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Did David Exist? And When Did I Know I Lost My Faith? Mailbag April 15, 2017

I will be dealing with two questions in this weekly Readers’ Mailbag.  The first has to do with the historical evidence, if any, for the Israelite kings Saul, David, and Solomon – did they exist, or are the stories about them entirely legendary?   The second, coming to us from a different universe, is about me personally, and my faith, whether there was a proverbial straw that broke my faith-camel’s back.



According to Finkelstein and Silberman’s book, The Bible Unearthed, which I know you admire, there is zero evidence for the existence of Solomon and not much more for David and Saul (Shlomo Sands takes a similar view). Your position seems to be that all three existed: can you please tell me why you think this?



First let me say that I think Finkelstein and Silberman’s book is absolutely terrific.  I often get asked what book I would recommend to people who are interested in the critical study of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) comparable to the kind of thing I do for the New Testament, and along with Richard Friedman’s book, Who Wrote the Bible, I always recommend The Bible Unearthed.  It is written by two highly established and incredibly learned scholars who seem to know everything relevant to the Hebrew Bible, and it presents views that are very different from what people with only a passing familiarity with the Bible would think.  Really great, in every way.

Finkelstein and Silberman are far more qualified than I to say *anything* about the history of ancient Israel.   And as it turns out, I am not *very* different from them when it comes to the existence of the Israelite kings Saul, David, and Solomon.   If you want to look at what non-biblical sources say about any of them (Saul as the first king of Israel after centuries of relatively independent tribes running their own affairs; David his successor, who defeated Goliath, and became the king over a vast territory; Solomon his son one of the wealthiest and wisest monarchs of ancient history), the reality is, well, none of them is actually mentioned in other sources.

But there are two provisos.  The first is simply the general observation that we would not expect to find much said about them in non-Israelite sources, any more than we have extensive references to the kings of Moab or Edom in ancient sources.  We simply don’t have many other sources, and those that exist are not interested in talking about kings of other peoples.

But second there is at least *one* piece of external evidence that David was a king and that he established a royal dynasty in Israel.  Finkelstein and Silberman know this, of course, which is why they say there is not *much* evidence of David’s existence.  In 1993 archaeologist in the northern part of Israel discovered fragments of an ancient stele – a stone slab on which an inscription was written – at a site called Tel Dan.   The inscription on the slab was made by a king of the 9th century BCE mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 19:15) Hazael, who had a major kingdom in what was later called Syria.  On the inscription Hazael boasts of having defeated in battle two kings, Omri, the ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, and an unnamed king of Judea “of the house of David.”

What this means is that there was a king David who started a monarchic dynasty in Judea sometime before the 9th century.  That, of course, is exactly what the Bible says.

What do we know about this king David otherwise?  Nothing really.  All we have is what is in the Bible.  There are very good reasons indeed for thinking that the biblical narratives about David are highly, if not completely, legendary.   They were not written until 400-500 years after David would have lived.  Are they of much more historical value than the legends of King Arthur?  (There surely was some kind of King in England after the Romans had departed, but we don’t have stories until many centuries later.)  Or are there some historical materials in these stories?  It can be a matter of debate.

But assuming that David was not absolutely the first king of Israel, then there would have been *someone* like a Saul before him who had made the disparate tribal groups of the region into some kind of kingdom.  And since David had a dynasty (according to this inscription), then his son (in the Bible it is Solomon) would have been ruler after him.  But again, my sense is that most – almost all? – the tales about these figures is the stuff of legend, not history.



Did you ever have one *official* A-HA moment that can distinctly remember where you realized you were no longer a believer? If so, what was that final straw?



I would say that I had a number of A-HA moments when I realized my faith was slipping away and then virtually disappeared.  I’ve often talked about how the problem of suffering is what eventually led to my loss of faith.  What I don’t think I’ve talked about much is a moment when I realized it all.

When I moved to Chapel Hill in 1988 I had returned to my roots and began worshiping in the local Episcopal Church, the Chapel of the Cross, a church I liked very much.  I was reasonably active in the church, for example sometimes teaching adult Sunday school classes (a couple of time my friend Dale Martin and I taught them together as a tag-team).  I liked the liturgy of the Episcopal church – no doubt because I was raised on it; and appreciated very much the sense of reverence it inspired in the mysteries of the divine.

