Situating the Patriarch Joseph in History

Icon of the Righteous Patriarch St. Joseph the All-Comely Icon of the Righteous Patriarch St. Joseph the All-Comely     

On Monday of Holy Week the Church commemorates the holy Patriarch Joseph of Egypt. His story is one of the most familiar and beloved in the entire Old Testament, and has even been portrayed frequently in secular contexts, such as in a novel cycle by the twentieth century German Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann as well as in movies and even a Broadway musical. In the Church he is often referred to as Joseph the Fair or Joseph the All-Comely, denoting both the physical and especially the spiritual beauty he possessed. The Church recognizes in him a type or foreshadowing of Christ, for example in his being sold by his brethren much as Christ was sold for silver by a disciple, in his descent into Egypt which prefigured Christ-God coming down to Earth and taking our flesh, and in numerous other ways.1 Thus, his commemoration at the beginning of Holy Week, when we enter deeply into Christ’s voluntary Passion, is both fitting and appropriate.

The basics of the Joseph story, as told in chapters 37–50 of the book of Genesis, are familiar enough: Joseph is the youngest son (at the time) of the aged Patriarch Jacob. He is the favorite and is gifted a beautiful coat of many colors by his doting father. He therefore becomes the object of his older brothers’ jealousy. This jealousy is intensified after Joseph relates to them a series of dreams which seem to foretell an exalted status for him. Their resentment comes to a head when they stage Joseph’s death and sell him into slavery. Joseph is taken into Egypt where he becomes the servant of an official named Potiphar. In time his brilliance and integrity and the obvious blessing of God which rests upon him leads to him being placed in charge of all Potiphar’s possessions. However, Joseph is later framed for the attempted rape of Potiphar’s wife after he had spurned her impure advances. For this he is unjustly imprisoned, and during his imprisonment he correctly interprets the dreams of two disgraced former servants of Pharaoh. He is later recalled from his imprisonment and brought before Pharaoh when the latter has some disturbing dreams which require interpretation. Enlightened by God, Joseph accurately interprets the dreams to foretell seven years of impending abundance followed by seven years of severe famine. Pharaoh is so impressed that he puts Joseph over all the land of Egypt, second only to himself. Due to Joseph’s capable administration, Egypt survives the years of famine and is even able to provide grain to other nations. During this time Joseph is reunited with his family after his brothers have come down to buy grain. In a Christ-like manner he magnanimously forgives his brothers and is tearfully reunited with his father, who for many years had thought him dead. Joseph’s family is resettled in the Goshen region of the Egyptian delta, on good and fertile land, and Israel comes to dwell in Egypt.

The Bahr Yussef, or Waterway of Joseph, a waterway anciently attributed to the initiative of the righteous Patriarch The Bahr Yussef, or Waterway of Joseph, a waterway anciently attributed to the initiative of the righteous Patriarch     

Here it might perhaps be both fascinating and instructive to try to “flesh out,” in a manner of speaking, our knowledge of the life and circumstances of Joseph and the Egyptian world of his time. This little essay will represent a modest attempt at getting a clearer picture of the actual historical setting of his life, using the information in Scripture in combination with current knowledge of ancient Egyptian history to establish at least a rough frame of reference for the period of Egyptian history in which he flourished. This is not presented as representing anything at all definitive; it is only meant as a (hopefully) fascinating little exercise in trying to bring out some details of the historical situation of a great and inspiring Old Testament figure.

First, some math. We can use the chronologies in Genesis to calculate approximately when the Old Testament patriarchs lived. Naturally, the Septuagint chronology will be used here in preference to the Masoretic (there is a considerable gap between them) as it of course is the authoritative version of the Old Testament.2

We are presently in the year 7532 from the creation of the world as per the Byzantine Anno Mundi (henceforth, AM) calendar. Now, we know that the Patriarch Joseph was the great-grandson of the Patriarch Abraham, the grandson of Patriarch Isaac, and the son of Patriarch Jacob. Abraham was born in 3414 AM (which corresponds to 2094 BC). His son Isaac was born when Abraham was 100, that is, in about 3514 AM/1994 BC. Isaac’s son Jacob was born when Isaac was 60, or around the year 3574 AM/1934 BC. Finally, Joseph was born when Jacob was close to age 90, so around 3664 AM/1844 BC. Thus, working from the respective ages of the Patriarchs at the time of their sons’ births as given in Scripture, we have arrived at about 3664 AM for Joseph’s approximate birth year. We can also look at it this way: 3664 AM was 3868 years before our present year of 7532 AM; converting these to our more familiar BC/AD years, we get: 2024-3868= 1844 BC. We can thus give a rough date of around 1844-5 BC, give or take a bit, for Joseph’s birth. And as we further know from Scripture that Joseph lived to be 110 (cf Gen. 50:26), we can place his repose around the year 1734-5 BC.3

