Will the Real King David Stand Up!

The most recent volume of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly has an interesting article by David Bosworth entitled, “Evaluating King David: Old Problems and Recent Scholarship” (CBQ 68 [2006] 191-210). Bosworth examines a number of recent academic biographies of the biblical figure of David and argues that these recent portrayals say more about the modern authors and their methods than the ancient monarch. The monographs that he engages are:

I think that Bosworth makes a number of valid points. Halpern and McKenzie both present a picture of David as a villain by reading between the lines of the text and favouring a propagandistic interpretation. With this approach David becomes a murderous usurper. Steussy’s approach is a bit more balanced, according to Bosworth. Unlike Halpern and McKenzie, she has no interest in uncovering the “real” David, but instead explores the portraits of David throughout the Scriptures — including the book of Psalms. The edited work by Desrousseaux and Vermeylen includes essays that — like Halpern and McKenzie — take a propagandistic reading, while Dietrich’s sophisticated reading is more akin to that of Steussy.

I personally find elements of a propagandistic reading plausible, but I appreciate Bosworth’s point that leaders are often accused of more crimes than they actually commit! Moreover, Bosworth points out the problems with equating apology with indictment and indictment with history — politics of any age are never so simple!

After evaluating modern critics, Bosworth investigates David among his ancient contemporaries. As it turns out, David’s biblical portrait, while similar to ANE royal account, is more complex. As Bosworth concludes, “the text is not as simple as ‘royal propaganda.’ It shows an awareness of the problems involved in evaluating great figures who succeed in establishing positive institutions at the expense of usurping prior institutions” (p. 209).

All in all, Bosworth’s article is worth taking a gander at — as are the books noted above. Of course, when all is said and done, perhaps the “Biblical David” is the only David we can ever recover.

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