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The Dan Debate

There has been an intense debate between those labeled “minimalists” and those called “maximalists” on the relation between the Dan inscription and the Bible, both generally and particularly in relation to the bytdwd-question.

See Also:

Hallvard Hagelia, The Dan Debate, The Tel Dan Inscription in Recent Research (Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield 2009).

By Hallvard Hagelia
Professor, Theol. Dr.
Ansgar College and Theological Seminary
Kristiansand, Norway
September 2010

The so-called Tel Dan Inscription, or House of David Inscription, was found at Tel Dan, Tell el-Qadi in Arabia, in northern Israel, close to the border of Lebanon, in 1993 and 1994, under the supervision of archaeologist Avraham Biran, who had lead excavations at Tel Dan since the 1960s. One piece was found in June 1993, and two more pieces were found in June 1994. Its discovery is well documented and described in detail.

The discovery of this inscription is probably the most important Bible-related archaeological find since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, comparable in importance with, e.g., the Mesha stele from Moab, east of Dead Sea.

There has been an extremely lively debate on this inscription, about which we cannot go into details here, just refer to the main topics under debate. The debate is surveyed in detail by George Athas, The Tel Dan Inscription, A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield 2003; Hallvard Hagelia The Tel Dan Inscription, A Critical Investigation of Recent Research on Its Palaeography and Philology, Uppsala Universitet, Uppsala 2006 (sold by Sheffield Phoenix Press); and Hallvard Hagelia, The Dan Debate, The Tel Dan Inscription in Recent Research, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield 2009. The latter book analyzes the general debate on the inscription.

There has been some debate as to whether the inscription is a forgery. There has been, and are still, intense debates on the authenticity of particular archaeological finds. But that debate did soon quiet down on the Tel Dan inscription. Few would today argue that the inscription is a forgery.

There has also been some debate on how the three fragments should be interrelated. A few have argued that they do not belong to the same rock, but most scholars think they do. The two pieces found in 1994 fit neatly together, whereas there has been more debate on whether those pieces fit with the piece found in 1993. Some will place them some distance apart from each other, e.g., George Athas. But most scholars think the join made by the official editors, Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh (Israel Exploration Journal, 45, 1995, pp. 1-18), is mainly adequate. That is also how the pieces are put together on exhibition in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The text is fragmentary and open to many reconstructions and interpretations. No fewer than 33 different reconstructions are referred to by Hagelia (2006, see above). Some reconstruct just the fragment found in 1994, the biggest fragment; later reconstructions include the smaller fragments found in 1994. The joint fragments have 13 lines. Its maximum height is 32 cm and its maximum width is 22 cm.

There is general agreement that the inscription is part of a royal stele, possibly comparable in size and form with the contemporary Mesha stele. We do not know for sure from which part of the stele the fragments stem; some lines are surely missing from the top. Of the 13 lines none are complete, varying in length from just a few letters up to 6-7 words. The right hand side is straight, so 11 lines are undamaged from the beginning. But ancient inscriptions do not regularly begin new passages with a new line. Except for where the inscription is damaged, the text is neatly made, chiseled into the rock, and easy to read.

The text is written in the ancient Canaanite alphabet, also called Palaeo Hebrew or Palaeo Aramaic. All letters in the alphabet are documented, except for the teth. Palaeographic analysis of the individual letters demonstrates that the text has been carved by a skilled stonemason. There has been debate on some details of some of the letters as compared to related texts and the question of dating, but there is almost consensus that the letters fit palaeographically to the latter part of 9th century or around 800 BCE.

As for its content, the inscription is comparable with the North Phoenician Kilamuwa inscription from Sam’al in Turkey (ca 830-820), the Moabite Mesha inscription (ca 840-820 BCE), the Aramaic Zakkur inscription from near Aleppo in Syria (early 8 th century), the Sam’alian Aramaic Panamuwa I inscription from Zincirli, NW Syria (roughly middle 8th century BCE), the Sam’alian Aramaic Panamuwa II inscription, also from Zincirli (around 730 BCE), the Early Aramaic Bar Rakib inscription, also from Zincirli (late 8 th century BCE), and the Assyrian and Aramaic Tell Fekheriyeh inscription from NE Syria (mid 9th century BCE). These texts are also the most important for palaeographic comparison with the Tel Dan Inscription, together with some other fragmentary inscriptions from the same period. An important tool for palaeographic comparison is Johannes Renz & Wolfgang Röllog, Handbuch der althebräischen Epigraphic, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1995-2003 (four volumes).

The dating of the inscription is actually not so easy. The rocks were not found on their original site but spread out on three different locations, within a plaza and in a wall, possibly destroyed and dislocated at the conquest of Tiglath-pilere III in northern Israel in 733-732 BCE. There was no organic material to analyze attached to the inscription and no relevant external archaeological evidence on the find site, except for its secondary placement. The inscription has been dated primarily on its palaeography and the historical content of its text. After the discovery of the first fragment, the editors dated the inscription to around 870 BCE (Biran and Naveh, Israel Exploration Journal 43, 1993, pp 81-98), but on the bases of the fragments found a year later, they lowered to dating to the latter part of the 9th century, as most scholars do, even though a few would date it to the 8th century.

The originator of the text is not named, but most scholars ascribe its origin to an Aramaic king of Damascus, possibly Hazael, who is known from the book of Kings in the Bible. Other possible candidates proposed are Ben-Hadad I, Ben-Hadad II and Ben-Hadad III, all kings of Damascus in the 9th century BCE, also Jehu of Israel has been proposed. If Hazael (ca 842-806) is the originator, the inscription is datable to the latter part of the 9th century BCE.

