Did the biblical King David really exist? Some people doubt this, and their doubt was fed this month. That's because some scholars tried to rock the scholarly world with their conclusions after studying an old object afresh. That object is the so-called Mesha Stele, an inscribed stone from the ninth century BC.
The Mesha Stele records a victory of the Moabite King Mesha over the Israelites; it is the Moabite version of the story in 2 Kings 3. The Stele was discovered in 1868 and contains one of the longest inscriptions from the Ancient East. However, it was soon broken into pieces, and some bits have since gone missing, which obviously makes the text rather difficult to read. It is now one of the treasurers of the Louvre in Paris.
Every reading of the Stele is helped by an early copy, called a squeeze, which was made of the stone before it was broken. The Mesha Stele became even more interesting in 1994, when a scholar suggested that it contains a reference to King David. This scholar is the leading epigrapher André Lemaire. Most other scholars accepted his reading of the text, despite the fact that it is partly based on a reconstruction of the broken stone.
However, this month three scholars, Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na'aman and Thomas Römer, studied new high-resolution pictures of the Mesha Stele and of the squeeze. Rather than the letters d-w-d, so the name David, they think that they see a letter b followed by two letters that cannot be read. (In Hebrew the vowels are not written.) The three scholars propose that the illegible name was Balak rather than David.
That's a bit odd in itself, for the historical King Balak belongs to the time of Israel in the wilderness, see Numbers 22-24. That was in the thirteenth or fifteenth century BC. For this reason Balak is unlikely to appear on an inscription from the ninth century.
What (other) references to King David do we have outside the Bible? Basically there is an inscription found in Tel Dan in the far north of Israel in 1993, which mentions the House of David. This inscription is incomplete, but the words 'House of David' are clearly legible and not in doubt. Since 1993 the name David has also been discovered on an inscription in Karnak in Egypt. The Mesha Stele was its third occurrence. Note that before 1993 there was no extra-biblical evidence for David, yet most people still believe what the Bible says about him. By 2000 we suddenly had three references, a number which may now have gone down to two.
Some comments on this news are in place. First of all, Professor Finkelstein is known for his attempts to deny the historicity of King David. He rigorously dates anything that relates to the time of David and Solomon to a century later. This inclination hardly makes him an impartial scholar.
Secondly, reading ancient documents, and especially damaged ones, is an art; this art is called epigraphy. None of the three scholars behind this new reading is an acknowledged epigrapher. André Lemaire is, on the other hand.
Thirdly, the new reading might be correct. The Mesha Stele may indeed contain the name Balak rather than David. That would be hard evidence that this King Balak, mentioned in Numbers 22-24, was a historical person – something many have doubted for lack of extra-biblical evidence. You win some, you lose some: now Balak might be accepted as historical.
And for David we still have enough evidence left, if indeed believers need any. The reading of the Tel Dan Stele which mentions David is not in doubt.
Pieter J. Lalleman teaches the Bible at Spurgeon's College, London. He is the author of In the Power of the Resurrection