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 often is 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 description of the account. He also verified the timing, and it coincided with the biblical timeline.

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. Anything that smacks of the miraculous and supernatural is suspect to people who do not believe that God acts in history and to anyone who believes that God doesn’t exist in the first place.

Kenyon was a pioneer in archaeology, using stratigraphic excavation techniques, detailing soil and debris layers with careful recordings of the sides of the excavated squares. Her 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 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. 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. Wood also 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 when Kenyon did her excavation was there in support of the biblical chronology (the Late Bronze Period), but Kenyon ignored it.

Wood observes, “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. “

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.”

Was the failure to account for the local pottery willful? Wood doesn’t go quite that  far, but he says,

“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!”

According to Wood the pottery that was present does tell a story consistent with the biblical chronology! 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.

Wood also notes that Garstang, before Kenyon, 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!” It was found in areas of the site where Kenyon did not focus.

Wood details other factors that date the destruction of Jericho to the Late Bronze I period, including stratigraphic evidence that doesn’t fit Kenyon’s chronology, Egyptian scarabs with inscriptions of Hatshepsut (c. 1503-1483 B.C.E.), Thutmose 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 of the biblical narrative, like the discovery of the Ebla Tablets, rather than discount them.

Even respected archaeologists have their biases that prevent accurate assessments of archaeological findings.  Many archaeologists are schooled in the 19th century, skeptical view of the Bible as an historical document, and (it seems) their presumptions might cause them to miss, overlook, discount and even ignore archaeological finds that go against that view.

The Bible is rich in historical references to people, places and things, but the Bible is the story of God’s interaction with people in human history. the biblical narrative is informed by belief in an interactive God, miracles and the supernatural. Modern archaeologists reject those possibilities a priori. So they reject the Bible as an historical record, and they tend to ignore any evidence consistent with that record – even when it stares them in the face.


The story of Jericho from Dr. Bryant Wood

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