January 31, 2010

The Historicity of King David's rise

The earliest parts of the Old Testament have always intrigued me as a historian. Obviously they have a religious meaning as well- which I will not discuss today. As a historian though, these texts are amongst the few that have survived from the era they document- the Iron Age- consequently when we read them, we are delving into a past that is almost completely lost apart from these texts. That of course brings with it another issue though: whether the texts can be relied upon. When I look at the reign of Oliver Cromwell in England, there are thousands of texts which attest to his Protectorate: all of which were written exactly at the time that Cromwell reigned. When I look at the world of David in Isreal, the issue is more complicated- as I will explain below there is evidence that the Book of Kings was not written at the time of David and furthermore the question of which parts of Kings actually reflect a real 'David' is a difficult one. Kings and Samuel contradict themselves as well: in the Bible it is notable that Goliath has two killers- in Samuel 21:19 the killer of Goliath is named not as David but as Elhanan. So we have a problem with these texts- even though they promise much about the world of David- can they fulfill what they promise.

What I am going to do in this essay is sumarise the views of two Israeli archaeologists, whose book I have just read, then enumerate by own criticisms of it. This is a field in which I am totally inexpert- so I ask for your charity in responding to mistakes I might make and also in the fact that I am sure there are criticisms that I will miss. I think though what they say is interesting.

So let's begin. Firstly there is good evidence that a 'David' did exist. In Dan, in northern Isreal, archaeologists found a stone which dates to the late ninth century (about 100 years after David probably lived based on Biblical geneaologies). The stone was carved by King Hazael, ruler of Damascus, and he writes amongst other things

And Hadad went in front of me, I departed from seven... s of my kingdom and I slew [seve]nty kin[gs] who harnassed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen. [I killed Jeho]ram son of Ahab, King of Isreal and [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin]g of the House of David.

This is the earliest document which confirms that anything in the Bible is 'true'. It provides reasonable proof that in the 9th Century BC people in Judah (the southern Kingdom of the Jews) were claiming that a David had led them in the tenth century: given that they were unlikely to claim this one hundred years after David was alive, if it was a lie, it seems to be a sensible inference to regard the existance of David as established. David was, as the Bible said, a king or chieftan who ruled in Judah and left a line of Kings who survived into the ninth century- one of whom was defeated by Hazael.

If so, what kind of world did David live in? Here the Bible does and can help us- allied with archaeology. According to Finklestein and Silberman there are two major constructions around Jerusalem, David's capital, in the iron age. One of those constructions dates back hundreds of years before David was alive, in the Biblical chronology, the other dates to the reign of David's heirs- particularly in the seventh and eighth centuries BC. If you look into your Bible though what you do find is that David spent a significant period of his career in Kings as a bandit- fighting sometimes with and sometimes against the armies of the Northern Kingdom of Isreal and sometimes with and sometimes against the armies of the Palestinians in Gath (significantly a city which faded from power after the 10th century). Given the topography of Judah at the time- a wild mountainous region with a few villages, both Finklestein and Silberman think that this is realistic. Evidence from the Amarna archives in Egypt, a couple of hundred years before David's life, confirms the pattern of politics in that region as being one where coastal and plain cities resisted the forces of the Apiru (largely landless and formerly servile rebels) living in the mountains. Jerusalem does seem to have been a centre for these people- and the account of David's rise to power therefore makes sense as an account of something that may have been in the origins historic.

Probably though it is not totally historical. We can see this if we turn to the account of Saul. Saul is mentioned in the Bible only in connection with northern sites within the highlands and the archaeological record suggests that those sites were more sophisticated than the southern sites that David inhabited. There were greater populations present. There was also a catastrophe during the 10th Century BC that we might conceivably link to the defeat and suicide of Saul at his battle with the Palestinians. Whatever we think of Saul and David, the archaeological evidence does not suggest a unified vast Kingdom stretching over both the north and the south: David may have defeated Saul and destroyed his power but he probably did not rule far to the north of Jerusalem. What we have, according to Finklestein and Silberman is the interweaving of two sets of folktales- one Northern about Saul and the other Southern about David (one from Isreal, the other from Judah) in a composite account that was written probably in the eighth century.

Its a fascinating account, and does make sense of the things that Silberman and Finklestein mention. I am sure there are other accounts though using the same evidence. And this is the major problem with looking so far back, anything we say is an induction that is supported by very little evidence. The likelihood is that there probably was a real David- if we accept the Dan inscription- the likelihood is that if so based on the archaeological evidence that the parts of the Bible concerning David's rise are the most accurate, but these are guesses and it is worth stating that these are guesses. It is unlikely that we can ever verify specifics in the Bible story: though lots of the lists of towns in the earliest parts of the Davidic rise make sense in a tenth century context (this is not true for the reigns of David or Solomon) as do incidents like David allying with Gath. Silbermann and Finklestein's book does move on to other parts of the David story which are fascinating- the weakness of their book is that they move further on to the perlocutions of the David story. They could have used that space to say more about David and Solomon and their connections to the archaeology- as a historian that fascinates me because as I said, irrespective of what you think about the religious context of these men, these stories are some of the earliest texts we have, talking about our ancestors (in the broadest sense) before they fade away into the mass of unwritten time.


Rumbold said...

Fascinating. Thanks.

Claudia said...

Amazing! I never doubted the Historicity of King David. Not an act of faith. His name was in the General Timetable of History. I figured it had been proven that he existed, specially after the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele. I guess it's still uncertain. Eric Cline has also written an interesting book on Biblical Archeology. He had mentioned Israel Finkelstein.

