Myth or History: Did Jericho’s Walls Come Down?

By Jason Jackson

For some years now, a battle has raged among biblical scholars over whether the Old Testament record of the conquest of Canaan is accurate. In this article, we examine two cases that have been points of controversy.

Jericho Discovered

When did Joshua conquer Jericho? Using strict Bible chronology, there seems to be a simple answer.

When the building of Solomon’s temple was begun (ca. 966 B.C.), 480 years had elapsed since the time of the exodus (cf. 1 Kings 6:1). By counting backwards, this places the exodus around the year 1446 B.C.

After leaving Egypt, Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Add to that the duration of the conquest of Canaan (seven years), and we estimate the conquest to have been completed around 1400 B.C.

When John Garstang excavated Jericho (now known as Tell Es-Sultan) from 1930 to 1936, he identified City IV as the community Joshua conquered in 1400 B.C.

Kenyon Disputes

Later on, from 1952-1958, Kathleen Kenyon did further excavations at the site on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. Kenyon considered many of Garstang’s dates and conclusions to be inaccurate.

For example, in considering City IV, she believed that the town was destroyed around 1550 B.C., and that it remained uninhabited for more than 150 years thereafter. On that basis, she concluded that Joshua could not have conquered Jericho in 1400 B.C., since her “findings” showed no city to be in existence on this site at that time. Her beliefs became so widely accepted that the majority of archaeologists concluded that Joshua must have led Israel to Canaan at a much later time—in the thirteenth century (1200s B.C.). The historical accuracy of the Bible, therefore, was called into question.

Pottery is one of the archaeologist’s main dating tools. The type of material, the shape, and the color can determine the culture and time from which a piece originated, thus providing evidence in establishing the date of artifacts found at a particular site.

Pottery was an important piece of evidence in the dating of Jericho (City IV). Kenyon wrote:

The site was abandoned during most of the second half of the sixteenth century and probably most of the fifteenth century [i.e., 1550-1400]. The conclusion formed during the 1930-1936 excavations—that there was continuous occupation in this period—was due to a lack of knowledge of the pottery from the beginning of the Late Bronze Age. The significance of its complete absence was not appreciated (1993, 680).

We are obliged to make two observations concerning Kenyon’s statement:

First, she affirms that “the lack of knowledge about pottery” resulted in an incorrect dating.

Second, she says “its complete absence” was not appreciated by Garstang. In other words, she affirms there was a total absence of a certain kind of pottery and that “complete absence” was not factored into Garstang’s conclusions.

Let us review Kenyon’s assertions.

Were Her Assumptions Valid?

(1) We note that Kenyon assumed that there should be a substantial amount of Cypriote pottery (i.e., pottery from Cyprus) if City IV was destroyed in 1400 B.C.

Her presumption was based on the excavations of Megiddo, which had yielded significant quantities of imported ceramics. But she jumped to the conclusion that if Jericho City IV was to be dated at 1400 B.C., then this city must yield Cypriote ware as well.

Her “knowledge of pottery” characteristic of the Late Bronze Age was an extrapolation which she applied to the dating of Jericho.

(2) The complete absence of this imported pottery is currently under scrutiny. Unfortunately, Kenyon overlooked some specimens actually found by Garstang.

Dr. Wood Disagrees with Kenyon

Dr. Bryant Wood, in assessing Kenyon’s conclusions, wrote:

Ironically, Garstang found a considerable amount of pottery decorated with red and black paint which appears to be imported Cypriote bichrome ware, the type of pottery Kenyon was looking for and did not find! (1990, 52; emphasis added)

Dr. Wood revisited Kenyon’s published observations about Jericho, examining the methodology and rationale for her beliefs about the city. He notes that some of her conclusions were noteworthy; he even agrees with her rather than with Garstang on some points.

But he also observed some faulty assumptions, which, therefore, led to erroneous conclusions in Kenyon’s work—especially with reference to the date of Jericho’s destruction.

Note the following considerations by Dr. Wood, who is a specialist in Syrio-Palestinian pottery:

(1) Wood argues that the absence of pottery, i.e., the absence of evidence, was not conclusive proof for assigning City IV to a 1550 B.C. destruction, which would indicate that it was too early to be contemporary with Joshua. He wrote: “In other words, Kenyon’s analysis was based on what was not found at Jericho rather than what was found” (50; emphasis added).

