I awoke this morning to find that ancient Egypt had made a sudden and unexpected appearance in the American presidential race. BuzzFeed had published an article containing a video from 1998 of the Republican politician Ben Carson delivering a university commencement address in which he claimed that the pyramids were not the tombs of pharaohs, but rather granaries constructed by the biblical figure of Joseph.
This was quickly picked up by other news organisations, including the Huffington Post, who directed readers to the most important sections of the speech. Carson, referring to the Old Testament, said:
My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, [something to store that grain] would have to be something awfully big, if you stop and think about it.
Carson’s comments have been met with widespread derision from both the press and commentators on Twitter, although he has reportedly stated that he stands by these remarks. It is worth noting, however, that this is not merely a story about some rather dubious historical interpretation, but also an illustration of how individuals use the past to define their own positions and those of their opponents.
In the comments just quoted, Carson appears to set himself against archaeologists as a group, questioning their interpretation by looking to the Bible as an alternative source of information to explain a phenomenon. This stance is mirrored by his critics, with one professor interviewed by the Huffington Post describing these ideas as ‘lunatic’ and remarking that ‘It’s a biblical view of the pyramids… It just has no basis in fact.’ Here we encounter a clash between faith and reason, between the word of Bible and modern archaeology.
When one looks at the relevant part of Genesis, however, it becomes clear that it offers questionable support for Carson’s position. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream as meaning that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine, Joseph gave instructions to the people of Egypt, saying, ‘let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities’. There is no reference made to Joseph building any granaries for this purpose, although it is possible that he is assumed to have done so.
Moreover, part of Carson’s argument rests on the idea that, if Joseph did create granaries, they would have to be very large and so the buildings would still be obvious today:
And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.
In fact, however, the biblical text does not refer to the centralisation of grain supplies at Giza or any other site, but rather to their distribution throughout different urban centres: ‘And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about ever city, laid he up in the same.’
Since Joseph is described as storing grain in numerous cities, by Carson’s argument it would be sensible to expect pyramids in all ancient Egyptian cities. It may seem unnecessary to counter his suggestion in this manner due to the weight of other evidence in favour of the dating of the pyramids and their use as tombs and memorials. It is, however, important to observe that, in a story where the designation of ‘biblical’ is being applied to a theory by both sides, one to authorise, the other to discredit, no contradiction actually exists between the text and modern scholarship.
Instead, the origins of the identification of the pyramids as Joseph’s granaries are actually to be found in a rather more surprising location: a historical work written by a French bishop in the sixth century AD. Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, which, as its name suggests, is an account of the Frankish kingdom in Gaul, opens with a survey of human history up to that time, beginning with the story of Creation, thereby demonstrating the author’s essentially Christian understanding of time. While describing the Nile within his narrative of the exodus from Egypt, Gregory pauses for a brief digression:
By the bank is the site of Babylonia – not the Babylonia that we described earlier, but the city in which Joseph built granaries from squared stones and rubble with marvellous workmanship. He made them larger at the base and very much smaller at the top so that wheat could be thrown in there through a tiny hole. These granaries are still visible even today.
The shape of the buildings makes it very likely that Gregory is describing the pyramids at Giza, especially since they are situated quite close to an ancient fortress known as Babylon, the remains of which are in Cairo. Gregory’s description conjures up the strange, if rather amusing image of people marching up the sides of the pyramids to drop grain down a hole in the top.
Nonetheless, with his reference to the continued existence of the buildings, Gregory, perhaps like Carson, appears to be driven to find an explanation for these obvious and fascinating remnants of the distant past. Even though the answer is not to be found in the Bible, the text is used as an essential reference point to anchor and authorise interpretations within a religious world view.
[Author’s note, 10th November 2015: I’ve just found out that an obscure geographical author called Julius Honorius, probably writing at the start of the sixth century AD, refers to ‘the pyramids, which are called the granaries of Joseph’ (pyramides quae horrea Ioseph dicuntur). He’s just reporting that he has heard this, rather than affirming it to be true in the manner of Gregory, but it looks like the bishop of Tours didn’t invent the claim, even though he did develop it.]
Richard Flower is a senior lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter, and formerly of the University of Sheffield. He specialises in the Roman and early medieval periods and is the author of Emperors and Bishops in Late Roman Invective (Cambridge University Press 2013). You can find him on Twitter @.
Cover image: The Pyramids of Giza, Cairo [Wikicommons].
 Genesis 41:36 (KJV translation).
 Genesis 41:48.
 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks 1.10.