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Solomon: Text and Archaeology

Alan R Millard

 



Palestine Exploration Quarterly (July-December 1991): 117-118.
[Reproduced by permission of the author]

[p.117]

The Editor has kindly invited me to respond to J. Maxwell Miller's comments arising from my essay (Miller 1991). Miller has re-stated the positions which had precipitated it and set out some arguments against its plea for a positive attitude to the biblical account of King Solomon's wealth. He helpfully reminds us of the reverses Solomon suffered during his reign and the disaster that followed. It is to the credit of the biblical historians that they did record these episodes; their presence alone shows that the view of Solomon's reign presented is not one of unalloyed splendour and total contentment. If accounts of adverse events in Solomon's reign are believable, why may not the descriptions of his grandeur also be believed if, as I have tried to show, they are harmonious with ancient practices? Let it be clear, this is a question of feasibility, not of proof.

Firstly, the successful rule of a major monarch could end in decline and disaster, as did the reign of Shalmaneser III of Assyria in the ninth century B.C., to name one (see Grayson 1982). Wealth and power do not bring immunity from rebellion, nor does wisdom guarantee against imprudence. An unreal situation should not be read into the biblical text.

Secondly, Miller asks again the question why no monumental inscriptions or impressive architectural remains attributable to Solomon are known. On the architectural matter, the fact of the robbing of tenth-century buildings for their fine stonework by later generations at Megiddo was noted already (Millard 1991b, 25). Lack of Solomonic remains in Jerusalem is hardly surprising in view of the small amount of excavation possible so far to the levels of the early monarchy. As to epigraphic remains, it is not simply because a king was powerful that his inscriptions survive, nor has every powerful king left inscriptions for us to see to-day. Some monarchs tell how they erected monuments in certain places, yet they are nowhere to be seen. Thus Tuthmosis I (c. 1504-1492 B.C.) set up a stele in the territory of Mitanni after he had crossed the Euphrates, and his grandson Tuthmosis III (c. 1479-1424 B.C.) did the same thing (Breasted 1906-07, vol. 2, paras. 476-78). Neither stone has been found, but there is no reason to doubt the royal boasts. There were surely many others of which nothing is known; indeed, each new discovery can bring surprises (see, for example, Donbaz 1990). Solomon is not the only ancient king of reputed power whose achievements are not attested by contemporary royal monuments. The great Sargon of Akkad's exploits are recorded only in copies of his inscriptions made as exercises by pupil scribes five hundred years or more after his death. From the 'rather modest golden age' which Miller allows Israel in the ninth century B.C., under Omri and Ahab, no royal inscription has come to light. Moving to later times, the same question may be posed for King Herod: why did he leave no monumental royal inscription in Palestine? The examples given previously of the haphazard nature of many archaeological discoveries (Millard 1991b, 21) were intended to illustrate the accidental aspect of much of the archaeological evidence available to us, and further reasons why monuments of Solomon are not extant were offered (1991b, 25-26). In fact, the survival of West Semitic texts from the first half of the first millennium B.C. presents a bewildering picture - many Hebrew ostraca and seals, hardly any formal monuments, several Aramaic monuments, but fewer seals and hardly any ostraca - with the period from 1000 to 800 B.C. yielding very few pieces (see Millard 1991a). There is no pattern which permits the absence of a Solomonic stele to count as evidence against the claims of the biblical writers about his reign.

[p.118]

Thirdly, there is the problem of the probability of Solomon's wealth. Comparison with major rulers of Egypt and Mesopotamia whose own claims can be supported to some extent by artefacts recovered is, Miller asserts, to rank Solomon among such monarchs, and that he cannot accept. Yet the pages of history tell of many gilded rulers whose splendour faded fast, in their own time or their sons'. If the biblical narratives of Hadad of Edom, Rezon of Damascus, and Jeroboam of Ephraim (1 Kings 11.14-40) are given credence, why not the narratives that favour Solomon? The answer seems to be the 'sweeping claims' involved. Before such a label is applied, some attempt should be made to evaluate the descriptions in the light of the ancient world, something which other essays have begun to do (e.g. Millard 1989). If the 'sweeping claims' prove to be not entirely believable in themselves, then their probability for the time has to be investigated. I maintain my contention that the international situation during the tenth century B.C. would have allowed what is told of Solomon.

Coming, fourthly, to the matter of literary-critical analysis of biblical books, my remark about psychological and religious reasons probably underlying a widespread tendency to place a low value on the Massoretic Text of the books of Kings was made within the context of textual criticism. Responsible historians cannot ignore the findings of literary-critical research so long as that research is carried out with full reference to ancient contexts and practices and its hypotheses are continuously tested against the customs of antiquity. That was the thrust of my paper. Whether a writer is Miller, Millard, or Garbini, that test applies.[1] When taken in their ancient Near Eastern setting, the statements of biblical historians are not so extraordinary as many modern writers suppose, nor in need of modification. That does not mean that those statements are accurate, but that assessments of them should start from a positive attitude.


NOTES

[1] G. Garbini's History and Ideology in Ancient Israel (London, 1988) fails from its first point, the stone tablets of Mt Sinai. Making the gratuitous assumption that they were clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform, Garbini argues that the Israelites only came to know this writing in the Exile. However, stone tablets or flakes were a common writing material in Egypt when papyrus was not available, at all times.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Breasted, J. H., 1906-07. Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago).

Donbaz, V., 1990. 'Two Neo-Assyrian Stelae in the Antalya and Kahramanmaraç Museums', Annual Review ofthe Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Project, 8, 5-24.

Grayson, A. K., 1982. 'Assyria: Ashur-clan II to Ashur-nirari V (934-745 B.C.), ch. 6 in CAH, 3rd edn, III/I (Cambridge).

Millard, A. R., 1989. 'Does the Bible exaggerate King Solomon's Golden Wealth?', BAR, 15, 20-29.

-1991a. 'The uses of the Early Alphabets', in C. Baurain (ed.), Phoinikeia Grammata, Studio Phoenicia xil (Liege).

-1991b. 'Texts and Archaeology: Weighing the Evidence. The Case for King Solomon', PEQ, 123, 19-27.

Miller, J. M., 1991. 'Solomon: International Potentate or Local King?', PEQ, 123, 28-31.