Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s theory about the origins of the Egyptian pyramids has been widely mocked in the media. Carson has typically been characterized as an anti-intellectual with “weird” beliefs and was even labeled a lunatic by one scholar. Rather than dismiss his beliefs as irrational, others have suggested that perhaps he is trying to appeal to his followers who may hold Biblical interpretation in higher esteem than scientific authority.
But there may be another message he is sending to his target audience. By associating the Biblical Joseph with the Egyptian pyramids, he is imposing a Judeo-Christian narrative on a landscape now occupied by Muslims.
The kerfuffle over Carson’s archeological theories began with a Buzzfeed article featuring a video of Carson giving a commencement address in 1998, in which he stated his belief that the Egyptian pyramids were constructed under the leadership of Joseph. According to the book of Genesis, Joseph was warned by God of a coming famine in Egypt and was instructed to stockpile grain during seven years of prosperity. Scholars of Egyptian history are quite certain that it is not the case and that the actual use was to entomb deceased pharaohs. Even the Biblical evidence for Carson’s theory is virtually non-existent. In Genesis 41, the text indicates that efforts to store grain took place in communities throughout Egypt and not only in centralized locations where pyramids are found. Despite this, Carson continues to stand by his beliefs.
Carson is by no means the first person to connect Joseph to the construction of the pyramids. It is known that this theory was first popularized in the sixth century by St. Gregory of Tours and it has appealed to some Evangelical Christians up into the twentieth century. The writings of one Joseph-built-the-pyramids enthusiast reveals some clues about what might be at stake in Carson’s firm embrace of his beliefs.
In 1964, the evangelist Dr. Herman Hoeh wrote an article titled “Who Built the Great Pyramid” in a Worldwide Church of God magazine called The Plain Truth. Hoeh begins his article emphasizing the impressive size of the pyramid and the mathematical precision with which it was constructed. He notes that the Great Pyramid is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and that a pyramid, minus a capstone, is imprinted on U.S. currency. Additionally, he claims that the citizens of the U.S. are the descendants of Joseph’s son Manasseh. Very quickly, we get a glimpse of Hoeh’s interests in writing about the pyramid:
We found the external appearance of the Great Pyramid ruined by the Arabs. For centuries they have carted away and used the polished white casing stones which once made the Pyramid gleam in the sun and moonlight.
He also cites another example of Arab mismanagement of the pyramid stating that after the “Moslem Arabs” invaded Egypt, they further vandalized the “architectural wonder” when they “blindly cut into the pyramid hoping to find buried treasure in it.”
Hoeh goes on challenge the scholarly consensus about the identity of the known builder of the pyramid, the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (or as he’s known in the Greek, Cheops). First, Hoeh exploits some of the uncertainty about Khufu’s family line by asserting that he was not Egyptian, but instead came from a foreign sheep-herding people who were of a “different race.”
Hoeh then asserts that Cheops was not an “idolater” like other Egyptian pharaohs. To the contrary, he says, Cheops worshipped God under the name “Amen,” which he notes is later used to refer to Jesus Christ in the Book of Revelation 3:14. Furthermore, although scholars have dated the rule of Cheops to the 26th century B.C.E., Hoeh claims that he built the Great Pyramid almost one thousand years later during the time of the seven-year famine, spoken of in the Book of Genesis, when Joseph took up residency in Egypt and assisted the pharaoh in leading during a time of crisis. And what is the true identity of Cheops? In Hoeh’s mind, it is none other than Job, another character from the Hebrew Bible.
Hoeh’s historical claims are clearly flawed and easily debunked, but he succeeds in crafting a narrative that inserts revered figures of the Biblical tradition into the starring roles of Egypt’s history. Hoeh’s assertion that Egypt’s most revered structure was built by the Israelites Job and Joseph is followed by a territorial claim. The Great Pyramid, says Hoeh, was constructed by the Biblical Job with the help of Joseph “to commemorate what Joseph did for Egypt and to mark the border of the territory given to Joseph’s family in the land of Egypt by Pharaoh.” The land granted to the patriarchs of Israel “extends westward from Palestine to the Nile River” and includes the Suez Canal even though “Egypt has [wrongly] seized control of it.”
Hoeh concludes with his hope that one day the Great Pyramid will be recognized by modern Egyptians as a monument to the true God, Amen, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, the capstone depicted on U.S. currency. Given his earlier association of Joseph as a forefather of Americans, it’s not hard to imagine that Hoeh hopes for a Middle East more greatly influenced by Christianity and U.S. foreign policy.
There are many examples of the use of dubious archaeological evidence to advance narratives of racial, religious, and national superiority, and all too frequently, they have been marshaled in an effort to justify policies of conquest. In a speech in 1811, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton argued that the complex burial mounds found throughout North America were built not by American Indians, but by members of a “superior civilization” who had been “exterminated” by “barbarians” who later occupied the continent. President Andrew Jackson put this re-interpretation of the archaeological evidence to use when he argued in front of Congress for the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
In the early twentieth century, enthusiasts of the debunked Kensington Rune Stone deployed a narrative of Christian Viking martyrdom at the hands of Native Americans as evidence that Dakota people were rightfully exiled from Minnesota in the aftermath of the Dakota War of 1862. Nazi propagandists claimed that artifacts unearthed in Poland were Germanic in origin and, therefore, the 1939 invasion was justified.
There is no clear evidence that Carson is using the Egyptian-pyramids-were-built-by-Joseph theory to construct his foreign policy. It could very well be that Carson simply relishes holding on to a belief that, at least on the surface, appears to uphold Biblical authority over scientific consensus.
Yet, considering Carson’s staunch support for Israel and his recent vague promise to “take land” from the “global jihadists,” it’s worth probing further what imposing the Biblical narrative on one of the Middle East’s most significant archaeological sites means to him and his constituency.