I am starting to do research for my next online course, to be given in November, dealing with the Hebrew Bible.  I’ll be calling it “Finding Moses” and it will be dealing with four of the books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and what we can actually know, historically, about the exodus from Egypt (Is there any archaeological evidence? Any reference to it in other texts outside the Bible?  Any reason to think it did, or reasons to think it did not, happen?) and about the law of Moses (Were Jews legalistic?  Did they have to keep the law for salvation?  Why do some of the laws seem so strange today?  Why do some people insist that some of the laws are still binding but others not?  etc.).

One book I’ll be rereading in thinking through the various historical issues of the Pentateuch is Israel Finkelstein and Neal Asher Silberman’s, The Bible Unearthed.

I remembered I had talked about the book on the blog long ago – it’s not about Moses, but about King David.  I looked it up and, lo and behold, I was right.  I did.  It was in response to a question I had been asked.  Here it is.

Stained-glass image of King David

QUESTION–Did King David Exist:

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 named 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.

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2022-09-23T10:23:06-04:00September 20th, 2022|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Reader’s Questions|

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  1. Judith September 20, 2022 at 7:10 am

    Professor Ehrman, this seems as good a time as any to suggest that we bloggers begin thinking of how to help you celebrate your birthday on October 5. I’m inviting everyone to join me in making a donation. You have made that so very easy to do. I’m making mine today and will be wishing you a very Happy Birthday!

  2. jhague September 20, 2022 at 8:17 am

    “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.””

    Couldn’t “house of David” been based on the oral legends and not on anything historical?

    From the minimal reading that I have done, it sounds like it was a stretch to even call Judea a “kingdom.”

    It seems that just like the Hebrew writers “created” a history for themselves by writing about characters who did not exist (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, etc), writing about the exodus, writing about Joshua killing every living creature he saw, etc, it would seem to fall into place that they would create the characters that they wanted to have as their made up historical leaders to their “kingdom.”

    I agree with you that the tales are legends but I also think that the characters are legends that were able to become “real” to the Israelites once the stories were in writing.

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:07 pm

      I suppose it’s possible. But normally a king would not boast about defeating a king that he did not engage in battle based on oral traditions circulating among other peoples. “kingdom,” of course, does not denote an extent of territory but a governmental system, a group of people ruled by a single ruler/king.

      • jhague September 24, 2022 at 12:37 pm

        I read it as Hazael saying that he defeated in battle Omri, the ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, and an unnamed king of Judea…not David. He just makes mention of Judea being “of the house of David.”. Isn’t the stele about 300 years after David was supposed to have existed. Wouldn’t that be enough time to create a legend?

        I look at it from the standpoint that even if there was a “king” of Judea named David, it isn’t the David we have described in the Hebrew Bible.

        • BDEhrman September 25, 2022 at 4:44 pm

          I’m not sure that it would make sense to refer to a nation as being the house of David; usually that terminology is used of family genealogies, I believe. And it doesn’t seem that a legend within Israel would begin because of an inscription made by a non-Israelite.

          • jhague September 25, 2022 at 5:55 pm

            I was thinking that the David legend began within Israel and that Hazael had heard the legend through the grapevine.

            Do you think he did not know the name of the king of Judea since he names the king of Israel and not Judea?

          • BDEhrman September 27, 2022 at 10:58 am

            Good question. I’m not sure how we would be able to know one way or the other…

  3. fishician September 21, 2022 at 9:17 am

    This is one of my major problems with book-based religion, like the Judeo-Christian tradition: would a god expect and rely on people believing ancient incredible stories for which there is no corroborating evidence? Is that god looking for good people or just gullible ones? But with the OT characters it’s similar to the question of Jesus’s existence: historical existence is quite separate from whether the legends about them are true. Who Wrote The Bible was a pivotal book in my “enlightenment” and finally read The Bible Unearthed earlier this year: I highly recommend both! Scholarly but very readable.

  4. Jfriedman1026 September 21, 2022 at 12:03 pm

    Professor Ehrman,

    After reading The Bible Unearthed (it is great!) my inclination was that Judah (and Israel) kept at most vague chronicles and at least a list of kings that the writers of the Hebrew bible much later used to create a narrative that suited their purposes at that time. It would be amazing if such a thing were uncovered. Of course there were also likely oral traditions that served as the basis for these stories and perhaps even other stelai and monumental inscriptions that are now lost to time from which biblical stories were later developed.

  5. Erland September 21, 2022 at 3:10 pm

    Finkelstein and Silbermann wrote another book: “David and Solomon”, where they try to find out the truth about David and Solomon. They certainly believe that the two kings existed.

