The historical authenticity of the book of Joshua is one of the most commonly and fiercely debated topics in modern Biblical discourse.

(And it mostly comes down to archaeology.)

The Old Testament book of Joshua recounts in extraordinary (often brutal) detail the miraculous invasion of the land of Canaan by the Israelites, led by the cunning Joshua, successor of Moses. It contains some of the Old Testament’s most memorable stories, from the sun standing still amidst a crucial battle to the fall of the magnificent walls of Jericho, the stuff of heroes and legends. Archeological findings, however, have complicated traditional readings of the book, making it strikingly clear that it is very likely that events during the time the book claims to have taken place were unlikely to have unfolded in the manner Joshua would have us believe.

Before breaching the subject of archeology’s effects on the book of Joshua, it is necessary to take a look at the empirical findings of archeologists concerned with the book. Perhaps most problematically, many of the sites listed in Joshua as conquered show no evidence of conquering. (Ai, for instance, the Biblical site of a vicious battle and brutal execution, seems not to have been settled at all when the Israelites supposedly raided it.*) Similarly, while some of Joshua’s landmarks do exhibit evidence of a violent end, the scale of these settlements differs greatly from how it is presented in the Hebrew scripture. In one instance, recovered letters to the Pharaoh from Jerusalem and Megiddo requested that soldiers be sent to protect the settlements, but we find no evidence of the dazzling multitudes of warriors described in Joshua – Jerusalem requested a mere 50 soldiers, while Megiddo asked for 100.* (As a corollary to this, even in instances where Biblical cities are found to have been razed, there is strong evidence that the Israelites were not likely to have been the conquerors.) Regardless, scholars do know that a group calling itself “Israel” was in the area at this time, and evidence is present of a remarkable rise in the numbers of settlements during the same period.

Archeology’s most immediate effect on the book of Joshua, then, is to call into question whether or not one may take the book as a historical account at face value. If the Israelites really brought down the walls of Jericho, shouldn’t archeologists have found the walls? The Canaanite landscape unearthed by archeologists seems to overwhelmingly suggest that the events recorded in the book of Joshua simply never happened, a notion with striking implications. If the Israelites never conquered the entire land of Canaan, if they did not make a miraculous escape from Egypt into the desert (only to come blazing out of it to triumph over the Canaanites), then who were they? This question has become the source of immense scholarly debate, with some suggesting a nomadic group that “inherited” the land, others suggesting a marginalized group within Canaanite society at large, and still others claiming a desert people who settled the land.* Regardless, Israel became a presence in the Canaanite region, and the stage is now set for scholarly debate on precisely how this came to be the case.

On the other hand, the very practice of archeology itself has also been called into question. It may be naive to simply suspect that those who level criticisms on archeology at large are those who perceive that they have something to lose by Biblical historicism coming under fire. While this seems often to be the case, archeology has a handful of very real problems apart from the conclusions archeologists draw. It is, in example, a largely subjective practice that looks very much like a strictly objective one. Artifacts are found and interpreted, and interpretations must necessarily flow from the archeologist’s own perspective and the knowledge they have of the period in question, both of which are fallible. There is also the risk of destroying or diluting evidence at dig sites in the process of studying them. In archeology’s defense, however, G. Ernest Wright remarks that “great advances have been made in solving the problem of how to dig a site in such a way that a maximum of data is recovered before the evidence is destroyed,” citing the methods employed by such modern archeologists as Kathleen Kenyon, George Reisner, and Clarence Fisher.§ Still, when criticism is leveled at something as divisive as the Old Testament, one can expect fervent criticisms to be aimed at archeological studies in return.

Having laid out the complications that archeology unearths, then, far larger questions arise: if Joshua is not a strictly historical text, how should one interpret it? What does it mean if it is “true,” and what does it mean if it’s “false” in a historical sense? Multiple interpretations acknowledge the existence of etiologies within Joshua, essentially folk stories explaining the origins of familiar places, names, and practices. Bettler uses the example of Ai, which translates to “heap of ruins,” asserting that the story of Ai explains quite simply how it became a heap of ruins, when in fact archeological evidence suggests that it had been one long before the Israelites settled the area. Joshua is full of such explanations, including how the Gibeonites became Israelite servants (9:27). Gordon Wenham (and countless other scholars) have also stressed its value as a Deuteronomic text, claiming that it expresses the same priestly and theological concerns as Deuteronomy and was thus edited at a later time to reflect such ideologies. Wenham maintains that Joshua shares with Deuteronomy various theological motifs, including “the holy war of conquest, the distribution of the land, the unity of all Israel, Joshua as the successor of Moses, and the covenant.” Indeed, the book of Joshua begins with the death of Moses, just as Deuteronomy ends with it, and Joshua exhibits several instances of apparent priestly concerns. (Circumcision comes up in 5:2-9, in example, and Torah study in 1:5-9.†) The most popular interpretation, then, is a combination of several ideas: Joshua is mythical in origin, a set of stories recounting to future generations how the people of Israel came into the land through miraculous, God-given victories, stressing various aspects of traditional morality and priestly concerns.

Still, those who hold that the Old Testament is true in a literal, word-for-word sense will always hold opposing views to this one, claiming that the archeological findings are flawed or that various circumstances (perhaps in and of themselves miraculous) have wiped the landscape of the evidence of battles and former cities. The historical authenticity of the book, of course, holds different implications for different individuals. For some, it is a purely academic matter. For others, the idea of it as a sort of folklore may mean a crisis of faith. Regardless of what the individual brings to the study of the book, however, it is clear that the most profound (and perhaps most overlooked) effect that archeology has had on viewing this book is that it has opened the floodgates for a wave of analysis and debate, dialogue on its origins and on the origins of Israel itself, and new ideas about what it means for a Biblical text to hold truth.

Works Cited

† Brettler, Marc Zvi. “The Walls Came Tumbling Down.” How To Read the Bible. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005, pp.95-105.

* Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil. ““The Conquest of Canaan” and “Who Were the Israelites?” The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001, pp.72-122

‡ Wenham, Gordon J. “The Deuteronomic Theology of the Book of Joshua”. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 90, No. 2. (Jun., 1971), pp. 140-148.

§ Wright, G. Ernest. “Archeology and Old Testament Studies”. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 77, No. 1. (Mar., 1958), pp. 39-51.