Albright on the Conquest

I’m continuing my way through Niels Peter Lemche’s Early Israel.  In this post, I’ll talk about William Foxwell Albright’s views on the historicity of the biblical Conquest narratives, which Lemche discusses on pages 56-57.  I’ll also consult an article by conservative scholar Bryant Wood, which explains the basis for the rise and the fall of Albright’s archaeological defense of the Conquest’s historicity, as well as William Dever’s article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary on “Israel, History of (Archaeology and the Israelite ‘Conquest)”.

I’ll start with Lemche’s summary on page 57:

“…in general, according to Albright and his disciples, Palestinian archaeology reveals numerous layers of destruction which must date from the Israelite conquest of the places in question.  They also maintain that we are now confronted with a new material culture, as evidenced by a new type of pottery, a new sort of house, plus a materially poorer culture in those regions which were rebuilt after the destruction.  According to Albright the last was the result of the fact that in this period Israelite society did not tolerate slavery; all Israelites were free men who might not be compelled to do corvee labor.  Thus it was not possible for a corvee leadership, whose authority in Israel’s earliest period was limited, to re-establish the labor system of the Late Bronze Age, in which slave states and conscripted local residents were made to construct palaces and fortifications.”

So Albright thought that there were destruction layers in Palestine from the thirteenth century, the time of Joshua (for Albright), and that Israelite material culture was different from that of Canaan.  But, according to Lemche, Albright did not believe that “the Israelite conquest was total”, for he held that “Israel only reached the ascendancy over the rest of the land of Canaan after laborious wars with the remaining Canaanites over a long period of time.”

One objection that can be raised against the biblical Conquest narrative is that the archaeological record shows that some of the cities that Joshua supposedly conquered—particularly Jericho and Ai—were long unoccupied by the time that Joshua allegedly arrived in Canaan, namely, the Late Bronze Age.  But Albright actually had responses to this objection, according to Lemche.  On Jericho, which “demonstrably contains no sign of occupation in precisely [the] period [in which Joshua arrived,] Albright argues that such evidence has been ‘washed away’ by erosion.”  Regarding Ai, Albright contends that Joshua 8 applies to Ai the conquest of a nearby city, Bethel, for which there appear to be destruction layers from the time of Joshua.  According to Lemche’s summary of Albright’s position, “There has been an exchange of names between Bethel and Ai, so that the conquest of Bethel has now been transferred to Ai” in the Book of Joshua.

(UPDATE: On pages 390 and 403 of Early Israel, Lemche refers to evidence that Jericho and Ai were inhabited by some people in the Late Bronze Age, even though Jericho was un-walled.)

William Dever identifies another problem with the conquest narrative in Joshua: “It is obvious that of the nearly 20 identifiable [Late Bronze]/Iron I sites that the biblical writers claim were forcibly taken by the Israelites under Joshua or his immediate successors, only Bethel and Hazor have any archaeological claims to destructions, i.e., historical claims supported by extrabiblical evidence.  And even here, there is no conclusive data to support the notion that Israelites were the agents of destruction.  (The new evidence dating the destruction of Lachish VI to Rameses III or later, ca. 1150 B.C., is much too late…).”  So, according to Dever, there is no evidence that the Israelites in the Late Bronze Age destroyed most of the Canaanite cities mentioned in the Conquest narrative—or that the cities were destroyed by anyone in that time, for that matter.

But Wood says that Albright referred to specific cities that he thought were destroyed by Joshua in the thirteenth century B.C.E., on the basis of destruction layers: “Tell Beit Mirsim, which he identified as Debir, Beitin, identified as Bethel, and Lachish.”  But, according to Wood, later scholars concluded that Debir and Beitin were not destroyed in the thirteenth century B.C.E.:

“For the 13th century exodus-conquest theory to be valid, the Palestinian destructions would have to occur prior to the fourth year of Merneptah, ca. 1210 BC, as Israel was settled in Canaan by this time according to Merneptah’s famous stela.  A detailed analysis of the pottery associated with the destruction levels of Tell Beit Mirsim and Beitin, however, reveals that these sites were destroyed in the early 12th century, probably at the hands of the Philistines, ca. 1177 BC.  Inscriptional evidence found at Lachish in the 1970s indicates that it was destroyed even later, ca. 1160 BC.  Recent excavations at Hazor, on the other hand, have sustained the ca. 1230 BC date for the demise of the Late Bronze Age city.”

