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David's Jerusalem: Fiction or Reality?

Excerpted from the July/August 1998 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review

It's Not There: Archaeology Proves a Negative
Margreet Steiner

The history of Jerusalem is going to have to be rewritten. As we gradually assimilate the archaeological record, we are finding more and more evidence that calls into question long-held assumptions about the city's past. This is especially true of the three periods I will discuss here, which are already the subject of heated debate: the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age I and the beginning of Iron Age II. The history of these periods is particularly sensitive in that it ultimately involves the historicity of the glorious reigns of David and Solomon—at least, according to the Bible—and the existence of the United Monarchy of Israel.

The Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 B.C.E.) is the period just before Israel, whatever its actual nature, began to emerge in the hill country of Palestine. Iron Age I (1200-1000 B.C.E.), the period of the Judges in Biblical terms, is the era just before the 12 Israelite tribes supposedly united. The beginning of Iron Age II encompasses the United Monarchy. David's "conquest" of Jerusalem is usually dated to about 1000 B.C.E. According to the Bible, David and Solomon each reigned 40 years.

What was Jerusalem like in the period before the emergence of Israel? What was it like during the 200-year period of the Judges, when, according to the Bible, Israel was unable to possess Jerusalem? (Though the Israelites conquered the city, they apparently could not hold it [Judges 1:8].) How much of the stirring account of David's conquest is historically accurate? Did a city of any note exist there during the time of David and Solomon?

Failure to publish the evidence from the large excavations conducted in Jerusalem since 1960 has created severe problems for scholars who wish to evaluate the Jerusalem of these periods. The directors of all four major excavations died without writing final reports. Between 1961 and 1967 Kathleen Kenyon excavated on the southeastern hill known as the City of David, the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem. From 1968 to 1978, following the Six-Day War, Benjamin Mazar excavated south of the Temple Mount in the area known as the Ophel. Nahman Avigad excavated in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City from 1969 to 1983. And Yigal Shiloh excavated the City of David from 1978 to 1985. Not one final report from these excavations has been completed, although teams of archaeologists are now working on them in Jerusalem; Manchester, England; and Leiden, the Netherlands….

The history of Jerusalem in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages is usually based on an analysis of written sources—the Bible and some archaeological texts and documents, such as the 14th-century B.C.E. Amarna letters from Egypt. Archaeological materials from Jerusalem itself are then used to clarify and confirm this picture. However, I shall proceed here from the opposite direction, starting with the archaeological evidence from the site.

Most of the Late Bronze Age material recovered from Jerusalem has come from tombs, especially one on the Mount of Olives that contained hundreds of pots, mainly of local ware, and from a pit south of the city, which held some pottery and a scarab.

But no remains of a town, let alone a city, have ever been found: not a trace of an encircling wall, no gate, no houses. Not a single piece of architecture. Simply nothing!



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