was David really a king? two recent books explore his life

was David really a king? two recent books explore his life March 1, 2014

I’m reading together two recent books that explore the live of King David: Joel Baden’s The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero and Jacob L. Wright’s King David and His Reign Revisited. The latter is available now in iBooks and will soon be available from Cambridge University Press.

Neither book is for raw beginners, meaning those who are not used to thinking of biblical figures within the parameters of historical critical scholarship. But neither are these books academic tomes that overwhelm you with information and technical jargon.

They are, rather, accessible and informative overviews of David as a historical figure, written by highly competent and respected scholars, that synthesize major currents in biblical scholarship for, let’s call it, the motivated non-expert.

Wright’s book, being an iBook, is also interactive, with many wonderful visuals. Footnotes are accessed by clicking 4 icons that correspond to 4 different types of categories: scholarly notes, biblical citations (and other ancient sources), movie links, and maps. And, and unlike e-books, this one has a fixed-page format–not that annoying “location” format.

Despite these differences in formatting and the distinct manner in which each author presents his case, the general picture of David they both present is that of a politically savvy tribal chieftain who ascends the throne of Israel by means most today would not want their leaders–or children (think Vacation Bible School)–to emulate.

The positive biblical depiction of David, the authors tell us, is propagandistic, though at the same time leaving one enough clues (inconsistencies) for careful readers to discern that the David behind the text bears only minimal resemblance to the David of the text.

Those who are already familiar with the scholarship on the historical David will benefit from each author’s distinctive reconstruction. Those wanting to enter that scholarly conversation will no doubt benefit from both books, as they are more than simply reconstructions of David. They are also case studies in critical methodology–archaeology, history, and literary source analysis–albeit modified for broader readership. Wright’s book, because of its footnote system, is able to offer readers a bit more scholarly information without overwhelming readers.

The broader importance of the search for the historical David goes well beyond the question of David himself. It touches upon the very origins of Israel as an independent kingdom, e.g., was there ever a united monarchy, how did kingship develop in ancient Israel, and to what extent are Israel’s own stories about its origins (essentially the stories of Abraham though the Judges) are legitimate (if also hazy) historical sources?

And as both books make clear, this issue is not simply a matter of whether or not one wishes to “trust” the Bible, but how one reads the complex and conflicting information we find there.

If what I just said jazzes you, you’ll probably enjoy reading both these books quite a bit.

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  • I think I’ve mentioned the book, Centuries of Darkness, before. If the authors are correct, then currently accepted ancient chronology is off by about 250 years, and once corrected, the historicity of the United Kingdom becomes more clear. No doubt this leaves plenty of other questions about the historical David that need to be considered.

    • This is really a fringe view.

      • If by “fringe” you mean that it isn’t held by the majority of archaeologists, then yes, it is fringe. If by “fringe” you mean that it is not well argued, or backed up with substantial evidence, then we would need to evaluate it and the arguments presented by the experts against it. As far as I can tell, no substantial arguments against it have been forthcoming. Pretty much, reviews were written where the reviewers disagreed with the book, but didn’t really try to refute the views presented.

        I tried writing to one well-known archaeologist, who dismissed the book, but never presented any arguments against it.

        So what am I, as a layperson, supposed to do in such a situation? It seems to me that the best course of action is not to accept the majority opinion until someone can direct me to a substantive critique of the book.

        Wouldn’t you agree?

  • David

    of course we would appreciate your “take” on the claims being made by the authors.

  • Bob Ramsey

    I’ve always been a bit confused by the usual characterization of 1/2 Samuel as “propagandistic”. I suppose the narrator’s reticence and tradition allows one to read David as a positive character, but the actual text stands up rather well against this. If you read 1/2 Samuel as part of the Deuteonomistic tradition and evaluate him against 1) The Law of King (Dt 17) and 2) his propensity to rely on his wits and rhetoric rather than on the Lord, David is found wanting again and again.

  • Jacob L. Wright

    Thanks Dr. Enns for this. Much appreciated! As the author one of these volumes, I wanted to state more precisely my thesis as it relates to “propaganda” (a term which I make an effort to avoid in my work). Here’s how I present the formation of the David narratives:

    1. Originally there were independent David and Saul narratives. The Saul narrative is all about Israel, while the David narrative tells how David created the kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Hebron. This is the most reliable info we have on David’s reign. His rule over all Israel is, accordingly, a later view. This is not propaganda so much as an account of Judah’s formation as a kingdom/state.

