Timing the Walls of Jericho

Image ID:73289745 Copyright: Buurserstraat38
Old ruins in Tell es-Sultan better known as Jericho the oldest city in the world

I recently attended a conference at which Ted Wright, an archaeologist, presented information related to the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and the later conquest of the area of Canaan. Ted Wright has participated in the excavation of Jericho and Khirbet el-Maqatir, thought to be the modern location of the city, Ai, mentioned in the Bible. One thing that Ted Wright said, which has stuck with me, is that modern archaeology continues to affirm people, places and other information contained in biblical accounts.

As an example, Ted Wright recounted the story of an archaeologist, John Garstang, who excavated Jericho in the 1930’s. Garstang concluded that the site dated to 1400 BC, consistent with the biblical account (John Garstang, “Jericho and the Biblical Story,” p. 1222.):

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.

Ted Wright observed in his talk that most of the battle in modern archaeology is not whether places, like Jericho, really existed, or the happening of events, but rather the timing of when they existed and happened. Timing makes the difference whether the archaeological finds are harmonious with the biblical accounts or in tension with the biblical accounts. Garstang’s findings contradicted the findings of Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger in the early 1900’s. They pegged the date of the destruction of the City of Jericho to the Middle Bronze period, which would be before the Israelites appeared (in the Late Bronze period).

People know the biblical story. The people were instructed by Joshua to march around the City for seven days; and on the 7th time around the City, the priests were to blow “a long blast” on the ram’s horns they carried; and then all the people were to shout; and then walls would fall down. (Joshua 6) The account in Joshua 6 indicates that, when the people followed the instructions, the wall “fell down in its place” and “the people went up into the city, every man straight ahead, and they took the city.” (Joshua 6:20) 

It might be difficult to test the truth of the instruction of the priests and the actions taken in response to those instructions. Many people would not even try, concluding that those types of things simply don’t happen, ever. But, the portion of the text that describes Joshua and his men going up into the city after the walls fell describes an event that can be validated, if the timing is right.

Archaeologists do not seem to doubt that the Jericho they have unearthed is the Jericho referenced in the Bible. When Garstang excavated the site in the 1930’s, he even found an inner wall which had fallen on top of an outer wall, forming a virtual ramp up into the city. Garstang’s finds seemed to verify that account.

Along came Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950’s, however, claiming that Garstang got it all wrong. She affirmed the obvious, that the walls of the city had fallen, but she claimed from her work that the walls at Jericho fell long before the timing of the biblical account. Kenyon’s account aligned with the modern skeptical view of the biblical accounts and became the accepted dating.

Skeptics discount the whole story because they find parts of it too fantastic to believe. The story is a fantastic one. Anything that smacks of a miracle or any improbable series of events is suspect to people who do not believe that God acts in history and to anyone who believes God doesn’t exist in the first place.

Kenyon was a pioneer in archaeology, using stratiagraphic excavation techniques, detailing soil and debris layers with careful recordings of the sides of the excavated squares. Her detailed findings seemed to solidify the earlier conclusions of Sellin and Watzinger that Jericho had ceased to be inhabited long before any Israelites walked onto the site.

Jericho is rich in history. In fact, it is considered the world’s oldest known city, dating to Neolithic times around 8000 BC! Coming to a definitive determination as to when the walls might have fallen is a challenge at best.

Garstang’s work was a bit rambling and imprecise, and Kenyon’s more detailed reports remained unpublished, according to Bryant Wood, when undertook his own excavation of et-Tell-Sultan (Jericho) beginning in 1985. (Wood, Bryant, P.h.D, Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence, published at the Associates for Biblical Research, May 1, 2008) Wood provides us a more complete picture.

To begin with, Wood believes that Kenyon was correct, and Garstang was wrong, about the dating of the wall. It dates to the Early Bronze Age. The dating of the destruction of the residential portion of the city, however, is a different story. The evidence was there in support of the biblical chronology (the Late Bronze Period) when Kenyon did her excavation, but Kenyon ignored it.

In fact, according to Wood, “Kenyon based her opinion almost exclusively on the absence of pottery imported from Cyprus and common to the Late Bronze I period (c. 1550-1400 B.C.E.).” She mentions the local pottery in passing, but she focused exclusively on the absence of imported pottery at the site in reaching her conclusions. “In other words, Kenyon’s analysis was based on what was not found at Jericho rather than what was found. “

Was the failure to account for the local pottery willful? This is what Wood says:

Although she also mentions certain local pottery types used in this period, it is obvious she paid little attention to these common domestic forms since they appear regularly in the final phases of City IV. That she did not focus more on the local pottery is especially strange because considerable stratified local daily-use pottery from the Late Bronze I period had been excavated and was available for her to work with even at the beginning of her excavation at Jericho.

The reliance on the absence of exotic pottery in the obviously poor, humble areas of Jericho that were excavated, in a city that was off the beaten trade route path, is not a sound basis for a definitive determination. According to Wood, “An argument from silence is always problematic, but Kenyon’s argument is especially poorly founded. She based her dating on the fact that she failed to find expensive, imported pottery in a small excavation area in an impoverished part of a city located far from major trade routes!”

More importantly, though, the pottery that was present does tell a story consistent with the biblical chronology! And, Kenyon even reported this pottery in her notes! It isn’t the exotic pottery she was looking for, but it is pottery that is characteristic of the Late Bronze I period, and not before. And, in an ironic twist, Garstang actually reported “a considerable quantity of pottery decorated with red and black paint which appears to be imported Cypriot bichrome ware, the type of pottery Kenyon was looking for and did not find!”

Wood details other factors that date the destruction of Jericho to the Late Bronze I period, including stratiagraphic evidence that doesn’t fit Kenyon’s chronology, Egyptian scarabs with inscriptions of Hatshepsut (c. 1503-1483 B.C.E.), Tuthmosis III (c. 1504-1450 B.C.E.) and Amenhotep III (c. 1386-1349 B.C.E.) and carbon dating of charcoal to 1410 BC (with a 40 year accuracy factor).

Wood also details other evidence consistent with the biblical chronology and biblical story, including the proliferation of earthquakes in the unstable Rift Valley where Jericho is located. You can read it all in Wood’s article linked above.

None of this proves the biblical account, as in mathematical proof, but that kind of proof is not reasonable to expect for historical analysis. The trend of Modern discoveries is that they often confirm the people, places and events from biblical accounts, the like the discovery of the Ebla Tablets, rather than discount them.

Even respected archaeologists have their biases that prevent accurate assessments of archaeological findings. The Bible is rich in historical references to people, places and things, but modern archaeologists tend to ignore the whole thing because they don’t or won’t accept the idea of God interacting with people and influencing history.


The story of Jericho from Dr. Bryant Wood

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