For decades, the only undisputed pre-Exilic extra-biblical text reference to King David was an enigmatic mention of the “king of the House of David” in the Tel Dan Stele, an Aramaean monument dating from around 800 BC referencing the victory of the King of Aram over “the king of Israel” and “the king of the house of David.” The names the the monarchs are not preserved, but this is believed to be a reference to the victory of Hazael of Damascus over Jehoram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah, as referenced in 2 Kings 8-9. Discovered in 1993, the Tel Dan Stele caused considerable excitement in the archaeological world as the first undisputed historical reference to King David, inscribed only 170 years after the king’s death. It had been common for secular archaeologists to dismiss the existence of King David as an Israelite fable, concocted during the Babylonian Exile as part of a fictional national mythos. Finding David’s name on the Tel Dan Stele caused considerable consternation among those who had assumed David was unhistorical.
The Mesha Stele
The year 2022 saw another even older reference to King David uncovered on the Mesha Stele, also called the Moabite Stone. It takes its name from King Mesha of Moab, a contemporary of King Ahab (c. 850 BC), who commissioned the stone to record the conflicts between Moab and Israel. But before considering the reference to David, we have to understand the history of this artifact.
Unlike the Tel Dan Stele, the Mesha Stele has been known to archaeologists for a long time. It was first uncovered by Bedouins living east of the Jordan in 1868 and came to western attention through the work of the Anglican missionary Frederick Augustus Klein. The Ottoman authorities pressued the Bedouin to hand over the stone, but the tribesmen stubbornly refused. The French consulate in Jerusalem sent a local Arab named Yusuf Caravacca to take a “squeeze” of the stele; a “squeeze” is a papier-mâché impression that produces a reverse copy of an inscription. It is made by applying moist filter paper and pushing into the indentations with a stiff brush. The paper is allowed to dry and then removed. The image is reversed from the inscription, and protrudes from the squeeze paper. It is similar to the more familiar technique of rubbing. Caravacca attempted to make the squeeze on the sly, but was discovered and attacked. He was injured by the local Bedouin while obtaining the squeeze; one of his assistants protected the squeeze by tearing it still damp from the stone in seven fragments before escaping.
The following year, frustrated by continued attempts to wrest the stele from their control, the Bedouin smashed it. After its destruction, the pieces were painstakingly collected and the stele reassembled. Sadly, only 613 letters out of 1000 were discernible after the damage. The missing portions were reconstructed based on the squeeze taken by Yusuf Caravacca. But even with Carvacca’s squeeze, certain lines remained open to interpretation.
Line 31 of the Mesha Stele
Of particular interest is Line 31. This line was badly damaged, probably even before the Bedouin smashed the stele. Even with Carvacca’s squeeze, its interpretation has always been a matter of debate. The line, which appears to describe Moab’s reconquest of the lands in the south that had been taken by Judah, says:
[…] the small cattle of the land, and Horonain, in it dwelt house of […]
The ellipses are phrases that are too damaged to be read with certainty. The former, however, has been deduced from context to read “to herd.” The latter ellipses is much more enigmatic. All that can be read for certain are the consonants BT[ ]WD, with an undecipherable missing consonant between T and W (in Canaanite, the inscription reads בת…וד). Though vowels are not written in Semitic languages, they are usually predictable and inferred without difficulty. But if a consonant is missing, it becomes much more difficult to understand what vowel sounds are implied. Thus the precise meaning of BT[ ]WD has been a mystery.
As early as 1994, French historian and philologist André Lemaire proposed the missing consonant in line 31 was a dalet sound, the consonant D. (1) If so, the reconstruction of the phrase BT[D]WD with vowel sounds would be beit david, or “house of David.” Lemaire’s credentials are impressive; he is Director of Studies at the École pratique des hautes études, where teaching Hebraic and Aramean philology and epigraphy with a focuson old West-Semitic, so his opinion certainly carries a lot of weight. Given, however, that the missing consonant was undecipherable, Lemaire’s theory remained pure speculation. Until 2022.
Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)
As years went by, new technologies emerged that made more accurate reconstructions of the damaged portions of the stele possible. One of these methods was Reflectance Transformation Imaging, or RTI. Lemaire describes the RTI process as one in which
numerous digital images are taken of an artifact from different angles and then combined to create a precise, three-dimensional digital rendering of the piece. This method is especially valuable because the digital rendering allows researchers to control the lighting of an inscribed artifact, so that hidden, faint, or worn incisions become visible. (2)
RTI scanning was initiated on the Mesha Stele in 2015. The Louvre Museum also undertook new imaging of the stele in 2018, taking high-resolution backlit pictures of the Caravacca squeeze. Light was projected directly through the 150-year-old paper to provide a clearer view of the ancient letters it records.
