|Al-‘Aziz & Potiphar: A Confused Nomenclature?|
|Written by mquran.org|
|Sunday, 19 November 2006|
It has been claimed by some people that there is a "historical contradiction" in the Qur'an concerning the names Potiphar and 'Aziz' in the story of Joseph. According to Robert Morey:
Yet another apologist argues that:
In a gist, the argument here is that the Biblical name of 'Potiphar' is a historically accurate attribution, while the Qur'anic 'Aziz' is a name erroneously attributed to the same historical character. Furthermore, it is argued that 'Aziz' was not an Egyptian name, nor was it known to have been used by the Egyptians during Joseph's time. As far as the variations between the two narratives are concerned, the Qur'an supersedes the Bible in historical accuracy by correctly referring to Egypt's ruler as King, and not Pharaoh and the mention of crucifixion during the time of Joseph and Moses. The latter has also been claimed as a "historical contradiction" in the Qur'an.
Let us now discuss the claim of "historical contradiction" concerning the names Potiphar and 'Aziz' in the story of Joseph as narrated in the Bible and the Qur'an.
2. What Does The Qur'an Actually Say?
A CASE OF MISTAKEN READING
Let us now analyse a selection of quotes from the Qur'an relevant to the topic in hand.
In the quotation above, we have underlined the Qur'anic word used to describe the historical character otherwise referred to as Potiphar in the Bible. The word used is al-‘Aziz, not ‘Aziz as incorrectly understood by some people. Even the translation reads "the ‘Aziz", and not simply ‘Aziz.
THE QUR'AN EXPLAINS ITSELF!
The issue of the al-‘Aziz in the story of Joseph can be resolved by applying the most fundamental principle of Qur'anic exegesis: al-Qur'an yufassiru ba‘duhu ba‘dan, i.e., different parts of the Qur'an explain one another. When Joseph attains a high status in Egypt, his brothers visit him. Joseph is called by his own brothers as al-‘Aziz in verse 12:88.
It is translated as:
So, we see that Joseph's own brothers called him al-‘Aziz (translated as "the exalted one") because he was at that time in charge of the storehouses of Egypt. They called him by the very phrase they would have used in conjunction with any powerful man in the Egyptian administration. This is confirmed by the fact that at that time they had not yet realized that they were speaking to their brother, the very one they once threw down to the bottom of a well and forgot about his fate. Al-Qurtubi says in the tafsir of the verse:
Hence al-‘Aziz in the story of Joseph is used to denote the high rank of an official in Egypt. It also denotes a powerful highly-placed officer. Clearly, the presence of the definite article "al" before ‘Aziz is a strong indication that it is not a name. Even in modern times, Christian and Jewish Arabs might call themselves ‘Aziz (e.g., Tariq ‘Aziz, the former Iraqi minister) but none calls himself al-‘Aziz. In this scope, the claim that ‘Aziz was the name of the historical individual in question results from a misreading of the text. Moreover, when we read Islamic literature (see below) on this matter, nowhere can one find that al-‘Aziz was believed to be this individual's actual name.
The claim that 'Aziz' was the actual name of the Bible's 'Potiphar' is even more ridiculous, let alone it being a historical contradiction as we shall soon see!
3. Potiphar: An Anachronism During The Time Of Joseph
It has been asserted by Morey and other Christian apologists that the real name of the man who bought Joseph was Potiphar. They arrived at the real name of the man using circular arguments, i.e., since the Bible says Potiphar was the man who bought Joseph, it must be true. No effort has been made to present the historical evidence to show that the name Potiphar did exist during the time when Joseph was in Egypt. In this section, we would like to go through some of the evidence regarding the existence of the name Potiphar in ancient Egyptian history.
THE POTIPHAR STELA: FROM THE TIME OF JOSEPH?
The Egyptian name which is rendered by both the Hebrew Potiphar (the name of the master of Joseph) and the Hebrew Potiphera (the father-in-law of Joseph) is universally accepted as belonging to the formulation P3-di+the name of a god. While names of the P3-di- formulations are occasionally attested in the Egyptian records before the first millennium BCE, it is really from that time on that they were commonly used and are frequently found. But the exact Egyptian original P3-di-p3-Rc rendering both the Hebrew Potiphar and the Hebrew Potiphera is attested only once on a stela Cairo JE 65444, which at the earliest dates to the 21st Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The Stela of Potiphar. This stela (Cairo JE 65444) at the earliest dates to the 21st Dynasty. Potiphar is mentioned twice in this stela.
