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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
    Eskil  April 16, 2017

    Why do biblical scholars prefer AD 30 as the date of the crucifixion to Friday 3 April AD 33?

    The latter having sound scientific proofs based on
    1. astronomical calculations used to reconstruct the Jewish calendar
    2. a lunar eclipse that biblical and other references suggest followed the Crucifixion.



    Is it because majority of critical bible scholars do not understand physics?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      1. These calculations do not tell us when Jesus died; and 2. There is no reason for thinking that Jesus’ crucifixion coincided with a lunar eclipse. It’s not that biblical scholars are ignorant (though many are; just as many physicists are). It’s that they understand the complexities of the case.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  April 16, 2017

        1. If the crucifixion happened on the Passover, the 14. day of Nisan, that was Friday, there are only some years that match such a requirement. I assume there is no reason to doubt the historicalness of the Good Friday?

        John 19:31: Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath.
        Luke 23:54: It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
        Matthew 27:62: Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate,

        It would be a quite a coincident that after all decades all the writes used such a context for the crucifixion.

        2. I naturally the ancient people were not able explain the reason for such a darkness but I think it’s documented in some gospels.

        Matthew 27:45: Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.
        Luke 23:44: And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.

        Taking into considerations the long oral tradition before the gospels were written down I think its plausible that that the darkness was caused by the lunar eclipse and the timing is just inaccurate or wrongly understood. Maybe it all happened during night in Q.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2017

          It was the Passover day in the Synoptics (the day before that in John), and yes, it is always a Friday. I don’t think a lunar eclipse will produce massive darkness on the earth in the middle of a day….

          • Avatar
            Eskil  April 18, 2017

            The darkness lasted for from 6th to 9th hour i.e. around 3 hours in the bible. ”A lunar eclipse lasts for a few hours, whereas a total solar eclipse lasts for only a few minutes”.

            The 6th and 9th hour can also refer to night because it is also divided into 12 in the Bible for example in Acts 23:23 “at the third hour of the night”.

            Anyhow, without street lights it would have been a few hours pitch black during a lunar eclipse just like in the Bible. That is the only natural condition that it could happen.

            In addition, “a total lunar eclipse is sometimes called a blood moon.” Such is being referenced in Acts 2:20 “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood”.

            Lunar eclipse is also referenced on other places in the Bible for example…

            Matt 24:29 “the sun [shall] be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light”

            Joel 3:15 “The sun and the moon shall be darkened”

            Both sun and moon being darkened is naturally a lunar eclipse, sun being on the other side of the earth and moon being behind earth’s shadow.

            On the other hand, 6th and 9th hours could also be symbolic and be used to identify Jesus as the sacrificial lamb:

            “SIXTH HOUR
            The second lamb is brought out and tied to the altar at high noon.

            NINTH HOUR
            The second Tamid lamb is sacrificed”


          • Avatar
            Eskil  April 18, 2017

            I wrote wrong, sorry: 14 Nisan is naturally the day before passover and 15 Nisan is the passover day. Anyhow, the calculations are made assuming 14 Nisan was the preparation day i.e. Good Friday.

            It would be odd if passover day (15 Nisan) would be the preparation day (6th day; Friday) in the Synoptics because based on several sources passover (15 Nisan) can never fall on Monday, Wednesday and *Friday* in Jewish calendar. The rule is called “lo badu pesahh”

            Example sources:
            Book called “Medieval Latin Christian Texts on the Jewish Calendar” page 29.

      • Avatar
        wisedanfan  April 17, 2017

        Dear Bart, So if the universe began with the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago,where did the matter
        that it contained come from? Also, how did it happen to explode (what caused it?) so that the
        earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2017

          Yes, those are among the basic questions that astronomers and astro-physicists deal with. I’d suggest you read some of their works. It’s all completely astounding.

    • Avatar
      jimviv2@gmail.com  April 17, 2017

      At the crucifixion, “day turning into night” would be a solar eclipse, not a lunar eclipse.
      But, to my understanding, Passover occurs shortly after a full moon, so a solar eclipse was impossible because the moon was on the wrong side of the earth.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  April 18, 2017

        These calculations and models have been done by astronomers and my reference was Nature that refers to 28 studies. I do not think that they got it wrong. You can even double check it from wikipedia where it says… “a lunar eclipse can occur only the night of a full moon” i.e. for example Jewish Passover.


        • Bart
          Bart  April 20, 2017

          Since lunar eclipses occur at night, they cannot explain why the “sun” would fail during the *day* of Jesus’ crucifixion.

          • Avatar
            Eskil  April 20, 2017

            Yes, that is true if the time of the day is taken as historical fact but then the other details would be non-historical (bogus): There cannot be solar eclipse during passover because of the full moon and it would only last a couple of minutes not from 6th to 9th hour (like a lunar eclipse during night). Anyhow, the chronology in synoptics is inaccurate: Most Christians assume that the Good Friday was the passover day but it never ever is in the Jewish calendar. Anyone can check it. Jesus and the disciples never eat any paschal lamb. They left to Gethsemane before the lamb would have been ready to be eaten and passover feast should have lasted several hours, though out the night, also for the members of the sanhedrim. And last but not least, the passover day, 15 Nisan, is like sabbath. The sanhedrim would never have had trials on such a day or Jews any of the other activities in the synoptics.