I'm very frustrated by the lack of clear details in the Bible. I have to remember that it wasn't written by historians! We don't even know who wrote 1 and 2 Kings. I'm looking forward to your next posts on the subject. Thank you very much.

edmund said...


Two very superficial points.

a) i'm dubious about using archeological evience to decide where the poltical centers of authority were located or included in an age.One could well imagine some long fture historians rejecing the idea US power was Based in the tiny town of Washington rather than the enomrous one of Philaedpohia as early as 1795 ( "washington was the preisdent of a republic they woudn have named the capital after him while he was president!" or that the center of royal power in England in 1600 was Westminster rather htan the much vaster London etc etc;.ON a slightly linked piotn

b) i think it's often easy to read large parts of the old testatment as too much like a news anayliss or a modern polticial history ( to be rather hyterbolic!) it very rarely says it's about the most powerfull or important. ANd it's definitons of Isreal are often in very religou terms- ie what YHWH is sene to care about defines certian realities not who had the most men, poulariyt etc ( a piont often made rather explicty , Elijah is presented as the prophet of Isreal and expclity stated to be rather marginal politicaly and demographicaly at various points-one should not assume that this is always pointed out )

c) A somewhat linked point i'd love to know if's addressedi n book . How confidant can one be that abscence of evidence is evide3nce of abscence in archeology. Ie how much can the lack of evidnce of a city or a town or a fortificaiton or pictures be evidence of . Now in a strict sense this is probabgy unanswerable but are there even some well informed specualtion-. Theoeis based on evidence of abscence i always find worrying when they seem to cruble quyite often very suddenly-e.g this David case you give. Obviously i'm sure there are some things which can be cleary said to not be the case- but how clear is the borderline?

d) i agree it's reasonable evidence but it'sn ot absurd that the house of "David" might not be the house of some particular ruler but a generic name no? -at least if scepticism was assumed or even just on the basis of the archeology taken by itself wihtout literature.

Gracchi said...

Edmund- great points- I'll answer them using your notation.

a. Yes agreed. One of the points of the book is that political power was centralised in Jerusalem probably but that Jerusalem was a village rather than the impressive centre portrayed in the Bible. The domain of David was not that large and was surrounded by shepherds. They argue that in the archeological evidence any large kingdom would have to be based in Northern Isreal and there is actually historical evidence of such a Kingdom- the Omride Kingdom- upon which the accounts may be based.

b. Well the Old Testament is a collection of documents. I'd agree that the importance of why each document is selected in the Old Testament and the New is theological rather than historical. If you want to find out about what actually happened you have to bear that in mind. However the texts selected might have a historical echo in them- this is the case they believe with the stories of David. In a sense we are never going to get better evidence so we have to rely on it despite its imperfections. You can say the same about the gospels- they were written for theological not historical reasons and selected for the same.

c. They do address the evidence of absense issue- but not on that theoretical level and I agree its a fascinating question. The way that they address it is by pointing out that in Jerusalem we have evidence of a major settlement about 2000-1500BC and evidence of a major settlement in the 700s BC. Given that evidence survived from both before and after they argue that it would have from the Davidic dates in between. I agree that's not entirely satisfactory- but I suppose ultimately as in history when there isn't a document recording something you are left saying that probably x didn't happen.

d. Yes I suppose that could be true. I'm not sure about the etymology of David as a name in these languages which would suggest it was. I think its not a mythical ruler though- so either it is a generic name or means there may have been a historical David. Its important in that context that its not used by Jews but by a foreign ruler- Hazael- in his language.

Thanks for some great points.

edmund said...

I think i failled to explain my piont b) correcly my point is that becaue of the theological priority (i'd say theollgical rather than political rather than theological rather than historical) they don't necessarily7 regard the more powerfull areas geopolicaly as central theologically.- so the "true king" of isreal might have less power in temporal terms than the false one etc etc - i think this poses problmes for finding mistakes etc in lots of it. Ie it's very easy to read it as if it's a descript of "power rleations in the nineth century" but it's not- even were it 100% acdurate in every jot and ocmma that would still not be it's aim.

and on a) my point was that in such circumstances political authority could be centered distant even very distant from the demographicaly most concentrated areas as in my areas.

thanks for your respoonses.

Thanks for the reply

Forge Lindin said...

Hi there,

If you are using a modern translation of the bible, your reference to Samuel 21:19, which i take to be 2 Samuel 21:19, would read as follows:


Please note the footnotes there, in particular note b.
The statement that Elhannan killed Lahmi does not contradict the statement that David killed Goliath, in

1 Samuel 17:50


A theory for why these issues arise in this verse is given here:


Gracchi said...

I can see your view of the copyist's error but it strikes me that you start from the presumption that David must have killed Goliath and then infer copyist's errors.

Its not implausible. Lets start though from what we know, David and Elhanan are both mentioned as the killer of Goliath in the Bible. You can proceed from that to a number of different theories- that the texts refer to different incidents and different Goliaths, that two stories overlap each other, that there was a copyist's error, that David was called Elhanan, that one analyst wished to boost David and another Elhanan- etc etc- but we cannot know which of those interpretations is true.

Yours is a possible one- but it is only true if you start from the position that the text must say that David killed Goliath. That is not something we know. We have to start from what we know- that the bible says two people, David and Elhanan killed Goliath.