The hieroglyph representing Potiphar, P3-di-p3-Rc, is shown below.
Figure 2: Hieroglyph writing of "Potiphar".
The meaning of Potiphar or Potiphera in Egyptian is "the one whom god Rec has given", i.e., "the gift of god Rec".
The 21st Dynasty reigned in Egypt between c. 1069 - c. 945 BCE during the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069 - c. 702 BCE). It must be added that before the discovery of the Potiphar stela the nearest sounding name to Potiphar was P3-di-Rc dating from the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom Period. Concerning the name Potiphera, Professor Kitchen says:
Elsewhere he adds:
Kitchen's speculative and ingenious connection of P3-di-p3-Rc with Didi-Rc via P3-didi-(p)Rc is a little bit too far-fetched as more simpler and valid explanations exist, and this we will see in the next section.
A CASE OF BAD TIMING
Let us now gather the evidence that we have acquired concerning Potiphar and tabulate it. Unless otherwise stated, specific dates for particular Dynasties and Kings that we quote within this paper are taken from Nicolas Grimal's book, A History of Ancient Egypt. Please note that the exact Egyptian chronologies are slightly uncertain, and all dates are approximate. The reader will find slightly different schemes used in different books. Table I shows the times when Joseph and Moses entered Egypt and the first attestation of Potiphar in ancient Egyptian history.
Table I: This Table shows the times when Joseph and Moses entered Egypt and the first attestation of the name Potiphar in Egypt.
According to the Christian apologists the real name of the officer of the Pharaoh was Potiphar, who was also the master of Joseph. It is clear that the earliest attestation of the name "Potiphar" in Egypt post-dates both Joseph and Moses. It is amply clear that the name Potiphar during the time of Joseph is an anachronism.
Apart from the clear circularity in the arguments of the Christian apologists, one can also see their framework, preconceived by the biblical account, consciously or unconsciously tends to fit its "facts" to this framework, rather than to build the framework out of the facts. This is best illustrated by Vargo's concluding statements:
Perhaps Vargo should now reconsider his own words and start to work within the paradigm of ancient Egyptian history to prove the existence of "Potiphar" during the time of Joseph. To make his work light, in fact, such discrepancies in the biblical story of Joseph have not gone unnoticed by the scholars of Egyptology and the Bible. Donald Redford in his A Study Of The Biblical Story Of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) points out that:
Similarly, Alan Schulman, while dealing with various names in the biblical story of Joseph, criticizes scholars like Kitchen, Vergote and others for offering ingenious explanations even though the elements of the story date around 21st - 22nd century BCE. His thesis is supported by the facts that almost all the Egyptian names used in the biblical story of Joseph are late. The presence of late Egyptian names in the biblical story of Joseph is also admitted by Kitchen, Hoffmeier and others but they tend to explain away, often in ingenious ways, to recast the Joseph narrative in the Middle / Second Intermediate period of ancient Egyptian history. Given the fact that Egyptian names in the Joseph narrative are late, Schulman, on the other hand, says that the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis should not be viewed as history but as a historical novel containing a core of history.
Schulman opines that the biblical story of Joseph was written way after the actual event; the author(s) who composed the narrative used the name-formulations which would have been most familiar to his audience as Egyptian, and these would have been names of the types most common at the time he wrote, not the rare and unusual types which would have been unfamiliar. He argues for the composition of the biblical story of Joseph to be dated to a time when these names were in current usage, i.e., to the time of the late 21st to 22nd Dynasties, which corresponds to the historical biblical chronology to the period of David and Solomon.
Another clue of late composition of the Book of Genesis comes from the use of the word "Pharaoh" during the times of Abraham, Joseph and Moses in ancient Egypt. The word "Pharaoh" for an Egyptian ruler was used in the New Kingdom period. Hoffmeier says that the use of "Pharaoh" in the books of Genesis and Exodus "accords well" with the Egyptian practice and hastens to add that:
Based on surviving evidence from ancient Egypt, it can be conclusively proven that the name Potiphar is an anachronism during the time of Joseph. Before the discovery of the Potiphar stela the nearest sounding name to Potiphar was P3-di-Rc dating from the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom Period. Concerning the name Potiphera, Kitchen says that this name is "inscriptionally attested only late (c. 1000 - 300 BC), but is merely a full Late-Egyptian form of this name-type which is known from the Empire period, especially the 19th Dynasty (13th century BC)." Consequently, he offers an ingenious explanation to connect P3-di-p3-Rc with Didi-Rc via P3-didi-(p)Rc. The exact Egyptian original P3-di-p3-Rc rendering the name Potiphar or Potiphera appears only once in ancient Egyptian history and dates to the 21st Dynasty in the Third Intermediate Period. In fact, as scholars of Egyptology and the Bible have shown, almost all the Egyptian names that appear in the biblical story of Joseph are from the late ancient Egyptian period which suggests that the story of Joseph was written much later after the actual events had occurred. Needless to add that if the Christian apologists insist on using Rohl's revised chronology, the results would be even more devastating for their cause.
