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Historical Problems with the Hebrew Bible: The Conquest of Canaan

This will be my final post, for now, on the problems with the Hebrew Bible.  I couldn’t resist one last set of comments on the historicity of the accounts narrated there, this time with respect to the stories in the book of Joshua about the Conquest of the Promised Land (Jericho and so on).   Here too I am citing what I lay out in my forthcoming textbook on the Bible


When considering the historicity of the narratives of Joshua, the first thing to re-emphasize is that these are not accounts written by eyewitnesses or by anyone who knew an eyewitness.  They were written some 600 years later, and were based on oral traditions that had been in circulation among people in Israel during all those intervening centuries.  Moreover, they are clearly molded according to theological assumptions and perspectives.  Biblical scholars have long noted that there is almost nothing in the accounts that suggest that the author is trying to be purely descriptive of things that really happened.  He is writing an account that appears to be guided by his religious agenda, not by purely historical interests.  That is why, when read closely, one finds so many problems with the narratives.

  • Internal discrepancies.   As we have seen, parts of Joshua stress that Joshua was fantastically successful in conquering the land: “Joshua defeated the whole land” (10:40); “Joshua took all that land” (11:16); “Joshua took the whole land” (11:23).  If it were true that Joshua took “all” the “whole” land – why are there so many parts of the land that the text admits were not taken?   The Deuteronomistic historian later has to acknowledge that when “Joshua was old…the LORD said to him ‘very much of the land still remains to be possessed’” (13:1).  And so we are told that Jerusalem had not yet been taken (15:63); or parts of Ephraim (16:10); or parts of Manasseh (17:12-13).  At the end of the book Joshua has to persuade the people to drive out the natives living in the land (23:5-13).
  • Tensions with other Accounts.  A similar problem arises between Joshua and other books of the Deuteronomistic history.  In ch. 11, for example, the Israelite forces completely annihilate the city of Hazor: “they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire.”  If that were true, why is it that in the next book, Judges, the Canaanites still very much live in and control Hazor, under their king Jabin, whose powerful army afflicted and oppressed the Israelites (Judges 4)?
  • General Implausibilities.  A number of the stories in Joshua are so chock-full of the miraculous that historians simply cannot deal with them as historical narratives (see the excursus in ch. 1).  None of the miracles is more striking than the account in ch. 10, where the Israelite armies are having such a huge success, routing the coalition of kings aligned against them that Joshua cries out to the sun to stop its movement in the sky.  And the sun stands still at high noon for twenty-four hours before moving on again, giving the Israelites ample time to complete the slaughter.   As readers have long ntoed, it would be a miracle indeed if the earth suddenly stopped rotating on its axis for a day and then started up again, with no disturbance to the oceans, land masses, and life itself!
  • External Verification and Archaeology.  For biblical scholars, just as significant is the surviving physical evidence (or rather lack of it) for the conquest.  Archaeologists have long noted that there is scant support for the kind of violent destruction of the cities of Canaan – especially the ones mentioned in Joshua.  Think for a second: if one were to look for archaeological evidence, or other external verification, to support the historical narratives of Joshua, what would one look for?
    • References to the invasion and conquest in other written sources outside the Bible.
    • Evidence that there were indeed walled cities and towns in Canaan at the time.
    • Archaeological evidence that the cities and towns mentioned actually were destroyed at the time (Jericho, Ai, Heshbon, etc.).
    • Shift in cultural patterns: that is, evidence of new people taking over from other peoples of a different culture (as you get in the Americas when Europeans came over bringing with them their own culture, different from that of the native Americans).

And what kind of verification do we actually get for the narratives of Joshua?  The answer appears to be: none of the above.  There are no references in any other ancient source to a massive destruction of the cities of Canaan.   Archaeologists have discovered that few of the places mentioned were walled towns at the time.   Many of the specific cities cited as places of conquest apparently did not even exist as cities at the time.  This includes, most notably, Jericho, which was not inhabited in the late 13th century BCE, as archaeologists have decisively shown (see box 4.2).   The same thing applies to Ai and Heshbon.  These cities were neither occupied, nor conquered, nor re-inhabited in the days of Joshua.  Moreover, there is no evidence of major shifts in cultural patterns taking place at the end of the 13th century in Canaan.   There are, to be sure, some indications that some towns in Canaan were destroyed at about that time (two of the twenty places mentioned as being destroyed by Joshua were wiped out at about the right time: Hazor and Bethel)  But that is true of virtually every time in antiquity: occasionally towns were destroyed by other towns or burned or otherwise abandoned.

We are left, then, with a very big problem.  The accounts in Joshua appear to be non-historical in many respects.  This creates a dilemma for historians, since two things are perfectly clear:  (a) eventually there was a nation Israel living in the land of Canaan; but (b) there is no evidence that it got there by entering in from the East and destroying all the major cities in a series of violent military campaigns.  Where then did Israel come from?

