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According to the theory of true narratives, if the conquest of Ai narrative is factual, then it must necessarily correspond to the material time-space context to which it purports to be connected and which it purports to represent. From careful exegesis of the text of the conquest of Ai narrative in the 7 and 8 chapters of the Book of Joshua, a 14 parameter criterial screen is derived to assess the correspondence between the narrative and the three candidate sites for Joshua's Ai that emerge from past research. Through the analysis summarized in this paper, Khirbet el-Maqatir is demonstrated to be the site of the fortress of Ai, and the conquest of Ai narrative is demonstrated to meet the criteria for being a true narrative.

This is Part One of a four-part article.

Summary of the problem. The gamut of views concerning the conquest of Ai narrative in the 7th and 8th chapters of the Book of Joshua can be summarized as follows: the narrative is factual, having the weight of eye witness testimony; or, it is an aetiological legend, compiled long after the fact, either just before or during the Babylonian exile for the purpose of justifying Israel’s presence in the land of Canaan; or, it is a pernicious myth, deceptively and skillfully fabricated to correspond with the material time-space context in which it is alleged to have occurred. Is there a method that is capable of objectively arbitrating among these three views?

Summary of the method. The theory of True Narrative Representations propounded by John W. Oller provides the basis for an analytical test of the factuality of the narrative in question, and thereby an arbitration among the three views summarized above. The analytical process begins with the derivation of a fourteen-parameter criterial screen from careful exegesis of the biblical text in the Book of Joshua. The criterial screen is the analytical tool whereby the correspondence of the biblical narrative to its material time-space context can be empirically assessed. The first three parameters of the screen form a predicate criterial screen, which is applied to the three candidate sites for Joshua’s Ai that emerge from past research; namely, et-Tell, Khirbet Nisya, and Khirbet el-Maqatir. Even this very limited three-parameter screen is sufficiently explicit that only one of the candidate sites, Kh. el-Maqatir, meets all of its requirements. The remaining eleven parameters of the more elaborate and still more demanding criterial screen are then applied to that one surviving site, which entails a careful and detailed correlation of the text of Joshua 7 and 8 with the archaeological, geographical, and topographical context of the site. By this means, the conformity of the narrative in question with the determinativeness, connectedness, and generalizability properties of true narratives is empirically tested. Included in the analytical process is the postulation of viable engagement scenarios for the two battles of Ai.

Summary of the conclusion. The result of the analytical process is that, of the three candidate sites for Joshua’s Ai, only Kh. el-Maqatir satisfies all fourteen parameters of the criterial screen, thus providing conclusive evidence that the conquest of Ai narrative is a True Narrative Representation and that Kh. el-Maqatir is the site of the fortress of Ai conquered by Joshua. Key aspects of the evidence include the geographical and topographical contexts of Kh. el-Maqatir, the configuration of its defensive system, its size, its archaeology, and its total conformity with the requirements of the text in Joshua 7 and 8. The view that the conquest of Ai narrative is factual is thereby vindicated, and the aetiological legend and pernicious myth views are refuted.1


The Bible as Historical Narrative

The Bible is essentially an historical narrative concerning the nation of Israel, by means of which Yahweh, the God of Israel presents his character, his purposes, and his requirements with respect to human personalities. In his introduction to the commentary on the Book of Joshua in (Boling 1982: 5), G. Ernest Wright captures the Jewish concept of history and knowledge as follows:

Israel had no idea of a two-realm theory of knowledge, one of a supernal, universal Good and one of the world of human beings where they live. There was only one realm where significant knowledge was obtainable. That was their own, their own life as a people in the midst of the nations with whom they had contact. Yet in this world they indeed affirmed that God is good, but they meant by this that definitive actions in their history exhibited a mysterious Power who for his own reasons had acted toward them with remarkable graciousness.

According to Kaiser (1987: 61-79), a substantial cross-section of scholars would agree that the Bible’s theological truth claims are suspended on a cable of historical factuality. Moreover, according to the theory of true narratives propounded by John W. Oller [Oller (1996: 199-244); Oller & Collins (2000); Collins & Oller (2000)], only true narratives can support and sustain generalizations. Thus, for valid theological truth to be derived from the Bible, it is essential that the Bible’s historical content be true. If the Bible’s historical content is fictional or false, as the critics of the Bible would claim, then the theory of true narratives affirms that the theological truth claims of the Bible must be invalid.

