Did the Exodus Really Happen?

Question: Many scholars believe that the Jews were never slaves in Egypt. Is there reason to believe that there was some sort of Exodus and would a lack of Exodus be problematic for our faith?

Attempts to corroborate the historicity of the Exodus as told in the Bible have always been fraught with challenges. No other extra-biblical sources record this event, and because the Egyptians were known for careful record keeping it seems odd that they wouldn’t have recorded it. On the other hand, there are records of Semitic slaves in Egypt, variously referred to as “Habiru” or ‘Apiru’ – words that could easily be understood as “Hebrews.” One historical note mentions the ‘Apiru who transport stones to the great pylon of Rameses.” Another passage reports the pursuit of slaves who had escaped to the desert. Such documents offer support for the plausibility of an exodus, without proving the Biblical story.

That said, we must remember what the famous priest and Biblical scholar Raymond Brown, S.S. once wrote: “Some of the most serious mistakes of biblical interpretation have flowed from an assumption, quite unwarranted, that all the books of the Bible are history.” As Catholics, we can still hold the belief that the Bible is divinely inspired without implying that all of the events recorded within it are historically and factually accurate. So whether the Exodus as recorded in the Bible is ever proven or not, we can focus on the truth that the inspired author(s) wanted to convey: namely that God is moved by the suffering of His people and constantly labors to liberate them. No matter the seeming insurmountable obstacles, the Exodus story tells us that evil will not triumph over God’s love.

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger is a scripture instructor and spiritual director in the San Francisco Bay area. She has has written articles on spirituality and theology for various national magazines and edited several books on the Hebrew Scriptures.