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Is Imhotep Joseph?

Is the ancient Egyptian named Imhotep the same person as the biblical Joseph? Here is a compilation of BC items bearing on this question, in order of publication date.

The following is from Gerald E. Aardsma, A New Approach to the Chronology of Biblical History from Abraham to Samuel, 2nd ed. (Loda IL: Aardsma Research and Publishing, 1993) pages 80--82.

Joseph and Joseph's Pharaoh

The final two biblical individuals I want to look at are Joseph and the pharaoh he served under. According to the Bible, the Israelites had entered Egypt as a relatively small clan 430 years prior to the Exodus (Exodus 12:40,41). They had been caused to migrate to Egypt as a result of the severe famine which we discussed previously. They were invited to live in the land by the then ruling pharaoh because they were relatives of Joseph who was second in command in Egypt at that time (Genesis 41). The end result of Joseph's administration during the famine was that all of Egypt --- its money, its livestock, its people, and its land --- became the possession of the pharaoh, making him unusually wealthy relative to his predecessors (Genesis 47:13-26).

Here again the Bible does not supply the name of Joseph's pharaoh. It does, however, supply Joseph's name and the Egyptian name which the pharaoh gave him -- Zaphenath-paneah. This Egyptian name has never been located in secular Egyptian sources, and my new biblical date for Joseph does not help in this regard. Thus, my identification of these two individuals relies upon chronological considerations (to limit the possibilities to a relatively narrow time window) followed by observed similarities between the biblical and secular records of these individuals.

The new biblical date for the entrance of Jacob and his family into Egypt is computed to be ca. 2877 B.C. It is, of course, necessary to take into account the radiocarbon motivated 300 year correction to the Cambridge Ancient History chronology of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, as discussed above, when comparing this to secular history. Even when this correction is made, there remains a secular dating uncertainty of at least a century at this early date. Thus, all that can be accomplished from chronological considerations is to narrow the search to the Third or Fourth dynasties (see Figure). It is necessary to turn to historical detail to proceed further.


Figure: Locating Joseph in the chronology of Egypt.

From the biblical account of this period of time we expect to find:

  1. A united Egypt ruled by a single pharaoh,
  2. An administrative assistant to this pharaoh (usually called a vizier),
  3. Possibly some record of a severe famine during this pharaoh's reign, and
  4. Possibly some surviving material evidence of this pharaoh's newly acquired wealth.

These expectations are all realized in one king of the Third Dynasty. This is Djoser (sometimes written as ``Zoser''), who ruled with the aid of his well-known and historically revered vizier, Imhotep. A late Egyptian text, which derives from the Ptolemaic period, affirms an Egyptian tradition of seven years of famine during the reign of Djoser [James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1958), page 24]. Our expectations of a pharaoh possessing much newly acquired wealth seem to be fulfilled in Djoser's unprecedented and spectacular Step Pyramid with its surrounding stone enclosure and numerous accompanying smaller structures. This was the first stone building to be erected by the pharaohs of Egypt, and it antedates the more familiar true pyramids by many years.

If Djoser is Joseph's pharaoh, then Joseph must be this pharaoh's vizier, known historically as Imhotep. Comparison of the biblical record of Joseph with the historical records of Imhotep raises no serious objection, that I have been able to discern, to the suggestion that they were one and the same person. Both were obviously unusually gifted administratively, and both are recorded to have been second in command to pharaoh during a famine which lasted seven years.

I do not feel that the identification of these two biblical persons is as certain as the other three which were discussed above. This is largely because of the very remote period in which they lived, which results in a consequent scarcity of extant contemporary secular historical sources and relatively large chronological uncertainties. Nonetheless, Djoser and Imhotep appear to be good candidates for these two biblical individuals, and I am not aware of any better candidates from any other period of the history of Egypt. Thus, I tentatively propose the identification of Joseph with Imhotep, and Joseph's pharaoh with Djoser.

