He was the leader of Egypt, second only to his Pharaoh. He was responsible for planning the distribution of grain to the Egyptians during seven years of drought, giving his Pharaoh ownership over nearly all of the lands and making him rich beyond comprehension. He was revered by the Egyptians as well as many other nations who relied on his plan for their survival. His name was Imhotep.
Wait a minute. If you’ve read the Book of Genesis, you probably think that I just attributed the works of Joseph, son of Jacob, to someone else. In reality, I described a man that most Egyptologists thought was a myth until 1928. The stories about Imhotep and the discoveries that have surrounded him over the last century are so similar to the story of Joseph from Genesis that some are speculating the two may be one in the same.
Archaeologists are, by the very nature of their profession, storytellers. They are biographers who tell stories of people without the benefit of contemporaries and in many cases without an abundance of historical documents. They are historians who try to piece together the stories of civilizations that have fallen to the ravages of time. In some cases, they have enough pieces to the puzzle that they’re able to put together a cohesive and accurate picture. In other cases, including the rise of ancient Egypt, they must apply speculations that lead to theories that fuel more speculations in order to come up with stories that make sense.
If Djoser is Joseph’s pharaoh, then Joseph must be this pharaoh’s vizier, known historically as Imhotep.
The problem with many archaeologists is that they often tell these stories the same way. In other words, it’s often hard to tell the difference between the well-documented histories, such as the American revolution, from the more speculative stories like ancient Egypt. They tend to speak with as much authority about each, which poses a problem in accuracy.
In this study, we will not be making absolute claims. There is currently not enough evidence to say that Imhotep was likely Joseph. There is also not enough evidence to say that Imhotep was likely not Joseph. We’ve looked at the information available, sifted through the definitive claims to see what was truly speculation, and concluded this: there’s a good chance that either Joseph and Imhotep were the same person or that Imhotep’s story has been manipulated over the millennia to replace Joseph in Egyptian history.
If the latter is true, that’s not to say that Imhotep did not exist. It’s to say that a man named Imhotep who accomplished many things, including the building of the Step Pyramid, was also given attribution for the accomplishments of Joseph. Every other theory we’ve heard has fallen short. They were the same man or Joseph was washed out of the Egyptian record.
As with other mysteries such as the Shroud of Turin, the story of Joseph and Imhotep is something that should be investigated knowing that we will not know the truth through our own will but through the Will of God. Only He can reveal this knowledge and He may or may not do so at the appointed time. Why then would we investigate the matter? For this answer, we turn to the wisdom of Solomon:
It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter. – Proverbs 25:2
Jospeh and Imhotep were, at the very least, extremely interesting historical figures. We know that Joseph was more than that. Was Imhotep? Let’s look at each of them.
The best way to learn about Joseph is to read the Book of Genesis. His story accounts for around 1/4th of the long book for a reason. While Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are recognized as the men that God built His nation around and Moses and Joshua are the men who delivered Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land, it was the life of Joseph that bridged the two groups together.
Here is a brief synopsis of his story:
Joseph, son of Jacob, had two dreams that told of his brothers as well as his parents revering him in the future. This combined with the favoritism he received from his father made his 11 brothers jealous, so they plotted his demise. After throwing him into a pit, they contemplated killing him but decided to sell him into slavery instead.
As a favored slave to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Joseph was accused by Potiphar’s wife and jailed. In jail, he deciphered the dreams of the chief of the butlers and chief of the bakers, telling the former to speak of him to Pharaoh when the dream turned to reality, but the chief of the butlers did not.
Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream that he could not understand. The chief of the butlers remembered Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and told Pharaoh. Joseph was given the interpretation of Pharaohs dream by God, telling of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advised Pharaoh that he should set a man to rule over Egypt during the seven years of plenty to collect and store 1/5th of the yield. Then, that would carry Egypt through the seven years of famine to follow.
Pharaoh chose Joseph for the task.
