While the historicity of the person of Joseph is controversial, his story provides an important test of the reality (or otherwise) of the stories of the ancient patriarchs of Israel. This is because Joseph is revealed in the Biblical account as a very public figure who should be able to be found in the surviving Egyptian records, at least if he is placed late in the 18th Dynasty period of Egypt.
First, we have to put a time frame around possible dates for Josephâ€™s life. According to the Biblical account, the death of Abrahamâ€™s wife cannot be dated earlier than 1530 BC, since the Hittites cannot be placed in Canaan before that date, and she was buried in a plot of land purchased from the Hittites. That provides our starting point; after that we have the following reports:
- Isaac does not appear to have been married before Abraham’s wife had died. This means that his son, Jacob could not have been born before 1530 BC.
- Jacob is said to have been married when he was at least 47 years old, and Joseph appears to have been born about 5 years after that.
- Joseph went to Egypt when he was 17 years old.
So that makes the earliest date for Josephâ€™s arrival in Egypt of 1461 BC, and if we consider Jacob’s age at marriage to a guess (which is quite likely), we can push this back to 1481 BC. Since it is likely that the “Hittites” were in possession of Hazor until the Israelites (under Joshua) took the city, so there is no effective constraint on this date in the other direction. Therefore, we can work on a date after 1481 BC.
The actual ending point for the date of Josephâ€™s arrival in Egypt has to be worked backwards from the Merneptah stele of 1208 BC, which shows that the Pharaoh was aware of the Israelites as a “political” entity. This means that the Exodus must have already happened.Â Going backwards from that date:
- 5- 40 years in the wilderness (they could have still been in the wilderness when the stele was erected);
- Aaron 63-83 years old at the time of the exodus;
- Allowing 40-80 years for two generations back, assuming that Levi’s son, Kohath, was a child when Joseph met Pharaoh (Kohath to Amram to Aaron).
This gives us an approximate range for Kohathâ€™s birth (and Joseph’s “rule”) of 1411 BC – 1316 BC. This date range places us firmly within the New Kingdom period of Egypt, and in particular during the time of certain Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, from Amenhotep II to Horemheb (1427 BC – 1292 BC). Amenhotep II is recorded as despising Syrians, and therefore an unlikely candidate. However, his son, Thutmose IV, was an “outsider,” who was not expected to reign and was a known original thinker as well. Specifically, Thutmose IV claimed to have received a vision at the base of the Sphinx unexpectedly promising him the throne.
Fortunately, we have well researched lists of high office bearers for Thutmose IV and his son, Amenhotep III. If the Joseph figure emerged during their reigns we have the material to be able to establish the Egyptian figure who matches him. The three main possible offices in Egypt that Joseph might have held (according to the characteristics of that office as depicted in Genesis) are vizier, first Royal Spokesman, and â€œfan-bearer.â€ From all the known office bearers in these three positions, our most likely candidate for the Joseph figure is a man called Reâ€™a / Re, who held the office of first Royal Spokesman. The office of the first Royal Spokesman carried somewhat ad-hoc responsibilities. It was an office that could sometimes be considered to be second behind Pharaoh in status, even if not carrying the actual power of a vizier. The name Reâ€™a was that of the sun god Reâ€™a â€“ in the Egyptian system this name represented the sun in the middle of day, at its zenith. In addition, Reâ€™a is not an impossible translation of the Semitic Joseph, which means â€œhe has increased.â€
We know that Reâ€™a served under both Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III, thus covering the many years envisioned by the Joseph story. The tomb of this man has been discovered, and it has one particularly unusual feature: it does not contain a sarcophagus. While the external walls of the tomb contain some of the paintings normally found on a sarcophagus, the absence of a large and immovable receptacle for the body is consistent with Josephâ€™s plan that his body be taken back to Canaan when Jacobâ€™s family returned to that country after his death.
If the historicity of the Biblical patriarchs is accepted, there is probably no other figure who is as likely to fit the person of Joseph as Reâ€™a. If this conclusion were well received, it would mean that those who accept the historicity of the Biblical patriarchs would be able to definitely date Josephâ€™s period of influence (ca. 1400 BC â€“ ca. 1385 BC) and also to know the names of the Pharaohs under whom he served (Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III).
Susan & Donald Redford, The Tomb of Re’a (TT201), in The Akhenaten Temple Project, Vol. 4, (Warminster, 1994).