Next is from Gerald E. Aardsma, "The Chronology of Egypt in Relation to the Bible: 3000--1000 B.C.," The Biblical Chronologist 2.2 (March/April 1996) pages 4--5.

Old Kingdom

The pyramids which today symbolize ancient Egypt in the minds of many people were built during the Old Kingdom. The Old Kingdom appears to have been a period of stability and great prosperity for Egypt.

Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt (Genesis 39:1) during the early years of the Old Kingdom, probably during Dynasty 3. His promotion to vizier (Genesis 41:38-45) raises the possibility of identifying him in the secular Egyptian sources. However, all attempts to do so at the present time must be regarded as uncertain and speculative because of the limited secular data bearing on the problem. To illustrate the limitations of our knowledge of this early period consider a few of Grimal's observations: [Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), pages 49, 63, 66, and 67]

The Thinite [Early Dynastic; Dynasties 1 and 2] period is a poorly known phase, essentially because of a lack of surviving texts. ...
Ironically, the Third Dynasty is less well known than the two earlier dynasties, and there is still no agreement on its origins...
The end of the Third Dynasty was hardly any clearer than its beginning has been, and it has proved difficult to reconcile the documentary information provided by king-lists with the evidence supplied by archaeologists. ...
It is not yet possible to give a satisfactory account of the Third Dynasty, but archaeological research may yet provide the data for more sense to be made of it.

I have previously suggested --- with suitable caveats --- the possibility that the vizier Imhotep may be the Egyptian equivalent of Joseph, and Djoser the pharaoh whom he served. [Gerald E. Aardsma, A New Approach to the Chronology of Biblical History from Abraham to Samuel, 2nd ed. (Loda IL: Aardsma Research and Publishing, 1993), 80--82.] (I have received several interesting letters from subscribers regarding this possibility. I hope to share some of their comments in the next issue.) Djoser ruled early in Dynasty 3, whereas Figure 1 shows the end of Dynasty 3 coincident with Joseph's rise to prominence in Egypt. This seems to imply either that Imhotep is not Joseph or that the chronology of the Old Kingdom should be shortened by about 50 years to bring its beginning closer to 2900 B.C. An unequivocal identification of Joseph with a known Egyptian vizier would resolve this question and provide another synchronism between the chronologies of Egypt and the Bible, further reducing the uncertainty in the chronology of Egypt at this early time.

The devastating seven year famine which caused Jacob's entire family to relocate to Egypt (Genesis 41--47) finds ready support geophysically, archaeologically, and historically. [Gerald E. Aardsma, A New Approach to the Chronology of Biblical History from Abraham to Samuel, 2nd ed. (Loda IL: Aardsma Research and Publishing, 1993), 68--72; Gerald E. Aardsma, ``Evidence for a Lost Millennium in Biblical Chronology,'' Radiocarbon 37.2 (1995): 267--273; Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), 64.] An interesting possibility is that the building of the great pyramids was a consequence of the enormous wealth which accrued to the reigning Pharaoh and his heirs as a result of Joseph's administration of this famine (Genesis 47:13--26).

And next are several letters from the "Readers Write" column of The Biblical Chronologist 2.3 (May/June 1996) pages 6--8.

Is Imhotep Joseph?

It would certainly be fascinating to be able to identify Joseph in Egyptian historical sources; his high position in Egypt gives one high hopes of being able to do so.

I have previously broached the possibility that the Biblical "Joseph" may be the same as the vizier of king Djoser called "Imhotep" in Egyptian sources. [Gerald E. Aardsma, A New Approach to the Chronology of Biblical History from Abraham to Samuel, 2nd ed. (Loda IL: Aardsma Research and Publishing, 1993), 80--82; Gerald E. Aardsma, "The Chronology of Egypt in Relation to the Bible: 3000 -- 1000 B.C.," The Biblical Chronologist 2.2 (March/April 1996): 4--5.] But, as I have previously pointed out, this identification is complicated by secular chronological uncertainties so that it must be regarded as a tentative possibility only.

