The Debate over the
Historicity and Chronology of the
United Monarchy in Jerusalem
Ong Kar Khalsa
One of the most fiercely debated issues in Biblical Archaeology today involves the historicity of the Bible and biblical chronology in the period of the United Monarchy in Jerusalem. Most of the evidence for this period of David and Solomon is found in the Bible, and there is a decided lack of archaeological evidence to correlate the biblical narrative. The Biblical Minimalists take the view that the Bible is a narrative of mythology interwoven with some historical elements; whereas the Biblical Maximalists believe that the Bible, along with archaeological evidence, can be a valid historical source. This dichotomy of viewpoints is further divided into questions of chronology and definitions of statehood.
When the current conditions for excavation in Jerusalem and the complexity of occupational deposition are considered, it is not so unusual that there is little evidence of Davidic and Solomonic Jerusalem. The area of the citadel of the City of David is currently beneath private homes; therefore very little excavation has been done. Similarly, the Temple Mount covers the site of the Solomonic Temple, where it is impossible for religious and political reasons to conduct even an archaeological survey.
Two factors in occupational deposition are important to consider: first of all, in hilly regions like Jerusalem, it is most practical to remove the earlier construction phases and debris down to bedrock when building new structures. Second, uninterrupted settlement (from the tenth to the early sixth centuries B.C.E.) leaves less of an archaeological footprint than would a period of destruction or invasion (Na'aman 1996: 19), so it is understandable that there would be less data from this period.
The Biblical Minimalist point of view hinges on the belief that the Book of Kings was written in the Persian period, and edited as late as the first century C.E. Therefore it is a product of many scribal errors and different authors, which means that any historical value is hidden in layers of confusion. Niels Peter Lemche, one of the main proponents of this school, also makes the case that the concept of "history" is an essentially modern term. Thus trying to read the Bible as a historical text in the modern sense of the term is a vexed enterprise from the start (Shanks 1997: 29), because the Bible was written in a tradition of story-telling and religious worship, not with the intention of relating facts in a "history." They assert that the United Monarchy and the figures of David and Solomon are legendary, but not historical.
The Biblical Maximalist perspective is that enough of the textual and archaeological evidence converge to make the Bible plausible as a historical source. They don't necessarily say that every element of the Bible can be proven; William Dever goes so far as to say that David and Solomon may not have been historical figures. But there is enough socio-archaeological data to make conclusions about the rise of statehood in the tenth century, which is a centralized power like the United Monarchy.
The main problem with the Biblical Minimalist point of view is that there are too many correlations of the biblical narrative to other Near Eastern sources. For example, the Pharoah Shishak's destruction of Megiddo is recorded in the bible, and his actual victory stelae are found at Megiddo and Karnak; we also have the later Babylonian lists of Israelite Kings, which correlates with biblical narrative. These correlations fall after the United Monarchy, but both suggest a continuity with institutions of Kingship and the office of the court scribe. The description of the Solomonic Temple in the Bible is so much like the MB Age Temple and the 8tth century Syrian Temple at Tell Tainat (which was also constructed by Phoenician craftsmen), that it is highly unlikely that it could be fictitious.
The only monumental architecture from this time period is the Stepped-Stone structure from the eastern slope of the City of David. It could have functioned as a large supporting structure, for a fortification wall or platform that might be part of the citadel of David. It was built on top of Late Bronze Age II terrace systems, with Israelite houses built into it, and Hellenistic-Roman period wall built on the highest part of the slope. The original excavations by Kathleen Kenyon concluded that the underlying terraces and Stepped-Stone Structures were contemporaneous and should be dated to LB II. But the ceramic data from a sealed context points to an Iron Age date for the Stepped-Stone Structure, and the stratigraphic data clearly shows it to have been constructed around and deeper than some portions of the terrace system. This would negate the idea that the terrace system was to function as the foundation of the Stepped-Stone structure (Steiner 1994: 13-16).
Whether this Stepped-Stone structure is the biblical Millo is another question; some scholars think that it could be, whereas Kathleen Kenyon and others disagree, and identify the terraces below it with the Millo. The Kenyon position is based on 2 Samuels 5:9, which says that David built around the Millo after capturing the city, which would imply an earlier Canaanite/Jebusite Late Bronze Age date. Larry Stager questions Kenyon, stating that the terraces could be the biblical Terraces of Kidron, or sadmot qidron, and so the identification of Millo is again left unkown (1982: 111-121). He bases this conclusion on textual evidence and regional contemporaneous knowledge of agricultural and architectural terracing.
