Tag Archives: Tel Dan Inscription

Does the Tel Dan Inscription ‘Prove’ David to Be a Historical Person?

Here I look at the argument that the inscription (bytdwd) apparently referring to David (dwd) or the “house of David” in the Tel Dan Inscription is best explained as a reference to an epithet (meaning “beloved”) for the god Yahweh.

This post is related to another about a week ago,  The Tel Dan inscription: the meaning of ביתדוד, “House of David”, which is  a look at George Athas’s published thesis. I ran into a problem, however, when I came to discuss Athas’s assessment of the evidence for what it tells us about the historicity of King David. I could not quite understand the arguments well enough to present in my own words, probably because they were largely a response to an article by Thomas L. Thompson. So I delayed further posting till I read Thompson’s article. Then I found I had to re-read an earlier article to fully get the hang of that! Real life keeps getting in the way and making me forget things I had read more than 2 weeks ago.

Did Biran Kill David?

So here I finally am. The notes are from a section of Did Biran Kill David? by Lemche and Thompson.

Lemche & Thompson begin this discussion by stating what they see as the first problem for deciding the correct meaning of the key word in the stele: read more »

The Tel Dan inscription: the meaning of ביתדוד, “House of David”

This post outlines the arguments of George Athas on the famous “House of David” lexeme that appears in the published version of his 1999 doctoral dissertation, The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation (2003).

Athas believes that the critical word often translated as House of David is in fact a geographical place-name and probably a reference to Jerusalem. I will cover Athas’s historical commentary in which he discusses the relevance of the expression as evidence for a historical Davidic dynasty in a future post. I have not covered every detail of Athas’ comments, omitting some subordinate arguments such as a proposed translation that introduces a cookhouse into the inscription, or where an argument against a particular amended text in Amos 8:14 is rejected because it breaks the parallelism in the verse.  On the other hand, I have expanded some details, such as journal names and biblical quotations. Do let me know if you notice any errors in the Hebrew/Aramaic letters. The Tel Dan is an Aramaic inscription.

To begin with, here is a translation by George Athas of fragment A in which the apparent “House of David” appears, along with line numbering:

A1 [. . . .]you will rule ov[er ]
A2 [and because of the p]iou[s acts] of my father, may [?] go up [ ]
A3 and my father will repose. May he go to [ at every]
A4 ancient [h]earth on the ground of El-Bay[tel am]
A5 I, so Hadad would go before me [ the day-]
A6 -s of my reign, and I would slay a kin[g] and [ thousands of cha-]
A7 -riots and thousands of horsemen [ ]
A8 the king of Israel, and [I] killed [him kin-]
A9 -g of Bayt-Dawid. And [the] name [of ]
A10 their land to [ ]
A11 another and to [ Jehoash r-]
A12 -eigned over Is[rael I laid]
A13 siege to [Samaria ]

There are two fragments, A and B. Athas discusses the evidence for placing the B fragment below fragment A (e.g. the evidence that the scribe did not have to stretch when engraving B as he did with the letters in A, and the breakdown of the text’s alignment if B is placed alongside A). This changes how scholars interpret the possible overall message on the monument, but does not affect the meaning of the apparent “House of David” reference.

ביתדוד – the controversy

Biran and Naveh first proposed the theory that this should be interpreted as “House of David” – that is, referring to the “dynastic name of the kingdom of Judah”. (‘An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Tel Dan’, Israel Exploration Journal 43 (1993), pp. 81-98. read more »

The Tel Dan Inscription — Setting the Record Straight

Note 09/09/2009 — Plan to re-write much of this post in a future update — have finally caught up with some of my library and now see some misleading generalizations and possible (minor) errors in this post.

George Athas, author of “the first comprehensive, systematic, and complete treatment of the Tel Dan Inscription as a whole” (Aufrecht, 2007), responded in 2006 to a confused critic who mistook him for a “minimalist”. Athas’s response, Setting the Record Straight: What Are We Making of the Tel Dan Inscription?, is unfortunately without cost only to those who belong to institutions subscribing to the Journal of Semitic Studies.

First some background:

The Tel Dan Inscription refers to a stele discovered in northern Palestine and originally erected, around 800 b.c.e., by a Syrian king with a message boasting of victories over kings. Its special significance is that it contains the word widely transliterated as “byt dwd”, and translated as “House of David”, meaning a royal dynasty of David, and by extension, the Kingdom of Judah. This is generally accepted as archaeological evidence for the existence of the biblical David. In this way the inscription has been interpreted through the biblical references to the House, or royal dynasty, of David.