Dr. David Noel Freedman has also expressed the need for caution in identifying Imhotep with Joseph. After reviewing an early manuscript of mine containing this tentative suggestion he wrote to me in a personal letter dated December 2, 1991 as follows:

While there may well be parallel features in the careers and life-stories of the two men, it would be very risky to identify them. Analogies are one thing, equations are another. There is no hint anywhere that Imhotep was anything but a real Egyptian, which is exactly what Joseph was not. And Joseph's Egyptian name [Zaphenath-paneah (Genesis 41:45)] is totally different [from Imhotep], in fact a name that doesn't find any similarities in Egyptian onomastica before the Saite period [ca. 675--525 B.C.], I believe.
There is clearly reason for caution.

But this is not to say the matter is closed, by any means. What is needed at this stage are in-depth, deliberate investigations of the question using available Biblical data and Egyptian source documents in light of the new synthesis of Biblical and Egyptian history discussed last issue. [Gerald E. Aardsma, "The Chronology of Egypt in Relation to the Bible: 3000 -- 1000 B.C.," The Biblical Chronologist 2.2 (March/April 1996): 1--9.]

There are several angles from which such investigations might be launched. For example, the Bible records that Joseph instituted a twenty percent tax during his administration, which (in common with most government taxes) appears to have persisted for a very long time.

And Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt valid to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; ... (Genesis 47:26)
Tracing the secular history of taxation in Egypt might, therefore, be a fruitful line of investigation. One should expect to find a twenty percent tax in force in the later part of the Old Kingdom, at least. If the pharaoh or vizier could be identified under whom this taxation was instituted, one would presumably be able to identify Joseph in Egypt very quickly. (Note also that determining the latest date this custom of twenty percent taxation was in force would set a minimum date for the composition of Genesis 47:26, but that is a separate matter.)

As I lack the time to carry such investigation forward myself, I am hoping this suggestion and the following two letters, from lay readers, will encourage other readers to take up aspects of this research project and perhaps share what they learn with us in future issues.

The first letter presents information opposing the identification of Joseph with Imhotep; the second is supportive of the identification. The possibilities raised in both letters seem to me to merit further investigation.


Dear Dr. Aardsma,

There was a time when I thought Imhotep, vizier of Djoser, could have been Joseph. Further research quickly altered this view. There existed, in the Egyptian workshops, lists and family trees of the famous chiefs of works. (See Pierre Montet, Eternal Egypt, 1964 for background.) The name of Imhotep's father is known from these lists, as recorded by Egyptian archaeologist, Ahmed Fakhry: [Ahmed Fakhry, The Pyramids (University of Chicago Press, 1961), 24--26.]

We do not know where he [Imhotep] was born, but a vague and brief reference by one of the classical writers suggests that the village of Gebelein, south of Luxor, was his home. A monument giving the names of his parents dates from between 495 and 491 B.C. It is an inscription in the Wadi el Hammamat. The oldest name is that of Ka-nefer, who was Director of Works of Upper and Lower Egypt. The second name was his son, Imhotep.

Fakhry adds (pages 4 and 5), Imhotep was an architect, whose father also had been an architect. This fact alone rules out the identification of Imhotep as Joseph.

Pierre Montet wrote that as the King's architect, Imhotep constructed sanctuaries of stone for the gods and goddesses of Egypt --- the first beneficiaries being Nekhebet, the god of Memphis, Thoth of Khnum, and Horus of Edfu. [See Peter Tompkins, Secrets of the Great Pyramid, (Harper & Row, 1971).] An inscription in a crypt of the temple of the goddess Hathor, at Dendera, indicated it had been built according to the plans of Imhotep.

