Q&A – Are Imhotep and Joseph the Same Person?
Are Imhotep (a vizier under Pharaoh Djoser) and Joseph (from the book of Genesis) the same person?
Imhotep was a Egyptian priest, architect, and physician who is now thought to have designed the Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser, considered the first pyramid of ancient Egypt and an important prototype for the later Great Pyramids of Giza. He lived during the 27th century BC (that is, 2600s BC). Though he was an important figure in Egyptian legend, little survives about him today from his own time. What few texts do survive tell us the basic details of his station and that he was a man of remarkable and wide ranging ability.
A theory has arisen that this Imhotep was actually Joseph the son of Jacob, great-grandson of Abraham, and progenitor of the Israelite tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, whose story is told in Genesis 37-50. If there is any evidential or circumstantial basis for this identification it must be in some basic similarities between the Joseph story and a legend about Imhotep that we know of from a Ptolemaic era stele known as the Famine Stele. In this stele, we read about how there was a seven year famine during the reign of Djoser. Djoser sought Imhotep’s help, and Imhotep successfully inquired of the Egyptian gods and got the Nile flooding again. The Ptolemaic era, during which this stele was constructed, lasted from about 300-30 BC, beginning shortly after the death of Alexander the Great and ending with the Roman conquest of Egypt. So this stele was constructed over 2,000 years after the death of Imhotep. Its historical value is, therefore, highly questionable.
The similarity between the Joseph story and the Imhotep legend is also not nearly so profound as it might at first appear. The only two similarities are the seven year famine and the vital function of dreams in the story. But whereas Joseph learns about the famine ahead of time through Pharaoh’s dream, and he leads Egypt in taking advantage of a seven year period of plenty that precedes the famine, Imhotep’s help is enlisted while the famine is going on, and he himself makes contact with the god Khnum through a dream, whom he persuades to end the famine. Dreams are a common motif in ancient literature, and a famine of seven years, if not as common a motif as dreams, nevertheless is not unique to these two stories. So even assuming the basic historicity of the Famine Stele’s legend (i.e., that there was, in fact, a major famine during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser), there just aren’t enough similarities between it and the Joseph story to posit an identity between these two individuals.
Moreover, assuming our understanding of Egyptian chronology is reliable (and we are 99.99% sure that it is), Imhotep would have lived in the 27th century BC (2600s BC). That is 500-700 years earlier than conservative estimates of when Abraham would have lived and 700-900 years earlier than Joseph. There is just no reason to date Joseph this early. It has no basis in biblical chronology (a very literal reading of the years in the Old Testament would place Joseph somewhere around 1800-1700 BC). If we date Joseph as early as Imhotep, biblical chronology is tossed out the window just as surely as if we regard all the years in Genesis and elsewhere as pure fiction. So if a concern is to argue for the reliability of historical data in the Old Testament, the Joseph=Imhotep theory is not desirable. The only way it can work is by radically refiguring Egyptian chronology, which would have a domino effect on every other chronology in the ancient Near East, rendering all of them completely inaccurate. It is virtually impossible that we could have Egyptian chronology that far wrong.
There are two reasons I can see that some want to see an identity between Imhotep and Joseph. First, it would be awesome to find so clear a confirmation of biblical history as to be able to associate characters in the Genesis accounts with historical figures known from outside the Bible. Unfortunately, trying to do this with Joseph and Imhotep is just wishful thinking. Second, radical young earth creationists (the Archbishop James Ussher variety) have a vested interest in discrediting or refiguring accepted Egyptian chronology. Ussher’s famous calculation of the earth’s age based on biblical data determined that the earth was created in 4004 BC, and this would necessarily place Noah’s flood around 2350 BC. But Egyptian history extends uninterrupted well beyond 2350 BC. The first Pharaoh (king of both upper and lower Egypt), Narmer, can be dated to about 3100 BC with reasonable certainty. For the radical young earth creationist, either Egyptian chronology (as well as Mesopotamian and Chinese chronologies) is an elaborate hoax, or we must have completely misunderstood their numbering systems. When examined closely, this last argument just doesn’t work on the scale that it has to in order to date Narmer after 2300 BC and make Joseph and Imhotep the same person.
For Joseph to be historical, we don’t need this theory. There’s plenty of room in Egyptian history for someone like Joseph to have existed. Ancient Near Eastern historians and archaeologists routinely overstate or overestimate just how much we know about the events of the first two millennia BC. We don’t know anything like a comprehensive list of all events of any importance, nor can we. So the fact that we don’t have an Egyptian text mentioning Joseph means nothing. We certainly don’t need to pit the veracity of biblical stories against scientifically determined historical timelines to make an “us or them” situation.