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Exodus and the Eruption of Santorini

One of the questions I get asked a lot is about the Exodus and whether the volcanic eruption of the island of Thera or Santorini in the Greek islands could have had any impact on it. Indeed, you see a lot of television specials that say when the island blew up it caused a tsunami and that was the parting of the Red Sea and that caused an algae bloom and fish died and frogs to fall from the sky and the whole, you know, plagues; so could those actually be linked?

I would say, no; I mean first of all, they’re not linked chronologically, that we know for sure because—or at least, we think we know for sure. As an archaeologist I have to put a caveat with everything. The explosion of Santorini, the volcanic eruption was usually dated, used to be dated, to 1450 B.C.E. In the last twenty years or so, it’s been re-dated using radiocarbon dating and ice-core dates to 1628, give or take. There’s some argument, some people would now push it back down to 1550 but let’s say anywhere between 1450 and 1628.

The exodus, which we don’t have a good date for, if you follow biblical chronology and you add up all the years of who lived when and what’s going on, you come up with the figure of about 1450 B.C.E., which was the date for the eruption of Santorini and so everybody was really happy a while ago; but now things are moving apart because 1450 B.C.E. doesn’t really work well for the exodus.

If we look at what’s going on in the biblical world at that time, we’ve got the Canaanites, okay fine, but you’ve got Thutmose III on the throne of Egypt. He’s not going to let anything like an exodus take place; and in fact, there’s nothing in his records that indicates that. So, the biblical chronology does not work from an archaeological and historical point of view.

Now, if we take a look at the archaeology and the history, the time period that does work is about 200 years later, so 1250 B.C.E. And, indeed, at that time we’ve got Seti and Ramesses II and the biblical account does say that the Hebrew slaves were building the store-cities of Pithon and Ramesses; and you have a pharaoh who knew not Joseph and all that, it works for Seti and for Ramesses II. So, that’s the time period where I would want to put the exodus but that’s 200 years later than both what the Bible says and what Santorini originally was dated to.

So what, in effect, we’ve got, is the dating for the eruption of Santorini has been pushed back to, say 1628, while the dating for the exodus has been pushed down to 1250. So now we’re separated by almost four centuries and that’s why I would say that the eruption of Santorini cannot be chronologically linked to the exodus.

  • Eric H. Cline

    Dr. Eric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and the current director of the George Washington University Archaeological Institute. He is a National Geographic Explorer, a Fulbright scholar, and an award-winning teacher and author. He has been a member of the Megiddo Expedition, in Israel, excavating biblical Armageddon, since 1994. The author of several books, his most recent is 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press, 2014).