Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History? The Archaeology of David’s Kingdom

Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History? The Archaeology of David’s Kingdom

For many years, though critics questioned the historicity of the patriarchs, the exodus, and the biblical portrait of the settlement of the land of Canaan, the historicity of the monarchy in Israel was more or less assumed. But with the rise of postmodernity, many scholars began to cast doubt even on the period of David and Solomon. The 1990s proved to be a volatile time in biblical studies as the trajectories begun by postmodern literary criticism began to intersect with biblical studies. Hence any number of postmodern biblical criticisms began to emerge, including feminist criticism, womanist criticism, postcolonial criticism, LGBT criticism and queer theory, cultural criticism, trauma/victimization criticism, and the list goes on.1

On the one hand, some of these criticisms—as bizarre as they seem—can at times provide a service to interpreters by drawing attention to details in the text often overlooked by those of us who are focused on different sets of details and categories. And yet, on the other hand, nearly all of them more frequently fall prey to postmodern deconstructionism, an approach that believes that “texts have no intrinsic ‘meaning,’ at least none that is recoverable in the case of ancient texts; the modern interpreter gives to the text whatever ‘meaning’ seems appropriate in the social context of his or her own ‘realm of discourse,’ whatever the ‘realm’ of the original author may have been.”2

When postmodern deconstructionism came to roost in biblical studies, the historicity of the united monarchy, once accepted as factual by nearly everyone, was now called into question. Thus the modern-day postmodern critic will claim that even though the biblical authors spoke of a David who ruled from such places as Hebron and Jerusalem, these stories are insufficient to provide us with reliable historical information and thus cause us to doubt their reliability. These critics have been labeled as “minimalists” in that they believe the Bible provides us with minimal access to “what really happened” and contains a minimum of historical truth.

By contrast, maximalist scholars—those who believe the Bible provides us with large amounts of historical data—have responded to minimalism in two primary ways

First, they have pointed out that minimalist writers who disparage the Old Testament for its supposed ideological stance (e.g., monotheism, Jerusalem-centeredness, etc.) while at the same time praising ancient Near Eastern texts which themselves exhibit ideological stances are guilty of a glaring inconsistency. For example, the Merneptah Stele, which we considered in a previous article,3 is unashamedly propagandistic, yet minimalist scholars demand that the people and places in the Bible be verified by texts like this before accepting them as historical.4

Second, maximalist scholars have mustered data from the archaeological record that doesindeedcorroborate the biblical texts. Though we noted in our first article that the Bible does not require attestation from outside sources (it is, after all, the self-authenticating Word of God, above which nothing is able to stand in judgment), archaeology does at times help us “respond to challenges” and “confirm the text.”5 In the remainder of this article, we will consider some of this data and witness how they give insight into the nature of David’s kingdom and support the historicity of the united monarchy.

Ancient Extrabiblical Mention of King David

In the early 1990s, several scholars began to opine that King David was on par, historically speaking, to the legendary King Arthur. The Bible’s description of David’s reign was said to be a fiction invented by later kings to explain their own kingship as originating in a divine covenant granted to the eponymous ancestor of their dynastic line (so 2 Sam. 7). There are no ancient extrabiblical texts that mention the man David by name, and this is because there was no David about whom to write.

Now it is true that no ancient extrabiblical texts record anything like this: “And then I fought alongside the armies of David of Jerusalem whereupon he smote our enemies with a mighty smiting!” We dohave texts that refer to individual Israelite and Judean kings by name from a later period (as we will see in our next article), but we have no such texts for David. In the case of David, however, we do have texts that mention his dynasty and possibly even reference a region made famous by his military activity prior to the death of Saul. Let us look at these examples in turn.

The site of Tel Dan, 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, is known from the Bible as one of the sites of Jeroboam’s golden calves. Excavations began in earnest in 1966 and continued without interruption until 2000. In 1993, archaeologists found a fragment of a stele written in Aramaic that sent shock waves through the biblical studies guild. Its text—written in the late ninth century B.C.—made mention of the “House of David” (Hebrew byt dwd). The author of the text, who is not identified by name but is described as having been made king by the storm god Hadad, boasts of having defeated the king of the northern kingdom and overthrown the king of Judah. Though fairly fragmentary, the Tel Dan stele reads:

Hadad went before me [and] I went from [ . . . ] of my kings.

I killed kings who harnessed . . . chariots and thousands of horsemen,

[Jeho]ram son of [Ahab] king of Israel,

And [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram king] of the house of David.

I imposed [tribute] . . . their land . . . 6

Though the names Jehoram, Ahab, Ahaziahu (= Ahaziah), and Jehoram are reconstructed, what is absolutely clear is the reference to a dynastic succession going by the name “House of David” less than 150 years after the death of David himself.

