The story of the attempt to match up the archaeology of ancient Jericho with the account given in the Hebrew Bible has come to be regarded as something of a cautionary tale in the history of Biblical archaeology. Laughlin in Archaeology and the Bible (2000) invokes Jericho in precisely that way, as the most generalized example that he can find to warn against trying to force archaeological data onto a hermeneutically Procrustean framework derived from the Old Testament:
For the student interested in "Biblical Archaeology" there are two sets of data: the archaeological and the biblical. The Bible can no longer be accepted uncritically as a "historical" account of ancient Israel, if by historical we mean all the modern connotations of that term. Rather the Bible interprets through theological, and even mythological, lenses what archaeologists must interpret through scientific/historical ones. The case of the story of the destruction of Jericho in the Book of Joshua is a classic example. The temptation was, and still is in some quarters, to interpret the archaeological data to "fit" a preconceived interpretation of the Bible. (14-5)
Yet we must acknowledge that, to a certain degree, the birth of archaeology as a modern science was largely motivated by nineteenth century attempts to prove the literal truth of the Bible. The first excavations at Jericho were all seemingly motivated by such an explicit goal: Diaz-Andreu notes the initial work done between 1902 and 1914, when the German Oriental Society provided the institutional authority for Ernest Sellin, the "Lutheran…Professor of the Old Testament at the University of Vienna," to begin "archaeological research in order to confirm the primary historical value of the Bible" and accordingly began excavations at Tell-es-Sultan, the modern site of historical Jericho, "although some errors were introduced," as she grimly notes (154). Yet Diaz-Andreu quotes William F. Albright's 1914 summary of the state of finding correspondences between the history as presented in the Bible and the findings at this great wave of archaeological excavation:
The dates given by Sellin and Watzinger for Jericho, those given by Bliss and Macalister for the mounds of the Shephelah, by Macalister for Gezer, and by Mackenzie for Beth-Shemesh do not agree at all, and the attempt to base a synthesis on their chronology resulted, of course, in chaos. Moreover, most of the excavations failed to define the stratigraphy of their site, and thus left its archaeological history hazy and indefinite, with a chronology which was usually nebulous where correct and often clear-cut where it has since been proved wrong. (155)
However, a brief summary of the archaeological findings from Jericho in the period immediately following this -- especially after Albright specifically recruited John Garstang to excavate further at Tell-es-Sultan in the 1930s -- provide a fascinating cautionary tale about the misinterpretation of available evidence. I hope by providing a summary of the shift in interpretation of the evidence from Tell-es-Sultan that has occurred over the past century, we may see the way in which the written Biblical evidence has come to be contextualized and re-read alongside archaeological findings.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations at Jericho, such as that of Sellin, had failed to match up with standard chronologies -- a destroyed city had been found, at what archaeologists have come to term the City IV layer, but it seemed to match up with sites much earlier (around 1500 BCE) than the probable date around 1400 BCE when Joshua and the Israelites began their conquest of Canaan with the destruction of Jericho. The Biblical account which Sellin had been trying to establish as fact is to be found at Joshua 6:1-27. The Lord God instructs Joshua to carry the ark of the covenant to the walls of Jericho, and to bring seven priests with seven trumpets. Then at Joshua 6:20 the destruction of the walls is described: "When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city." It is additionally recorded that "then they burned the whole city and everything in it" (6:24), although the account notes that Joshua rather thoughtfully spared the life of Rahab the harlot (who "lives among the Israelites to this day"). The Biblical account then concludes with the ferocious oath sworn by Joshua over the smoldering ashes of Jericho:
At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: "Cursed before the LORD is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho:
At the cost of his firstborn son ?
he will lay its foundations;
at the cost of his youngest ?
he will set up its gates."
So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land. (Joshua 6:26-7)
To a certain degree, there must be a certain level of irony for any Biblical literalist in the conclusion of the Biblical account. Rachel Hachlili notes that the excavations at Tell-es-Sultan have revealed a wealth of specifically Jewish rebuilding at the site, including "two recently uncovered structures at Jericho…deemed to be synagogues" of the early first century CE (98), as part of a considerable Jewish presence that continued for centuries. As Hachlili also notes, the excavation of post-Biblical Jewish settlements at Jericho have uncovered perhaps the first symbolic representation of a menorah used to signal the Jewish religion in the synagogue structures. It would appear that Jews of the first century CE were substantially less literal in their interpretation of Joshua's curse (and indeed the whole account of the leveling of the city during the intitial conquest of Canaan) than a late nineteenth century Lutheran like Sellin. Hoffmeier additionally notes that there was already some question of contradiction in the Biblical accounts of the conquest of Jericho from the beginning:
When we consider the size of the cities the Israelites are said to have taken in Canaan, one wonders why the Israelites with an army of 600,000 would have been pessimistic about their ability to conquer these very large cities. Jericho, the first city attacked by the Israelites (Josh. 6), at its maximal size measured only 300 by 140 meters, or approximately the size of seven football fields. Hazor, recognized by archaeologists to be the largest city in all of Canaan, occupied 210 acres (both upper and lower tell), according to Amnon Ben-Tor, the current excavator. The massive size of this ancient city is acknowledged in Joshua 11:10. The estimated population of Middle Bronze Age Hazor is 33,000 -- 42,000, and it apparently was somewhat smaller in the Late Bronze Age. While Hazor was formidable and Jericho quite small by Levantine standards, fortified cities like these should not have been a serious challenge to an army of 600,000. In fact, an army of that size could fight on many fronts at the same time, rather than fighting in a united manner (i.e., "all Israel"), taking on one city at a time. The biblical references cited here, along with the data regarding the demography and size of fortified cities in Canaan, indicate that Israelites felt outnumbered and overmatched. (155-6)
In other words, the Israelite construction of the story in the Bible is already ideological in character -- couched as a sort of "underdog" narrative -- in which the numbers cited (presumably to give honor to the Israelites for their ability to go forth and multiply) could not possibly have indicated any kind of "underdog" status as expressed in the account of the military conquest of Jericho. These issues were all available to archaeologists for consideration in the period before the twentieth century, and were crucial in illustrating the ways in which the Bible might provide a remarkably poor guidebook for archaeological excavation. As Laughlin will summarize the Biblical account:
new archaeological data that have come to light over the past several years have raised serious questions concerning the historicity of this central biblical story. It is with these data that I will be primarily concerned here. As always, readers should remind themselves constantly that any and all attempts to evaluate these sources, both textually and archaeologically, with the goal of reconstructing the actual process by which "Israel" came to occupy the land of Canaan involves significant amounts of subjective judgments regardless of the final interpretation one chooses to embrace. (111).
Indeed Laughlin's characterization with specific reference to Jericho seems to hold true, that because "the textual compilations of Numbers, Joshua and Judges have long, complex histories according to most literary critics" therefore the "overriding consensus is that these texts were written late in Israel's history (most likely during the post-exilic period, including Judges 1; see P.K. McCarter, Jr. 1992: 119 -- 22), are primarily theologically motivated and must therefore be used with extreme caution, if at all, in any attempt to reconstruct the early history of Israel." (110).
But the interpretation of the relevant early evidence was changed when the 1931 to 1936 excavations at Jericho by John Garstang had discovered something…