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Was Saul real king of Israel?

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Date published: 1/4/2003

Scholars debate history from Bible


TORONTO--Judging from a session at 2002's key gathering of Bible scholars, King Saul and King David aren't dead yet. So to speak.

A lengthy session on non-biblical evidence for the first kings of ancient Israel occurred during the convention of the Society of Biblical Literature, held in November.

These are often called years of "crisis" in Old Testament history. Traditionalists say the Old Testament reliably records ancient Israel's history or, more liberally, is substantially historical, though with problems and mistakes.

These and even more liberal views are challenged by "minimalists," who regard the Hebrew Scriptures as fictional propaganda that boosted Jewish nationalism after the Exile in Babylon (beginning in 597 B.C.) or long after that.

Minimalist Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, admits something called Israel did exist centuries before the Exile. It's nearly impossible to argue otherwise, since a military attack upon "Israel" was cited around 1210 B.C. in an Egyptian inscription.

But, Lemche continues, we can't be sure "the real history" of that Israel "has much--if anything--to do with the history of the Israel" depicted in the Old Testament.

Much debate focuses on Israel's first three kings, given these traditional dates of rule: Saul (1034 B.C. or earlier to 1012 B.C.), David (1012 B.C. to 972 B.C.) and Solomon (972 B.C to 932 B.C). Others say dates are uncertain but the three reigned around 1000 B.C.

No strong conservative was included on the Toronto program. But it was notable that Diana Edelman, from a minimalist hotbed, the University of Sheffield, England, told the scholars that Saul was "not merely a fictional character" but an actual figure in history.

Not that Edelman buys the full biblical account in 1 Samuel. Rather, she thinks literary analysis shows there are some truly ancient strands of Saul material mingled with the many unreliable stories. Due to the "meager" record, she believes, one can concoct "a number of conflicting histories of Saul."

As for Saul's successor David, Ryan Byrne of the University of Maryland said skeptics make a big mistake thinking of David's kingdom in modern-day terms as an advanced, centralized state. In reality, "most archaic states were quite small." For instance, the Bible says there was only one scribe in David's retinue.

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