Our next bioarchaeography is about one of the most fiercely-debated figures in the Old Testament.
Some scholars believe King David was more myth than man who, if he existed, was nothing more than a tribal chief, and certainly not the historical king of a dynasty in Israel. For example, University of Sheffield Professor, Dr. Philip R. Davies, has stated, “I’m not the only scholar who suspects that the figure of King David is about as historical as King Arthur.”1 Archaeologist, Israel Finkelstien has been quoted as saying, “The united kingdom of David and Solomon, described in the Bible as a regional power, was at most, a small tribal kingdom….David’s kingdom was simply 500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting”2
This is in sharp contrast to the picture the Bible paints of the empire David ruled over. His rise from humble shepherd to mighty military commander to king over all Judah and Israel is a gripping story. Yet the account reads more like history than myth, and, at times, is reminiscent of the lists of conquered kingdoms that the kings of other nations left for posterity. The Bible describes David reigning in Hebron as king over the tribe of Judah for a period of seven years before the elders of Israel come to crown him king over the entire nation. He reigned over all Israel and Judah for 33 more years, conquering the nations around him and extending the reach of his empire. When David conquered the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, Hiram, king of Tyre, sent carpenters and stonemasons with cedar logs to build a palace for him. When David defeated Hadadezer, king of Zobah, Tou, the King of Hamath, sent congratulations to him along with articles of gold, silver and bronze. Scripture records:
King David dedicated these articles to the Lord, as he had done with the silver and gold from all the nations he had subdued: Edom and Moab, the Ammonites and the Philistines, and Amalek. He also dedicated the plunder taken from Hadadezer son of Rehob, king of Zobah. (2 Sam 8:11-12 NIV)
Later in his reign, David took a census to determine the number of fighting men in his Kingdom. It took more than nine months to count his soldiers, and resulted in a tally of over 800 000 (2 Sam 24:9). In all, the Bible describes David ruling over an organized and vast empire which included parts of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.
What evidence is there for King David and his kingdom?
Tel Dan Stele – “House of David”
Any discussion of the archaeology related to King David must begin with the Tel Dan Stele. In 1993 archaeologists excavating at Tel Dan, the site of the ancient city of Dan in northern Israel, discovered a broken stone, approximately 32 cm high by 22 cm wide, with an Aramaic inscription on it. The next year, two more fragments of the stele were unearthed. The stele fragment made an instant impact, as it bore the inscription, “bytdwd” (Beit David, or House of David). The stele records the victory of the King of Aram (likely Hazael, although his name is not given) over the King of Israel, and his ally, the king of the “House of David.” It dates to the ninth century B.C., about 200 years after David’s rule.
While critics have attempted to suggest alternative readings, the majority of scholars now accept that the Tel Dan Stele is a clear reference to King David. Archaeologist, Yosef Garfinkel explains the importance of the inscription: “‘House of David’ means ‘dynasty of David’. So now we know that there was a guy called David and he had a dynasty…this is absolutely clear that David is not a mythological figure. So the mythological paradigm collapsed in one moment.”3
Moabite Stone/Mesha Inscription – “House of David”
In 1994, epigrapher Andre Lemaire proposed that the famous Moabite Stone also contained the phrase, “House of David.” The Moabite Stone contains an inscription by Mesha, King of Moab, who boasts about his successful rebellion from the King of Israel, an event described in 2 Kings 3. The stone was intentionally broken by locals in Jordan, where it was discovered, but not before squeezes of the inscription were taken. The inscription in question is difficult to read because of a break in the stone, and a crucial letter is missing in Line 31. Lemaire concluded, “My own examination of the stone and the squeeze, which is now being restored and cleaned of accumulated dust, confirms that t follows the b. I would now, for the first time, reconstruct the missing letter as a d (d). The result: bt[d]wd (dw[d]tb), the ‘House of [D]avid!’”4
In 2019, Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na’aman, and Thomas Römer published a paper in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University analyzeing Line 31 on the Moabite Stone. They argue that there is a vertical stroke which indicates a transition between two sentences and that the letter bet should be read as the start of a name (Balak), rather than Beit (House).5 Around the same time, Michael Langlois, a scholar with the French Researcher Center in Jerusalem, published an article in the Journal Semitica, which supported Lemaire’s initial reading of “House of David.” He claims there is no such vertical stroke in the image, but that the line break comes later. Langlois has spent years using high resolution images, computer algorithms to perform Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM) of the stele to create a 3-D image. Recently he used Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) – photos of the stele itself and the original squeeze from various angles and in different lighting, to create a high-resolution backlit image of the inscription. In his article, Langlois argues that the new technology shows a previously overlooked dot, the customary way scribes at that time indicated a break between words, which comes exactly after the area interpreted “House of David,” confirming Lemaire’s initial reading.6