So, whereas the Book of Joshua presents the Israelite defeat of these cities preceding their habitation of Canaan, the archaeological record shows that Debir, Bethel, and Lachish were destroyed in the twelfth century B.C.E., which is after Israel was a nation in Palestine, as one can see from the thirteenth century Merneptah Stela.

So, according to Wood, this is where the “destruction layers” part of Albright’s argument for the historicity of the Conquest fell apart.  Unfortunately, I’ve read Christian apologists who still appeal to Albright as an authority, apparently unaware that later archaeologists disagree with his conclusions.  But there are plenty of conservative scholars who have argued that the collapse of Albright’s argument does not mean that the Conquest did not happen: it could have occurred earlier than the thirteenth century, or the Israelites could have inhabited Canaanite cities rather than destroying them (see Deuteronomy 6:10).

(I should also note that, for some reason, Dever says that Bethel was destroyed at the end of Late Bronze II.  But, if Hoffmeier’s chart in Ancient Israel and Sinai is correct, then 1177 B.C.E. is Iron Age I, not Late Bronze II.  Do Dever and Wood disagree on the date of Bethel’s destruction, or does Dever date Late Bronze Age II differently from Hoffmeier?  The latter appears to be the case, for Dever states that, “apart from imports or Philistine Bichrome ware, it is often difficult to distinguish 13th from 12th century pottery”, and “not even the appearance of iron provides a firm criterion for the beginning of the ‘Iron’ Age, since iron begins as early as the 14th century B.C. but comes into common use only in the 11th-1oth century B.C.”, plus “its connection with the new technology and culture is more debated than ever in recent research”.  So Dever appears to think that the line separating the Late Bronze Age from the Iron Age is rather tenuous.)

Now let’s turn to the second part of Albright’s argument about the Conquest: the distinct material culture of the Israelites—the new type of house, new pottery style, and poorer material culture of the “regions…rebuilt after the destruction.”  First of all, there is doubt that the Israelites replaced the Canaanites in the region that became Israel, the central hills, for the idea of Lemche and many others is that the central hills were largely uninhabited before the Israelites occupied them in Iron I.  Second, many have argued that we know that the Israelites were actually Canaanites because their Iron I material culture overlaps with that of the Late Bronze Canaanites.  (Remember that the Israelite sites show up in the central hills during the Iron I Period.)  What is the basis for this argument?  Dever discusses this issue.

According to Dever, Israelite material culture either overlaps with Late Bronze Age Canaanite culture, or is a development of it.  The pottery is virtually identical, and even the Israelite “collar rim storejar” looks like a “variant” of a Late Bronze-Iron I storejar, only with “a reenforcing band around the neck”, plus it also appears in Late Bronze and “non-Israelites sites both in Palestine and the Transjordan.”  The four-room “Israelite” house has “a few prototypes” in the Late Bronze Period, and it is also “known in non-Israelite Iron I sites both in Palestine and in Transjordan.”  Even “hillside terraces, rock-hewn cisterns, and stone-lined silos…have clear antecedents in the MB-LB Age, and even earlier”.  So Dever believes that the Iron I central hill sites have clear Canaanite features, or reflect a development of things that existed in Canaanite culture.

And yet, Dever agrees with Albright that ancient Israel is different from Canaan in certain areas: in its settlement patterns, which appear to reflect a kinship-based egalitarianism with clans and tribes, and also in its “almost total shift to a nonurban, agrarian economy and social structure”.

I should note that some conservatives have responded that the Israelites could have absorbed elements of Canaanite culture, as the Hebrew Bible says occurred in the case of Canaanite religion.  So why couldn’t this have happened with other aspects of Canaanite culture, such as pottery?  Again, many conservatives argue that, just because Albright was wrong on Israelite culture being radically distinct from Canaanite culture, that doesn’t mean that the Hebrew Bible’s wrong.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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