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King David: Fact or Fiction?

5th August 2006

I saw this a couple days ago, but didn’t have time to post: Richard Ostiling of the Associated Press (via PE.com) has a brief report on Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman’s (somewhat) new book, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (Free Press, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com). The news article, “Was King David legend or fiction?” raises a number of questions surrounding Finkelstein and Silberman’s views.

Here are some excerpts:

Some scholars are busily debunking the Bible’s account of the great King David, asking: Was he really all that great? Was he largely legendary, Judaism’s version of Britain’s legendary King Arthur, or totally fictional?

These matters are crucial not only for Jews but for Christians, since Jesus’ biblical identity as the messiah stems from David’s family line.

Though some scholars claimed David never existed, in 1993 archaeologists discovered a stone inscription from 835 B.C. that mentions “the house of David.” The authors say that established the existence of a dynastic founder named David and that shortly after his 10th-century era a line of kings “traced their legitimacy back to David.”

However, Finkelstein considers the Bible seriously distorted propaganda. He treats David as a minor bandit chieftain and Jerusalem as a hamlet, not an imperial capital. Supposedly, biblical authors concocted the grander David centuries afterward.

Finkelstein notes that archaeologists haven’t found monumental buildings from David’s era in Jerusalem. He dismisses links of David and Solomon with buildings unearthed at biblical Megiddo and Hazor. Ordinary readers might not grasp that this depends upon a disputed “low chronology” which would shift dates a century, just after these kings.

In the July-August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Michael Coogan of Stonehill College, editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, contends that Finkelstein and Silberman “move from the hypothetical to the improbable to the absurd.”

Finkelstein’s revised chronology is “not accepted by the majority of archaeologists and biblical scholars,” Coogan asserts, citing four scholarly anthologies from the past three years.

Coogan also thinks “David and Solomon” downplays the significance of the Amarna tablets, which include correspondence to Egypt’s pharaoh from a 14th-century Jerusalem king. Even if archaeological remains at Jerusalem are lacking, he writes, the tablets indicate that long before David, Jerusalem was the region’s chief city-state, with a court and sophisticated scribes.

Discovery of ancient remains in Jerusalem is problematic, due to the repeated reconstruction throughout the centuries and the modern inaccessibility of many sites.

Nonetheless, perhaps David’s palace has been found. So claims Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar. Finkelstein denies this, claiming Mazar inaccurately dated pottery from the site.

“Here, for the time being, matters rest,” summarizes Hillel Halkin in the July-August Commentary magazine.

I tend to agree more with Coogan than with Finkelstein and Silberman, though I wouldn’t go as far to say the biblical account has no embellishments since I also think that all historiography has fictive elements. One of the more significant points the article raises, IMHO, is the fact that archaeological excavation of Jerusalem is problematic for so many reasons. That is why digs such as Mazar‘s are so important.


4 Responses to “King David: Fact or Fiction?”

  1. Michael Says:

    What you forget to say is that Finkelstein is an Israeli belonging to the Israeli left whose only goal is to diminish as much as possible Israel’s claims on the land of Israel! His claims on David are just that, another ploy of the Israeli left to diminish the strength of the Israelis’ claims on the land of Israel.

    There are enough valid proofs of the existence of David.

    For your information, the Christians are on a quest to assess if the historical Jesus really existed!

    With millennia separating the time these people lived, it is probably extremely hard to assess rationally the truth of what their lives were and if they existed.

    But in the case of David at least, there are proofs. In the case of Jesus, there no valid proofs at all except the stories written in the New Testament! These stories of the New Testament could all have been made up!!

  2. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    While I agree with you that there is some good evidence for the existene of a King David, I’m not so sure that I would write off Finkelstein too quickly. He is a noted archaeologist and rather than use arguments based on his politics or other hidden motivations, I would think you would need to deal with his interpretation of the evidence.

    In regards to Jesus, I’m not sure that anyone really doubts his historical existence (there are extra biblical references to Jesus, such as the Roman historian Tacitus or Pliny the Younger, etc.). What is the issue with Jesus is whether he is who the early church and the New Testament says he is, i.e., the crucified and risen messiah. That, IMHO is a matter of faith.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Ken Says:

    One hardly needs the Amarna tablets to prove Jerusalem was a major center… the MB walls around the Gihon found by Reich/Shukron take care of that… not to mention the earlier finds by Shiloh. But then that’s not really the issue… the issue is that there is next to no tenth century at Jerusalem… Coogan’s logic that if Jerusalem is important in the Bronze Age, it’s probably important in the Iron I/IIA leaves something to be desired… there are lots of cities that come and go from the regional scene as Jerusalem appears to have done.

    Incidentally, the radiocarbon results from the Dor excavations support Finkelstein’s lower chronology. Coogan can claim that the majority don’t support Finkelstein only because the majority of biblical scholars are attached to North American bible colleges and seminaries with more than a slight vested interest in the chronology. Critical archaeologists and scholars remain divided, I think, just like the data itself. This is not to say I hold a position one way or the other… for my part, I think more work is needed… the chronology issue is far from resolved and the debate should remain vigorous.

  4. Darren Thompson Says:

    I have written a book on biblical history that you may be interested in. The name of the book is “The Fourth Day: Why the Bible is Historically Accurate”. Presently, biblical history uses the events of the Bible and the theories of secular historians to develop the biblical timeline. I take a unique approach in my book by using only information from the Bible to develop the biblical timeline. By doing this I have uncovered several historical questions. Did the Persian Empire only last 21 years or over 200 years? Is there a 300 year period in Egypt’s history, shortly after the Biblical exodus, in which Egypt did not have a Pharaoh? Was Ahasuerus of the book of Esther, claimed by experts to be Xerxes, actually Cyrus? My book can be viewed on lulu.com at the following address: http://www.lulu.com/dmthompson

    Thanks,

    Darren Thompson