At one point I even wrote an ancient history assignment about King David’s role in Israelite history. However, I lost marks because of my naïve acceptance of the Biblical accounts as accurate history, my failure to evaluate them as sources.
To be fair to my teenage self, back in the 1970s most historians had a fairly generous view of the historicity of Samuel and 1 Kings. Not that I knew anything about it at age 16, but most critics regarded elements of these stories as reaching back to two narratives written close to the time of David himself – one they called “David's Rise to Power” which charted David’s rise from bandit chief to king of a united Israel, and another called the “Court History” or “Succession History” which was mainly written to explain or justify why Solomon ended up as his successor.
This doesn’t mean scholars accepted the accounts as objectively accurate in all respects. They were seen as being written as defences of David, royal propaganda to counter charges that David was nothing but a bandit and mercenary who killed his master Saul and stole his throne, and that Solomon was a usurper who may not even have been David’s legitimate son and certainly not his heir. However, setting their creation close to the time meant these critics accepted the broad historical picture of David as a powerful king of a united
I would like to think that this was true. However, I’ve just been reading David and Solomon by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. Both authors, and Finkelstein in particular, are distinguished archaeologists, and this book summarises the vast amounts of archaeological evidence about the period of David and Solomon uncovered in digs over the past few decades, and combines this with a re-reading of the Biblical text in the light of this evidence.
The result is a much more sceptical view of these two kings. In the tenth century BCE, when they are presumed to have lived,
So where did these elaborate, detailed and vivid accounts come from? You’ll have to read the book to get the full picture, but they suggest a number of stages in the creation of the story. The first is the creation of a folk tradition, preserved in orally transmitted stories and songs, of David the bandit chief made good and his mighty men, as well as the rival tradition from further north containing the deeds of the Benjamite King Saul.
The second, dating from the destruction of the Northern kingdom by the Assyrians and the prosperous reign of Hezekiah in the 8th century, involved combining these two traditions in a more sequential account used to justify the legitimacy of David’s dynasty in the face of Assyrian aggression and a wave of refugees from the north. The third, dating from the time of Josiah in the 6th century, placed stronger emphasis on the territorial extent of the united kingdom and the religious purity of David’s reign as a way of justifying Josiah’s religious and territorial ambitions. The fourth and fifth, compiled by priests after the exile, focused even more on the importance of the temple and religious purity as the key to the kingdom’s greatness. At each point, the new editors used David and Solomon as foils for their own concerns and needs, and so the story kept on growing and changing.
Nor did it stop there, they say, with Jews and Christians continuing to develop the story through their expectations of the Messiah and the development of their own ideas of kingship.
It doesn’t make it any less fascinating as a story, or the character of David any less inspiring. What it calls into question, though, is the concept of static religious truth. Each if the successive tellers of the story, in their view, felt free to re-interpret and retell the tale to fit the needs of their time. Rather than an abstract and absolute truth, the stories evolved with their writers and readers, being brought to bear on new and urgent problems.
Jewish religious teachers have a term for this – midrash. A midrash is a creative reading of the text. A portion of scripture will be read, then its message embellished in the light of the issues faced by the listeners at the time. The aim is not to analyse the text as we would, digging into its “true” meaning. The aim is to use it to help the listeners and to bring God into their situation. Both Jesus and Paul regularly use this technique, perplexing well-educated evangelical preachers who see their statements as divinely inspired but also know they violate all the principles of sound exegesis.
We can see this process reaching back in time. The kings of
I would suggest that we do the same thing. Modernist Christians have reread these stories in the light of our own need for scientific factuality. We have needed, within our modernist culture, to see them as having actually happened the way they were written. We have needed to see the Bible as the kind of scientific history written by Finkelstein and Silberman. We are so blind to the cultural nature of this reading that we believe our faith stands a falls by it. If the authors are right, then it must fall. Then again, maybe it is our culture that is temporary.