It is clear from our discussion that the Christian apologists, in their zeal to show a "historical contradiction" in the Qur'an, simply misread, knowingly or unknowingly, the word al-‘Aziz and attributed it to Potiphar. They read it as 'Aziz' whereas the Qur'an says al-‘Aziz, which, in context, simply denotes a powerful person of high rank in the Egyptian administration. Had the apologists and missionaries been even vaguely familiar with the basic principles of reading classical Arabic, the issue would have perhaps resolved itself before further unnecessary exertion. There is no one named 'Aziz' in surah Yusuf; rather what is mentioned is al-‘Aziz. The Arabic definite article "al" – which corresponds to "the" in English – indicates that the text in question is not to be understood as a proper name. Taking into account a broad spectrum of early Islamic mufassirun (exegetes) we can understand that al-‘Aziz was never understood to signify a name, rather, as has been suggested, it denotes a powerful official. As we have already mentioned elsewhere, here we can observe one of the classic missionary and apologist stratagems: that of advancing a preconceived theological understanding of history and then manufacturing supporting evidence to lend verisimilitude to their conclusions, irrespective of how much this contradicts all of the available and well-established historical evidence. 'Since the Bible says Potiphar, it must be historically true'. Is this type of argumentation indicative of serious scholarship? It is also important to establish missionary logic in this case, which entails the assertion that if the Bible cites the name Potiphar, then the name is historically accurate. Regardless, their argument is circular and no attempt has been made by some people to verify the historicity of a person called Potiphar before claiming a contradiction. No one would dispute that a person's religion is based on faith; however, one would not expect this to occur at the expense of historical reality.
And Allah knows best!I. Appendix: Al-‘Aziz In The Islamic Exegesis
Tafsir Ibn Kathir
The translation of the above is as follows:
In the above quote, we notice that in verse 12:30 Ibn Kathir interprets al-‘Aziz as al-Wazir often translated as the Vizier, which means the Minister. Consistently, Ibn Kathir drives the same interpretation from the word al-‘Aziz when commenting on verse 12:51. Without the slightest confusion, Ibn Kathir understood the word al-‘Aziz as a person of high rank and not a name.
The translation of which is:
In this quote, we notice that al-Qurtubi does not even bother to comment on the word al-‘Aziz as it is obvious for any Arabic speaker that it is a not a name but some high official. This idea is enhanced by examining the number of servants the man possesses; he is believed to have had a baker, a herdsman, a jailer, a secretary, etc. It is obvious that al-‘Aziz is a powerful man. This is the point conveyed by Holy Qur'an.
The translation of which is:
In this quotation, al-Tabari understands the word al-‘Aziz as the king, which gives the same impression of a mighty person, and not a personal name as claimed by those. He even reminds us that it is derived from the same root as ‘izzah which means might and power. Again, the whole point is that the ‘Aziz is a powerful man in Egypt, which is an important detail of Joseph's story. As a matter of fact, this will be the only reason for the imprisonment of Joseph, however innocent he was. Interestingly, in his commentary on verse 12:51, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari states a report that mentions the name of Joseph's owner:
So, not only did al-Tabari understand al-‘Aziz as someone powerful and influential but also reported that his official's name was Itfir. In light of the fact that al-‘Aziz mentioned the Qur'an is but a phrase to denote a powerful person, this last report turns out to be the final nail in the coffin of those' claim.
Another side issue that Muslims have to consider is the authenticity of this last report mentioning Itfir and Ra‘il. As a matter of fact, this is believed to be part of either the isra'iliyyat or any other unconfirmed reports which is often conveyed by al-Tabari in his tafsir. For further details, please refer to the article about isra'iliyyat and tafsir. It is worth mentioning that neither Ibn Kathir, who is rather careful in authenticating the reports in his tafsir, nor al-Qurtubi mention this report in their tafsir.
References & Notes
 R. Morey, The Islamic Invasion: Confronting The World's Fastest Growing Religion, 1992, Harvest House Publishers: Eugene (OR), p. 140.
