Did King David Exist?

Henry Ingham, Dickson College, 2012

This essay was written as part of the Ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamia unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2012. It was written in response to the following question: 'Choose a story from the bible. On the basis of the available evidence, assess whether the story is historically true or has some basis in historical reality.'

Did King David exist? Was he historical or did some authors invent him centuries later? The Old Testament account of David is certainly presented as history yet there is very little archaeological evidence to substantiate its narrative. This has led a growing number of archaeologists to conclude David and Solomon never existed, and that Jerusalem was not the thriving capital of the Israelites. The question is an important one to Christendom, Islam and Judaism. The possible conclusions that can be drawn from the lack of historic evidence are: David did not exist - he was a religious legend; David existed as perhaps a tribal leader, whose achievements were exaggerated or glorified at a later date; or King David existed as portrayed in the Bible but evidence to support that claim is not yet available.

The biblical account of King David is found in the books of 2 Samuel and Chronicles. While Chronicles presents an overly glowing account of David, the narrative of 2 Samuel is fuller and shows David’s faults alongside his strengths. There is uncertainty about the author and date of 1 & 2 Samuel which gives no statement of authorship. The literary style of the book suggests it was compiled using several sources. Those that support the historicity of the biblical texts believe the author lived shortly after Solomon’s death (930 B.C). Others believe it was written at a later date.

According to 2 Samuel, after the death of Saul, the tribe of Judah appointed David as their new king in the 10th century BCE. He ruled for seven years before the other tribes anointed him as their king. At this time David was ruling from Hebron, a city of Judah. His first action after becoming king over all Israel was to conquer the city of Jebus, later Jerusalem, and make it the royal city of Israel, “the City of David” (2 Samuel 5). At the time, the city was controlled by the Jebusites. David won large amounts of land from the Philistines, defeated neighbouring states and eventually overpowered the Ammonites and the Arameans, extending his influence as far north as the Euphrates River. The Bible presents him as the king of a united kingdom, ruling from Jerusalem for 37 years – the high point of ancient Israel’s history.

If King David was as great as he is portrayed in the Bible why is there such little evidence to prove his existence? Other empires with such accomplishments have left behind archaeological traces. Conclusions drawn from the lack of evidence differ widely, from P.R. Davies (1994 p. 54-55) who
states, “King David is about as historical as King Arthur” to scholars who argue that David may have some basis in historical reality.

The argument has been made that historians are able to name all the pharaohs that ruled Egypt, all the names of Persian kings, many monuments, that there are inscriptions demonstrating the existence of even the small city states but not one monument mentioning the House of David.

Not one monument, not one egotistical carving declaring that either King defeated an enemy or dedicated something to YHWH, not one document (Israelite, Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Hittite or other nation) mentions either King. (Mako 2005).

With regard to the lack of monuments to those kings, the point could be made that ancient Jewish teaching forbade such constructions and similar monuments dedicated to God. However, the lack of reference to David in foreign writings is difficult to refute.

If there was a David, the stories about him might have been originally about other heroic figures and attributed to him later (Carden 2010). Finkelstein and Silberman (2001) point out that the account of David might actually be based on the real history of King Omri in the north. The region around Jerusalem lacked water and good farmland to support an empire. Rather these resources were found in the north, where Omri and his son Ahab ruled a century later. They argue that in Assyrian records the kingdom of Israel is referred to as the House of Omri. Therefore, they conclude David was really Omri. An alternative view is that David was a local warlord. Carden wrote:

Was there a David? Possibly. Possibly a bandit and maybe eventually a warlord with some authority in Judah during the ninth century BCE, from whom a subsequent dynasty in Jerusalem claimed descent.

At the centre of argument about the historicity of David is the archaeology of Jerusalem. Should we not expect to find substantial remains from the Jerusalem of David? The two most significant excavations in Jerusalem were conducted by Kenyon in the sixties, with the report prepared by Steiner, and Shiloh in the seventies and eighties, with the report prepared by Cahill. “Curiously, the conclusion to which Steiner and Cahill come could not be more different” (Provan, p. 228). Steiner concluded there was no city here for King David to conquer. Cahill identified numerous areas of stratified remains containing architecture, poetry and other artifacts attributable to the late bronze age. The fact is, some of the most important areas associated with David, such as the Temple Mount, are closed to excavation and remain unknown ground. As Dever notes, few tenth century archeological levels have been exposed in the deep and largely inaccessible ruins of ancient Jerusalem (Provan, p. 230).