The importance of this text was immediately recognized. Many scholars saw that 150 years is too short of a time for a King-Arthur-like lore to develop about King David. And for the critics who tried to demote David (even if he did exist) to the status of a “petty chieftain of little significance,” the Tel Dan stele annulled such speculation by showing the inconceivability of promotingDavid in less than 150 years to the full-blown eponymous ancestor of a Judean dynasty. (We will say more about “David demotion” below.) David-deniers began floundering: some challenged the translation of byt dwd as “House of David” and proposed a hitherto unknown and unattested Semitic god (apparently named Dod, achieved by translating the not as a consonant but as an vowel) as the referent in the stele. Others claimed that the inscription itself was a forgery, likely manufactured by conservative Jews or Christians trying to invent evidence for David. In the end, critics were forced to admit that there was a man named David who reigned as some kind of a king and from whom were descended the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.

Shortly after this, scholars revisited the translation of a stele discovered in 1868 from Dhiban, the ancient capital of Moab. The “Mesha Inscription” or “Moabite Stone” (as it is commonly called) not only described the deliverance of Moab from the Omeride dynasty of Israel, it even mentioned the God of Israel, YHWH, by name. In addition, it contained a reference to the House of David (bt [d]wd), although this had originally been obscured by the fact that the word house was spelled in short form (bt—i.e., missing the letter y) and the letter d of David was obscured. But since the Tel Dan stele had placed the Davidic dynasty on the radars of epigraphers, this new reading of a well-known text became even more widely accepted. Again, an ancient, extrabiblical text now provided witness to the historicity of a Davidic dynasty, and indirectly to its eponymous founder, King David.

Though the Tel Dan inscription and the Mesha Inscription are the best exemplars of extrabiblical references to the dynasty of David, the respected University of Liverpool Egyptologist Kenneth A. Kitchen has also revisited a possible reading from the famous Karnak Reliefs in Thebes.7 After raiding Palestine in 925 B.C., Pharaoh Shoshenq I of Egypt commissioned this victory scene which covered various place names from regions in both Israel and Judah, including a southern Judean location called “the highlands of d-w-t.’” Since in Egyptian the letter t can be used to render the Semitic letter d, and since an Old South Arabian inscription spells the name of King David as d-w-t, Kitchen has suggested a very high probability that less than fifty years after David’s death, the Karnak Reliefs of Shoshenq I speak of the area of David’s military exploits in the final years of Saul’s reign as “the highlands of David.”

So in summary, archaeology has unearthed several inscriptions that make mention of David. Since these inscriptions cannot be dismissed as forgeries or misreadings, the burden of proof is upon the skeptic to show why one should not see these texts as attesting to the historicity of David. Is there anything else from archaeology, however, which sheds light on David’s reign?

Davidic Archaeology in Jerusalem

As noted above, some scholars have reluctantly admitted the existence of a man named David but have gone on to suggest that archaeology contradicts the portrait of David found in the books of Samuel. He was, in their reconstruction, not so much a king as a tribal warlord. The title “king” suggests a degree of societal organization and urbanization that is unattested, so it is claimed, in the late eleventh to early tenth centuries B.C. when the Old Testament says David existed. But is this really the case?

It should be noted that though Jerusalem is one of the most excavated cities in the Levant, few unequivocal tenth-century B.C. remains have been uncovered. One key reason for this is that pinpointing the tenth century (let alone the early tenth century when David reigned) is notoriously difficult. Traditionally, a pottery type called “red slipped/hand burnished ware” was attributed exclusively to the tenth century B.C., such that where one found this pottery type, one knew he was studying a tenth-century B.C. ruin. Minimalist archaeologists, however, began to down-date these assemblages by seventy-five to one hundred years, effectively removing sites traditionally attributed to David and Solomon from the tenth century and placing them in the ninth century B.C.8 Pottery found at Jezreel, however, demonstrated that red slipped/hand burnished ware had a longer lifespan than the minimalists allowed: it spanned both the tenth and ninth centuries B.C. Thus while finds containing this pottery type cannot be limited to the tenth century, they also cannot be denied a tenth-century date unless other factors point that direction.

Having said that few unequivocal tenth-century B.C. remains have been uncovered, there is one significant find that has been attributed to the tenth century, though whether it was constructed duringthe that century or constructed just prior is open to debate. In the mid-2000s, Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced that she had discovered remains from the tenth century B.C. in Jerusalem, an edifice she named the “Large-Stone Structure.” In a 2006 article, she asked the question: Did I find King David’s palace? She has been given several different answers. Some suggest that the Large-Stone Structure is a Jebusite fortress (with some conservative scholars identifying it with the “Stronghold of Zion” that David conquered [2 Sam. 5:7]), but Mazar has her doubts. She suggests that it was built too late in the history of Jebusite occupation of Jerusalem (right about 1000 B.C.) and along vastly different architectural lines from what one would expect of a Jebusite construction. What is more, the Large-Stone Structure was built on bedrock, just outside the boundary of the earlier Jebusite city, and is thus clearly a late addition to a previously existing city plan. Instead, Mazar believes the Large-Stone Structure is best explained as the palace David built for himself (2 Sam. 5:11).9