In fact, the substantial amounts of imported pottery, like that discovered at Megiddo, should not have been expected. Jericho was not nearly the trade city that Megiddo was since the latter was situated on a major ancient trade route.

In addition, the houses excavated by Kenyon revealed, she said, “something of a backwater town, away from the contact with richer areas provided by the coastal route” (1967, 271).

So, as Wood comments, “Why then would anyone expect to find exotic imported ceramics in this type of cultural milieu?” (50).

(2) In contrast, both Garstang and Kenyon did find large quantities of domestic pottery. Upon the basis of extensive samples of this variety, Wood concludes that the extant data were interpreted incorrectly, and that biblical chronology actually is vindicated by the evidence.

Wood believes:

As new data emerge and as old data are reevaluated, it will undoubtedly require a reappraisal of current theories regarding the date and the nature of the emergence of Israel in Canaan (57).

Discoveries at Hazor

The destruction of Jericho, in the context of archaeological study, is not the only point of controversy among scholars. The entire conquest, as recorded in the book of Joshua, has been the subject of considerable discussion relating to its historical accuracy.

In the highly recognized four-volume work, The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Lands, one can read of the findings and conclusions of the actual archaeologists who excavated the various sites, when such are available.

In volume two of this set, Yigael Yadin’s work at Hazor was included. The Israeli archaeologist excavated this ancient city in Northern Israel from 1955-1958, and then work resumed for another season in 1968.

Hazor (the modern Tell el-Qedah) was a large Canaanite city (later conquered by the Israelites), located about 8.5 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The city is divided into two parts: the upper city, of about thirty acres, is situated on a steep mound; the lower city, consisting of some 170 acres, is located in a rectangular plain section below the mound.

The total city, therefore, covers an area of approximately two hundred acres. Compare that with ancient Jericho, which was only about eight acres.

In the days of its prosperity, Hazor amassed a population of some thirty to forty thousand people. The city’s ruins reveal eighteen occupational levels, from the eighteenth century down to the second century B.C.

In extra-biblical literature, we first read about Hazor in the Egyptian Execration texts, dated in the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries B.C. In the Mari documents of the eighteenth century, Hazor appears to be a major commercial center in the Fertile Crescent (Stern 1993, 594). (Note: the Fertile Crescent is a region stretching from the Mediterranean Sea, around the northern end of the Arabian desert, and down to the Persian Gulf.)

It is in the book of Joshua that one first reads of Hazor in the biblical record. Near the conclusion of the conquest, Joshua turned to Northern Palestine, having first taken the central section and defeating a southern confederation of kings.

The Hebrew commander put his army en route toward Hazor. Jabin, king of Hazor, rallied his allies, a multitude in number like “the sand that is upon the seashore” (Joshua 11:4). After putting the Canaanite coalition to flight, Joshua eventually turned back and assaulted the city of Hazor. The biblical record says that “he burnt Hazor with fire” (11:11). Unlike the other cities in Northern Palestine which were built on mounds (cf. 11:13), Joshua utterly destroyed Hazor with a great conflagration.

What physical evidence is there of Joshua’s destruction of Hazor? Yadin summarized his work at Hazor in this way. He said that the final destruction of Canaanite Hazor was with a great fire. He concluded: “This destruction is doubtless to be ascribed to the Israelite tribes, as related in the Book of Joshua” (1993, 603).

Some Perplexing Questions

One might be tempted to say: “Well, there we have it! The Bible is vindicated again by the work of the archaeologist.” However, Yadin noted that this final destruction of Hazor took place in the second third of the thirteenth century B.C. As so, a problem arises. Joshua cannot have destroyed Jericho in 1400 B.C. and then Hazor in the 1200s B.C.

As we noted earlier, clear biblical chronology places Joshua’s conquest near 1400 B.C. Likewise, sound analysis of the data at Jericho supports this dating. Does the archaeological evidence at Hazor contradict these conclusions?

Could it be that Yadin’s date of the final destruction of Hazor is incorrect, just as Kenyon’s analysis of the Jericho data was incorrect? The evidence shows that there is no valid reason to doubt that the final destruction of Canaanite Hazor occurred in the thirteenth century.

What is suspect about Yadin’s conclusion is that this destruction was the one for which Joshua was responsible. Clearly, Joshua destroyed a fifteenth-century Hazor.

This is perplexing. The question then becomes:

  1. Is there any physical evidence of Hazor being burned in the fifteenth century?
  2. If there is, and if it was Joshua who destroyed the city at that time, was it then destroyed again later?
  3. If so, who might have been responsible for this later (thirteenth-century) destruction?