To look beyond Jerusalem itself for archaeological and textual evidence of the Davidic and Solomonic reigns, refer to the Tel Dan inscription and the six-chambered gate. The Tel Dan inscription mentions "Beth David" or House of David as a place name; it is a Semitic tradition to name a city after the founder. There has been some questioning of the authenticity of the Beth David inscription, namely by epigraphers who take the lack of a word divider as evidence of a forgery. But apparently the Aramaic of the inscription as a whole is grammatical, and the paleography and orthography are correct (Shanks 1997a: 34). Also the recent discovery of the ostracon with the inscription "Three shekels for Beth Yhwh" which has no word divider as well, lends further credibility to the Tel Dan inscription (Shanks 1997b: 30).
A six-chambered gate is mentioned in 1 Kings 10: 15 to have been built by King Solomon at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. Monumental six-chambered gates are found at all three of these sites, and have been dated at Gezer and Hazor in the tenth century, though Ushisshkin and Finkelstein are attempting to redate the Megiddo gate to the ninth century. Even if the existence of King Solomon is not directly proven from these gates, certainly the rise of a centralized state with the power to organize and finance such a project can be inferred from their construction.
Further archaeological evidence consistent with the biblical account of David's conquest of Canaanite cities is the destruction layer of Megiddo Stratum VIA and Tell Qasile Stratum X (Mazar 1992: 374). David is portrayed as having conquered and expanded the empire, but not necessarily as having been a great builder. And recent archaeological surveys show an increase in population and new patterns of settlement in the tenth century, which indicate a rise in urbanization (ibid: 387).
Other scholars have taken innovative routes to proving the historicity of the United Monarchy. Nadav Na'Aman in the article "The Contribution of the Amarna Letters to the Debate on Jerusalem's Political Position in the Tenth Century B.C.E." uses the analogy of the limited archaeological evidence of statehood in Jerusalem and Shechem during the LB II or the Egyptian Amarna period, to Iron Age II Jerusalem and its limited archaeological evidence. He begins with describing how conclusions based on LB II period excavated material alone would result in a view of Jerusalem as "a few small rural communities, plus isolated pastoral groups and refugees" (Na'aman 1996: 20).
But the Amarna letters of this time period (if the Urusalim of the Amarna letters is equated with Jerushalem) suggest a different picture: that Jerusalem was part of a Canaanite city-state, with Kings regarded as local administrators of the Pharoah and capable of sending rich tributes to the Pharoah. This points to a difference in the modern "objective" definition of statehood by anthropologists, and the definition of statehood from within the contemporaneous culture (ibid: 21).
A similar misreading of the negative archaeological evidence of Iron Age II Jerusalem is conceivable. Na'aman then traces the philological history for the beginning of the scribal tradition in the United Monarchy from hieratic numerals that appear on both Israelite and Judahite ostracon from the 8th and 7th centuries which are not found in neighboring regions and so are likely to have been passed on by Egyptian-trained scribes in the tenth century(ibid: 22). He considers that a scribal tradition and the account of the Temple in the Book of Kings, combined with surveys which indicate population growth around Jerusalem, are significant enough factors of a monarchy headed by David and then Solomon.
Further study and excavation are needed to shed more light on this time period in history. It has a particular symbolic force in both historical and religious timelines, which has made the archaeological interpretation extraordinarily complex. When biblical narrative and objective discoveries appear to converge, scholars need to be receptive to the implications.
1992. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000-586 B.C.E. New York: Doubleday.
1996 ."The Contribution of the Amarna Letters to the Debate on Jerusalem's Political Position in the Tenth Century B.C.E." BASOR. 304: 17-27.
1997 "Cow Town or Royal Capital: Evidence for Iron Age Jerusalem." Biblical Archaeology Review. 23, no. 4: 43-47, 67.
1995. Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography. New York: Random House.
1997a "Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers." Biblical Archaeology Review. 23, no. 4: 26-42, 66.
1997b "Three Shekels for the Lord" Biblical Archaeology Review. 23, no. 6: 28-32.
Stager, Lawrence E.
1982 . "Archaeology of the East Slope of Jerusalem and the Terraces of the Kidron." Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 41, no. 2: 111-121
Steiner, Margreet L.
1994. "Re-dating the Terraces of Jerusalem." Israel Exploration Journal Jerusalem. 44, no. 1-2: 13-20.