Imhotep's greatest achievement was the step pyramid, which was identical in design to the ziggurats of Babylon. There is every indication that he was a devotee of the Mystery Babylon religion, which had been adopted by the Egyptians. One of Imhotep's titles was High Priest of Heliopolis, city of the sun [god]. Joseph, the man of God, would have had no part in any of the activities ascribed to Imhotep.


Mrs. Beverly J. Neises
Rainier, OR


Dear Dr. Aardsma,

The major thesis of your monograph, A New Approach to the Chronology of Biblical History from Abraham to Samuel, strikes me as very convincing and important, and I wish you every success in developing and popularizing it for the glory of God.

After reading your suggestion (pp. 81--82) that Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, may actually correspond to Imhotep, the vizier of Pharaoh Djoser, I became fascinated with the idea that the Egyptian name might have been adopted by Joseph at least partly because of its phonological similarity to the name his mother gave him (Gen. 30:24).

Now if Joseph were a foreign king, I suppose he would have been known in Egypt by a name that was as similar as possible to his Hebrew name within the constraints of Egyptian phonology. In this case, his name would have had little or no significance in the Egyptian language --- the Egyptians would have recognized its foreign origin, and Joseph's older brothers would surely have suspected his identity without having to be told.

Since Joseph really needed a name that would pass as quite Egyptian, perhaps an Egyptian variant of Joseph simply would not do. I think it should have been more like a case I came across recently at a Wycliffe banquet. The missionary speaker that evening was named Larry in English, but while serving in Latin America, he went by the Spanish name Hilario. That is, I propose that Joseph would have chosen a name for himself that was entirely Egyptian, yet phonologically similar to his Hebrew name. He might even have done this some time after his reunion with his family, using the name selected by the pharaoh in the interim, but of course, I can only speculate about this point.

IMHOTEP
J  OSEPH

The similarity at first glance may not seem all that striking, but a little investigation reveals that there may be more to it than what is immediately apparent. First, there is a Hebrew variant of Joseph, used only in Psalm 81:5, which inserts one more consonant. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance describes this variant as "a fuller form" of the usual name.

IMHOTEP
J HOSEPH

It should be mentioned that the point of articulation of H may be a bit different in the two languages, glottal in Hebrew while pharyngeal in Egyptian, but the similarity is still close enough to be striking. Note also that P and PH are both written with the same basic letter in Hebrew. Moreover, it turns out that the contrast between the T and the S may not be so great either. Loprieno (1995: 29) notes that Northwest Semitic *soper ``scribe'' was written as <tu-pa-r> in Egyptian. Now this t is a palatal (not dental) stop, but again, the similarity seems rather noteworthy. Loprieno went on to suggest that the samekh, which occurs in both *soper and Joseph "originally must have been an affricate [ts] in Semitic" (1995: 29). This leaves only the M without a mate in the "fuller form" of Joseph.

There is another concern that should be addressed, however. As Hurry observed, "personal names ending in the word htp and compounded with the names of certain, but not of all, gods, were common in Egypt in all periods" (1928: 190). Surely, if the Joseph we know had anything to do with it, the name would not mean "Im is pleased" in Egyptian, where Im would be the name of some pagan deity. Once again, we are not disappointed.

The name Imhotep, however, is quite differently constituted from the above god + htp compounds. In this case htp is a noun and means `peace' or `satisfaction'. The translation `He who comes in peace' is the generally accepted one, although [the initial hieroglyph] may be either the participle `He who comes' or the imperative `Come'. (Hurry, 1928: 190)

It is admittedly a subjective and speculative piece of circumstantial evidence, but it does seem quite reasonable to me that the Joseph we know from Genesis, who was himself summoned by the troubled pharaoh to bring him peace of mind and who invited his own family to come in peace to Egypt, might have chosen such a name as Come in Peace, especially in view of the close similarities it bears to the name he first brought to Egypt.


Thomas James Godfrey
Blacksburg, VA


Hurry, Jamieson B. 1928. Imhotep: The Vizier and Physician of King Zoser and Afterwards the Egyptian God of Medicine. Second and revised edition. New York: AMS Press.


