Ehrman Errors #6: Joshua’s Conquest & Science

Ehrman Errors #6: Joshua’s Conquest & Science March 23, 2022

Bart Ehrman is one of the most well-known and influential critics of traditional Christianity and the inspired Bible (“anti-theists”) writing today. Formerly, in his own words, he was “a fundamentalist for maybe 6 years; a conservative evangelical but not extreme right wing for maybe 5 years more; and a fairly mainstream liberal Christian for about 25.” The primary reason he gives for having lost his faith is the problem of evil (a very serious topic I have dealt with many times). He stated on 3-18-22 in a comment on his blog: “I could no longer explain how there could be a God active in this world given all the pain and misery in it.” I don’t question his sincerity, good intentions, intellectual honesty, or his past status as a Christian; only various opinions which Christians must (in consistency) regard as erroneous.

Dr. Ehrman “received his PhD and MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied textual criticism of the Bible, development of the New Testament canon and New Testament apocrypha under Bruce Metzger.” He has written 30 books, which have sold over two million copies and have been translated into 27 languages.

Ehrman explains that the purpose of his blog is “to disseminate scholarly knowledge of the New Testament and the earliest periods of the Christian church to a non-scholarly audience, . . . Every post is rooted in scholarship – not just my own but that of thousands of scholars who have worked for centuries on understanding the historical Jesus, the New Testament, and the origins of Christianity.” Well, the conclusions of scholars are only as good as the solidity and truthfulness of the premises by which they are operating.

This is one of a series of reply-papers, in which I will address many of his materials from the perspective of archaeology, history, and exegesis.

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I am responding to his article, Israel’s Conquest of the Promised Land: Did Any of That Happen? (8-25-21). His words will be in blue.

I want to address a question lots of people typically have about these stories of the Conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua.   Did any of this happen?

Here’s how I discuss the matter in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Oxford University Press), a book you should consider getting if you’re interested in knowing both what’s in the Bible and what scholars say about it from historical and literary perspectives. . . . 

[T]he narratives of Joshua . . . are clearly molded according to theological assumptions and perspectives.  There is almost nothing in the accounts that suggest that the author is trying to be purely descriptive of things that really happened.  He is writing an account that is guided by his religious agenda, not by pure historical interests.  That is why, when read closely, one finds so many problems with the narratives. . . . 

  • In the archaeological record there is no support for the kind of violent destruction of the cities of Canaan – especially the ones mentioned in Joshua.  Think for a second: if one were to look for archaeological evidence, or other external verification, to support the historical narratives of Joshua, what would one look for?
    • References to the invasion and conquest in other written sources.
    • Evidence that there were indeed walled cities and towns in Canaan at the time.
    • Archaeological evidence that the cities and towns mentioned actually were destroyed at the time (Jericho, Ai, Heshbon, etc.).  . . . 

And what kind of verification do we actually get for the narratives of Joshua?  None of the above.  There are no references in any other ancient source to a massive destruction of the cities of Canaan.  There were few walled towns at the time.  Many of the specific cities cited as places of conquest did not even exist as cities at the time. 

I addressed Hazor in my previous article. Remember, Ehrman claimed there was “no support . . . none” for “violent destruction of the cities of Canaan – especially the ones mentioned in Joshua”: as I detail below the actual, specific archaeological evidence that he thinks is nonexistent. It’s easy (and very foolish) to make  “universal negative” statements. And it’s easy as pie to shoot them down. Even a single counter-example already logically demolishes such sweeping and “triumphalistic” claims. But I will produce many counter-examples.

This includes, most notably, Jericho, which was not inhabited in the late 13th century BCE, as archaeologists have decisively shown (see box). 

Jericho is a special case, due to the rapid level of erosion caused by the arid climate and the closeness of the Dead Sea: one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. I explained this in my paper, Joshua’s Conquest & Archaeology.

The same thing applies to Ai and Heshbon.  These cities were neither occupied, nor conquered, nor re-inhabited in the days of Joshua.

