To what extent are the conquest narratives in Joshua a reflection of true historical developments?
The book of Joshua is criticised with the use of literary and archaeological evidence, and therefore has its historicity challenged. Although it is true, that due to the nature of biblical historiography the conquest narratives of Joshua probably contain some aetiological elements, the reality is that the Israelites did obtain ownership of Canaan sometime between 1400-1250 BC (Albright, 1939). This has lead to three main interpretations of the Israelite conquest, each taking the biblical narrative into consideration. Each interpretation has it’s strengths and weaknesses, using archaeological and literary evidence to decipher fact from myth, but due to the empirical nature of the methodologies used to interpret the ancient narratives, none of these can be absolutely correct. In fact, due to the epistemological problems with knowing the past (Bekkum, 2010) the conquest narratives cannot be named historical or non-historical texts, but do present valid ‘historical memory’ of the way in which ‘God’ interacts with his people within history.
The Book of Joshua, as an ancient narrative, “must conform to the pattern” of epic style writing (Albright, 1939) which made use of aetiological or mythical elements. For example, the conquest of Ai found in Joshua 7-8, with the use of archaeological research at Et-tell (modern Ai), has so far been proven to use aetiological elements. (Noth, 1960) Although there is evidence for the city being destroyed by conflagration, the destruction dates back to the 22nd century B.C (Albright, 1939). Since the majority of scholars place the start of the Israelite occupation of Canaan within 1400-1200 B.C, the destruction of Ai could not have been an accomplishment of the Israelite people, as the Book of Joshua states; “They entered the city and captured it and quickly set it on fire” (Joshua 7:19). Historian Martin Noth uses this evidence to claim that the author of Joshua, most likely writing centuries after the conquest, created the story as a way of explaining the great ruin of Ai. (Noth, 1960) William Albright (1939) agrees when he states “Nor can there be any doubt that many details found in [Joshua] originate as explanations of ruined monuments or of striking natural phenomena”. Hence, seeing as the literature does not align with some of the archaeological evidence found it could be concluded that the Book of Joshua is not historically accurate but the historical memory that the book of Joshua records is more than valid as a spiritual narrative.
Furthermore, the Book of Joshua has been condemned on the basis of literary evidence alone. Norman Gottwald (1979) addresses this closely stating that the “central difficulty is that these materials ... are derived from the monarchy and still later periods of Israel’s history”. Gottwald estimates the author to have written the conquest narratives in the 6th century B.C, during the Babylonian exile of the nation of Israel. Due to this, scholars have suggested that a pre-monarchical source is the influence behind the narrative. Gottwald argues that this causes a problem for “deciphering the original history from the unified Israel perspective”. Due to this problem he continues to argue that we come to the “reality that the literature is not directly historical in its form and content.” Based on this perspective the conquest narratives must be approached as legendary sagas rather than historical fact (Gottwald, 1979). However, Gottwald fails to see that the author could draw upon and write the history from an interpretive perspective that focuses on the theological meaning underlying the events (Woudstra, 2001), that it teaches that God’s chosen people should "fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness.” (Joshua 24:14). Therefore, Gottwald’s perspective disregards the text due to it’s lack of objective fact but fails to recognise the way in which the biblical narrative encapsulates historical memory that the Israelites did in fact immediately occupy the land after the Canaanites.
So despite the literary and archaeological evidence that works against the historicity of the text, distinct and definite archaeological research supports the idea of a change of land ownership from Canaanite to Israelite somewhere between 1400-1250 B.C as recorded in the book of Joshua when the Canaanites were driven out before the Israelites (Joshua 24:18). Excavations at Debir, Bethel, Lachish and Hazor have all revealed similar finds. The last Late Bronze Age stratigraphic layer of each of these sites was destroyed by conflagration and was seemingly resettled in the early Iron Age by Israelites due to the evidence of the Israelite pottery found in the next layer. (Finkelstein, 2001) The destruction layers of each city were all dated around the 13th century B.C, aligning with the date put forward by Albright. This shows that the Canaanites were indeed overcome, and the land was immediately resettled by the Israelites. Therefore, as a result of the conflict between these sites which confirm the conquest narrative and sites such as Jericho and Ai which seemingly contradict the narrative scholars have shifted the emphasis of their critique from whether the Israelites conquered Canaan, to how the Israelites came into the land, whether it was by conquest or not.
