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Was Joseph the same person as Imhotep in Egyptian history?

Joseph Imhotep

Imhotep is a famous and somewhat mysterious figure from Egyptian history. Imhotep is often credited with major advances in architecture and medicine. Although common-born, he rose to become the primary adviser to the Pharaoh and was later deified by the Egyptian people. Legend associates Imhotep with saving Egypt from a seven-year famine. Looking at these and other details, casual observers might wonder if the Imhotep of Egyptian history is the same person as Joseph from the book of Genesis. While there is nothing to explicitly connect these two figures, there are a few interesting parallels.

According to Egyptologists, the Pharaoh Djoser employed an adviser named Imhotep, who designed his pyramid. Prior to that time, Pharaohs were buried in low, rectangular structures called mastaba. Imhotep’s design used a creative combination of stone and architecture to create a “step pyramid.” This building was significantly larger, more durable, and more beautiful than the tombs that preceded it. Djoser was so impressed with the result that he allowed Imhotep’s name to be inscribed within the tomb—something incredibly rare in Egyptian history.

Secondary evidence also suggests that Imhotep was an accomplished physician. There are reasons to believe he wrote the original text of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an ancient text on diagnosing and treating different medical conditions. Mythology of later centuries considered Imhotep a god or demigod of medicine.

Legend also connects Imhotep to Egypt’s rescue from a seven-year famine. Inscriptions, carved many centuries later during the reign of Ptolemy, credit Imhotep with ending a long drought connected to the lack of flooding of the Nile River. Imhotep’s deliverance of Egypt involved his receiving a dream from one of the Egyptian gods and counseling the Pharaoh on the best way to make amends with the offended deity.

Of course, pop culture is more interested in entertainment than historical accuracy, so the name “Imhotep” has been borrowed for movies, books, games, and other works of fiction for decades.

Reading the Bible, one can see many parallels to Imhotep in Joseph, described in Genesis chapters 37 through 41. Joseph comes to Egypt as a common man—actually a slave—and rises to become the right-hand man of the Pharaoh. His counsel, which partly involves interpreting dreams, saves Egypt from a seven-year-long famine. Joseph is heralded for his wisdom and success above and beyond what would have been expected of anyone lacking royal blood in that era.

However, beyond the superficial similarities, Imhotep and Joseph are extremely difficult to reconcile as the same person. First and foremost, Imhotep and Djoser lived somewhere around the 27th century BC. Scholars differ about exactly when the Exodus might have occurred, but most of the estimates fall somewhere between the 20th and 13th centuries BC. Any time within those dates would require much longer than the 400 years that Israel was in Egypt (Exodus 12:40; Acts 7:6; Galatians 3:17).

While history describes Imhotep as a deeply religious man, his devotion was not to the God of Israel, but to Ptah, one of many Egyptian deities. The Bible does not mention Joseph’s involvement in architecture, particularly not of a tomb for the Pharaoh, though this does not necessarily mean he had no such duties.

The connection between Imhotep and Joseph, in terms of the seven-year famine, might be stronger. However, according to the Bible, Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dream, not his own. Imhotep cured the drought by improving the worship of a particular Egyptian deity; Joseph simply used his God-given talents to prepare the people for a long famine.

Even more critically, the earliest mention of Imhotep in this regard is a stone carving from the reign of Ptolemy, made somewhere after the 4th century BC. In other words, while Imhotep (presumably) lived several hundred years before Joseph and nearly a millennia before Moses, he is not credited with ending a famine until nearly a millennia after Moses. In short, it’s likely that folklorists adapted Joseph’s story in order to credit Imhotep with shepherding Egypt through a famine. Politics of the time make this even more likely, as the inscription mentioning Imhotep, Djoser, and the famine partly establishes a claim for certain territories in the region.

All in all, the figures of Imhotep and Joseph bear some interesting similarities. While the sum total of evidence strongly suggests they were not the same person, the way in which their stories intertwine provides an interesting background of support for certain parts of the Bible.

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Questions about Genesis

Was Joseph the same person as Imhotep in Egyptian history?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022