Historical Factuality of the Old Testament

Since the focus of this paper is upon a portion of the Conquest episode recorded in the Book of Joshua, how has the factuality or non-factuality of the Old Testament been viewed from antiquity to the present? The straightforward manner in which Jesus handled, referred to, and taught from the Old Testament writings demonstrates that he regarded them as not only theologically true but also historically factual. For example, consider the following statement by Jesus as he was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem toward the very end of his ministry:

... Upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. [Matthew 23:35, NASB] 2

Concerning this statement by Christ, the following quotation is especially instructive:

Indeed, from one end of Scripture to the other there was a trail of martyred prophets that included all the martyred prophets! For Jesus, therefore, the canon began with Genesis and ended with 2 Chronicles, just as it does in the traditional Hebrew order of the OT, and so the dynamic equivalent of Jesus’ expression, considering our present English order of the OT books, would be: “all the righteous blood . . . from Genesis to Malachi” (Kaiser 1987: 46).

In like manner, the apostles Peter and Paul regarded the Old Testament scriptures to be God-breathed according to 2 Peter 1:20-21 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

Hayes & Miller (1977: 1-69) trace the evolution in historiography concerning the nation of Israel from the Hellenistic period to the modern era. Through the period of the Reformation and until the middle of the 17th century with the dawn of the Enlightenment, a consensus generally prevailed among biblical and historical scholars that the historical sections of the Old Testament were factual. Moreover, until this time the provenance of biblical interpretation had resided within the community of the church, albeit a church now fragmented by the polemics of the Reformation. However, by the middle of the 18th century, the provenance for critical analysis of the biblical text had been decisively wrested from the community of the church and had come to reside within the community of philosophical and scientific scholars. The momentous shift in scholarly attitude toward the Old Testament text culminated in the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis. Cassuto (1983: 9-11) cites the work of a succession of scholars who contributed to the development of this hypothesis, including the following: Witter (ca. 1711); Astruc (ca. 1753); Eichhorn (ca. 1783); Vater (ca. 1805); Stähelin, Ewald, et al. (ca. 1820-1830); Lachmann (ca. 1840); Hupfeld (ca. 1853); and Graf (ca. 1865). All of this past research was brilliantly combined, further developed, and persuasively articulated by Julius Wellhausen in a series of works published ca. 1876-1901. Wellhausen affirmed the Jahwist-Elohist-Priestly-Deuteronomist multi-source model developed by his predecessors. Moreover, he asserted that the theocratic organization of Israel and the priestly laws of the Pentateuch reflected post-exilic Judaism rather than the state of Israel at the time of Moses. Furthermore, according to Wellhausen, the earliest date for the codification of portions of the Old Testament was the 8th century BC beginning with the prophecy of Amos and his contemporaries. However, according to Wellhausen, the Hebrew text of the Old Testament in its present form was first compiled and integrated during the post-exilic period. Wellhausen dogmatically asserted that the account of the patriarchs in Genesis was entirely legend, being substantially, if not totally, divorced from historical reality. Because the same sources were detected in the Book of Joshua, the idea of the Hexateuch emerged from Wellhausen’s research.

According to Cassuto (1983: 1-7), Wellhausen’s literary analysis of the Old Testament was so rigorously executed and effectively presented that it came to be regarded as unassailable fact. Having embraced Wellhausen’s research, a biblical scholar would be driven to the conclusion that the earliest point at which the historical narrative of the Old Testament could be trusted as essentially factual corresponded to the establishment of the monarchy under Saul. This is exactly the conclusion manifested in the following quotations from Miller & Hayes:

Literary analysis reveals that this whole Genesis-2 Kings account, from beginning to end, is composite. In other words, many originally independent items (stories, songs, genealogies, collections of laws, and so on), each with its own issues and problems of interpretation as well as historical implications, have been combined to produce the overall account. These various items have been edited, so the resulting composite account has a degree of unity and coherence. Many ragged edges remain, however, which raise glaring questions for the serious reader and which in some cases present what appear to be blatant contradictions [Miller & Hayes (1986: 61)].

We decline any attempt to reconstruct the earliest history of the Israelites therefore, and begin our treatment with a description of the circumstances that appear to have existed among the tribes in Palestine on the eve of the establishment of the monarchy. Our primary source of information for this purpose will be narratives in the Book of Judges [Miller & Hayes (1986: 79)].