And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art: Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou. – Genesis 41:39-40
Ten of Joseph’s brothers were sent to him by his father to buy grain. This is a detailed and wonderful story that you should definitely read. In short, Joseph tricked his brothers because they did not recognize him; he was a boy when they dropped him in the pit but now he was 30 years old. We won’t go into detail, but it ends with the tribe of Israel being welcomed by Pharaoh into Egypt to live in the land of Goshen where, as God had promised Jacob before he left Canaan, the tribe grew to become great. This leads into the Moses and Exodus, but that’s another story. Let’s continue with Joseph and his influence over Egypt.
Joseph fulfilled his duties and helped the people of Egypt as well as neighboring lands to survive during the seven year famine thanks to the vast stores of grain that he had accumulated during the seven years of plenty. This also allowed Pharaoh to take ownership over all of the people, their money, their cattle, and their land save that which was set aside for the priests. Thanks to Joseph and his God, Pharaoh owned pretty much everything and everyone in the whole land of Egypt.
From here, the story describes Jacob’s death and continues through until Joseph himself dies, leaving the people of Israel secure in Egypt and able to multiply greatly. This was where God would turn his small tribe of chosen people into a multitude that he would lead into the promised land.
So little was known of Imhotep other than tales of greatness. These tales were so great that he was considered to be a myth until an inscription on the base of a broken statue of Pharaoh Djoser was discovered in 1926 during an excavation of the Step Pyramid in Saqqara which Imhotep had allegedly designed. It was the first reference to Imhotep on an artifact that dated back to the time of Djoser. The second verification was found on an enclosure wall surrounding Pharaoh Sekhemkhet’s unfinished pyramid. An inscription mentioning Imhotep brings speculation that he outlived Djoser by a few years and continued into the short reign of the next Pharaoh.
There are many other references to Imhotep that are dated at later times. According to Wikipedia, he held many titles:
Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief. – Wikipedia
Imhotep was believed to be the first true architect, overseeing the building of the first pyramid and having an understanding of the use of columns for supports, hewn stone, and massive building techniques. The Step Pyramid was the largest structure ever built at the time. He was also supposed be the real father of modern medicine according to some scholars, having used techniques for analysis and classification that are still used today. He lived over 2000 years before Hippocrates.
Unfortunately, nearly all of this is speculation and inference. The only things we know about Imhotep is that he was vizier to Djoser and was given many titles over the centuries. He was even deified, something that almost never happened in Egyptian culture for people who were not royalty. Everything else has been pieced together. There is enough circumstantial evidence to assume that he was a very revered man that gained attribution to many great accomplishments, but these attributions are often very thin. For example, it is through a combination of his titles, the time period that it was created, and legends of his skill in architecture and masonry that he is credited with the building of the Step Pyramid, but there is nothing even close to hard evidence of this. No documents give this attribution. It is an example of what we described above where Egyptologists and ancient historians built a story that is stated as fact by many but that has very little to demonstrate its validity.
From a medical perspective, we have stronger evidence. The Edwin Smith papyrus has been dated to approximately 1700 BC (a little less than 1000 years separated from the time of Imhotep) and details uncanny scientific findings that did not take magical cures into account. Anatomical observations, ailments, and cures were detailed on the papyrus that was likely copied from previous works. However, there is still no direct reference to Imhotep.
The last important reference to Imhotep comes on the Famine Stela, a land claim made by the priests of their god Khnum. Inscribed on on a granite cliff around 300 BC, it tells the story of a seven-year drought and how Imhotep consulted the gods to receive a promise of a solution.
This is clearly a butchering of the story of Joseph and the famine. It was changed to reflect a retelling of a story that had made its way through Egyptian history for over a millennia if not two. They discuss Djoser’s concerns and how he turned to Imhotep to find a solution because his people were starving and becoming unruly because of their suffering.
