Old Kingdom tombs, some autobiographies actually include the tomb owner’s pride in being able to raise all the men the king wanted from his region. This was a system called corvée labor, and it was common throughout the ancient Near East.
In many instances those subjected to corvée labor were not paid, but we know the Egyptian laborers were paid. This was generally in foodstuffs, beer, cloth, and the like. And the men assigned to work gangs were not forced to spend the rest of their lives in labor. They would spend a number of months at the work site, and were then sent back home to their fields and herds. Fresh manpower was raised as needed. This is not to say no slaves were present, because certainly some were. But slaves were more commonly sent under military guard to distant quarries to fetch more exotic stones, and other such tasks. Most workers on-site were paid laborers.
I’m not going to dumb things down by saying all of these paid laborers were thrilled and honored to be part of the king’s work project. I can’t begin to imagine how grueling and dangerous the work could be. And we’ll never know how many men were killed while building something like a pyramid. But they weren’t slaves—and they certainly weren’t Hebrews.
You can’t force an entire people into slavery if that people’s culture and society didn’t even exist yet. The fact is, we don’t have much evidence for Hebrews in Egypt in any numbers prior to the Late Period (starting c. 731 BCE). By that time they were largely merchants and mercenaries serving the king’s army and residing mostly in very southern Egypt, in their own communities around Elephantine. They would later cluster in very northern Egypt, in and around Alexandria. And of course by that time, when the Greeks had taken over Egypt, the pyramids were already very ancient. As we docents like to remind folks: the pyramids are older to Cleopatra than she is to us.
There is no mention of the pyramids in the Bible, in the Old Testament or otherwise. The Hebrews of old don’t mention them because they, the Hebrews, had nothing to do with the pyramids.
As always, I thank you for reading and welcome your comments.
My bibliography is largely the same as that for other articles I’ve written, such as for Exodus; this new article approaches the information from a different angle.
Bonani, Georges et al. “Radiocarbon Dating of Old and Middle Kingdom Monuments in Egypt.” 2001
Bruins, Hendrick J. “Dating Pharaonic Egypt.” Science, Vol. 328. 2010.
Dever, William G. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? 2003.
Finkelstein, Israel & Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed. 2001.
Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. 1992.
Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. 1992.
Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids. 2001
Wilkinson, Toby. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. 2010.