Historical David

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This page is part of the Jesus Database project, and forms part of the material relating to 007 Of Davids Lineage.


This note presents excerpts from, and summaries of, the work of some of the leading researchers into ancient Israel and the historical character of the Bible. It will also draw on a more general paper concerning the quest for the historical Israel that was originally prepared for the Spring 2001 Westar Institute meeting.

For those wishing to read into these matters in more detail, the following resources are recommended:

  • Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed. Ch 5: Memories of a Golden Age? (Pages 123-145)
  • Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past. Ch 9: Historians Create History (Pages 200-210)
  • Gregory C. Jenks, The Once and Future Bible. Ch 4: The Biblical World (Pages 53-67)


The figure of David looms large over biblical and world history. His legacy is still invoked in support of exclusive territorial claims on Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. "Son of David" was one of the most evocative of the titles ascribed to Jesus by his earliest followers (see 007 Of Davids Lineage) and modern Christian Zionists make their own peculiar mix of political and religious meaning from these traditions.

Finkelsten and Silberman, two leading Israeli archaeologists, begin their chapter on the biblical David in these terms:

In the Temple and royal palace of Jerusalem, biblical Israel found its permanent spiritual focus after centuries of struggle and wandering. As the books of Samuel narrate, the anointing of David, son of Jesse, as king over all the tribes of Israel finalized the process that had begun with God’s original promise to Abraham so many centuries before. The violent chaos of the period of the judges now gave way to a time in which God’s promises could be established

securely under a righteous king. Though the first choice for the throne of Israel had been the brooding, handsome Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, it was his successor David who became the central figure in early Israelite history. Of the fabled King David, songs and stories were nearly without number. They told of his slaying the mighty Goliath with a single

sling stone; of his adoption into the royal court for his skill as a harpist; of his adventures as a rebel and freebooter; of his lustful pursuit of Bathsheba; and of his conquests of Jerusalem and a vast empire beyond. His son Solomon, in turn, is remembered as the wisest of kings and the greatest of builders. Stories tell of his brilliant judgments, his unimaginable wealth, and his construction of the great Temple in Jerusalem.

While the stories about David and Solomon were once seen as the first historically secure segments of the biblical narrative, that is no longer the case. In "Back to the Beginning," I outlined the shifts as follows:

While many scholars have consigned the exodus traditions to the category of legend, there continues to be active debate over the origins of Israel within ancient Palestine. In one sense, we are on firmer ground here. After all, no one doubts that there was at some stage a distinct entity called "Israel" and another known as "Judah," even if the extent of their influence has been exaggerated in the biblical accounts.


Current research tends to assume that Israel’s origins are primarily to be explained within the social history of Palestine, with continuing debate over the possibility that some external groups (perhaps with links to an Egyptian exodus tradition) may have played a part. In any case, theories of a "conquest" by Israelite insurgents have been mostly abandoned due to the lack of archaeological evidence for the destruction levels such activity would have left. The debate that continues is between various models of settlement (with some residual non-indigenous element) and internal social change (without any recourse to elements from outside of Palestine).

The critical data for research into these questions is proving to come from the extensive surface surveys undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the last few decades. While these surveys have shown that there was a significant increase in the number of unwalled settlements in the highlands of northern Palestine, the problem now is that there is no evidence of a new population involved in these new villages. As Finkelstein himself notes, "the main obstacle … is how to identify an Iron I site as an early occupation of Israelites." The material remains now being identified by Israeli and Western archaeologists suggest that Israel’s origins in Palestine are entirely indigenous.

Given the past and present significance of the biblical traditions about Israel’s occupation and control of the land, it is noteworthy that the respective religious communities have paid so little attention to the current state of the debate. No one, it seems, wants to hear that the people of Israel were indigenous to Palestine; that there was no conquest; that there was no immigration from some place else; that there were no divine commands to exterminate the indigenous population in favor of "Israel." Strangely there is almost no awareness of this among the wider public despite the significance of the continuing conflict in Israel/Palestine.