The results of the RTI scans and Louvre imaging revealed that the missing letter in line 31 was in fact dalet, the letter D, just as Lemaire had hypothesized. The other letters were also revealed in considerable more clarity than before, confirming beyond a reasonable doubt that line 31 does indeed say BTDWD, beit david, “the house of David.”(3) In winter of 2022, Lemaire announced to the world that the oldest extra-biblical reference to King David had been found, predating the text of the Tel Dan Stele by at least 50 years.
Lemaire’s findings are supported by the independent study of epigrapher and philologist Michael Langlois, a researcher at the French Research Center in Jerusalem. Langlois also used RTI scans and a process called Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM) to obtain a 3D image of the stele with the damaged portions enhanced. Langlois agrees that the missing letter is a dalet and that the correct reading of line 31 is beit david, “house of David.” Commenting on his findings, Langlois said:
From a purely historical standpoint, the most obvious solution is that there was a kingdom of David…In my paper I’m not trying to discuss whether King David exists, just trying to read the stone, and my conclusion for line 31 is that the most likely reading is Beit David, which takes into account the traces of letters and the combination of them…The new imaging technology that we have confirms the reading of Beit David. It’s a good thing when science can confirm a hypothesis. (4)
It should be noted that the interpretation of beit david is not without dissent. As far back as 2019, the team of Israeli archaeologists Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na’aman and Thomas Römer opined that the phrase should not be rendered beit david, but Balak, a reference to the Moabite king who tried to curse Israel in the Book of Numbers. (5) This alternative is not without its own problems, however. It not only posits that the missing consonant is not a dalet, but that entire division of words is incorrect. Finkelstien et al. argue that a vertical stroke discernible within the phrase בת…וד suggests not two words but two different sentences. Finklestein asserts that word most scholars render beit should be translated as Balak.
Finkelstien’s hypothesis is vigorously contested by Lemaire, Langlois, and Ronald Hendel, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Langlois denies that any downward stroke is visible and says it makes even less sense that the stele would refer to a king who lived even farther in the past than King David. (6) Hendel argues that the rendering of Balak is even more arbitrary than Lemaire’s beit david that the dissenters are critiquing. “We can read one letter, b, which they’re guessing may be filled out as Balak, even though the following letters are missing,” Hendel says. “It’s just a guess. It could be Bilbo or Barack, for all we know.” (7)
While the findings of Lemaire and Langlois are not without detractors, the archaeological consensus seems to be towards affirming the reading of line 31 as “house of David,” providing the oldest known extra-biblical reference to the famous Israelite monarch.
Not only the existence of David, but the historicity of the entire United Monarchy is called into question by biblical minimalists, scholars of the school of Higher Criticism, and proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis. These critical approaches to Israelite history generally lean heavily on textual analysis. But as time goes on, fieldwork in the Holy Land continues to turn up more archaeological evidence for the United Monarchy. The exciting research of André Lemaire is another fragment of evidence in a much larger tapesty pointing to the historical existence of the powerful state depicted in the Old Testament. Evidence for a United Monarchy during the 11th and 10th centuries BC can also be found in the excavations of Tel Eton and the stone shrines discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa.
(1) André Lemaire, “‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, May/June, 1994.
(2) Megan Sauter, “The Mesha Stele and King David of the Bible,”Biblical Archaeology Society, Jan. 11, 2023. Available online at: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/the-mesha-stele-and-king-david-of-the-bible/
(3) Review André Lemaire and Jean-Philippe Delorme’s detailed evidence in their article “Mesha’s Stele and the House of David,” published in the Winter 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
(4) Amanda Borschel-Dan, “High-tech study of ancient stone suggests new proof of King David’s dynasty,” The Times of Israel, May 3, 2019. Available online at https://www.timesofisrael.com/high-tech-study-of-ancient-stone-keeps-davidic-dynasty-in-disputed-inscription/
(5) Laura Geggel, “Smashed ancient tablet suggests biblical king was real. But not everyone agrees,” Live Science, May 2, 2019. Available online at https://www.livescience.com/65381-mesha-stele-biblical-king.html
Phillip Campbell, “King David’s Name Found on the Mesha Stele,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, February 5, 2023. Available online at: www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2023/02/king-davids-name-found-on-the-mesha-stele