The “House of David”—Fact or Fiction?
DAVID—the young shepherd lad who became a musician, a poet, a soldier, a prophet, and a king—stands out in the Bible in great prominence. His name is mentioned 1,138 times; the expression “House of David”—often referring to the dynasty of David—is used 25 times. (1 Samuel 20:16) Were King David and his dynasty only fiction? What does archaeology reveal? A recent remarkable discovery at an archaeological excavation site at Tel Dan in northern Galilee is reported to support the historicity of David and his dynasty.
In the summer of 1993, an archaeological team, led by Professor Avraham Biran, cleared an area outside the outer gate of ancient Dan. They uncovered a paved plaza. A black basalt stone protruding from the ground was easily removed. When the stone was turned toward the afternoon sun, the letters sprang to life. “Oh, my God, we have an inscription!” Professor Biran exclaimed.
Professor Biran and his colleague, Professor Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, promptly wrote a scientific report on the inscription. Based on this report, an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review magazine, March/April 1994, reads: “It’s not often that an archaeological find makes the front page of the New York Times (to say nothing of Time magazine). But that is what happened last summer to a discovery at Tel Dan, a beautiful mound in northern Galilee, at the foot of Mt. Hermon beside one of the headwaters of the Jordan River.
“There Avraham Biran and his team of archaeologists found a remarkable inscription from the ninth century B.C.E. that refers both to the ‘House of David’ and to the ‘King of Israel.’ This is the first time that the name David has been found in any ancient inscription outside the Bible. That the inscription refers not simply to a ‘David’ but to the House of David, the dynasty of the great Israelite king, is even more remarkable.
“‘King of Israel’ is a term frequently found in the Bible, especially in the Book of Kings. This, however, may be the oldest extra-Biblical reference to Israel in Semitic script. If this inscription proves anything, it shows that both Israel and Judah, contrary to the claims of some scholarly Biblical minimizers, were important kingdoms at this time.”
The dating is based on the shape of the letters, analysis of pottery found near the stone fragment, and the content of the inscription. All three methods point to the same time period, the ninth century B.C.E., somewhat over a hundred years after King David. Scholars believe that the inscription was part of a victory monument erected in Dan by an Aramaean enemy of both the “King of Israel” and the “[King of the] House of David.” The Aramaeans, who worshiped a popular storm-god, Hadad, lived to the east.
During the summer of 1994, two more fragments of this stela were found. Professor Biran reports: “In these two fragments are the name of the Aramean god Hadad, as well as a reference to a battle between the Israelites and the Arameans.”
The main fragment recovered in 1993 contained 13 partially visible lines written in old Hebrew script. At that time, dots were used as word dividers to separate words in a text. However, “House of David” is written as one word with the letters “bytdwd” (transliterated into roman letters) instead of “byt” (house), a dot, and then “dwd” (David). Understandably, questions have been raised concerning the interpretation of “bytdwd.”
Linguist expert Professor Anson Rainey explains: “Joseph Naveh and Avraham Biran did not explain the inscription in detail, perhaps because they took for granted that readers would know that a word divider between two components in such a construction is often omitted, especially if the combination is a well-established proper name. ‘The House of David’ was certainly such a proper political and geographic name in the mid-ninth century B.C.E.”
Another Archaeological Testimony
After that discovery, an expert on the Mesha stela (also called the Moabite Stone), Professor André Lemaire, reported that it also refers to the “House of David.”* The Mesha stela, discovered in 1868, has much in common with the Tel Dan stela. They both date to the ninth century B.C.E., are of the same material, are similar in size, and are written in almost identical Semitic script.
As to a new reconstruction of a damaged line on the Mesha stela, Professor Lemaire wrote: “Nearly two years before the discovery of the Tel Dan fragment, I concluded that the Mesha stela contains a reference to the ‘House of David.’ . . . The reason this reference to the ‘House of David’ has never been noted before may well be due to the fact that the Mesha stela has never had a proper editio princeps [first edition]. That is what I am preparing, 125 years after the discovery of the Mesha stela.”
Such archaeological information is of interest because an angel, Jesus himself, his disciples, and people in general testified to the historicity of David. (Matthew 1:1; 12:3; 21:9; Luke 1:32; Acts 2:29) Archaeological discoveries evidently agree that he and his dynasty, the “House of David,” are fact, not fiction.
The Mesha stela is known to the readers of the Watch Tower Society’s literature. (See The Watchtower, April 15, 1990, pages 30-1.) It is on exhibition at the Louvre Museum, Paris.
[Picture on page 31]
The Tel Dan fragment,* discovered in 1993 at the city of Dan, northern Galilee
* Drawing is based on a photograph appearing in the Israel Exploration Journal.