The Fool’s Gold of Ophir

What scholars thought they knew about Solomon has turned out to be illusory, but even in the wake of this failure, the king’s example suggests, there are other kinds of insight still attainable--not the absolute knowledge that earlier generations grasped for, but a more modest understanding emerging only after one renounces the certitudes of wisdom.

See Solomon, The Lure of Wisdom (Yale University Press, 2011)

By Steven Weitzman
Department of Religious Studies
Stanford University
August 2011

King Solomon is famous for many reasons—he was an exemplary ruler, the builder of the Temple, the author of many books, and the husband of a thousand wives—but what has captured the world’s collective imagination more than anything else is his association with divine wisdom, his attainment of an understanding able to penetrate the deepest and most inaccessible secrets of life. According to the Bible, Solomon’s wisdom was so great, his knowledge so vast, that “there was nothing hidden from the king”--no secret he could not uncover, no riddle he could not solve.

Ironically, however, Solomon himself remains an unsolved riddle. As discussed by other scholars featured on this site, the real King Solomon remains inaccessible to us despite a century of efforts to find him. Our main source of information, of course, is the Bible—1 Kings 1-11 and a more tedious retelling of its story in 1-2 Chronicles —but these make many claims that make one suspicious. Was Solomon really the wisest man on earth? The wealthiest? Did he really marry a thousand women? Even if we posit a scaled down, more plausible Solomon, scholarship has failed to find any corroboration for such a figure in the archaeological or inscriptional record. In the first sixty or so years of the twentieth century, scholars did make a number of impressive archaeological discoveries that seemed to bring them closer to the historical Solomon, or so it was believed: Solomon’s stables in the city of Megiddo, for example, or the Solomonic port-town of Ezion Geber on the shores of the Red Sea. In the last few decades, however, every find ascribed to Solomon’s kingdom has been reassessed and often shown to have no connection to Solomon or his kingdom. As recently as the 1970s, many scholars assumed that Solomon’s reign was a real historical era. Today, a time when not one single find can still be confidently attributed to this period, it is no longer clear that there ever was a Solomonic era, much less one that corresponds to the biblical account.

So where does all this leave those of us seeking to understand King Solomon and his wisdom? Archaeologists may yet uncover evidence of Solomon’s kingdom (an archaeologist named Eilat Mazar claims to be making such discoveries in Jerusalem even though now her interpretations have been questioned by other archaeologists), but at least for now, the only responsible conclusion to draw is that we know virtually nothing with certainty about the historical Solomon. Indeed, there are respected archaeologists in Israel today—Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, to cite an outspoken example-- who argue that Solomon is no more historical than King Arthur, that he never existed or bears little resemblance to the king as described in the biblical accounts. Even to conclude that there wasn’t a king Solomon, however, is to claim more than we actually know.

This lack of certain knowledge is why it is impossible to write a biography of Solomon in any conventional sense as I found myself challenged to do by an invitation to submit a biography of the king to a new series called Jewish Lives from Yale University Press. How could any self-respecting scholar pretend to describe a figure about whom we can know nothing? What nonetheless inspired me to make the attempt is the example of Solomon himself and a certain experience that is said to have befallen the king at the end of his life. Much of the account in 1 Kings 1-11 is a catalogue of the accomplishments that Solomon’s wisdom made possible. The incredible things he was able to do because of the insight and skill that God gave to him; however, then the story takes an unexpected turn. Despite his wisdom, Solomon ends his days as a fool: his wives lead his heart astray, and he begins worshipping false gods that he should have recognized as illusory. For many readers of the Bible over the centuries, the end of Solomon’s story demonstrated the futility of the quest for knowledge. If even the perfect wisdom of God himself did not help Solomon in the end, they reasoned, why should the rest of us, with our much more modest abilities, strive for understanding? But for other interpreters, the story did not stop there. They asked what became of the king after his wisdom failed him, and some came to believe that Solomon found his way to some new kind of understanding, a wisdom beyond the wisdom for which he is famous. This final episode in Solomon’s life lies beyond the reach of modern secular biblical scholarship, but the pre-modern effort to trace Solomon's life beyond the collapse of his wisdom resonated as true for me in another sense. What scholars thought they knew about Solomon has turned out to be illusory, but even in the wake of this failure, the king’s example suggests, there are other kinds of insight still attainable--not the absolute knowledge that earlier generations grasped for, but a more modest understanding emerging only after one renounces the certitudes of wisdom. Unable to say anything definitive about the historical Solomon and his kingdom, I decided that my attempt at a biography would aim for this more modest, self-reflective insight, not to illumine the biblical past itself but to explore the impulses at work in our quest to understand that past.

