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Kings or Chieftains? Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006
by Julia M. Klein
David and Solomon

In David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (New York: Free Press, 2006; $26), archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and ARCHAEOLOGY contributing editor Neil Asher Silberman perform an intellectual high-wire act. Their audacity and skill is admirable, yet a single misstep could bring their whole theory crashing down.

Finkelstein, chairman of the department of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and Silberman, director of the Ename Center of Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium, previously collaborated on The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Text. That controversial 2001 book applied the latest archaeological evidence to Biblical history and pronounced much of it fictional. Among the stories they dismissed as myths were the Exodus, the Battle of Jericho, and the notion that King David and his son and successor, Solomon, ruled over a powerful united monarchy of Israel.

David and Solomon elaborates on their treatment of these kings, as the authors sift through the archaeological evidence from dozens of sites dating to the first millennium B.C. and painstakingly analyze biblical history. They suggest that the exploits of David and Solomon were highly exaggerated to legitimize the political and religious goals of later regimes. In the process, they reject two competing claims: that the stories were reasonably accurate contemporaneous accounts of tenth-century B.C. monarchs, and that they were much more recent inventions with little historical basis.

The reality, they say, is more subtle and complex, involving "a core of authentic memories" that evolved into "a complex and timeless literary creation." The authors' starting point is the assertion that in the tenth-century B.C., Israel did not have the widespread literacy necessary to produce these biblical passages. Nor was the Jerusalem of that period anything like the great city depicted in the Bible. Instead, archaeology indicates that both Saul, David's predecessor, and David were little more than highland chieftains, and that even Solomon's capital city was "the rough hilltop stronghold of a local dynasty of rustic tribal chiefs."

Preserved as folk tales in the ninth century B.C., these stories were not written down until the eighth and seventh centuries. The impetus behind their compilation was the emergence of Judah, in the south, ruled by King Josiah, from the shadow of the northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century.

The book's most stunning accomplishment is its skillful reconciliation of competing perspectives within the biblical text. After all, if the David story is propaganda, why does it include so many incidents that reflect badly on him? Not just the slayer of Goliath and ruler of a great kingdom, he is also a lackey of the Philistines, the seducer of Bathsheba, and an accessory to murder. Finkelstein and Silberman argue that these tales originated as oral history of northern immigrants to Jerusalem who celebrated David's rival Saul. They were assimilated into the text just as the immigrants were assimilated into Judah.

Not everyone will buy the authors' conclusions, but biblical archaeologists surely will have to reckon with them.

Julia M. Klein is a freelance cultural critic and reporter for The New York Times, Mother Jones, and other publications.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America