Archaeology 1: The Tell Dan Stele

February 19, 2011

The Tel Dan Stele is a piece of stone found in northern Israel [1] with an inscription referring to the ‘House of David’. It is a significant find, providing evidence that the nation of Israel existed as early as the 10th century, and that it was ruled over by king David, referred to in the Bible as the second king of Israel. [2] [3]

Several challenges have been made to the authenticity and translation of the Stele. [4] Philip Davies and Thomas Thompson are two scholars who have argued that the translation ‘House of David’ is incorrect. Professional archaeologists and epigraphers object to these reinterpretations, noting that they are suggested by Biblical scholars who have no formal qualifications in the relevant fields.

Philip Davies (an archaeological ‘minimalist’[5] who declares king David to be the literary invention of Jewish scribes in the Persian era), has claimed that the text, when properly translated, does not refer to the House of David. [6] [7] Since the Stele was not found in its original position (it was reused as building material in another location), [8] Davies has suggested it is actually a forgery. Secular archaeologist William Dever has completely dismissed this as impossible.[9]

Archaeologist and expert Assyriologist Kenneth Kitchen has exposed the errors of Thompson’s claims,[10] and the claims of Davies have been disproved by Anson Raineyd,[11] who commented ‘Davies and his “deconstructionists” can safely be ignored by everyone seriously interested in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern studies’. [12]

Dever has noted that the majority of leading epigraphers believe the inscription to be a genuine reference to the House of David.[13] Even some of those who hold a minimalist view of the Bible and archaeology have conceded that the evidence for the authenticity of the inscription is overwhelming.

After reviewing a range of objections to the Stele’s authenticity, Niels Lemche concluded that the Stele should be accepted as genuine unless significant evidence to the contrary is found. [14] [15] Similarly, Lester Grabbe has acknowledged that the general scholarly consensus regards the Stele to be a genuine reference to the House of David. [16]

[1] The stele is broken; the first major piece was found in 1993, the second in 1994.

[2] ‘The new stela from Tel Dan was greeted with considerable enthusiasm, particularly as a tonic against denials that there had been an Israelite state in the tenth century B.C.E. Until the stela’s discovery, the formation of a state in Israel could not be dated later than the mid-ninth century B.C.E., because Assyrian epigraphs of the 850s and 840s B.C.E. and the roughly contemporary Mesha stela mentioned kings of Israel, some (Ahab, Omri, Jehu, and, later, Joash) by name.’, Halpern, ‘The Stela from Dan: Epigraphic and Historical Considerations’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (296.63), November 1994.

[3] ‘To William Dever and many other scholars, this inscription provides clear evidence that David was indeed a historical figure and not merely a mythical leader invented by later Biblical authors to give Israel a heroic past, as the Biblical minimalists maintain.’ Shanks, ‘Queries & Comments’, Biblical Archaeology Review (22.04), 2006.

[4] ‘Since the initial publication a small but vocal minority has objected to this interpretation, arguing that it was based on a “fundamentalist” reading of the inscription in light of the biblical text.’, Schniedewind, ‘Tel Dan Stela: New Light on Aramaic and Jehu’s Revolt’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (302.75), 1996.

[5] The ‘minimalist’ view is that archaeology provides little or no support for the Biblical history, the ‘maximalist’ view is that archaeology overwhelmingly supports the Biblical history, and the moderate view is that archaeology substantially supports the Biblical history but that not all of the history can be supported directly from archaeology.

[6] Davies, ‘‘House of David’ Built on Sand: The Sins of the Biblical Maximizers’ Biblical Archaeology Review (20.4), 1994.

[7] ‘Davies was faced with a decision—either he could admit that King David wasn’t invented by Persian-period scribes, or he could attempt to explain away the reference to “the House of David” as unrelated to the King David of the Bible. He chose the latter. This does not come as a surprise.’, Freedman & Geoghegan “House of David” Is There!’, Biblical Archaeology Review (21.2), 1995.

[8]‘The archaeological evidence is relatively straightforward: the fragment was incorporated in an inner gate structure that was destroyed in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. presumably in the 730s by Tiglath-Pileser III (Biran and Naveh 1993: 81-86). This means that the monument with which it originated was dismantled and broken up before the construction of the gate. Assuming that the inner gate stood for some time before its destruction, the construction of the gate structure would provide a stratigraphic date no later than the first half of the eighth century and no earlier than the midninth century. The excavator relates that “the level beneath” the fragment contained no pottery later than the mid-ninth century (Biran and Naveh 1993:

86). That is, the gate of the level in which the fragment was reused originates after a mid-ninthcentury “level.” The stela itself was earlier than the gate.’, Halpern, ‘The Stela from Dan: Epigraphic and Historical Considerations’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (296.68), 1994.

