Archaeologist Amihai Mazar writes that studies over the past twenty years that have cast doubts on “the historical validity of the biblical descriptions” have “gone too far” (p. 117 in The Quest For the Historical Israel, a book in which he debates Israel Finkelstein chapter by chapter.) In this post I choose to discuss what appear to me to be the strongest of nine overall arguments in Mazar’s chapter titled The Search for David and Solomon: an Archaeological Perspective. I use Mazar’s headings.
The Importance of the Sheshonq I (Shishak) Raid
The lack of external sources relating to a kingdom like that of David and Solomon should not surprise us, since there were no empires or major political powers during the tenth century b.c.e. that could leave behind substantial written documents. The only external source relating to this period is the Sheshonq I inscription . . . . (p. 123)
Mazar reasons from the fact that Sheshonq’s list of conquests mentions cities north of Jerusalem (Beth Horan and Gibeon) that the Pharaoh was following “an exceptional route” for a campaign (no earlier Egyptian New Kingdom campaigns mention such cities) and that “the only sensible” reason for this must have been the existence of a powerful Solomonic kingdom to the south of those cities. (Mazar later comments that southern cities like Arad are also listed by Sheshonq’s scribes.) How to explain the absence of Jerusalem from the list?
The fact that Jerusalem is not mentioned in the inscription does not mean much — if the city surrendered, perhaps there would have been no reason to mention it; or alternatively, its mention could have appeared on one of the broken parts of the inscription. (p. 124)
(In other words, if there is no evidence for the biblical account, then the historian is entitled to speculate reasons to account for the missing evidence for what is “known” to have existed or happened?)
Jerusalem of the Iron I-II Period
The strongest evidence Mazar points to in this section is the Stepped Stone Structure in Jerusalem. This structure “is enormous and was most probably intended to support an exceptionally large monumental building.” (p. 125)
In terms of their magnitude, neither the Stepped Stone Structure nor the building recently discovered to its west has a parallel anywhere in the land of Israel between the twelfth and early ninth centuries b.c.e., and this is, in my view, a clear indication that Jerusalem was much more than a small village. (p. 127)
The other building Mazar refers to is one known as the “Large Stone Structure“, part of a complex excavated by a relative of Amihai Mazar, Eilat Mazar. Eilat announced that these remains belonged to King David’s palace!
One might expect that if such monumental edifices has been recovered from the tenth century then one might also find significant supporting artefacts from the same time. But no, and this situation is explained by Mazar:
The latter situation is probably the result of the bad state of preservation of structures on the steep slope at this peculiar site, and of the continuous reuse of buildings over the centuries. (p.127)
(Yet subsequent layers of evidence of other eras — the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine periods — are abundant. And the early tenth century four hectare area of Jerusalem can be seen to have grown dramatically by the seventh century.)
Unfortunately Mazar’s chapter was published in 2007, the same year as a rebuttal of Eilat’s and Amihai’s interpretations (“Eilat Mazar’s archaeological, chronological and, in fact, historical conclusions have unreservedly been endorsed by Amihai Mazar” — Finkelstein et al.) of these remains dating earlier than Hellenistic and Roman times was published — by Israel Finkelstein, Ze’ev Herzog, Lily Singer-Avitz and David Ussishkin — and for this reason Mazar was presumably unable to address its discussion. Their article (Has King David’s Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?) can be read by anyone online, but I will highlight a few of its points here.
- When Eilat Mazar pointed to 11th/10th century foundational layers to the edifice, Finkelstein et al pointed out that the dating was only valid if the soil was originally “in situ” and not a fill for construction brought in from elsewhere. They give reasons for observing that the latter is more likely the case.
- When Mazar drew attention to a particular form of pottery that was known to have been found at earlier sites, Finkelstein et al pointed out that the accompanying picture also showed that later forms of pottery were found with that earlier type.
- Finkelstein et al point out that some of Mazar’s finds — including Herodian pottery between and under the spaces in the “Davidic” walls! — point to the “palace” being built in post-Iron Age times.
- Finkelstein et al further remark on the walls of a Hasmonaean ritual bath being built in the same orientation and at the same elevation (strata) as the “palace of David”.
- Finkelstein et al finally note that a Byzantine wall was built directly on a flattened part of the wall of “David’s palace”.
- Finkelstein et al conclude that the best explanation for all the evidence is that the “palace” was not built as a single unit, but was begun in the late Hellenistic (Hasmonaean) time, and later added to in Roman times.
So much for the evidence that Jerusalem was a monumental city in the tenth century.
And the evidence for Solomon’s temple? Mazar does not shrink from declaring that he believes it for no reason other than that the Bible says it:
The temple and palace that Solomon supposedly built should be found, if anywhere below the present Temple Mount, where no excavations are possible. If the biblical account is taken as reliable, Solomon’s Jerusalem would be a city of twelve hectares with monumental buildings and a temple. Should Solomon be removed from history, who then would have been responsible for the construction of the Jerusalem Temple? There is no doubt that such a temple stood on the Temple Mount prior to the Babylonian conquest of the city, but we lack any textual hint for an alternative to Solomon as its builder. (pp. 127-8)
Amihai Mazar next turns to “the supposed low settlement density and lack of urbanization in the tenth century.” (p. 134) He attributes this perception to “methodological problems”.
Nonetheless, Mazar accepts the evidence that points to “a gradual increase in settlement” and concludes that 20,000 people in Judah in the tenth century “appears to be realistic”. He continues:
If we add to this the unknown population numbers in the Israelite territories of northern Israel and parts of Transjordan, we may estimate the population in the Israelite territories at somewhere between fifty and seventy thousand people. (p. 134)
How he arrives at such figures despite the “methodological problems” he discusses he does not explain. But I am not clear on the significance of these figures anyway. Surely a — the — significant figure would be that of the apparent power base from which a united Palestinian kingdom could be established, extended, controlled and sustained. I doubt a 4 hectare Jerusalem could fit the bill.
The few inscriptions incised on stones or pottery vessels for daily use from a tenth century context hint at the spread of literacy already in this time, and thus it can be assumed that some officials and professional scribes did exist in the tenth century. (p. 135)
Not knowing the specific evidence to which Mazar is referring (and hence unable to cross check with other views and finds) my only comment is that literate officials required for basic book-keeping and legal matters are a long step from a critical mass of literates from which historical, religious and other forms of literature can be sustained.
A talented, charismatic, and politically astute leader in control of a small yet effective military power could, in my view, have taken hold of a large part of a small country like the land of Israel and united diverse population groups under his leadership. (p. 139)
Apparently forgetting for a moment about the need to account for the Solomon legend adjunct to the Davidic one, Mazar goes on to comment that “short-lived political and territorial achievements like those of David may be beyond the capability of the tools of archaeology to detect . . . .”
Anyone who has followed Jared Diamond’s studies (e.g. Guns, Germs and Steel) knows that even the most talented, charismatic and politically astute leaders are powerless without the geographic tools and base at their command.
(Or for the videos try:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJmcrnwcycU https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPt1jzWbyCI