The debate as to whether or not David and Solomon existed has been one of the “hot-button” topics in biblical archaeology since the early 1990s. The introduction of a variety of new data has put to rest some aspects of the debate but intensified other aspects, and the debate itself shows no sign of coming to an end. The majority of the arguments by various scholars, on both sides of the debate, have been published in scholarly journals seldom read by students or the general public. In the interests of putting this debate in front of such audiences, the following article is adapted from Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction by Eric H. Cline (© Oxford University Press, 2009); or visit Amazon.com.
Footnotes and references to relevant further reading have not been included here but may be found in the full book.
By Eric H. Cline
Chair, Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures
The George Washington University
Debates concerning David and Solomon have been at the forefront of biblical archaeology for a long time, but especially since the early 1990s when their very existence was called into question. The problem at the moment is that although the Tel Dan Stele—fragments of which were discovered in 1993 and 1994—now presents us with the first known, and earliest, extra-biblical textual attestation for the House of David (Beit David), there is little other direct textual or archaeological evidence available for either king at the moment. Thus the debate continues to the present, despite—and in some cases because of—the introduction of a variety of new data.
The first inscribed fragment of the Tel Dan Stele was found in 1993 at the site of the same name, located in northern Israel near the modern Lebanese border and the headwaters of the Jordan River. The site has been continuously excavated since 1966 by teams led first by Avraham Biran and now by David Ilan of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. The stele was discovered just as the debate concerning whether David and Solomon had ever existed was reaching an initial crescendo among scholars. At a single blow, the finding of this inscription settled the question of whether David was an actual historical person, at least in the minds of most scholars.
Gila Cook, the expedition’s surveyor, discovered the first fragment from the stele. She had gone out to the site one day in the early afternoon and noticed that one of the rocks in a wall that had recently been excavated had letters inscribed upon it. It seems that the original inscription, which had been inscribed and erected at Tel Dan in about 842 BCE, had later been taken down and broken into fragments, some of which were eventually reused in the wall. It was only because of the raking light of the afternoon sun that she could see the inscribed letters, which had been missed by all previous members of the excavation team, including the volunteers who had excavated the wall of which the stone was now a part. Two more fragments came to light the following summer, in 1994, and the three fragments now form what is left of the Tel Dan Stele. It is possible that more will be found in the future.
As it is currently reconstructed, the inscription describes the defeat of both Joram, king of Israel, and Ahaziyahu, king of Judah, by a king of Aram-Damascus in the ninth century BCE. It reads in part:
Now the king of Israel entered formerly in the land in my father’s land; [but] Hadad made me myself king, and Hadad went in front of me; [and] I departed from [the] seven [ . . . ] of my kingdom; and I slew seve[nty ki]ngs, who harnessed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen. [And I killed Jo]ram, son of A[hab,] king of Israel, and [I] killed [Ahazi]yahu, son of [Joram, kin]g of the House of David; and I set [their towns into ruins ? . . . the ci]ties of their land into de[solation ? . . . ] . . . other and to overturn all their cities ? . . . and Jehu] [ru]led over Is[rael . . . ] siege upon [ . . . ]
The finding of the inscription caused a major sensation and was published on the front page of the New York Times and in Time magazine. It continued to make news when Niels Peter Lemche, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and one of a group of scholars lumped together as “biblical minimalists” who were at the forefront of the debate on David and Solomon’s existence suggested that the inscription might be a forgery planted by the excavator, Avraham Biran. However, Biran was one of the oldest, most distinguished, and most trusted archaeologists working in the state of Israel—he was William F. Albright’s first PhD student at Johns Hopkins University and the longtime director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem—and no serious scholar doubted the authenticity of the fragments. Nor did they question the interpretation of the inscription when other minimalists suggested that byt dwd (Beit David) might not mean the “House of David” but something else entirely (such as the word dwd connected with the word “beloved,” “uncle,” or “kettle”). Today, after much further discussion in academic journals, it is accepted by most archaeologists that the inscription is not only genuine but that the reference is indeed to the House of David, thus representing the first textual evidence found anywhere outside the Bible for the biblical David. However, we are still lacking any contemporary or nearly-contemporary inscriptions which mention Solomon; at the moment we do not have a single one, although this situation could change tomorrow, or next week, or next year (or never).