Here is a segment of the interpretation:
The shrine I dwell in has two lips. When I open up the well, I know Hapy hugs the field, a hug that fills each nose with life. For when hugged the field is reborn! I shall make Hapy gush for you. No year of lack and want anywhere. Plants will grow weighed down by their fruit; With Renutet ordering all, all things are supplied in millions! I shall let your people fill up. They shall grasp together with you! Gone will be the hunger years. Ended the dearth in their bins. Egypt’s people will come striding. Shores will shine in the excellent flood. Hearts will be happier than ever before! – The Famine Stela Translation from M. Lichtheim
While we do not subscribe to the notion that Imhotep accomplished everything that is attributed to him, we have no evidence to deny it, either. He may or may not have built the Step Pyramid. He may or may not have talked to God about the seven year famine. If he did not, then he was simply the royal vizier to Pharaoh Djoser who achieved enough reverence from his people that prompted them to attribute so many great things to him over the course of millennia. If he did some or all of these things, particularly receiving guidance from God about the famine, then he was likely Joseph.
Now that we have an understanding about the facts surrounding Imhotep and Joseph, let’s look at the similarities.
- Imhotep was called the High Priest of Heliopolis. Pharaoh gave the daughter of the priest/prince of Heliopolis to Joseph to marry. She bore him two sons. Upon his father-in-law’s death, he would have possibly been given the title of priest/prince of Heliopolis.
- Imhotep means “The Voice of IM”. There is no reference to an Egyptian god named IM. Zaphenath-paneah, the name given to Joseph by Pharaoh, means “The God Lives/The God Speaks”. In Exodus, God told Moses to tell the Israelites that He was “I am.” I’m not going to speculate that “IM” and “I Am” are referring to the same name of God, but it’s an interesting parallel.
- Both were 110 years old when they died.
- Joseph was buried in Egypt, but he asked that his bones be taken back to his homeland. Before leaving Egypt in Exodus, Moses collects Joseph’s bones and takes them from Egypt. Imhotep’s verifiable tomb has not been found, but coffins that may have been built for Imhotep have been found with the bones removed.
We did not include the seven year famine story in this list because it is an unreliable source. There is no way to tell if it is truly a story describing Imhotep or a manipulated story of Joseph used to give the inscribers a credible reference to their claim of owning the land.
The biggest potential contradiction lies in the timelines, but we will discuss that in a moment. For now, here are the things that may contradict the notion that they were the same person.
- Certain myths and records show that Imhotep’s father was an architect named Kanofer. Many of those who believe he was Joseph have pointed out that the myths and documents were created centuries later and used to solidify the credentials of a line of professional architects that dated back to Kanofer. By linking Imhotep to their lineage, they would be considered more skilled based upon their bloodline.
- Imhotep is mentioned in Egyptian writings throughout the ages, but Joseph and any variations of his name (including Zaphenath-paneah) are never mentioned. Joseph is in the Bible but no mention is ever made of Imhotep or Djoser. Of course, some might consider this more validation than contradiction if it is believed that the ancient Egyptians worked Joseph out of their writings in favor of the man Imhotep or that name if they are the same person.
- Other than being vizier, the connection at Heliopolis, and possibly the story of the seven year drought, there are no mentions in the Bible of the plethora of accomplishments attributed to Imhotep. Had Joseph built the Step Pyramid, one would expect this to be mentioned.
All of these similarities and contradictions continue to point to the original premise of this article, that either the two were truly the same person or the stories of Joseph have been melded into Imhotep in order to wipe Joseph from the historical Egyptian record.
Time is a funny thing. We try our best to understand it, to record it, but it’s hard enough in a digital age when there are permanent records of nearly every major human event. It was much harder to record events thousands of years ago and we only have a fraction of them available to us today.
You probably remember what you ate for dinner last night. You might remember what you ate for dinner a week ago. Do you remember what you ate for dinner 17 days ago? Memories fade. Stories change as they are retold. Documents change as they are manually copied. The Bible is the only protected document.
Depending on whose timeline you read, Imhotep may or may not have been around at the same time as Joseph. Some separate them by a millennium. Others put them less than 50 years apart. There is no accurate documentation that comes close to being a true timeline of human events for the last five thousand years. For this reason, we are not using the timelines as a piece to this puzzle. If you want to believe they were the same, you’ll use a favorable timeline. If you want to believe they were different, you’ll use an unfavorable timeline. We won’t use a timeline at all for this article.
