Biblical Archaeology – Jericho Term Paper 11 pages

Biblical Archaeology – Jericho

The story of the attempt to match up the archaeology of ancient Jericho with the account given in the Hebrew Bible has come to be regarded as something of a cautionary tale in the history of Biblical archaeology. Laughlin in Archaeology and the Bible (2000) invokes Jericho in precisely that way, as the most generalized example that he can find to warn against trying to force archaeological data onto a hermeneutically Procrustean framework derived from the Old Testament:

For the student interested in “Biblical Archaeology” there are two sets of data: the archaeological and the biblical. The Bible can no longer be accepted uncritically as a “historical” account of ancient Israel, if by historical we mean all the modern connotations of that term. Rather the Bible interprets through theological, and even mythological, lenses what archaeologists must interpret through scientific/historical ones. The case of the story of the destruction of Jericho in the Book of Joshua is a classic example. The temptation was, and still is in some quarters, to interpret the archaeological data to “fit” a preconceived interpretation of the Bible. (14-5)

Yet we must acknowledge that, to a certain degree, the birth of archaeology as a modern science was largely motivated by nineteenth century attempts to prove the literal truth of the Bible. The first excavations at Jericho were all seemingly motivated by such an explicit goal: Diaz-Andreu notes the initial work done between 1902 and 1914, when the German Oriental Society provided the institutional authority for Ernest Sellin, the “Lutheran…Professor of the Old Testament at the University of Vienna,” to begin “archaeological research in order to confirm the primary historical value of the Bible” and accordingly began excavations at Tell-es-Sultan, the modern site of historical Jericho, “although some errors were introduced,” as she grimly notes (154). Yet Diaz-Andreu quotes William F. Albright’s 1914 summary of the state of finding correspondences between the history as presented in the Bible and the findings at this great wave of archaeological excavation:

The dates given by Sellin and Watzinger for Jericho, those given by Bliss and Macalister for the mounds of the Shephelah, by Macalister for Gezer, and by Mackenzie for Beth-Shemesh do not agree at all, and the attempt to base a synthesis on their chronology resulted, of course, in chaos. Moreover, most of the excavations failed to define the stratigraphy of their site, and thus left its archaeological history hazy and indefinite, with a chronology which was usually nebulous where correct and often clear-cut where it has since been proved wrong. (155)

However, a brief summary of the archaeological findings from Jericho in the period immediately following this — especially after Albright specifically recruited John Garstang to excavate further at Tell-es-Sultan in the 1930s — provide a fascinating cautionary tale about the misinterpretation of available evidence. I hope by providing a summary of the shift in interpretation of the evidence from Tell-es-Sultan that has occurred over the past century, we may see the way in which the written Biblical evidence has come to be contextualized and re-read alongside archaeological findings.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations at Jericho, such as that of Sellin, had failed to match up with standard chronologies — a destroyed city had been found, at what archaeologists have come to term the City IV layer, but it seemed to match up with sites much earlier (around 1500 BCE) than the probable date around 1400 BCE when Joshua and the Israelites began their conquest of Canaan with the destruction of Jericho. The Biblical account which Sellin had been trying to establish as fact is to be found at Joshua 6:1-27. The Lord God instructs Joshua to carry the ark of the covenant to the walls of Jericho, and to bring seven priests with seven trumpets. Then at Joshua 6:20 the destruction of the walls is described: “When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.” It is additionally recorded that “then they burned the whole city and everything in it” (6:24), although the account notes that Joshua rather thoughtfully spared the life of Rahab the harlot (who “lives among the Israelites to this day”). The Biblical account then concludes with the ferocious oath sworn by Joshua over the smoldering ashes of Jericho:

At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the LORD is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho:

At the cost of his firstborn son ?

he will lay its foundations;

at the cost of his youngest ?

he will set up its gates.”

