The Archaeological Evidence for Joshua’s Conquest
In the late 19th century, many scholars began to accept what is called the “Documentary Hypothesis,” which posited that the Torah, or Pentateuch, had not been written by Moses but was instead the compilation of four sources (JEDP) that had been composed in waves between the 10th and 5th centuries BC and then compiled by editors and redactors.1 While ideas about the composition dates have changed over time, the basic assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis have not only continued to hold sway among scholars but have also been applied to the entire Old Testament, including the book of Joshua, which would be assigned to the “Deuteronomistic History” source of the Divided Kingdom era. As a result of this skeptical framework, the historicity of the narrative about the destruction of Jericho recorded in the book of Joshua has been a point of contention among archaeologists, historians, and biblical scholars for more than 120 years.
Findings & Hypotheses
Following the promulgation of the Documentary Hypothesis in academia, significant archaeological excavations were undertaken at Jericho (Tell es-Sultan) beginning in 1907, and although the 1907–1909 and 1911 excavations revealed a massive city wall and an intentional destruction by fire, the directors proposed that Jericho had been destroyed around 1600 BC or earlier and that the destruction had nothing to do with the events recorded in Joshua.2
However, subsequent excavations from 1930–1936 led by John Garstang, who was one of the archaeologists instrumental in developing the pottery chronology still used today, uncovered significant discoveries that led him to associate the Bronze Age destruction of Jericho “city IVc” with the narrative in Joshua.3 Not only had Garstang found additional evidence of a widespread and intentional fire destruction, but within this layer of ash were many massive storage jars full of barley. This indicated that the siege had taken place after the spring harvest and that the attackers who burned Jericho had declined to loot the city—facts which comport with the methodology and timing in the Joshua narrative.4
Further, the Garstang expedition also excavated and identified artifacts placing the date of destruction around 1400 BC. These include pottery types such as Cypriot Bichrome and Chocolate-on-White Ware of Late Bronze Age I (ca. 1500–1400 BC), a cuneiform tablet dated to the 15th century BC, and royal scarabs of Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, and Amenhotep III. Notably, the latest of the Egyptian pharaohs attested at Jericho was Amenhotep III, who came to power around 1400 BC, the approximate year of the destruction of Jericho according to biblical chronology.5 According to these findings, it appears that Jericho city IVc was besieged soon after the spring harvest and destroyed by fire around 1400 BC, in accordance with the biblical narrative.
Yet the excavations led by Kathleen Kenyon from 1952–1958 proposed different conclusions about both the date of destruction and the identity of the attackers. In contrast to previous interpretations, Kenyon suggested that the fall of Jericho had occurred around 1550 BC in the Middle Bronze Age at the hands of either the Hyksos or the Egyptians, and that the walled city of Jericho did not even exist at the time of the alleged siege led by Joshua.6 This revised date of 1550 BC was based on the erroneous claim that Cypriot Bichrome and other pottery types indicative of occupation in the Late Bronze Age I were not found in the excavations. Yet the reports of her excavation, which were published posthumously, contained numerous examples of Cypriot Bichrome, Chocolate on White, and various local wares of the Late Bronze Age I.
Walls Fallen Outward
Although the date Kenyon proposed for the destruction of Jericho IVc was incorrect and based on faulty methodology (and there is no evidence of an Egyptian or Hyksos attack on Jericho in the 16th century BC), the excavations of 1952–1958 made other important discoveries that ultimately seemed to connect to the narrative in Joshua. In addition to uncovering more storage jars full of barley that had been burned when Jericho was razed and an ashy destruction layer featuring burnt and collapsed buildings, Kenyon unearthed sections of the city defenses demonstrating that an odd outward falling of the walls had occurred prior to the fire destruction.
The defenses for the mound of Jericho consisted of a stone retaining wall and an upper wall of mudbrick encircling the city, along with possibly two gates and multiple towers. The stone retaining wall was about four to five meters high, while the upper mudbrick wall on top of the retaining wall was about six to eight meters high and two meters thick. The excavations revealed that this upper mudbrick wall had collapsed all around the city on the south, east, and west sides, while a portion of the north wall appeared to have remained standing. Specifically, the reddish bricks of the upper wall had fallen down and formed a sort of ramp of brick debris directly in front of the stone retaining wall allowing access up and into the city—findings that match the description in Joshua about the wall falling down in its place and the people walking up into the city.7
Because armies of this period typically built siege ramps to surmount the walls or battered a section of the defenses to penetrate a city, excavators proposed that an earthquake could have been responsible for the massive collapse of Jericho’s walls and buildings. However, although Kenyon claimed the city did not exist at the time of Joshua and that the archaeological findings at Jericho had no connection to a historical conquest recorded in the Bible, her excavations unearthed additional details about the falling of the city walls and the destruction by fire that are consistent with the narrative in the book of Joshua.
After many years with no excavations carried out at Jericho, an analysis and re-evaluation of the connection between the archaeology of Jericho and the book of Joshua with an emphasis on Late Bronze Age I pottery forms found at Jericho was done by Bryant Wood.8 Although many scholars continued to hold to the Kenyon idea of Jericho being destroyed around 1550 BC by the Egyptians, Wood, drawing upon discoveries at Jericho and especially those of Garstang and Kenyon, argued that Jericho had indeed been destroyed in approximately 1400 BC by Joshua and his troops.