 Whilst discussing the claim that al-Aziz is "an anachronistic title" given to Potiphar, those state: "with special gratitude to Islamic Awareness for making such a big deal about a minor point on a defunct web page, and forcing the issue into public attention." Perhaps unaware that the same issues discussed in "this minor point on a defunct webpage" were thrust into (published) Christian apologist and missionary material before the author's webpage had been created, one is not at loss to foresee the intended meaning of the above sentence, nor, as a result, its factual incoherence. Similarly, we are informed on January 26th 2000 in an update that "... this time in regard to an issue hardly anyone would ever have known about if Saifuallah & Co. hadn't brought it out of obscurity." The missionary website itself was established in 1995.
 L. Fatoohi & S. Al-Dargazelli, History Testifies To The Infallibility Of The Qur'an: Early History Of Children Of Israel, 1999, Adam Publishers & Distributors: Delhi (India), p. 79. For more discussion on al-‘Aziz see 87-88. Fatoohi and al-Dargazelli also arrived at the conclusion that al-‘Aziz means someone occupying a high position and that it is not a name.
 C. F. Mariottini, "Potiphera" in D. N. Freedman (Editor-in-Chief), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992, Volume 5, Doubleday: New York, p. 427. Also see D. B. Redford, "Potiphar", ibid., pp, 426-427; K. A. Kitchen, "Potiphar" and "Potiphera" in J. D. Douglas (Organizing Editor), New Bible Dictionary, 1982, Second Edition, Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester (UK) and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.: Wheaton (IL). p. 951; J. Vergote, Joseph En Égypt: Genèsis Chap. 37-50 À La Lumière Des Études Égyptologiques Récents, 1959, Orientalia Et Biblica Lovaniensia III, Publications Universitaires: Louvain and Instituut Voor Orientalisme: Leuven, pp. 147-148. Also see a critical review of Vergote's book by K. A. Kitchen in Journal Of Egyptian Archaeology, 1961, Volume 47, p. 161. Kitchen says that Vergote retains "the universally admitted P3-dj(w)-p3-Rc for Potiphar/phera."; J. K. Hoffmeier, Israel In Egypt: The Evidence For The Authenticity Of The Exodus Tradition, 1999, Oxford University Press: Oxford (UK), p. 84.
David Rohl, on the other hand, has very little discussion for the word Potiphar in his book. He only suggests "Potiphar: Possibly Egy. Padipare." See D. M. Rohl, A Test Of Time, 1995, Volume I: The Bible - From Myth To History, Random House UK Ltd.: London, p. 27.
Strangely enough Leah Bronner's Biblical Personalities And Archaeology, 1974, Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd.: Jerusalem, p. 38, did not even discuss the connection between biblical personality Potiphar and archaeology! Bronner is content with mentioning Potiphar's name.
 For the names of P3-di+the name of a god formulation see H. Ranke, Die Ägyptischen Personennamen, 1935, Volume 1, Verlag Von J. J. Augustin In Glückstadt, pp. 121-126 and H. Ranke, Die Ägyptischen Personennamen, 1952, Volume 2, Verlag Von J. J. Augustin: Glückstadt/Hamburg and J. J. Locust Publisher: Locust Valley (NY), pp. 284-285.
 A. Hamada, "Stela Of Putiphar", Annales Du Service Des Antiquités De L'Égypte, 1939, Volume 39, pp. 273-276; For the dating of this stela also see A. R. Schulman, "On The Egyptian Name Of Joseph: A New Approach", Studien Zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 1975, Volume 2, p. 238, note 17.
There also exists an interesting amulet written in semitic characters mentioning the name Potiphar (no ‘ayin!) dated to 6th century BCE. See J. Leibovitch, "Une Amulette Égyptienne Au Nom De Putiphar", Annales Du Service Des Antiquités De L'Égypte, 1943, Volume 43, pp. 87-90.
 A. Hamada, "Stela Of Putiphar", Annales Du Service Des Antiquités De L'Égypte, 1939, op. cit., Plate 39. For translation of stela see pp. 273-275. The relevant lines are translated as:
Over the head of the deceased (the tall man, fifth from right):
Four lines of large hieroglyphs written from right to left.
 Sir E. A. W. Budge, An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, 1920, John Murray: London, p. 256; A. Hamada, "Stela Of Putiphar", Annales Du Service Des Antiquités De L'Égypte, 1939, Volume 39, pp. 273-276; H. Ranke, Die Ägyptischen Personennamen, 1935, Volume 1, op. cit., p. 123. Ranke, however, does not give any hieroglyph for Potiphar or Potiphera; Also see C. Lagier, "Putiphar", in F. Vigouroux, Dictionnaire De La Bible, 1912, Volume 5, col. 883-894. Although the reference is slightly out-of-date, Lagier's treatment is quite comprehensive.