Loprieno, Antonio. 1995. Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press.

And finally are two more letters from the "Readers Write" column of The Biblical Chronologist 2.5 (September/October 1996) pages 10--14.

More on Imhotep

In the Volume 2, Number 3 issue of The Biblical Chronologist I published two letters from readers dealing with the matter of whether the Egyptian vizier named Imhotep might be the same person as the Biblical Joseph. The first letter was from Mrs. Beverly Neises. She listed several apparent difficulties with the identification. She noted that Egyptian historical sources record that Imhotep's father was an architect, which Jacob was not, and that Imhotep constructed sanctuaries of stone for the pagan gods of Egypt, which she felt was inconsistent with the character of Joseph which is revealed in the Bible. The second letter was from Mr. Thomas Godfrey in support of the identification. He pointed out a striking phonetic similarity between the Egyptian name, Imhotep, and the Hebrew name, Joseph.

Mr. Godfrey wrote me with a number of comments on Mrs. Neises' letter, after reading it in the Volume 2, Number 3 issue. I forwarded his letter, with his permission, to Mrs. Neises for her further comments. Both letters are published below.

The principal limitation which emerges from the two letters is that the Egyptian historical sources which tell us about Imhotep and his parentage date very much later than when Imhotep actually lived. The monument on which the claim that Imhotep's father was an architect is found was built nearly two and a half thousand years after the time of Imhotep, for example. This raises obvious concerns regarding the historical accuracy of this inscription.

The two letters raise many other interesting points as well, so I have chosen to publish them below in only slightly abridged form.


Dear Dr. Aardsma,

We can all agree that no one has proven, beyond any shadow of doubt, that Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, is the same man as Imhotep, the vizier of Pharaoh Djoser, but I have not yet seen any evidence against the identification strong enough to rule out that possibility. The contrary evidence Mrs. Neises presented appears very weak to me, but perhaps it will prove to be stronger than I realize.

Although Fakhry (1961: 4) does state as a fact that the father of Imhotep was an architect, the only basis for this claim seems to be the monument erected by Khnum-ib-re in the Wadi Hammamat (Hurry, 1928: 193; Fakhry, 1961: 24--26) and mentioned by Mrs. Neises. This single testimony might merit our full confidence if erected during or near the time of Imhotep by a witness in a position to know the truth. As it is, however, we have ample justification for skepticism about its accuracy. Since practically every ancestor of Khnum-ib-re listed on the monument is said to be an architect, Khnum-ib-re was evidently intent on advertising his credentials and heritage. Yet the difference between the date of about 500 B.C. attributed to the monument and the date of the birth of Imhotep (Hurry, 1928: 4) indicates that the average gap between the twenty-five men listed was slightly more than 100 years, so we must conclude the list was at least incomplete if not largely legendary or fictitious. Can we even be certain that the names listed represent only father-son relationships? Might they belong to several different lineages?

It is probable, of course, that Khnum-ib-re and his contemporaries did have access to genealogical records or traditions that have since been lost. If it had been common knowledge in their day [i.e., in about 500 B.C.] that Israel was the real father of Imhotep, rather than establishing the reputation of its builder [i.e., Khnum-ib-re] as a great architect, the monument would have proved only that he was a great liar, so I think we can eliminate such a possibility. We are left with only two other alternatives, assuming the list was intended as a single, patrilineal lineage: 1. Khnum-ib-re might have been mistaken about Imhotep, innocently relying on faulty records or traditions, or 2. he might have been right, actually having access to accurate, 2500-year-old information proving that Kanofer was the father of Imhotep. We may never be sure in this life which alternative is correct. What we really need is such a record dated to about the time of Imhotep. This same conclusion applies to the suggestion in Hurry (1928: 196-97) that the name of Imhotep's mother (Khreduonkh) is recorded in a fragmentary document dated to the fourteenth century B.C.