But there was a moment when I realized I simply didn’t belong.   For several years I had been applying my own “figurative” “non-literal” “spiritual” “de-mythologized” understanding of everything that happened in church: Scripture as the Word of God, the eucharist as a commemoration of Christ’s death for the sins of others, prayers of intercession, and so on. (I wasn’t taking these things, or the theology behind them, literally, but was understanding them all metaphorically.  But I finally came to a point where I didn’t think I could do it anymore.

It had to do with the reciting of the Nicene Creed:  “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth….” and so on.   Saying the creed I came to realize that in a literal sense I didn’t believe nearly any of it: that there was a God, that he created the world, that Christ was his Son who had come down from heaven, than he had been born of a virgin, that he had been raised from the dead, etc.  The only thing about it that I really, honestly, literally agreed with was the statement that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was dead, and buried.   And for some reason, at that point, I simply didn’t think I belonged in church any more.

These days I’m not sure that was the necessary conclusion.  I probably could have simply said that I had a different *interpretation* of what was happening in church from those who took a more literal view.  But at the time, I simply felt like I was being hypocritical participating in a service of worship where I simply didn’t agree on all the things that everyone else was affirming that we all agreed on, and I felt awkward and out of place.   So I decided that I couldn’t in good conscience participate publicly that way anymore.

I can see myself possibly changing my mind at some stage.  But at the time, and still, I just don’t feel quite right about participating in the worship of a God (and his Son) I really don’t believe in.

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Was Job Really Innocent?
Job’s So-called Friends (With Friends Like These….)



  1. Avatar
    godspell  April 15, 2017

    The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. David and Solomon were not great kings in their own time–they became great kings the same way Arthur did–through legend. Same way Jesus became the King of Kings.

    We have surprisingly little contemporary information about Alexander the Great. And none from the nations he conquered (he is mentioned in the Old Testament, though). The famous wars between the Greeks and Persians, and the last stand of the noble 300 Spartans? Only Greeks wrote about it, well after it happened. Far as the Persians were concerned, it didn’t happen.

    History is written by the winners because the losers normally want to forget it. However, the ancient Jews didn’t really have much in the way of conventional victories to brag about. So they had to resort to legend. And legend lasts longer. Everything the great kings built is now dust and ruin. And the words of the prophets and chroniclers live forever.

    • Avatar
      Eric  April 27, 2017

      Is that right? Alexander is mentioned in the OT? That suerprises me, I thought OT was written before 300 BC?

    • Avatar
      oceancoast  April 28, 2017

      Alexander the great is mentioned in the Old testament?

  2. Avatar
    wostraub  April 15, 2017

    Dear Bart — You note that the Hebrew Bible documents the activities of Saul, David and Solomon some four or five centuries after they lived. Why don’t we have any contemporary accounts about them? Were the accounts simply lost, or was literacy so poor then that no one bothered to record events as they happened? It seems to me that 400 or 500 years provides a great opportunity to make stuff up for people who wouldn’t know any better later on.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      My guess is that very few people could write, and those who could were recording administrative data rather than writing histories.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 15, 2017

    Thanks for both of these posts. With regard to the second one, I do think trying to find truth in stories eventually starts to run out of gas and then it becomes hard to fit into a church and it is probably best for all not to attend. At least, that is the decision I have made “for now.” I do think, however, that a church group could really benefit from what you have to teach. By the way, I also liked my visits to the Chapel of the Cross. I just didn’t fit in.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  April 15, 2017

    I tend to agree with Finkelstein that Solomon’s kingdom wasn’t nearly as resplendent as portrayed in the Bible. In all likelihood, the authors of the biblical accounts probably looked at the momuments of the flourishing period of the 8th and 7th centuries, when much maligned rulers such as Ahab ruled, and the authors assumed that these must have been the product of the Golden Age of David and Solomon, rather than the real Golden Age of Israel during the Omric dynasty.

  5. epicurus
    epicurus  April 15, 2017

    I had a similar experience, I remember long walks with a friend where I would ask at what point do I stop calling myself a Christian when I can’t say I believe any of the things in the Nicene Creed. I felt it just became a matter of integrity to stop going to Church and calling myself a Christian.

  6. Avatar
    webattorney  April 15, 2017

    Dear Bart, have you ever experienced when you were a Christian what Christians and the Bible refer to as the Holy Spirit, the Great Advocate speaking to you? I tend to think this must be like an epiphany experience like the main character in the Portrait of a Young Man As an Artist experienced but not sure.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      Oh, yes, I was filled with the Spirit and spoke in tongues!

      • Avatar
        webattorney  April 16, 2017

        Joking or serious? The only thing I experienced is the Holy feeling from imbibing Spirit called beer.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2017

          Completely serious!

