A long-standing debate among archaeologists about the historicity of the Bible centers around whether or not David was an actual monarch ruling over a unified kingdom. A new theory seems to bolster the side in favor of King David, arguing that at the time, Israel was semi-nomadic and would not leave behind archaeological remains of huge stone structures.
King David or not King David
Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University recently published an article in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology that has challenged archaeologists who claim that the Biblical account of King David is inaccurate.
The new article ignited a renewed debate between two major schools of thought in Biblical archaeology. In his article, Ben-Yosef claims that archaeologists have an “architectural bias” in which bases the existence of an ancient monarchy on significant ruins. This bias has been a major aspect of the minimalist school of archaeology which claims that King David was an insignificant character in history, more of a tribal chief than a regional monarch. As a result, the minimalist school rejects the Bblical narrative that the northern and southern kingdoms united under King David, maintaining that the Kingdom of Judah only began to extend its rule over the region in the 9th-century BCE. They have a critical reading of the Bible, rejecting its historicity.
Traditionalists also referred to as maximalists, claim the Biblical descriptions of a complex and powerful Davidic Kingdom based in Judea in the 10th-century BCE are accurate. Critics of the Biblical account referred to as the minimalist school, say that King David was a much less influential character in history and the Kingdom of Judah only began to extend its rule over the region in the 9th-century BCE.
His studies at the dig at the copper mine in Timna, Ben-Yosef conclude that the society represented there was an early Edomite, non-sedentary kingdom.
“If these nomads had not engaged in mining, creating smelting camps, mine shafts and thousands of tons of industrial waste, we wouldn’t know anything about them,” he says. “Maybe with a specialized survey we would be able to find a few tent remains, but at best we would still just be able to say that there were a few nomads there, we would know nothing of the sophisticated polity and society they created.”
Based on this precedent, Ben-Yosef posited that without an architectural bias, there is ample evidence that the region was a unified kingdom 3,000 years ago under the rule of one monarch. The lack of architectural artifacts, Ben-Yosef suggests, was because the population was at least partially nomadic. Despite this nomadic nature, the tribes were sophisticated, powerful, and unified.
“Both critical and conservative archaeologists think the same way: if we find a big wall David’s kingdom was big and if we don’t find a big wall David’s kingdom was very small,” he says. “Everyone is following the same misconception, based on a huge preconception about nomads in the region, who are usually compared to modern Bedouins and are seen as incapable of creating sophisticated states without settling down and building large cities.”
Ben Yosef compares King David to Genghis Khan, the Mongolian emperor who launched the invasions that conquered most of Eurasia in the 12th century. Though Genghis Khan was unquestionably the most influential leader of his era, ruling over a substantial kingdom, there is little archaeological proof of his existence.
“The lesson here is not that David was like Genghis Khan – but that archaeology is not the adequate tool for studying nomadic polities, and we have to rely mostly on textual evidence,” Ben-Yosef concludes.
Dr. Scott Stripling: Ample evidence for King David
Dr. Scott Stripling, provost at The Bible Seminary in Katy (Houston) Texas, has been sifting the sands of Israel for over 20 years. Using the Bible as a guidebook he is now digging in Shiloh, which he surmises may be the true site of the Tabernacle. Dr. Stripling found Ben-Yosef’s argument to be compelling.
“For a long time, we have had this debate,” Dr. Stripling said. “The minimalist maintain that the historical account given to us in the Bible is not an accurate account from the time of the Exodus until the time of the United Monarchy. I do not agree with the minimalists on this point. I think we have abundant evidence of the United Kingdom in Israel centered around the Iron I period.”
“In archaeology, I believe we should go from the known to the unknown. So what we know is that the Soleb Hieroglyph in Nubia contains hieroglyphics from the 14th century BCE referring to ‘Yahweh in the land of the Šosū-nomads’. So we already have inscriptional evidence of a people believing in a deity called Yahweh in the region. We have abundant written evidence from the iron age.”
Dr. Stripling referred to The Tel Dan Stele discovered in 1993 which dates to the 9th century BCE. The stele details that an individual killed Jehoram, the son of Ahab, king of Israel and the king of the house of David. The stele is generally accepted by scholars as genuine and a reference to the House of David. He also referred to the excavation at the City of David in Jerusalem.
“That is a large stone structure that Dr. Eilat Mazar excavated,” Dr. Stripling said. “Many of us believe that there is ample evidence, a lot of from the pottery, to prove that King David actually lived there and it was indeed his palace.”
“And even if you are unconvinced of King David’s historicity, the research at Hazor, Gezer, Megiddo, and similar findings at Jerusalem certainly show that the Biblical account of King Solomon was accurate.”
“There is certainly evidence that even at that time, Israel remained semi-nomadic. There is inscriptional evidence and architectural evidence, albeit. I am convinced that there is evidence that in some locations, like the dig I am working on in Shiloh. There is tons of pottery, bones and other evidence that there were lots of people living around the location but few remains of dwellings. It seems clear that many people were living around the central location in tents, making it much larger than it would appear if we were only going by the architecture.”
“Ben Yosef was approaching this anthropologically and sociologically; taking what he learned in Tima of that era and extrapolating it to other areas, well, that is what we do as archaeologists. We find we find parallels, we have hypotheses, and we test them. Ben Yosef is advancing the discussion and should be credited. He seems to be largely correct.”