Stone fragment is found referring to King David Discovery in Israel electrifies scholars

August 06, 1993|By New York Times News Service

An Israeli archaeologist has discovered a fragment of a stone monument with inscriptions bearing the first known reference outside the Bible to King David and the ruling dynasty he founded, the House of David.

Scholars of biblical history said this was strong corroborating evidence for the existence and influence of the House of David in early Jewish history and in the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity. In their excitement, they used words like "phenomenal," "stunning" and "sensational" to emphasize the importance of the discovery in biblical archaeology.

The broken monument, or stele, was found in the ruins of a wall at Tel Dan, the site of an ancient city in northern Israel near the Syrian border and at one of the sources of the Jordan River. The discovery was made this summer by Avraham Biran, an archaeologist at Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and director of excavations at Tel Dan since 1966.

Dr. Biran said the stele was inscribed with 13 truncated lines of Aramaic text referring to the "House of David." From the style of the script and its references to a "king of Israel" and a king of the House of David, the archaeologist surmised that this probably was a victory stele erected in the first quarter of the ninth century B.C. by the king of Damascus after he "smote Ijon, and Dan, and Abel-beth-maachah," in the words from 1 Kings 15:20.

In that case, according to Dr. Biran's interpretation, the "king of Israel" of the inscription may be identified with Baasha and the king of the "House of David" with Asa, a descendant of David's who ruled as king of Judah. A split among the Israelites after the death of Solomon in the 10th century B.C. had led to the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, centered at Jerusalem. As related in 1 Kings, when war broke out between the two kingdoms, Asa secured an alliance with Ben-Hadad, king of Aram at Damascus in Syria, who defeated the forces of Baasha.

In an interview by telephone from Jerusalem, Dr. Biran said, "There has never before been found a reference to the House of David other than in the Bible."

Other scholars agreed and noted that no reference to David himself had ever appeared before in nonbiblical texts. Indeed, as Jack M. Sasson, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, "No personality in the Bible has been confirmed by other sources until Ahab, not David or Abraham or Adam and Eve."

King Ahab, husband of the notorious Jezebel, lived later in the ninth century B.C., dying in 897 B.C. David is supposed to have reigned from 1000 to 961 B.C.

Dr. Sasson cautioned that the reference to the House of David did not necessarily prove the man existed. It could be, he said, that people who considered themselves his descendants had come to revere someone by that name who had been elevated to mythical standing. "Until you find a text actually written by David, people will wonder," he said.

Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, said the findings provided contemporaneous evidence supporting accounts of the Jewish monarchies in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.

"The stele brings to life the biblical text in a very dramatic way. It also gives us more confidence in the historical reality of the biblical text -- in a broad way, not necessarily in regard to each detail," he said.

Although Dr. Biran gave a terse description of his findings in correspondence with colleagues this week, he said photographs and transcriptions of the writing on the stele would not be released until a full report was ready for publication in the Israel Exploration Journal, scheduled in about two months. Joseph Naveh, an epigrapher of ancient Semitic languages at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is in charge of deciphering and analyzing the text.

Dr. Biran said that the fragment perhaps represented only one-third of the stele, which he estimated to have been at least 3 feet high.

Despite the many gaps in the Aramaic text, he said, "The writing is very clear, a joy to behold."

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