Battle Relief of Pharoah Shishak – “Highlands of David”
Egyptologist, Kenneth Kitchen, has identified a third possible reference to David in Egypt. Pharaoh Shoshenq I (also Sheshonk, called Shishak in the Bible), invaded Palestine in 926/5 BC. When he returned to Egypt, he commissioned a scene to be inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Amun in Karnak detailing his success. One of the places he claims to have conquered is h(y)dbt dwt – the “Heights or Highlands of Davit.” Kitchen has found a sixth-century AD Ethiopic inscription with a clear reference to King David (from one of his Psalms) in which his name is spelled Davit. He further argues that the toponyms in the Shishak list are arranged geographically, and the “Heights of Davit” (name rings 105 and 106) occur in a row which includes sites in southern Judah and the Negev, the same general area in which David was a fugitive when he was on the run from Saul. Kitchen claims that, while not certain, there is a “high degree of possibility” that Shishak claimed to have conquered an area called the Heights of David, when he invaded Judah in the 10th century BC.7 It should be noted that not all scholars are convinced by Kitchen’s reading. They note that, just because an Ethiopian text from the 6th century AD refers to David as Davit, it does not logically follow that they did so over 1300 years earlier. Moreover, others maintain that rings 105 and 106 read neither David, nor Davit. In short, the jury is still out on this inscription.
King David’s Palace
In 2005, Israeli archaeologist, Dr. Eilat Mazar, announced that she had unearthed the remains of David’s palace. Mazar had noticed that the Bible described David going down, or descending, from his residence to the fortress (2 Sam. 5:17). She reasoned that David would have built his palace north of this fortress and outside the northern city wall, given that he was planning to expand the city. Her excavations in this area unearthed what she called the Large Stone Structure, a massive building complex which she describes as “the product of inspiration, imagination and considerable economic investment.”8 Mazar was digging near where Kathleen Kenyon had earlier discovered a stone decoration that would have adorned the top of a pillar, called a proto-Aeolic capital, one of the most beautiful and intricate ones ever discovered in Israel. On the basis of the pottery found beneath the Large Stone Structure, she dated the first phase of its construction to the beginning of the Iron Age IIa, likely around the middle of the tenth century BC, precisely the time the Bible describes King David ruling over the United Kingdom of Israel. The discovery of the biggest, and most beautiful building in the northern part of the old city which dates to the time of David has led many to believe Mazar has uncovered the remains of King David’s palace. Of course, many critics who believe the biblical accounts of King David to be legendary, have been quick to criticize Mazar’s work and her use of Scripture as a reliable ancient text.
David’s Government – Judahite Cities
If a united monarchy existed in the 10th century BC, as described in the Bible, one might expect to find evidence of a common political administration throughout the kingdom. Some archaeologists claim to have found such evidence of a complex society in the archaeological remains at several sites.
From 2007-2013, Yosef Garfinkel (Hebrew University) and Saar Ganor (Israel Antiquities Authority) conducted excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortress dating to the time of King David. It is located 30 km southwest of Jerusalem, on the summit of a hill that is strategically located within the kingdom of Judah and on the road from Philistia to Jerusalem. The excavators have identified it as biblical Shaarayim (1 Sam. 17:52) because of its two gates, and claim that there is clear evidence of urban planning, such as the casemate city wall with houses that were built into the wall. A lack of pig bones, an ostracon identified as one of the earliest Hebrew inscriptions ever discovered, and cultic shrines absent of any images of people or animals (ie. graven images) have been used to identify Khirbet Qeiyafa as an Israelite fortress, rather than a Philistine outpost. Two large structures were identified as royal public buildings: one was a palatial residence, the other a storehouse.9 It is estimated that 100,000 tons of stone were used to build the city, which would have required a significant central government to oversee such a construction project.10 It is likely far beyond what a tribal chieftain could have constructed.11
Another site, El Eton, was recently excavated by archaeologists from Bar-Ilan University, who unearthed an ancient city that also dates to the time of King David. Researchers discovered a monumental structure, which they’ve dubbed the “governor’s residency,” that was built using ashlar stones and deep foundations with quality building materials. Scholars suggest that this too is evidence of a complex society and strong political administration during the construction phase. The excavators have dated the site using radiocarbon from the foundation deposit, as well as olive pits and coal found on the floor, indicating that the Tel ‘Eton residence was first built in the late 11th or 10th century BC.12 This is the second such monumental structure dating to the Davidic and Solomonic eras discovered in the region (with Khirbet Qeiyafa being the first).
