This post is a continuation of our Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology series. To see the complete series please click here.
The Biblical Account
1400 BC was an unusual time in history. Moses, about 40 years earlier, led a sea of people through the Red Sea. He was intent to lead them from Egypt straight to the Promised Land. The people, however, arrived a bit later than they were planning. The people leaving Egypt did not obey God as they should have (think golden calf) so forty years were spent traveling through a vast desert wasteland. During these 40 years God miraculously provided manna, meat, water and the Ten Commandments for the people to survive.
By 1400 BC the disobedient generation who fled Egypt had all died. The next generation was ready, with God paving the way, to conquer a land which had been promised to them more than 500 years beforehand. Moses takes them within sight of the Promised Land. He is told to climb Mount Nebo where he will die.
Joshua takes over command of the people. His first act is leading them all through a river; a challenging task for even a 21st century military commander. His strategy: just let the people in the front carrying the ark of God start walking into the water and it will naturally part allowing all the people to walk through on dry ground. The strategy works. His next challenge is conquering the heavily fortified ancient city of Jericho. His strategy is given to him by God in Joshua 6:3-5:
You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus you shall do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.
The men of Jericho laugh as they watch what can best be described as unconventional warfare tactics. The strategy, however, actually works! The plan is executed down to the smallest detail. After the final shout the walls of Jericho fall down. The city is burned. Jericho is conquered in one week. Truth appears to be stranger than fiction. The conquest of Canaan has just been inaugurated through a river stopping and a fortified city being defeated through the combination of marching, music and shouting. At least this is the history described in the Bible.
Can an intellectual person really embrace the biblical account of Jericho? The biblical account makes for a fanciful bedtime story, but can the Bible really be accurately communicating an historical event?
A Remarkable Dig
The archaeological world first turned their gaze toward Jericho beginning in the late 1800’s. The first documented excavation occurred in 1867 and 1868 by the famous British engineer Charles Warren. Warren was most interested in finding out whether the large earthen mound, known as Tell es-Sultan, is natural or man-made? Warren dug six vertical shafts to see what was inside the mound.
To everyone’s amazement he found, “As a general result on the completion of these excavations it may be said for a certainty that these mounds are artificial throughout, and that they probably are the remains of ancient castles. ” Amazing, it was now verified the contents of Tell es-Sultan are man-made. What lies underneath? Will anything ever be found that could shed light on the biblical story of Joshua?
The next major excavation on Tell es-Sultan was done by a team from Austria and Germany from 1907-1909 and then again in 1911. Their major contribution to our understanding of Jericho was discovering a revetment wall which they followed around most of the city. A revetment wall is a retaining wall which prevents erosion. Further walls were typically built on top of a revetment wall. Tell es-Sultan was already taking shape as the ancient walled city of Jericho.
John Garstang, a British archaeologist, was then the first person starting in 1930 to lead an excavation using more modern archaeological methods. He dug at Tell es-Sultan from 1930 to 1936. The two most notable discoveries by Garstang’s team was a collapsed city wall toward the top of the mound (built on top of a wall which was built on top of the revetment wall…yes, possibly 3 different vertical walls), and evidence of a thoroughly violent destruction of the city. Garstang dated, based on pottery found at the same depth, the city was destroyed around 1400 BC. In his own words he writes:
In a word, in all material details and in date the fall of Jericho took place as described in the Biblical narrative. Our demonstration is limited, however, to material observations: the walls fell, shaken apparently by earthquake, and the city was destroyed by fire, about 1400 B.C. These are the basic facts resulting from our investigations. The link with Joshua and the Israelites is only circumstantial but it seems to be solid and without a flaw.
Garstang’s conclusions brought a lot of controversy from some of his colleagues who questioned his speedy reporting and dating methods. Garstang asked an up-and-coming British archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon to study his findings. Kenyon studied all previous findings from Jericho and then led her own excavations from 1952-1958. Her study of Jericho made her famous.
Garstang and Kenyon both discovered a lot of pottery and artifacts from Jericho. Kenyon identified 20 different architectural phases, with evidence that some of these phases lasted for long periods of time, Over the course of the 20 phases there were three major and 12 minor destructions. A fortification tower was rebuilt four times and repaired once, followed by habitation units that were rebuilt seven times. Amazing, Kenyon analyzed more than 20 different time periods of Jericho. There was one layer of history which most closely was in line with the time of the biblical account.
Kenyon describes the calamity she observed through the archaeological findings of the time period most closely related to the Bible:
The destruction was complete. Walls and floors were blackened or reddened by fire, and every room was filled with fallen bricks, timbers, and household utensils; in most rooms the fallen debris was heavily burnt, but the collapse of the walls of the eastern rooms seems to have taken place before they were affected by the fire.
One of Kenyon’s great discoveries from Jericho was the grain supply. Her team found many jars more than 3,000 years old which were all full of burned grain! Why is this so significant? The military strategy of the day was siege. An army would surround a city, cut off all food and water supply, and wait for the people to starve. A besieged city contains no food at the time of destruction. Additionally, if a city were to surrender before their food supply ran out they would intentionally destroy their remaining food supply knowing it would only feed their enemies.
Many of the jars were still sealed shut, so the city was full of food while it was being destroyed. The jars full of burned grain tell us two things: 1) the city had a full supply of food when it was burned; 2) the defeat of Jericho likely occurred at the beginning of harvest since the city was so well stocked at the time of attack.
All of these previous findings correlate with the biblical narrative:
- The city was strongly fortified (Joshua 2:5,7,15, 6:5,20).
- The attack occurred just after harvest time in the spring (Joshua 2:6, 3:15, 5:10).
- The inhabitants had no opportunity to flee with their food (Joshua 6:1).
- The siege was short (Joshua 6:15).
- The walls were leveled, possibly by an earthquake (Joshua 6:20).
- The city was not plundered (Joshua 6:17-18).
- The city was burned (Joshua 6:20)
Kenyon’s full multi-volume report of her excavation (you can buy it online for $1,500 – donations of her report to our ministry will not be rejected) was not published until after her death. Kenyon’s final analysis stated the city was destroyed in 1550 BC instead of 1400 BC. She ultimately disagreed with Garstang’s analysis. In her view, the Israelites come to a totally destroyed city in 1400 BC, not a well-fortified city. The biblical story could not have happened as described. Her dating of 1550 BC mainly came from the lack of an expensive type of pottery from Cyprus popular in 1400 BC. Because of Kenyon’s final analysis many scholars have written off the biblical account of Jericho as a mere fairy tale.
Recent scholars have revisited the archaeological reports. Kathleen Kenyon did a fantastic job documenting the excavation making thorough examination of her discoveries possible. Dr. Bryant G. Wood makes a strong case for the destruction of Jericho to be restored to Garstang’s date of 1400 BC. You can read Dr. Wood’s findings here: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/05/Did-the-Israelites-Conquer-Jericho-A-New-Look-at-the-Archaeological-Evidence.aspx Among other points, Dr. Wood observes Kenyon excavated in a poor residential part of Jericho. Kenyon should not have expected expensive pottery from Cyprus in a poor part of town. The common pottery she discovered does support a time of 1400 BC. I encourage you to read all of Dr. Wood’s analysis supporting a date of 1400 BC.
Archaeology can be Messy
Jericho is a perfect example of the potential messiness when you step into the world of archaeology. Some scholars interpret the archaeological evidence as a death-blow to the biblical account. Other equally capable scholars interpret the archaeological evidence to be in full support of every little detail mentioned in the book of Joshua. Ultimately it is up to you to study both sides and come to your own conclusion.
Please join the discussion by posting your thoughts in the comments section below.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]