So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land. (Joshua 6:26-7)

To a certain degree, there must be a certain level of irony for any Biblical literalist in the conclusion of the Biblical account. Rachel Hachlili notes that the excavations at Tell-es-Sultan have revealed a wealth of specifically Jewish rebuilding at the site, including “two recently uncovered structures at Jericho…deemed to be synagogues” of the early first century CE (98), as part of a considerable Jewish presence that continued for centuries. As Hachlili also notes, the excavation of post-Biblical Jewish settlements at Jericho have uncovered perhaps the first symbolic representation of a menorah used to signal the Jewish religion in the synagogue structures. It would appear that Jews of the first century CE were substantially less literal in their interpretation of Joshua’s curse (and indeed the whole account of the leveling of the city during the intitial conquest of Canaan) than a late nineteenth century Lutheran like Sellin. Hoffmeier additionally notes that there was already some question of contradiction in the Biblical accounts of the conquest of Jericho from the beginning:

When we consider the size of the cities the Israelites are said to have taken in Canaan, one wonders why the Israelites with an army of 600,000 would have been pessimistic about their ability to conquer these very large cities. Jericho, the first city attacked by the Israelites (Josh. 6), at its maximal size measured only 300 by 140 meters, or approximately the size of seven football fields. Hazor, recognized by archaeologists to be the largest city in all of Canaan, occupied 210 acres (both upper and lower tell), according to Amnon Ben-Tor, the current excavator. The massive size of this ancient city is acknowledged in Joshua 11:10. The estimated population of Middle Bronze Age Hazor is 33,000 — 42,000, and it apparently was somewhat smaller in the Late Bronze Age. While Hazor was formidable and Jericho quite small by Levantine standards, fortified cities like these should not have been a serious challenge to an army of 600,000. In fact, an army of that size could fight on many fronts at the same time, rather than fighting in a united manner (i.e., “all Israel”), taking on one city at a time. The biblical references cited here, along with the data regarding the demography and size of fortified cities in Canaan, indicate that Israelites felt outnumbered and overmatched. (155-6)

In other words, the Israelite construction of the story in the Bible is already ideological in character — couched as a sort of “underdog” narrative — in which the numbers cited (presumably to give honor to the Israelites for their ability to go forth and multiply) could not possibly have indicated any kind of “underdog” status as expressed in the account of the military conquest of Jericho. These issues were all available to archaeologists for consideration in the period before the twentieth century, and were crucial in illustrating the ways in which the Bible might provide a remarkably poor guidebook for archaeological excavation. As Laughlin will summarize the Biblical account:

new archaeological data that have come to light over the past several years have raised serious questions concerning the historicity of this central biblical story. It is with these data that I will be primarily concerned here. As always, readers should remind themselves constantly that any and all attempts to evaluate these sources, both textually and archaeologically, with the goal of reconstructing the actual process by which “Israel” came to occupy the land of Canaan involves significant amounts of subjective judgments regardless of the final interpretation one chooses to embrace. (111).

Indeed Laughlin’s characterization with specific reference to Jericho seems to hold true, that because “the textual compilations of Numbers, Joshua and Judges have long, complex histories according to most literary critics” therefore the “overriding consensus is that these texts were written late in Israel’s history (most likely during the post-exilic period, including Judges 1; see P.K. McCarter, Jr. 1992: 119 — 22), are primarily theologically motivated and must therefore be used with extreme caution, if at all, in any attempt to reconstruct the early history of Israel.” (110).

But the interpretation of the relevant early evidence was changed when the 1931 to 1936 excavations at Jericho by John Garstang had discovered something unusual. Garstang was evaluating the 1550 BCE dates that Sellin et al. had put forth for the destroyed layer at Tell-es-Sultan. Garstang noted the presence of Greek pottery shards (imported from Mycenae) throughout sites in Canaan in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries BCE were not matched by any similar finds in Jericho. Garstang assumed therefore that the city must have been devastated by an earthquake sometime before 1400 BCE at the time when the Israelites were invading Canaan, and thus the falling walls were interpreted as a sign of Yahweh’s favor, and with some embellishment followed the Biblical account quite closely. Eric Cline refers to Garstang’s initial report as “the most famous faux pas in the history of biblical archaeology” (41). Cline also notes that, to a certain degree, Garstang may have been playing up to the financial patron who was funding the 1931-1936 excavations at Tell-es-Sultan, because even to this day such ideological questions leave (in Cline’s words) “archaeologists warning darkly that religious or political motivations on the part of the sponsors may unduly influence interpretation of the data, much as Sir Charles Marston’s sponsorship of John Garstang’s excavations at Jericho may have played a role in Garstang’s fateful ascription of the destruction of the city to Joshua.” (58). In any case, Albright’s selection of Garstang to continue excavation at Jericho had now resulted in a dead end, and it remained to Garstang to appoint a successor to re-assess the evidence which he had announced, prematurely in the eyes of professional archaeologists, validated the Biblical chronology.