          • Avatar
            webattorney  April 18, 2017

            I have a hard time thinking that someone who spoke in tongues and experienced the Holy Spirit could now be an agnostic/atheist. At least, I have an excuse; I always was an agnostic. Lol

          • Bart
            Bart  April 20, 2017

            Ah, it’s true of a lot of people who used to be deeply religious!

      • Avatar
        Nan Roberts  June 9, 2017

        I have gone through a faith shift from evangelical Christianity to I don’t know what yet. I was filled with the HS and spoke in tongues, too.
        You said you had a 25-year friendship with Jesus and you talked to him every day. So what about that? Who were you talking to, yourself? What about “being led by the Spirit” and all the rest of it. I thought I talked to Jesus daily too, and he talked back.

        I’ve found your research extremely helpful.

      • Avatar
        Cliffschilke  February 26, 2018

        Reading this comment and the few related to it which follow, I must say that I was completely surprised by it. I wish you would reflect further on how you now understand the meaning of your being “filled with the Spirit and speaking in tongues”. What did you take it to mean then? Why do you think it happened? What did it do for your spiritual/emotional life’s? Why did it end? What did it mean for you to have it end? What do you think these experiences have to do with similar experience described in the NT. And looking back on it now, what do think it all means for your present orientation and understanding of God and Christian faith? Complete disclosure: I am a psychiatrist , though I do not believe that mental health or lack thereof has any necessary relationalship to any religious orientation. I do believe, however, that normal human mental functioning has everything to do with the search for meaning in the domain of religious and spiritual experience.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 27, 2018

          *Then* I thought it literally happened. *Now* I think it was a psychologically driven state.

    • Avatar
      mjordan20149  April 18, 2017

      I had an epiphany at our local Hindu Temple-its not limited to Christianity evidently (at least in my case)

      • Avatar
        webattorney  April 20, 2017

        I don’t know if epiphanies are what Christians call experiencing Holy Spirit. I myself never feel like I experienced anything remotely resembling this kind of experience. I was deeply moved here and there in both religious and non-religious situations. Once, when I was under a lot of stress, I experienced rigidness in my face and body. But my friend who smoked marijuana experienced the same thing also, so . . .

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 15, 2017

    Not that it matters to me, but…based on just what you said, I don’t see any reason for assuming David *wasn’t* the first King.

    Re England’s “King Arthur”: I recall having read that there’s evidence Arthur existed (a tomb inscription?) – but he was just a military commander, not a king. Moreover, he did have a son named something like “Medraut,” evidently some kind of rebel leader. And one of them killed the other in battle, but I don’t remember which!

    I know that wherever I read that, it was said that characters like Guinevere and Lancelot are wholly legendary.

  8. Avatar
    rivercrowman  April 15, 2017

    Bart, since we’re on Hell these days, did Jesus descend into Hell shortly after his crucifixion? I’m looking at Ephesians 4:9. Thanks again!

  9. Avatar
    Tony  April 15, 2017

    Speaking of mythical figures…

    I’ve mentioned the “Ascension Of Isaiah” in my comments a few times. The reason is that, in the Ascension, the Lord Christ is presented in a very similar fashion to that in Paul’s letters. The Ascension Of Isaiah is thought to date from the late first, or early second century and has been redacted by orthodox scribes with Gospel fragments. The story describes a vision of Isaiah who is getting a guided tour of the seven heavens from an angel. In 9:13-17, while in the seventh heaven, the angel explains that Christ, who assumes human form, will descent to Satan’s world, is mistakenly killed, and hanged upon a tree:

    “The Lord will indeed descend into the world in the last days, (he) who is to be called Christ after he has descended and become like you in form, and they will think that he is flesh and a man. And the god of that world will stretch out [his hand against the Son], and they will lay their hands upon him and hang him upon a tree, not knowing who he is. And thus his descent, as you will see, will be concealed even from the heavens so that it will not be known who he is. And when he has plundered the angel of death, he will rise on the third day and will remain in that world for five hundred and forty-five days. And then many of the righteous will ascend with him, whose spirits do not receive (their) robes until the Lord Christ ascends and they ascend with him.“


  10. John4
    John4  April 15, 2017

    Yeah, Bart, I can’t say that I feel quite right about participating in Christian worship, either. When I was young and idealistic, I tried to resolve my conflict by joining the Unitarian church. Unitarians don’t have to recite any creeds. I liked the Unitarians. I spent six years with ’em and, one year while I was in college, taught a junior high Sunday school class for ’em. I gave it a good hard try. But, in the end, I concluded that the Unitarians couldn’t do for me what a “regular” church does. When my oldest was born, I returned to the Presbyterians of my childhood and I’ve been very happy to be back home for these last 35 years.

