Rewriting history: Biblical eclipse sheds new light on pharaohs

Rewriting history: Biblical eclipse sheds new light on pharaohs
A mysterious event mentioned in the Bible was actually the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded, a new Cambridge study has found. The revelation may help to rewrite the dates of Egyptian pharaohs, including the famous Ramesses II.

The celestial event described in the Old Testament Book of Joshua has been puzzling scholars for centuries. In the King James Bible, after Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan - a land which is now partly in modern Israel and Palestine - he prayed: “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”

“And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies,” the passage continued. Now, Cambridge researchers say the phrase refers to an ancient solar eclipse that took place on October 30, 1207BC, when Pharaoh Merneptah was waging war against the people of Israel in Canaan.

If the passage was describing a real observation, “then a major astronomical event was taking place,” wrote Professor Sir Colin Humphreys and Graeme Waddington, co-authors of the study published in the ‘Astronomy and Geophysics’ journal. 

“'Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the sun and moon stopped moving,” the study said. But analyzing an original Hebrew text provided an alternative interpretation - that the sun and moon “just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining.”

The Hebrew text could be referring to a solar eclipse, “when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining,” Humphreys and Waddington explain. To set an exact date of the eclipse, they developed an “eclipse code” which calculated data from Earth’s rotation.

Using the “eclipse code,” the Cambridge researchers found that the only annular eclipse visible from the land of Canaan at that time – between 1500 and 1050BC – was the one on the afternoon of October 30, 1207BC.

Aside from the Bible, Humphreys and Waddington made use of the Merneptah Stele, a large granite block now kept in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The Stele says it was inscribed on the fifth year into the reign of Merneptah, the son of the renowned Ramesses II. It mentions a campaign in Canaan in which Merneptah defeated the Israelites, suggesting they must have been in Canaan by Merneptah's fifth year.

The finding “enables us to revise by a few years the mainstream Egyptian chronology,” the scientists said. “Using these new calculations, the reign of Merneptah began in 1210 or 1209 BC … it would mean that Ramesses the Great reigned from 1276-1210 BC, with a precision of plus or minus one year, the most accurate dates available.”

The powerful Pharaoh Ramesses II led several campaigns into the Middle East, and built extensively across Egypt. There are accounts of his honor hewn on statues and the remains of palaces and temples. Merneptah, the thirteenth son of Ramesses, only assumed the throne because all of his brothers died; he ruled ancient Egypt for almost 10 years until his death.

This is not the first time the Bible and the Merneptah Stele have been used to date ancient solar eclipses. However, unlike Humphreys and Waddington, earlier studies only looked at total eclipses, failing to consider an annular eclipse, in which the moon passes directly in front of the sun, but is too far away to cover the disc completely. The annular eclipse is often distinguished by the “ring of fire” surrounding the darkened moon.