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How Great was the Empire of David and Solomon?

In 2005, the Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced that she had discovered what may have been the palace of King David. Mazar was criticized by some of her colleagues as a "biblical archeologist." She said that the Bible contains a "genuine historical account of the past." Archaeological colleagues at Tel Aviv University considered stories in Scripture to have origins in oral storytelling that might have been subject to embellishment before put into writing. They complained that conclusions about how vast the empire of David or Solomon empire should be limited to evidence derived from archeological field work.

In a book published in October 2007, The Quest for the Historic Israel, one of Mazer's colleagues at Tel Aviv University, Israel Finkelstein, describes David as ruling the Jerusalem area when it was still sparsely populated. Finkelstein writes of "bandits and rebels" having been attracted to marginal mountainous environments. David, he suggests, may have been a bandit rebel, dominating towns while in the protection racket as was Hammurabi and as a bandit rebels often were.

In another book, David and Solomon,Finkelstein writes:

The evidence clearly suggests that tenth-century Jerusalem was a small highland village that controlled a sparsely settled hinterland. note1

The population remained low and the villages modest and few in number throughout the tenth century BCE. note2

Finkelstein contends that here there is no clear archaeological evidence for Jerusalem's emergence at that time as the capital of a powerful empire with elaborate administrative institutions and a scribal tradition capable of composing such an elaborate chronicle of events. note3

In The Quest for the Historical Israel Finkelstein writes of archaeologists who have searched for support of the biblical narrative. and he writes of a minimalist school of archeologists "which rejected altogether the value of biblical history for the study of Canaan/Israel in the Iron Age." Finkelstein describes himself as "the voice of the center" between these two.

Finkelstein claims to have found evidence that David and Solomon were historical figures. But in looking for evidence of a great and prosperous empire in the time of David and Solomon he didn't find it. He writes of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute excavation at Megiddo (in the Jezreel Valley) as "the most comprehensive dig in the history of biblical archaeology," and he concludes that the findings there do not justify a declaration that what was being examined existed in Solomon's time. Finkelstein writes of a variety of states having arisen in the 800s BCE, among them Aram-Damascus, Moab, Ammon, and northern Israel. He writes that "It is extremely difficult to envision a great empire ruled from a marginal region" (around Jerusalem) a century earlier. He writes that "The beautiful Megiddo palaces – until recently the symbol of Solomonic splendor – date to the time of the Omride dynasty of the Northern Kingdom, almost a century later than Solomon."

Finkelstein and a colleague, Neil Silberman, in a work titled The Bible Unearthed contend that archaeological evidence suggests that the kingdom of Israel at the time of Solomon was little more than a small city state and that it is implausible that Solomon received tribute as large as 666 talents of gold per year. They see David and Solomon as kings of Judah around the 10th century BCE.

National Geographic in 2010 published an article on Mazar and Finkelstein titled "Kings of Controversy."

A 2012 YouTube presentation not necessarily authoritative but great in detail asks the question "Is Israel Finkelstein Right about Solomon?" As of May 2014 it is followed by 39 comments.

ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: So David and Solomon did not rule over a big territory. It was a small chiefdom, if you wish, with just a few settlements, very poor, the population was limited, there was no manpower for big conquest, and so on and so forth.

NARRATOR: This would make David a petty warlord ruling over a chiefdom, and his royal capital, Jerusalem, nothing more than a cow town.

ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: These are the results of the radiocarbon dating. He or she who decides to ignore these results, I treat them as if arguing that the world is flat, that the Earth is flat. And I cannot argue anymore.

NARRATOR: But it's not so simple. Other teams collected radiocarbon samples following the same meticulous methodology. According to their results, Mazar's palace and Tappy's alphabet can date to the 10th century, the time of David and Solomon.

How can this discrepancy be explained? The problem is that these radiocarbon dates have a margin of error of plus- or minus-30 years, about the difference between the two sides.

NARRATOR: Pottery and radiocarbon dating alone cannot determine if the Kingdom of David and Solomon was as large and prosperous as described in the Bible. Fortunately, the Bible offers clues of other places to dig for evidence of this kingdom. The Bible credits David with conquering the kingdom, but it is Solomon, his son, who is the great builder.

More Reading

The Jewish Virtual Library (online). a one page article titled History of Jerusalem: Myth and Reality of King David's Jerusalem, by Daniel Gavron.

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.