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As one schooled in the scientific method, it disturbs me that, in addition to the say-so of esteemed authority figures, many times opinions are driven by preconceived notions, received knowledge, arguments from silence or majority opinion...

This article was first published in an edited form in the March/April 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Reprinted here by permission.

In a recent Archaeological Views column, Michael Coogan counseled readers to question authority. He said we should 'beware of an argument based on 'authority.''1 While I heartily agree with Coogan, I believe there are other examples of unscientific methodology being practiced in the fields of Palestinian archaeology and Biblical studies that are just as insidious. As one schooled in the scientific method,2 it disturbs me that, in addition to the say-so of esteemed authority figures, many times opinions are driven by preconceived notions,3 received knowledge (e.g., my professor told me such-and-such in graduate school), arguments from silence (thus-and-so has not been found to support a biblical statement-i.e., the Bible is guilty until proven innocent4) or majority opinion. In an objective, scientific inquiry, conclusions must be based on evidence, and evidence alone.

Take the matter of the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Bible. Most scholars are of the opinion that biblical history prior to the monarchy is myth and fable. This attitude is reflected in Views columns. Hendel stated, 'Archaeological research has…secured the non-historicity of much of the Bible before the era of the kings.' 5 Dever remarked, 'there was no military conquest of Canaan.' 6 Coogan expressed a similar view with regard to the conquest of Jericho, which I shall comment on below.

How can we check the veracity of this supposition? If we are honest researchers using sound methodological principles, we need to examine the evidence, much of it documented in the pages of BAR, to see if it agrees or disagrees with the proposed hypothesis. Due to space limitations, we can consider but a few examples pertaining to Joshua and Judges, proceeding from the end of the Judges period backward in time.7

According to the biblical narrative, the Israelites established a religious center at Shiloh during the Judges period which was destroyed and abandoned around the middle of the 11th century.8 Excavations at Shiloh revealed public buildings from that time (Iron I period) and a destruction dating to the mid-11th century.9

Judges 9 documents a furtive attempt by Abimelech, son of Gideon, to take over leadership of the Israelite tribes in the mid-12th century. It mentions a temple, city gate and destruction at Shechem. What was found at Shechem from this time period? A temple10, city gate and destruction!

Judges 18 describes the migration of the tribe of Dan from their allotment west of Benjamin to Laish, which they renamed Dan. The time of this event can be bracketed to sometime in the 12th century, most likely shortly after the arrival of the Philistines in 1177 B.C. The Israelites burned the city, whose previous inhabitants had a relationship with the coastal town of Sidon. Stratum VII at Tel Dan/Laish was destroyed by fire in the early 12th century. A tomb from Stratum VII contained imported Mycenaean pottery and local pottery made in the area of Sidon. The next phase of occupation was by squatters who used collared-rim store jars, typically associated with Israelite settlement, made from clay foreign to the Tel Dan area.

Judges 4 gives an account of a confrontation between the Israelite tribes and Jabin king of Hazor in the late 13th century. The Israelites defeated Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army 'who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim' (Judges 4:2), at the Kishon River. Following the neutralizing of this, apparently mercenary, force 'the Israelites grew stronger and stronger against Jabin the Canaanite king, until they destroyed him' (Judges 4:24). Excavations at Hazor have determined that a massive destruction of the city in ca. 1230 B.C. was most likely caused by Israelites.11 In addition, Adam Zertal believes he has found Haroseth Haggoyim at el-Ahwat. The site was occupied briefly in the late 13th-early 12th centuries, thus correlating with the timeframe of the Deborah-Barak conquest of Hazor.12

Judges 3 tells of Eglon, king of Moab, establishing a residency at Jericho and exacting tribute from the Israelite tribes for 18 years in the late 14th century. When John Garstang excavated Jericho in the 1930s he found a large palatial-like structure which he identified as Eglon's palace. An abundance of imported pottery and an inscribed clay tablet attest to a well-to-do occupant involved in administrative activities. Yet, there was no town to rule over. It was occupied only a short time in the late 14th century and then abandoned.13

When we come to the Conquest, we are in the era of biblical history where scholars claim there is definitive evidence showing the Bible to be wrong. In assessing this so-called 'evidence,' however, it is clear that it is the interpretations of various researchers over the years that are in error, not the Bible. During the course of the Conquest, the Israelites burned three places by fire: Hazor, Ai and Jericho. Since there is nothing like a good fire to link archaeology and written history, we will examine the evidence from those three sites.

We have already suggested that the ca. 1230 B.C. destruction of Hazor should be assigned to the events of Judges 4. Is there an earlier destruction that could be associated with Joshua? As a matter of fact, there is. Evidence was found in both the upper and lower cities that the site was destroyed by fire in the 15th century. Significantly, cultic centers seemed to have been singled out for especially harsh treatment by the conquerors.

Excavations at et-Tell have presumably 'wiped out the historical credibility of the conquest of Ai.'14 The identification of et-Tell as Joshua's Ai, however, was the result of a series of scholarly blunders that have been uncritically accepted to this day.15 It simply does not meet the biblical requirements. From 1995 to 2000 I had the pleasure of directing an excavation at Kh. El-Maqatir, just 1 km west of et-Tell, which does meet all of the requirements to be Joshua's Ai. We found a small border fortress dating to the 15th century that had been destroyed by fire.