Let me try to illustrate this more modest kind of understanding with an example that bears on the most recent archaeological discovery related to King Solomon, a discovery recently announced by Thomas Levy of UC San Diego and his Jordanian colleague Muhammad Najjar, who have been overseeing excavations in an area called Khirbat en-Nahas in southern Jordan. What Levy may have discovered there, according to their publications and press releases, is the source of Solomon’s wealth. According to the Bible, Solomon amassed an astonishing fortune—extraordinary quantities of gold, silver, and other commodities, which he used to construct the Temple and strengthen ties with other kings. What Levy and Najjar may have discovered is a possible source of this wealth, large-scale copper mines in what would have been southern Edom—not part of the biblical kingdom of Israel but territory which Solomon may have controlled.

Have Levy and Najjar actually found the source of Solomon’s wealth? Their interpretation of the evidence has been contested by other archaeologists, including Israel Finkelstein, and the argument among scholars is unfolding even now, so this will have to remain an open question for now. What interests me about this find, however, is not the discovery itself but the quest that led to it, the attempt to find the source of Solomon’s wealth, which, it turns out, has a long history that is fascinating in its own right.

The Bible does not tell us where all of Solomon’s wealth came from, but it does offer some tantalizing clues, suggesting, for example, that Solomon imported much of his gold and silver from two places known as Ophir and Tarshish. Find these places, it was believed, and one could conceivably become as wealthy as Solomon.

But where should one look? For most of the last two thousand years, however, Ophir and Tarshish were thought beyond reach; all commentators could do was speculate about their location without ever hoping to reach these places themselves. That situation changed at the end of the fifteenth century, however, when improved cartography and better ship construction meant that ships could now travel much farther than had been possible before. All these advances were thought to have been known in earlier days by King Solomon, but his wisdom had been lost. As Spanish, Portuguese, and English ships ventured into the world, explorers saw themselves as rediscovering this knowledge, convinced that it would lead them, among other places, to the source of Solomon's gold.

One of the explorers who thought he had figured out the source of Solomon’s wealth was none other than Christopher Columbus, though of course he is better known today for other discoveries. We know from Columbus’ writings that he studied the Bible and other ancient sources like Josephus for clues about the location of Ophir and Tarshish, which he assumed were the same place, and from such sources he surmised that Ophir was an island located in India or China, perhaps an island that Marco Polo had learned of during his journey to China, an island once called Cipango and what we now know as Japan. In contrast to Marco Polo, however, Columbus realized he did not need to travel east to find it. Since by his day it was known that the world was round, he reasoned that it would take him much less time to reach Ophir and Tarshish if he traveled west—just a few weeks rather than the three-year round trip traveled by Solomon’s ships.

Columbus' journey ended up taking a little longer than he thought, but he eventually found what he was looking for on the island of Hispaniola, where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are now located, or so he thought. There, he spent a decade searching for gold, and when it became clear that he had been mistaken, he was sent back to Spain. In Columbus’ mind, however, the problem was not that he had been wrong to look for Ophir but that he had been looking in the wrong place. Further study led him to modify his views about its whereabouts; and in 1502, the Spanish monarchs gave him another chance to find it. After a fourth and final journey across the sea, Columbus found what he believed was the true source of Solomon’s wealth, this time in Central America. He even wrote a letter to Ferdinand and Isabel putting this wealth at their disposal.

Whether Columbus had actually found Ophir and Tarshish was much debated by scholars at the time. Some were convinced that he had, but others began looking elsewhere. It was during this period, for example, that a Spanish expedition led by Alvaro de Mendaña, a nephew of the Peruvian viceroy, discovered what they took to be the source of Solomon’s gold on a chain of islands not far from what is now New Guinea--islands known to this day as the Solomon Islands. For their part, the Portuguese extended the search into Africa, a location suggested by the similarity of the name Africa itself to Ophir, while the English extended the search to places like Arabia, East Africa, and India.