    I *do* feel my hypocrisy. But, in good Presbyterian fashion (lol) I just confess it regularly and continue to do the best I can.

    Thanks so much for sharing, Bart! 🙂

    • Avatar
      Scorpiored48  April 16, 2017

      I came back to Christianity, albeit slowly, within Unitarian Universalism. I am able to question core credal tenets of Christianity freely and still develop a healthy intellectual, spiritual, and emotional connection to the Bible.

  11. Avatar
    Seeker1952  April 15, 2017

    What if anything replaced your Christian worldview? And if you did form a new worldview did it play a role in detaching you from the Christian worldview?

    Based on what I’ve read in your books and on this blog I’m guessing your worldview is pretty much the view of the natural sciences and that you’ve also retained a Christian ethical orientation. If so, did your continuing commitment to Christian ethics make it somewhat easier to drop the supernatural beliefs?

    I ask because I’m inclined to think it’s very difficult for a great many people (including me) to drop a worldview (however little evidence there is supporting it) without having something better to replace it.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      I have become a complete humanist! And yes, I do accept the scientific view. I think not to do so would be completely anti-intellectual. (I’m not saying that I think science has all the answers. But it has some, and we would be crazy to believe something different from what all the evidence suggests — e.g., that the universe started with a Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, not 6000 years ago with a six-day creation)

  12. Avatar
    Seeker1952  April 15, 2017

    “I wasn’t taking these things, or the theology behind them, literally, but was understanding them all metaphorically.”

    I find myself doing a lot of that. My question is, are there Christian theologians who also understand these things metaphorically but who still take at least some of them as (oblique) statements about objective reality independent of and not only about human hopes, values, predicaments, and relationships? Who would say, for example, that “God is love” is not just saying that love is the most important value for humans but is also saying that love is at the core of reality and will ultimately overcome our “finitude,” for lack of a better word?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      Yes, absolutely. Serious theologians are not fundamentalist Christians! You could read STanley Hauerwas, Alistair McGrath, Rowan Williams for starters.

      • John4
        John4  April 17, 2017

        I am (pleasantly) surprised, Bart, to see you recommending Alister McGrath. Which of his books do you like?

        Many thanks! 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2017

          I suppose a good place to start is Christian Theology: An Introduction.

      • Avatar
        The Agnostic Christian  April 17, 2017

        Seems to me that Craig A. Evans, Darrell Brock, Michael Licona, Michael J. Kruger and others are both Fundamentalists and serious scholars. In the sense that they take the work very seriously, even if they start with the conclusions are work backwards. Am I wrong on some of those names? And wouldn’t it be true that even some of the above theologians you mention start with their conclusions and then seek out evidence in support of them, not taking seriously the objections?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2017

          Yes, Evans and Brock especially are fine scholars. I don’t know as much about the scholarship of Licona (whom I’ve debated of course, but I haven’t read any of his scholarly work) or Kruger. And yes, lots and lots of people presuppose their conclusions!

  13. Avatar
    ask21771  April 15, 2017

    I was wondering if you could give your opinion on this article http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      Sorry, I haven’t read it! And am on the fly just now…. (Though having read roughly 98 million books and articles on the proof of the resurrection, I would be amazed if the article is saying something that hasn’t already been said!)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 17, 2017

        I just looked at it, and here’s its central claim!

        “[W]e are going to focus here on three truths that even critical scholars admit. In other words, these three truths are so strong that they are accepted by serious historians of all stripes. Therefore, any theory must be able to adequately account for these data.

        “The three truths are:

        “The tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty by a group of women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.

        “Jesus’ disciples had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ.

        “As a result of the preaching of these disciples, which had the resurrection at its center, the Christian church was established and grew.”

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2017

          Yes, that first “truth” is probably not true in my opinion. The second two don’t really prove much, historically.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 16, 2017

      Don’t you find it a little suspicious that after 2,000 years Christian scholars are still having to convince people of the Resurrection? Imagine if, after 2,000 years, scholars were still having to convince people that a man grew wings, for example. Wouldn’t that raise some alarm bells? Wouldn’t you think that a man growing wings is one of those things that, if it did happen, would be well-attested enough by now to be common knowledge?