After King David’s reign, 20 monarchs from his family line reigned in succession after him, beginning with Solomon over the United Monarchy, and then as kings of the southern Kingdom of Judah. Numerous archaeological discoveries relating to these Davidic kings have been unearthed. Many scholars point to the nearly identical gates at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer as evidence of Solomon’s building activity.13 Inscriptions on seal impressions attest to several kings, including Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, while others, such as Manasseh and Jehoiachin are mentioned by name in Assyrian and Babylonian writings.14 These finds independently corroborate specific details in Scripture and are consistent with the biblical description of a Davidic line of kings who reigned in Israel and Judah for generations.
The clear “House of David” inscription from Tel Dan establishes that David was a historical figure who was over a dynasty and is affirmed by two further inscriptions which may refer to him. This direct evidence is supported by the other finds in Jerusalem and other cities within the kingdom of Judah, which also point to the existence of a complex united monarchy in the 10th century BC, as described in the Bible. Other inscriptions affirm specific kings in the Davidic line. Prior to 1993, there was very little archaeological evidence to support the historicity of King David. Since that time, numerous discoveries have confirmed his existence and indicate he ruled over a significant kingdom. In light of these discoveries it seems reasonable to stop comparing King David to King Arthur.
Title Photo of the Tel Dan Stele: יעל י / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
1 Philip R. Davies, “‘House of David’ Built on Sand: The Sins of the Biblical Maximizers,” BAR 20:04, July/August, 1994, pg. 55.
2 Robert Draper, “Kings of Controversy.” National Geographic
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2010/12/david-and-solomon/ (Accessed January 8, 2020).
3 Erin Zimmerman, “Did David, Solomon Exist? Dig Refutes Naysayers.” Christian Broadcasting Network. http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/insideisrael/2013/june/did-david-solomon-exist-dig-refutes-naysayers/?mobile=false (Accessed January 18, 2017).
4 Andrew Lemaire, ““House of David” Restored in Moabite Inscription.” BAR 20:3 May/June 1994, pg. 36.
5 Amanda Borschel-Dan, “High-tech study of ancient stone suggests new proof of King David’s dynasty.” Times of Israel, May 3, 2019. https://www.timesofisrael.com/high-tech-study-of-ancient-stone-keeps-davidic-dynasty-in-disputed-inscription/ (Accessed Jan. 8, 2020).
6 Michael Langois, “The Kings, the City and the House of David on the Mesha Stele in Light of New Imaging Techniques.” Semitica 61, 2019, p. 23-47. Online: https://michaellanglois.org/medias/langlois-2019-the-kings-the-city-and-the-house-of-david-on-the-mesha-stele-semitica-61-p–23-47.pdf (Accessed January 8, 2020).
7 Hershel Shanks, “Has David Been Found In Egypt?” BAR 25:1, January/February 1999, pg. 34. Online: https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/25/1/4 (Accessed January 9, 2020).
8 Eilat Mazar, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” BAR, January/February 2006. Online: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/did-i-find-king-davids-palace/ (Accessed Jan. 9, 2020).
9 Khirbet Qeiyafa Archaoelogical Project. http://qeiyafa.huji.ac.il/index.asp (Accessed January 10, 2020).
10 Randall Price and H. Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 121.
11 Dewayne Bryant, “The Death of Bible Minimalism.” Associates for Biblical Research. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/contemporary-issues/3805-the-death-of-biblical-minimalism (Accessed January 10, 2020).
12 Nir Hasson, “Did King David’s United Monarchy Exist? Naked Mole Rats Uncover Monumental Evidence.” Haaretz, Apr 16, 2018. https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium.MAGAZINE-molerat-archaeology-supports-united-monarchy-theory-says-new-study-1.6007916 (Accessed January 10, 2020).
13 “Hazor,” BiblePlaces.com. https://www.bibleplaces.com/hazor/ (Accessed January 12, 2020).
14 Lawrence Mykytiuk, “53 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaeologically.” Biblical Archaeology Society. April 12, 2017. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/50-people-in-the-bible-confirmed-archaeologically/ (Accessed January 12, 2020).