My recent move has already paid off in terms of increased access to the Bay Area intellectual milieu, by which I mean wacky outlandish hypotheses about completely random stuff. The other day a few people (including Ben Hoffman of Compass Rose) tried to convince me that Pharaoh Djoser was the inspiration for the god Osiris and the Biblical Joseph. This sort of thing is relevant to my interests, so I spent way too long looking into it and figured I ought to write down what I found.
The short summary is that the connection between Djoser and Osiris is probably meaningless, but there’s a very small chance there might be some tiny distant scrap of a connection to Joseph.
Djoser, who ruled Egypt around 2680 BC, was a pretty impressive guy. Egypt had been unified by one of his predecessors a few generations before, but they’d let it get un-unified again, and Djoser’s father was the one who reunified it. Djoser inherited a kingdom of newfound peace and plenty – and made the most of it, starting lots of impressive infrastructure and religious projects. His chief minister Imhotep was famous in his own right as a polymath who invented medicine and engineering (he may also have been the first person to use columns in architecture). He was later deified for his accomplishments. Djoser and Imhotep cooperated to build the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
Osiris was a legendary god whose worship was first recorded around 2400 BC. The legends say he was a wise and benevolent Pharaoh of Egypt in some unspecified distant past before being killed by his brother Set. One thing led to another, and he eventually ended up as the god of death and resurrection and the underworld. Scholars have long debated the exact origins of the Osiris cult, and tend to attribute it to some historical memory of something or other but disagree viciously over the details.
The argument I heard for Djoser inspiring Osiris hinges on a couple of points (there may be others I didn’t get). First, the times sort of match up – this legend of the wise king Osiris first appears just a century or two after Djoser died. second, Djoser was a big fan of an Egyptian symbol called the ‘djed’, a weird column shape thing. Djoser included djeds all over the step pyramid he and Imhotep built together, and may have kind of had an obsession with the thing (and why shouldn’t he? – if I helped invent the column, I’d talk about it a lot too). Meanwhile, the djed is traditionally considered the symbol of the Egyptian god Osiris. And third, if you’re going to deify a pharaoh into the god of death and resurrection, the beloved and powerful ruler who invented the first pyramid sounds like a pretty good candidate.
I think this argument is probably wrong. For one thing, although nobody can prove Osiris existed before the death of Djoser, everybody suspects that he did. In The Origins Of Osiris And His Cult, Egyptologist John Griffiths appeals to some early inscriptions that might name Osiris, and concludes that
There is a strong likelihood that the cult of Osiris began in or before the First Dynasty in connection with the royal funerals at Abydos, [although] archaeological evidence hitherto does not tangibly date the cult ot an era before the Fifth Dynasty
A common consensus is that he began as a local deity of the city of Busiris and (as mentioned above) the necropolis at Abydos. Djoser has no connection to either city, and in fact was the first king not to be buried at Abydos. His building a pyramid is less impressive than it sounds; all the Egyptian rulers were into building big tombs, and he just took it to the next level.
Djoser liked djeds, but so djid lots of Egyptians. They were popular long before Djoser and remained popular long after him; among their many fans may have been such pharaohs as eg Djedkara, Djedkheperu, Djedkherura, and Djedhotepre. The djed started out as a general fertility symbol, later became a symbol of the god Ptah, and only became fully associated with Osiris a thousand years after Djoser’s djeath. This makes it hard to argue Osiris got associated with the djed because of some cultural memory of Djoser.
This is kind of weak evidence against the theory – a speculation that Osiris is older than he looks, a little bit of confusion around when Osiris became associated with his sacred symbol. But it was a weak theory to begin with, so weak counterevidence convinces me.
So let’s get to the more interesting claim – that Djoser inspired the Biblical Joseph.
