The Book of Joshua has become a modern battleground. Until the past century or so, most who read the Book of Joshua, whether Christian or Jew, were confined to the biblical text itself, which narrated the entry of the Israelites into Canaan. More recently, the historical validity of the conquest narratives has come under severe doubt. A recent treatment, if anything, is typical when a commentator in a major series writes, “It is possible, but unlikely, that this story was recorded as it happened in history.” Not a few scholars would strike out the possibility of biblical historicity altogether.
Further, there is a political component that looms large vis-à-vis the modern nation-state of
, surrounded as it is by
Palestinian and Arabic communities. Israel ’s “entitlement” to its
ancient lands is considered to be an illusion altogether if the historicity of
the exodus, conquest and early monarchy is eliminated. Some consider the recent
celebration of “ Israel Jerusalem 3000” (recalling the Israelite
gained in the time of David) to have been a farce. At the same time, archaeology
in the Holy Land is being co-opted to serve a nationalist agenda, whether
extreme forms of Zionism on the one hand or Muslim fundamentalism on the other. Jerusalem
Finally, and perhaps most important, there is a deep theological fracture if the events in the Book of Joshua never happened. The Bible as God’s Word—a Word that tells the truth about things—is at stake. To be sure, some would have it that historicity in the biblical narratives is unnecessary to the theological enterprise, but instinctively most people are smart enough to realize that if the stories were simply manufactured in order to bolster a fragile national self-image, then the calling and covenant for God’s ancient people is equally at risk, not to mention the calling and covenant for God’s New Testament people.
The Archaeological Issue
The explosion of archaeological data in the past century has affected the Book of Joshua in significant ways. Part of the problem was the development of an overdependence upon archaeology itself. In the first half of the 20th century, archaeology came to be perceived as the savior of the Bible in the midst of the literary skeptics. A number of astounding archaeological discoveries seemed to “prove” the Bible’s historicity, and in particular, the Book of Joshua. The discovery of the Amarna Letters (correspondence between the Egyptian Pharaoh and various city-states in Canaan) testified to a series of conflicts between Canaanite cities and the Hapiru, a group of semi-nomadic invaders who were threatening Canaanite hegemony. The Hapiru sounded a lot like the Israelites, and some even posited that the name Hapiru was linguistically related to the word “Hebrew”. John Garstang excavated
and announced he
had discovered a collapsed double wall dating to ca. 1400 BC—the presumed time
of Joshua’s advance. Later, Yigael Yadin excavated Hazor in northern Jericho Canaan, revealing that it had been destroyed by fire in
the Late Bronze Age, just as the Book of Joshua stated (cf. 11:11). These were
heady discoveries in the early 20th century, and many if not most people began to look upon archaeology
as the debunker of the biblical nay-sayers and cynics. The downside of this
optimism was the reinforcement of a perception that there was some sort of
straightforward relationship between archaeology and the Bible, and when later
archaeologists began to question and retract some of these sensational
discoveries, the credibility of the Bible itself suffered. By the beginning of
the 21st century, a nearly 180 degree reversal had occurred. Whereas
archaeology once was an important means by which to demonstrate the reliability
of the Bible, it now had become a means to debunk the Bible when archaeological
finds seemed at odds with the biblical record. The attendant corollary has been
great shifts from faith to loss of faith. In a recent telling article, two
widely recognized scholars, Bart Ehrman and William Dever, discuss their loss
of faith through their scholarship. Both were reared within Christian
fundamentalism with a high view of Scripture as the inerrant Word of God, and
both credit their loss of faith directly to their perceived loss of historicity
in the Bible.
Archaeologists, even those who strongly uphold the historical reliability of the Bible, are now much more careful in delineating the role of archaeology. Alfred Hoerth, Director of Archaeology at Wheaton College, carefully defines archaeology’s relationship to the Bible as illumination in terms of culture and historical setting and a knowledge of ancient people, places, things and events, but he is quite clear that archaeology should NOT be assumed to confirm, authenticate or prove the Bible and that “confidence and hope should not be built on any external proof—not even archaeology.”
Should, therefore, archaeology have any role at all in interpreting the Bible? Certainly, but its role must be seen as corollary, not primary. Archaeology, like most scientific disciplines, is an ongoing task. New discoveries lead to new theories along with reversals of previous opinions. While archaeology can provide insight into the world of the ancients, it cannot tell us the central meaning of biblical texts. The texts themselves must do this. At the same time, the relationship between archaeology and biblical historicity will be ongoing, and there appears to be no end in view for the debate between minimalists and maximalists.
So where do we go from here? Must a modern Christian sacrifice intellectual integrity in order to believe in the historical trustworthiness of the ancient text? This will be the subject of the next post.