In 2013 Christianity Today named their top ten archaeological discoveries. On the top of the list was an object that looks like a small insignificant amulet carved from stone. The artifact is a scarab from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt – most likely from the reign of Thutmose III or Amenhotep II (based on parallels discovered in Egypt).  The scarab amulet is a key piece of evidence excavated in 2013 at an archaeological site situated approximately 9 miles north of Jerusalem which affirms the historicity of the conquest story of ancient Israel in the Old Testament book of Joshua. That site is called Khirbet el-Maqatir and the archaeological data which has been recovered from the site, points to it as the ancient Canaanite city (or, fortress) of Ai which the Old Testament (Joshua 8) claims was destroyed by Joshua and the Israelites in about 1406 B.C..

But, did the “conquest” as it is known in the Bible actually take place? And if so, what is the evidence? These questions center on a debate that Near Eastern scholars have been having since the 1950’s.

Maqatir Scarab which dates from the reign of Amenhotep II and/or Thutmoses III

The Origins of the Israelites in Palestine (Canaan): Peaceful Infiltration or Military Conquest? 

In the 1920’s and 30’s it was assumed by most archaeologists working in Israel and the Near East that there was a mass exodus of Israelites from Egypt and a military campaign by the Israelites in the Levant [the land that roughly comprises modern day Israel] as the Old Testament states. In the 1930’s archaeologist John Garstang, and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago excavated at Tell es-Sultan (or the ancient city of Jericho)[1] Garstang found a destruction and wall breach at city IV. He dated the strata in city IV to approximately the Middle Bronze III period, the time frame in which the conquest of Canaan took place.  20 years later, in the 1950’s British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, excavated Jericho, and adjusted Garstang’s dates of city IV, 150-200 years earlier. Kenyon’s re-dating of city IV essentially erased the conquest Jericho as described in the Bible.

Since the time of Kathleen Kenyon’s re-dating of Garstang’s city IV at Tel-Jericho, archaeologists have placed the date of the exodus at around 1290 B.C.. This date in turn, affects the dating of the conquest and its precise location in the archaeological record. Like a row of dominoes, the re-dating of city IV at Jericho by Kenyon had a ripple effect on all subsequent discussion of an Israelite presence on Canaan. If the purported exodus took place in the 1200’s B.C. then this would in turn affect how we look at both events historically. Consequently, since that time, there have been a number of theories about Israelite origins and identity in Canaan [the Levant]. Who exactly were the early Israelites? Why did they begin to identify themselves as Israelites? Here are three current theories about the origins of Israel.


The Peaceful-Infiltration Model (also called The Traditio-Historical Model)
This theory was proposed by a German scholar named, Albrecht Alt. It can be found in his article “The Settlement of the Israelites in Palestine,” which appeared in Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966) According to Rasmussen, “What Alt  proposed was that instead of a ‘conquest; as described in Joshua 1-11, that there was a gradual, but growing influx of nomads (or seminomads) with their flocks from the eastern deserts into the central hill country. These incursions were initially temporary, as the infiltrators searched for pasturage, but eventually settled the sparsely populated gaps between urban centers – thus the ‘Peaceful-Infiltration Model.’”[2]

The Peasant-Revolt Model
The Peasant-Revolt model was put forth by George Mendenhall in the 1960’s which suggested that the origin of Israel (ca. 1250-1100 B.C.) was not the result of a military conquest but rather the idea that the self-identified “Israelites” grew out of the indigenous shepherds, peasants and farmers against their Canaanite rulers.

The Agricultural-Resettlement Model
This model arises from the results of archaeological surveys done in the central hill country of Israel and the material & architectural remains which were discovered in those surveys. The research seems to indicate that at around 1200 B.C. there was no conquest or peaceful infiltration at all. One of the main proponents of this theory today is Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein.[3] To understand this view Rasmussen provides a succinct statement by Finkelstein himself: “Finkelstein writes that ‘the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan—they emerged from within it.’”[4] Finkelstein’s conclusions are based on sweeping, unproven assumptions and a radically skeptical view of the biblical record.

According to the Bible, the conquest of Canaan initiated under Joshua, was never completed (Judges 1:28). The Old Testament records the destruction of only three Canaanite cities: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. This article will focus attention on Ai.