If debates over the exodus and conquest tradition arouse the passions of scholars and other interested parties, a new argument is now under way. It concerns the historicity of the David and Jerusalem traditions, including the Solomonic golden age. Here the dispute between "maximalists" such as Dever and McCarter and "minimalists" such as Thompson and Davies (to name just two of the protagonists for each side) has spilled over into public view. Not surprisingly, the pages of Biblical Archaeology Review have given large amounts of space to this argument.

Again the absence of archaeological remains has proved to be a significant factor in the new skepticism about the biblical narrative. In addition, surface surveys which have proved so fruitful in establishing the number and character of new settlements in the northern highlands of Palestine have shown that southern highlands ("Judah") simply did not have sufficient population for an empire such as that attributed to David and Solomon. Niels Lemche sums up the situation as follows:

... from the material remains there is absolutely no reason to assume the presence in southern Palestine of anything like a state ruling a comprehensive territory and with a common and exclusive ethnic background, not to say identity and conscience.
The jury is still out in this case. However, it seems likely that the royal city states of Samaria and Jerusalem were rather smaller than the Bible depicts. If anything, Samaria seems to have been far more successful and significant than its southern neighbor, even if the Bible itself is the product of a southern circle that would have us think otherwise. For my purposes here, it is sufficient to note the gap between present scholarship and the reception of that knowledge by the public.

Finkelstein and Silberman describe the present situation as follows:

Yet many of the archaeological props that once bolstered the historical basis of the David and Solomon narratives have recently been called into question. The actual extent of the Davidic "empire" is hotly debated. Digging in Jerusalem has failed to produce evidence that it was a great city in David or Solomon’s time. And the monuments ascribed to Solomon are now most plausibly connected with other kings. Thus a reconsideration of the evidence has enormous implications. For if there were no patriarchs, no Exodus, no conquest of Canaan and no prosperous united monarchy under David and Solomon can we say that early biblical Israel, as described in the Five Books of Moses and the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, ever existed at all?

One of the storm centers in this research is the question of whether David and Solomon ever existed.

Finkelstein and Silberman acknowledge the shock value of such a question:

This question, put so baldly, may sound intentionally provocative. David and Solomon are such central religious icons to both Judaism and Christianity that the recent assertions of radical biblical critics that King David is "no more a historical figure than King Arthur," have been greeted in many religious and scholarly circles with outrage and disdain. Biblical historians such as Thomas Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Copenhagen and Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield, dubbed "biblical minimalists" by their detractors, have argued that David and Solomon, the united monarchy of Israel, and indeed the entire biblical description of the history of Israel are no more than elaborate, skillful ideological constructs produced by priestly circles in Jerusalem in post exilic or even Hellenistic times.

For some, including Finkelstein and Silberman, that basic historical question has been answered in the affirmative by the discovery (in 1993) of a fragmentary inscription that refers to the "House of David" and seems to confirm that Jerusalem was associated the dynasty of David from very early times:

Written in Aramaic, the language of the Aramean kingdoms of Syria,

it related the details of an invasion of Israel by an Aramean king whose name is not mentioned on the fragments that have so far been discovered. But there is hardly a question that it tells the story of the assault of Hazael, king of Damascus, on the northern kingdom of Israel around 835 BCE. This war took place in the era when Israel and Judah were separate kingdoms, and the outcome was a bitter defeat for both. The most important part of the inscription is Hazael'™s boasting description of his enemies:

[I killed Jeho]ram son of [Ahab] king of Israel, and [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin]g of the House of David. And I set [their towns into ruins and turned] their land into [desolation].

This is dramatic evidence of the fame of the Davidic dynasty less than a hundred years after the reign of David’s son Solomon. The fact that Judah (or perhaps its capital, Jerusalem) is referred to with only a mention of its ruling house is clear evidence that the reputation of David was not a literary invention of a much later period.

