Written by Paul Lucas
In 1993, when a shard of a tablet was unearthed that mentioned “the House of David”, scholars ceased doubting the existence of a historical David and Solomon. Thus, the modern debate does not concern the mere existence of these two important biblical figures, rather the accuracy their portrayal in the biblical text is questioned due to a lack of evidence. In this, there are generally two positions taken by scholars: the view that the biblical records of David and Solomon are mere tales and exaggerations, hereafter referred to as “the Skeptic view”. Second is the view that the biblical accounts of David and Solomon are accurate to the letter, and any lack of evidence does not contradict Scripture, but rather supports it.
The Skeptical view, held by scholars such as Finkelstein, argue that the archaeological evidence of the biblical events, such as the many wondrous building projects of Solomon and the vast military success of David, is severely lacking. Due to this lack of evidence, it is more reasonable to assume the stories about David and Solomon are largely hyperbolized, and are better defined as epic religious poetry and/or potentialities of desire rather than actual history. As Finkelstein writes at the conclusion of a chapter on this very subject, “the historical reality of the kingdom of David and Solomon was quite different from the tale. It was part of a great demographic transformation that would lead to the emergence of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel – in a dramatically different historical sequence than the one the Bible describes.”
As Finkelstein describes, the archaeological evidence supports a simpler nature of the reigns of David and Solomon. Concerning the supposed “vast empire of David”, there is neither evidence of a vast army capable of conquering the land to build the empire nor evidence of the surrounding Canaanite villages being conquered or interrupted in any discernable way. For Finkelstein, the best arguments supporting the Biblical account of the conquests of David are found in the discovery of both Philistine influence and evidence of destruction in the same places where the Bible claims David’s armies conquered. However, as Finkelstein concludes, this is not necessarily evidence of a vast military expedition, but it is more likely evidence of isolated disputes between bigger cities and surrounding villages. In short, “there is absolutely no archaeological indication of the wealth, manpower, and level of organization that would be required to support large armies –even for brief periods—in the field.”
The case for Solomon meets a similar fate in the eyes of Finkelstein. While evidence was found by an the expedition of Yigael Yadin in the mid-20th century of grand architecture which could have been the remnants of Solomon’s building projects, it was later found to have existed over a century after Solomon’s reign. Thus, the evidence that seemed to support the biblical narrative turned out to be “the result of badly mistaken dates.”
Scholars such as Millard, however, interpret the situation differently. Concerning the situation described above, Millard rightly points out that “These writers assume there should be archaeological evidence that relates to the written reports preserved in religious tradition. There is an unspoken implication that as first-hand and visible, the archaeological evidence should have priority, and when archaeological evidence is lacking, the written reports may be doubted.” In fact, one should expect to lack substantial material evidence, given the ancient Near-Eastern worldview that, in contrast with our modern desire to leave historical sites unmolested, it was common for ancient peoples to tear down, break apart, and reuse building materials from previous structures, irrespective of cultural value. Millard proceeds to supply many examples of this occurring. To conclude his chapter, he rightly posits that the problem does not lie with doubting the accuracy of written accounts, rather it lies with the limited archaeological knowledge scholars currently have in general. Therefore, as he rightly concludes, “[this] does not force us to doubt the texts; at worst, it leaves the questions open.”
Given the very nature of archaeological discovery, and the exceedingly high probability of undiscovered evidence, the most rational position for the Skeptical view to take would be one of pure agnosticism, rather than Finkelstein’s proposed inaccuracy of the biblical narrative. In other words, a more feasible position, as Millard suggests, would be to simply withhold judgement concerning the accuracy of the Bible. However, Finkelstein seems to go further and outright deny the accuracy based of a lack of evidence, which is problematic in two main ways.
First, it is an argument from ignorance. As the axiom goes, a lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. The only kind of evidence that would support Finkelstein’s thesis is evidence that outright contradicts the claims of Scripture. However, no such evidence was presented. As such, Finkelstein’s entire argument seems to be based on a lack of evidence, which is a weak support for his intended conclusion that the biblical account is wrong. As previously mentioned, this position is substantially more difficult to prove than mere agnosticism/withholding of judgement. As such, it requires a stronger argument than Finkelstein has presented.
Secondly, Finkelstein seems to presuppose a naturalistic philosophy, resulting in a presupposed dismissal of the supernatural claims within the Bible, which is likely the origin of his strong assertions. For example, Finkelstein repeatedly suggests that certain parts of Scripture are “clearly legendary” or “tales and legends”. He simply glosses over a very substantial ontological and epistemological claim that he knows certain parts of the narratives are legendary, yet he provides no support or evidence for such claims. It seems that he presupposes the falsity of the claims prior to examining them, likely due to a naturalist presupposition. It makes sense, however, because presupposing naturalism is the best way to rationalize his epistemological leap from withholding judgement to supposing the falsity. However, he had not established this presupposition, so this leap is unwarranted, and requires further discussion concerning the accuracy of naturalistic philosophy.
In summation, it seems the Skeptical view, as defined above, is the least rational view given the state of affairs. Most rationally, one could believe the accuracy of the biblical narratives until given evidence to the contrary, or, equally rationally, one could withhold judgement entirely until new archaeological evidence is found. Any other view seems to presuppose more than the evidence allows, which is a problematic situation in which to find oneself.
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil A. Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origins of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Touchstone, 2001.
Millard, Alan R. “David and Solomon’s Jerusalem: Do the Bible and Archaeology Agree?” In Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention?, edited by Daniel L. Block, 4732-5090. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008.