First Person: Did the Kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon Actually Exist?

From the September/October 2017 Biblical Archaeology Review


Hershel Shanks

Amihai Mazar (better known as Ami) is one of Israel’s most highly regarded archaeologists. He recently retired from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I remember long ago when I featured him on the cover of BAR together with his famous uncle, Benjamin Mazar, a former president of the Hebrew University and a famous archaeologist; Ami was angry. He didn’t want to be pictured with his uncle. Ami wanted to make it on his own—not because of his relationship to his distinguished uncle. Well, Ami certainly has now made it on his own.

This is by way of introducing a seminal article that he recently published that includes a critical assessment of the historicity of the United Monarchy of Israel. It is a thoroughly balanced review of the matter, considering both the Biblical text and the archaeological evidence. It is too detailed to rehearse here in detail—and, as he says, it’s “highly specialized and complicated”—but it is worthwhile just to set forth the issues and Ami’s conclusions.1

The Biblical narratives, he tells us, although written hundreds of years after the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon, “retain memories of reality.” It’s these “cultural memories … embedded in the Biblical narratives” that are sometimes captured with the help of archaeology. And the “contribution of archaeology to the study of the past ever increases.”

His conclusion is quite nuanced: “I adhere to the moderate views which, in spite of considerable variations and degrees of confidence, agree that the [Biblical] authors worked with ancient sources, including oral and written narratives, transmitted poetry, archival documents, public inscriptions, etc.” Although not written in the tenth century B.C.E. (the time of the United Monarchy), the Biblical narratives “retain memories of realities rooted in that century.”


Gezer. Photo: Courtesy Steve Ortiz.

Let’s begin by considering the famous passage in 1 Kings 9:15–19, which tells us that King Solomon fortified Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. The great Israeli archaeologist Yigal Yadin long ago attributed the three impressive six-chambered city gates at these three major sites to the time of Solomon. For a long time, this dating was considered secure. Then Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University came along with his “Low Chronology,” according to which he extends the time of the relevant archaeological period—Iron IIA—by 80–100 years or so, long after King Solomon’s time. Thus he dates these gates to a later time in the Iron IIA, initially about a hundred years later, probably to the time of King Ahab. Ami Mazar disagrees with Finkelstein and convincingly argues that, although some time adjustment should be made in the length of the archaeological period involved, these monumental gates “cannot be dated later than the tenth century [B.C.E.],” the time of King Solomon.

If Iron IIA extended into the ninth century B.C.E., Finkelstein could be right that the gates were later than Solomon’s time. But there is no doubt that it began in the tenth century B.C.E. Thus the gates could also be from the tenth century B.C.E. “The question of dating the monumental structures at Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer,” writes Ami Mazar, “remains in my view unresolved. The evidence is ambivalent, and a tenth century date for this architecture remains plausible. Thus 1 Kings 9:15–19 can still be taken as a source relating to tenth-century B.C.E. reality.” Perhaps there were two phases to Iron IIA, early and late, but “the date of the transition between these two sub-phases is not entirely clear.” (This tells you why the dating of potsherds is so important in archaeology; subtle changes in pottery could help us to distinguish early from late in the same period.)

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.


The Stepped Stone Structure. Photo: Zev Radovan.

Next let’s go to Jerusalem. It was surely a small city in King David’s time, perhaps a bit more than 10 acres with about a thousand residents. Solomon’s annexation of the Temple Mount more than doubled the size of the city with a population of about 2,500 people. Although it was small, it was strong and not to be trifled with. The huge Stepped Stone Structure (SSS), rising to the height of a nine-story building, was there in the tenth century B.C.E., if not before. So was the Large Stone Structure (LSS) on top. Ami Mazar agrees with the following senior archaeologists who date this complex to the tenth century B.C.E. or slightly earlier: Kathleen Kenyon (who first came upon walls of the LSS), Yigal Shiloh, Eilat Mazar (who excavated the LSS), Jane Cahill, Margreet Steiner and Avraham Faust.

“This immense complex [was] one of the largest structures in ancient Israel,” and the massive fortifications from the Late Bronze Age protecting the Gihon Spring and excavated by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, continued in use during the time of King David and King Solomon.