Moreover, there is still very little archaeological evidence for the existence of David, as has been made clear during the debate about biblical minimalism, especially with regard to David and the extent of his empire. The debate eventually spread—perhaps not surprisingly—to encompass the city of Jerusalem itself. By the time of David, the city was already some two thousand years old, so the specific archaeological argument concerned the size and wealth of the tenth century BCE city in particular. While some scholars argued that it was indeed a mighty capital city, as described by the Bible, others believed that it was simply a small “cow town.” In fact, it is still not clear where David is positioned along the continuum from tribal chieftains to mighty kings and just how large the city itself was during his time.
During her excavations in Jerusalem after 1961, Kathleen Kenyon discovered the remains of what archaeologists call the “Stepped Stone Structure” in an area that is just outside the walls of the Old City. This is sometimes thought to be part of the defensive system erected by the Jebusites from whom David captured the city. More recently, excavations by Eilat Mazar of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem within this same area suggest that this Stepped Stone Structure may be connected to a much larger building. Her excavations have uncovered massive walls, which she identified as the remains of a building that she called the “Large Stone Structure” and which she said was part of a complex that included the Stepped Stone Structure on the slope. She identifies this complex as the palace of King David, in part because of its location and the date of the associated pottery, which she regards as dating to the tenth century BCE.
However, it is by no means clear whether this is actually David’s palace. Although Mazar claims to have excavated a large building, it is not yet definite that it is from the tenth century. And even if it is from the tenth century, it is not certain whether it is from the time of David. And even if it is from the time of David, it is not unquestionably a palace. In fact, Israel Finkelstein and three other archaeologists from Tel Aviv University argue that it is not. Instead, they assert, on the basis of construction techniques and structural differences, in addition to pottery and other finds, that the walls unearthed by Mazar do not belong to a single building but rather to several, and that the pottery and other remains indicate that the Stepped Stone Structure represents at least two phases of construction—with the lower part possibly dating to the ninth century BCE and the upper part dating to the Hellenistic period. If Mazar’s new building ends up not being associated with David, then there is currently not a single structure in all of Israel which may be definitely linked to his building program, if indeed he even had one.
Finkelstein has been a major player in recent discussions concerning the precise dating of both artifacts and events purportedly dating to the time of David and Solomon. Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, Finkelstein proposed a re-dating of the traditional chronology—which places the dates of the reigns of David and Solomon in the tenth century BCE—and suggested instead that much of the pottery and other materials that had been dated to the tenth century and thus assigned to the time of David and Solomon should in fact be assigned instead to the ninth century or later and to other kings. In so doing, Finkelstein has had to deconstruct the work of the most well-known archaeologist that Israel has ever produced—Yigael Yadin.
Yadin, at various times during his career, was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, deputy prime minister in the government of Menachem Begin, and a prominent archaeologist on the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His excavations at several sites uncovered archaeological remains which he attributed to Solomon; they remain essentially the only sites to date which contain such remains outside of Jerusalem. But, was Yadin correct?
Yadin’s first substantial excavations took place at Hazor, located in the north of Israel. The British archaeologist John Garstang had already dug there in 1928, but it was Yadin whose excavations from 1955 to 1958 brought the site to life. Yadin’s staff members were among the best available; many of his area supervisors went on to become established professors of archaeology or key figures in the Department of Antiquities. And, in one level at Hazor, Yadin and his team located a six-chambered city gate and part of a casemate wall (consisting of parallel inner and outer defensive walls connected by internal constructions to create small rooms that function both as part of the wall and as storage or living spaces), which he attributed to Solomon.
