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Extrabiblical Evidence for King David

McKenzie, Steven L. King David: A Biography. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

The first part of King David attempts to answer two questions: 1) “Do sources outside of the Bible indicate that David really existed?” and 2) “How may the Bible be used to reconstruct David’s life?” (10).  Although one might surmise that someone as famous and powerful as King David would be greatly attested in the “thousands of ancient documents from hundreds of sites throughout the Middle East” that have been excavated in last two centuries, the truth is that “there is little concrete information about David outside of the Bible” (10).  To be fair, however, the time period in which our author places the rule of the Davidic Kingdom (ca. 1000 B.C.E.) is known as a “dark age” because there is relatively few records from this period of Mesopotamian history than for other historical time periods (10).  “The relative paucity of documents from this period may help to explain why no mention of David was found for such a long time” (11).

Before the summer of 1993 scholars could claim there was not a shred of historical evidence for the historical David outside the Bible.  However, this is no longer true.  Three artifacts have since been discovered that appear to confirm the historicity of King David: 1) the Tel Dan Stele, 2) The Mesha Stele (11-18), and 3) The Shoshenq Relief.  The Tel Dan Stele is simply an inscribed monument (or “stele”) found in the ancient ruins of the city of Dan in northern Israel.  This monument was crafted from a very expensive stone and “was most likely the work of a king,” “clear and elegantly inscribed” (11).  Thought to have been erected by an Aramaic King in ancient Syria sometime before 800 B.C.E., the monument makes reference to “Jehoram son of Ahab, King of Israel” and “Ahaziahu son of Jehoram, king of the House of David” (12).  Both Kings are biblically attested (2 Kgs 9-10) and the language of the “House of David” also parallels the biblical language about the Davidic Kingdom (1 Sam 20:16; 2 Sam 3:1, 6, 1 Kgs 12:19, 26, 2 Kgs 17:21; 2 Chr 10:19; 21:7; Neh 12:37; Ps 122:5; Is 7:2, 13; 16:5; 22:2; Jer 21:12; Zech 12:7-12; 13:1).

The Mesha Stele was a Moabite Stone found in 1868 among the ruins of Dibon (the ancient capital of Moab) that also makes mention of “the house [of Da]vid.”  Even though this monument is “less certain” than the Tel Dan Stele because it is broken and the full phrase is only partially visible, it apparently “would refer to the nation of Judah or its royal family” (14).  The Mesha stele and the Tel Dan inscription together “seem to accord with the Bible’s depiction of David as the founder of the nation and dynasty of Judah—‘the house of David’” (15).

The third discovery known as the Shoshenq Relief hails Pharaoh Shoshenq’s raid into Palestine in 925 B.C.E. in a carving on the temple of Amun in Thebes.  In the context of a list of places that Shosenq claims to have captured in southern Judah and the Negev (the stronghold of the Davidic Kingdom) a phrase appears that the British Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen renders “highland/heights of David” (15).  The reference in this third piece of historical evidence is more disputable and may not refer to King David at all, though some have understood it that way.  In light of the three aforementioned discoveries, the claim that there is no certain reference to David in history is a distortion of the facts (16).  In addition to these inscriptions, there are also archeological sites that are possibly linked to David (17).  This leads the author to conclude:

Archaeology has not yet proved David’s historical existence.  But it has not disproved it either.  The evidence is interpreted differently by different people.  The assumption that David was a real person remains a viable and defensible one.  The references to his name in inscriptions add some weight to this assumption, as do the “Solomonic” cities (23).

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“Archaeologists have sometimes said that the evidence would force them to invent the figures of David and Solomon if the Bible did not give their names.”

– McKenzie (19)

Book Review :: King David: A Biography by McKenzie

The following is my introduction to a three post-series on the following book:

McKenzie, Steven L. King David: A Biography. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

While this post is an introduction, the first post will be about the quest for extrabiblical sources on King David, the second will be a look at McKenzie’s reconstruction of the Historical David and the third will be a brief response to his approach.   

McKenzie’s book consists of a critical analysis of extrabiblical sources for the life of King David, a critical exploration of the historical relevance of the biblical account of King David and a reconstruction of the life of King David that views the genre of biblical literature about him as royal propaganda. The biblical accounts paint a picture of King David as a humble and gentle man rising to power by the providential hand of Yahweh whose greatest moral flaw was his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of the King Uriah.  McKenzie paints a quite different picture of David as a ruthless powerlust who did whatever it took to rise to, and stay in, power—even to the point of killing his own sons when they became a threat to his throne. 

On the one hand, the author “take[s] the Bible seriously” not only by acknowledging the historicity of the Davidic Kingdom against skeptics, but also by attempting to support his more “realistic” and therefore more “historical” picture of King David with clues in the Bible itself (7, 46).  On the other hand, the author takes a critical approach to the Bible by considering the objective as a quest for the historical David that can only be accomplished by separating historical fact from the literary presentation of David’s life in the biblical account.  Combining a stance of skepticism with critical analysis of the biblical narrative our author views the historical David as an oppressive and ruthless King, and the biblical stories of David are understood to be an attempt to clear David of specific accusations and paint him in the best possible light “as a model king who always ‘did what was right in Yahweh’s eyes’” (34).

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