While there has been much scholarship focused on the dating of the Exodus, there are essentially three major schools of thought on the matter.

The Early Date Theory sees the Exodus occurring in the mid-15th century B.C.E., followed by an invasion of Canaan roughly a generation later. These dates are initially derived from the Bible—specifically 1 Kings 6:1, which states that the Exodus occurred 480 years before construction began on the Temple of Solomon, in the fourth year of his reign (c. 966 B.C.E.). According to conventional Egyptian chronology, this brings us to 1446 B.C.E., the reign of Thutmose III. Under Thutmose III, Egypt reached its military zenith, launching 17 campaigns into the Levant. The pharaoh is also known to have built a store city later known as Pi-Ramesse, and he had Asiatic slaves in his service. A painting in the tomb of Rekhmire, Thutmose III’s vizier, shows such slaves making mudbricks as their Egyptian taskmasters oversee their work. Thus, Thutmose III fits the role of the pharaoh of the oppression quite well, while his son and successor, Amenhotep II, could have been the pharaoh during the Exodus. Some suggest that Amenhotep’s lack of military activity in the latter part of his reign is suggestive of a catastrophic blow to Egypt’s military power following the Exodus.

Although this theory certainly coincides with chronological clues mentioned in the Bible, it does not agree with other sources, including the archaeological record. There is no concrete evidence for any substantial loss of power—slaves or otherwise—during this period of Egyptian history. The early 18th Dynasty, and Thutmose III’s reign in particular, was a Golden Age for Egypt following the tumultuous Second Intermediate Period. The evidence from Canaan is equally problematic. There is simply no archaeological evidence for a wave of violent devastation c. 1400 B.C.E. on par with the events mentioned in the Book of Joshua.

The Late Date Theory places the Exodus in the 13th century B.C.E., during the reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.E.). Given the Merneptah Stele’s reference to the people “Israel” in c. 1208 B.C.E. as a political power in Canaan worthy of conquering, one can begin to look for archaeological evidence with regard to the Exodus and the Conquest. Israelite settlements in the hill country begin to appear around this time, while some scholars find evidence of destruction at Canaanite cities mentioned in Joshua. At Hazor, for example, a clear and massive destruction layer marks the transition between the Canaanite Bronze Age and the Israelite Iron Age, while destruction layers found at Lachish and Megiddo are dated to the mid-12th century B.C.E.

Although an Exodus during the reign of Ramesses II seems possible from the archaeological evidence, it requires some clever manipulation of the biblical account. All of the events that follow the Exodus from Egypt, including the Conquest and the period of the judges, would have had to occur within the span of a century or so. Extensive overlaps in the leadership and rule of the biblical judges are required to make this scenario plausible. Also of note is the fact that no extensive settlement existed at Jericho during this time.

The No-Date Theory. The historical problems intrinsic to the above dating schemes, coupled with insights gleaned from biblical criticism, have given rise to various forms of the “no-date” theory. That is, many scholars, such as author Rachel Hallote, view the Exodus not as a specific, datable event, but rather as a beautifully written example of folklore. The Hyksos expulsion (c. 1550 B.C.E.) conveniently provides the ancient historical fact of a powerful group of Asiatics leaving the land of Egypt en masse. After roughly a millennium (when the biblical narrative is thought to have been written down), the conflict between Egyptians and Asiatics was still remembered, as was the Egyptian conquest of Canaan that followed. These two historical events were distorted and reversed, becoming the story of a people enslaved by Egyptians, then liberated by their God, who miraculously brought them out of Egypt.