The data from Ai is inconclusive and does not thus far appear to positively support the biblical account. Archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen stated that there was a new settlement “at about 1220/1200 or soon after” (1): which is still Joshua’s era. Avraham Negev and Shimon Gibson state:

The Iron Age I village at et-Tell was probably biblical Ai. The “men of Ai” whom Joshua defeated in the wadi north of the site (Josh. 8:1-29) were probably the first inhabitants of the Iron Age I site. (p. 23)

But Kitchen states that “Ai is enigmatic” (3). The evidence is even much less impressive for Heshbon. Christians need not be embarrassed by the occasional lack of confirmation of Scripture or scanty evidence in archaeology. There are many many more instances where the data confirms the Bible: often rather dramatically. So “score two” for Ehrman. He chose his examples wisely. But his sweeping, grandiose claims regarding the “conquest” do not hold up, as I will now show.

Lachish

Joshua 10:31-32 And Joshua passed on from Libnah, and all Israel with him, to Lachish, and laid siege to it, and assaulted it: [32] and the LORD gave Lachish into the hand of Israel, and he took it on the second day, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it, as he had done to Libnah.

Archaeological Level VII of Lachish has been dated to the 13th century BC, and its destruction determined to be the middle or latter part of the 12th century BC. According to Israeli archaeologist David Ussishkin, “the biblical description (in Josh. 10:31-32) fits the archaeological data: a large Canaanite city destroyed by fire; . . . and complete desertion of the razed city explained by the annihilation of the populace.” As with Hazor, a small Iron Age settlements appeared not long afterwards. (4)

Bethel

Judges 1:22-25 The house of Joseph also went up against Bethel; and the LORD was with them. [23] And the house of Joseph sent to spy out Bethel. (Now the name of the city was formerly Luz.) [24] And the spies saw a man coming out of the city, and they said to him, “Pray, show us the way into the city, and we will deal kindly with you.” [25] And he showed them the way into the city; and they smote the city with the edge of the sword, but they let the man and all his family go.

The destruction of the Late Bronze Age town was by fire, and dated by William Albright to around 1240-1235 BC. This was followed by a relatively poor and different Israelite Iron Age I settlement. This was what happened according to archaeologists Amihai Mazar and Israel FinkelsteinNegev and Gibson (5) added that “The last Late Bronze Age stratum is covered by a very thick layer of ashes and charred and fallen bricks.”

Bruce Waltke notes Canaanite cities that underwent “catastrophic destructions”:

Hazor (Tell el-Qedah), Megiddo (Tell el-Mutesellim), Succoth (Tell Deir Alla), Bethel (Beitin), Beth Shemesh (Tell er-Remeileh), Ashdod (Esdud), Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir), Eglon (Tell el-esi), and Debir or Kiriath-Sepher (Tell Beit Mirsim or Khirbet Rabud). . . .

On the other hand, he differentiated cities mentioned in the Bible that show no sign of destruction, in line with the biblical accounts:

Gibeon (el-Jib) (Joshua 9), Taanach (Tell Taaannak) (Judg 1:27), Shechem (Tell Balatah) (Josh 24), Jerusalem (el-Quds) (Josh 15:63; 2 Sam 5:6-9), Beth-shean (Tell el-husn) (Judg 1:27-28), and Gezer (Tell Jezer) (Josh 10:33). (6)

Dr. Kitchen assessed the overall evidence and harmony with the scriptural accounts and concluded “eighteen or nineteen” sites out of twenty “were in being in Late Bronze (II)”, according to what we have determined by archaeology. He stated that Makkedah was an exception to the rule because “most of that site is not accessible, hence is not decisive.” (7)

He concluded from the research: “This review shows up the far greater deficiencies in some critiques of the Joshua narratives and list that are now already out-of-date and distinctly misleading.” (8)

Azekah

Joshua 10:10 And the LORD threw them into a panic before Israel, who slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-hor’on, and smote them as far as Aze’kah and Makke’dah. (cf. 10:11; 15:35).

