When I wrote yesterday about GOP frontrunner Dr. Ben Carson’s 1998 claim that the pyramids of Egypt were built by the Jewish patriarch Joseph to store grain during the Biblical seven years of famine, I assumed that like most crackpot claims from candidates it would be a one-day wonder. But then Carson doubled down on his assertion, repeating it in interviews yesterday and adding that “secular progressives” were trying to mock him for a claim that he regards as a “personal belief” that should be immune from criticism. He also asserted that the Bible supports his views on the true function of the pyramids. The story isn’t going away: It was covered on the Today show again this morning.
There’s a lot to unpack there, so it’s probably worth devoting a little more space to this unusual foray of a major political figure into the realm of pseudo-archaeology.
The most concerning part of this anti-science debacle is Carson’s assertion that claims about ancient history are merely “personal beliefs” that should not be evaluated against facts. When asked directly if he was specifically claiming that the pyramids were literally built under the direction of Joseph and were used to store grain, Carson replied, “It’s a plausible belief […] because I believe in the Bible.” But facts aren’t “beliefs,” and it’s disturbing that Carson feels that he can use “belief” as a magic wand to avoid having to support his feelings with facts. When we also note that Carson seems unable to distinguish between ancient astronaut theorists and actual scientists—he asserted that “all these scientists” believe the pyramids to be the work of aliens—we see a portrait of a man who seems to view knowledge as a series of competing belief systems rather than an attempt to approximate reality through observation and conclusions drawn from observations.
But the second part of his defense was also upsetting because he cast his “belief” as existing in opposition to “secular progressives,” as though Christians would uniformly accept a crackpot version of ancient history—or the Bible.
The fact of the matter is that the claim doesn’t appear in the Bible at all. The story of Joseph and Pharaoh is told in Genesis 41, where Joseph tells Pharaoh that a prophetic dream foretells seven years of famine. In Genesis 41:48, we read that Joseph collected grain in each Egyptian city as insurance against the famine, and in Genesis 41:56 we read that this grain was kept in storehouses. If we read this literally, it would seem that there was a storehouse in each city, so even if you believe literally in Genesis, these storehouses cannot be the pyramids.
That did not stop people from speculating about them, however. Here is where things start to get complicated. According to some sources, the monk Rufinus reported in the second of two books he added to his translation of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History that pyramids were shown as Joseph’s granaries in his day, c. 410 CE, but this passage doesn’t appear in modern editions, for reasons unknown to me. (The closest source I can find is a sixteenth century hagiography.) In St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, there is a series of murals made in 1204 that depict scenes from Genesis. Because many of these match closely to images in the illustrated Cotton Genesis, a copy of the Book of Genesis made in the fifth century CE, it’s assumed that the remaining murals reflect pages missing from the incomplete Cotton Genesis. One of these shows Joseph’s granaries as the Pyramids of Egypt, with holes at their peaks for pouring in grain. If this assumption is correct, then the Cotton Genesis would be the oldest identification of the pyramids with the granaries of Joseph.
(Interestingly, at the same time the Church Fathers also identified Noah’s Ark as being pyramid shaped, suggesting a reason that Late Antiquity came to view the pyramids as Arks in stone that preserved knowledge just as the wooden Ark preserved life.)
Julius Honorius, a Roman writer of Late Antiquity (c. 500 +/- 50 years), was apparently the first to describe the pyramids as Joseph’s granaries, in his Cosmographia, in which he says that the pyramids “are called the storehouses of Joseph,” but without elaboration. The claim appears again in the commentaries of Pseudo-Nonnus in the first half of the 500s. Gregory of Tours, who in 594 CE wrote in the History of the Franks 1.10 that Joseph’s granaries were made of stone, wide at the base, and narrow at the top. Although he had never seen the pyramids, they are clearly his inspiration. In 825 CE the monk Dicuil, writing in the Liber de Mensua Orbis Terrae 6.13, described the monk Fidelis’s visit to the pyramids and identified them as Joseph’s granaries. The claim appears as well in the commentaries of Nicetas of Heraclea in the eleventh century and the Byzantine Etymologicum magnum of the twelfth century (among other sources), in both of which the word “pyramid” is said to derive from the Greek word for “grain.”
The reason for this belief is a little unclear. Some of it is likely due to sheer ignorance at the end of Antiquity, when Egypt was slowly falling out of the increasingly isolated West’s orbit. Although the Byzantines had the legend, it was never as popular in the East, where Classical views of the pyramids in Greek competed with Christian views. The oldest Islamic attestation of the granaries myth that I know of is Al-Idrisi’s History of the Pyramids (c. 1150 CE), which was likely reporting it from a Christian source; however, I have read that earlier Islamic authors dismissed the granaries claim as unfounded. Prior to that, Islamic lore generally considered the pyramids to be antediluvian structures, or at least vastly ancient, and the storehouses to be much more recent.