  14. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  April 15, 2017

    What would make you change your mind? And what would you see yourself changing your mind about? Are you saying you can see yourself becoming a believer again? In what sense?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      No, I doubt if I would become a believer again (though I’m open to it, just as I’m open to most things). I meant changing my mind about going to church even thought I’m *not* a believer. What would it take? I have no idea!

      • Avatar
        Triassicman  April 17, 2017

        Phew! Good to hear that….I worried you were booked in for a lobotomy 🙂

      • Avatar
        Hormiga  April 17, 2017

        >What would it take?

        As a lifelong (70+ years) unbeliever, I’ve thought about that and for me the answer is the same as the reason I’m an unbeliever: evidence. Right now, the evidence is strongly against the traditional religious worldviews, but if Yahweh/Jesus were to show up and work Biblical miracles, I’d sure reconsider my positions.

        (Of course, it could just be superpowerful aliens messing with us, but still…)

  15. Avatar
    pmwslc  April 15, 2017

    Bart, I enjoy your blog and your books very much, and find them comforting as well as informative since I have little or no faith in the god on which Christianity is based. I grew up in a community that was quite diverse religiously and ethnically. Although I was baptized Mormon, I also attended the local Catholic Church at times, and lived in a Catholic dorm during my undergraduate years. I stopped attending church in my late teens because I just could not believe the Joseph Smith story. The Catholic mass was always inspiring to me because of its beauty and mystery (it was said in Latin in those days), but I did then and still do identify as Mormon somehow, even though I don’t believe in the basic Mormon tenets. I’m somehow OK with this, and have told the Mormon missionaries as much. My wife was a Lutheran when we were married, and I attended church with her at times, although she is not very religiously minded either. We sometimes attend church with her mother, who is quite devout. But repeating the Nicene Creed is always a problem for me since it asks me to affirm things I do not believe. Very uncomfortable situation since it’s obvious that I don’t fit in.

    I am interested in the topic of belief or faith. How is it that someone can believe something in the face of contrary, well established facts? Being a geologist, I understand radiometric dating and how the ages of rocks are determined, and that such study directly contradicts the idea that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old, and that such features as the Grand Canyon were produced in a great flood. How can people reject established fact and instead accept ideas by unknown ancients whose understanding of how things actually work was, to say the very least, limited? Why do people have such a driving need to believe in a super power that has all the answers and will take care of them somehow? I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this matter.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      It’s certainly possible to believe in a greater divine being without denying the facts of geology! People have a “need” to do so for the same reason they have needs to believe all sorts of things — and all of us believe all sorts of things! But I think it’s a mistake to think that only fundamentalist literalists are people with faith.

  16. Avatar
    mjordan20149  April 15, 2017

    I like what John Spong says: the Nicene Creed is a wonderful love song to God from the fourth Century

  17. Avatar
    will6708@bellsouth.net  April 15, 2017

    And I quote, ” I can see myself possibly changing my mind at some stage”. Say it ain’t so Dr. Ehrman. Say it ain’t so.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      I’m not saying that I can see myself becoming a fundamentalist again — only that I can imagine at some point feeling OK about attending church on occasion as a non-believer.

  18. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  April 15, 2017

    I admire how you don’t claim to know it all and remain open to the idea of refining your views. I’ve found that the most profitable way to digest Scripture is to stay open to its literality, but place much more emphasis on its metaphorical meanings. What I’ve come to find is that the contradictions throughout the Bible, especially the Gospels, are pointing Bible readers in that direction. (Christianity of course denies the existence of contradictions, which is why it is an unseeing institution. The Body of Christ has been prophesying while blinded, even as Christ was blindfolded and told to prophesy. That’s a metaphorical revelation in itself.)

  19. Avatar
    FadyRiad  April 16, 2017

    Dear Bart,
    I dunno if you have noticed, but I have finally published The Gospel of Lie. I have received many positive reviews from figures such as Robert Price, Elaine Pagels, Miguel Conner, and Lance owens (of gnosis.org).
    I understand you are very busy, but I would be delighted if you’d even use 5 mins to read the index!
    It’s free on kindle till monday.
    Fady Riad
    Link here: amzn.to/2pjfno6

  20. Avatar
    davitako  April 16, 2017

    Why is that whatever you describe, whether the history of Christianity, or your personal life, everything sounds fascinating!

    Happy Easter, Bart! Or to be a bit more historical: happy visions of a few earliest Christians! Which eventually changed the Western world for ever.

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