Let us address these questions.

First, Yadin did find evidence of Hazor being burned in the fifteenth century. But since he presupposed the later date for Joshua’s conquest, he would not have attributed this first destruction to Joshua.

He writes: “The lower city flourished throughout the Late Bronze Age, i.e., 15th to 13th centuries, B.C., being alternately destroyed and rebuilt” (603).

Similarly, though, Stratum III of the lower city was “destroyed by conflagration.” This is an earlier city than the final destruction in the thirteenth century. So, there is evidence of an earlier destruction of Hazor by fire around the time of Joshua.

Yadin assigned that destruction (at Stratum III) to Amenhotep II or Thutmose III (Egyptian Pharaohs); Joshua’s assault was never even considered. However, Professor Leon J. Wood suggests:

[S]ince a destruction by Amenhotep II or Thutmose III is less than half a century prior to the early-date time for Joshua’s destruction, the suggestion is in order that this city of Stratum III—and not that of the thirteenth- century Stratum I—was really the one Joshua destroyed (1986, 79).

Additionally, Davis and Whitcomb reasoned:

According to recent discoveries, the occupation of Hazor continued down through the thirteenth century without apparent major interruption. The answer to this problem might be found in the nature of the destruction and the immediate reoccupation of the site. The site was indeed burned according to Scripture, but if the Canaanites immediately reoccupied it and rebuilt it . . . we may have little or no evidence of Joshua’s destruction of the city (1980, 74).

Thus, there seems to be nothing about the archaeological evidence that is inconsistent with the biblical record of Joshua’s destruction of Hazor.

Second, if Joshua destroyed the city, how could it have been destroyed again? This has already been partially explained. The city was rebuilt. Yadin believed the city was “alternately destroyed and rebuilt” during these centuries.

This is in perfect harmony with the testimony of Scripture. While the sacred text affirms Joshua’s destruction, it also indicates that the city was rebuilt.

In Judges 4, Deborah led Israel against Sisera, the captain of the host of “Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor” (4:2). Obviously, one necessarily must infer that the city was rebuilt, since there was a community in existence on that site after the days of Joshua.

Who, then, might have been responsible for the final destruction of Canaanite Hazor?

When Amnon Ben-Tor, a student of Yadin’s, began new excavations at Hazor in 1990, of principal concern was the question of whether or not the Israelites destroyed the Canaanite city. Like Yadin, Ben-Tor concluded that Israel destroyed the city under the leadership of Joshua.

While we dispute that it was Joshua who led this thirteenth-century destruction, we are interested in the reasons as to why Amnon Ben-Tor considered the destruction to have been by the Israelites.

Ben-Tor eliminated the Sea Peoples (the Philistines), for there was neither rationale nor evidence for such an explanation. He also eliminated other Canaanites, as well as the Egyptians:

It is extremely unlikely that Egyptian and Canaanite marauders would have destroyed statuary depicting their own kings and gods. . . . This leaves us with the Israelites (1999, 38).

And so, it was the Israelites who destroyed Hazor in the thirteenth century? But exactly who, in Israel, conquered Hazor in the thirteenth century? One need only read Judges, chapter 4. Israel, in the days of Deborah, threw off the oppression of Jabin, king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor, who had oppressed the nation for twenty years.

Israel destroyed Hazor on two occasions—during the time of Joshua and then later under the administration of Deborah.

There are no incongruities between the biblical record of the conquest and the physical evidence provided by the discoveries of archaeology. The sacred text of antiquity is entirely reliable.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Ben-Tor, Amnon. 1999. Did the Israelites Destroy the Canaanite City? Biblical Archaeology Review, May-June.
  • Davis, John J. and John C. Whitcomb. 1980. A History of Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Kenyon, Kathleen. 1967. Jericho. Archaeology and Old Testament Studies. D. W. Thomas, ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon.
  • Kenyon, Kathleen. 1993. Jericho. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Lands. Vol. 2. Ephraim Stern, ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • Stern, Ephraim, ed. 1993. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Lands. Vol. 2. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • Wood, Bryant. 1990. Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? Biblical Archaeology Review, March-April.
  • Wood, Leon J. 1986. A Survey of Israel’s History. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Yadin, Yigael. 1993. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Lands. Vol. 2. Ephraim Stern, ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.