If she is right, we have corroborating evidence that David is rightly termed a king since the label “tribal warlord” would not seem to reflect adequately the centralization necessary for the building of a project like the Large-Stone Structure. And while not all scholars agree with this conclusion, it is important to note that even a Jebusite construction of the Large-Stone structure does not conflict with the biblical portrait of David reigning as a king from a centralized Jerusalem. After all, at minimum this illustrates that Jerusalem was and remained a city of prominent size and stature during the periods before and after 1000 B.C., one perfectly suited to serve as the capital of the emerging Israelite kingdom.

Khirbet Qeiyafa: A Davidic Administrative Center

In addition to Jerusalem’s Large-Stone Structure, a site ca. 16 miles west of Jerusalem, Khirbet Qeiyafa, has yielded important finds from the time of David. Radiocarbon dating of olive pits from the site has shown that the site was built ca. 1020–980 b.c. Some have suggested that Qeiyafa is the location of biblical Shaaraim (Josh. 15:36; 1 Sam. 17:52; 1 Chron. 4:31) due to the two, multichambered gates found at the site. (Note that the Hebrew word sha’araim  literally means “two gates.”) But what is most significant is that Qeiyafa has characteristics best explained by viewing it as a royal administrative center on the outskirts of a larger kingdom. And who is the most likely candidate for such a kingdom?

Some scholars, unwilling to accept that a real King David began to rule a real kingdom from Jerusalem around 1010 B.C., have suggested that Qeiyafa was a Philistine administrative center, perhaps a satellite of nearby Gath ca. 12 miles to the southwest. The absence of pig bones at the site (usually found in abundance at Philistine sites) and the site’s extant pottery repertoire, however, point toward the Judean hill country as the center of this kingdom. Other scholars, recognizing the unlikelihood of Qeiyafa as being Philistine, have invented a hitherto unknown and unattested group of “Saulides” who built the site as a base for their opposition of the “war lord” David in Jerusalem. But since these Saulides are exactly like Israelites, and since the only way to posit their existence is to deny the only textual evidence we have (i.e., the Bible), it is hard to take seriously such a suggestion as anything but special pleading.10

No, Khirbet Qeiyafa is an Israelite site and provides a glimpse into the early days of David’s kingdom. The multistoried administrative structure in the middle of the site could only be built in the context of an urbanized, centralized state. Qeiyafa has also yielded one of the few examples of alphabetic writing from Judah, a sherd of pottery found in 2008 inscribed with Canaanite/pre-Hebrew letters, indicating the presence of a scribal bureaucracy at the site. The massive fortifications of the site (estimated to have used some 200,000 tons of stone), make the site a perfect outpost and military staging area for David’s kingdom near the boundaries of Philistine territory.


In conclusion, though we do not have extrabiblical writings attesting to the man King David by name, we do have extrabiblical texts describing a dynasty that descends from David. And while we do not have archaeological ruins with signs saying “David’s Palace” or “David’s Administrative Center Near Philistia,” we do have structures and sites from the period of history when the Bible says David reigned in Jerusalem. What is more, these structures and sites make little sense apart from positing the existence of an urbanized kingdom in Jerusalem around 1000 B.C. And so, as we have seen from other periods of Old Testament history, archaeology contextualizes, complements, responds to challenges, and even confirms the beginning of the united monarchy as it is described in the books of Samuel.


1. A. K. M. Adam, ed., Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000).

2. William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 25–26.

3. The Outlook 67, no. 2 (March-April 2017): 28–29.

4. Iain Provan’s critique of minimalism is a must-read for any interested in countering the philosophical underpinnings of this movement. See Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015). See chapters 1, 2, 3, and 5.

5. See The Outlook 66, no. 3 (May-June 2016): 8–9.

6. This translation is a modification of that found in William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture, vol. 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 161–62.

7. See Kenneth A. Kitchen, “A Possible Mention of David in the Late Tenth Century BCE, and Diety *Dod as Dead as the Dodo?,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 76 (1997): 29–44.

8. For an able critique of the so-called low chronology, see Steven M. Oritz, “The Archaeology of David and Solomon: Method or Madness?,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 497–516.

9. Eilat Mazar, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?,” Biblical Archaeology Review 32 (January-February 2006): 16–27, 70.

10. For the implications of Qeiyafa for David’s kingdom, see Michael G. Hasel, “New Excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa and the Early History of Judah,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 477–96. See too Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel, and Martin Klingbeil, “An Ending and a Beginning: Why We’re Leaving Qeiyafa and Going to Lachish,” Biblical Archaeology Review 39 (November-December 2013): 44–51.

Rev. R. Andrew Compton is assistant professor of Old Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.