Where Did Israel Come From?
Historical Problems with the Hebrew Bible: The Exodus Narrative



  1. Avatar
    maxhirez  June 10, 2013

    “Where then did Israel come from?”
    There’s a cliff-hanger for you, especially if this is going to be the last post on the OT for a while! It sounds as if there is a scholarly consensus in the negative (that it didn’t happen the way Exodus/Joshua claim)-is there consensus on where Israel DID come from?

  2. Avatar
    SelfAwarePatterns  June 11, 2013

    A good source for what archaeology says about Old Testament accounts is Israel Finkelstein’s “The Bible Unearthed”. Be warned, it mostly destroys the credibility of any stories prior to the divided kingdoms. From what I recall, the book basically demonstrates that all the stories ostensibly set in the 2nd millenium BC are actually anachronistically rooted in the 8th century BC sociopolitical world.

  3. Avatar
    toddfrederick  June 11, 2013

    Trying to communicate that scripture is composed of a variety of literature is exceedingly frustrating. Most of those with whom I try to discuss this are rooted into the idea that the Bible is of one genre with one author. I have mentioned before that my son is a seminary graduate and a youth minister. He is from the group who believes that scripture is generally inerrant in its original form and is an accurate source of historical facts.

    Regarding Joshua and Canaan… I presented the idea to my son that the early Hebrew tribal god was directing Joshua to defeat and slaughter the people who worshiped the opposing tribal god and that this slaughter was in fact genocide…a genocide that directed Joshua to kill every man, woman, child, infant and even all of the animals belonging to the Canaanites. His response was that GOD was directing Joshua to retake what rightfully belonged to the Hebrews and that slaughtering the people of the “Promised Land” was not genocide since these people worshiped a false god and practiced child sacrifice.

    How can one argue with this? He is an intelligent young man and is very loving within his group but is rigidly blindsided by this notion that all truth is found in one book. I can’t persuade him to view scripture from a different perspective.

    I come from a very different point of view, but, I fear that there is security in the belief that “truth” can be held in your hand.

    Your example in today’s post speaks directly to this, IMO, and I am very saddened that it seems that such beliefs will be with us for a very long time.

    I appreciate your courage to let your students know what research reveals about scripture and that they can find a fulfilling life not having to believe in myths, legends and fairy tales. There is much beauty and truth in scripture, but so much of it is horrific.

    Just my thoughts on your post.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 11, 2013

      Does your son really think that it is OK to slaughter people who worship the wrong god? That would make for a very dangerous foreign policy for a Christian nation!

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  June 11, 2013

        I was rather shocked by that assertion and a few others he made but he did acknowledge that in the context of the times of Josuha, the whole Exodus event (such as God killing the first born of Egypt, etc) made it necessary to eliminate the inhabitants of Canaan to fulfill God’s destiny for the “chosen people.” He is a Biblical literalist and views these narratives as history.

        As you said above, “That would make for a very dangerous foreign policy for a Christian nation!” I have not heard him say that this is his foreign policy or political position (at least I hope not) but the logic of his position could lead to that. He does hold to a view of the world as a battle of the forces of good and evil. When push come to shove he might take that position. He recently made reference to an apocalyptic belief.

        His job is to work with teens and to bring them to faith in Jesus and as converts to Christianity…you know what I am talking about from your own experience.

        We are at a standstill regarding our views on all of this and we both feel that is is unproductive to discuss these issues but I would like to ask him that question if the opportunity presents itself but I do think he would support a “holy war” concept as regards WWII for example.

        He is a very loving and gentle person but is obviously rigid on his beliefs. I’m trying to avoid the use of the word fundamentalist here since he says he is not such, which I doubt.

        I simply need to love him as my son and hope that he begins to see these issues in a more progressive way as his life move on. I wish I could openly discuss these issues with him but such is not possible…too much tension.

        Thank you for asking that question. I feel very distant and rejected (and judged) by him in many ways and wish that was not the case.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 13, 2013

          Well, now that I’ve thought about it, that used to be my view too! People do change….