            Therefore, the Good Friday was most likely 14 Nisan, day before the passover day (like in John) that is the date 3 April AD 33.

            The 6th and 9th hours are most likely symbolical and not historical and refer to the time the of day of the paschal lamb sacrifice ceremonies in the temple.

            But it would not ruin the case if the lunar eclipse would have happened before the crucifixion: “The sun turned into darkness, and the moon into blood” like was prophesied that would happen before the day of the lord in the book of Joel.

          • Avatar
            Eskil  April 20, 2017

            It goes without saying that none of bible bible authors could reason that sun and moon being darkened is a natural phenomena, a lunar eclipse and that it cannot happen at the day time. It would not be become a common knowledge before late 17th century i.e. after Newton’s laws etc.. The first century gospel authors would not have had any logical issues combining an original passion narrative with darkness fulfilling some messianic prophesies with new paschal lamb symbolism aligned with the second temple passover traditions. Clearly the latter part is add to the historic event to give the Jewish passover a new Christian meaning.

  2. Avatar
    jdub3125  April 16, 2017

    Professor, do/did you take your children or grandchildren to the sundial next door to the Episcopal church? As a kid a generation or more ago I thought it was a real treat to go there.

  3. Avatar
    Silver  April 16, 2017

    Do you feel, if you did take up church-going again, that you would easily be accepted into a fellowship? Would not your current beliefs and scholarship make you appear too intimidating?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2017

      It would completely depend on the church. There are some in the area that would welcome me. Others, well, not so much….

  4. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 16, 2017

    I quit receiving the sacraments when it became clear to me that receiving them was an implicit lie to those who believed Jesus was actually present in the bread and wine. I felt a lot of sadness over that until I realized I was as certain as I could be about anything that my death would be the end of my existence. That was one of the most liberating moments of my life.
    Until this past year, more or less, I have insisted I am not a Christian, but I have changed my mind, not because of any change of opinion about the real world. I am still a hard core materialist. But I asked myself the question, What would Jesus do and say if he knew what educated people know now? I think he would likely be what Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris called a practical atheist. That is, he would not look to the supernatural to explain or cope with the daily phenomena of life. However, if he were still Jesus in a meaningful sense, there would be a core ethic and force of personality that would compel people to emulate him. He might still talk about God, but would not necessarily mean it to stand for some objective reality apart from Godly people or actions, any more than love or justice can be isolated from the loving or the just. I would still want to follow such a person’s example. So I think of myself as an ethical rather than a doctrinal Christian.

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  April 16, 2017

    Did King David Exist?

    Unfortunately, biographical elements of contemporary pharaohs appear in the biblical biographies of King David.

    Even King David’s 23rd Psalm points us to the sarcophagus of one of the pharaohs underneath King David and King Solomon. Second, the Star of David and the City of David are two additional arrows pointing to the Egyptian foundation for the biblical King David and King Saul.

    Psusennes I (Greek Ψουσέννης) was the third pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty who ruled from Tanis between 1047 – 1001 BC. Psusennes is the Greek version of his original name Pasibkhanu or Hor-Pasebakhaenniut (Egyptian ḥor-p3-sib3-ḫˁỉ–niwt) which means “The Star Appearing in the City” while his throne name, Akheperre Setepenamun, translates as “Great are the Manifestations of Ra, chosen of Amun.”

    There is a tectonic shift in the historical accuracy of Judaism and Christianity because of this.

    Furthermore, during the biblical time of David, Egyptian ruled Palestine.
    During the biblical time of Saul marrying an Egyptian wife, Egypt did not send its daughters to other kings, Saul and his father David had to have been Egyptian kings for that verse in the bible to be true.

    As the 23rd Psalm speaks of rod and staff being of comfort during death, all you have to do is google Silver Sarcophagus and see the Osiris icon comforting the deceased over the lungs that no longer breathe. You can also look at the Tut-ankh-aten/amun sarcophagus.

  6. Avatar
    Omosoap  April 16, 2017

    Many of us that were Christian at one point and are now not have had a lot of struggle in terms of untangling ourselves from what we once thought was truth (especially within fundamentalism). This often causes much hostility and bitterness towards the religion of our past. You, however, seem to be quite calm and well adjusted through the whole process. How were you able to shift your thinking without falling into the hostility and bitterness? I know that being a person who has studied Christianity extensively, it probably helped, but what if anything would you recommend for someone who is not as well studied who has left? Also, although your focus is Christianity, do you think it is extremely helpful for a person who is, say, Agnostic, to extensively study religion like you have or expand their studies to all religion’s theology and thoughts in order to find personal balance and understanding in the world?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2017

      It is hard not to have a knee-jerk reaction to a past you were committed to but have left. It sometimes takes years. It did for me. It helps to realize that most people who adhere to what you now reject are sincere and are trying to do their best to understand the world they live in.