Major excavations at Jericho eventually resumed with a joint Italian-Palestinian project from 1997 to 2000 and 2009 to 2017, and once again, interpretations and conclusions varied slightly from those of previous excavators. Although the Italian-Palestinian project agreed with a Middle Bronze Age III destruction in the 16th century BC, similar to Kenyon’s date, and although it agreed that the ruins had been supposedly exploited to craft a Joshua myth or legend unsupported by the archaeological data, this expedition revised the date of the construction of the final Bronze Age city wall a bit later, to around 1600 BC. It also discovered additional pottery from the Late Bronze Age indicating habitation in the Joshua period and even allowed the possibility of a final destruction of Jericho in the last half of the 15th century BC, but it attributed this destruction to Pharaoh Thutmose III.9 While Thutmose III certainly campaigned in Canaan and it is possible that he could have attacked Jericho, the city is conspicuously absent from all Egyptian annals and topographic lists around this period. Further, the method of destruction and looting found at Jericho does not fit the military practice of the Egyptians.
A Convergence of Evidence
Following the devastation of the walled Bronze Age city of Jericho, the site was abandoned for centuries except for the “Middle Building,” a large residence or villa that was only used briefly during the 14th century BC. It was the sole occupied building and may have been associated with Eglon of Moab.10 Jericho was finally rebuilt as a small town during the 9th century BC reign of Ahab in the Iron Age II.11
Taken together, the evidence from pottery types, royal scarabs, a cuneiform tablet, and stratigraphy all appears to converge on a date of approximately 1400 BC for the burning of the final Bronze Age city of Jericho.12 And although radiocarbon dates from Jericho have been used to argue for the city’s destruction in the 16th century BC, some radiocarbon samples from Jericho indicate the possibility of a destruction around 1400 BC. Yet because of the wide date range with radiocarbon studies from Jericho IVc and known issues with calibration for the Bronze Age in the Levant, this should not be used as a primary method for deriving a date.
According to findings from excavations, the Jericho city walls on the south, east, and west all collapsed and formed a ramp of debris allowing access up into the city. Further, findings show that Jericho was then intentionally burned but not looted, that it was subsequently abandoned for centuries except for one briefly occupied palatial residence, and that all of this happened soon after the spring harvest in approximately 1400 BC. Rather than being a myth that has been disproven by archaeology, analysis of all the data shows a remarkable agreement in numerous details between the archaeological findings and the Jericho conquest narrative in the book of Joshua.
1. Wellhausen, Julius. 1883. Prolegomena to the History of Israel.
2. Watzinger, Carl. 1926. Zur Chronologie der Schichten von Jericho. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gessellschaft 80: 131–36.
3. Garstang, John. 1948. The Story of Jericho. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott.
4. Joshua 2:6, 3:15, 5:10, 6:17-24.
5. The date for the fall of Jericho according to chronological information in the Bible is derived by first synchronizing Assyrian and Babylonian king lists with the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah, which places the 4th year of Solomon at around 967 BC, then adding the 479 elapsed years between the construction of the temple and finally subtracting the 40 years of wilderness wandering prior to the campaign against Jericho (1 Kings 6:1; Joshua 5:6; cf. Judges 11:26; 1 Chronicles 6:33-37; Joshua 14:10).
6. Kenyon, Kathleen. 1975. Jericho. In Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land; Kenyon, Kathleen. 1957. Digging Up Jericho. New York: Praeger.
7. Joshua 6:20.
8. Wood, Bryant. 1990. “Dating Jericho’s Destruction: Bienkowski is Wrong on All Counts,” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.5: 45–49, 68–69; Wood, Bryant. 1990. “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.2: 44–58.
9. Marchetti, Nicolo, Lorenzo Nigro, and Issa Sarie. 1998. “Preliminary Report on the First Season of Excavations of the Italian-Palestinian Expedition at Tell es-Sultan/Jericho April-May 1997,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 130: 121–43; Nigro, Lorenzo, and Hamdan Taha. 2009. “Renewed Excavations and Restorations at Tell es-Sultan/Ancient Jericho Fifth Season—March–April 2009,” Scienze Dell’Antichita Storia Archaeologia Anthropologia 15: 731–44; Nigro, Lorenzo. 2020. “The Italian-Palestinian Expedition to Tell es-Sultan, Ancient Jericho (1997–2015): Archaeology and Valorisation of Material and Immaterial Heritage,” in Digging Up Jericho: Past, Present and Future. New York: JSTOR.
10. Judges 3:13-26.
11. 1 Kings 16:34.
12. Kennedy, Titus. “The Bronze Age Destruction of Jericho, Archaeology, and the Book of Joshua,” Religions 2023, 14(6), 796.
is a field archaeologist who has been involved in excavations and survey projects at several archaeological sites in biblical lands, including directing and supervising multiple projects spanning the Bronze Age through the Byzantine period, and he has conducted artifact research at museums and collections around the world. He is a research fellow at the Discovery Institute, an adjunct professor at Biola University, and has been a consultant, writer, and guide for history and archaeology documentaries and curricula. He also publishes articles and books in the field of biblical archaeology and history, including Unearthing the Bible, Excavating the Evidence for Jesus, and The Essential Archaeological Guide to Bible Lands.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #67, Winter 2023 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo67/the-battle-of-jericho