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:16 pm

      I agree that David did. And I agree that he almost certainly had a son who ruled after him. What we know about him (either of them) is another question.

  6. Bwana September 21, 2022 at 3:56 pm

    I was wondering what your defence will be when genuine Old Testament scholars may start questioning how an NT scholar feels qualified to author courses on the Hebrew Bible. Personally I’m all in favour of diversification, but I always thought that in scholarly circles such things are a bit tricky.

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:20 pm

      My second field of training at both the MA and PhD levels was Hebrew Bible; I taught Hebrew Bible for years at Rutgers and at UNC; I have a university level textbook on the entire Bible, including (half of it) the HB. And I continue to read scholarship on the HB. It’s true, I’m not an expert in the way others are. But I certainly know enough to teach it as a coursse at this level. Just as most of the HB people I know sometimes teach courses at the college level on the NT, based on their comparable qualifications there. But what defence will I make? I doubt if I’ll make any. If someone points out that I don’t know what I”m *talking* about (as opposed to simply being offended), then that would lead to a discussion.

  7. Bwana September 21, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    This book may be of interest for your research on the Exodus:
    Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective


  8. AngeloB September 21, 2022 at 5:50 pm

    Generally, do Orthodox Jews have a literal interpretation of their Bible? Do they view every story in the Hebrew Bible as historically accurate?

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:24 pm

      I’m afraid I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it as an issue. Orthodox modes of interpretation are not focused on literal meanings the way fundamentalist/post-Enlightenment Christian interpretations are; the text is far more complex than that, and the methods of interpretations are ones that Christian literalists would consider bizarre. The very words do come from God though.

      • AngeloB September 24, 2022 at 5:59 am

        Thanks for clarifying that!

  9. 2380 September 21, 2022 at 6:05 pm

    Me too. Happy birthday Dr Ehrman.

  10. KeitaTakahata September 21, 2022 at 9:00 pm

    During the time of Jesus, did people understand continents the same way we do today? Such as Africa, Europe and Asia being areas landmasses to be geographically separated (even though they are connected…)?

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:28 pm

      Most people would have had no clue. But even those who had soem sense of “the world” would obviously have had no idea about things like, well, the Americas and Australia. They did know about seas between the continents though, and the big differences between east west north and south, geographically.

  11. jujitsujay September 21, 2022 at 9:30 pm

    Who then wrote the books of psalms, Ecclesiastes. Songs of Solomon?

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:37 pm

      Psalms are not all attributed to David, only some are; and some of the ones that are could not have been written by him, even if he did write some (the famous Psalm 23, e.g., ends with a wish to reside in the temple for ever; the temple wasn’t built in David’s day). Ecclesiastes certainly claims to be written by Solomon (without naming him) but shows clear influence from Epicurean philosophy, which did not appear until 600 years after Solomon. Song of Solomon (better: Song of Songs) contains a Persian word for “garden,” so appears to ahve been written in the Persian Period, 4th centurey BCE or so.

      • dankoh September 23, 2022 at 7:51 pm

        I’m not so sure that the end of Psalm 23 (“the house of the Lord”) meant specifically the Temple in Jerusalem; it is a poem, after all. More to the point is that there are speculations of an Egyptian basis for the psalm.

  12. RAhmed September 22, 2022 at 11:49 am

    I recently read through a couple of William Dever’s books and also “Who Wrote The Bible” and “The Exodus” by RE Friedman. Both of them appear to be in agreement that David most likely existed. Much of the stories about him and his time appear to fit well within the historical context and archaeological findings. Devers has some pretty harsh critiqicism of Finlkelstein’s late and minimalist viewpoints. He says most scholars don’t follow Finkelstein’s low chronology. Devers basically says that even though the stories of Saul, David, and Solomon are tall tales, the basics appear to be grounded in history: “evidence for David as king is substantial…his wars against the Philistines can be documented.” He also talks about Solomon’s gates which he argues were from his reign.

    As for Moses and the exodus, Friedman makes a pretty convincing argument for its historicity, albeit a much smaller one than described in the Bible. Devers paints a similar picture. That there was a population explosion in the Palestinian hill country around the time the Israelites supposedly arrived (not in the millions though!) and the picture in Judges, unlike Joshua, appears to be fairly accurate.

  13. galah September 22, 2022 at 1:31 pm

    Dr. Ehrman, I can’t remember who, but I believe there was a first or second century writer who referred to the accounts of Jesus as mythos. We often use the word interchangeably with fiction. What did mythos mean to the ancients as opposed to our definition?

