Dating the Book of Joshua via Archaeological Anomalies and Anachronisms

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

22 April 2001 (Rrevisions through 01 May 2009)

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A number of sites mentioned in the Joshua narratives have been identified, excavated and their occupational parameters established by archaeologists. In some cases it has been determined that a number of sites either did not exist or were abandoned in the biblical time frame for the "Conquest of Canaan" by the Israelites. Some Conservative scholars prefer to date the Exodus to circa 1446 B.C., citing data preserved in 1 Kings 6:1, suggesting the Conquest is ca. 1406 B.C. 

Many Humanist and Liberal scholars opt for an Exodus ca. 1260 B.C., sometime after Pharaoh Rameses II (1279-1212 B.C.) had built his capital called Per-Rameses (identified by some scholars with the store-city called "Rameses" in Exodus 1: 11), with a Conquest occurring by ca. 1220 B.C. (cf. ABD 2.702, Kenneth A. Kitchen, "Exodus," 1992). A victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah (1212-1202 B.C.) mentions his defeat in Canaan of a peoples called "Israel," and his monument is dated ca. 1207 B.C., suggesting that if an Exodus did occur it had to have happened before his victory (cf. p.157, for photo of the stele and the date in Peter A. Clayton. Chronicle of the Pharaohs, The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt. London. Thames & Hudson. 1994. ISBN 0-500-05074-0   pp.224).

Both dates, 1406 and 1220 B.C., fall within the Late Bronze Age (1570-1200 B.C.). The problem is that some sites mentioned in the Joshua narratives did not come into existence until Iron II, the 8th-7th centuries B.C. These archaeological anomalies suggest that the book of Joshua was not composed ca. 1406 or 1220 B.C., it had to have been written some time after the 8th-7th centuries B.C. We must allow a period of 100/200 years to elapse, such that the national memory would have forgotten that these places did not exist until the 8th/7th centuries B.C., and thus there would be no objection raised to this anomaly, this would suggest a text created in either the 6th or 5th century B.C., the Exilic or Post-Exilic eras. It is my understanding that the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings) was created ca. 
560 B.C. in the Exile.

Jericho was the first city to fall to the Israelites (Jos 6:15-27).  Archaeological excavations by Garstang (1932-36) had established the city's wall had collapsed and then the city was destroyed by invaders. He associated the fallen wall with Joshua's attack. Later excavations by Kenyon (1952-58) established that Garstang was in error, the fallen walls were of the Early Bronze Age, and that as many as 17 collapses had occurred in this time period (Jericho lies in a rift valley called the Arabah in the bible, and this valley is subject to earthquakes which accounted for the collapsing walls).

Kenyon's excavations led her to understand that Jericho was an abandoned city by the time Joshua encountered it ca. 1220 B.C. She noted that Jericho had been destroyed several times, the Early Bronze city was destroyed by invaders in EB IV (called MB I by others), who built rude dwellings on the ruins. In Middle Bronze II the city came back to life as a mighty fortified and walled structure only to be destroyed by the Egyptians in MB IIc who conquered all of Canaan on the heels of the Hyksos expulsion (ca. 1570/1550/1540/1530 B.C., depending on different scholars' dates).

The only Late Bronze Age occupation was a single dwelling, no walled city, and this was abandoned before Joshua arrived. Jericho's last wall was the MBII wall destroyed by the Egyptians (no Iron Age walls being found). The site appeared to have been abandoned until Iron II when in the 8th-7th centuries an extensive un-walled village arose which remained occupied until its fall to the Babylonians ca. 587 B.C. Upon the return from Exile, Jericho was not resetttled, instead a new city arose in the vicinity of the abandoned tell.

Ai was the next city to fall to Joshua (Jos 8:1-29). It is identified by most scholars with et-Tell. The site possesses no Late Bronze remains, it was abandoned from Early Bronze II to its resettlement in Iron I as a small village.