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  March 18, 2015

            toddfrederick’s son is a literalist and my daughter is Mormon. Thank God (so to speak), she is one of the most liberal Mormons I know but she does believe that the only way to spend eternity with God in the highest tier of Heaven is to be a good Mormon. And, oy vey, my grandchildren will be raised Mormon. It was great irony to me that, within weeks of my playing Tevya in Fiddler and she playing my daughter who sings “Far From the Home I Love” that she left the 1/2 Jewish (my half) background she had said she loved to join the Mormon Church. For the sake of our relationship, we haven’t argued for years about her beliefs.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  March 18, 2015

          Have you ever asked him where in Scripture it says that the Bible is to be taken literally? It’s a human not a biblical command.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  March 18, 2015

          Another point, toddfrederick, is that some Christian beliefs are undone by reading certain parts literally–especially if one reads Genesis 2-3 literally. If you do, you will find no story of a Fall there, no creation of Adam and Eve as immortal and then their loss of their immortality, no Satan, and no expulsion from Eden as a direct result of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (God cursed them and the serpent as punishment for that and was done with it, then the subject changes, then afterwards God realizes that, given that they did that, they might also eat of the Tree of Life….THAT’s why he expelled them. The text (in RSV, at least) uses the word “because”…it was because they might do that that God expelled them.

        • Avatar
          mtelus  August 12, 2018


          Sadly your son is dealing with religiosity, and its probably a bad idea for anyone to be exposed to religion at such a young age. Brain imaging studies using MRI’s shows that in those with religiosity (i.e., highly religious folks), whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Tribal Religions, the hippocampus is shrunk causing the amadygla to have a greater control of the persons ego-identity. Its shown religiosity decreases as someone starts to develop a more healthy and realistic outlook on their faith, it doesn’t sound like your son is there yet. One way to get him there is to have him go over the Bible with you, and have him try to explain the more egregious contradictions.

      • Avatar
        rhsondag  June 12, 2013

        I think it would be a great topic for a day to discuss/identify the passages in the NT which indicate that the gospel and epistle writers believe in the historicity of the OT. I am aware of a couple. In Luke 17 Jesus is said to believe in the flood story, the destruction of Sodom, and in Lot’s wife being turned into stone. 1 Cor. 10: 8-10 Paul refers to (i) the 23,000 (or 24,000) Israelites killed by God’s plague in Numbers 25: 7-9, and (ii) the fiery serpents of Numbers 21:6-7 sent to kill Israelites for complaining about the lack of food and water in the desert.

        It seems to me that the problem that Todd’s son has, and which Biblically oriented Christians in general have, are that (i) Jesus and Paul are presented as believing in the historicity of the OT, (ii) the gospels and epistles must be true because they are inspired/written by God, and (iii) Jesus was God, so he can’t have been wrong.

        Bart I don’t know if you are familiar with the writings of Francis A. Schaeffer from your evangelical youth. He was apparently a very popular Christian apologist in the late 1960s and early 1970s. An acquaintance who knew I was struggling with Christianity gave me a trilogy he wrote. In “The God Who Is There” (1968) he wrote “Take away the first three chapters of Genesis, and you cannot maintain a true Christian position nor give Christianity’s answers.” His point is that “the fall” of Adam and Eve must be a historical fact, because if it isn’t Christ’s sacrifice in particular, and Christianity in general, do not make sense. Schaeffer’s conclusion was that the Old Testament was historical – it had to be if he were to be a Christian! Oddly, enough I tend to agree with Schaeffer’s logic that the Bible must be historically accurate or Christianity’s truth claims fail.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 13, 2013

          Yes, I was a Schaeffer devotee for years. I’m afraid he was not as smart, and nowhere *near* as knowledgeable, as we thought at the time….

    • Avatar
      rhsondag  June 12, 2013

      Todd I had a similar conversation with a Christian acquaintance not long ago. She gave the same rationale as your son. I then asked if she thought we should execute all male homosexuals as is mandated by Lev. 20:13. She said something to the effect “if that is what it says, maybe that is what God wants us to do.” It still makes me shudder to recall that conversation. She is a very nice person – makes me think that the Islamic suicide bombers are probably very nice people too!

    • Avatar
      Himb4i  February 9, 2016

      Have you told your son that it’s possible the Bible is just a regular document and that God can still exist?

      I am a seminary student (about to graduate) and I would enjoy speaking to someone who has similar questions I did.
      Maybe your son would like to communicate?

  4. Avatar
    gavm  June 11, 2013

    the old testament is simple cultural stories. nothing more. there is no reason to take them seriously. it makes no sense to believe stories about a small tribe of goat herders being the apple of gods eye and not to hold a similar view for Chinese stories about dragons.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  June 11, 2013

    It appears that the Israelites originally lived among the Canaanites. The Israelites made the Canaanite and Egyptian customs & traditions their own. The Israelites transferred oral stories to their people and made adjustments and changes as the generations passed by. The Israelites worshipped the gods of Canaan and followed their religious traditions. The Israelite priests wanted devotion to one god so that the priests could make a living by keeping portions of sacrifices made to god by the Israelites. Eventually, the Israelites were divided kingdoms with their own writings. The northern kingdom was conquered and they brought their writings to the southern kingdom and the writings from both kingdoms were combined. The southern kingdom was conquered and the elite Israelites were taken to Babylon. While in captivity, the Israelites changed their writings to reflect the changes in their lives including losing the promised land and temple. After some events, the Israelites were allowed to return to Jerusalem and the 2nd temple period began. Many more conquers and events later, the Israelites find themselves in the 1st century CE and Jerusalem is under Roman control. There is talk of god intervening in the world, removing the Romans from power and giving the promised land back it rightful owners, the Israelites!
    With much detail left out, is that a close answer to where did Israel come from? Are there any changes or additions? Thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 11, 2013

      That’s a long history to summarize in a paragraph! As to where they came from, i deal with it a bit in my post today.