Hurry (1928: 4--5) says, "we know nothing of [Imhotep's] early history, nor is there any record of his appearance in the flesh." Nevertheless, Hurry cites a suburb of Memphis as his place of birth and even specifies his birthday and names both his parents. As explained above, however, Hurry accepted very scanty and unreliable evidence as authoritative, at least in his introductory biographical sketch of Imhotep, because that was the only relevant information available. Unfortunately, encyclopedias used Hurry as their authority, and now the unsuspecting public is left with the impression that nothing could be more certain.

If Imhotep is Joseph, we should probably not expect to find public monuments or other Egyptian documents revealing the true story of his ethnicity, parentage, or rise to power. There was probably a deliberate attempt to suppress this information. Genesis 43:32 informs us that "Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians" and Genesis 46:34 adds "all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians". We know from Genesis that the pharaoh who promoted Joseph took immediate steps to make him appear more Egyptian. Besides the ring, robes, gold chain, and fine chariot provided as necessary signs of his new office, the pharaoh gave him an Egyptian name and wife (Genesis 41:42--45), apparently desiring to conceal as much as possible Joseph's past life as a Hebrew shepherd, slave, and convict. Joseph succeeded so well in shedding his Hebrew identity that not even his own brothers were able to recognize him.

Now what about the objection that Joseph would not have built pyramids and other structures dedicated to pagan gods? If the pharaoh had asked him to construct a building, would Joseph have declined on religious grounds, if he knew that the edifice would be dedicated to a pagan god? The Bible does not answer this question directly, but we do have some reason to suppose that he would have served the king in this way regardless. Perhaps his attitude was similar to that of Naaman, who asked permission to bow down with his master in the temple of Rimmon, in spite of his personal allegiance to the one true God (2 Kings 5:17--18). Apparently, God does approve those who "honor the king," even if it be a pagan king (1 Peter 2:13--17).

We do know that Joseph accepted the Egyptian wife, though she was the daughter of a priest and probably a pagan herself (Genesis 41:50). Further evidence that Joseph saw his mission to be "the saving of many lives" (Genesis 50:20), rather than a crusade to overthrow the Egyptian gods, was his consent to honor the pharaoh's regular allotment to the Egyptian priests at the height of the famine (Genesis 47:22).

Speaking of the famine, there is the legend of the seven-year famine "inscribed on a granite rock" near Aswan and dated to about 325 B.C. (Hurry, 1928: 8; Montet, 1964: 106). According to the legend, Imhotep, the son of Ptah [an Egyptian god], revealed to Zoser that the famine might come to an end if only he would appease the god Khnum. Montet goes on to cite a French authority, G. Maspero, who "considered it to be a pious lie, the purpose of which was to remind the king of the needs of the temple of Khnum." Unlike the monument of similar antiquity that Mrs. Neises mentioned, we have a reliable account (in Genesis) of a seven-year famine that offers some hope of separating fact from fiction in this case. I find it fascinating that this legend makes no mention of the seven years of plenty, because Joseph predicted that those years would be forgotten (Genesis 41:31).

The final point that Mrs. Neises made in her letter was that one title of Imhotep in particular was inconsistent with what we would expect if he were the godly Joseph: "High Priest of Heliopolis, city of the sun [god]" (Fakhry 1961: 24). But if the city of San Francisco elected a Protestant mayor, would we expect him to rename the place to avoid having a title that sounded so Catholic? For that matter, how many Christians continue to honor pagan deities when they name the days of the week? I see this title of Imhotep as rather supportive of identification with Joseph, who may very well have acquired this title from his father-in-law, priest of On, which is Heliopolis (Genesis 41:45,50). If we must conclude that Imhotep discharged his priestly duties any differently from what we would expect from Joseph, then I believe we need more information than just this title.