The search to find Solomon’s gold is thus much older than modern biblical studies or archaeology, developing as Europe began to extend out into the rest of the world in the early modern period. What happened in the nineteenth century, though, is that this biblical treasure hunt took on a more scientific character as the disciple of archaeology began to emerge. A telling episode is an expedition in 1871 led by a German geologist named Karl Mauch who believed he found the source of Solomon’s gold at the Great Zimbabwe, ruins he mistook as the remnants of the kingdom ruled by the Queen of Sheba. Mauch had been following in the footsteps of the Portuguese, but what distinguished his quest from theirs was its scientific nature; his analysis was informed by recent excavation of Phoenician sites, by ethnography, by comparative linguistics. The archaeological quest for Solomon would persist into the twentieth century, continued, among others, by Nelson Glueck, who believed he found the source of Solomon’s wealth not in some remote island but in the copper mines of the southern Negev desert.

But just because the quest for Solomon’s gold was now a scientific one doesn’t mean that it couldn’t go astray. Not long after Mauch’s discovery of the Great Zimbabwe, which he believed constructed by Phoenician workers, a Phoenician inscription turned up in Brazil, on the Parahyba River. The inscription’s content suggested that it had been left behind by a group of Phoenicians who had gone terribly off course during an attempt to circumnavigate Africa and ended up ship wrecked in Brazil. By the time they wrote the inscription, the survivors seem to have been growing desperate because the inscription refers to the sacrifice of a young man slain in the hope of securing the help of the gods. Now the inscription does not mention Solomon directly, but it does include details from the story, mentioning that the sailors were servants of Hiram, Solomon’s Phoenician ally, and that their journey had begun at Ezion-Geber, the Red Sea port built by Solomon.

It did not take long for the inscription to be recognized for the hoax that it was, but what I find striking about this case is something that happened about a century later. In the 1960s, a very well respected scholar named Cyrus Gordon rediscovered the inscription as published in a journal and took it to be an authentic inscription, evidence in his mind that the Phoenicians had actually reached the Americas. The respected epigrapher Frank Moore Cross has since shown that the inscription was clearly a modern hoax, but it is nonetheless revealing if only as a reminder that, however scientific it might appear, the quest for the source of Solomon’s gold has long involved a strange mix of erudition and gullibility continuing into our present age of scholarship.

Which brings us back to Levy and Najjar’s much more recent quest to find the source of Solomon’s wealth. I want to say up front that Levy and Najjar are well respected and smart archaeologists and their interpretation of the evidence is well-argued and properly cautious and qualified, but that said, it is also part of the tradition we have been tracing here, a tradition that seems to have shaped Levy’s understanding of the evidence. It depends, for example, on a connection between Solomon and mining that goes back not to the Bible itself but to a much later period in the history of biblical interpretation. Whether or not there was a Solomonic kingdom, the Bible itself never refers to Solomon’s mines or a mining operating. That was a figment of later interpreters’ imaginations, coming, as Levy’s acknowledges, from the famous novel King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard, which was itself inspired by the German expedition to the Great Zimbabwe. I myself can’t trace the tradition of King Solomon’s Mines any further back than the Renaissance, but since I can’t find much trace of it in antiquity, I suspect it was a motif that emerged in the Middle Ages, perhaps borrowed from the medieval legend of Alexander the Great, whose conquests supposedly extended beneath the earth and not just across it. Despite its origins as a legendary motif, however, Levy and Najjar seem to treat this post-biblical legend as if it were an ancient historical datum, a biblical claim that their discoveries in Jordan are now on the verge of corroborating.

From what I can tell, Levy and Najjar certainly seem to have conducted their excavation using the most cutting-edged scientific methods. Science, however, is not immune from over-reaching and self-delusion, and this is especially so when it comes to efforts to use science to penetrate the secrets of the Bible and biblical history. I will leave it to archaeologists to assess Levy’s interpretation of the material evidence, but it seems to me that he has a responsibility to acknowledge the pre-history of his effort a little more clearly; its origins arise in a pre-scientific quest that appeals to one’s love of adventure but that is also implicated in European colonization and the damage it has done along the way as a motivation for the despoiliation of the Americas, the South Pacific, and Africa.