Another reason is probably cultural appropriation. Reassigning the pyramids from pagan Egyptian tombs to holy granaries of a Biblical patriarch Christianized them and made them an acceptable monument to the Judeo-Christian heritage in the years when Christianity finally overcame paganism in Byzantine Egypt.
But the clearest and best explanation is an inference that can be found in our friend Rufinus, who reported in Ecclesiastical History (his translation of Eusebius) 11.23 that Christians and Jews in Egypt alike both identified Joseph with the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, a form of Osiris, and the Jews said that a statue of Serapis the grain-giver actually depicted Joseph. This claim can be found as far back as Tertullian, in Ad nationes 2.8 (197 CE): “For that Serapis of yours was originally one of our own saints called Joseph” (trans. Peter Holmes). Thus, some scholars have argued that the sarcophagus of the Apis bull (in this period, an aspect of Serapis) became identified with the sarcophagus of Joseph, and both Joseph and Osiris-Serapis were said to have had their coffins drowned in the Nile (the former in a Jewish tradition repeated by Christians and Muslims). But what is most relevant is from this is that because the pyramids were known to be tombs, and the Late Antique Egyptians associated death with Serapis, the inference is that pyramids were seen as the realm of Serapis. Thus, some scholars have concluded that for Christians and Jews, these became the structures of Joseph, and since Osiris-Serapis was identified with the grain in Egypt (as Plutarch reported in Isis in Osiris), it’s a small inference to call the pyramids the place where the grain-giving Joseph operated.
Whatever the cause, the belief was by no means universal even in the West, but it was frequently repeated by medieval chroniclers. Famously, Sir John Mandeville—the fictitious author of a plagiarized travelogue—described the pyramids in these words: “And some men say, that they be sepultures [= tombs] of great lords, that were sometime, but that is not true, for all the common rumour and speech is of all the people there, both far and near, that they be the garners [= granaries] of Joseph; and so find they in their scriptures, and in their chronicles.” Mandeville was perhaps the first modern doubter of the tomb theory, asking why, if these pyramids were tombs, they were all empty. His answer, though, reflected a widespread Christian claim, more popular in the West than, as he claimed, in Egypt itself.
But that was the high point of the granaries theory. It went out of fashion very quickly once the struggle against Islam settled into a stalemate after the fall of Constantinople and travel to Egypt became, if not easy, somewhat easier for Westerners. In 1484, no less pious a fellow than a Catholic canon from Mainz, Bernhard von Breydenbach, visited the pyramids on his way back from a tour of the Holy Land—he was as religious as they come. He took one look at the pyramids and wrote the following, published in 1486 in a medieval bestseller called Peregrinatio in terram sanctam:
Beyond the Nile we beheld many pyramids, which in ages past the kings of Egypt caused to be built over their tombs, of which the vulgar say that these are the granaries or storehouses which were built there by Joseph in order to store grain. However, this is clearly false, for these pyramids are not hollow inside. (Latin edition, f116r, my trans.)
That final sentence effectively ended the granaries claim for several centuries, as every scholar thereafter—whatever his beliefs—recognized that solid blocks of stone with, at best, one or two tiny rooms would make ridiculous storehouses. Well, almost. An eighteenth century edition of Hertel’s Iconologica illustrated the story of Joseph’s granaries with a picture of a pyramid. Nevertheless, as the number of European travelers to Egypt increased in the 1500s and 1600s, the idea of granaries became increasingly insupportable in light of observation. If there were any remaining doubt, the famed professor John Greaves squashed it in his monumental Pyramidographia (1646), the most important work on the pyramids between ancient and modern times. He called the claim “most improper” on account of the fact that pyramids are the wrong shape to maximize storage, and the “fewness of the rooms within (the rest of the building being one solid and intire frabrick of stone) do utterly overthrow this conjecture.”
At this point, science tended to govern European attitudes toward the pyramids, and I am not aware of any scholar who seriously argued that they were granaries after 1800. But that doesn’t mean that no one ever did. In 1895, Mrs. Jane Van Gelder received merciless mocking for her book The Store-Houses of the King, or the Pyramids of Egypt, in which she tried to resurrect the granaries theory “simply to uphold the truth of the Holy Bible.” This suggests that beneath the surface of elite opinion the older view of Joseph’s granaries remained wedged in some religious traditions and communities, largely outside of the observation of the so-called “secular progressive” scholars, who are surprised by the occasional recurrence of medieval ideas. I do not know of any fundamentalist groups that officially teach this view, but it would not surprise me if Carson is not alone in mistaking medieval Christian legend for evidence of Biblical truths. [Update: James Tabor has some fascinating information about twentieth century evangelical literature on the pyramids as the granaries of Joseph in this blog post.]
I guess we’re experiencing another outbreak of medievalism, but we can take heart that if it is true than the story was inspired by Jews and early Christians trying to syncretize their faiths with the glory of grain-giving Serapis in the Roman era of Egypt, then there is some irony in the pagan origin of Carson’s Christian extremist beliefs.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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