Thus we have now established, it is hoped, a pretty solid (if admittedly somewhat approximate) dating for Joseph’s lifetime. This date range corresponds to the so-called Middle Kingdom of Egyptian history (c.2050-c.1700 BC).4 We can further narrow things down and locate his life within the thriving period of Middle Kingdom Egyptian history known as the 12th Dynasty, a dynasty considered to represent the Kingdom’s zenith. This was a time of considerable development, expansion, and cultural refinement in Egyptian history.

The 12th Dynasty was a golden age of sorts in Egyptian history. Among other achievements, it witnessed a considerable expansion of Egypt’s borders. The subjugation of parts of Nubia in the south was a significant part of this expansion. The capital was relocated from the southern city of Thebes in Upper Egypt to a new city named Itjtawy considerably further north near Fayyum. (Significantly for this discussion, that would have placed the capital in Joseph’s time far closer to Goshen where his family later migrated and settled). Administrative and agricultural reforms were also undertaken during this eventful era, changes we can see reflected in the Joseph narrative. Such, then, in a few broad strokes, was the sociopolitical backdrop of Joseph’s story.

Alabaster head of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, under whom Patriarch Joseph may have served Alabaster head of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, under whom Patriarch Joseph may have served     

It next remains to investigate the identity of the Pharaoh(s) under which Patriarch St. Joseph likely served. Based on the proposed dating of his life, it seems safe to speculate that he served under some or all of the following pharaohs: Senusret III, Amenemhat III, and Amenemhat IV. (It is the second of these, Amenemhat III, who emerges as the most plausible of the lot). Significantly, Amenemhat III is known to have allowed Semitic/Canaanite settlers into the Delta region (Goshen). This fits with the Biblical account of Joseph’s family settling in that very region (cf, Gen. 46: 28-34). Also, it was during the reigns of Senusret III (also spelled Senwosret III) and Amenemhat III that power was consolidated and centralized in the pharaoh, curbing the power of the provincial governors, or nomarchs; once again, this corresponds well to the Biblical account, in which Pharaoh’s power was greatly centralized as people sold off everything to him to avoid starvation (cf Gen. 47). As one source states: “Senwosret III initiated important administrative reforms which reduced the power of the provincial rulers and transferred it instead to a large bureaucratic organization.” This is a very important consideration and in itself suggests a strong if not overwhelming probability that this is the correct time period due to how neatly it fits the Biblical narrative. It may also have contributed to the dynasty’s ultimate end; as the same source affirms: “Towards the end of the dynasty, after the influence of the nomarchs had been severely curtailed, their property confiscated and the heredity of offices forbidden, the situation became less stable... Further, the nobility had also literally lost their wealth.”5 Finally, the following rather interesting fact about a man-made Egyptian waterway also tempts one toward such a conclusion: The Bahr Yussef (“Waterway of Joseph”), which has from ancient times borne the name of the righteous Patriarch, dates to the 12th Dynasty and might have been dug (per some sources) to alleviate famine due to excessive Nile flooding.

Pharaoh presents Asenath to Joseph. Illustration from "The History of Joseph and His Brethren" by Owen Jones, 1869 Pharaoh presents Asenath to Joseph. Illustration from "The History of Joseph and His Brethren" by Owen Jones, 1869     

Apparently there are some who try to place Joseph’s life within the so-called Hyksos period of Egypt’s history. Superficially, this might seem an attractive hypothesis. The Hyksos, after all, were West Asiatic (ie, Middle Eastern, possibly Canaanite) foreigners who managed to rule a portion of Egypt for about 100 odd years. So one can see how some might want to place an Israelite like Joseph within that category. However, based on the foregoing considerations, and the subsequent Exodus history, such a dating seems at the very least doubtful, if not untenable. The Hyksos period is simply a bit too late (1500s BC). Nonetheless, the migration of Semitic peoples from Canaan that began during Joseph’s time, as attested in the Biblical narrative, might ultimately have led later on to the Hyksos ascendancy: “Instead, Hyksos rule might have been preceded by groups of Canaanite peoples who gradually settled in the Nile delta from the end of the Twelfth Dynasty onwards and who may have seceded from the crumbling and unstable Egyptian control at some point during the Thirteenth Dynasty.”   