  7. Avatar
    Tanna  April 17, 2017

    What do you think about this take on Christianity by Thomas Jefferson?

    “I am a Christian in the only sense Christ wished anyone to be–sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others.”

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2017

      Yes, I resonate with it. By “doctrines” of ocurse he means Jesus’ own teachings, not the doctrines of the later church.

  8. Avatar
    madmargie  April 17, 2017

    “I wasn’t taking these things, or the theology behind them, literally, but was understanding them all metaphorically.”
    That’s what I do too. Our difference is that I still believe in God. I just don’t believe Jesus was any part of God. I believe he was a human being. I don’t believe he was resurrected either. And I don’t accept any of the creeds. In my opinion they are strictly “men’s” ideas. I teach the adult class in my congregation but I stay with material like “Saving Jesus from the Church” and “Living the Questions”. We offer a lot of opinions in our class,,,,but that’s all it is…opinions. No one has all the answers or even most of them. I like what one of my intellectual friends says, “95% of everything I believe is probably wrong”. He is wise. I so enjoy your books and have read most of them. Keep writing! I am 81 and still read. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Boltonian  April 18, 2017

    As a lifelong agnostic – at least I can’t remember a time when I believed that the Bible was anything other than metaphor, folk-tales and attempts to explain the inexplicable – I have no problem with attending church. I like the music, architecture, stained glass, paintings where there are some, many of the moral precepts, etc. I don’t go often but I can quite happily belt out something from Hymns Ancient and Modern as well as the next man. I wonder if I feel less uncomfortable than you might because I have never had any religious faith. Just a thought.

    Thank you, BTW, for selecting my question on Saul, David and Solomon. Interesting.

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  April 22, 2017

    “The Amarna Letters contain a character, Labayu who fits the life of Saul. There was even an antagonist named David. (See the chapter, “Was Labayu King Saul?” in the book The Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, Bill Manley, Editor.)”

    The book was published by Thames & Hudson, 2003.

    I mention this in the book, The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy and it will also appear in the second edition.

  11. Avatar
    jmnelson  May 2, 2017

    I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian. Breaking from the church was gradual for me, and I continued for a while as a non-believer because of the music. Eventually even that lost its hold.
    For those who like church but don’t believe, I can relate. Feeling isolated, but unwilling to return to traditional church, I began looking for something to fill the social and intellectual void. I cannot overstate my gratitude for the Houston Oasis Community.
    The Oasis Secular Community movement (not to be confused with the Oasis Community Church) began in Houston, Texas, in 2012, with conversations among friends of former pastor, Mike Aus. From their initiation of weekly, Sunday meetings based on a few, simple principles, emerged a movement that consists of about a dozen communities in the US and Canada, with several others in the planning stage. 

Oasis is a Secular Community Based on Compassion and Reason. Core values: People are more important then beliefs; Reality is known through reason; Meaning comes from making a difference; Human hands solve human problems; Be accepting and be accepted. 

Membership represents a wide range of philosophies and includes diversity in most any measure of humans, including atheists, agnostics, former ministers, theists and former theists. Meetings are positive, and speakers represent a wide range of topics and expertise. Religious bashing is rare.

We meet Sundays, 10:30 am – Noon, with several going to lunch at a designated place to continue the conversation. Meetings include music; a short, topical presentation by a member; break for coffee, snacks and conversation; main speaker. Child care is provided.

    Oasians participate in numerous outreach and community service projects, often in collaboration with other social service organizations. 

If you think you might be interested, take a look at the following.
Houston Oasis: http://www.houstonoasis.org/
    National Network:  http://www.peoplearemoreimportant.org/

    There might be an Oasis Community in formation near you.

  12. Avatar
    rsw00  November 3, 2018

    Sorry to chime in on an old thread here, but I have just recently started checking the blog. I have been interested for some time about King David. I read a book several years ago about David, and I was totally shocked by the idea that David did not kill Goliath. In 2 Samuel 21:19 it states that someone named Elhanan killed Goliath, and seems to make it clear that it was the same Goliath we see in David’s story. Later chroniclers change the text to say it was the brother of Goliath that Elhanan killed. As I recall the book described different ideas that scholars have developed over the years, such as David and Elhanan were the same person. But the idea that made the most sense to me was that David was the first actual person in the bible. After his death someone came up with the idea of chronicling his life (giving stories such as the killing of Goliath to David), and then filling in the history of the world from the beginning of time up to David. As far as I know it is all speculation, but I find it interesting.

    Does anyone here know if there is a majority opinion among OT scholars about who actually killed Goliath?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      My guess is that it is probably a legend. But you’re right, it’s a clear contradiction in the Hebrew Bible.

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