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Mythological Elements in the Story of Joshua and the Conquest of Canaan

The Book of Joshua, as we know, narrates the story of Moses’ successor, Joshua and his conquest of Canaan. According to the biblical chronology, Joshua’ conquest would be placed around 1450 BC. [a] Estimates for it’s actual date vary between 1450 and 1200 BC. [b]

The author of Joshua as shown elsewhere, is unknown. We can, however, fix an earliest possible date for its writing; or, at least, the writing of some of the source documents that was used in the writing of Joshua. One clue is found in the Joshua 10:12. Here a reference is made to a document called the Book of Jashar. Whatever else this book may contain, we do know, from II Samuel 1:18 that the Book of Jashar contains the poetic lamentations of David. Thus the Book of Jashar must have been compiled after the time of David, i.e. after the 10th century BC. Therefore the Book of Joshua, or one of its source documents, was written at least three centuries after the events it purports to describe. [1] [c]

So, we have every reason to be skeptical of the chronicles in this book: we do not know the identity of the author(s) and the time gap between the events and their actual documentation is too long for first hand accounts to survive. In fact we know of major events in Joshua's conquest of Canaan that has been disconfirmed by the science of archeaology:

  • Joshua and his men did not bring down the walls of Jericho
  • Other cities supposedly conquered by Joshua simply did not exists during the supposed time of the conquest!

The Walls of Jericho

The incidents related in Joshua are those that could conceivably be verified by archaeology. We are told, for instance, in Joshua chapter 6 that he made the walls of Jericho tumble, by having his men circle the city seven times and blowing their trumpets.

There was a flurry of excitement when, in 1930, a British archaeological expedition led by John Gerstang on the ancient site of Jericho found a collapsed defensive wall and a destroyed city at the site. Based on some vessels broken pieces of pottery found in a few houses built over the fortifications and in tombs, Gerstang dated the destruction to around 1400 BC, just right at the point where biblical chronology had predicted. This discover was hailed by some as proving that “the Bible was right after all”.[d]

However in the 1950’s another British expedition to the site, this time led by Kathleen Kenyon showed that Gerstang’s interpretation of the pottery evidence had been wrong. She showed conclusively that the walls and the city were destroyed almost a thousand years earlier, in 2,300 BC! Kenyon’s interpretation of the pottery evidence is today accepted by all archaeologists as the correct one. Thus, the site excavated by Gerstang could not have been contemporaneous with Joshua. Could there have been another wall, built upon the old damaged ones? The answer is no. For the period between 1400 and 1300 BC, Kenyon’s team found only one little building (dated to 1320 BC) and a few reused old tombs. After 1300 BC, Jericho was not even settled at all. Thus, Joshua’s men would have found either a few small huts or nothing at all in Jericho. They would certainly not have found a walled and fortified city. Therefore, one of the most important event in the Joshua narrative is fictitious. [2]

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Ai and Gibeon

The same archeaological fate is being suffered by many of the cities supposedly conquered by Joshua. The city of Ai was another city which was burnt by Joshua and made into a heap of ruin, after he had its 12,000 inhabitants killed (Joshua 8:21-29). The various excavations that took place there in from 1930’s to the 1970’s showed that while there is evidence that Ai was a city with strong defensive wall that was destroyed in the 2300 BC, there is not a single shred of evidence to show that Ai was settled beyond that time. [3] In other words Ai simply did not exist during the time of the conquest. Thus the estimated number of inhabitants of Ai given in Joshua is a little on the high side!

Gibeon was described in Joshua (10:2) as a “great city...greater than Ai”. Here too, excavations done in the 1950’s and 1960’s found there was no settlement in that place during the 1400 and 1200 BC period. [4] The same conclusion has been drawn on Laschih (Joshua 10:32) and Hazor (Joshua 11:11) by archaeologists after excavations there. [5]

Attempts have been made by believers to discredit the archaeological findings by suggesting that the excavations sites could have been wrong, or the dating methods were wrong, or more digging was needed. Given the well-controlled and scientific methods of excavating, classifying specimens and dating, these explanations are highly unlikely to succeed. More so, when we take into account that more than one site showed the same result: that there was simply no city of any great size for Joshua to conquer between 1400 to 1200 BC. [6]

Based on the above evidence, this is what the historian Robin Lane Fox had to say:

The book of Joshua tells a powerful tale of conquest, supported by a God who showed no respect for most of the Holy Land’s existing inhabitants. Even now the tale has not lost its power, but it is not history and it never was. [7]

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Notes

a.The traditional dating for the conquest of Canaan is derived thus: now from the fourth year of Solomon’s reign to the fall of Jerusalem, which can be precisely dated to 587 BC, to Nebuchadnezzar is 430 years. From Solomon’s fourth year to the exodus is given in I Kings 6:1 as 480 years. This makes 910 years from the fall of Jerusalem to the exodus. If we minus 40 years for the wanderings of the Israelites before the start of the conquest (Joshua 5:6), this gives 870 years. Thus the date of the start of the conquest would be (587 + 870 years) 1457 BC.
b. The earlier was suggested for the conquest by scholars after it was realized that a fifteenth century or early fourteenth century “conquest” does not coincide well with historical and archaeological evidence of Palestine. For it was during the fifteenth to the thirteenth century that Egyptian control of the Palestine was at its peak. (see Steibing p53). The chaotic situation that prevailed from circa 1200 to 1050 BC seems to allow for conquest, settlement and the period of the “judges”. The later portion of this period would be too close period of the united monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon (between 1050-920BC) and would leave no room for the period of the “Judges.” Thus, conservative scholars have chosen 1200 BC as the “best compromise” although it does not agree with the time frame given by I Kings 6:1.
c.Modern scholarship dates the writing of the final form of Joshua to around 550 BC.
d.The German journalist, Werner Keller, for instance included Kenyon’s discovery in his book The Bible as History (1956). The book has a presumptuous subtitle: Archaeology Confirms the Book of Books! The impression one gets from reading Keller’s book is that archaeology is continuously discovering things which shows the biblical depiction to be true. However, as we have seen earlier on the “discovery” or an ancient Mesopotamian flood by Leonard Wooley and now on the walls of Jericho, more often then not these findings and especially their interpretations supporting the biblical narrative have been shown to be wrong.

References

1.Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament; p58
Parmalee, A Guidebook to the Bible: p38
2.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p46
Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p226-227
Stiebing, Out of the Desert: p46-47
3.Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p226-227
Stiebing, Out of the Desert: p84
4.Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p227-228
Stiebing, Out of the Desert: p87-88
5.Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p228
6.Ibid: p228-229
7.Ibid: p229

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