Who was King David?
David was the Second King of the United Kingdom of Israel (The book(s) of Samuel), and was also the ancestor of Jesus according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Scholars have routinely dated his life somewhere within 1040 to 970 BC. As we will see our primary sources for the historicity of David comes from two significant archaeological finds (Mesha and Tel Dan steles), as well as a several of textual biblical sources (1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, books of Samuel). Although much of his life is debated, and disagreed upon, by biblical scholars, he is thought to be second king of the United Kingdom of Israel. Our historical evidence depicts him as a warrior, a righteous man (despite his weaknesses, see 2 Samuel 11, for example) as well as a poet and musician.
Archaeological Bearings on David’s Historicity.
There are two significant archaeological finds that have some bearing on the question of David’s historicity. Firstly, we have the Mesha Stele from Moab, a portion of mountainous land situated in modern day Jordan. It is thought that the Mesha Stele was created in 840 BC around 130 years after the time in which King David would have lived and reigned (1040–970 BC). The name “David” is evident in line 12, as well as in a portion of line 31. According to the scholar André Lemaire, line 31 likely contains the earliest reference to the “House of David” in the context of Mesha’s reconquest of the southern lands of Moab.
Secondly, we have the Tel Dan Stele that mentions David in lines 8 and 9. These lines mention a “king of Israel” and a “house of David.” The House of David is a reference to the ruling empire of Judah, and although there is debate surrounding this reference on the stele, partly because there is one destroyed letter present, the reference is thought to likely be to the “House of David” (1).
Our textual sources.
Concerning our textual evidence we find that the book of Chronicles informs us about David. However it is thought that the Chronicles account is derived from the materials in 1 Samuel 16 to 1 Kings 2, and is therefore not an independent account. From it we can learn of David’s death and his successor Solomon, as well as God’s promise to prosper and bless his people. 1 Samuel 16:12 gives us a physical description of David where it describes him as being handsome and having beautiful eyes. We also find that he is ruddy, which a description of his hair being a reddish-brown. It is thought that such was an ideal colour for men, and that it indicates David’s heroic nature (2). Later we read in 1 Samuel 17:41-43 that when the Philistine saw David he disdained him because of his good looks. It is also worth noting that some of the Psalms are claimed to have been written by David, although such cannot be held with absolute certainty. However, many of the Psalms detail life events of David, for instance Psalm 34 describes his escape from a king by pretending to be insane whereas other events in his life are likewise mentioned (3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63 and 142).
I don’t think that it would be wise to reject David’s existence since I think we have sufficient historical evidence that surely houses some authentic historical tradition. That is not to deny that our sources clearly evidence polemic and propaganda that builds up David into something more than he probably was. However, we have good grounds historically, from both archaeology and textual sources, to hold that David existed.
1. Schmidt, B. 2006. “Neo-Assyrian and Syro-Palestinian Texts I: the Tel Dan Inscription” in Chavalas, W. The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation.
2. Tsumura, D. 2007. The First Book of Samuel.