The text is written in ancient Aramaic, even if some scholars have opposed this based on lexicographical and grammatical grounds. It has been argued that some words are not typical for Aramaic, although other features are surely Aramaic. The most debated grammatical question has been some cases of waw-consecutive, which is very frequent in classic Biblical Hebrew, used in narrative texts, but not so usual in other Semitic languages, even though it occurs. In the small Tel Dan inscription, there are no less than six or seven cases of waw-consecutive. This has caused some scholars to classify the language otherwise, not as Aramaic but related to ancient Aramaic, perhaps related to Phoenician. Others have argued that ancient Aramaic is so scantily documented, that any new text find would almost necessarily give us knew information and cause us to rewrite the grammars. We should not have too fixed opinions about how, e.g., ancient Aramaic looked like.

There is scholarly consensus that the inscription refers to a war of revenge from the originator against the king of Israel. Israel is explicitly mentioned and so is the somewhat enigmatic term bytdwd, which has been the main controversial question in the Dan debate. Should it be interpreted as a reference to the dynastic “House of David,” in Hebrew byt dawid? If so, we have the oldest extra-biblical reference to King David, from around a century later than his life time. This flew in the face of some scholars, particularly in Copenhagen and Sheffield, who had recently claimed that David was an eponymic figure, no more historic than Moses and King Arthur, it was claimed, who had probably not lived at all, or at best was the leader of a modest chiefdom in Jerusalem, not a kingdom, not at all an empire. Or could it refer to some other “David”? Nevertheless, most scholars accept that it refers to King David and his dynasty, as the southern counterpart (Judah) to the northern Israel. Many scholars also think the inscription mentions the Israelite King Joram, son of Ahab, and the Judahite King Ahaziah, son of Jehoram (mentioned together in 2 Kings 8:25), even though the text with their names is damaged and the reconstruction is uncertain.

There has also been debate related to the inscription and history of religion, primarily connected to the bytdwd question. Could it refer to a god, dod, behind the dwd-part of that word? Could the term refer to the house of a certain god, dod? The problem is that no god named dod has ever been documented. Another religious term is hdd, mentioned a couple of times, the name of an Aramaic god, and used as part of the king’s name Ben-Hadad, the son of hadad. Hadad was the Aramaic equivalent to “biblical” Ba’al in Canaanite mythology.

What about the inscription’s relation to the Bible? Here the relations can be classified as both direct and indirect. An indirect link to the Bible is its location at a “biblical” site, the historical Dan, on the axis “from Dan to Beersheba;” we are in “biblical” land. Another indirect link is its language, a Semitic language related to biblical Hebrew and Aramaic. There are also a series of direct links to the Bible, such as the name “Israel,” the term bytdwd, understood as House of David, and possibly the names of two kings mentioned in the Bible and well known from the history of Israel. The primary part of the Bible with relevance for the inscription is 2 Kings 8:16-29, the stories of Elisha and Hazael of Damascus and the kings Joram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah.

There has been an intense debate between those labeled “minimalists” and those called “maximalists” on the relation between the Dan inscription and the Bible, both generally and particularly in relation to the bytdwd -question. None of the debaters have used these labels for themselves; they are always used about the counterpart. Those called “minimalists” are extremely critical about the Bible as a historical source, reluctant to accept anything in the Bible as historically reliable if not confirmed by extra-biblical sources, whereas those labeled “maximalists” generally have a more positive attitude to the Bible as a historical source. This has not been a discussion between “fundamentalists” and “liberals,” as both parts argue on a historic-critic basis. The loudest “minimalist” voices have been heard from Copenhagen and Sheffield. Those not marked as “minimalists” were probably in the majority.

The inscription also raises important questions about the significance and interpretation of archaeology. The inscription was chiseled on a rock. Some have discussed how the inscription was actually made. It has been argued that each piece could have been inscribed individually. But that seems less credible for practical reasons, such chiseling would probably have crushed the rock. The carving was made by a skilled mason, who probably carved on the rock while it laid down. The mason could reasonably well have been illiterate, as the text was probably written on the evened surface of the rock by a scribe and then chiseled by the mason. Then the stele was raised on a public place for display. Few people were actually able to read it, but everybody recognized the significance of the item. It symbolized the power and influence of its originator.

An archaeological item is in itself usually mute. In this case it is not, as it has a text. But nothing is said about its circumstances, except for what the text itself says. The text can be identified graphically, and its message has to be interpreted from what we otherwise know from its language and its historical and geographical frame. This implies that it is surrounded by several uncertainties, therefore all the contentious debate concerning the stele.

The debate has now come to a standstill, as every aspect of it has been intensely discussed, most intensively the first decade since its publication. Now the inscription is referred to in the scholarly literature on the same level as other historical documents.

The Tel Dan inscription is among the most important extra-biblical sources to the period around 800 BCE on the Israel-Aram relations. It is of great historical significance on several levels. Philologically and palaeologically it is an important documentation of how writing was styled and of the grammar of ancient Aramaic in the early stage of the first millennium BCE. Historically it is an important documentation of a short period of Israelite-Aramaic relations in the late 9th century BC. It is of less theological significance but has some contribution to the understanding of Aramaic religious history.

As this is a fragmented text, future archaeological excavations will probably uncover more fragments, which supposedly are still covered under debris. But Dan is a huge tell, and searching actively for more fragments will be like searching for the famous needle in the haystack. Supposedly, there are more fragments. But even if archaeologists would be lucky to find the rest of the text, it would not answer all questions. It will answer some and raise more. Archaeology always both answers questions and raises more questions.

But the Tel Dan inscription has given us an extra and important glimpse into a crucial period in the Israel-Aram relations related in 2 Kings in the Bible, and confirmed the existence of the “House of David” just a century after he actually lived.

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