Furthermore, the French scholar André Lemaire has recently suggested that a similar reference to the house of David can be found on the famous inscription of Mesha, king of Moab in the ninth century BCE, which was found in the nineteenth century east of the Dead Sea. Thus, the house of David was known throughout the region; this clearly validates the biblical description of a figure named David becoming the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem.

The question we must therefore face is no longer one of David and Solomon's mere existence. We must now see if the Bible's sweeping description of David's great military victories and of Solomon's great building projects is consistent with the archaeological evidence.

Thomas L. Thompson remains unconvinced by this happy interpretation of the Tel Dan stele, as this excerpt demonstrates:

In the summer of 1993, a

fragment of a stele with an inscription was found at the site of Tel Dan in northern Palestine. Among other things, the text referred to a "€˜king of Israel"€™. It also bore the letters "€˜. . . k bytdnxi"€™. This was quickly read as melek byt.dwd and translated "€˜[Kin]g of the House of David"€™.
It was interpreted in the sense of "€˜king of the dynasty of David". The inscription was dated to the early ninth century BCE. It was thought to recount a battle that was described in I Kings 15: 16 20, an "€˜event" dated to the year 883 BCE. Not only was this new inscription the earliest known reference to a king of Israel, however unnamed, it was also claimed to provide conclusive evidence that the biblical David had once existed and had been the founder of the ruling monarchy of Judah in Jerusalem. Scholarly journals as well as popular newspapers and magazines celebrated this discovery with great enthusiasm.

However, there were problems with the discovery with the reading of the text, its dating and interpretation and these problems have not yet been resolved. The difficulties were obvious to many as soon as a good photograph of the text was published. Some were typical of most new finds, especially those that are met with great fanfare and enthusiasm. Inconsistent descriptions appeared of how and where the text had been found, whereas to some the dating of the archaeological context seemed optimistically early; others suggested that the form of writing should be dated a century or more later than had originally been proposed, perhaps even to the late eighth or early seventh century. To read ... k as mik = "€˜king" was just guesswork, of course. Nothing in the inscription itself required that the word or name bytdwd be directly linked to Jerusalem and to Judah. It might well refer to a place much closer to Tel Dan.

As in many place names, the first part of this name, byt, can be translated as "€˜House"€™, and reflects the patronate that rules the town. Also commonly especially when byt has been joined to the name or epithet of a god or goddess it can be translated "€˜temple"€™. This is found among place names in Palestine such as Bethel ("€˜The Temple of El"€™) and beyt dagon ("€˜the temple of Dagon"€™) of the Samson story.

The second part of the name in the Tel Dan inscription is dwd. This is certainly the way the name of the biblical hero David would be spelled in early Hebrew writing. However, ‘David’ is very unusual as a name. It is used as a personal name in the Bible only for our particular hero. It also occurs as the epithet for a deity (dwd/dwdh) in at least one other eighth-century inscription, the famous Mesha Stele from Transjordan. Dwd is not the name of a god, but it could be a divine title and be translated "€˜the Beloved"€™, which has echoes in many biblical metaphors. In the Mesha Stele, it seems to be used as a divine title for Yahweh, the ancient deity of Palestine and the name of God in the Bible. This has led some to suggest that the name bytdmd of Tel Dan's inscription possibly referred to a place called "Temple of Dwd", which might have been located somewhere near Tel Dan in northern Palestine. If we were to understand it in the sense of the "€˜dynasty of dn’d", the inscription would give evidence of a "€˜House of David"€™ that existed at the time of the inscription. It tells us nothing, as such, of a person David as the founder of that patronate in an earlier period.

