Return to story

Was Saul real king of Israel?

January 4, 2003 1:06 am

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.

It's true that archaeologists haven't found great material remains from the time of David, but it's a "blunder" to expect these when the Bible itself "makes modest building claims for David," Byrne said.

And if we "curtail our expectations" on the material culture that might have been left behind, he said, there's no big conflict between the archaeological record and the biblical account of David.

Next, Walter Aufrecht of the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, dismissed as "bogus" the arguments biblical leftists raise against the most important David inscription of recent times.

In 1993, Israeli archaeologist Avraham Biran reported an inscription at the site of ancient Dan that he said reads "House of David," indicating a kingly line.

Readings are not open and shut because Hebrew used no vowels, and some skeptics proposed other translations. However, Aufrecht argued that the relevant experts are not Bible theorists or historians but epigraphers (specialists in deciphering ancient inscriptions), including many experts in his audience, and they mostly back Biran.

Finally, Avraham Faust of Israel's Bar-Ilan University offered a circumstantial case from southern Samaria for the biblical setting. He said that in the late 11th century B.C., many rural villages were abandoned, indicating concentration in central towns and formation of a more centralized state.

"These changes did not just happen," he argued. Some "agent" was involved. Archaeology doesn't give that agent's name but "in general lines" the archaeology supports the Bible, he said.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.