  6. Avatar
    jhague  June 12, 2013

    I was going for number 4: Gradual Emergence. 😉

  7. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 12, 2013

    Many fundamentalists not only believe that the sun still for Joshua to complete the slaughter, but that NASA has proved it by running the ephemeris backward and found the missing day. MASA flatly denies this and of course running the ephemeris backward could prove nothing unless there were observations to show a discrepancy. But this doesn’t seem to faze true believers.

  8. Avatar
    dewdds  June 12, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve read some speculations that the Canaanite Conquest story was a theologically embellished folk memory of the Bronze Age collapse. This period was around the 12th c BCE and influenced the entire eastern Mediterranean region. Apparently many coastal, Canaanite cities of that time were attacked and despoiled, though not by a roving army of Hebrews, but seaborne invaders of unknown origin. Have any of your colleagues entertained this idea as well?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 13, 2013

      Yes, it’s one of the theories; one problem is that it’s a bit too late for a plausible date of the “conquest.”

  9. Avatar
    OttoTellick  January 3, 2014

    Sorry to disturb the long silence here, but I’ve just been discussing Joshua with a pastor on his blog. A couple issues I raised with him are (I hope) worth mentioning:

    – Possibly in the category of “tensions with other accounts”, Joshua 10:14 says “And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man…” When I pointed out that this seems to contradict a lot of cases where God allegedly responds to human requests (in the OT and generally), my pastor friend appealed to the Hebrew wording of the passage, saying it carried a special kind of emphasis that sustained the validity of the negation. He mentioned that the same phrasing was used in 1 Kings 17:22, which led me to conclude that even believers in inerrancy would still have to regard Joshua 10:14 as an unsustainable (i.e. false) exaggeration.

    – Regarding the issue of the long day, I pointed out that if this had really happened, the Chinese would have noticed it, and they would have kept a written record of it, because it’s not the sort of thing that could go unnoticed and unmentioned in a literate society. (Indeed, it would have been more dramatic for them: they would have seen the stoppage at dusk, when it would have been almost immediately obvious.)

    Now, I’m not actually an expert in ancient Chinese history, but if there had been anything in their (rather more meticulous) records of that period to reinforce the OT story, I’m sure it would have surfaced by now, and would have given this event the status of an acknowledged fact in history. I’d vote for saying that, in this case, “absence of evidence is evidence of absence,” at least with regard to a massive anomaly in planetary momentum.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

      Not only would the Chinese have noticed it — the Chinese would have become instantly extinct, as would very other living being on the planet — if the earth suddenly stopped rotating….

  10. Avatar
    cscott765  June 14, 2017

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve been looking into this a bit and the 6th century historian Procopius writes in his “History of the Wars of Justinian” Book 4, 10.21–22 that:

    They [the Canaanites of the Old Testament] also built a fortress in Numidia, where now is the city
    called Tigisis. In that place are two columns made of white stone near by the great spring, having
    Phoenician letters cut in them which say in the Phoenician tongue: ‘We are they who fled from before
    the face of Joshua, the robber, the son of Nun’.

    What do you think of this? And are you familiar with the debate between Philip C. Schmitz and Anthony J. Frendo regarding the matter?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2017

      I suppose the first obvious problem is that Procopius is writing over a thousand years after the events he’s narrating. But no, I’m not aware of the debate.

      • Avatar
        cscott765  June 17, 2017

        Thank you for responding. I suspected the same problem with Procopius as well as the fact it’s not clear if Procopius is giving an eyewitness account or a second hand report. Here are the citations of Philip C. Schmitz and Anthony J. Frendo’s articles if you care to look into it:

        -Two Long-lost Phoenician Inscriptions and The Emergence of Ancient Israel by Anthony J. Frendo (Palestine Exploration Quarterly Vol. 134, Issue 1, 2002)

        -Procopius’ Phoenician Inscriptions – Never Lost, Not Found by Philip C. Schmitz (Palestine Excavation Quarterly Vol. 139, No. 2 (2007), pp. 99-104):

        -Back to the Bare Essentials, ‘Procopius’ Phoenician Inscriptions: Never Lost, Not Found’ — a Response by Anthony J. Frendo (Palestine Exploration Quarterly Volume 139, 2007 – Issue 2)

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