Garstang’s choice of successor for the excavation of the Jericho site was Kathleen Kenyon, who had pioneered a new method of excavation (the Kenyon-Wheeler method of “vertical excavation”), who then used her own methodology at Tell-es-Sultan from 1952 to 1958. Kenyon’s findings have now become the basis for the standard historical account, and the datings, employed in analyzing the site. Eissfeldt in the Cambridge Ancient History (1975) gives the summary of how Biblical evidence was interpreted after Kenyon’s excavation:

…[W]e must…consider certain narratives concerned not so much with specific events as with striking phenomena of the later period explained as deriving from the past; these stories are aetiological in purpose. Good examples of this type are the stories of the capture of Jericho, the stoning of Achan, and the battle against ‘Ai, in Joshua vi-viii. The first explains the deserted condition of Jericho as it was found by the Israelites advancing west of Jordan. That the city had once been a Canaanite stronghold was shown by the impressive ruins of the walls. The explanation given was, that Yahweh had caused these walls to fall before the Israelites. The second story undertakes to answer the question of the origin of a remarkable heap of stones near Jericho, and why this neighbourhood was called the valley of Achor. The third gives an explanation of the ruins of the place called then hd-‘Ai, as it is now called Et-Tell, situated about two miles south-east of Bethel. In the last case, the impression given by the narrative itself is of an aetiological saga, and that is confirmed by archaeology. Excavations have proved that ‘Ai was inhabited till about 2000 B.C. And was fortified, but was then deserted and remained so until about the end of the second millennium B.C. There was, then, no fortress that Joshua could have destroyed. (546)

In other words, the interpretation had gone (in a matter of decades) from Garstang’s insistence on the factual nature of the Biblical account to an interpretation of the account of the walls as being fundamentally “aetiological,” a story to explain the city which was uninhabited by the time of the Israelite migration into Canaan. So it is worth examining in more detail what Kenyon was able to establish.

Kenyon’s chronology matched up fundamentally with that established before Garstang, which dated the destroyed site at Tell-es-Sultan to about 1550 BCE. Garstang’s pottery evidence Kenyon was able to reinterpret by demonstrating a similar absence of shards dating from the period prior to the one that Garstang had proposed for Biblical Jericho, i.e., between 1550 and 1400 BCE. This suggests that while Garstang was right to look for an absence of pottery shards to demonstrate a lack of habitation, he had only focused on the imported Mycenean pottery without considering the earlier Late Bronze layer — in fact, Kenyon suggested that the destruction of the city walls (quite possibly by an earthquake as Garstang had suggested, she does not necessarily dispute that hypothesis) could be dated even earlier, and had been misidentified by Garstang as belonging to the Tell-es-Sultan’s City IV layer of 1400 BCE, and may have been destroyed as far back as 2400 BCE, a full millennium in advance of the events narrated in the Biblical account. Moreover, as Laughlin points out, “Kenyon…reported that in some places the walls were repaired a total of seventeen times,” indicating a much longer cycle of destruction and re-population than had inititally been suggested (50). Kenyon’s superior method of excavation has been verified by additional scientific methods of analysis that were not available to her in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, Herz and Garrison offered in 2007 the results of carbon-14 isotope dating methods to determine number of years before present (BP) which could be determined from artifacts capable of undergoing radiocarbon dating from differing levels: these found an age of Jericho’s Pre-Pottery levels between “8540 ± 65 years BP” (for level B) and “9582 ± 89 years BP” (for level A) — the Natufian period of settlement at Jericho was estimated at “11,090± 90 years BP” (Herz and Garrison 93). Yet this has not stopped the attempts on the part of those with an interest in establishing some literal truth to the Old Testament — in this light we may consider Roger Henry’s 2003 Synchronized Chronology: Rethinking Middle East Antiquity, which now attempts to make the case for Biblical literalism while decrying the evidence from Jericho as having improperly cast doubt on the attempt to treat Biblical evidence seriously. Instead Henry merely notes that “Jericho is perhaps as good an example as any of the difficulty in pinning down the exact date of a destruction or fortification level” because of the severe erosion at the site” concluding that “earthquakes, erosion and conquests all contributed to the jigsaw puzzle that is Jericho’s walls” (40). He concludes that “unfortunately” Kenyon has rendered Jericho useless for those intent on proving Biblical chronology as accurate at this late date, and instead those who still insist on the value of the Bible must ignore Jericho and instead “examine a site that offers a specific event with unmistakable remains” (41). Otherwise, the shift represented in archaeology between Garstang and Kenyon at Jericho is accurately represented by Laughlin. Noting that the previous scholarly approach in which “older syntheses rested primarily upon data extracted from the major tells of Palestine, such as Jericho” had now been largely abandoned, in the wake of Kenyon analysis of a site like Tell-es-Sultan has shifted from attempting to square itself with the Biblical account, and (in Laughlin’s words):