I actually worked as assistant square supervisor in the summer 2014 excavation of Khirbet el-Maqatir (Joshua’s Ai).[5]  The site covers about 4 acres and is located near the West Bank city of Ramallah near the Palestinian village of Deir Dibwan. The story of how this particular site came to be excavated goes back 20 years ago to 1994, when Dr. Bryant Wood, (of the Associates for Biblical Research, ABR) and his colleague, Gary Byers, scouted and surveyed the area as a potential location of the famed biblical city of Ai. In 1995 full scale excavations of Khirbet el-Maqatir began under the direction of Dr. Wood and ABR. 2014 marked the 12th season of digging there.

What has been discovered so far, and what is the Biblical significance of this site?

To briefly answer, we’ll look at how Dr. Wood began to be interested in this particular area. The research of Dr. Bryant Wood in identifying this site as the Ai of Joshua 7-8 follows and builds on the pioneering work of his predecessor and the founder of Associates for Biblical Research, Dr. David Livingston. For many years Livingston carried out research and excavations at a site located very near Khirbet Maqatir called Khirbet Nisya. Livingston believed that Khirbet Nisya was the best candidate for the Ai of Joshua 7-8, and William F. Albright believed that et-Tell was Ai. Since that time the academic community has followed Albright’s identification of Ai with et-Tell.

After years of research at et-Tell and Khirbet Nisya, some serious challenges have arisen which argue against these sites can be identified with Joshua’s Ai.[6] The most serious challenge was that et-Tell was not occupied during the Late Bronze I (circa 1483-1400 B.C.) the time of the Israelite conquest.[7] If there was a military engagement as recorded in Joshua 7-8 then the city must have been occupied. Locating a military conquest of a city in ruin, would be impossible, to say the least.

Undeterred, Dr. Wood continued the research and carefully studied the biblical references and geography of the area. He surmised that Joshua’s Ai must fit around 10 archaeological and geographical criteria based on the text. As it turned out, Khirbet el-Maqatir met all 10 requirements in stunning detail. Here are the criteria outlined by Wood from looking at the details in the Biblical text:

1 Adjacent to Beth-aven (Josh 7:2)
2 East of Bethel (Josh 7:2)
3 An ambush site between Bethel and Ai (Josh 8:9,12)
4 A militarily significant hill north of Ai (Josh 8:11)
5 A shallow valley north of Ai (Josh 8:13-14)
6 Smaller than Gibeon (Josh 10:2)
7 In the vicinity of Bethel (Josh 12:9)
8 Occupied at the time of the conquest
9 Fortified at the time of the conquest (Josh 7:5; 8:29)
10 Gate on the north side of the city (Josh 8:11)[8]

In 2009, an infant jar burial was discovered at Khirbet el-Maqatir indicating the presence of women at the site, a minor detail mentioned in Joshua 8:25

As early as the 1830’s it has been known to scholars that on the hill overlooking the ruins of Khirbet Maqatir is a 4th Century Byzantine Monastery and Church.[9] The church was built on the same dimensions as the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.[10] It is thought that the church and monastery were built on that spot to commemorate some significant Biblical event which happened there[11] (perhaps the site where Abraham built his altar, Joshua’s conquest of Ai or both?). The church and monastery have been partially excavated, but as of today, no direct evidence has identified the remains in the church with any biblical place names or events. Who knows what future excavations might reveal?




4th Century Byzantine Church/Monastery, based on archaeology by architectural archaeologist, Dr. Leen Ritmeyer


Ruins of the 4th Century Byzantine Church at Khirbet el-Maqatir

Since the site has been excavated on and off for the past 18 years, archaeological evidence has shown that Khirbet el-Maqatir was indeed a Late Bronze Age Canaanite border fortress which was destroyed by military action at around 1406 B.C. – an exact match for Joshua’s Ai. This conclusion is not because of what the Bible states, but also because this is what the ceramics, and the archaeological data indicate.

The rough outline of the walls of the fortress have been surveyed and small sections have been excavated. Hundreds of pieces of datable [diagnostic] pottery have been recovered from the time of Joshua. The western room of the city gate has also been exposed, and in 2013 the Egyptian scarab with an inscribed Sphinx with the head of a falcon, came to light which provided additional confirmation (apart from the pottery) of the dating of the destruction of the Lat Bronze fortress to 1406 B.C.  – also corroborating a dating point of the early Exodus date of 1446 B.C. which took place approximately 40 years prior.

