Inerrancy and the Problem of Jericho

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The Joshua 6 narrative of the conquest of Jericho has raised challenges for biblical inerrantists. The Bible claims that the city of Jericho had walls that fell when the Israelites invaded it (6:20). 

This is an issue for the inerrantist because he holds that the Bible cannot err in matters of history. According to Old Testament scholar Peter Enns “the overwhelmingly dominant scholarly position is that the city of Jericho was at most a small settlement and without walls during the time of Joshua” (1). Similarly, Douglas Knight and Amy-Jill Levine concede that “Archaeologists have long tested the evidence for the sweeping military campaign portrayed in the book of Joshua, and their results are not encouraging for a Late Bronze Age setting [thirteenth century BC]” (2).

In her respected work Digging Up Jericho, Kathleen Kenyon found that not only did Jericho never have walls when Israel is said to have invaded it but that it was also unoccupied during the Late Bronze Age during which the biblical story took place (4), although excavations have shown evidence of minimal occupation at best. Enns writes “That Jericho in the Late Bronze Period was a small, unwalled settlement is not seriously contested by archaeologists as a whole” (5). Scholar Thom Starks agrees that “the complete lack of evidence makes it [the biblical conquest of Jericho] highly unlikely” (6).

Inerrantists have attempted to challenge this consensus, largely out of a dogmatic commitment to their religion; consider the words of inerrantist scholar Albert Mohler who, in referring to the challenge of Jericho, responds that he will “not allow any line of evidence from outside the Bible to nullify to the slightest degree the truthfulness of any text in all that the text asserts and claims” (7). Mohler writes this even though he concedes that “modern scholars dispute the biblical account,” (8) and that he is “not qualified to render any adequate archaeological argument” since he is not an archaeologist (9).

For inerrantists like Mohler, no matter how compelling and persuasive evidence is to the contrary of his belief in inerrancy, he will not accept that evidence.

Inerrantist Kevin Vanhoozer is less dogmatic but is still strong in his faith that inerrancy will win out. He writes that “it remains possible that the Joshua story will yet be validated, and they point to past incidents in which this type of revision has occurred in support of the biblical narratives” (10).

One could charitably grant Vanhoozer this much, even though it strikes one as still an attempt to preserve inerrancy in the face of counter-evidence. But Vanhoozer’s logic can be used by members of other religions too, which makes it problematic. For example, if we grant Vanhoozer this possibility, then we need to grant Muslims the possibility that evidence supporting their theological belief that Jesus was never crucified will turn up to “validate” such a view. Enns sums up this inerrantist strategy,

“This line of argument is a common rhetorical strategy among inerrantists: if the archaeological evidence does not make the biblical view absolutely impossible, the biblical account remains historically possible and therefore should be given the benefit of the doubt, and external evidence should be interpreted generously to support that conclusion” (11).

Other Christian scholars who aren’t committed to inerrancy likewise see the problem the inerrantist interpretation has. Walter Brueggemann explains that “The historical evidence for such a conquest is, in current judgment, quite problematic” (12).

References.

1. Enns, P. 2013. “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Described What the Bible Does” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. p. 123 (Scribd ebook format)

2. Knight, D. & Levine, A. 2011. The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us. p. 20.

3. Miram, D. 2008. Digging Up the Holy Land. p. 11.

4. Kenyon, K. 1957. Digging Up Jericho: The Results of the Jericho Excavations 1952–1956. p. 256-265.

5. Enns, P. 2013. “Responses” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. p. 36 (Scribd ebook format)

6. Stark, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God. Location 4350 (Amazon ebook format).

7. Mohler, A. 2013. “When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks: The Classic Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. p. 51 (Scribd ebook format)

8. Mohler, A. 2013. Ibid. p. 48

9.  Mohler, A. 2013. Ibid. p. 63.

10. Vanhoozer. K. 2013. “Recasting Inerrancy: The Bible As Witness To Missional Plurality” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. p. 393 (Scribd ebook format).

11. Enns, P. 2013. “Responses.” p. 125 (Scribd ebook format)

12. Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament. p. 141.

12 comments

  1. Hi James,

    I would like to state first that I am not a Biblical Inerranist, and I have had my fair share of battles defending my position with them. But I do accept the Bible to be true, authoritative and inspired.

    However, I seriously struggle with your references to historical fact and evidences. I think you should have gone to the trouble of presenting such evidence or facts, rather than the arbitrary references to the existence of such. I wonder what sort of archaeological evidence you could have to determine the population of a city that stood several thousand years ago and determine whether it actually had a wall and how tall the wall was… If it isn’t archaeological evidence, what historical accounts are you relying on to determine the existence of Jericho and its size? And would it be too hard to imagine that those who wish to deny the testimony of the Jews would have fabricated such?

    I think more than getting Biblical Inerranists’ perspective, we need to consider the Jews, who learned of these wonders from their Ancestors who lived in the time of Joshua and passed it on to them by tradition. Are they among the archaeologists and scientists realising that their history was all fairy tales?

    I believe the accounts in the Bible are true, and while I hold that they are in no way infallible, I hold them as the most reliable source of truth, and will not be persuaded to believe otherwise by hearsay or unreasonable conclusions made by scientists and archaeologists who do not believe in a miraculous nor mysterious God.

    Cheers, Ufuoma.

  2. I respect your willingness to go where the evidence leads. Have you ever come across the work of Bryant Wood? He is an archaeologist who believes that the walls of Jericho fell when the Israelites came into Canaan. If I recall correctly, his argument is that a Middle Bronze wall could have lasted into the Late Bronze Age.

  3. Hi James

    Like all “pick and mix” Christians you choose to believe parts of the Bible as being true, some partly true, and other parts as pure fiction. Do you really believe that God inspired and encouraged His prophets to lie and invent stories, and is therefore quite happy for them to have done so? And do you really believe that He expects everyone to hold degrees in Theology, Archeology and Philosophy, or at least consult those that do, in order to properly understand His words? Seems to me you are only prepared to accept God on your terms – not on His.

  4. James, the more I read your blog the more I’m convinced that my decision to leave christiananity was the right one. Your blog, more than any other, tells me just how bogus this religion really is. I showed some of my christian friends this site and now they are having doubts about their faith. Thanks for being a good resource for atheism, even if it isn’t intentional.

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