Researchers discover the date of the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded and use it to date Egyptian pharaoh’s reigns

Researchers interested in relating scientific knowledge to the Bible believe they may have pinpointed the date of the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded.

By using a combination of biblical text and ancient Egyptian text, the researchers from the University of Cambridge have dated the event, which is mentioned in the Old Testament book of Joshua, to 30 October 1207 BC.

In the Bible passage, Joshua, having led the people of Israel into Canaan – a region of the ancient Near East that covered modern-day Israel and Palestine – prays: “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.”

“If these words are describing a real observation, then a major astronomical event was taking place – the question for us to figure out is what the text actually means,” said paper co-author professor Sir Colin Humphreys from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy.

Image courtesy of Dwight Stone

“Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the sun and moon stopped moving,” said Humphreys. “But going back to the original Hebrew text, we determined that an alternative meaning could be that the sun and moon just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining.

“In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated ‘stand still’ has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses.”

The researchers believe their findings could also be used to date events in the ancient world, in particular the rules of Egypt’s Pharaohs.

As well as the Bible, the researchers analysed the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian text dating from the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah, son of the well-known Ramesses the Great.

The text, was carved in the fifth year of Merneptah’s reign, contains evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC during the date of the solar eclipse.

Image courtesy of University of Cambridge

From their calculations, the researchers determined that the only annular eclipse visible from Canaan between 1,500 and 1,050 BC was on 30 October 1,207 BC.

If this is correct, it would not only be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded, it would also allow researchers to date the reigns of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah to within a year.

“Solar eclipses are often used as a fixed point to date events in the ancient world,” said Humphreys.

Using these new calculations, the reign of Merneptah began in 1210 or 1209 BC. As it is known from Egyptian texts how long he and his father reigned for, it would mean that Ramesses the Great reigned from 1276-1210 BC, with a precision of plus or minus one year, the most accurate dates available.

The precise dates of the pharaohs have been subject to some uncertainty among Egyptologists, but this new calculation, if accepted, could lead to an adjustment in the dates of several of their reigns.

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