Ai and the Altar of Abraham

Not only is the site of Khirbet el-Maqatir identified with the Ai of Joshua 7-8, it also has a very rich history which dates back to the Middle Bronze Age based on pottery and a second scarab discovered this year… Khirbet el-Maqatir may very likely be “the hill between Bethel and Ai” (a different Ai – ha’Ai or the “ruin”). This would also be the same place where Abraham built an altar and “…called on the name of the Lord (Gen. 12).” In Genesis 13 it is where Abraham and Lot part ways. Not to be confusing, but the Ai of Abraham and the Ai of Joshua were two different sites. As it turns out, Abraham’s Ai is very likely et-Tell. So this means that the “hill between Bethel and Ai” (Gen. 12-13) must be Khirbet el-Maqatir which was Joshua’s Ai (or the Late Bronze age Canaanite fortress).

Ai: New Testament Ephraim?

If those discoveries were not interesting enough, the site is yielding even more amazing secrets. In the past few years Dr. Scott Stripling (the current Director of Khirbet el-Maqatir and now biblical Shiloh), has been excavating an early Roman Period (Hellenistic) village which would have been in existence in New Testament times. There is a great possibility that the NT village at Khirbet el-Maqatir very well may be the town of Ephraim mentioned in John 11:53-54 (NKJV) “…from that day on, they [the Pharisees] plotted to put Him to death. Therefore Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but when from there into the country near the wilderness to a city called Ephraim, and there remained with His disciples.”

Ai in the Late Hellenistic (Roman) Period 

The site may also have a connection with the Second Jewish Revolt in A.D. 70. Multiple mikvehs (used by the Jews during the Second Temple Period) have been excavated there which we know were extensively used for ritual purity by the Jews at that time. The 2014 excavation season continued on the NT era city where several hundred Roman coins were excavated, including many pieces of Hellenistic pottery and several pieces of Roman glass. A house or domestic space is also being excavated and hopefully future research and excavations will determine its exact usage.

First Century (Late Hellenistic/Early Roman) dwelling located at Khirbet el-Maqatir (2014 season).


[1.] Also called “The city of Palms,” the ancient ruins of Jericho are some of the oldest in the world with strata which date back to the PPN (Pre-Pottery Neolithic).

[2] See his article, ‘Searching for Israelite Origins,’ in Biblical Archaeology Review 14/5: 34-45, 58, 1988.

[3] see, Carl G. Rasmussen, ‘Conquest, Infiltration, Revolt, or Resettlement? What Really Happened During the Exodus-Judges Period?’ in David M. Howard Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti, Editors, Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishers, 2003), pg. 146.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The first part of the name of the site, khirbet – a word which is generally understood as meaning “ruin.” Technically speaking khirbeh (no T) is the word for ruin. Khirbet with the T is always followed by another noun, e.g. Khirbet Khuweilfeh. In Arabic and Hebrew a noun followed by another noun is called the construct form and implies the preposition “of” as falling in between the two, so Khirbet Khuweilfeh means the ruin of Khuweilfeh. With Hebrew (and probably with Arabic) construct forms only acquire an ending T if the word ends with a vowel sound, such as khirbeh where the “h” is not pronounced. Nouns that end with consonants aren’t given a final T when used in the construct form. For example, the plural of khirbeh is khirab (ruins A tell is another type of archaeological site found in Israel. The tell is an artificial mound of dirt & debris that has been accumulating for centuries. Imagine a layer cake and instead of cake there are several ancient cities stacked on top of each other. The khirbeh – (or ruin) on the other hand, doesn’t have the same archaeological profile as a tell. The features of the khirbeh can generally be seen on top of the ground – (for example, walls, gates, and other structures). A very famous khirbeh (or ruin) in Israel is Khirbet Qumran near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The second part of the title – maqatir means “incense” and may have a connection with the Byzantine church & monastery on a hill overlooking the ancient site.

[6] For a more “in depth” treatment of this see, Bryant Wood’s, “The Search for Joshua’s Ai,” in Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray Jr., Editors, Critical Issues in Early Israelite History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 205-40.

[7] Ibid., 205.

[8] Ibid., 230.

[9] Edward Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine and in the Adjacent Regions: A Journal of Travels in the Year 1838 (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1856).

[10] Leen Ritmeyer, “Does the Byzantine Church at Khirbet el-Maqatir Reflect the Sacred Architecture of the Temple in Jerusalem?” Symposium at Houston Baptist University, February, 2013 – Link to Video Lecture 

[11] We find an analogy of this at the ancient Biblical site of Shiloh where a Byzantine church was excavated. In the mosaic floor were words referring to the place as the “village of Shiloh.” Shiloh, of course has great significance Biblically, being the first place that the Israelites came to settle; it served as the first capital for the nation and they divided the land there and built the first tabernacle there (Judges 21:19)