the older political/historical paradigm has been replaced with a more holistic approach that allows for newer ways of understanding the past through models drawn from anthropology and the social sciences. The end result has been a large increase of data relative to everything from settlement patterns to political, social and economic stratification; gender role identification; environmental relationships; trade patterns; land use; and other questions. While these newer approaches need to be used with proper caution, it can only be expected that the information base will continue to expand as more sites are discovered and/or excavated. (39-40).

Of course one irony here is that interpretations of the historical evidence at Jericho do not cease to become themselves a phenomenon best interpreted in light of their own historicism. As an example, I may give Burroughs’ 2005 study on Climate Change in Prehistory, with climate change, and calls for the shift towards a more “green” society, suitably modish topics at present. Here, Burroughs gives credit to an otherwise obscure 1986 interpretation by Bar-Yosef, that “the best known of all early defensive structures — the walls of Jericho — may have originally been built as flood defences” (273). Elsewhere Burroughs complains about the “standard…presentation of…Jericho as being the ‘oldest city’,” largely because he wishes to make the case for studying smaller settlements with more continuous habitation as perhaps telling us about the effects of early climate change on the Biblical Near East (195). Yet he is unable to resist a rather flimsily-evidenced suggestion by Bar-Yosef which makes Jericho an emblem of an ideology derived from Al Gore rather than the Pentateuch. Nonetheless this interpretation is gaining currency, and indeed Ian Shaw reinterprets Kenyon’s original evidence from pottery at Tell-es-Sultan to find that “in common with the rest of the Levant, the stratigraphy” at Jericho “indicates a gap of about 500 years between the end of the Aceramic Neolithic and the emergence of the Pottery Neolithic in the 6th millennium BC, presumably as a result of the impact of a drastic climatic change disrupting the subsistence and settlement pattern.” (323) I raise this slightly bizarre footnote by way of noting that, while Biblical literalism does not motivate archaeology so easily, nonetheless our archaeological inquiries always betray a kind of ideological motivation. Although the scientific methods introduced in archaelogy gradually over the last century or more have certainly improved our ability to resist forcing data that do not fit Biblical evidence to somehow conform to our own interpretive wishes, it remains true that the interpretation of the past begins with motivations in the present. If the evidence from Tell-es-Sultan, and Katheleen Kenyon’s establishement of a chronology widely at variance with Biblical accounts, means that we are no longer unduly pressured to make excuses for the Bible — but the fact that now new studies are emphasizing climate change seems an inescapable proof of the fact that contemporary obsessions manage to guide the interpretation of evidence from the Bronze Age.


Bar-Yosef, O. The walls of Jericho: An alternative interpretation. Current Anthropology 27 (1986): 57 — 62. Print.

Burroughs, William J. Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Cline, Eric. Biblical Archaeology. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Diaz-Andreu, Margarita. A World History of Nineteenth Century Archaeology. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Eissfeldt, O. “The Hebrew Kingdom.” In Edwards, I.E.S., Gadd C.J., Hammond, N.G.L. And Sollberger, E. History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region c. 1380-1000 B.C. The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume II Part 2. Third Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Print.

Garstang, John. The Foundations of Bible History, Joshua to Judges. London: Constable 1931. Print.

Hachlili, Rachel. “The Archaeology of Judaism.” In Insoll, Timothy (ed.) Archaeology and World Religion. New York and London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Henry, Roger. Synchronized Chronology: Rethinking Middle East Antiquity. New York: Algora, 2003. Print.

Herz, Norman and Garrison, Ervan. Geological Methods for Archaeology. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Hoffmeier, James K. Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Kenyon, Kathleen. Digging Up Jericho: The Results of the Jericho Excavations 1952-1956. New York: Praeger, 1957. Print.

Laughlin, John C.H. Archaeology and the Bible. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Shaw, Ian. “Jericho.” In Shaw, Ian and Jameson, Robert. A Dictionary of Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. Print.

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