Presupposing the Biblical Worldview
Now we can get into the fun stuff. Near the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, there are eleven immense pits. The official explanation is that they were tombs. Most were open air pits. The Egyptians always covered their dead for religious and practical reasons. No bodies, coffins, or anything that would indicate that they were tombs were found in the pits except for the main pit that held Djoser.
Grain, however, was found. Ten of the pits have chutes that lead to one of them.
Ron Wyatt and others drew the conclusion that these pits were granaries. If Djoser died during or after the famine, then it would make sense to convert the main pit to become his tomb as they would no longer be needed for storing so much grain. There are tunnels and chutes beneath the pyramid that lead to and from the tomb of Djoser. Officially, these were intended to confuse grave robbers. There is nothing definitive to debunk either the granary-facility-theory or the trick-the-bad-guys theory.
There was a wonderfully ornate outer wall surrounding the Step Pyramid and the alleged grain storage facilities. This wall stood 10.5M in height and had one working entrance. There are false doors surrounding it as well. These doors were assumed to be used as entrances and exits for the dead.
If we apply a Biblical worldview to this discussion and start examining the circumstances from the perspective that the facilities surrounding the Step Pyramid were designed to distribute food to the masses during the seven years of famine, an interesting story emerges. For the rest of the this particular section, we will be hypothesizing about what may have occurred. In essence, we are putting on our archeologist hats and trying to put together a story that explains the observable situation. By no means are we declaring that this is what happened, though many who have looked at the facts have come to a similar conclusion.
The single working entrance leads to a section that is arguably the most compelling evidence that this was a facility for distributing food. Through a narrow hallway leading to the south courtyard, there are 20 columns on each side of the covered path. They are not freestanding but are worked into the walls. Between them are small chambers that could fit a person and a table. Some theories suggest that this is where the “cashiers” would accept payments and distribute bags for people to take down the hall and collect their grain.
Not to get too caught up in the storytelling, but it’s compelling to note that the columns are designed to hold a striking resemblance to ears of corn.
And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands. – Genesis 41:57
As with so many things in antiquity, it is hard to draw a conclusion without bias. People reading the stories, checking the facts, or visiting the facilities will come to the conclusion based upon their own worldview and the ways that this molds their biases. From a purely Biblical worldview, we can enjoy this as an interesting theory, but even if it’s true, it was not written in the Bible for a reason. That leads to the real question surrounding all of this.
The Real Question Here
God chose to not include much detail about the life of Joseph for his final 65+ years. Genesis 47 concludes the story of Joseph saving Egypt and his family during the drought, the it jumps quickly through Jacob’s 17 years in Egypt before his death. Two chapters later, Joseph is 110 years old when he dies.
There is more prophecy about Egypt than any other land other than Israel. Most of it has already been fulfilled. Some still waits as it pertains to Egypt and the end times. If these great accomplishments could be attributed to Joseph, why would the Bible not include them?
To answer his question, we have to look at two important sides to the coin. The first side is the way that God established the Bible. Every word is there for a reason. Every word that is not in there was excluded for a reason. The amount of commentary about a person, a place, or an event is not always relative to the amount of space allotted to it in the Bible.
An example of this is the “story” of Peleg.
Genesis 10:25And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan. – Genesis 10:25
One might think that the earth getting divided would generate more than a brief mentioning in a portion of a single verse, but God chose not to elaborate for a reason.
The other side of the coin is that the forces of the world will often work to distort God’s Word. It is possible that Joseph was Imhotep. It is equally possible that some of the things that surrounded Joseph’s life have been attributed to Imhotep. At this time, there is no way to discern between the two without forcing one’s own worldview into the discussion. We’ll see what we want to see.
After reading this, we hope that you will not come to a definitive conclusion. God left the last two-thirds of Joseph’s life out of the Bible for a reason. There’s nothing wrong with seeking answers or to “search out a matter,” but don’t let the follies of the world distract you from following God’s will in your life.