Was King David Mythical or Historical?

New archaeological findings support the truthfulness and historical trustworthiness of the Bible.

Gerard van Honthorst, “King David Playing the Harp,” 1622
Gerard van Honthorst, “King David Playing the Harp,” 1622 (photo: Public Domain)

The substantial historicity of the united monarchy of Judah — the reigns of King Saul around 1037–1010 B.C., King David around 1010–970 B.C. and King Solomon around 970–931 B.C. — was widely accepted in the middle years of the 20th century, even within secular archaeological circles.

But by the 1990s, what is called archaeological or biblical minimalism became quite the fashionable view among a new generation of archaeologists who worked in Israel. It was the high-water mark of skepticism, influenced and infused by a marked “anti-biblical” or “anti-traditional,” or what could be called a “vehemently secular,” spirit. Older “truths” were no longer accepted as established or given. 

Many archaeologists in the 1990s, and continuing until the present time, regarded King David similarly to how most historians view King Arthur — a real person (not nonexistent), but vastly mythologized, to such an extent that the “kernel” of historical truth and fact has been mostly lost amid the colorful and memorable legends built up around him. The late Philip Davies, Bible scholar at the University of Sheffield, confidently proclaimed the same: “I’m not the only scholar who suspects that the figure of King David is about as historical as King Arthur.”

Ze’ev Herzog, archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, took an even more extreme view in a 1999 front-page story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, titled “The Bible: No Evidence on the Ground”:

Following seventy years of intensive excavations in the Land of Israel, archaeologists have found out: The patriarchs’ acts are legendary, the Israelites did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, they did not conquer the land. Neither is there any mention of the empire of David and Solomon, nor of the source of belief in the God of Israel. These facts have been known for years, but Israelis are a stubborn people, and no one wants to hear it.

I submit that stubbornness and excessive dogmatism are traits not unknown among minimalist archaeologists. Thomas Thompson, professor of Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen, and author of Early History of the Israelite People (1992), provides a classic example:

It is out of the question that Saul, David, and Solomon, as described as kings in the Bible, could have existed. I think the biblical accounts are wonderful stories, invented at the time when Jerusalem was part of the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C.

God has a wonderful sense of humor, and it is often exhibited (or so it seems to me) in the particular timing of new archaeological findings that support the truthfulness and historical trustworthiness of the Bible.

In March 1993, all biblical scholars and archaeologists (minimalist and maximalist alike) agreed that there was no “concrete evidence” outside the Bible (such as in written monuments or documents) of the existence of King David. Then, lo and behold, in July 1993 — just four months after the above article that cites Thompson — definitive evidence of this nature (the Tel Dan Stele) was found in Israel. Eric Cline, chairman of the Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University, told the story in his book, Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. A portion of it was adapted for an internet article, “Did David and Solomon Exist?”:

As it is currently reconstructed, the inscription describes the defeat of both Joram, king of Israel, and Ahaziyahu, king of Judah, by a king of Aram-Damascus in the ninth century BCE.

“House of David” is also biblical terminology (1 Samuel 20:16; 2 Samuel 3:1–6; 1 Kings 12:19–26; 2 Chronicles 10:19; and many other instances in the RSV). The language of the inscription is a dialect of Aramaic. Most scholars think King Hazael of Damascus (ninth century B.C.) is the author. Prominent Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who regards himself as neither a minimalist nor a maximalist (somewhere in the middle of the spectrum), described the decisive importance of this find:

Much of the minimalist effort has been invested in the claim that David and Solomon ... are not historical figures. They argued that, like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon are not mentioned in any extra-biblical texts, and should therefore be seen as legendary personalities. This argument suffered a major blow when the Tel Dan basalt stele was discovered in the mid-1990s. …
Moreover, it most probably specified the names of the two later kings — Joram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah — both of whom are mentioned in the biblical text.

Arguably, a second mention of the “House of David” occurs in the Mesha Stele (c. 840 B.C.), connected with King Mesha of Moab, written using a variant of the Phoenician alphabet, closely related to paleo-Hebrew script. It was discovered in August 1868 in Dibhan, Jordan, but re-interpreted in light of the Tel Dan Stele, so that many think it refers to the “House of David” and contains a possible second mention of David.

The above was adapted from the beginning portion of Chapter 11 (“King David Versus King Arthur”) of my book, The Word Set in Stone: How Archaeology, Science, and History Back up the Bible (Catholic Answers Press, 2023).