Icon of Patriarch Joseph in the Holy Cathedral Church of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, Alexandria, Egypt Icon of Patriarch Joseph in the Holy Cathedral Church of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, Alexandria, Egypt A few further considerations point towards a Middle Kingdom/12th Dynasty rather than Hyksos period dating. For one, there is the matter of Joseph being required to shave before appearing before Pharaoh. This is consistent with what is known of native Egyptian hygienic customs but is not characteristic of West Asiatic/Middle Eastern societies of the time. Perhaps even more telling however is the matter of Joseph’s wife. Though mentioned only in passing, we are given a significant detail about the wife, named Asenath, who was awarded to Joseph by Pharaoh. (cf Gen. 41:45) The narrative relates that she was a daughter of a priest of On (Heliopolis). On, or Heliopolis, was the center of the worship of Ra or Re. Indeed, her father’s name, Potipherah, means “he whom Ra has given.”6 This detail is consistent with what is known about Middle Kingdom religion but would not fit comfortably into the practices of the Hyksos, who centered their cult on the “deity” Set.7

As related in Scripture, the Patriarch Joseph prophesied that Israel would one day become captive in Egypt, but would be delivered by God from bondage. He obtained a promise from his descendants that they would transfer his body with them when that day came. His relics were, indeed, later translated to the Promised Land in the 1400s BC at the time of the Exodus, during the New Kingdom period of Egyptian history. And thus, some 400 odd years after his brothers had sold him as a slave, Joseph’s mortal remains at last left Egypt’s land for good and returned home.



“Genealogies of Genesis.” 2024. Wikipedia. January 31, 2024.

“Hyksos.” 2024. Wikipedia. March 27, 2024.

“Patriarchal Era: Joseph in Egypt - Part I.” Accessed April 8, 2024.

“Potipherah.” 2024. Wikipedia. January 27, 2024.

“Righteous Joseph the Patriarch.” Accessed April 7, 2024.

“The Global Egyptian Museum | 12th Dynasty.” Accessed April 6, 2024. .

“Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt.” 2024. Wikipedia. March 19, 2024.

Matthew Hartley


1 This version is sometimes referred to as the “Lucianic Septuagint” in reference to St. Lucian of Antioch (+312), who in the late 3rd/early 4th century corrected the text to restore it to its original state. See “Genealogies of Genesis” article on Wikipedia for more complete genealogical information about the OT Patriarchs.

2 Many Church Fathers have explored this theme in great and profound detail. To give but three of the most outstanding examples, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ephraim the Syrian, and St. Cyril of Alexandria have all written on the Christological themes in the Joseph story. The insights in St. Cyril’s Glaphyra on the Pentateuch are especially revelatory and illuminating.

3 Incidentally, this corresponds pretty nicely with the information on the saint on the OCA’s website, which places his death “around 1700 B. C.” (See: “Righteous Joseph the Patriarch,”

4 As a quick historical note, Ancient Egypt’s history is divided into Old, Middle, and New Kingdom periods, with rather longish stretches in between of relative weakness and instability referred to as “Intermediate” periods. While historians of Egypt may sometimes diverge slightly over when exactly one period ends and another begins, the broad outlines of Egyptian history at least seem more or less agreed upon, with some variations in dates owing, perhaps, to such things as overlaps or occasional lacunae in dynastic lists. In the case of Patriarch Joseph’s life, a Middle Kingdom dating seems pretty secure.

5 Quotes taken from:

6 Quoted from “Potiphera,”

7 Here a few brief side comments may be in order. First, it is the clear teaching of Scripture and the Church that the “gods” or “deities” of the pagan religions are in fact demons. An attentive reader of the Joseph story might find themselves wondering why Joseph, so faithful to the God of Israel that he was willing to endure all manner of deprivation for the sake of that loyalty, would then be willing to espouse himself to the daughter of a pagan priest. But there are (unofficial) traditions according to which Asenath, his wife, converted to the worship of the One True God of Israel. Indeed, this stands to reason. The fact that Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were later blessed by Joseph’s father, the great Patriarch Jacob, and themselves became the founders of two of the Israelite tribes, suggests clearly that the whole household was of the same faith. The story of Asenath’s conversion to the worship of the God of Israel and of her marriage to Joseph is charmingly dramatized in the pseudipegraphical book Joseph and Asenath. Though not part of the Orthodox canon of Scripture, this wonderful book, dating to a period between about 200 BC to AD 200, is greatly respected in the Orthodox world, and copies spanning multiple centuries are located in some Athonite monasteries as well as at St. Catherine’s in Sinai, among other places.

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