The account of Jericho in the book Joshua is another biblical narrative whose reputation has been sullied by the incompetent scholarship of earlier researchers. Garstang and Kenyon were two major excavators as pointed out above. Coogan states that Garstang's dating of the destruction there to ca. 1400 B.C. was in error since his 'knowledge of stratigraphic excavation and ceramic chronology…was not very advanced' and 'Kenyon redug at Tell es-Sultan and corrected Garstang's dates.'16 Nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact, Kenyon never published an analysis of her pottery to support her claims. Sadly, her impromptu dating has been blindly accepted without question.17 Garstang, on the other hand, published a detailed study of his destruction-level pottery18 which is useful yet today. While it is true that Garstang misunderstood the fortification system, his date of the destruction was right on the money.19

This brief survey demonstrates that the notion that the biblical narrative for the pre-monarchy period is unhistorical does not stand up to the scrutiny of impartial data. The hard evidence favors a model in which the Bible should be treated as a valid historical source for this time period.

Bryant G. Wood is Director of Research for the Associates for Biblical Research. He has a MS in Nuclear Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a MA in Biblical History from the University of Michigan and a PhD in Syro-Palestinian Archaeology from the University of Toronto.


[1] Michael D. Coogan, 'Question Authority!' May/June 2006, p. 24.

[2], Prior to switching careers, I worked for 13 years as a mechanical engineer for the General Electric Company, mainly engaged in data collection and analysis. I have a M.S. in nuclear engineering as well as a Ph.D. in Syro-Palestinian archaeology.

[3] '…many biblical scholars use archaeology to bolster views which they had already come to hold independently of the archaeological evidence,' Eric M. Myers, 'Ceramics, Chronology and Historical Reconstructions,' The Archaeology of Jordan and Beyond: Essays in Honor of James A. Sauer, ed. Lawrence E. Stager, Joseph A. Green and Michael D. Coogen (Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000), p. 349.

[4] '…when archaeological evidence is not to be found in support of a claim made by the biblical text, it certainly does not follow that the text is necessarily false,' Anthony J. Fendo, 'Back to Basics: A Holistic Approach to the Problem of the Emergence of Ancient Israel,' in In Search of Pre-exilic Israel, ed. John Day (London: T & T Clark, 2004), p. 42.

[5] Ronald S. Hendel, 'Is There a Biblical Archaeology?' July/August 2006, p. 20.

[6] William G. Dever, 'The Western Cultural Tradition Is at Risk,' March/April 2006, p. 76.

[7] The evidence considered here is summarized in Bryant G. Wood, 'From Ramesses to Shiloh: Archaeological Discoveries Bearing on the Exodus-Judges Period,' Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, ed. David M. Howard, Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003), pp. 256-82. To be consistent, a chronology for Biblical history that is based on the chronological data in the Hebrew Bible must be used, i.e., an Exodus in the mid-15th century B.C. See Bryant G. Wood, 'The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory,' Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48 (2005), pp. 475-89. For dates in the Judges period, see Paul J. Ray, Jr., 'Another Look at the Period of the Judges,' Beyond the Jordan, ed. Glenn A. Carnagey, Sr. (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), pp. 93-104.

[8] 1 Samuel 4; Psalm 78:60; Jeremiah 7:12-14; 26:6, 9.

[9] Israel Finkelstein, 'Shiloh Yields Some, but Not All, of Its Secrets,' BAR, January/February 1986.

[10] Lawrence E. Stager, 'The Shechem Temple Where Abimelech Massacred a Thousand,' BAR, July/August 2003.

[11] Amnon Ben-Tor and Maria Teresa Rubiato, 'Excavating Hazor Part II: Did the Israelites Destroy the Canaanite City?' BAR, May/June 1999. Ben-Tor and Rubiato assign this destruction to the conquest of Hazor by Joshua. If biblical chronology is followed, however, it should be attributed to Deborah and Barak. Moreover, if the 1230 destruction was caused by Joshua there would be no city for Deborah and Barak to conquer since Hazor was not rebuilt until the time of Solomon.

[12] Adam Zertal, 'Philistine Kin Found in Early Israel,' BAR, May/June 2002.

[13] Baruch Halpern discusses the biblical description of the building in some detail in 'The Assassination of Eglon,' BRev, November/December 1998. The plan of the building excavated by Garstang matches Halpern's reconstructed plan remarkably well.

[14] Joseph A. Callaway, 'Was my Excavation of 'Ai Worthwhile?' BAR, March/April 1985, p. 68; cf. Ziony Zevit, 'The Problem of Ai,' BAR, March/April 1985.

[15] Bryant G. Wood, 'The Search for Joshua's Ai,' Critical Issues in the Early History of Israel, eds. Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil and Paul J. Ray, Jr. (Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming).

[16] 'Question Authority!'

[17] Interestingly, Kenyon's interpretations in other areas have been abandoned. See, e.g., Hershel Shanks, 'The Mistress of Stratigraphy Had Clay Feet,' BAR, May/June 2003.

[18] John Garstang, 'Jericho: City and Necropolis, Fourth Report,' Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology, 21 (1934), pp. 107-110.

[19] For the close parallels between the biblical narrative and the excavated data, see Bryant G. Wood, 'Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,' BAR, March/April 1990.

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