[9]I was there (Tel Dan) shortly after it was found. I’ve known Biran for 40 years. The woman who found it, Gila Cook, I hired at Hebrew Union College. I have handled the inscription. I know what I’m talking about. Theres no way (the Tel Dan Stele is inauthentic). All of this was covered by debris until he (A. Biran) started digging. True, it was found in secondary use. Nobody ever argued that it was in primary position. It was re-used in the wall. But there is no way in the world anybody could have dug down there, found that wall five years before Biran came along and planted it. Its impossible.’, Dever, in Shanks (ed.), ‘Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers’, Biblical Archaeological Review (23.04), 1997.

[10] ‘(i) The name “David” may be unusual, but is not unparalleled. Long centuries before, it was borne by a West Semitic chief carpenter in about 1730 B.C. on an Egyptian stela formerly in the collection at Rio de Janeiro. (ii) Dwd is neither the name (which Thompson admits) nor an epithet of a deity. Others are beloved of deities (for which references are legion!), but male deities are not beloved of others, human or divine (only goddesses are beloved of their divine husbands in Egypt). (iii) Mesha’s stela is ninth, not eighth, century. (iv) On Mesha’s stela dwd(h) is not a divine epithet of YHWH or anyone else.’ ‘(v) Contrary to TLT, “House of X” does mean a dynastic founder, all over the Near East, in the first half of the first millennium B.C.; it was an Aramean usage that passed into Assyrian nomenclature, and examples are common. (vi) Again, the expression, in part of its usage, is like the British “House of Windsor”, etc. Such usages were not peculiar to Aram, Assyria, and Judah either: in Egypt, the official title given to the Twelfth Dynasty (Turin Canon) was “Kings of the House (lit. ‘Residence’) of Ithet-Tawy” = ‘the Dynasty of Ithet-Tawy”. And the Thirteenth Dynasty was duly entitled “Kings who came after the [House of] King Sehetepibre” (founder of the Twelfth Dynasty). (vii) The charge of forgery is a baseless slur against the Dan expedition, without a particle of foundation in fact.’, Kitchen, ‘On The Reliability Of The Old Testament’, pp. 452-453 (2003).

[11] Rainey (Professor Emeritus of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and expert in Semitic), ‘In response to Philip R. Davies’s brief article a few observations are in order. Davies represents what he and a circle of colleagues call the “deconstructionist” approach to Biblical traditions. The present instance can serve as a useful example of why Davies and his deconstructionists can safely be ignored by everyone seriously interested in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern studies. Regarding the recently excavated Dan inscription, Davies makes a great quibble about the absence of the word divider between the components BYT (House) and DWD (David). Joseph Naveh and Avraham Birana 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. A well-known example of such a proper name composed of two components, is BL‘M.BRB‘R (Baalam, son of Beor) in line 4 of “Combination I” of the inscription from Deir ‘Alla. There is a word divider, a dot, between BL‘M (Balaam) and BRB‘R (son of Beor), but no word divider between BR (son [of]) and B‘R (Beor). The patronymic of the prophet Baalam consists of two vocables, BR (son [of]) and B‘R (Beor). These vocables are in the Semitic syntactical relationship known as “construct.” The first is closely attached to the second, which takes the accent for both. The House of David was certainly such a proper political and geographic name in the mid-ninth century B.C.E. André Lemaire’s recent discovery that the same name (BYTDWD) appears in the Mesha stela further confirms the reading in the Tel Dan inscription. The same situation pertains to BYTDWD (House of David) in the text from Dan. The first component is BYT (house), here in the “construct” form meaning “house of.” The main accent is on DWD (David), the second component. The combination was obviously recognized by the scribe of the Dan inscription as an important proper name. There is no reason whatever to doubt the correctness of the reading House of David.’, ‘The House of David and the House of the Reconstructionists’, Biblical Archaological Review (20.06), 1994.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ‘On the “positivist” side of the controversy, regarding the authenticity of the inscription, we now have published opinions by most of the world’s leading epigraphers (none of whom is a “biblicist” in Thompson’s sense): the inscription means exactly what it says.’ Dever, ‘What Did The Biblical Authors Know, And When Did They Know It?’, pp. 128-129 (2004).

[14] ‘Even if my observations about the almost uncanny prominence of the terms ‘King of Israel’ and ‘House of David’ are not accepted, I have to admit that the arguments in favour of seeing the Tel Dan fragments as fake need to be much more forceful—certainly stronger than I have been able to show in this survey—if they are to prove beyond doubt that the inscription is the work of a forger.’, Lemche, ‘House of David’: The Tel Dan Inscription(s)’, in Thompson & Jayyusi (eds.), ‘Jerusalem in Ancient History and Tradition’, p. 66 (2003).

[15] ‘At the end of the day, is the Tel Dan inscription important for the study of the history of Israel in Antiquity? Of course is important—if it is genuine. And, until the opposite has been proven, we have to reckon it to be genuine.’, ibid., p. 66.

[16] ‘The Tel Dan inscription generated a good deal of debate and a flurry of articles when it first appeared, but it is now widely regarded (a) as genuine and (b) as referring to the Davidic dynasty and the Aramaic kingdom of Damascus.’, Grabbe, ‘Reflections on the Discussion’, in Grabbe (ed.), ‘Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty’, p. 333 (2007).


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