The keys may rest within the rings of trees.
In the mid-2nd millenium BC, between 1650 and 1500 BC, there was a cataclysmic volcano eruption which devastated the Mediterranean island of Thera (now called Santorini), and launched volcanic rock as far as Greenland. The event was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in Earth’s recorded history; however, records are not extensive enough for scientists to date it with certainty.
The cryptic nature of the Thera erpution has given rise to many theories on the matter, from the cause of the fall of the legendary society of Atlantis, to an explanation of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians in Exodus and even the parting of the Red Sea. While these theories remain largely unproven, it has long been suggested that an accurate dating of the Thera eruption may solidify other “floating,” or unattributable, dates from the surrounding regions.
In an article published in the journal Science Advances called “Annual radiocarbon record indicates 16th century BCE date for the Thera eruption,” a team led by dendrochronologist, or tree-ring expert, Dr. Charlotte Pearson sought to refine the carbon-14 dating process. Currently the process can only date samples to within a span of decades, but Pearson hopes that this new method can date samples to a specific year.
“What we are trying to do is be part of the global realization that the radiocarbon calibration method is ready for an improvement. Because now the technology is there to measure the radiocarbon in every single tree ring, and we’re just pulling out one treasure from the box — in this instance the carbon-14, and seeing how that can be applied to improve the way we date material in the Mediterranean … and anywhere in the world,” said Pearson, in a video explaining her project.
The new process would put samples of tree-rings’ radiocarbon-14 molecules up against samples of the pumice spewed by Thera. The hope is that the tree-rings would reflect such a cataclysmic even, at which point we would be able to more accurately determine when the event occurred.
“We can use the annual precision of tree rings in combination with carbon-14 to underpin some big questions in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations. We can look at the tree rings as a timeline and connect with people that lived in the past, and I think that gives us more of a sense of who we are, but also a sense of where we’re going and perhaps ways to deal with some of the issues that we might collectively face.”
The Times of Israel notes that this new method of C-14 dating is expected to influence other cultures as well. An example of this is seen in the dating of pharaonic Egypt, where it is possible that the Thera eruption was recorded. Associate Professor of Egyptian Archaeology Nadine Moeller indicated that recent readings of ancient Egyptian inscriptions, documented by Pharaoh Ahmose, describe the Tempest Stella, a major catastrophic climactic event including loud explosions, earthquakes, and darkness.
Moeller suggests that it is prudent to consider the possibility that the Egyptian records of the Tempest Stella were an unwitting account of the Thera eruption. The rule of Pharaoh Ahmose marked the beginning of the 18th Dynasty. The Pearson article, however, notes that while the 18th Dynasty is considered to have begun between 1550 and 1500 BC, radiocarbon evidence taken from a tree buried in volcanic ash on Santorini pinpointed the eruption to be between 1621-1605 BC.
As for how Thera might influence Exodus, The Times of Isreal explains:
In general, the theories state that Thera jump-started tsunamis that could have caused the parting of seas (location is subject to change depending upon the scholar). Additionally, it may have sparked a pillar of fire in the sky visible as far as Egypt. Other environmental effects of the Thera eruption likewise may have caused “some major hemisphere-wide climate episodes” that could link to the plagues, wrote Cornell’s Manning in an email outlining the more popular theories. Some scientists tie the dating to the Israelites in Jericho, based on radiocarbon dating of the city’s destruction.
When asked if her study has any implications on the dating of the roots of the biblical Exodus story, Pearson responded, “All I can say is that continued work to improve chronological frameworks is essential for the study of past civilizations!”
University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Mark Harris views the theory that the Thera eruption had influence on the events of Exodus as a little more than a nice exercise for the imaginiation. He said that while he does understand the impulse to stretch for such a meaning, he does not believe it himself.
“The Thera theories give us ‘scientific readings.’ They challenge or inspire the imagination without necessarily requiring a firm historical commitment that this is what really happened,” said Harris. “There is a fascination with the Bible in the popular imagination, and there’s a fascination with science, and when the two get together, you literally get an explosive combination.”
While we may never know for certain if the intensity of the Thera explosion had an impact on the Exodus, perhaps it is only a matter of time before our scientific dating processes are refined to a point when we will have all the answers.