However, even this gloss reads the text too much in the light of popular ideas about the Bible. When we look at the way the words "House of David"€™ are actually used in the Bible, understanding it as a reference to an historical David becomes very difficult. The Bible does not use the term "€˜House of David"€™, in the way the British use a similar term, "€˜The House of Stuart"—that is, with the specific meaning of "€˜dynasty". In the Bible, the terms "€˜House of Saul"€™ and "€˜House of David"€™, are often used to refer to the patronage of the hero himself while he is still alive (e.g., I Sam. 24 26). Moreover, we also find such terms as the "€˜House of Jonathan"€™, though we have no story of Jonathan as the head of any state. The term "€˜House of David" in the Bible captures the narrative metaphor of patronage. It refers to all who belong to such and such a leader: what in Corsica and Sicily until modern times was spoken of as "€˜the family"€™ and in ancient Israel as byt ‘b ("patronate"€™, literally: "€˜father's house"€™). This fictive language of family—"€˜brother"€™, "€˜son"€™, "father"€™, "servant"€™, "cousin"€™, etc.—€”uses terms borrowed from language reflecting personal commitment and trust. It is used to express various forms of commitment, agreement and allegiance. In this way, for instance, David is referred to in the biblical story as the "€˜son"€™ of Saul, and as the "€˜brother" of Jonathan. Saul is described as David'€™s "€˜father"€™. In the Bible's stories about the United Monarchy, the "House of David" and the "€˜House [that is, "Temple"€™] of Yahweh"€™ are very closely linked. The real head and founder of the "€˜House of David"€™, in fact, is Yahweh. The "€˜House of David"€™ that is eternal is no dynasty of a person called David, but rather the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem. That is, byt.dzvd: the "€˜Temple of the beloved". David is an eponymous hero. In the origin story of the temple’s founding, the role of David gives expression to the confidence, and to the hopes and promises, that the people of a much later Jerusalem attached to their temple.

As further fragments of the inscription or of related inscriptions were published, confirmation of the original reading has become even more elusive. While I have become convinced that the published fragments in fact belong not to one but to two different, related inscriptions, other scholars have found indications that have led them to argue that the inscriptions are forgeries. At present this issue is unresolved

and awaits an investigation of the Israel Department of Antiquities.

Despite their starkly different assessments of the Tel Dan inscription, Finkelstein/Silberman and Thompson agree on the findings from extensive archaeological surveys undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s:

(1) There are no remains in Jerusalem that can be dated to the time of David and Solomon; and,
(2) The demographics of Judah were so poor as to exclude the possibility of either of these figures being major empire builders.

Jerusalem has

been excavated time and again and with a particularly intense period of investigation of Bronze and Iron Age remains in the 1970s and 1980s under the direction of Yigal Shiloh, of the Hebrew University, at the city of David, the original urban core of Jerusalem. Surprisingly, as Tel Aviv University archaeologist David Ussishkin pointed out, fieldwork there and in other parts of biblical Jerusalem failed to provide significant evidence for a tenth century occupation. Not only was any sign of monumental architecture missing, but so were even simple pottery sherds. The types that are so characteristic of the tenth century at other sites are rare in Jerusalem. Some scholars have argued that later, massive building activities in Jerusalem wiped out all signs of the earlier city. Yet excavations in the city of David revealed impressive finds from the Middle Bronze Age and from later centuries of the Iron Age just not from the tenth century BCE. The most optimistic assessment of this negative evidence is that tenth century Jerusalem was rather limited in extent, perhaps not more than a typical hill country village. [Finkelstein

and Silberman, 133]

Finkelstein and Silberman continue to make their point absolutely clear:

The material culture of the highlands in the time of David remained simple. The land was overwhelmingly rural—with no trace of written documents, inscriptions, or even signs of the kind of widespread literacy that would be necessary for the functioning of a proper monarchy. From a demographic point of view, the area of the Israelite settlement was hardly homogeneous. It is hard to see any evidence of a unified culture or centrally administered state. The area from Jerusalem to the north was quite densely settled, while the area from Jerusalem to the south—the hub of the future kingdom of Judah—was still very sparsely settled. Jerusalem itself was, at best, no more than a typical highland village. We can say no more than that.