After Hazor, Yadin moved on to excavate at Megiddo. Following on the heels of Gottlieb Schumacher (1903–1905) and the University of Chicago (1925–1939), Yadin headed the third expedition to the site, which took place during a few brief seasons in the 1960s and early 1970s. He used the Megiddo excavation to train his graduate students, just as he had done earlier at Hazor. Moreover, he used the excavations as a further opportunity to investigate his theories about the authenticity of the biblical tradition. At Megiddo, Yadin uncovered the ruins of buildings and other constructions, including a palace. He identified the palace (which he called Palace 6000) on the basis of its architectural plan as a “bit hilani”—a Mesopotamian name for a specific type of palace more usually found in northern Syria at the time of Solomon. He also believed that the nearby city gate, with six chambers, had originally been attached to a casemate wall, just like the gate and wall which he had found earlier at Hazor.
Yadin dated the walls and gates at Megiddo and Hazor, as well as Palace 6000 at Megiddo, to the time of Solomon in the tenth century BCE. In large part this was because of one passage from the Bible—a passage from 1 Kings that describes the building activities of Solomon at the sites of Megiddo, Hazor, Gezer, and Jerusalem: “And this is the account of the forced labor which King Solomon levied to build the house of the Lord and his own house and the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem and Hazor and Megiddo and Gezer” (1 Kings 9:15).
The University of Chicago archaeologists who had dug at Megiddo previously had also thought they saw the handiwork of Solomon at Megiddo, but in a different stratigraphical layer at the site—one which lay immediately above the city that Yadin identified as Solomon’s. The Chicago excavators identified several buildings in this higher layer as stables, citing in particular another passage in 1 Kings which describes “chariot cities” belonging to Solomon: “And Solomon gathered together chariots and horsemen; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem” (1 Kings 10:26).
The proper identification of these buildings has been the source of much debate among archaeologists ever since they were first uncovered by the Chicago excavators. While some agreed that these were stables, others saw them as storehouses, barracks, marketplaces, or fulfilling some other unidentified purpose. In 1998, the Tel Aviv University expedition to Megiddo uncovered another “stable” at the site and eventually settled the debate to most scholars’ satisfaction by identifying numerous features that circumstantially point to stables as being the correct identification. Unfortunately it is by no means clear that these stables were built by Solomon. They could have been built by Omri, Ahab, Jeroboam II, or any one of a number of other kings who lived and ruled in the Northern Kingdom of Israel long after Solomon died.
Yadin also decided to see if there was a similar city gate at Gezer, the final site mentioned in the biblical passage from 1 Kings 9:15. Gezer had been excavated previously, from 1902 to 1905 and 1907 to 1909, by the Irish archaeologist Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister. Yadin therefore began excavating through Macalister’s records rather than through the actual dirt. And, he found what he was looking for—a city gate strikingly similar to those at Megiddo and Hazor. Macalister had found one half of it but had identified it as a Maccabean fortress or palace, dating it to the second century BCE and the revolt led by Judah “the Hammer” Maccabee. Yadin believed that Macalister had misidentified this structure and that rather than being a Maccabean fortress or palace, it was instead half of a city gate, complete with side chambers just like those at Megiddo and Hazor. However, the other half still remained to be uncovered.
At the time of Yadin’s researches, in the 1960s, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem together with the Harvard Semitic Museum had already reopened the excavations at Gezer. Yadin contacted the American archaeological team excavating there and explained his theory to them. Sinking their picks and trowels into the dirt, they quickly found the other half of the gate, thereby confirming his hypothesis. As a result, Yadin was convinced he had found evidence for a “blueprint” of Solomonic activity at all three sites outside of Jerusalem associated with Solomon in the Hebrew Bible—namely the gates and casemate walls built at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer, as well as Palace 6000 (the “bit hilani palace”) at Megiddo.
However, all of this architectural evidence has now been reconsidered as part of the larger debate concerning the nature of David and Solomon, and it has been suggested, by Finkelstein and others, that these constructions may not date to the reign of Solomon but may instead have been built by a ruler who came after their time, such as Ahab, Omri, or Jeroboam, or even by different rulers in Israel and Judah. The arguments used by these archaeologists can be reiterated in fairly short order, albeit at the risk of possibly simplifying their positions too much.