This comes from a monument called the Famine Stele, written two thousand years after Djoser’s death but telling a legend that had grown up around him. According to the stele, in the time of Djoser there were seven years of famine. Djoser asks his chief minister Imhotep for help. Imhotep investigates and finds that the problem is related to the god Khnum. He prays to Khnum and offers to worship him better, and Khnum appears to him in a dream and says that okay, he’ll make the crops grow again. Djoser and Imhotep repair Khnum’s temple, the famine ends, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The parallels to the Joseph story are pretty apparent. A seven year long famine. A Pharaoh who begs his chief minister to do something about it. A dream that provides the solution. Sure, the crocodile-and/or-ram-headed god Khnum gets left out of the Biblical account, but that sounds like just the sort of thing the Hebrews would conveniently forget.
There are some other differences, of course. The Joseph story involves seven years of plenty before the famine; the Imhotep story doesn’t. Joseph gains his chief ministerial position because of the famine incident; Imhotep is already in charge when the famine begins. God gives Joseph a rational planning strategy; Imhotep uses divine intervention directly. But isn’t there still a suspicious core of similarity here?
Creationists think so. They get really excited about this connection since it seems to link the Bible to a verified historical event (for values of “verified” equal to “someone made a stele about it two thousand years later, and in fact after the Bible itself was written”). Back during the presidential campaign, Ben Carson got soundly mocked for saying the pyramids were silos for storing grain. Everyone attributed this to his warped fundamentalist Christian view of history, but nobody thought to ask why fundamentalist Christians seized on this falsehood in particular. The answer is: if the pyramids were grain silos, then the link between Joseph (whom the Bible says built grain silos) and Imhotep (whom Egyptian records say built pyramids) becomes even more compelling.
Awkwardly for the creationists, this doesn’t even match their own hokey Biblical history. There are various different Biblical chronologies, but they mostly date Joseph around 1900 – 2000 BC – too late to be Imhotep, who lived closer to 2600. Also, don’t tell anyone, but the Bible is probably false.
Atheists have a better option available – they can claim that the Egyptian legend of Imhotep inspired the Israelite legend of Joseph. This is the strategy taken by a Ha’aretz article, which first roundly mocks any identification of Imhotep with Joseph, saying that this makes no sense and is totally stupid, and then adds:
There is a consensus among the majority of biblical scholars that the Joseph story dates, at the earliest, to the 7th century BCE, namely 2700 years ago. Many Judahites were residing in the Nile Delta at the time, as proven among other things, by the existence of a replica of the Jewish First Temple in Jerusalem on the island of Elephantine. It seems these Judahites may have been behind the adoption of the Imhotep tale as an Israelite story.
It doesn’t cite which scholars it’s talking about, or explain why they suddenly backtracked from their “there is no connection between Joseph and Imhotep shut up you morons”, but the overall point seems pretty plausible. Remember, the 7th century would have been just a few centuries before the Famine Stele was written, and the Djoser/Imhotep famine legend might have been popular in Egypt around this time. It sounds just barely possible that some Jews might have rewritten it with an Israelite protagonist the same way a bunch of pagan goddesses and even the Buddha ended up as Christian saints.
(or, for that matter, the Egyptians could have rewritten the Bible story with an Egyptian protagonist, although it seems less likely for cultural transmission to go that direction given the two cultures’ relative sizes.)
Or maybe none of that happened. Wikipedia’s article on the Famine Stele points out that a seven-year famine was a weirdly common motif all across the Ancient Near East, citing eg the Epic of Gilgamesh:
Anu said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle? Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years o£ seedless husks, there is grain and there is grass enough.’
I don’t know if all of this derives from the same proto-Near-Eastern source, or whether seven year famines are just sort of a natural kind (compare all the different cultures that have something like “may your reign last a thousand years!”). But it warns us against leaping into accepting this too quickly. This is especially true in the context of atheists’ haste to believe things like “Christ is just a retelling of the Osiris myth!” or “What if Moses was really just Akhenaten” that later turn out to not really make that much sense. Part of the lesson I wanted to teach with Unsong is that this sort of thing is too easy, and therefore we need to increase our guard. I don’t know how to weight this, but maybe say there’s like a 30% chance
As a perfect example, here’s a completely insane work of Biblical apologetics claiming that a totally different pharaoh associated with djeds corresponded to the Biblical Joseph.