Callaway (who excavated at et-Tell):

"Reconciliation of the archaeological evidence with the biblical account of the capture of Ai is difficult, because the evidence does not agree with the prevailing views of the event. The older view of a 1400 BC conquest based upon 1 Kings 6:1 (held by Garstang) is not supported because there was no occupation of the site at that time. Albright's view of a conquest about 1250-1230 BC is also unsupported...We are left with the options of discounting the historicity of the Ai account or of placing the conquest in a chronological context later than Late Bronze. The latter is here proposed, and it is suggested that the interruption of the Iron Age village about 1125 BC would be the appropriate time. However, there is increasing evidence from excavations and surveys of the hill country from the Negeb to Esdraelon that a military conquest as described in Joshua 1-11 is without archaeological support, and that the settlement depicted in the book of Judges matches the evidence more accurately. The hundreds of villages, among which was that of Ai, founded on hilltops and supported by an agricultural subsistence, were occupied by people who fled from conflicts and violence to the safety of the hills. Indeed, the original settlers at Ai seem to have come to the highlands by way of the lowlands to the West and North instead of from the East...The people at Ai would thus be part of the large population of villagers in the highlands that emerged as the Israel we know in the book of Judges." (ABD 1.130 Joseph A. Callaway "Ai," 1992 [ABD is The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. Edited by Noel David Freedman. New York. Doubleday Publlishers)

Gibeon is portrayed as a city that forms an alliance with the Israelites and then seeks their help when the kings of Canaan unite to destroy it. Joshua is portrayed succoring them and defeating the alliance. Archaeologists have determined that Gibeon possesses no Late Bronze Age remains or structures.

"...the historical subservient relationship of the Hivite citizens of Gibeon to the problematic for biblical historians, since archaeologists have found no occupational remains at Gibeon in the Late Bronze Age in which the Conquest stories are set; only a few burials from this period were uncovered (Pritchard 1961: 22-23). Archaeological remains at el-Jib show that Gibeon was reconstructed in the early Iron Age (1200-900 BC)..." (ABD 2.1010, Patrick M. Arnold, "Gibeon," 1992)

The king of Arad is listed amongst the Canaanite kings defeated by Joshua (Jos 12:14). Arad, identified with tell Arad in the Negeb, did not exist in the Late Bronze period, It was a mighty walled city in the Early Bronze, being destroyed in late EB II, and essentially deserted by EB III with an abandonment until being resettled in Iron I.

Manor & Herion:

"Early Bronze Age. The lower city, which is fortified with a stone wall and projecting towers, encloses ca. 22 acres (90 dunams) and has four strata of settlement from the EB (evidence of an earlier Chalcolithic occupation, stratum V, was also discovered). Stratum IV was an unfortified village of the late EB I. The EB II strata (III and II) were the principal fortified urban phases...The site was essentially deserted by the beginning of EB III...The first Iron Age establishment was an unwalled village..." (ABD 1.332 Dale W. Manor & Gary A. Herion, "Arad," 1992)

Joshua is portrayed as chasing the Canaanite kings from the "descent" of Beth-horon to Azekah. Later mention is made of the "Ascent" of Beth-horon. Some scholars suggest that the descent and ascent are referring to "lower" and "upper" Beth-horon, called in Arabic Beit Ur et-Tahtha and Beit Ur el-Foqa. While Foqa came into being in Late Bronze Age times, Tahtha was created in Iron II. This anomaly suggests the text was composed after the 8th/7th century B.C.


"Since 1926 there have been many surveys at both el-Foqa and et-Tahta. The surveys have shown that the pottery chronologies at el-Foqa begin with LB, while at et-Tahta the earliest is Iron II...The conclusion that can be drawn from the archaeological evidence is a close occupational relationship between the two cities. It is only when one city is specifically mentioned that the other is excluded. Given the occupational history and settlements of both cities, the Beth-horon of Joshua 21:22 and of 1 Chronicles 6:68 must be BOTH Beit Ur el-Foqa and Beit Ur et-Tahta." (ABD 1.689, John L. Peterson, "Beth-Horon" 1992)

Peterson may be in error about a Late Bronze Age occupation at Beit Ur el-Foqa as a surface survey of the site published in 1993 found NO LB sherds. What was found was a few Middle Bronze sherds, then Iron I and II:

Israel Finkelstein & Yitzhak Magen, editors. Archaeological Survey of the Hill Country of Benjamin. Jerusalem. 1993. ISBN 965-406-007-8. The % is relating to the grand total of all sherds collected at a site from Stone Age to Ottoman times.