There are three main hypotheses about how the Israelites obtained the land (Fritz, 1987). The first agrees with the biblical narrative of Joshua and suggests the land came to the Israelites through conquest. These historians, such as William Albright, support their hypothesis using the archaeological evidence from Debir, Bethel, Lachish and Hazor. The archaeological evidence used to support this hypothesis is that there is generally a break in material culture between LBA stratigraphic layer and the next one, hinting at a sudden change of ownership that can be associated with conquest (Bekkum, 2010). However, this hypothesis has some issues with it’s validity. Firstly, it is based on the presumption that the conquest narratives are historical, and this shaped the interpretation of the evidence. Secondly, a major part of the conquest narrative centre’s around the conquest of the cities of Ai and Jericho, which are not strongly supported by the archaeological evidence. Evidence from both sites suggest that, firstly, they were destroyed long before the Israelites entered the land, and secondly, that neither had fortified walls that were described in the narrative (Bekkum, 2010). Therefore on the basis of this, scholars would suggest an alternative hypothesis that better agrees with the archaeology.
The second hypothesis is that the Israelites came by the land through gradual infiltration, which differentiates from the conquest narratives of Joshua. From excavations, historians like Martin Noth, have found evidence for Late Bronze Age Canaanite city states transforming into Iron Age united Israel (Noth, 1960). From this Albrecht Alt, first put forward the interpretation that the Israelites as nomadic tribes infiltrated the land and gradually came into ownership of the dying city states, or unoccupied land such as Jericho and Ai (Bekkum, 2010). Noth then went on to present the idea that Israel was then unified by a common allegiance to Yahweh and therefore united Israel came into being (Noth, 1960). However, this interpretation is again influenced by a presumption, this time that the conquest narratives were mythical or aetiological from the beginning. Therefore a third hypothesis was put forward.
The third interpretation was propounded by George Mendenhall who suggested that the Israelites came into ownership through a peasant’s revolution. This is taken from the evidence of the archaeology already discussed and reference to the Amarna letters, which were documents of “correspondence exchanged between the rulers of [Canaan] and Egypt” (Scoville, 2015).The letters tell of a brutal political structure in Canaan and reference a people called the Apiru (possibly the Israelites) causing revolutionary activity for some time (Bekkum, 2010). According to the combined evidence of the Amarna Letters and archaeology Mendenhall and Gottwald have suggested that the revolution in the 12th or 13th century B.C was successful, and that therefore Israel came to settle in Canaan through peasant revolt, or for the Israelites, religious federation (Bekkum, 2010). However, Mendenhall and Gottwald both write their history through the Marxist view. Therefore the Marxist theory of class struggle, which says that throughout history it is inevitable that the peasantry will rise to power through revolution, must have influenced their interpretation of the evidence to create the revolution hypothesis. Hence, all three of these hypotheses are meritable, but each is compromised by individual interpretation and none of them treat the narrative in Joshua as it should be; as a text containing ‘historical memory’ rather than objective fact.
All three interpretations make use of the empirical evidence based methodology, which has led to misinterpretation of the conquest narratives because they treat the narrative as post-enlightenment historiography, but this is not its form or purpose. Christian historian Martin Woudstra says that due to the religious nature of the book of Joshua “one cannot expect a complete and exhaustive record of all major events that occurred during a given period” (Woudstra, 2001). This is because the aim of biblical historiography is not to give a general history, but to show the way ‘God’ has worked in history (Woudstra, 2001). Woudstra would argue that the narratives presented to us within their interpretive context tell us the history of ‘God’s’ dealings with Israel and that “The biblical text, in its integrity, is Prime datum of history” (Woudstra, 2001) just not from an empirical, humanistic perspective. Woudstra acknowledges the form and purpose of the texts and supports the idea of ‘historical memory’ that is theologically based on how ‘God’ interacts with the nation of Israel. Therefore, the belief in the historicity of the conquest narratives depends on a faith perspective, or the belief or disbelief in a God that works in history. Hence, the issue becomes a philosophical debate rather than an evidence based problem.
This leads to the idea that the historicity of the book of Joshua cannot be verified nor condemned due to the epistemological problems of history. The way in which we know history is through historiography, which is never objectively correct due to the way events are compromised by interpretation. This was proved through the analysis of the three hypotheses regarding the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Furthermore, history is a concept that the human brain cannot comprehend, a “chaos of phenomena” that the historian organises into a self - explanatory narrative in the form of historiography (Bekkum, 2010). Therefore, as Bekkum states; “Verifying or falsifying individual historical statements with the help of historical research presupposes knowledge without interpretation” (Bekkum, 2010). This means that the historicity of the conquest narratives cannot be determined, because our interpretation will always compromise historical truth. Hence, the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua cannot be named historical or non-historical texts, but a narrative which contains ‘historical memory’ that is theologically based.
