Jericho and the Bible

It began with a Book - an ancient Book, to be sure, nearly three millennia old, one that had inspired countless numbers in Western civilization and been the subject of much study. It involved, among other things, an account of a battle, of an army attacking and taking a Great City.

Many, however, questioned whether the Book was reliable - some thought it was nothing but myth, that the events as described in it never really happened; they went as far as to nitpick at tiny details in the Book in order to show that the events it described could not possibly have happened. Those who believed otherwise were indignant - some religiously so, and they protested. But there were those with the desire and the resources to find out whether the Book was true or not - and they pursued to find out with zeal.

The Book was the guide for the first explorers. The very first used the Book as a topographical guide; he concluded after several visits that he had found the site of the Great City, based on the information in the Book - in particular, he believed that he had found a particular natural formation that the Book described. But he had no time to go further; then a second explorer came on the scene, and came to fairly the same conclusion. But he too ran out of time; it was left to The Archaeologist to take the matter further.

The Archaeologist was a visionary, but also something of a scoundrel; nevertheless, it was his personal mission to prove that the account of the battle of the Great City, as recorded in the Book, was trustworthy. Armed with the previous topographical studies, the Book, and his own confidence in the truth of the Book's account, he excavated at the determined site.

At first, he seemed to have been on the right track. Much evidence was found in one of the many levels of the Great City's ruinous mound that seemed to correspond with what was in the Book. But it turned out to be a false lead; and the Archaeologist conceded his mistake to other scholars, and died thinking that he had been a failure.

But then Archaeologist 2 came on the scene, with a much different idea. He decided that the original Archaeologist had been wrong only in which level of the city the Book was describing. Instead, he maintained, it was another level higher up in the mound that the Book described - and indeed, better matches were found between the Book's descriptions and the city level he designated.

Today, it is generally recognized that Archaeologist 2 was correct. The Great City had been found. Archaeologist 1 had been wrong, but his vision nevertheless led later explorers to the correct site.

Our subject here is Biblical archaeology, but the subject of the above anecdote is not the Bible. The "Book" is none other than Homer's Iliad; the "Great City" is Troy; and the original Archaeologist is Heinrich Schliemann - explorer, scoundrel, and visionary. The above is a bare-bones representation of Schliemann's story as found in Michael Wood's book, In Search of the Trojan War. This account, indeed the entire history of the rediscovery of Troy, provides some interesting parallels to Biblical archaeology.

Is it wrong to use a written record as a guide for archaeology? Strangely, although there are many apparent parallels, the archaeology of Troy is seemingly not plagued by much argumentation today. Wood, for example, states outright that "Homer of course is the starting point" for any investigation into the site of Troy [Wood.STrW, 19] - and that being the case, we may suggest that there is nothing wrong with using the Bible as a starting point for archaeology either.

Of course, as happened with Schliemann, enthusiasm can lead to erroneous excess - and just as easily, more careful study later on can lead to correction and verification. Indeed, we find a parallel to this situation in that of Jericho - as we shall see shortly.

The standard Skeptical view here more or less follows the lead of Hoppe [Hopp.WBA, 6]:

Unfortunately some people maintain that one goal of archaeology is to verify the historical data provided by the Bible. But archaeology does not 'prove' the Bible; it only proves one interpretation of the Bible - an interpretation often formulated apart from any archaeological data. The truth of the Bible as a religious book cannot be proven or disproven by archaeology. The Bible's message is to be accepted by faith.

Laying aside for a moment the problematic assertion here re: accepting the Bible's message only by "faith" (Link 1 below) without regard for history, let's rework this a bit and see how it sounds:

Unfortunately some people maintain that one goal of archaeology is to verify the historical data provided by the Iliad. But archaeology does not 'prove' the Iliad; it only proves one interpretation of the Iliad - an interpretation often formulated apart from any archaeological data. The truth of the Iliad as a religious book cannot be proven or disproven by archaeology. The Iliad's message is to be accepted by faith.

It sounds wrong, doesn't it? Actually, as shown in my diversion, the Troy digs underwent all of this years ago. The point is that there is a medium available: Archaeology cannot prove that God knocked down the walls of Jericho, any more than it can prove that Zeus and Poseidon had a hand in the Trojan War; but archaeology CAN tell us whether the events reported in our texts could have happened - and that is really all that can be asked.

Any archaeologist inevitably approaches any task with a certain set of presuppositions, and any archaeological interpretation "involves highly subjective judgments on the part of the interpreter" [Chars.WAF, 62]- just as Schliemann approached Troy assuming that he could find the actual city that the Iliad was based on. So while care should be taken, this does not mean that we cannot use the Bible as a starting point - and what has taken place over Jericho provides an excellent example of this.

The works of Garstang (which allegedly confirmed the Biblical account) and of Kenyon (who allegedly debunked Garstang) are often cited in regard to this city. [For an excavation history, see Bart.Jer, 29-36] But there is now much more up-to-date material to consider. Let's look at some specific data - as with Schliemann, more careful consideration has led to verification.

