What does radiocarbon dating have to do with understanding the world of the Bible? Quite a lot (if you use it properly…!). Does it have anything to say about King David? Quite possibly…
This was the subject of a lecture by Dr Bruce Routledge (of the University of Liverpool) at the British Museum, looking particurlary at the evidence from his excavations in Jordan, in what became Moab.
The end of the Late Bronze Age in the Near East is marked by the collapse of empires and the Iron Age is marked by the rise of smaller states. Iron Age I (IAI) is a period of transition after the collapse, while IAII sees the smaller states gaining power and wealth. That much is fairly uncontentious!
The traditional view of Biblical archaeology was the IAI related to the conquest and settlement of Joshua and Judges, while IAIIA was the Israelite state of the United Monarchy of Saul, David and Solomon. This view (of Yigael Yadin) dated IAI to 1200-1000 BC and IAIIA to 1000-925 BC.
There have been a number of challenges to that understanding over the years, with one of the more recent and sustained being from Israel Finkelstein. He argued that the evidence that Yadin cited as from the United Monarchy was actually from IAIIB (800s). He therefore argued that Solomon doesn’t exist, which, Routledge noted, is a circular argument.
Routledge also argued that there were two questions that needed to be distinguished:
1. What is the historicity of the United Monarchy?
2. The emergence of centralised government in the IA
(and, as an archaeologist, he’s more interested in question 2!)
Finkelstein’s Low Chronology (redating things from the 900s to the 800s) has some support, but is a minority position. The current consensus is for a Modified Coventional Chronology, which argues that IAIIA dates from 1000 to 840, not 925. In other words, it’s longer and more complicated than originally thought.
It also means that IAIIA includes both the United Monarchy and the divided monarchies in the same period. That isn’t exactly a surprise, as archaeological periods rarely mirror the history (process versus event).
This is where Routledge’s excavations in Wadi Mujib come in. He excavated a small, short-lived (50 years or so) site dating from IAI, one of a large number of similar, small, domestic, fortified sites that flourished and were quickly abandoned during IAI and early IAIIA. In other words, this was a time of significant transition.
Routledge stressed the limitations of Finkelstein’s attempts to rewrite the history of the period, showing that the radiocarbon dates and the complex nature of both IAI and IAII supported the Modified Conventional Chronology.
Routledge concluded by saying that the evidence showed that IAI was also complex, with significant but short-lived sites. The IAIIA, he argued, was also a time of transition, with settlement patterns in flux, and where there wasn’t a simple or linear movement towards a centralised society. He argued that the only evidence for adminstration and centralisation was the architecture, but that the technology of administration: seals, centralised storage, standardised weights and measures, etc, were lacking.
However, he also thought that the evidence supported the overall trajectory of political organisation in the Bible, with the problems being the dates and the scale (although he noted that things were always on a smaller scale in the area, compare with Egypt and Mesopotamia). He also noted that although Jerusalem was small in size it was probably fortified and seemed to be the centre for something ongoing. Routledge also said that he thought that the tradition of the House of David was based on reality.
In short, the archaeological evidence supports the society revealed and presupposed by the Old Testament. It also leaves space, both physically and chronologically, for the existence of Saul, David and Solomon. It does however raise question marks over the details of some of the descriptions in the recorded events. That isn’t exactly a surprise, with commentators regularly raising questions over the influence of rhetoric, exaggeration and anachronism in the texts. Which, frankly, is exactly what you’d expect, because that’s how they were written all over the Ancient Near East! A good example is the Battle of Qadesh, where despite (because?) having texts from both sides, it is still debatable who (if anyone) won. The Old Testament was written as a theological reflection on history, and is based on the cultural expectations that existed at the time. Expecting it to answer questions it was not written to answer and to conform to academic standards that had yet to be developed is a mistake.