Finkelstein and Silberman say that Judah in the 10th century would have had a population of no more than 5000 people and that Jerusalem would have been no more than a village. At most it would have been a small fortified town, not the large prospering city described in David’s time. Magee argues that Judah was too economically backwards to support anything like the fine court and administration that David has in the Bible (2010). The lack of evidence of the grand ruler points towards David being a small-time leader rather than the great king he is described as in the Bible.

Part of the argument is based on the apparent lack of public buildings such as city walls, temples, palaces and fortresses. Heibert disagrees and says the archaeological evidence is not as meager as some would suppose. A large slope built of stone has been discovered that must have supported a significant building. “Excavation of the interior structure suggests that it was built in the 10th century BCE.” In 2005, he reports, it was announced that the remains of a large palace or fortress was found that was in existence at the time of David. “Archaeologists have already started to speculate whether this building is the palace that David built”. Heibert even says there is a very good chance that the tombs of the kings of Judah many have been found – a series of rock chambers.

Givaty Parking Lot Dig Jerusalem.JPG
Excavation at the Givaty Parking Lot dig, Jerusalem, October 12, 2011.

In defense of the historicity of David the argument may be made that an absence of evidence does not necessarily mean that David did not exist. It may mean the evidence has not yet been unearthed. It wasn’t until 1993 that the largest fragment of the Tel Dan stele was discovered, providing the first reference to David, or rather the “house of David”, in an ancient text other than the Bible. Excavators at Tel Dan, near the northern border of modern Israel, discovered pieces of a monument built into an ancient wall. Though incomplete, the inscription on it refers to events around 840 BCE. It is possible that the king of Aram erected this monument to record his victories
over the Israelites.

Two other possible references to David outside of the Bible are: the Mesha stele (Moabite Stone) (Lemaire p. 30-37) and an inscription by Pharaoh Shoshenq 1 at Karnak, listing the ‘Heights of dwt’ (Kitchen p. 29-44). The Mesha stele and Tel Dan stele are probably from the second half of the ninth century, that is, 150 years after David. These references may confirm there was a David and that there may have been a dynasty that had an ancestor called David. However, it does not confirm the Biblical details of David. With regard to the Tel Dan and Mesha steles, McKenzie concludes:

They do seem to accord with the Bible depiction of David as the founder of the nation and dynasty of Judah – ‘the house of David’. Based on their testimony, combined with the Bible’s, the assumption that David was a historical figure seems reasonable (p.15).

The translation of the Tel Dan stele is a subject of debate. The reference to the “House of David”, apparently, could also be translated to “House of the beloved” or “House of the uncle”.

Tel Dan Stele.JPG
Fragments from the Tel Dan Stele, discovered in 1993, probably dating to the late 9th Century BCE. The triumphal inscription in Aramaic boasts of a victory over the "House of David".

Halpern admits that together the books of Samuel and the books of Kings (“whose political coverage of the ninth century is meticulous”) must provide a “reasonably trustworthy” account of the tenth century (Provan p. 218). However, Halpern is not convinced by the detail and warns of the “spin” of the author. The question remains, if you accept some of the Bible’s account as being historical, how do you decide what is historical and what is not?

Proponents of the historicity of David point to 2 Samuel 5:8 where David refers to Jerusalem’s water shaft. David marched to Jebus to attack the Jebusites who were convinced that their walled city was impregnable . Jebus could easily defend itself because it was small but had fortified walls over steep canyons. It also had steep shafts reaching an underground water source. In verse 5:8 David said “anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shafts”. Although the Hebrew for the term water shaft is obscure it appears that David knew of a secret tunnel, perhaps running from Gihon spring outside the city into the fortress that gave access to water when the city was under siege. The circumstances can be understood much easily now that excavators have discovered the remains of this complex system which was in use through the time of David. By the late 8th century BCE the whole water carrying system was restructured. 2 Samuel appears to have
presented this situation accurately.

In conclusion, there is insufficient evidence to prove that the biblical accounts of David are historically true. One would expect more archaeological evidence if the accounts of 2 Samuel of a mighty king were historical. It seems likely that David has some basis in historical reality, but it is possible that the stories about him were exaggerations or legends that had built up around him over time. Perhaps he was a local tribal leader. Yet while the case against the historicity of David is strong, one cannot conclude that the lack of evidence excludes the existence of David as a military and religious leader of some sort in Israel in the tenth century BCE.


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