 A. Hamada, "Stela Of Putiphar", Annales Du Service Des Antiquités De L'Égypte, 1939, op. cit., p. 275; K. A. Kitchen, "Potiphera" in J. D. Douglas (Organizing Editor), New Bible Dictionary, 1982, Second Edition, op. cit., p. 951.
Rec was the sun-god of ancient Egypt. For more details see "Re" in M. Lurker, The Gods And Symbols Of Ancient Egypt: An Illustrated Dictionary, 1986 (Reprint), Thames And Hudson: London, p. 100.
 N. Grimal (Trans. Ian Shaw), A History Of Ancient Egypt, 1988 (1992 print), Blackwell Publishers: Oxford, p. 393.
 J. M. A. Janssen, "Egyptological Remarks On The Story Of Joseph In Genesis", Jaarbericht Van Het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Genootschap Ex Oriente Lux, 1955-1956, Volume 5, No. 14, pp. 67-68.
 K. A. Kitchen, On The Reliability Of The Old Testament, 2003, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Michigan, pp. 346-347; Nearly a similar argument is made by K. A. Kitchen, "Genesis 12-50 In The Near Eastern World", in R. S. Hess, G. J. Wenham & P. E. Satterthwaite (Eds.), He Swore An Oath: Biblical Themes From Genesis 12-50, 1994, The Paternoster Press: Carlisle (UK) and Baker Book House: Grand Rapids (MI), pp. 85-86. Kitchen says on p. 86:
Also see K. A. Kitchen, "Potiphera" in J. D. Douglas (Organizing Editor), New Bible Dictionary, 1982, Second Edition, op. cit., p. 951. Kitchen says:
Kitchen's view that P3-di-p3-Rc originated from Didi-Rc via P3-didi-(p)Rc is also repeated by James K. Hoffmeier in his Israel In Egypt: The Evidence For The Authenticity Of The Exodus Tradition, 1999, op. cit., p. 85.
 K. A. Kitchen, On The Reliability Of The Old Testament, 2003, op. cit., p. 359. A similar statement is made by Donald B. Redford in his Egypt, Canaan, And Egypt In Ancient Times, 1992, Princeton University Press: Princeton (NJ), p. 424. Redford says concerning the formulation P3-di+the name of a god:
Compare Kitchen and Redford's treatment with uncritical blanket statements of William Ward where he claims that the story of Joseph in Genesis has been "proven" to be a historical narrative. See W. A. Ward, "Egyptian Titles In Genesis 39-50", Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 14, 1957, pp. 40-59. For a treatment on Potiphar see pp. 41-42.
 N. Grimal (Trans. Ian Shaw), A History Of Ancient Egypt, 1988 (1992 print), op. cit., pp. 389-395.
 D. B. Redford, A Study Of The Biblical Story Of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), 1970, E. J. Brill: Leiden, pp. 136-137.
 A. R. Schulman, "On The Egyptian Name Of Joseph: A New Approach", Studien Zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 1975, op. cit., p. 242. Also see his analysis of names in pp. 239-241.
 K. A. Kitchen, On The Reliability Of The Old Testament, 2003, op. cit., pp. 345-347; J. K. Hoffmeier, Israel In Egypt: The Evidence For The Authenticity Of The Exodus Tradition, 1999, op. cit., pp. 84-87.
 A. R. Schulman, "On The Egyptian Name Of Joseph: A New Approach", Studien Zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 1975, op. cit., p. 242.
 ibid., p. 243. Compare this with view of Engelbach, writing some fifty years before Schulman, who without any pre-conceived notions, said:
See R. Engelbach, "The Egyptian Name Of Joseph", Journal Of Egyptian Archaeology, 1924, Volume 10, p. 206.
 J. K. Hoffmeier, Israel In Egypt: The Evidence For The Authenticity Of The Exodus Tradition, 1999, op. cit., pp. 88.
 See ref. 12.
 D. M. Rohl, A Test Of Time, 1995, Volume I: The Bible - From Myth To History, op. cit., pp. 327-348 for a detailed discussion on Joseph in Egypt. We leave the readers to work this out themselves.
M S M Saifullah, Muhammad Ghoniem, Elias Karim & ‘Abdullah David
© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.
|< Prev||Next >|