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.