The Bible’s Buried Secrets: Did King David’s Empire Exist? Pt1 image

The Bible’s Buried Secrets: Did King David’s Empire Exist? Pt1

In the first episode of the series of programmes, Francesca chose to start with the subject that has constituted the greatest controversy for Old Testament scholarship in the last twenty years or so – the reality of the kingdom of David and Solomon. This little academic contretemps has even come to the attention of National Geographic (Dec 2010), who have responded with a (much more even-handed) summary of the discussion, complete with frank interviews and beautiful photos. To understand the significance of the debate, though, one needs to be aware of some historical developments in Old Testament studies. [My apologies for the more technical nature of the next three posts – archaeology and chronology are essential foundations for the serious student of the Bible, and when we understand its characters in their proper ancient context the history can start to come alive.]

Part One – The Great Battle of Our Time

In past generations, scholars felt obliged to admit uncertainty about the stories of the long-lived Patriarchs in Genesis or the miraculous exploits of Moses in Exodus through Deuteronomy.  This was mainly due to lack of clear external evidence supporting these narratives (as one might expect of stories mostly about nomads wandering through unpopulated areas), and also a consequence of the then generally accepted literary theories about multiple sources behind the Pentateuch.  They usually felt, though, that once they got to the United Monarchy of Israel they were on much safer ground historically, and the literary sources for these times such as 1–2 Samuel or 1 Kings had a ‘ring of truth’ about them.
In recent years, though, there have been movements in both of these fields of study.  On the one hand, a theory proposed in the middle of last century has become quite widespread, namely the idea that the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were meant to form a complete history of Israel from the death of Moses to the Babylonian exile.  The suggestion was that all of these books show dependence on Deuteronomy’s theology and literary style, hence the overall name ‘Deuteronomistic History’.  They were supposedly composed of a number of shorter oral traditions collected and tied together with major speeches at appropriate points, by an editor or editors writing around the end of the Judahite monarchy, the time of the final events recorded in 2 Kings.  What some scholars have therefore argued is that the earlier books are inherently unreliable, being made up of rumours and legends about events many centuries before the final compiler’s time.
On the other hand, archaeology has matured as a discipline, with far more now known about the repeated destructions and rebuilding of the many cities and settlements mentioned in the Bible.  The somewhat vague picture from archaeology that had been thought to correspond fairly well to the biblical account has become quite a bit more detailed, and unfortunately there are an increasing number of misalignments between the archaeological and textual records of ancient Israel the further back in history one goes.  ‘Misalignment’ is the key word, as we will see later, but as a result, those scholars who are not inclined to give the Old Testament the benefit of the doubt are raising some uncomfortable questions about the truthfulness of biblical authors.

A. Literary Evidence for the United Monarchy

As for the books of Samuel, the main source for the life and deeds of David, there are still several scholars fighting to defend the authenticity of the stories described, regardless of when these stories were incorporated into the books in which they now appear.  One of these, Baruch Halpern, was interviewed by Francesca in the programme, and he has written a superb (if somewhat cynical) analysis of David’s life and propagandistic biography in 1–2 Samuel, entitled David’s Secret Demons.
At this point I am obliged to mention, if somewhat reticently, my own doctoral research on 1–2 Samuel, which I hope to complete within the year and then publish.  Before starting my second term of study, I stumbled upon a remarkable literary structure that encompasses the entire fifty-five chapters of the book of (1–2) Samuel.  This structure pairs every episode in the whole book with another episode somewhere else in order to construct several large concentric patterns, patterns that each contain an inherent emphasis on the scene or statement at the very centre of the pattern.  In this way the author has managed to communicate a very clear message throughout, and one that incorporates and relies on every single story in the book.  The implications of this structure are quite significant, because it not only requires that the whole composition be the work of one author, but also actually names that author (previously anonymous).  Both the stated author and the message of the book are not only consistent with a date within the lifetime of David, but arguably demand it.  I’m afraid I cannot go into more detail at this stage, but it won’t be long before this evidence in favour of the biblical presentation of David’s kingdom can be introduced into the academic debate.