No. 22:15 Beit 'Ur et-Tahta. 30 (?) dunams.
Arab village on tel; terraces to north.
Iron I a single sherd; Iron II -27%; Persian -3%; Hellenistic -27%;

No. 28:16 Beit 'Ur el-Fauqa 15 (?) dunams. (See also No. 143 below)
Arab village on prominent hill.
MB -a few sherds; Iron I -36%; Iron II  -66%; Persian -4%; Hellenistc -12%;

p. 28*
No. 143:16 Beit 'Ur el-Fauqa, 18 dunams. (See also No. 28 above)
Arab village; caves; oil-press' portion of Roman road; reservoir; burial 
caves; rock-cut wine-press; cisterns.
Iron II -46%; Hellenistic 12%;

Boling, in referring to the list of Levitical cities distributed by Joshua, notes that archaeological surveys and excavations indicate this list can date no earlier than the 8th century B.C. (emphasis is mine):

"If we look for a single period when ALL THE TOWNS IN THE LIST were likely to have been occupied, the trail leads directly to the eighth century...From the archaeological evidence, which is considerable and impressive, we conclude that these particular forty-eight or forty-nine towns COULD  NOT HAVE BEEN PART OF ONE SYSTEM EARLIER THAN THE EIGHTH CENTURY B.C." (pp. 492-494. Robert G. Boling and G. Ernest Wright. Joshua [A Commentary]. New York. Doubleday. Anchor Bible Series. 1982. ISBN 0-385-00034-0)

According to Joshua 21:37, a place called Mephaath was set aside from the tribe of Reuben and allocated to the Levites. Archaeology suggests that this city is no earlier than the 7th/6th centuries B.C. according to the pottery debris found there. Today the site is called in Arabic Umm er-Rasas, but excavations have found a mosaic of the city, bearing the site's name in Late Roman times, "Kastron Mefaa" (cf. p. 1491. Vol. 4. Michele Piccirillo. "Umm er-Rasas." Ephraim Stern. Editor. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. New York. Simon & Schuster. 1993)

The recent archaeological evidence from extensive on site surveys within modern Israel suggests for some scholars that Iron Age I (ca. 1200-1100 B.C.) is the origin period of a "proto-Israelite" agrarian small farmstead culture that becomes urban in the Iron Age II (ca. 1100-587 B.C.) and definitely Israelite, with cities and towns.

The American bible scholar and archaeologist, Dr. William G. Dever, has ably presented the archaeological findings of these recent surveys and their impact on biblical studies. I find myself in agreement with most of his interpretations of the archaeological data.

He noted 300 Iron Age I settlements were found in the hill-country stretching from Lower Gailee to the Negeb, most were new, not being built upon destoyed Late Bronze Age sites. Their locations agreed with the biblical presentation of the settlement of the land (pp.26-27, Dever)

That these settlers were Canaanites and not invaders was inferred from the following observations:

"The pottery of these early Iron I highland villages- always one of our most sensitive media for perceiving cultural continuity or change- is strongly in the older Late Bronze Age Canaanite tradition...The most significant aspect of the pottery, however, which biblical scholars have been slow to appreciate, is its _striking continuity_ with the local Late Bronze Age ceramic repertoire. This pottery displays no 'foreign' elements, no Egyptian reminiscences, and it is certainly not anything that one could connect with a 'nomadic lifestyle' (we have such distinctive pottery from later in the Iron Age, the 'Negebite ware'). This is standard, domestic Canaanite-style pottery, long at home in western Palestine. The ceramic arguments _alone_ would clinch the question of indigenous origins for the settlers of the new highland villages; they came from elsewhere in Canaan." (pp. 29-30. Dever)