In conclusion, the conquest narratives of the book of Joshua have been challenged in terms of their historical value by use of literary and archaeological evidence. However, the main hypotheses regarding the conquest of Canaan were found to be compromised by interpretation and had naively misinterpreted the form and purpose of the narratives due to the empirical methodologies used for interpretation. As religious texts, the conquest narratives of Joshua address the workings of ‘God’ in history rather than a general history of the nation. Furthermore, it was found that due to the epistemological problems of knowing the past, the narratives could not be determined as historical or nonhistorical texts. Therefore, whether the conquest narratives found in the Book of Joshua are a reflection of true historical events remains debatable in terms of the project of “post-enlightenment empirical history”, but this is inconsequential in the light of the purpose of the conquest narratives that use ‘historical memory’ to address the theological issue of how ‘God’ relates to his chosen people.
Albright, WF 1939, “The Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 74, p. 11.
In his Journal article William Albright writes about his excavations of different Israelite archaeological sites such as Debir, Jericho, Ai, Bethel and Lachish, then goes on to outline his hypothesis that the Israelites did obtain the Canaanite land by conquest. Through the analysis of the Late Bronze Age stratigraphic layer of a few sites that have evidence of conflagration followed by settlement of Israelites, shown by the pottery found in the next layer. He then goes on to use the archaeology to date the start of Israelite occupation of Canaan as around the 13th century B.C. His research entails solely archaeological discussion of the sites already mentioned, and his interpretation of this evidence. This article is useful for this essay because it gives detailed information of the archaeological evidence found in the sites relevant to the book of Joshua. However, it is limited by its age, being written in 1939 much more excavation and interpretation has taken place. His interpretation of Jericho has been disproved by more modern archaeologists such as Gottwald who have found the destruction layer at Jericho to be too old, destroyed around the 22nd century B.C. However, despite this misinterpretation, Albright’s research remains some of the most prominent research regarding Israelite archaeology to this day. Therefore this article will be extremely useful, within this essay, for discussing the archaeology related to the conquest narratives of Joshua. It has been used in this essay to support the idea that the Israelites did indeed occupy the land immediately after the canaanites, and then again in discussing interpretations of the narratives.
Bekkum, Kvan 2010, From conquest to coexistence: ideology and antiquarian intent in the historiography of Israel's settlement in Canaan, s.n., S.l.
In his book Bekkum addresses the evidence, interpretations, and historiographical problems regarding the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua. He uses the research of multiple historians such as Albright, Noth, and Gottwald to compare and contrast popular interpretations. He then addresses the nature of the text in its form, content and purpose and suggests historiographical and epistemological problems with the empirical nature of the interpretations. He suggests that the common problem with the historiographical interpretations is that “Verifying or falsifying individual historical statements with the help of historical research presupposes knowledge without interpretation” and that this is an epistemological issue that prevents any of these interpretations from being entirely correct. This book covers literary and archaeological evidence, interpretations and the philosophy of history in relation to the conquest. The limitations associated with this is a christian bias towards the topic, though he does well to incorporate other perspectives into consideration. Hence, this source is a well rounded analysis of the scope it covers and provides good context and perspective on the issues it addresses. This source will help to support the major thesis statement of this essay by providing a philosophical perspective on the issues discussed.
Finkelstein, I. (2001). The Bible Unearthed. 1st ed. New York, NY: The Freee Press.
Fritz, V 1987, “Conquest or Settlement? The Early Iron Age in Palestine,” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 50, no. 2, p. 84.
Gottwald, NK 1979, The tribes of Yahweh: a sociology of the religion of liberated Israel, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.
“International School History - TOK - What is history?” International School History - TOK - What is history?, accessed March 11, 2017, from <>
NIV archaeological study Bible: an Illustrated walk through Biblical history and culture</span> 2005, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI.
Noth, M, Ackroyd, PR & GODMAN, S 1960, The History of Israel ... Second edition. (Translation revised by P.R. Ackroyd.), Adam & Charles Black, London.
Scoville, P (2015) “Amarna Letters” Ancient History Encyclopedia, accessed March 11, 2017, from <http://www.ancient.eu/Amarna_Letters/>
Weippert, M 1971, The settlement of the Israelite tribes in Palestine: A critical survey of recent scholarly debate, London.
Woudstra, MH 2001, The Book of Joshua, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI.
Woudstra writes this commentary on the book of Joshua to give historical and theological context for christians reading the narrative. In the chapters regarding the historicity of the narrative, which are the ones relevant to this essay, Woudstra discusses literary evidence in terms of form and purpose, suggesting that the narrative is not written to “give a general history of the nation” but to “set forth God’s dealings with Israel”. He then goes on to describe the archaeology, the interpretations of the evidence and the role that it plays in the historicity of Joshua. It is useful to my essay because it correctly acknowledges the form and purpose of the narrative as a religious text. However it is limited because the commentary is written for a common christian audience and does not present alternative perspectives meaning that it is slightly bias towards an assumption that God exists. However, as long as this source is analysed objectively it will be extremely useful for understand the purpose of the Book of Joshua. Therefore this source will be used to back up the thesis of ‘historical memory’ while being compared to the other perspectives.