Eilat Mazar has also been excavating structures south of the Temple Mount that “must have been part of Jerusalem’s royal administrative complex” in the time of the United Monarchy. Enabling her to date this complex were large amounts of Iron IIA pottery. In his usual cautious way Ami Mazar concludes, “Although the excavator’s specific dating of these structures to the time of Solomon may be regarded as conjectural, the date cannot be far off, since the pottery in the fills is clearly Iron IIA, namely dated to the tenth to ninth centuries B.C.E.”

As to Solomon’s Temple as described in the Bible, its plan is known in temple architecture of the Levant since the second millennium B.C.E. and continues into the Iron Age. Although archaeology cannot determine whether Solomon was the builder of the Temple, “the Bible does not hint at any other king who may have founded such a temple.”

That there was a central government ruling the United Monarchy is shown by the recent excavation of Yosef Garfinkel at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a site in the Judahite Shephelah on the border with the Philistines.a Although a small site, Qeiyafa was protected with a massive casemate wall surrounding the site and a large public building on the summit. It was occupied only briefly in the late 11th or early 10th century B.C.E., the time of kings Saul and David. As Ami Mazar observes, “There must have been a central authority that initiated this well-planned building operation. … While no Canaanite parallels are known for either the city plan or the fortifications,2 these are a prototype for later Judean [Judahite] towns, such as Beth Shemesh, Tel en-Nasbeh (Biblical Mizpah), Tel Beit Mirsim and Beersheba.”

Finally, Solomon’s kingdom appears to have been backed up with an elaborate metallurgical industry. Initially the vast copper mining operation in the Wadi Feinan in Jordanb was associated with the Edomites who inhabited the high plateau above the mines. But there is no evidence of these settlements in Edom earlier than the eighth century B.C.E. Instead, these copper mines at the base reflect an affinity with a similar copper mining and smelting operation in the Timnah Valley in the Negev of Israel.c “It is now clear,” Ami Mazar tells us, “that large-scale copper mining and smelting industry flourished in the Arabah Valley throughout the late eleventh, tenth and ninth centuries [B.C.E. The structures in Feinan] indicate that the industry was administered and controlled by a central authority” and worked by a tribal-state of semi-nomads.

This should be enough to entice the more scholarly minded to explore the additional and often powerful details in Ami Mazar’s trenchant article, evidencing the existence and nature of Israel’s United Monarchy ruled by Saul, David and Solomon. Yes, they very likely were actual historical figures, and they had a kingdom—although not nearly so vast as the Bible describes. Much of the Biblical text is what Ami Mazar recognizes as being of a “literary-legendary nature.”

“First Person: Did the Kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon Actually Exist?” by Hershel Shanks was originally published in Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2017.



a. Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel and Martin Klingbeil, “An Ending and a Beginning,” BAR, November/December 2013.

b. See Mohammad Najjar and Thomas E. Levy, “Condemned to the Mines—Copper Production and Christian Persecution,” BAR, November/December 2011; Thomas E. Levy and Mohammad Najjar, “Edom and Copper: The Emergence of Ancient Israel’s Rival,” BAR, July/August 2006.

c. Hershel Shanks, First Person: “Life Was Not So Bad for Smelters,” BAR, January/February 2015.

1. Amihai Mazar, “Archaeology and the Bible: Reflections on Historical Memory in the Deuteronomistic History,” in C.M. Maier, ed., Congress Volume Munich 2013, Vetus Testamentum Supplements (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 347–369.

2. For this and other reasons, Ami Mazar rejects Nadav Na’man’s suggestion that Qeiyafa is a Canaanite town.


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  • RobertFuller says

    Im not a scholar by any means. I have a problem with the timeline. If David and Solomon did exist why isnt there any mention from other cultures. Egyptians reported other leaders. What about the Assyrians. Any culture from the time. This is what i have a hard time with.