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:43 pm

      I’m not sure whom you’re referring to. The pagan critic Celsus? Mythos was a Greek word that simply meant “story.” It didn’t necessarily mean “fiction” but it often did. It can also mean “account.” But certainly pagan opponents of Christianity thought of the Christian stories about Jesus as pious and false fictions.

  14. samduletsky September 22, 2022 at 10:35 pm

    Hi, Dr. Ehrman. Have you read any books by William G. Dever, the Amercan archaeologist who spent 60 years working in and around Israel? One of his books (which I can’t recall the title of) is an excellent overview of ancient Israel as found by excavation and analysis. It came out in the early 2000s and is very similar to The Bible Unearthed. It’s excellent and a good resource. He is an excellent thinker and writer.

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:46 pm

      Yup, he like me was a conservative evangelical who left the faith. Very intersting fellow and important author.

  15. hsourceofthebible September 23, 2022 at 6:13 am

    In my book, “The Legend of Shara” I make the case that the story of David is a readaptation of the story of a Hindu deity, SharaVana or Kartikkeya, and there is ample evidence in the Old Testament including in the story itself that Moses and David together are the Human equivalents of the God Kartikkeya who was also worshipped in the Middle East as Yahweh, and as Shara. The name Sharayim appears right in the middle of the story of David. El Shaddai in 6:3-6:69 Exodus and the Shema indicates deep Hindu links and Yahweh is present in the Agni Hymns(remember the Bush that does not burn) of the Rig Veda.
    Genesis also has its roots in Puranic Sources including the Flood Myth as well as the Patriarchal Narratives.
    Just as many of the stories in the New Testament that are miracles oriented have a basis in Old Testament stories, the stories in the Old Testament have Puranic roots. There is a Deep Unity between the Eastern and Western Religions modern scholars ignore.
    Did David actually exist — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhiABi6vw3A
    Baruch Halpern answers — yes and no,
    Modern Scholarship should not ignore the Eastern Contribution to Mythicist elements of the Bible.

  16. kathieric September 23, 2022 at 4:43 pm

    This has nothing to do with David but with Paul. Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels. He was a contemporary of Jesus, knew some of his disciples, wrote his letters in the 20 years after Jesus’ death. Did the Gospel writers know Paul? Had they read his letters? Especially in 1st Corinthians, Chapter 15, Paul lays out much of the doctrine, if you will, that is Christianity, i.e. salvation, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is not found in the Gospels, except perhaps in John, which was written nearly 100 years after Jesus’ death. I guess what I’m getting at is why wasn’t more of Paul’s theology, if you will, not included in the Gospels? Why did Paul’s theology, not the words of Jesus, become the cornerstone of Christianity?

    • BDEhrman September 25, 2022 at 4:52 pm

      These are debated issues. My view is that the Gospel writers may have known some of Paul’s teachings, but it’s not clear if they knew that these teachings originated with Paul, or even that they knew about Paul. I don’t think there’s much to suggest they had actually read Paul’s letters, which is especially odd for Luke, since Paul is the hero of Acts. The odder thing is that the way he portrays Paul’s preaching is at odds with Paul himself, in significant ways. (E.g. in Acts Paul never preaches that the death of Jesus brings an atonement for sin! Or that pagans know that there is only one God and sin by claiming there are many. etc.)

  17. giselebendor September 24, 2022 at 3:21 pm

    New excavations unveil 1000BC monumental sites. One is Khirbet Keyafa, excavated by Yosef Garfinkel

    Yosef Garfinkel lecture: ” In Search of the Historical King David”

    Summarizing, it is a Judean site, bordering with the Philistines, revealing a considerable administration; no pig bones;no human figurines.

    Jerusalem is hard to excavate. Excavating under the Temple Mount, where much truth may be found, would bring WWIII. Also many dwellings, etc.

    One interesting thing about David- who I believe existed-nobody speaks of ,is his name. Just as Saul’s name ( Shaul, like Paul)means “the requested one” confirms the Biblical account that the people, for the first time, *requested *a king, so David’s name, meaning ” beloved”, appears to be a great coincidence, as David was God’s beloved, ” a man after God’s heart”. Two coincidences?

    I wonder if those two kings’ names tell us that their original names were different. I do take the dating of the Tel Dan stela into account, of course.

    After all, Avram means High Father, telling that the patriarchs came from the north.
    BTW,the “h” and the “a”added to Avram later doesn’t mean what the HB says at all. The name Israel doesn’t mean what the Bible says either. But that’s another theme.

