Friday, November 26, 2010

Just how important were the Kingdoms of David and Solomon?

When people think of King David the first thing that comes to mind is the story of David and Goliath. With Solomon it is usually the story in which he suggests that a baby be divided between the women fighting over him. Those who are more well-versed in the Bible will also think about the glories of the Davidic monarchy and how the father and son established Israel as a powerful, regional power that extended from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates.

But it will probably will come as no surprise that biblical scholars are not always sure that the story was as glorious as it is presented in the pages of the Bible. One of the biggest stumbling blocks has been the lack of any physical evidence that David and Solomon ever existed. Until 1993 archaeologist did not have any artifacts and/or inscriptions that connected David and Solomon to the Israelite kingdom. Unlike other major regional powers (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon) there is next to nothing in the way of physical evidence for the Davidic monarchy.

That changed in 1993, however, with discovery of the Tel-Dan inscription which appears to mention a "house of David". This is an important although meager piece of evidence. Suddenly those from the Copenhagen School, which promote a minimalistic approach to the Bible, were put on the defense. For more than 20 years they claimed that the Israel of the Bible, along with David and Solomon, was a literary creation of exiled priests rather than an historical account. They were, of course, arguing against the Albright School which approached archaeological sites with a trowel in one hand and the Bible in the other. Albright and his students often used the Bible as sort of road map to archaeology. The problem, of course, is that they sometimes (often?) read the data in chorus with the Bible. This means that they were in danger of allowing the Bible to color their conclusions.

Since 1996 a sort of middle way has risen under the scholarship Israel Finkelstein. Finkelstein has promoted what has been termed "low chronology." In a nut shell, he argues that all of the archeological ruins that have been dated to the tenth century BCE (the time of David and Solomon) are off by 100 years. He argues what many archaeologists claim to be ruins of the Davidic kingdom are actually those of the Omride dynasty of the northern kingdom built 100 years later. He does not claim that David and Solomon never existed, just that they were not as important as the Bible and some archaeologist claim.

In the last ten years Finkelstein has been locked in a battle with several prominent archaeologists over the data. Two in particular are Amihai Mazar and Eilat Mazar. Amihai is the nephew of the famed Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar and Eilat is his granddaughter. Amhai has worked for over a decade at Tel-Rehov and Eilat has claimed recently to have uncovered King David's palace in Jerusalem.

The current issue of National Geographic has dedicated a lengthy article to the debate between Finkelstein and the Mazars. In addition to the exceptional pictures, Robert Draper has done an excellent job of summarizing the debate and the future of David's legacy. It is particularly fun to read how important scholars trash talk one another in an effort to support their own hypothesis. Apparently biblical scholars and archaeologists never really leave the playground. They just move it and their antics into the academy.

It is a really good piece and I highly recommend it.

Also, Jim West has been posting about the Nova special "Searching for Solomon's Mines" Finkelstein has provided some interaction with Jim's posts. Read it here.