  • Ladislao says

    Sorry, but I find much of this current exegesis to barely overstep the road ditches separating the parallel ruts of fictitious Bible worship and well-meaning wishful thinking, originating in purposeful selections from available data.
    One basic fact everyone should assimilate before advancing further is that no evidence has ever appeared to directly support the mere existence of a King Solomon. That word, later interpreted as a person’s name, was a honorific title bestowed by several later generations on a semi-legendary King of great power and wisdom, whose military and religious exploits set the tone for many of his successors. Some of his life’s outstanding events point the way to identifying this king with historical figures who may have gone through similar developments, whenever they happen to be unusual enough to make it very unlikely that two very improbable events could have occured independently in adjoining time frames. The most outstanding of these is the seldom-mentioned act of apostasy in his deathbed.
    Indeed, an elementary search among contemporaries finds that the Egyptian king (or pharaoh) called Amenhotpe Iii (Amenofis to some), who was a long-time espouser of a form of montheism based on the uniqueness of the Aten, actually is on record for requesting a carved idol of the goddess Ishtar to be brought to his sickbed for healing. And it must have worked at least once, since the worshipped idol had been returned to Assyria by the time his illness relapsed, and a repetition of the same healing was attempted. This second try is known to bave failed, but the point is that monotheists were outraged enough to retain memories of their beloved Solomon indulging in the worst act of ungodly evil, apostasy. Thus, Solomon becomes a legendary title fitted to the real life and reign of Amenhotpe III.
    Similar, albeit less obvious identifications can be carried out with other “biblical” characters who, like all characters, are hisrñtorically acted out by some flesh-and-blood real-life human being. Many have had their legendary exploits fused up with somebody else’s true-life actions. Just summarily, “Thut” in Semitic parlance gets rendered as “D-Oo-Ud”, which many pronounce “Dawid”, This means thar the conquering successes of king (pharaoh) Thutmes III that parallel those og the legendary King David are, in fact, the same conquests. However, there’s a much later Biblical David (call him David II) in the reign of Akhenaten who is known to have failed in securing control of Philistee towns where his older “ancestor” David I had been received with grandiose pomp and honor. All this “fanning out” of Biblical known characters into their real-life actor-interpreters who may be several, leads to some re-assignments of well-known names, that usually clarify historical points:
    – Solomon, never mentioned in David I’s reign, was not his son, but his great-grandson.
    – The tribal vassal kings Libayu and his courtier (dealt with in the Amarna cuneiform tablets) are the performers for kings Saul and David II.
    – The great reformer and Exodus leader Moses is the character made famous by exiled king Akhenaten, who at firsr attempted to re-seize rhe throne when courtier Paramessu (Ramses I) had gained strength on it, and later negotiated a monotheistic mass withdrawal, under the nickname “Heir” (“Mösh” in Egyptian).
    – This Mösh succeeded in estalishing the tribes kn Canaan, giving the best territory to his uncles” tribes Ephraim (for “Nefer Ay”) and Menasha (for Mösh Aanen)!

    • G says

      What a confusing menagerie of half truths, unverifiable information and plain old lies!
      Glad you took the time out to type it out.

  • Ricardo says

    Hi. interesting comments, but we should be carefull to statements so conclusive as: “Akhenaten became a monotheist in direct response to the 10 plagues.” We have no clear finds that points that way. We know that He started a cult to the main god trepresentated in the sun, but no clear statement as reaction to the 10 plagues.
    Ricardo Mayandia

  • Larry says

    The Bible dates the Exodus in 1386 BCE at the end of the reign of Amenhotep III. Akhenaten became a monotheist in direct response to the 10 plagues. Israel Finkelstein’s low chronology is right on point to date Solomon’s works to the early 9th Century, since Solomon’s reign actually should be dated from 910-870 BCE. David’s reign also agrees with Finkelstein’s end of the Philistine pottery period c. 950 BCE, which matches the actual reign of David from 950-910 BCE.

    So the problem for archaeologists is realizing the pagan timeline was revised. When corrected, the Bible’s Neo-Babylonian Period is 26 years longer and the Persian Period is 82 years shorter. The solution is simply to date David and Solomon where the belong, about a half century later than the fake timeline does and date the Exodus where it belongs to the end of the reign of Amenhotep III.

    Archaeology and the Bible are in complete agreement, but only if you use the corrected original secular timeline, or the Bible’s own timeline, which varies from the pagan timeline.

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