My ultimate intention, however, is not to critique Levy’s project but to illustrate my own somewhat different effort to gain a measure of insight into the king. Can we ascertain the source of the real Solomon’s wealth? Not yet, perhaps not ever. What we can ascertain is the history of the search for Solomon and his wealth, a history that illustrates both the ingenuity of scholars but also their gullibility and rapacity. That is the history that I try to present in my biography, the more modest insight that it offers. We do not know very much about Solomon’s Temple, about why he designed it as he did, but we can trace scholars’ efforts to reconstruct the logic of the Temple’s design, a fascinating story in its own right that involves the likes of Isaac Newton and the Free Masons. The books of Kings reveals almost nothing about the content of Solomon’s wisdom, the secrets that he alone knew, but we can trace the history of attempts to figure out what that wisdom consisted of, a story that overlaps with the development of magic into science.

Solomon embodies the possibility of being able to answer all of one’s questions, of acquiring a knowledge that should be impossible. That kind of knowledge is beyond our reach—we can answer almost none of our questions about the real king Solomon—but what we can understand, at least to some extent, is the striving for such understanding, the ways in which those who would aspire to know the secrets of life, including scholars seeking to penetrate the secrets of the Bible, pursue their quest for impossible knowledge. The intellectual ambition that drives scholarship, what Columbus himself once referred to as the desire to know the secrets of the world, is wonderfully reflected in how people have interpreted the story of Solomon over the years. While scholars may not be able to retrieve any certain knowledge of the real Solomon, this other Solomon—the king as a projection of the desire to know everything—has played a real (and sometimes harmful) role in world history that can be studied and serves our own intellectually ambitious age as a potent symbol for both the pursuit of wisdom and the fool’s gold that it can lead to.

Bibliographical note

For Levy and Najjar’s finds, see Thomas Levy and Muhammad Najjar “High-precision Radiocarbon Dating and Historical Biblical Archaeology in Southern Jordan,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 105 no. 43 (2008):. 16460-16465. Their work was also the subject of a Nova special called “Quest for Solomon’s Mines,” aired on PBS in 2010. See

For an alternative interpretation of their finds, see I. Finkelstein and Eli Piasetzky, “Khirbat en-Nah9as, Edom and Biblical History,“ Tel Aviv 32 (2005): 119–125.

For more on Columbus’ search for Solomon’s gold, see Jorge Magasich-Airola and Jean-Marc de Beer, America Magica: When Renaissance Europe Thought it Had Conquered Paradise (trans. Monica Sandor; London: Anthem Press, 2006) 53-67; and James Romm, “Biblical History and the Americas: the Legend of Solomon’s Ophir, 1492-1591,” The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West 1450-1800 (New York and Oxford: Berghan Books, 2001), 27-46.

For the origins of the connection between the great Zimbabwe and Solomon, see Scott Carroll, “Solomonic Legend: The Muslims and the Great Zimbabwe,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 21 (1988): 233-247.

For the attempt to prove the authenticity of the Parahyba inscription, see C. H. Gordon, “The Authenticity of the Phoenician Text from Parahyba,” Orientalia NS 37 (1968): 75-80. For a decisive refutation, see F. M. Cross, “The Phoenician Inscription from Brazil: A Nineteenth-Century Forgery,” Orientalia NS 37 (1968): 437-460.

Comments (2)

Amazing article. If the process of evaluation was applied to many historical figures, events or places that you've applied to the verification of Solomon we would have to eliminate much from what we use as fact from much historical data. At times it seems that those of us in academia have become so intelligent we look ignorant.

#1 - Steven Litten - 07/24/2015 - 22:22

Greta Von Duchenne and Giorgio Santillana wrote a book called Hamlet's Mill that discusses parts of the Bible from a scientific perspective that might shed light.

#2 - Randy Follmer - 10/29/2016 - 12:24

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