New Study Resets Carbon Dating, Firing Debate Over King David

July 2, 2018

4 min read

A recent study into carbon dating may reset the archaeological timeline, adding fuel to an ongoing debate as to whether King David ruled over a large unified kingdom or whether he was a tribal chieftain, overly glorified in the Biblical narrative.

Prof. Sturt Manning of Cornell University recently published a paper, Fluctuating Radiocarbon Offsets Observed in the Southern Levant and Implications for Archaeological Chronology Debates in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) Journal. His study of radiocarbon testing in the southern Levant suggests that the current model for carbon dating is inaccurate when applied to Israel. His data point to more recent ages for archaeological findings, suggesting a timeline that may be earlier by as little as a few years or as many as several decades.

“If the difference in the carbon dating sets a new date 20 years earlier then it is not significant,” Professor Avraham Faust, an archaeologist some of whose findings at Tel Eton were carbon dated, told Breaking Israel News. “If it is set 60 years earlier then it might be significant.”

The difference in those years for the archaeological timeline is literally of Biblical proportions.

“The debate between the high chronology (the earlier timeline) and low chronology (the later timeline) draws the public interest because it might have consequences as to whether David was a tribal chief or a larger polity,” Faust stated.

Manning’s study could reset carbon dating as it is applied in the Middle-East. Carbon dating is calibrated by the IntCal13 curve based on securely dated findings taken from trees, usually oaks or conifers, from the northern hemisphere. Manning’s study investigates whether the unusually long and hot summer in the Middle East would lead to different results for carbon dating. Using juniper trees in southern Jordan, he utilized calendar-dated tree ring studies from the years 1610-1940. He correlated these findings with the Carbon-14 in the rings’ annual growth. The study found a difference of about 20 years during the 330-year test period when compared to the IntCal13 curve. When applied to artifacts from the early Iron Age in Israel, he estimated that this could mean a difference of 50-100 years in the dating.

Faust noted that Manning’s findings seemed to indicate the low chronology.

“When there were differences, they always indicated that the date should be newer in the Middle-East,” Faust said. “If this difference is also applied to earlier periods than what Manning tested, findings from the 10th century BCE for example, this might support the low chronology, depending on how much later the new dates would be.”

But Faust cautioned that at this point, the study is not conclusive regarding its application to findings from the Biblical period.

“There are many ‘ifs’ before we can assess the importance of this study this to our findings from the Iron Age in Israel,” he said. “If there is indeed a difference in the carbon dating between Europe and the Middle East, and if that difference gives a lower date in antiquity, and if that difference is significant, then it has an impact on the debate over Biblical David.”

Faust explained that the Biblical chronology places the united monarchy of David and Solomon in the 10th century BCE. Archaeological finds like his at Tel Eton, close to the Hebron Hills, seems to fit with the story, showing cities and public buildings with a relatively sophisticated social infrastructure, which might be associated with David’s kingdom in the highlands during that period.

“This can be in line with at least some of the Biblical description of a kingdom centered in the highlands,” Faust said. “If, however, you go according to the low chronology placing these cities and public buildings at a later date, then there are many fewer finds that can correlate with a central kingdom in the highlands at the time in which King David was supposed to have existed. This would mean that David could not have been as important a king.”

A thorough scientist, Faust cautioned that even if the reset of the carbon dating is shown to be applicable, consideration will still be required.

“When you discuss a historical question, you should rely on as much as evidence as possible,” Faust cautioned. “Carbon 14 dating is just one of them and is not necessarily definitive or final, as the study shows. In archaeology we have a huge amount of evidence, and all the surrounding evidence needs to be considered as well. It needs to fit into a coherent picture, not simply be taken on a site-by-site basis.”

It is important to note that the discussion among scientists is not whether King David existed but how he ruled. Faust confirmed this.

“It is my experience that the vast majority of scholars believe that a figure by the name of David existed, mainly because 9th century BCE sources mention a dynasty named after him,” Faust said. “Most scholarly views fall within a spectrum, with one side of it seeing David as a local, insignificant chief, and the other conforming to an image more consistent with the Biblical description of a ruler of a kingdom centered in the highlands and ruling even beyond it. Most scholars are located somewhere along this spectrum. Very few, if any, serious scholars would say that David was a completely mythical figure, and that no person by that name ever existed and that this figure was not regarded as a founder of a dynasty of rulers already at an early stage.”

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