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“The End of Biblical Minimalism?”

In this case, “minimalism” is defined, apparently, as the belief that David and Solomon and their “United Monarchy” did not exist. Well, “minimalists” have come to that conclusion, it is true, though there is a great deal of historical methodology, archaeological data, and textual exegesis lying behind that conclusion, and no minimalist that I know would regard the existence of David et al. as an essential tenet of minimalism.

By Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
University of Sheffield, England
December 2011

Seeing this epitaph on the cover of BAR (37:03, May/Jun 2011, see edited version here) immediately brought to mind one of Mark Twain’s celebrated sayings: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

In this case, not only exaggerated but also so often repeated over the last 30 years that my “minimalist” colleagues and I (all pictured in our youth) are feeling like Lazarus.

So why is Yosef Garfinkel so brave as to cry “wolf” yet again, when the basic principles of what its opponents call “minimalism” have become so widely adopted in biblical scholarship (it would be just as weary to cite the references let alone keep up with the reading). Well, it obviously demands some misrepresentation of what “minimalism” is (like most previous epitaphs). Its opponents regularly choose to define it in the way they think they can most easily attack it. No wonder so many people are confused about what it is. In this case, “minimalism” is defined, apparently, as the belief that David and Solomon and their “United Monarchy” did not exist. Well, “minimalists” have come to that conclusion, it is true, though there is a great deal of historical methodology, archaeological data, and textual exegesis lying behind that conclusion, and no minimalist that I know would regard the existence of David et al. as an essential tenet of minimalism. Without indulging in a detailed exposition, the issue is about how, why, and when the biblical books were written—a rather larger and more complex thesis than Garfinkel seems to appreciate, and a problem of which the historicity of otherwise any individual person or event forms only a rather small part.

So let’s forget about “minimalism” which Garfinkel clearly does not understand, and consider instead what he is writing about, which is the historicity of David and Solomon. Let’s see what facts he has to persuade us with. To start with, there is the Tel Dan inscription. “The historical references in the inscription and the paleography of the writing make it clear that it dates to the ninth century B.C.E. Moreover, the text specifically mentions a king of Israel and a king of the “House of David.” Well, no: not as a matter of opinion, but as a matter of fact. The word bytdwd does occur, but not the word “king in front.” That was conjectured by the original editors.

However, such a phrase “king of the house of X” occurs nowhere in the Bible nor in any ancient inscription. “King of” does: “house of” does. But never together. It’s just never used. So not only is the word “king” a guess, but a bad one. “Specifically mentions” is just erroneous. Go back, Mr. Garfinkel, and read the thing yourself. As for whether bytdwd means “house of David,” well, it might do, but actually that is not certain. I have myself written articles exploring the possibility that it is the correct reading (Davies 2008—something that should always be considered) as well as articles that explain why I am not sure that it does (Davies 1994, 1995). I personally would prefer “house of David” because, like the Mesha inscription, to which Garfinkel also refers, it supports my contention that “Judah” as a political entity was unknown in the ninth century and instead there was only chiefdom bearing the name “house of dwd”—dwd, by the way, being an unlikely personal name, one without any parallel in the ancient Near East (like “king of the house of…”). Garfinkel is entitled to his opinion that these clear [his term] references mean a “dynasty of David” if he likes, but it is a clear opinion, and not a clear fact, or any sort of “fact.” Yet Garfinkel continues “this lead to the collapse of the minimalist paradigm.”

Well, if he thinks so, he is a very small minority. It did no such thing, as any competent reader of current biblical research knows. Someone with such a shaky grasp of “certainty’ and who cannot tell facts from opinions really should not be writing such comments. From such a careless and overblown writer the accusation that minimalists have “groundless arguments masquerading as scientific writing” is pretty laughable. I don’t mind him enjoying his private illusion, nor his wishful thinking, and I don’t even mind the bitterness of his rhetoric because it is so evidently hollow and from someone unable to distinguish truth from fact and unable to comprehend the position he claims to declare at an end.

I’ll leave out most of Garfinkel’s attack on Israel Finkelstein who is more than capable of looking after himself. But since Finkelstein himself takes “minimalist” arguments quite seriously, as long as he remains one of the most preeminent respected archaeologists currently working, it is somewhat rash, not to say ignorant, to suggest that “minimalism” is at an end. Not while Finkelstein is around! Garfinkel should ask him. I will mention just one thing, however: Garfinkel defends the “high chronology” against Finkelstein’s “low chronology” with this observation: “The Biblical tradition and the radiometric dating actually support each other. Placing the formation and development of the kingdom of Israel earlier than the kingdom of Judah, as the proponents of the Low Chronology have done, is simply another modern myth.” But wait: what “biblical tradition?” Garfinkel states that “the earliest Israelite kingdom was established in Jerusalem” and that the northern kingdom was some 80 years later. Whoops! According to 1 Samuel, Saul was the first anointed king of Israel (1 Sam 10), and David served him in this capacity, well before David became king of Judah (2 Sam. 2). Before then, David was serving as a bandit chief assisting the king of Gath. No kingdom of Judah is in evidence here. Minimalists may have many faults in Garfinkel—s eyes, but we do at least know our Bible. Perhaps Mr. Garfinkel should stop digging for a while and start reading.