Finkelstein’s proposed re-dating of these structures comes not only from a suggested reexamination of the relevant pottery and architecture, but from radiocarbon dates that have recently become available. Measuring radiocarbon, or C14, as it is known in the literature, is a process invented by the American chemist and Nobel Prize–winner Willard Libby in 1949. It has proven increasingly useful to archaeologists ever since and is one of the major technological advances to have affected biblical archaeology since 1950. It provides archaeologists with a date when specific organisms—whether humans, trees, plants, or animals—died or stopped growing, by measuring the amount of C14 still present in the excavated remains. It therefore suggests a date for the stratigraphical level or context at a site in which such remains are found. However, it cannot give a precise date (e.g., 1005 BCE); rather, it provides a statistical probability that the date falls within a given range of years (e.g., 1005 BCE +/- 15 years = 1020–990 BCE).
When excavating in and around the six-chambered gate at Megiddo, both the original Chicago excavators and then later Yadin identified the pottery that they found there as belonging to the tenth century BCE. When similar pottery was subsequently found at other sites by other archaeologists, those archaeologists used it to identify the tenth century levels at their excavations. However, the Chicago excavators, as well as Yadin, were working before the days of C14 and their dating of the pottery in the gate was based solely upon the belief that Solomon built the gate, which in turn was based upon the two passages in the Bible from 1 Kings. While this might well be correct, such an assumption needs to be corroborated by other means, like using radiocarbon dating on wood or bone fragments found with the pottery in the gate. Why? For one thing, they were working backwards, for they were dating the pottery on the basis of the architecture, rather than dating the architecture by the pottery (which is the proper way to do it, as we now know). What if the Bible is incorrect, or we have misinterpreted either it or the remains that have been found, and Solomon did not build these particular gates at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer? In that case, the pottery found within the gate could very well date to some other time period, not necessarily the tenth century BCE. In other words, inherent assumptions need to be tested, rather than taken on faith, even (or especially) in biblical archaeology.
In fact, Finkelstein argues that a later king is likely to have built the gate at Megiddo, which would mean that it—and the pottery within it—does not date to the tenth century. His belief is based in part on newly-published radiocarbon dates, as mentioned above, and in part on the fact that a palace at the site of Samaria, which was built by the Omride dynasty to serve as their capital, and a second palace at Megiddo (Palace 1723) both contain identical masons’ marks on the building blocks. They are the only two such buildings in all of Israel to have such identical marks. Since the palace at Samaria dates to the time of Omri and Ahab in the ninth century BCE, Palace 1723 at Megiddo probably does as well, which means that Palace 6000 in the same level, as well as the hypothesized casemate wall and the six-chambered gate, also all date to long after Solomon.
If this is the case, then what we have long thought was tenth century pottery is in fact not tenth century at all, but is instead later, i.e. dating to the ninth or even eighth century—not only at Megiddo but also at all other sites in Israel with similar pottery. This would mean that not only do all of our assumptions about the tenth century have to be reexamined, but also that Solomon, and perhaps much of the tenth century itself, essentially disappears from the archaeological and historical record that we currently possess. It is in light of this possibility that one might better understand the ongoing discussion concerning tenth-century Jerusalem mentioned above, with scholars wondering just how large the city was during the time of David and Solomon.
However, Amihai Mazar, a distinguished archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (and first cousin once removed of Eilat Mazar), takes the position that the traditional dating for David and Solomon and for the city gates and casemate walls at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer—in the tenth century BCE—is essentially correct. He counters Finkelstein’s arguments with radiocarbon dates from his own site of Tel Rehov, as well as other sites in Israel, among other data. As a result of this ongoing debate, two alternative versions of the archaeology and history of Israel from this time period are now available, but the debate remains unresolved, with the size and importance and correct dates of the kingdoms of David and Solomon hanging in the balance.
So, did David and Solomon exist? It is fair to say that they most likely did, at least if the Tel Dan Stele with its mention of a Davidic dynasty (Beit David) is any indication. However, the jury is still out as to how important they actually were, how large their empires were, and whether the biblical traditions and stories concerning the two men are essentially correct or were concocted later, either in the time of Josiah in the seventh century BCE or even after. Although David and Solomon have successfully overcome the sabotaging nihilism of the 1990s and the early part of the new millennium, the debates about them are still ongoing, with new discoveries impacting the debate as well as benefiting biblical archaeology as a whole.
