This morning I read an article posted to Yahoo News by Live Science journalist Megan Gannon, reporting how Israeli archaeologists believe they have found "two royal buildings from Israel's biblical past, including a palace suspected to have belonged to King David." The findings come from a site called Khirbet Qeiyafa, where archaeologists Yossi Garfinkel of Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israeli Antiquities Authority have been excavating. According to the article, radiocarbon analysis at the site has placed it around the time of 1020-980 BCE, "before being violently destroyed, likely in a battle against the Philistines." As someone who has read compelling arguments challenging the biblical narrative around King David, this made me sit up and take notice.
Biblical minimalism is a paradigm in archaeology that posits a low chronology for many biblical events, and also proposes mythicism or heavy redaction to biblical stories in a number of cases. Minimalists would include archaeologists like Philip Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, and Niels Peter Lemche. On the other end, there are so-called biblical maximalists like William Dever, Kenneth Kitchen, and Amihai Mazar. The major area of disagreement between maximalists and minimalists seems to revolve around the united monarchy, or the kingdom of Israel during the reigns of Saul and David, as told in the Bible. Minimalists go so far as to deny that there is any evidence of the united monarchy, while maximalists more or less hold to the portrait of it presented in scripture.
The important work of Israel Finkelstein - particularly in The Bible Unearthed, with Neil Asher Silberman - has helped to establish somewhat of a middle ground between the two perspectives. Finkelstein assents to the historicity of David (on the basis of such evidence as the Mesha Stele and the Tel Dan inscription), but argues that the biblical portrait exaggerates the extent and influence of his kingdom. David was more like a chieftain than a king, as there is no evidence of a united monarchy in the region at the time. Although there have been some critics of Finkelstein's work, it has been largely praised within the archaeological and scholarly community.
So, what to say about the news article on Garfinkel's discovery? First of all, make note of the fact that Garfinkel is a maximalist - and a stalwart one at that - indicated by his publication of "The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism" in the May/June 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, as well as his subsequent heated exchanges with Philip Davies. One of the evidences Garfinkel proposes to signal the demise of minimalism is, of course, his findings at Khirbet Qeiyafa. Gannon quotes Garfinkel as saying, "This is unequivocal evidence of a kingdom's existence, which knew to establish administrative centers at strategic points". Unequivocal evidence? I can't help but wonder if perhaps the professor has an ideological axe of his own to grind.
However, what really struck me was the difference between the Live Science report and another report written up by Associated Press journalist Max J. Rosenthal. Rosenthal also quotes Garfinkel as suggesting that his findings constitute "unequivocal evidence", and yet we are actually given examples, such as "cultic objects typically used by Judeans" and the absence of pig remains. A sort of disclaimer then promptly follows:
Critics said the site could have belonged to other kingdoms of the area. The consensus among most scholars is that no definitive physical proof of the existence of King David has been found.Biblical archaeology itself is contentious. Israelis often use archaeological findings to back up their historic claims to sites that are also claimed by the Palestinians, like the Old City of Jerusalem. Despite extensive archaeological evidence, for example, Palestinians deny that the biblical Jewish Temples dominated the hilltop where the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site, stands today.In general, researchers are divided over whether biblical stories can be validated by physical remains.The current excavators are not the first to claim they found a King David palace. In 2005, Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar said she found the remains of King David's palace in Jerusalem dating to the 10th century B.C., when King David would have ruled. Her claim also attracted skepticism, including from Garfinkel himself.
This is a prime example of good journalism. Rosenthal even manages to get commentary from Dr. Finkelstein as a skeptical take on Garfinkel's findings. Ms. Gannon includes no such counter-points in her article. In fact, she features no dissenting opinion at all, only what seems like credulous acceptance of Garfinkel's claims. Anyone reading her news report and not taking the time to read others might get the mistaken impression that this "discovery" is really more established than it is.
This is why it pays to do additional research, whether you're a journalist or just a reader. I have no ideological bias driving me to deny Garfinkel's findings, but I do want to see a multiplicity of interpretations, because there always is more than one. If further excavation turns up more compelling evidence that this is indeed the site of David's palace, I won't have any qualms about accepting that. The historicity of a united monarchy would not validate the supernatural claims of scripture. Ironically, in a particularly terrible reader review of The Bible Unearthed at the Tekton apologetics site, the author speculates that Finkelstein and Silberman not only deny the existence of David (quite the opposite, if you actually read the book) to deny the divinity of Christ, but that the authors "prefer" it because they "hate Him" so much they want to "destroy faith in Jesus". I don't know whether to mock the author or mock the site's admin, J.P. Holding, for publishing such unscholarly shlock.
Really, how would it work, that denying David would deny the divinity of Christ? Because if there is no line of David from which the messiah comes, there must be no messiah? I'm sure clever Christians would find a way to reinterpret those passages, just like modern apologists reinterpret the genealogy passages in light of their belief that Joseph wasn't Jesus' biological father. Through whom do those genealogies trace Jesus' history? Why, if it wasn't Joseph, it must have been Mary, despite the instruction in Numbers 1:18 that ancestry was to be recorded "by their fathers' households" (NAS; once again, the NIV has omitted words from the text that are present in the original, for a seemingly apologetic reason - the Hebrew word avotam means "of their fathers", and is translated as such in all other 83 occurrences as noted in Englishman's Concordance).
More importantly, though, there are much better reasons to reject the divinity of Christ than to suppose that a historical David never existed. But, as thrice stated now, Finkelstein and Silberman do not deny that David existed ("...the house of David was known throughout the region; this clearly validates the biblical description of a figure named David becoming the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem", Bible Unearthed, p. 129). All this author's speculation shows, all that Ms. Gannon's sloppy journalism shows, and all that Dr. Garfinkel's insistence on his conclusion shows, is that the longstanding and long-engrained paradigm of biblical maximalism dies hard indeed, despite lack of evidence for its claims, and despite evidence against its claims.