Azekah was occupied right through the early, Middle, and Late Bronze periods, as well as through the Iron Age . . . (9).

Libnah

Joshua 10:29-30 Then Joshua . . . fought against Libnah; [30] and the LORD gave it also and its king into the hand of Israel; and he smote it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it; he left none remaining in it; . . .

Libnah . . . can be plausibly identified with Tell Bornat (Tel Burna), which was inhabited in the Late Bronze Age, in agreement with the probable date of Joshua’s raids. (10)

. . . settled in the Early Bronze Age and Iron Age I-II (11).

Eglon

Joshua 10:34-35 And Joshua passed on with all Israel from Lachish to Eglon; and they laid siege to it, and assaulted it; [35] and they took it on that day, and smote it with the edge of the sword; and every person in it he utterly destroyed that day, . . .

Eglon . . . is in all likelihood to be sited at present-day Tell ‘Aitun (Tell ‘Eton), occupied in the Late Bronze II period . . . (12).

Debir

Joshua 10:38-39 Then Joshua, with all Israel, turned back to Debir and assaulted it, [39] and he took it with its king and all its towns; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed every person in it; he left none remaining; . . .

Debir . . . is more securely located at Khirbet Rabud . . . this site was inhabited in the fourteenth/thirteenth centuries, in the Late Bronze II period, and was reoccupied directly in Early Iron I (twelfth century). (13).

Gaza

Joshua 10:41 And Joshua defeated them from Ka’desh-bar’nea to Gaza . . . (cf. 14:6-7; 15:3).

Archaeological soundings . . . in 1922 . . . uncovered a series of walls, the earliest of which was associated with Late Bronze Age pottery . . . Egyptian texts dating to the reign of Thutmosis II [r. 1493-1479 BC] refer to Gazat “a prize city of the governor,” indicating at least a 15th century BC date for the occupation of the site. Gaza is also mentioned in the El Amarna [c. 1350 BC] and Taanach tablets [also c. 1350 BC] as an Egyptian administrative center . . . (14)

Shift in cultural patterns: that is, evidence of new people taking over from other peoples of a different culture (as you get in the Americas when Europeans came over bringing with them their own culture, different from that of the native Americans).

Ehrman claimed that there was no evidence for this, which is false. Junkkaala summarized his in-depth study of these cities that are mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with Joshua and the Israeli conquest and subsequent settlement:

This study has included 29 sites, which have been divided into two main categories: the “conquered cities” and the “unconquered cities”. The first category has been subdivided into three groups: excavated cities, surveyed cities and others. In all of the “unconquered cities” excavations have been carried out.
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Two questions were asked concerning each of the sites: were they inhabited in the periods in question (Late Bronze Age II, Iron Age I and II), and can we know something about the cultural backgrounds of the inhabitants. In most cases it could be determined that the culture was influenced either by the Coastal Plain culture (C) or the Hill Country culture (H). The third possibility was the Sea People culture (mostly Philistines, P). . . .
*
The list of the “conquered cities” contains 19 sites. 12 of them have been excavated, 5 have been surveyed and 2 neither have been carried out. In 10 of the 12 excavated cities C-culture dominated in the Late Bronze Age II and in 3 of them (Ai, Arad and Makkedah) there was no identifiable settlement in that period. The cultural change between the Late Bronze Age II and Iron Age I can be seen in all of the sites, although in some it is not very obvious. This change does not happen simultaneously, in Ai the H-culture begins in Iron Age I as in almost all the other cities in this group, but Arad and Makkedah have no settlement until Iron Age II.
*
In 8 of the 12 excavated sites the new settlers seem to represent H culture. . . .
*
The list of the “unconquered cities” contains 10 sites, all of which have been excavated. C-culture dominated in all the sites in Late Bronze Age II. In the Iron Age I the same culture (C) has been found in at least 4 of them and P-culture or its variations in 5 of them (Gezer, Jarmuth, Dor, Aphek, and Achsaph). . . .
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The conspicuous difference between the archaeology of the “conquered” and the “unconquered” cities is that in the former ones the H-culture begins during Iron Age I (although not commencing simultaneously), and in the latter it only starts in Iron Age II. (15)
This is strong archaeological confirmation of the biblical descriptions of the conquest. Waltke (backed up by others) (16) made a similar observation:
The sudden emergence of hundreds of new sites by pastoral nomads in Iron I contrasts sharply with the reduced number of sites in LB in comparison with MB. Kochavi (17) wrote: “During the Late Bronze Age, and especially towards its end, new small unfortified settlements are known. However, with the beginning of the Iron Age, they suddenly appear by the hundreds.” I. Finkelstein (18) elaborates:

Altogether only 25-30 sites were occupied in the Late Bronze II (c. 1400-1200 BC) between the Jezreel and Beer-Sheva valleys. Human activity was confined mainly to the large central tells…. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that many additional Late Bronze sites will be discovered in the future, because it is difficult to overlook such major settlements. Other regions were also practically deserted during the Late Bronze period…. In Iron I there was a dramatic swing back in the population of the hill country. About 240 sites of the period are known in the area between the Jezreel and Beer-Sheva valleys; 96 in Manasseh, 122 in Ephraim… and 22 in Benjamin and Judah. In addition, 68 sites have been identified in Galilee, 18 in the Jordan Valley and dozens of others on the Transjordanian plateau.

As I noted in my previous article, Ehrman likes Israel Finkelstein a lot. He thinks his 2002 book, The Bible Unearthed, is “absolutely terrific . . . Really great, in every way”, and that Finkelstein and co-author Neil Asher Silberman are “highly established and incredibly learned scholars who seem to know everything relevant to the Hebrew Bible . . . far more qualified than I to say anything about the history of ancient Israel” (“Did David Exist? And When Did I Know I Lost My Faith?”, 4-15-17).

Archaeology is often a speculative and inexact science. But I submit that there is more than enough verification in the above information to establish that the Bible was (yet again) substantially accurate in its claims regarding the “conquest” of Canaan begun by Joshua, and certainly enough to counter Ehrman’s grotesquely exaggerated claims that there is no evidence or archaeological verification of the historical accounts in Joshua.

Footnotes

(1) Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 188.

(2) Avraham Negev and Shimon Gibson, Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Continuum, revised edition of 2001).

(3) Kitchen, ibid., 188.

(4) Eero Junkkaala, Three Conquests of Canaan: A Comparative Study of Two Egyptian Military Campaigns and Joshua 10-12 in the Light of Recent Archaeological Evidence (Finland: Abo Akademie University Press, 2006), 235-236, 238.

(5) Negev & Gibson, ibid., 221.

(6) Bruce K. Waltke, “The Date of the Conquest” (Westminster Theological Journal 52.2 [Fall 1990]: 181-200); citation from pages 197-198.

(7) Kitchen, ibid., 186.

(8) Kitchen, ibid., 189.

(9) Kitchen, ibid., 183.

(10) Kitchen, ibid., 183.

(11) Negev and Gibson, ibid., 299.

(12) Kitchen, ibid., 184.

(13) Kitchen, ibid., 184.

(14) Negev and Gibson, ibid., “Gaza”, 191.

(15) Junkkaala, ibid., 299-300.

(16) Waltke, ibid., 197-198.

(17) M. Kochavi, “The Israelite Settlement in Canaan in the light of Archaeological Surveys,” Biblical Archaeology Today (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1985), 55.

(18) Israel Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society 1988), 39.

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Photo credit: Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen’s landmark book on Old Testament archaeology [Amazon book page image]

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Summary: I produce much evidence regarding Joshua’s conquest & science, but agnostic Bible skeptic Bart Ehrman contends that there is little or no such archaeological evidence.

 


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