First, some background information to keep in mind. The conventional chronology for this time period and place is:

Now while it is not often explained in context of such charts, no archaeologist actually asserts that at exactly the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1549 BC, all of the villages and towns of the region suddenly threw out all of their Middle Bronze Age Stuff and bought the brand-new, never-before-seen Late Bronze Age Stuff. There is bound to be overlap; no doubt some folks kept their Middle Bronze Age stuff around after 1550. So we can't always fix an exact date on ruins, just a general date.

The standard argument, however, runs like this: Joshua was in the Late Bronze Age; there was no Jericho, except maybe a small village, in the Late Bronze Age; hence the account in the Bible is fictional. This is the point of view held by many scholars today [Chars.WAF, 4, 93, 110n].

Newer developments, however, suggest that Joshua's Jericho is to be identified with another level of the Tell es-Sultan site entirely - one dated to the Middle Bronze Age, which indeed, it was earlier suggested might have been the city that the Book of Joshua had in mind [Hopp.WBA, 7]. Part of the problem is that Garstang and Kenyon went along with the standard presumption that the Exodus took place c. 1200 BC, based primarily on the assumed anachronism stating that the Israelites labored in Ramesses (Ex. 1:11), and that the city was named after Ramesses II, as well as the standard assumption that the Israelites did not invade Palestine, but engaged in gradual settlement.

The OT, however, indicates a timeline that puts the Exodus at c. 1447 BC. The OT timeline was assumed inaccurate based on the presumption of gradual settlement, and on the naming of the city - overlooking the obvious solution that the city name was a later scribal gloss intended to take the place of a city name that no longer existed, much as "Dan" is named in Genesis (Link 2 below) although that city did not exist at the time described.

The 1447 BC date puts Joshua closer to the Middle Bronze Age, but still in the LBA - by the conventional chronology - by about 100 years. Can the gap be closed to have Joshua conquering the MBA city?

The first question is as to whether one ought to care. The evidence of MBA Jericho suits the Joshua narrative so well that it seems presumptive not to allow for some error in modern dating. This is especially worth considering since the dating of Jericho's remains has "shifted several times in the history of the site's excavation." [BHI, 174].

Bryant G. Wood published his analysis in 1990 [WoodB.Jer]. We are unable to do full justice to his arguments here; suffice to say that, based on several factors (ceramic data, scarab evidence, radiocarbon dating, and stratigraphical considerations) he has asserted that the MBA city is indeed the one that fell to Joshua (though he credits an earthquake, and not God, with the destruction).

Much is sometimes made over the fact that Wood's radiocarbon dates had to be retracted, due to an error by the British Museum (which also had to retract other findings for the same reason). But the dating was done on wood items, and radiocarbon dating gives the date the wood grew, not the date it was burned, and it is hardly unlikely that a wooden item was in use for an extended period. See more on this issue at Link 3 below.

Wood's main argument had to do with Kenyon's dating [175] being based on an argument from silence -- a type of pottery that was NOT found. Arguments based on such silence are far from compelling, especially since only a minimal amount of any given site is excavated, Jericho included.

Moreover, it was unreasonable of Kenyon to expect to find this particular type of pottery in a poorer part of the city, where she excavated, especially since she admitted that Jericho was off the trade route for richer goods. To seal the matter, Wood checked back on Garstang's report and found an example of pottery that was clearly a locally-manufactured imitation of the pottery Kenyon was looking for and didn't find -- thus indicating awareness of it. Wood supplemented his findings with a study of local pottery.

To ignore Wood's case, as BHI notes, would be "obscurantist" [176] and to offer Jericho as an example of how the Bible has been disproven is "irresponsible." It remained to be fully evaluated as of the writing of BHI.

A second author to connect Middle Bronze Age Jericho to the Joshuan conquest has taken a much different path than Wood - one that did not even begin at Jericho. David M. Rohl, an Egyptologist, was attempting to resolve various inconsistencies in the standard Egyptian chronology, and only incidentally as a result (since the histories of Egypt and Israel are so closely related) managed to resolve quite a few Biblical problems - among them the one of Jericho.

Quite simply, Rohl has provided strong evidence that the Egyptian chronology should be pushed forward some 300-400 years. This serves also to push the Middle Bronze Age forward, right into the path of Joshua. [Rohl.PAK, 303-4]

Regardless of their work, however, the Middle Bronze Jericho appealed to by Wood and Rohl provides striking correlation with the Joshuan conquest account. The mud-brick wall that had been the city's primary defense, which in its original state was made the city rather like "a great medieval castle" [Bims.RExC, 128], had in some places quite literally collapsed outward [see Bart.Jer, 85], providing a primitive ramp up into the city. Inside, the city's houses and civic buildings had been blackened by "a severe conflagration" [Rohl.PAK, 304], "destroyed violently by fire" [Bienk.JerLBA, 127] consistent with events described by Joshua 6:24 -

Josh. 6:24 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it...