Bright (1981: 129-130) directs attention to the apparent contradictions in the account of the Conquest found in Joshua and Judges. On the one hand, the Book of Joshua describes a concentrated sequence of military campaigns by a unified Israelite army under Joshua that brought at least the central hill country under Israel’s control. On the other hand, the Book of Judges describes a fragmented and only partially successful effort by the twelve tribes to subdue the entrenched Canaanites in their various allotments. Factors such as this have motivated most biblical scholars to attribute the account of the Conquest found in Numbers 13:1-Judges 18:31 to multiple literary sources and traditions. The majority opinion in regard to the contour of the actual conquest episode favors the “fragmented model” in Judges over the “unified model” in Joshua. Following is Bright’s assessment of these two apparently competing views of the Conquest:

Both views doubtless contain elements of truth. But the actual events that established Israel on the soil of Palestine were assuredly vastly more complex than a simplistic presentation of either view would suggest [Bright (1981: 130)].

In his chapter on the Israelite occupation of Canaan [Hayes & Miller (1977: 213-221)], J. Maxwell Miller summarizes the two dominant positions of modern biblical scholarship in regard to the Conquest narrative: (a) the Hexateuch model according to Wellhausen, et al., which held that Genesis-Joshua is the product of a unified literary tradition; and, (b) the Deuteronomistic History model according to Alt, Noth, and Von Rad, which held that Deuteronomy-2 Kings is the product of a unified literary tradition. According to both models, the historical sections of the Old Testament are the product of multiple authors, compilers, and redactors who integrated oral traditions and fragments of literary and historiographic material to create a more or less coherent biblical history of Israel. Miller’s concluding assessment follows:

Obviously, the final word is yet to be said on the matter, but two conclusions hold regardless of whether one thinks in terms of a ‘hexateuch’ or a ‘Deuteronomistic history’. First, it is clear that the biblical account of the conquest in Numbers 13-Judges 1 is a highly composite construction. Second, when one attempts to disentangle the various literary strata which compose this account, it becomes increasingly apparent that older traditions which seem unaware of an initial conquest of the whole land of Canaan by a unified Israel have been incorporated into later materials which do. In fact, the concept of an initial conquest by all Israel appears to be largely Deuteronomistic... [Hayes & Miller (1977: 220-221)].

The Conquest of Ai Narrative

John Bright’s reconstruction of the Conquest episode [Bright (1981: 140-143)] bears the imprint of literary and historical criticism of the biblical text as well as that of archaeological research by Kelso & Albright at Beitin [Kelso & Albright (1968)], Kenyon at Jericho [Kenyon (1957); Kenyon (1960: 195-220 & 331-332)], and Callaway at et-Tell [Callaway (1970: 10-12)]. Bright envisages a complex, protracted, and multilateral penetration of Israelite elements into Canaan, even including Hebrew elements that had possibly remained in Canaan during the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. His analysis reflects the tension created by the apparently contradictory results of archaeological research. In particular, excavations at et-Tell place in evidence the fact that the Early Bronze city at that site was destroyed ca. 2400 BC, and the site remained unoccupied until a small Iron Age village was established ca. 1200 BC. Commenting upon the apparent conflict between the archaeological data and the biblical narrative, Bright makes the following statement in regard to the conquest of Ai:

This has led some to question the location, others to regard the story as legendary, and still others to adopt other expedients. Far the most plausible suggestion is that the story of Josh., ch. 8, originally referred to the taking of Bethel, of which we are told in Judg. 1:22-26, but which is not mentioned in Joshua [Bright (1981: 131)].

Bright’s reconstruction may seem reasonable in the light of the fragments of evidence, some of which may appear to be mutually contradictory. However, the reader is strongly motivated toward the conclusion that the narrative in Joshua is a vast oversimplification of the Conquest episode and far removed from a straightforward, factual account. In particular, the conquest of Ai narrative in Joshua 7 and 8 is either legendary, or it actually describes a campaign against another location such as Bethel. In either case, the conquest of Ai narrative is substantially nonfactual.

The Emergence Theory

Within the framework of the Finkelstein & Na’aman emergence theory, Na’aman proposes a more radical view of the conquest of Ai narrative:

In the light of the nonhistorical character of the conquest tradition in the Book of Joshua, one should raise a fundamental question: Where did the author derive the material for his narratives? We have yet to establish whether a vague memory of past events was retained in some stories. It is clear, however, that most of the conquest narratives are devoid of historical foundation. One may assume that the author designed the past descriptions in the light of the reality of his time; since he was well acquainted with the sites and the environment portrayed by him, he composed narratives that outwardly appear authentic (save for the conquest miracle of Jericho). This assumption may be supplemented by another: In order to add a sense of authenticity to his narratives, the author borrowed military outlines from concrete events that had taken place in the history of Israel.
Scholars have suggested that the conquest by stratagem of Ai is a literary reflection of the historical episode of the battle of Gibeah (Judges 20). Unfortunately, the literary relationship between the two narratives was not examined in detail, and it is not clear whether the author of Joshua 8 worked the narrative of Judges 20, or vice versa. The author of the story of Ai was certainly impressed by the prominent ruins of the site (Et-Tell), assuming that it was conquered by the Israelites when they occupied the country. To give this story of the capture of Ai an aura of authenticity, he used military elements of either the capture by stratagem of Gibeah or the conquest of another unknown site, transplanting them within a new environment that he knew very well from personal acquaintanceship. The conquest story of Ai did not emerge from an authentic historical memory of the event, but is rather the outcome of a reworking and adaptation of a conquest story relating to another site [Na’aman 1994:249-251)].

Thus, Na’aman proposes that not only is the conquest of Ai narrative nonfactual, but that the author of the narrative intentionally and deceptively cloaked it with an “aura of authenticity” based upon his knowledge of the geographical and topographical context of the site in question combined with the artifice of borrowing data from other historical episodes. The site around which Na’aman’s hypothetical author formulated the conquest of Ai narrative was the prominent ruins of et-Tell. In his discussion of the literary background of the narrative, Na’aman proposes that it was actually compiled either in the late 7th century BC, just prior to the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, or in the early 6th century after the Israelites had been deported to Babylon. In either case, the most ancient historiographic fragments upon which the narrative was based dated to the time of David and Solomon in the 10th century BC [Na’aman (1994: 218-230)]. Moreover, if the composition of the narrative actually took place in the 6th century BC, its author would have been physically insulated from the site, and therefore he would have been forced to rely entirely upon memory for all archaeological, geographical, and topographical detail. 3

Alternative Views of the Conquest of Ai Narrative

Aetiological Legend View

The aetiological legend view of the conquest of Ai narrative that emerges from the tradition of Albright, Callaway, Kenyon, Bright, et al., can be summarized as follows:

a. The first attempt to codify the Joshua narrative occurred during the divided monarchy toward the end of the 10th century BC. Subsequently, it was revised one or more times, ca. 640-540 BC.

b. The narrative of chapters 7 and 8 of Joshua actually derives from the conquest of nearby Bethel and was later applied to the city of Ai by either the original 10th century BC narrator or by one of the later redactors.

c. Thus, the conquest of Ai narrative can be accurately characterized as a nonfactual aetiological legend compiled long after the events in question.

d. The legend was loosely built around the ruins at et-Tell, the supposed site for the city of Ai, and nearby Bethel.

e. The original compilation of the legend together with its later revisions was strongly motivated by political and theological concerns.

The aetiological legend view of the conquest of Ai narrative probably represents the majority opinion of modern biblical scholars.

Pernicious Myth View

The pernicious myth view of the conquest of Ai narrative that derives from the work of Na’aman can be summarized as follows:

a. The formulation of the content of the book of Joshua occurred at approximately the time of the Babylonian exile; that is, either at the end of the 7th century or during the 6th century BC.

b. The fragments of historical data upon which the composition was based date no earlier than the time of David and Solomon in the 10th century BC.

c. The author of the conquest of Ai narrative possessed considerable knowledge of the Benjamin hill country context of the battle of Ai, and he employed this knowledge to deceptively impart to the narrative an aura of authenticity.

d. In particular, the author of the narrative in question crafted the story of the conquest of Ai around the prominent ruins of et-Tell.

e. Moreover, this author even borrowed the contours and outlines of certain historical battles of antiquity to further enhance the credibility of the conquest of Ai story.

Eyewitness Account View

In contrast to the above, by far the most straightforward explanation for the incredible amount of detail in the conquest of Ai narrative is that it was compiled during the lifetime of Joshua and was based upon direct, eyewitness contact with the places and events in question.

Continue to Part Two >>>


1. This paper is derived from the doctoral dissertation, Briggs (2007). References and footnotes in this paper direct the reader’s attention to passages in the dissertation where additional detail may be found.

2. Scripture quotations in this paper are taken from the New American Standard Bible (abbreviated NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

3. Refer to Briggs (2007: 48-51 & 77-82) for a discussion of Na’aman’s hypothesis.

4. For a fuller discussion the theory of true narratives and its application to testing the factuality of the conquest of Ai narrative, refer to Briggs (2007: 22-26 & 72-74).


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