The population estimates for the later phases of the Israelite settlement period apply also to the tenth century BCE. They give an idea of the scale of historical possibilities. Out of a total of approximately forty five thousand people living in the hill country, a full 90 percent would have inhabited the villages of the north. That would have left about five thousand people scattered among Jerusalem, Hebron, and about twenty small villages in Judah, with additional groups probably continuing as pastoralists. Such a small and isolated society like this would have been likely to cherish the memory of an extraordinary leader like David as his descendants continued to rule in Jerusalem over the next four hundred years. At first, in the tenth century, their rule extended over no empire, no palatial cities, no spectacular capital. Archeologically we can say no more about David and Solomon except that they existed—and that their legend endured.

[Finkelstein and Silberman, 142f]

If the glorious tales of David's achievements are not memories of past events, then what kind of material are we dealing with when we read these texts in worship? Here the views of Finkelstein/Silberman and Thompson again seem to converge:

In late monarchic times, an elaborate theology had been developed in Judah and Jerusalem to validate the connection between the heir of David and the destiny of the entire people of Israel. According to the Deuteronomistic History, the pious David was the first to stop the cycle of idolatry (by the people of Israel) and divine retribution (by YHWH). Thanks to his devotion, faithfulness, and righteousness, YHWH helped him to complete the unfinished job of Joshua namely to conquer the rest of the promised land and establish a glorious empire over all the vast territories that had been promised to Abraham. These were theological hopes, not accurate historical portraits. They were a central element in a powerful seventh century vision of national renaissance that sought to bring scattered, war-weary people together, to prove to them that they had experienced a stirring history under the direct intervention of God. The glorious epic of the united monarchy was—like the stories of the patriarchs and the sagas of the Exodus and conquest—a brilliant composition that wove together ancient heroic tales and legends into a coherent and persuasive prophecy for the people of Israel in the seventh century BCE. [Finkelstein

and Silberman, 144]

Thompson offers this thoughtful assessment of the value of Scriptures as theology rather than as history:

We have in the Bible some of the most beautiful poetry: pious, lyrical and erotic, and also some of the angriest. We have narratives of epic proportions, aetiologies and folktales that are at times stunningly profound and evocative, romances and adventure stories, some of them are ideologically tendentious or moralistic. There is patent racism and sexism, and some of the world’s earliest condemnations of each. One of the things the Bible almost never is, however, is intentionally historical: that is an interest of ours that it rarely shares. Here and there, the Bible uses data gleaned from ancient texts or records. It often refers to great figures and events of the past ... at least as they are known to popular tradition. But it cites such "€˜historical facts"€™ only where they may serve as grist for one of its various literary mills. The Bible knows nothing or nearly nothing of most of the great, transforming events of Palestine'€™s history. Of historical causes, it knows only one: Palestine’s ancient deity Yahweh. It knows nearly nothing of the great droughts that changed the course of Palestine's world for centuries, and it is equally ignorant of the region'€™s great historical battles at Megiddo, Kadesh and Lachish. The Bible tells us nothing directly of four hundred years of Egyptian presence. Nor can it take on the role of teaching us anything about the wasteful competition for the Jezreel in the early Iron Age, or about the forced sedentarization of nomads along Palestine's southern flank.

The reason for this is simple. The Bible's language is not an historical language. It is a language of high literature, of story, of sermon and of song. It is a tool of philosophy and moral instruction. To argue that the Bible has it wrong is like alleging that Herman Melville has got his whale wrong! Literarily, one might quibble about whether Jonah has it right with his big fish, but not because the story could or could not have happened. On the story'€™s own terms, the rescue of Jonah is but a journeyman'€™s device as far as plot resolutions go. But no false note is sounded in Jonah's figtree, in Yahweh'€™s speech from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, or in Isaiah 40's

song of comfort. [MythicPast Page 98f]