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“Really Truly Stories”

Examining the historicity of 1st & 2nd Samuel

I read A LOT as a child.

I attended a very small denominationally operated school with a fittingly small library. By the time I left the school I had read every book in the library at least once.

I remember from my childhood a series of books called “Really Truly Stories.” I don’t remember reading them, but I always remembered the name of the series.

This is a follow-up to the article “The Joys and Pitfalls of Writing Historical Fiction” and specifically my new novel “Quest for a King.”

Evaluating the historicity (whether the topic in question is actual history) of the Bible stories is a HUGE topic, which I’m going to try to distill down to a couple of posts here. It is super NERDY, so it won’t be for everyone, but I LOVE this kind of stuff, since I’m a card-carrying nerd.

Remember, these stories are set 3,000 years ago. Most people who study these things believe David reigned about 1,000 B.C. (or B.C.E. in the current scholarly terminology. B.C. and B.C.E. are synonymous, but it allows scholars to say “Before the Common Era” instead of “Before Christ”). That means when Jesus Christ selected the 12 Apostles, David was a thousand years before that.

I don’t know about you, but I have to think a bit to even remember what was going on a thousand years ago right now. The Crusades? The Norman Conquest? The Polynesians settled Hawaii a little over a thousand years ago. It was the Dark Ages in Europe, I think.

Needless to say, 3,000 years ago is a long time ago, especially since recorded human history is roughly 5,000 years. The Egyptian and Chinese dynasties began about then.

The novel I’m writing, Quest for a King, has fictional elements to flesh out and give cultural context to the biblical narrative, but how historically reliable is the underlying story itself? Naturally, conservative Christians and Jews regard these stories as historical, but skeptical scholars have long regarded them as mythelogical, due in part to the miraculous aspects of the stories. Many have insisted that David never existed. Others have said the David in the Bible was a composite character, fabricated as a heroic king after the Babylonian captivity to promote Jewish nationalism.

It is true that for a long time, skeptics made much of the fact that there was no reference to King David in secular chronicles and archaeological discoveries outside the Bible. That may sound incredible to believers who have heard these stories all their lives, but Israel didn’t have the prominence in the ancient world that the focus of scripture would suggest, so David’s dynasty was not mentioned in Egyptian or Mesopotamian documents that were known at least through the middle of the 19th century.

It really isn’t all that surprising that there was no extra-biblical confirmation of King David. For example, most people would be surprised to learn that there is quite a bit of controversy over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, because of the dearth of documentation regarding their authorship. They were written only a little over 400 years ago, yet there are scholars who dispute the conventional wisdom that the plays were written by the Bard of Avon.

The controversy over the historicity of King David all changed in 1993 (Biblical Archeology article).

Archeologists were excavating “Tel Dan,” the biblical city of Dan in the northern-most part of Israel (“Tel” means “mound” and refers to the ruins of ancient towns. “From Dan to Beersheba” was a common expression that meant the entire country of Israel: Dan being the northernmost town, Beersheba the southernmost). During the excavation they discovered the Tel Dan stele, an engraved stone dated to the mid or late ninth century B.C. (about 850-870 years before Christ), on which was inscribed an Aramean (Syrian) king’s boast of his victory in a battle with the “king of Israel” and the “king of the house of David,” written in clear paleo-Aramaic characters. Remember that after Solomon, according to the Bible, the kingdom split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, which continued to have kings in the line of David for more than 400 years. The Tel Dan inscription seems to correspond to 2 Kings 9.

This was the first extra-biblical reference to King David or the “house of David” that had ever been discovered. From that point on, it was impossible for intellectually honest skeptics to say that David never existed. It is obvious from the Tel Dan stele that the kingdom of Judah continued to be known to its neighbors as the “house of David” after his death. Fictional characters and composite characters don’t have dynasties named after them, obviously, and the Tel Dan stele was dated to only 100 years after David would have reigned, not 600 years later, after the Babylonian captivity as many scholars had believed was the time the “legend” of King David was formulated.

Other discoveries buttressed the Tel Dan stele, such as the Mesha Stele, which also references the “house of David” according to some, although there isn’t unanimous agreement about it.

More to come…

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  1. […] the previous post, I started my look at the historicity of some of the favorite stories in the Bible, which are the […]

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