B. Archaeological Evidence for the United Monarchy

As for the other side of the debate, the archaeological evidence for the time of David and Solomon, this relatively minor dispute within Old Testament studies may well turn out to be the trigger for a long-awaited tectonic shift in the field of ancient history.  The Old Testament boasts the only continuous national history of any ancient people that extends from the Persian Empire (at the end of the Iron Age) back into the Early Bronze Age of the third millennium BC.  As such, it therefore offers an ideal unbroken chronology with which the records of neighbouring kingdoms and empires on all sides can be synchronised.  The Bible claims to offer eye-witness accounts of various events that ought to be quite obvious in the archaeological remains of different places, including the collapse of Jericho’s walls, the appearance of the Philistines in the coastal region of Canaan, the prosperous kingdom of Solomon with its extensive international trade links and Egyptian influence, and the invasion of the Egyptian pharaoh Shishaq that coincided with a collapse of the political and economic stability of Solomon’s reign.
If we had nothing but a series of disconnected stories, as one has with the epics of Homer, we would be free to search for material evidence of these events in various different archaeological levels, or strata, from different time periods, in order to find the best match.  However, the Bible provides a sometimes rather inconvenient sequence of precise dates for the whole history, and scholars are therefore forced to limit their searches to only those layers that the archaeologists have identified as being from that time period.  This, though, is where the problem lies.  Cities were destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, each time flattening out the remains of the previous level and building on top.  The successive strata, however, do not come with convenient labels saying ‘tenth century’ or ‘around 850 BC’, despite what textbooks would have you believe.  Absolute dates come from ancient written records, not from archaeology, and the challenge has always been to match the cultural remains in certain strata with the right events from the city’s political history recorded in a nation’s texts, such as for example those found in the Old Testament.
The chronology of the kingdoms of ancient Israel and Judah (from 1–2 Kings) is considered very reliable by most Old Testament scholars, because the foreign rulers mentioned in the books of Kings as well as Israelite rulers mentioned in ancient inscriptions are found in precisely the right order and time period, as far back as the start of the neo-Assyrian empire in the early 9th century BC.  The Bible records that around this time Ahab’s father Omri founded his capital city at Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel, building it from scratch on a hill belonging to a local farmer (1Kgs 16:24).  When excavating Samaria, therefore, the great British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon dated its first building phase to Omri, noting also that the same type of pottery was found both below and above this original floor level.  The only problem was that this Iron Age 2 pottery had been dated elsewhere to the tenth or even eleventh century BC, and had therefore been assumed to belong to the time of David and Solomon who reigned from about 1100 to 930 BC according to the Bible.
Strata with pottery of the Iron Age 2A period show a time of renewed building activity and development of culture in ancient Israel, but before this is the Iron Age 1, a period of about two hundred years for which there are practically no monumental buildings or artistic remains of any value.  In fact, if we didn’t have connections with Egyptian dynasties that fix the dates, we might be tempted to shrink this period to perhaps only a couple of generations at most.  Within the standard Egyptian chronology, though, biblical scholars noticed that this ‘dark age’ corresponded fairly well to the period of the Judges known from the Bible.  The only discrepancy was in the length of time between Joshua’s conquest and the rise of the United Monarchy – 1Kings 6:1 seems to put this at around 350 years, whereas the time between the end of the Late Bronze Age and the new phase of building in the Iron Age 2 was at most about 200 years.  Scholars concluded that the biblical chronology was mistaken, and maintained that Joshua must have been in part responsible for the end of the Late Bronze period in Canaan around 1230 BC, while David and Solomon ruled during the Iron Age 2A in the tenth century.
Since that correlation of biblical events with particular archaeological periods, however, problems have come to light regarding both the start and end of the supposed era of the judges.  At its start, the archaeology from the end of the Late Bronze Age seems to bear less and less similarity to the biblical records of Joshua’s conquest, to the extent that Jericho of that period did not even have walls to ‘come a-tumbling down’.  At its end, the fairly lacklustre building activity of the Iron Age 2 period not only seems very unlike the biblical description of Solomon’s kingdom, but its connection with the founding of Samaria would put it at least a century later than Solomon.  If anything, the re-dating of supposedly ‘Solomonic’ strata by Israel Finkelstein in Francesca’s programme doesn’t actually go far enough.
In the second part of this post I will consider a possible solution to the archaeological problems associated with David’s kingdom, before mentioning in the third post a selection of the clearest historical and literary matches supporting this alternative archaeological context for the United Monarchy.

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