How Large Was King David’s Jerusalem?

Large-scale radiocarbon study sheds new light on an old question

Artistic rendition of Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE. Illustration by Leonardo Gurvitz, City of David Archives

Artistic rendition of Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE. Illustration by Leonardo Gurvitz, City of David Archives.

A new and comprehensive radiocarbon study of First Temple Jerusalem—conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, and the Weizmann Institute of Science—has produced some intriguing results. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the results have challenged previous theories regarding Jerusalem’s size during the reigns of the earliest kings of Judah.

More than 100 radiocarbon dates were taken from four different excavation areas throughout the City of David, which is located on ancient Jerusalem’s southeastern ridge. Samples were taken from grape seeds, date pits, and even bat skeletons that were found in one of the excavated buildings. The results were used to reconstruct a first-of-its-kind chronology of ancient Jerusalem from 1200 BCE to its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

Bat skull used to date a building. Photo by Yaniv Berman, City of David.

Bat skull used to date a building. Photo by Yaniv Berman, City of David.

“The new research allows us to study the development of the city,” said Professor Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University and one of the study’s lead researchers. “Until now, most researchers have linked Jerusalem’s growth to the west, to the period of King Hezekiah.” For decades, conventional scholarship has pointed towards an exponential growth of Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah following an influx of refugees from the Northern Kingdom after its destruction by the Assyrian Empire in the late eighth century BCE. Jerusalem, scholars argue, was no larger than the City of David and the Temple Mount, with only a modest population. Scholars critical of the biblical account are also quick to point out that the evidence from the ground does not match what one would expect of a royal capital as great as Solomon’s city is presented in the Book of Kings.

However, this new research shows that Jerusalem’s population was already growing in size and spreading during the reign of King Jehoash (c. 836–796 BCE), a century before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. “In light of this,” Gadot continued, “the new research teaches that the expansion of Jerusalem is a result of internal-Judean demographic growth and the establishment of political and economic systems.”

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Interestingly, almost 20 percent of the analyzed samples date between the 12th and 10th centuries BCE—a period in which Jerusalem is commonly believed to have been little more than a small town. “This clearly indicates widespread occupation of a yet undetermined character,” wrote the researchers. Indeed, their comments reflect a phenomenon that has long puzzled scholars—that the limited archaeological data for ancient Jerusalem does not align with either biblical or historical sources, which often indicate Jerusalem was a city of some importance in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

For example, Jerusalem is one of the cities known from the Amarna Letters (c.1360–1332 BCE). The letters from Jerusalem were written by the Canaanite vassal-king Abdi-Heba, who repeatedly requests military aid from Pharaoh Akhenaten against rival city-states. Even though scant remains of Late Bronze Age Jerusalem have been unearthed, the city was clearly important enough to have a vassal-king who ruled on Egypt’s behalf. As such, the new radiocarbon study shows that occupation can be detected, even when other material evidence, like buildings and ceramics, is lacking.

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The study also challenged the common belief that Hezekiah was responsible for building the walls of Jerusalem on the eastern slopes of the City of David (2 Chronicles 32:5). Instead, the data suggest the walls were constructed earlier, around 750 BCE, in the days of King Uzziah—which also seems to be hinted at in the biblical text (2 Chronicles 26:9). According to Joe Uziel of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Until now, many researchers have assumed that the wall was built by Hezekiah during his rebellion against Sennacherib, King of Assyria. It is now apparent that the wall in its eastern part, in the area of the City of David, was built earlier, shortly after the great earthquake of Jerusalem.” Following Uzziah’s reconstruction efforts, Jerusalem continued to grow and prosper until its destruction in 586 BCE.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:


Jerusalem’s Iron Age Moat Discovered

Ancient Reservoir Provided Water for First Temple Period Jerusalem

A Rival to Solomon’s Temple

Canaanite Fortress Discovered in the City of David


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Visualizing First Temple Jerusalem
The Pool of Siloam Has Been Found, but Where Is the Pool of Siloam?
Jerusalem and the Holy Land(fill)

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