But are we safer with Garfinkel’s interpretation of Tell Qeiyafa? As I understand his argument, it is that there is one major fortified city here in what was later to become the territory of the kingdom of Judah. This somehow “blows to smithereens” the claim of Finkelstein and others that “David and Solomon could not have ruled over a centralized, institutionalized kingdom” since the site dates to “not later than 969 B.C.E. (with 77.8% probability).” But this date is unhelpful when you average the pottery from all over site, including Middle Bronze and Hellenistic! (Finkelstein himself has made this observation). As with the pottery, it is not possible to fix a date with such pinpoint accuracy, and we are reckoning with a range of over a century, which makes connections to the implied period of David as no more than possible.

What is important about the site is that it keeps open the possibility of a Judean state well before Finkelstein, others, and I think it actually began, and for that reason it is important to see just what can be learned so far. It seems to me that both Finkelstein and Garfinkel are over-anxious to defend their positions and thus exaggerating the arguments in different directions. Here I may need to remind readers that this minimalist at least does not feel at all threatened by the existence of such a city, even in Iron I (which may be its date of origin); the whole minimalist reconstruction is based on taking archaeological and biblical evidence both independently and together and in the right way (i.e., not digging with a Bible in one hand).

So it is hardly a good minimalist procedure to have a ready-made answer to what is an open question. Garfinkel believes that the city belonged to the state based in the highlands and not part of the Philistine city-states. The reasons for this he summarizes as follows: (a) no pig or dog bones were found, unlike at nearby Tell es-Safi (the ancient Philistine city of Gath); (b) the main entrance to the site faced Jerusalem; and (c) it is encircled by a double or casemate wall, unknown in Philistia.

Well, we must get the facts right. Starting from (c) I would comment (as others have, including Finkelstein) that casemate walls are found at other sites in Palestine during this time period, though the construction at Qeiyafa is on a greater scale than any of these, and none of the sites is Philistine. Again the inscription (not “in the Hebrew language” and not a “Hebrew ostracon,” as Garfinkel states, again bending the data, but in a Canaanite language and script) suggests a non-Philistine political system, as does the lack of pig or dog bones (though these are probably cultural than ethnic markers). But southern Palestine is a large place. Finkelstein has also pointed out that Ashdod Ware I pottery at the site (which Garfinkel uses to date the site to Iron IIA) is more common in the Shephelah than in the hill country, while all 11th-10th century proto-Canaanite or early Hebrew inscriptions, such as that found at Qeiyafa, have come from the Shephelah (Gezer, Izbet Sartah, Tell Zayit and not from the hill country).

Now, if these purely archaeological hints suggest a political system in the Shephelah, it is a fact that we have no literary references to a state based in the Shephelah. On the other hand, while we have literary references to a state in the highlands (strictly speaking, two states: a kingdom of Israel and a kingdom of Judah, over both of which David ruled simultaneously), the archaeological evidence for Jerusalem as the capital of such a state is highly contested. This makes for a very delicate balance. Here as a minimalist I would follow that crypto- minimalist William Dever (from whom I normally prefer to differ) and insist that we analyze and interpret the archaeology before we bring in biblical literature. Garfinkel does not agree, and that is why he is not a minimalist.

The archaeological evidence shows that the site is culturally not Philistine, and the strong fortification and proximity to Gath suggest a potentially hostile relationship. But we should make clear the difference between a political system located in Judah, to which the site points, and a kingdom of Judah, which is a more qualified concept and drawn exclusively from biblical texts (no other ancient source ever refers to a “king” or “kingdom of Judah” before the middle of the 8th century). Going from one to the other is a jump. I have no doubt that without knowing (though without carefully reading, as it seems) the books of Samuel, Yosef Garfinkel would never assume that Qeiyafa was a city belonging to a kingdom based in Jerusalem, let alone ruled by David. He can, however, rightly infer that in southern Palestine there was a strong non-Philistine political power. And given that the Bible tells him about Jerusalem, he can claim the orientation of the city gate as proof, presumably on the grounds that a road led directly between the two cities. Given the distance between the two, this is speculative: let’s just say the gate is on the east, and the main road runs away from Philistine territory. This does not altogether surprise me.

It is only fair to point out that Garfinkel concedes the lack of fortified urban centers in the northern highlands, and therefore refrains from asserting on archaeological grounds that there was a “United Monarchy.” But there are no other fortified urban centers in Judah from the time he places the foundation of Qeiyafa, either. If this is the only one, perhaps it was either the capital of a geographical state itself, or even a city state. Before we speak of a “kingdom of Judah” don’t we need evidence of other cities that point to such a kingdom? Maybe such evidence will come, and as a good minimalist I always welcome new evidence. Garfinkel is entitled to speculate that it provides evidence of a Davidic “kingdom of Judah.” Sorry, I can’t see it. Maybe it will come to light. Meanwhile, let’s calm down. I want to hear as much as I can about Qeiyafa and I suggest Garfinkel read about minimalism before he writes any more on the subject.

Philip R. Davies

1994     “A House Built on Sand.” Biblical Archaeology Review 20: 54-55.

1995     “Bytdwd and Swkt Dwyd: A Comparison.” JSOT 64 (1995) pp. 23-4.

2008     “The Beginnings of the Kingdom of Judah” in José Enrique Aguilar Chiu, Kieran J. O'Mahony and Maurice Roger (eds), Bible et Terre Sainte: Mélanges Marcel Beaudry, Bern: Peter Lang, 2008.