Also found were "large storage jars filled to the brim with carbonized grain" [ibid., 304; see also Bart.Jer, 88] - consistent not only with the burning, but with this assertion:

Josh. 3:15 Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest...

The Israelites crossed the Jordan at harvest time - and it seems they arrived at Jericho just as the harvest had been taken in.

The city in question is also characterized by a "large number of multiple-burial tombs" [Bienk.JerLBA, 126; Bart.Jer, 89], averaging 20 burials each (the most held by any one tomb was 40) with a total of approximately 1150 burials. These deaths are linked with plague for the most part, which fits the OT data of a plague in Numbers 22-24 nicely. [Bims.RExC, 131] Bartlett [ibid., 93] sums up the data thus:

The end of MB Jericho was violent, as is shown by the burnt ruins of the final level of MB buildings on the southeast side of the tell. The ruined walls are covered by a layer of burnt debris one meter thick washed down from higher up the slope. This layer shows clearly that the higher buildings were burned, and that a considerable period of erosion followed the destruction of the site.

Finally, in accordance with Joshua 6:19, where it is recorded that the Israelites took the vessels of silver, gold, brass and iron from the city, there was very little gold found at the site, although this has been interpreted along with other evidence to mean that the city had a low standard of living. [Bienk.Jer., 127]

In conclusion, it must be said that we have here indeed, thus far, an interesting parallel to Schliemann's Troy. Conclusions were taken too far one way, then taken too far back the other; and we now have settled into a more or less contented middle - one that establishes the basic veracity of the Bible's account. It remains to be seen whether the interpretations of Wood and Rohl will stand. Many of the arguments used by Rohl have been pointed out before [see Bims.RExc], but have never been refuted, and I have yet to see adequate refutation of any of these authors - but I am certainly on the lookout for them.

Here, then, is our conclusion for now. Archaeology - though some may be loathe to admit it - is as much art as it is science. Interpretation and presupposition will inevitably govern the results to some extent, regardless of who is doing the work - whether it be a fundamentalist or a Skeptic.

Theology may work in hand with archaeology, if the work is done very carefully. Some may see them as "two figures dwelling uncomfortably under the same roof," [Chars.WAF, ix], but I think a balance can be struck much more easily, perhaps using the exemplar of Troy as a basis. Ideology driving archaeologists in the direction of either skepticism or fanaticism is, in any case, unacceptable.

Update: Some notes in Herzog and Gichon's Battles of the Bible provide interesting confirmation of the Jericho account and answer some Skeptical objections.

Herzog and Gichon [434-5] note that the selection of Jericho as the starting point for the Conquest of Canaan is a logical one. Jericho's capture would have provided "the establishment of a bridge-head west of the Jordan" and was the only real option for doing so. Jericho's capture made for the "acquisition of a fertile base abounding in fruit and water, as well as control of the water source, which was vital for all movement in the area." The recruiting of Rahab as an intelligence source is in line with using residents of cities, especially prostitutes (or innkeepers, as Rahab may have been) as sources, for their easy access to the careless talk of guests.

Josh. 3:14-17 speaks the Jordan being blocked. As recently as 1927 the same thing happened when a cliff collapsed and blocked the river for 2 1/2 hours. In 1267 a similar blockage for 16 hours allowed a Muslim sultan to build a bridge's foundations. [46-7]

Finally, critics often ask what good it did for the Israelites to walk around Jericho so much. (For how they did so, see Link 4 below.) Herzog and Gichon note that this is in line with an ancient military strategem. Another example is offered by the Roman writer Frontinus:

When Gneaus Pompey on one occasion was prevented from crossing a river because the enemy's troops were stationed on the opposite bank, he adopted the device of repeatedly leading his troops out of camp and back again. Then, when the enemy were at last tricked into relaxing their watch on the roads in front of the Roman advance, he made a sudden dash and effected a crossing.

The "seven times around the city" was no mere game but a way of getting the Jerichoans relaxed and used to the procession and giving them a sense of false security -- making them that much less prepared for the eventual attack.


  1. Here
  2. Here
  3. Here
  4. Here


  1. Bart.Jer - Bartlett, John R. Jericho. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
  2. Bienk.JerLBA - Bienkowski, Piotr. Jericho in the Late Bronze Age. Aris and Phillips, 1986.
  3. Bimson, John J. - Redating the Exodus and Conquest. Sheffield: JSOT, 1978.
  4. Chars.WAF - Charlesworth, James H., ed. What Has Archaeology to Do with Faith? Philadelphia: Trinity Press Int'l, 1992.
  5. Hopp.WBA - Hoppe, Leslie. What Are They Saying About Biblical Archaeology? New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
  6. Rohl.PAK - Rohl, David. Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest. New York: Crown, 1995.
  7. WoodB.Jer - Wood, Bryant G. "Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?" Biblical Archaeology Review, March-April 1990, pp. 44-59.
  8. Wood.STrW - Wood, Michael.In Search of the Trojan War. New York: Facts on File, 1985.