    • BDEhrman September 25, 2022 at 4:46 pm

      I haven’t been able to listen to the Garfinkel lecture, but it’s not clear from your summary how the site relates to a king named David? (As opposed to being a site that existed at the time that David is traditionally dated? And as to the coincidence, I would say that could be used to argue either way, since if someone wanted to make up the name of a beloved king the name would then seem rather natural.

  18. giselebendor September 25, 2022 at 8:56 pm

    Thanks! Forgive my imperfect summary. Garfinkel speculates about David.The site was fortified,with huge and very heavy stones, necessitating important resources to maneuver.I think Garfinkel’s major claims are the high chronology and refuting Finkelstein’s claim that no major structures are found in what would be David’s kingdom. Finkelstein, I read, accepts the United Monarchy and a strong kingdom, but in a much lower chronology and attributed to Jeroboam II ( who would have thought?). There was also some interesting pottery. I’m sure I forget stuff.
    As to the names of Saul and David, I thought that perhaps these were titles, like Suleiman the Magnificent, Phillip the Good. After so long the first names were forgotten. Moses is also an interesting case. I think someone like Moses existed. Moses meaning “ son”, it also lacks a first name.
    I find the extravagant,unproven claim that so much was invented during Josiah’s reign to be biased. If Josiah needed centralization and expansion, he didn’t need to invent so much. Secondly, oral memory, however limited, is respected as a source. It either carried the basic history of the people forward ,somehow,or should be discredited.
    I also believe there will still be discoveries, as there have been till now.

  19. keithdull October 3, 2022 at 5:55 am

    I assume you read Greek and Latin and probably German. Do you also read Hebrew?

    • BDEhrman October 4, 2022 at 8:38 pm

      My linguistic skills are fairly typical for a NT scholar. To get the PhD in my program we had to learn Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and German. Most of my students do that and also do one other ancient language, like Syriac or Coptic. I taught myself Syriac and Coptic, but it’s been a very long time and I never use them. I have enough Coptic to make sense of a text with a translation next to it; my Syriac has flown into the stratosphere. I never read Hebrew these days either, unless I”m just looking something up.

  20. EdRothschild October 6, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    I just listened to the podcast “is it even possible to follow Jesus’ Teaching to “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself?”

    You indicate that it was a new and strange radical departure from norms. I suggest that it was not. It is found in Leviticus.
    Lev 18: love your neighbor as yourself. I am Adonai”

    Least this be assumed to apply only between Jews:

    Lev. 19-33 The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a citizen among yo. And you shall love that person as yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. I an Adoni, your God.”

    This admonishment is repeated over thirty times in Torah, in various forms. It is in the Talmud Mishna Avot 2:18, in regard to Yom Kippur Rabbi Shimon taught: On this Holy Day remember “be as loving to your neighbor as you are to yourself, quoting Leviticus 19-18.
    This is part of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

    Jesus, I submit, was not suggesting a new and radical idea. He was telling people to actually DO what was commanded by God. On the other hand, for most people this is a rather radical idea.
    Ed Rothschild
    [email protected]

    • BDEhrman October 8, 2022 at 8:23 am

      The command appears to be directed to fellow Israelites and those who choose to live among them — that is, immigrants. It does not apply to outsiders. Jesus’ interpretation takes it even to the enemies of the people.

  21. david October 11, 2022 at 6:26 pm

    Forgive my commenting so late on a discussion from 3 weeks ago, concerning whether David and Solomon existed…

    I own and have recently read both Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, and Baruch Halpern’s David’s Secret Demons. Both are copyright 2001 and both are *excellent*!

    While the former throws doubt on the existence of David (and Solomon), Halpern conclusively persuades me that David and his dynasty were historical and that the books of Samuel and Kings contain elements that pretty much dispel reasonable doubt. Could the archeological focus of the former and the textual focus of the latter explain this difference?

    (A subtext for Halpern are his discourses on chronological records and historical records. These too might be worthy of comment.)

    How would you reconcile these two arguments? (Thanks in advance!)

    • BDEhrman October 14, 2022 at 6:14 pm

      My view is that if you use a literary text to prove a historical claim that only that text makes, it is very tricky. YOu have to have a compelling argument and it certainly would help significantly if there were external verification of some sort. Without that, there needs to be something far more than verisimilitude. I haven’t read Halpern’s book but I’ve read others by prominent scholars that simpyl didn’t provide anything like convincing evidence. Can you tell me what his most compelling arguments for their historicity were?

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