A few other scholars who attempt to interpret archaeological finds independently of biblical references interpret the inscription as making a reference to a place. They compare, for example, place-names like Beth-lehem or Beth-el (literally “house of bread” and “house of god”), and suggest Beth-dwd/david is likewise a place-name, literally meaning “house of blessing”. Some of these scholars also present the case that even if the words did refer to the dynasty of David, that that would not prove the historical existence of David himself. Many ancient (and modern) royal dynasties claim mythical ancestors.

George Athas is not a “minimalist”. He writes of the united kingdom (of Israel-Judah under David and Solomon) that the Tel Dan Inscription “suggests that it was a reality.” So Athas takes a position about the biblical literature, in particular its Primary History, that considers it at some level a historical record about the past, and he also interprets the inscription through the bible narrative. He differs from the mainstream, however, in seeing it as a reference to “the city of David” (Jerusalem). (A so-called “minimalist” would accept that the biblical literature contains some details from past records but that whether its contents are historical or theological or other or from what era is another question entirely. Any particular nature of a literature’s relationship with artefacts needs to be demonstrated, not assumed.)

George Athas “setting the record straight”:

Athas argues strongly that the famous word on the stele, “Bayt-Dawid”, “is not a dynastic label for Judah, but rather a toponym referring to Jerusalem as a city-state. It is the Aramaic parallel to . . . ‘City of David’).”

His reasons for this conclusion are both simple and complex.

The simplest reason is that the inscription reads, “king of b-tdwd”. Athas points out that we would not expect the expression, “King of the House of David”. A king is not a king “of” their dynastic name. “[A] king does not rule a dynasty — he rules a kingdom, a specific area of land.”

The comparison with the Assyrian inscription of “The House of Omri” (applying to the dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel) is beside the point. The Assryian inscription is a direct reference to the dynasty ruling Israel. The Tel Dan inscription is different because the expression is preceded by the word(s) “king of”.

The complex reason I will leave to reviewer Walter E. Aufrecht to sum up:

The suggestion that bytdwd is a toponym rests on the following: the noun ‘îr (‘city’ as in the Hebrew ‘îr dawîd, i.e., Jerusalem) is unattested in Old Aramaic. It is likely that the writer used the Old Aramaic word bayt to render the Hebrew ‘îr of ‘îr dawîd. Furthermore, the interchange of ‘îr and bêt “is certainly not unheard of ”: Athas cites Josh. 19:41, where the town of Beth Shemesh is referred to as ‘îr sms (p. 280). So the inscription is talking about a place which the Aramaic author knew as the “city of David.” I think this is a brilliant notion, though I confess it took me two close readings of Athas’s sometimes dense exposition to convince me. (p.67)

There is much more to Athas’s article since he is addressing the major points of a critical review of his book. I’ve zeroed in on the bits of most general interest here. Aufrecht concludes:

As far as I am concerned, Athas has solved the crucial and most contentious issue in the debate over the Tel Dan Inscription, the meaning of the letter sequence bytdwd. And he has done it, by and large, on sound epistemological grounds.

Athas does see this toponym as “evidence”, but not “proof”, that David was an historical figure.

Ninth century Jerusalem as a city-state?

This interpretation means that the city Bytdwd was originally understood by the Syrian author to be a city-state.

(Interestingly, this interpretation (based in a significant part on the context in which it appears) supports Thomas L. Thompson’s argument — see my previous post/s — that Jerusalem was principally a city-state as opposed to being the central administration centre of a larger political unit or state (Judah).)

But “city-state” sounds very grandiose for a site that archaeologists have established was really quite small at this time.

Athas addresses this notion. He explains, citing Gabriel Barkay:

We tend to define cities as large sites, well fortified, where the building density is greater than in sites termed villages. In biblical times, however, any place built by royal initiative or housing a representative of the central authority, even a small site or isolated fort, was called a city (‘ir).

My own thoughts:

My own thoughts are that it is worth remembering that the name of the capital cities of Italy, Greece and Assyria do not mean that Romulus, Athena and Asshur had any role in their founding. The land of Canaan does not, by its name, prove that Canaan was a literal son of Noah and progenitor of the peoples who settled there. The name of Europe is certainly not evidence for the historical reality of the Phoenician woman of that name who was abducted by Zeus disguised as a fine white bull. The city name Tarentum does not legitimize Taras as an historical figure. The city of Eryx does not establish the existence of Eryx the host of Hercules. Besides, before the emergence of biblical literature and its themes it may well be that “dwd” or “david” was a circumlocution for a deity (“the Blessed One”).