    2. In 722 BCE the kingdom of Israel was destroyed. Circles from the royal court in Jerusalem (where David’s line ruled) combined the narratives of Saul and David. Now David’s roaming around as a mercenary warlord becomes his *fleeing* from Saul. What the authors seek to do is to show how David is a morally and martially superior figure whom God anoints to be king over all Israel even while Saul was still reigning. In this combined history of Saul and David, it takes years before David actually becomes king. Eventually all Israel recognizes that David should reign. The message coming from the Davidic court is now in a certain sense propagandistic inasmuch as the story beckons the people of Israel who had just lost their kingdom to finally embrace the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem as the true line of rulers for all Israel.

    3. After the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BCE, a circle of authors add a considerable number of episodes to this combined history. Their objective now is to come to terms with defeat. Everything that David had built up was now destroyed. They thus go back to David’s biography and embellish it with material that reflects very deeply on the nature of power, statehood, security, and the high price the nation pays for it. These are some of the most profound and stirring parts of the narrative, from the story of Goliath to the saga with Bathsheba. The authors are not against statehood and royal power per se. But they want their readers to not fetishize it and to view it in perspective to the survival of the *people* of Israel — which is the overarching concern of the Hebrew Scriptures as they have been transmitted to us.

    • peteenns

      Thanks for laying this out for us, Jacob! This certainly nuances the blanket term “propaganda” in a very helpful way. When is the CUP version coming out?

      • Jacob L. Wright

        I was told last week it would be out in early April.
        That version is longer, with several chapters on Caleb, who vies with David for the position of the iconic figure in Judahite collective memory. It treats the socio-political dynamics facing the Calebite clan in Judah’s history as well as the formation of the central Pentateuchal narratives.

  • David Fake


    Interesting ideas and comments. Before I invest the time into your book, would you be able comment as to whether you actually believe in God and Jesus? I know this is a personal question, so you don’t have to answer – but I want to make sure I’m reading something that affirms a Christian worldview, rather than erodes it.

    • Guest

      I am able to answer that question, David Fake, but I will not do so. If you are not driven by the search for honesty and truth – the work of an expert who has devoted hours to a project – but want instead something that “affirms” your own worldview, there are many other books that you should read long before you turn to mine. And they are all in a different category from mine (not history and biblical studies, but rather spirituality and self-help).

      • Well said 🙂

        • Guest

          Brilliant answer!

      • Derek

        Since when is the Christian worldview confined to merely spirituality (however defined) and “self help”?
        Hopefully you are not operating under the assumption that you are conducting your studies from a purely objective point of view – and I think that is what the Mr. Fake is getting at.

        • Jacob L. Wright

          The point was that if someone needs to be sure that a piece of scholarship affirms her/his worldview before s/he reads it, then s/he would likely benefit from some solid spiritual counseling.

          • Derek

            OK, but I still think its fair that a believer ask if the author reads the Bible in a naturalistic way (because they have obtained their education on such matters primarily from sources which have their wellspring in humanistic naturalism) and thus conduct their research without considering the underlying non-theistic philosophical framework.

  • Wellington

    Thanks for the post. I’m adding Wright’s book to my “To Read” list. How does MacKenzie’s King David book compare to these two? That is also on my list of books to read.

  • I take an agnostic stance towards the historicity of the Biblical David.

    While there is little doubt that the David of Biblical innerantist is an incoherent fiction, I have spent a great amount of time investigating the extra-Biblical archaeological record and don’t find any solid evidence against the existence of an united kingdom.

    I think that one can say the same thing about the origin of Hebrew monotheism: the slow evolutionary model is not the only game in town, for this could also have been the result of a revolutionary change introduced by a charismatic leader, as postulated by Albright.

  • Ross

    As a non-academic, I accidentally discovered an interesting way to look at the “stories” of David (and other similarly related “stories”). I had just read Italo Calvino’s “Italian Folktales” and then read Kings/Samuel/Chronicles/whatever. The similarity in genre was astonishing to me and gave me a whole new experience in how I read these similar styles of “story”. I can’t say it produced any deeply profound theological insight, but I think it gave me a new view on how to think about how to read these texts. I got more of an idea of a family sitting round the fire listening to a “story”, as opposed to me sitting over a text trying to read something into or out of it. I offer this as an interesting exercise which may or may not be beneficial, but may at least be entertaining. Read “Italian Folktales” in one quick go, then do the same with Kings/Samuel/Chronicles/whatever. Don’t stop to think!

  • We are doing 1-2 Samuel straight through with our church, so just picked up the Baden book cause of your recommendation, thank you so much. Can’t put it down.