Dr. Eugene Merrill, distinguished professor of Old Testament Studies, shares his thoughts on the 2011 Dig Season at Kh. el-Maqatir (Ai), Israel. Dr. Merrill was part of the dig staff as square supervisor in search of Ai.
Among the most significant sites of Old Testament times, Ai has yet to be identified with certainty. Its importance lies in its being the second place attacked by Israel under Joshua (Josh 7-8) and the first place to defeat Israel in battle (Josh 7:1-5). The Bible too suggests that it was a military stronghold that must be defeated if the Israelites were to be able to penetrate the highlands.
In addition, the narrative makes clear that Ai’s destruction was part of the general conquest of Canaan, 40 years after the exodus. Inasmuch as the historicity and date of both the exodus and the conquest are in question among critical scholars, the recovery and dating of the site are vital in addressing that debate. The ‘early’ (biblical) date is ca. 1400 BC in the Late Bronze Age whereas the ‘late’ daters prefer a time around 1200 (Iron Age I), if, indeed, they believe a conquest occurred at all.
Since 1995 the Associates for Biblical Research, an evangelical archaeological ministry, has been at work on the project. Overwhelmingly, the pottery finds have been Late Bronze (LB), thus supporting the early date. In addition, pottery and other artifacts have been found dating all the way from the Early Bronze (3000-2000 BC) to the Byzantine period (ca. AD 500). My square this summer did not yield evidence of LB but we did find a first century AD Roman ‘villa’ or some other large private residence. Among the finds was a Roman coin with a Latin inscription and bearing the likeness of Festus, the Roman governor about AD 58-60. Paul appeared in a trial before him (Acts 25:1); thus, we did not find Ai this summer but we found to our surprise support for the historicity of a New Testament official.