It is worth keeping in mind that in other circumstances, especially where there is less pressing need to find evidence to support biblical accounts, scholars are quick to explain that legends so often emerge to explain places, names and customs after the fact.

In the cases of Saul, David and Solomon, I am persuaded (partly through some of Thomas L. Thompson’s discussions) that these characters are depicted as three theological “types”: Saul the epitome of all that is outstanding in human righteousness and appearances, David the flawed and rejected one whose heart is in the right place and who is for this reason is especially loved by God, and Solomon who lets “having  it all” lead to his demise. These themes appear regularly throughout the Primary History (Genesis – 2 Kings) and through them all God’s highest, non-human righteousness and wisdom rules. They are all presented to us as theological exemplars. Without corroborating evidence it is rash to see any of these three as historical figures.

The fallacy of argument ad verecundiam (to modesty?)

The quaint Latin term might mean appeal to modesty but in plain English it refers to the fallacy of an appeal to authority.

This form of error is an egregious but effective technique which puts an opponent in the awkward position of appearing to commit the sin of pride if he persists in his opposition. (p.253)

Fischer (Historians’ Fallacies) discusses a 1950’s exchange among historians of modern history to illustrate that “the most crude and ugly form of an argument ad verecundiam in historical writing is an appeal to professional status.” I will cite here a more recent example.

In 2003 George Athas published a version of his 1999 doctoral thesis on the Tel Dan inscription — a 1993 archaeological find that was widely claimed to be the earliest extra-biblical evidence for the House of David. Two of the earliest reviews of this work were “most crude and ugly” indeed:

The author’s hope is that his “study will do much to quell the unhelpful passion and euphoria” that have lured us all into “emotional scholarship” (319). Those are rather grand and pretentious aims for a doctoral dissertation . . . (Review in RBL 10/2003) by William M. Schniedewind University of California)

And a year later:

. . . . After a decade of extensive research, there was a feeling among scholars that the study of the inscription had reached fruition and that no significant advance could be made, unless more fragments were found in the excavations.

It is against this background that the book under review should be evaluated. The book, a rework of a dissertation submitted to the University of Sydney in 1999, deals with some aspects (notably the epigraphical, paleographical, and textual analysis) in such detail as could be done only in a doctoral dissertation. Considering that Athas is a beginning young scholar, the book is pretentious in the extreme. Athas believes that his study “will do much to quell the unhelpful passion and euphoria that the Tel Dan Inscription has evoked among scholars and interested persons alike” (319). — (Review in RBL 10/2004 by Nadav Na’aman, Tel Aviv University)

I once wrote:

There are many reasons . . . to believe that Acts was composed [as] a later reaction against Marcionism.

No more, just an invitation to discuss the evidence if my debating partner was willing to go there. But his reply was an interesting shut down with his appeal to “modesty” and by inference “my arrogance” for even making such a claim:

That might be a fun debate. … {g} You do realize that such a position (about Acts) goes directly up against evaluations by Adoph Von Harnack and JAT Robertson (among many others on all sides of the theological spectrum, some of them no more poster-boys for Christian “dogmatism” than those two were), right?

In other words, my correspondent was demonstrating a complete lack of interest in what “many reasons” there might possibly be, preferring instead to rest on the works generally cited as authorities. Authority of the names alone was sufficient. The question was recast from one of evidence and reason to one of attitude: of presumed modesty versus a presumption of arrogance.

One might even call it an attempt at “intellectual bullying”.

A favourite arena where this tactic is found is where individuals outside the academy raise questions or challenge paradigms that have long been seen as the special preserve of the academy. Obviously some of those questions and alternate proposals are kooky. But academia does itself — nor the public to whom one would expect it to feel some sense of responsibility — any favours by arrogant appeals “to modesty”.

Fischer concludes:

In historiography, such crude forms of argument ad verecundiam are rarely to be met with — in print, at least. [He was writing in 1970 — before online discussion groups and wikis.] The explanation is not that scholars are gentlemen, but rather, as Bolingbroke noted many years ago, that “those who are not such, however, have taken care to appear such in their writings.”

The above examples demonstrate that Fischer’s observations do not necessarily apply in our times of public online journal reviews and discussions.


there exists online another review of Athas’s study sans the “modesty” by Daniel Miller (2007) in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.