The story of Daniel and his three Hebrew friends may also throw some light on this point, since their careers were somewhat similar to Joseph's. They also received new names to replace their Hebrew names, but unlike Joseph, they apparently continued to be called by those names, even though each one, except Meshach, apparently referred to some pagan deity. Daniel's new name, for instance, honored Bel, the chief god of Babylon (Peloubet's Bible Dictionary). How many Christians today can even recall the Hebrew names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

Mrs. Neises cited a claim by Montet that "Imhotep constructed sanctuaries of stone for the gods and goddesses of Egypt" (Montet, 1964: 189). But Montet mentions only "stelae found in the subterranean chambers" as the basis for his claim. He assigned no date to these stelae, and he admitted some doubt concerning the correctness of their interpretation. Thus, before we conclude that Imhotep actually worshipped Egyptian gods, perhaps we should insist on clearer and more explicit evidence involving datable records. And if, in fact, he laid plans for buildings later used for heathen worship, this in itself is hardly an adequate basis for branding him as a pagan. He might have been obligated by the pharaoh to supervise their construction, but unable to dictate the use to which they would eventually be put. Perhaps some buildings were only ascribed to him after his death, to make them appear more prestigious.

Mrs. Neises also mentioned an inscription that claimed that Imhotep had planned a temple to the goddess Hathor (Tompkins, 1971: 168). But the Tompkins passage says the inscription reads, "... built according to the plans of Imhotep, son of Ptah." Once again, this source fails to provide us with the dates we need to use the evidence with confidence, but if the inscription itself really says that Imhotep was the son of [the Egyptian god] Ptah, we can rest assured that the official who dictated its wording was ill prepared to tell us the true religious affiliation of the historical Imhotep, who was deified as the son of Ptah many centuries after his death.

In conclusion, it appears that we are still unable to rule out the identification of Imhotep with Joseph. One day in heaven, if not through earthy digging and research, we may learn enough to settle the question forever, and when that day comes, I am confident that the Genesis record will be vindicated, regardless of whether Imhotep is, in fact, Joseph.


Thomas James Godfrey
Blacksburg, VA


Fakhry, Ahmed. 1961. The Pyramids. Second edition, 1969. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hurry, Jamieson B. 1928. Imhotep: The Vizier and Physician of King Zoser and Afterwards the Egyptian God of Medicine. Second and revised edition. New York: AMS Press.

Montet, Pierre. 1964. Eternal Egypt. Doreen Weightman, translator. New York: The New American Library.

Tompkins, Peter. 1971. Secrets of the Great Pyramid. New York: Harper & Row.


Dear Dr. Aardsma,

Thank you for sending Mr. Godfrey's welcome response to my letter. He made some very good points. I was especially pleased to see how well he articulated the circumstances surrounding the Khnum-ib-re and Zoser famine inscriptions. I didn't have time to cover any of that, and could never have done so as well as he.

I didn't know about the fourteenth century B.C. document naming Imhotep's mother, Khreduonkh, but it captures my attention. We all bring different backgrounds and emphases to the study of Bible chronology. Mine just now has to be from the genealogical perspective. In building a family tree, two pieces of documentary proof are required when establishing each link in the chain. It is significant, from the genealogical perspective, that two separate records exist establishing the parentage of Imhotep.

Evidently, the Egyptians placed some importance on preserving the lineages of royal figures and notable citizens. Heinrich Brugsch-Bey was able to reconstruct large family trees for noblemen of Egypt.

Mr. Godfrey appropriately raises the question of how reliable the Imhotep documents are, but acknowledges that we cannot disprove them. That is my thinking exactly. It is my understanding that historical records are accepted by genealogists unless proven wrong. Since these records do exist, we have to contend with them. I view the Imhotep documents no differently than I would any other proof texts encountered in genealogical research. It could be that God allowed these records to survive for our benefit, if Joseph really was not Imhotep.

