No, Imhotep and Joseph Were Not One and the Same

Ben Carson says he thinks Joseph built the pyramids, but the Egyptian records and experts say it was Imhotep, who, no, is not Joseph.

Julia Fridman
Julia Fridman
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A statue of Imhotep and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.
A statue of Imhotep and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.Credit: Wikimedia Commons, AP
Julia Fridman
Julia Fridman

Could Imhotep, builder of the pyramids, and Joseph, the Biblical savior of the Pharaoh and Egypt from famine, have been one and the same? No, say the experts.

Imhotep, otherwise known as Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary Nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief, lived in the 27th century BCE. He was most famous for being the architect of the stepped pyramid of Djoser, which is believed to be the first pyramid built in ancient Egypt, around 2600 BCE.

Both Imhotep and Joseph were commoners who were raised up based on their innovative thinking. Both are said to have become advisers to the Pharaoh and both to have saved the people from starvation by constructing massive grain silos during a time of plenty, which were used when the famine struck. Egypt, it should be noted, went through many famines.

Most likely, only one of the two men actually existed. The story of Imhotep may have been appropriated by biblical writers who were influenced by the Judahites residing in Egypt, and reappeared eventually in the form of Joseph.

Imhotep the innovator

The question of identification between Joseph and Imhotep arose anew when Republican aspirant Dr. Ben Carson, reportedly an adherent of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, this week stood by a statement he first made in 1998: "My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain."

As for the use of the pyramids, apparently some obscure Middle Age literature says they were the grain silos spoken of in the Joseph story. The evidence however clearly shows the pyramids were tombs: proponents of the silo theory were evidently ignorant of the facts. The pyramids, being mostly stone and having very small chambers, would have been terrible silos. Real grain silos of the era looked very different.

A statue of Imhotep, chancellor to the pharaoh, priest of Ra and architect. Bronze, Ptolemaic Egypt (332-30 BC). At the Louvre, Paris.Credit: HuTotya, Wikimedia Commons

If relieving the famine is clearly credited, in albeit ancient hieroglyphic writing, to Imhotep, how did the presidential hopeful come to claim that the pyramids had been built by the Israelite patriarch, one of the 12 sons of Jacob?

The confusion may arise from the process of Imhotep's deification, which took place around the 7th century CE - a time of great development, but also of tension and upheaval, in ancient Egypt.

Imhotep was known for innovating new methods of construction, introducing elements such as stone walling, flooring, lintels, and jambs. Evidently something of a Leonardo Da Vinci of his time, Imhotep also gained a reputation as being an innovator of Egyptian medicine. This great man was deified two thousand years after he lived - or was just plain confused with the god Thoth, who stood for all of the same accomplishments for which Imhotep had become famous.

Imhotep is mentioned in the Famine Stele, a hieroglyphic inscription dating to the Ptolemaic period (332–31 BCE, over a thousand years after Imhotep lived). The stele speaks of a famine that Imhotep helped to end in the time of Djoser, and here is where some of the confusion begins.

The Old Testament story says that after being sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, Joseph rose up the ranks to become the vizier to the pharaoh. Through magical visions, including dream interpretation, he saved the Egyptians from a seven-year famine by collecting and storing grain in silos during the seven prior years of plenty.

The Famine Stele gives a strikingly similar account of a seven-year famine in which Imhotep is credited with saving Egypt by interpreting the Pharaoh's dream.

This is what an ancient Egyptian grain silo looked like: Found inside Djoser's stepped pyramid.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is a consensus among the majority of biblical scholars that the Joseph story dates, at the earliest, to the 7th century BCE, namely 2700 years ago. Many Judahites were residing in the Nile Delta at the time, as proven among other things, by the existence of a replica of the Jewish First Temple in Jerusalem on the island of Elephantine. It seems these Judahites may have been behind the adoption of the Imhotep tale as an Israelite story.

The 7th century BCE was a period of massive construction and development as the Saite Dynasty (664–525 BCE) set about trying to restore the glory of Egypt’s past. The historical records of the Saite Dynasty offer many examples of the Judahite immigrants to the region.

It is therefore little wonder that 7th-century details came to feature strongly in the Joseph story, as pointed out by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in "The Bible Unearthed" (Free Press, originally published 2001).

They also point out that the city of Pythom (Tel Mushkata, where texts revealing the city's name were found) was rebuilt during the 7th century BCE; it was an important city of the time. Similarly, the town name of Migdol, though very common for the period (several towns with that name are mentioned in the Bible) was a known city in the 7th century BCE in Egypt as well. It is a famous place in the Exodus story ("Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn and encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baalzephon: before it shall ye encamp by the sea" – Exodus 14:2). In another part of the bible, the prophet Jeremiah in (Jeremiah 44:1and 46:14) speaks of Judahites residing in Migdol.

Another key link dating the Joseph tale to the 7th century CE is the Egyptian names in the story: of Zaphenath-panea (the grand vizier of the Pharaoh), Potiphera (a priest), Asenath (Potiphera’s daughter) were at the height of popularity in use in the 7th-6th centuries BCE.

Danger in the east

One more piece to the tale originating in this time period, mentioned by Finkelstein and Silberman, is that this would have been the only time in Egyptian history when Egypt was afraid of attacks from the East. This had never been an issue until the Assyrian, Babylonian and later Persian attacks - which begin to occur in the 7th Century BCE.

And of course there are place names in the Exodus story, most of which did not even exist before the 7th century BCE, but did all exist come the 7th century BCE. One such is the famous Kadesh Barnea.

The Famine Stela is a hieroglyph inscription found on Sehel Island in the Nile, which describes a seven-year period of drought and famine during the reign of Djoser.Credit: Markh, Wikimedia Commons

The authors of "The Bible Unearthed" do not dismiss the idea that perhaps a memory of an ancient event was preserved in the mythical tale. (The Hyksos expulsion from Egypt after 1560 BCE may have been a traumatic event of the sort, becoming preserved in the history of the Canaanite people and eventually passed on in the form of the Exodus myth).

Making order of the mess, Prof. Orly Goldwasser of Head of Egyptology at Hebrew University notes that there is no mention of Joseph whatsoever in any ancient Egyptian annals.

"Identifying Joseph with Imhotep is pure fantasy," she sums up. "There is no connection between the 'sons of Israel' and the pyramids. The Bible says that the Israelites built two cities on the Nile Delta, Pitom and Ramses. Both are easily identifiable today. If the Israelites were in ancient Egypt at all, it was in the 13th century BCE."

The stepped Djoser pyramid built, according to Egyptian records, by Imhotep, a high official under the Pharaoh DjoserCredit: Wikimedia Commons



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