The Merneptah Stele has long been touted as the earliest extrabiblical reference to Israel.* The ancient Egyptian inscription dates to about 1205 B.C.E. and recounts the military conquests of the pharaoh Merneptah. Near the bottom of the hieroglyphic inscription, a people called “Israel” is said to have been wiped out by the conquering pharaoh. This has been used by some experts as evidence of the ethnogenesis of Israel around that time.
But a new publication by Egyptologists and Biblical scholars Manfred Görg, Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis suggests that there may be an even earlier reference to Israel in the Egyptian record. Manfred Görg discovered a broken statue pedestal containing hieroglyphic name-rings in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin and, after studying it with colleagues Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis, they suggest that one of the name-rings should be read as “Israel.” Not all scholars agree with their reading because of slight differences in spelling, but Görg, van der Veen and Theis offer strong arguments, including supportive parallels in the Merneptah Stele itself. This newly rediscovered inscription is dated to around 1400 B.C.E.—about 200 years earlier than the Merneptah Stele. If Görg, van der Veen and Theis are right, their discovery will shed important light on the beginnings of ancient Israel.
* See Frank J. Yurco, “3,200-Year-Old Pictures of Israelites Found in Egypt,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1990.
For more about the discovery of a possible first mention of Israel before the Merneptah Stele by scholars Manfred Görg, Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis, see “When Did Ancient Israel Begin?” in Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012.