Monday, October 01, 2007

Is the Book of Joshua Completely Fictional?

Did the conquest of Canaan by Israelites out of Egypt ever happen? Was there ever a Canaanite city of Jericho with high walls that was conquered by invaders whose descendants founded the later kingdom of Israel and Judah?

In the mid-20th century, the position among most non-inerrantist, mainstream Christians was yes, that these events were broadly historical, even if the supernatural details might have been exaggerated in the telling. W.F. Albright (a conservative, but non-inerrantist scholar, author of The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible) and Kenneth Kitchen (an inerrantist scholar, author of Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II) could be on the same page as saying that the Exodus event and the Joshua event were historical episodes that belonged to the reign of Ramesses II, pharoah of Egypt from 1279 to 1213 B.C. The Joshua event (i.e. the catastrophic destruction of the powerful Canaanite city states) was confirmed by the destruction levels found at the Late Bronze Age-early Iron Age interface. A man like Albright (or his successor Bright, author of A History of Israel) could adhere to the documentary hypothesis, deny any attempt to "prove the Bible," and yet conclude that the broad outlines of the Biblical story -- a period of patriarchal wandering (datable to the Middle Bronze Age I), slavery in Egypt (datable to the Egyptian New Kingdom and the Late Bronze Age in Canaan), Exodus and conquest (dated to c. 1225-1175 B.C.), the period of Judges (Iron Age I), a unified kingdom and then two divided kingdoms (the divided kingdoms around 850 B.C. are the first phase of Israelite kingdom where outside sources clearly confirm the names and events).

This has all changed, and how it changed is an important story.

Two things changed it: the advance of archeology and a change in ideology. Let's cover the advance of archeology first.

The key verse for the "Ramesses was the pharaoh of Exodus" line was always Exodus 1:11: "So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses." Raamses was identified with Pi-Ramesses, founded under Ramesses II's father Seti I (c. 1290-1279), and abandoned by 1130 B.C. Pithom was less easy to identify, but overall it was an open and shut case: the Pharaoh under whom Moses was born was Seti I, and his son, whom Moses challenged was Ramesses II. Since there was a massive destruction level in Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze age, dated to around 1200 B.C., Exodus and Joshua were both confirmed. This was the Albright scenario.

This scenario has, however, fallen apart in the meantime. It always had the problem that neither the Exodus event nor the Joshua event are mentioned anywhere in the Egyptian histories of the time. This was not necessarily a deal breaker, since Egyptian royal inscriptions are notorious for only mentioning the positive events, never the negative. But what killed it was the fact that the Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition in Palestine began to show less and less similarity to the Joshua event. Basically, the only major destructions at the Late Bronze Age were Hazor and Megiddo -- both of which are explicitly stated to have not been burned by Joshua in the Book of Joshua. After some moving around of the date, it is now settled that the famous Jericho was destroyed at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, around 1560 BC or so, and was an abandoned site by the time of Ramesses.

Yet at the same time, archeology shows major culture change in the LB-Iron transition, change that appears continuous with settlement patterns in documentable Iron Age Israelite civilization. The MB-LB transition, however, shows no major change in settlement patterns or culture. So, archeologically speaking, the beginning of the "Israelite" civilization was indeed in the LB-Iron Age transition -- but that transition was marked by no Joshua event.

One way out for inerrantists was to use the Biblical chronology to date the Exodus and Joshua events to the fifteenth century BC (1450-1410) in the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and then try to redate the archaeology to bring the concluding catastrophe of the Middle Bronze Age into line with it. (This was the approach of John Bimson). Such redating schemes have not won general acceptance, however.

Bimson's point stands, however: as all archeologists now recognize, the Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition looks nothing like the scenario in the Book of Joshua. BUT, the Middle Bronze Age-Late Bronze Age transition looks a lot like it.

Virtually all archaeologists relate the Middle Bronze Age II destruction layer in Canaan in some way to the expulsion of the Hyksos (Canaanite pharoahs of Egypt) and the founding of the resurgent native Egyptian Seventeenth and Eighteenth Dynasties (c. 1560-1540). This episode is not seen, however, as the Egyptian histories' version of the Exodus event.

So we are left with this picture. On the one hand, inerrantists feel unable to link Hyksos expulsion to the Exodus event, because despite the broad similarity, they differ in detail, in ways that (unlike the simple absence of any version on the Egyptian side for Ramesses reign) cannot be easily finessed. Yet as a result, inerrantists like Kenneth Kitchen stand alone, and can no longer point to a broad agreement with non-inerrantists like Albright or Bright to justify their position on the historicity of the Exodus and Joshua events.

On the other hand, non-inerrantist archeologists are now committed to a very strange position: Around the middle of the sixteenth century, turmoil in Egypt and the exodus of a large number of Palestinian Asiatics from Egypt was followed by a massive destruction of the city states in Canaan -- but that this event left no trace in Canaanite-Israelite folklore. On the other hand, some time in the divided kingdom, a myth of turmoil in Egypt, exodus of a large number of Palestinian Asiatics and a massive destruction of the city states in Canaan arose -- but that this event had no factual basis whatsoever. Is this really very likely?

(to be continued)

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