I appreciated Mr. Godfrey's explanation of how Imhotep's buildings (if actually designed by Joseph) could later have been converted to pagan temples. He makes a good point, and that is something I could accept if confirmed. Whereas I do agree that Joseph would have been respectful of the Egyptians in their religious beliefs, I still cannot conceive of him knowingly contributing to the construction of their pagan temples.

God's purpose was to reveal Himself, as the only God, to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Joseph was His chosen vessel --- the man for the hour. Joseph would not only have confused the message, but defeated God's entire purpose if he later allowed himself to become a tool in the Egyptians' hands for building monuments to their own gods and goddesses. Joseph had already been tried in the crucible, and he was ready to be sent as God's perfect messenger. I believe we can be emphatic when we say, if Imhotep was the architect of any of these structures, he could never have been Joseph.

Building a pagan temple would have been no small offense to God, as we see in the example of Solomon. The consequences of his actions were devastating to the nation Israel. Given Solomon's excesses, one can almost see how that happened, but we have an entirely different picture of Joseph. Unlike Solomon, the spotlight is on Joseph's exemplary character from beginning to end. In every test, he remained true to the Lord God. If we determine that he erected monuments or temples to idols, we are contradicting everything that is revealed about this man in the Scriptures. It seems to me that we need to be careful about writing in anything that isn't there. We dare not attach this to his reputation, if it wasn't so --- if we have the wrong man.

Mr. Godfrey suggests that Joseph might have had no choice if under orders from Pharaoh. Perhaps, but this pharaoh doesn't sound like an autocratic ruler who would have required it of Joseph. He was a generous and goodly king, indebted to Joseph. Pharaoh recognized that Joseph was indwelt by the Spirit of God, and he considered none wiser than this man (Genesis 41:38-39). It is unlikely he would have pressed any issue against Joseph's conscience.

Mr. Godfrey's example of Naaman was good, but Naaman's circumstances were a little different than Joseph's. Pharaoh had given Joseph all the king's power, save the throne itself (Genesis 41:40). Joseph made the decisions, and everyone answered to him (Genesis 41:44). It hardly sounds like a situation where he was forced to compromise his beliefs.

I was very interested in Mr. Godfrey's thinking that Pharaoh may have concealed Joseph's true ethnicity and parentage from the Egyptian people. I really wonder if that was the case. When Jacob died, Pharaoh sent all his servants, the elders of his house, all the elders of the land of Egypt, chariots and horsemen to the land of Canaan for his burial. When the Canaanites saw this tremendous entourage, they commented that this was "a grievous mourning to the Egyptians" (Genesis 50:7,9,11). There wasn't a person in that company who wouldn't have known they were going up to bury Joseph's father.

Joseph's true identity was known from the start, by servants as well as people in high places --- beginning with Potiphar. Everyone in the king's court knew he had been brought out of the dungeon. Human nature being what it is, that news would have spread like wildfire. An attempt to keep people from telling the truth about his origin would have only maximized their temptation to tell. Joseph was tremendously popular --- a hero of his day. It was too great of a story to keep quiet.

When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he kissed them "and wept upon them... And the fame thereof was heard in Pharaoh's house, saying, Joseph's brethren are come" (Genesis 45:15-16). With emphasis on the word "fame", one can only conclude that Joseph's background was common knowledge among the Egyptians. Joseph's brothers had been given the public office of "rulers over [Pharaoh's] cattle" (Genesis 47:6), and everyone in that district would have known who they were. If the servants knew, and the officials in the king's court knew, it is a sure bet that everyone in between knew as well.

I may be wrong about Imhotep, but I must point out that in order to make this identification there are a lot of records that have to be explained away---the names of both his parents, the place of his birth, and problems with his resume. That may be an insurmountable task. As long as questions remain, however, it warrants further research. I hope others are on the case, and I will do my part to see if I can find documents of proof, not legend, concerning Imhotep's accomplishments. Perhaps God will ultimately make it plain by bringing additional documents to light which clearly reveal the truth.


Mrs. Beverly J. Neises
Rainier, OR

 
 
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