The exodus of Israel from Egypt is tied to a few possible dates, but none with absolute certainty. History is understood through materials that survive long enough to be documented and remembered in the current era. When the incidents in question stretch back three or four thousand years, the evidence one can expect to find is greatly reduced. Those records that survive might be exceedingly accurate but not include the details one might wish for. This seems to be the case with the book of Exodus, resulting in debates over when its events might have occurred.
Analyzing the nuances of how archaeologists and scholars date ancient events, such as found in the book of Exodus, is well beyond the scope of a single article or the ability of a typical reader. Records of ancient Egyptian history are especially notorious for being erratic, full of internal contradictions and exaggerations, and overly flattering to whoever was ruling at the time. Secular Egyptology is the subject of ongoing debates about how and where to date certain milestones. Discussions about interpretation and translation occur within biblical studies. Competing facts and assumptions result in a dizzying array of possibilities.
From this chaos emerge two dates, consistently seen as the most likely moments for Israel’s exodus from Egypt. These are 1446 BC and 1225 BC, respectively labeled the “early” and “late” dates. Each has biblical, logical, and archaeological support, as well as corresponding weaknesses. Of particular interest is which Egyptian Pharaohs correspond to these dates and whether the archaeological evidence is compatible.
The early date, 1446 BC, is the most common date applied in conservative interpretations of Scripture. This takes the statement of 1 Kings 6:1 literally, looking back 480 years from the fourth year of the reign of Solomon, in the early-to-mid 900s BC. A parallel timeline is given in Judges 11:26. Using mainstream dating of Egyptian dynasties, this would place the arrival of Joseph and his family in Egypt (Exodus 1:1–7) shortly before the culture was conquered by foreign invaders, only to be returned to ethnic Egyptian rule centuries later (Exodus 1:8).
This view would ascribe the murder of infants (Exodus 1:16–21) to either Amenhotep I or Thutmose I, whose reputations align with such cruelty. It also connects to Thutmose I’s daughter, Hatshepsut, a female co-regent (Exodus 2:5–6) whose stepson worked to counter her legacy (Exodus 2:14–15). Amenhotep II, the seventh Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, notably suffered a lack of military campaigns beginning in 1446 BC (Exodus 14:28), and his heir, Thutmose IV, was criticized for being a less-than-legitimate successor (Exodus 11:4–5; 12:29).
Contemporary archaeological records such as the Amarna letters indicate a major disruption in Canaan blamed on a people referred to as the ‘Apiru or Habiru (Exodus 9:1). Discoveries also include evidence of cities such as Jericho being conquered during that timeframe. All this contributes to the assumption that 1446 BC is the most likely date of the exodus from Egypt.
The “late date” of 1225 BC also has proponents and a set of supporting evidence. The name Rameses is used of a city in the book of Exodus (Exodus 1:11), and this is the name of several rulers from the 1300s and 1200s BC. Archaeological evidence in Canaan suggests widespread carnage in that general time period (see Joshua 1:1–5). Other supportive discoveries, such as a hastily abandoned slave town (Exodus 12:30–34) containing mass infant graves (Exodus 1:16) and Egyptian records detailing an era of chaos and disaster (Exodus 3:19–20) are typically dated to this later period.
Accepting the 1225 BC date would mean interpreting the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1—and the timeframe of Judges 11:26—as either nonliteral or needing further clarification.
Other possibilities also exist. Some scholars of ancient Egypt suggest the mainstream timelines used today need further adjustment. Depending on how one approaches this issue, the objective dates of events recorded in ancient Egyptian records could shift as much as several centuries. This has led to Pharaohs such as Neferhotep I and the pop-culture icon “King Tut” being put forward as potential rulers during the exodus. Like the more mainstream “early” and “late” dates of 1446 BC and 1225 BC, these alternate dates are presented with archaeological evidence that could be compatible with Scripture.
In short, we cannot say for certain when the events of the book of Exodus occurred. A straightforward reading of the Bible, combined with some archeological evidence, leads to a date of 1446 BC. A less-literal view of certain dates in the Old Testament, combined with fairly substantial extrabiblical evidence, would suggest a date around 1225 BC. More outside-the-box thinking allows other archaeological and biblical evidence to coordinate with dates somewhere in between.
Despite the ambiguity, there is ample evidence to suggest the events of Exodus are plausible. The complication, in this case, is not determining “if” Israel was freed from Egypt, but precisely “when.”