For instance, Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University, digging at the Philistine city of Tel Safi/Gath in a level dating to the tenth or ninth century BCE, found a pottery sherd that may have the ancient equivalent of the name “Goliath” scratched on it. Although the sherd (and the name) almost certainly did not belong to David’s Goliath, if it does say “Goliath” then it shows that there was such a personal name used in the region at approximately the correct chronological period.
At Amihai Mazar’s site of Tel Rehov, in Israel’s Bet She’an Valley, thirty beehives (forming an apiary or bee yard) from the tenth or ninth century BCE were found. The beehives are the earliest discovered anywhere in the ancient Near East and give new meaning to the biblical phrase “land of milk and honey.” The excavators had already begun to suspect that they were excavating an apiary, so they decided to employ residue analysis—in which the surface of an excavated vessel is scraped, or a small piece of it is crushed, and a gas chromatography instrument and mass spectroscopy are used to look for any organic materials that may indicate the type of food that was once contained in the vessel. At Rehov, the residue analysis indicated the presence of degraded beeswax in the vessels, confirming the archaeologists’ suspicions that they were indeed excavating an apiary.
At the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa (possibly ancient Sha’arayim), Yossi Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem discovered a pottery sherd probably dating to the tenth century BCE with five inked lines of Hebrew, written using proto-Canaanite script, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet. The words “king,” “judge,” and “slave” could be made out immediately, but the rest of the inscription was so faded that nothing more could be read by the naked eye. The ostracon was subsequently flown to the United States, where Greg Bearman, formerly of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, who has served as a pioneer in applying modern imaging technology to archaeology, used a variety of high technology systems in Massachusetts and California to take further images, including two different imaging spectrometers (one that acquires the entire reflectance spectrum of a line at once and the other that creates both reflectance and fluorescence spectral images) and twelve-band spectral imaging with higher spatial resolution than the previous two methods. When all of the images have been analyzed, it should be possible to read the entire inscription; if so, it may shed light on the whole debate regarding David and Solomon, although the odds are against it.
At Khirbat en-Nahas in Jordan, an ancient copper-production site, biblical archaeologists Tom Levy of the University of California at San Diego and Mohammad Najjar of Jordan’s Friends of Archaeology have published evidence that the site contains industrial smelting debris more than twenty feet deep. According to Levy, the radiocarbon dates may date the site, located in the biblical kingdom of Edom, to the tenth or ninth centuries BCE, some three hundred years earlier than previously thought. If so, they could be related to the famous copper mines of King Solomon, although definitive proof remains to be found.
Clearly, there remains much to be discovered, and much to be excited about, in the debate about David and Solomon in particular and in the field of biblical archaeology as a whole. Although the discipline is not a new field, having been seriously practiced for more than one hundred years, it has kept pace with modern developments. At its inception, the principal tools were the pick and shovel. Now biblical archaeologists use magnetometers, ground penetrating radar, electric resistivity meters, and satellite photography alongside traditional methods of excavation, enabling them to peer beneath the ground surface before physical excavation begins. Radiocarbon dating is used alongside time-honored chronological methods such as pottery seriation and typology. And biblical archaeologists are working hand in hand with specialists in ceramic petrography, residue analysis, and DNA analysis, in order to answer more anthropologically-oriented questions concerning ethnicity, gender, trade, and the rise of rulership and complex societies.
Sometimes these tools help to confirm the biblical text and sometimes they do not. Upon occasion, the archaeologists can bring to life the people, places, and events discussed in the Bible. But ultimately biblical archaeology is not about proving or disproving the Bible, or even determining whether David and Solomon existed. Instead, biblical archaeologists are more concerned with investigating the material culture of the lands and eras in question and reconstructing the culture and history of the Holy Land for a period lasting more than two thousand years. And that in itself is absolutely fascinating, for professionals and the general public alike.