"I have argued, mainly along with other scholars like Gottwald, that a proper interpretation of the biblical texts, extra-biblical literature such as the Late Bronze Age Amarna letters from Palestine and a few Egyptian texts, and the new archaeological data all conspire to suggest that the early Israelite community was a motley group. It probably consisted of some sympathetic Late Bronze Age Habiru who became 'Israelites' for ideological reasons; many other dispossessed folk, refugees from the Canaanite city-states that we know were disintegrating, as well as impoverished peasant farmers from the countryside and refugees, drop-outs, entreprenuers and adventurers of many sorts; all victims of the wholesale systemic collapse of Palestine at the end of the Bronze Age. Among these groups there may also have been a few pastoral nomads settling or resettling now, as always happens in times of crisis. These may have included some of the shasu-beduin from southern Transjordan known from contemporary Egyptian texts, who seem to be connected with a Yahweh-cult there. There may even have been some escapees from Egypt who had been nomads in transit for some time and who eventually arrived in Palestine. But in my judgement, _most_ of those who came to call themselves 'Israelites' by the early Iron Age were in fact 'displaced Canaanites'- displaced geographically, then culturally, and eventually ideologically. As Ezekiel has God say to his people Israel (not altogether as a compliment): 'Your origin and birth are of the land of the Canaanites, your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite (Ezek 16:2,3). It was these people, still close to Canaanite language, customs and culture, who were the 'colonists' settling a new highland frontier around 1200 BCE. They were survivors of a period of cataclysmic upheaval and unprecedented chaos at the end of the Bronze Age, 'pioneers' in the true sense, seeking a new life and a new identity. Thus in the light of the newer evidence, early Israel may be best described as a newly emerged agrarian community..." (pp. 40-41. William G. Dever. "Archaeology and the Emergence of Early Israel." in John R. Bartlett, Editor, Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation. London & New York. Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0-415-141141-1 pbk)

Finkelstein and Silberman have noted that some of the sites appearing in the Book of Joshua came into being only in the final decades of the 7th centry B.C., suggesting that the text is no earlier:

"This basic picture of the gradual accumulation of legends and stories- and
their eventual incorporation into a single coherent saga with a definite
theological outlook- was a product of that astonishingly creative period of
literary production in the kingdom of Judah in the 7th century BCE. Perhaps
most telling of all the clues that the book of Joshua was written at this
time is the list of towns in the territory of the tribe of Judah, given in
detail, in Joshua 15:21-62. The list precisely corresponds to the borders of
the kingdom of Judah during the reign of Josiah. Moreover, the placenames
mentioned in the list closely correspond to the 7th century BCE settlement
pattern in the same region. And some of the sites were occupied ONLY IN THE FINAL DECADES OF THE 7TH CENTURY BCE."
(p.92. "The Conquest of Canaan." . Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher
Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel
and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York. The Free Press. 2001. ISBN

Please click here for further details on Jericho and its archaeological anomalies by Brett Palmer (2007) who refutes a Christian Apologist's claims archaeologists have misdated Jericho's fallen walls.

Conclusions :

The archaeological evidence does not support the notion of a Conquest of Canaan in the 16th or 15th century B.C. by Israelites as portrayed in the book of Joshua. Some cities mentioned in the text either didn't exist until Iron II times (the 8-7th centuries B.C.) or were abandoned (like Ai and Gibeon). The latest elements date a work. The Iron II cities of the 8th/7th centuries, in order to be portrayed as existing ca. 1446 or 1220 B.C. would suggest a period of time would have had to have elapsed of 100-200 years such that the national memory would forget when they had come into existence and there would be no objections to this historical anomaly. This suggests the text was composed either in the 6th or 5th century B.C. I have argued elsewhere that the text was composed ca. 560 B.C. in the Exile.

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