David, Jerusalem, And Other Underdetermined Questions

All the abnormally interesting problems in archaeology, philology, ancient literature and history, (modern literature and history too) are underdetermined. The more underdetermined they are, the more interesting they are. Answers to questions concerning Iron Age I/early Iron IIA Jerusalem and Davidic kingship, which John Hobbins is currently discussing over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, rest at the very intersection of archaeology, philology, ancient literature and history. For all the evidence that appears to inform questions about Jerusalem and Davidic kingship – questions like, was Jerusalem at the time any more than a small village, if that? Was David anything that we might rationally refer to as a “king?” Was he and/or the most important things about him the fictive creation of a later period? Or is the Biblical account of Jerusalem and David mostly correct? Do we have any actually writings that we, and not just ancients, can reasonably attribute to David? – the most interesting problems remain underdetermined. There just isn’t enough evidence to be completely certain of any answers.
If there were enough evidence to be certain of the answers to such questions, neither the questions nor their answers wouldn’t be all that interesting.
I was at a session at the CBA yesterday where we were discussing a paper by John Willis on the role of the divine epithet Seba’ot in certain sections of the Hebrew Bible. The question of “northern Israelite religion” verses “southern Judean religion” came up. Patrick Cronauer somewhat rhetorically asked what amounted to, “How can we be sure that we can identify the differences between the two? My instant response was, “Find more epigraphic material.”
When faced with underdetermined questions and particularly underdetermine questions concerning issues that many think really important, a kind of uncomfortable tension often sets in. Any answer given firmly and without ambiguity, particularly an answer that reinforces conventional beliefs, is welcomed and provides relief. But, if we really have interest in these questions, we welcome any definitive answer at our intellectual peril.
It’s not that undetermined questions are have no answer. It’s only that we can not determine their answer on the existing evidence. The best we can hope for is to establish the universe of possible answers and, if we are lucky in that some related evidence allows it, establish the order in which the possible answers can be arranged by probability.
When John completes his series on Jerusalem and David, I may have some comments. For now, I just wanted to address the issue at a very high level. However, I do wonder if the universe of possible solutions to some of the chronological problems raised by some of the archaeological evidence concerning David(, Solomon) and Jerusalem might include positing a somewhat different story for the early stages of Israelite history and that of early stages of Judean history. Of course, this is not a new idea! I also wonder how one can discuss these issues without discussing the problem of the archaeology of Iron II Jezreel and how (and if) it should influence our understanding of the chronology of an earlier time at a southern location. But then, John is still working on his series.
PS. In archaeology, philology, literature and history, questions whose answers appear to be over determined, with conflicting evidence seemingly addressing the same question, are almost certainly actually underdetermined or the questions themselves are incoherent.

3 thoughts on “David, Jerusalem, And Other Underdetermined Questions”

  1. Hi Duane,
    Thanks for picking up on this. I understand your concern about underdetermined questions. I translate this concern, and perhaps tweak it into a research program which you are uncomfortable with: let’s work with the data we have, not the data we wish we had.
    From there I quickly allow the data we have to interrogate and challenge the grand critical hypotheses, not only traditional understandings of tradition. Some academics are so heavily invested in their critical hypotheses that they treat challenges to them as equivalent to treason. It’s not pleasant for people who are more invested in their answers than in the questions that make the field of historical biblical archaeology (Tom Levy’s term) so interesting. For them Judgment Day is arrived. It is the end of the line, it seems to me, for a number of theories which were nonetheless extremely useful in their day.
    I agree with you about various attempts at identifying southern and northern dialect features in the Hebrew Bible. There isn’t enough data to work with.
    But it’s different with Khirbet Qeiyafa, Khirbet ed-Dawwara, and Khirbat en-Nas. Each provides serious data that blows apart or coheres with global hypotheses about the early monarchy of a polity named Israel.
    It is certainly possible, indeed, it is a very useful exercise, to put Israel in brackets and make sense of the data apart from that ethnonym.
    But you still have to make sense of the data, just as others engaged in historical archaeology make sense of the data from Tel es-Safi and Tel Miqne in light of all finds, texts, and traditions in hand. It is data that screams at you in terms of what it says about polities and transition points in the Iron Age Levant. It is the equivalent to finding evidence of log cabins and forts on the Great Plains in an area that had otherwise provided evidence of tent poles and open-air fires alone.
    I would turn your considerations on their head.
    For a short time, it was possible to develop grand critical hypotheses and imagine fundamentally different scenarios with respect to the picture of secondary state formation biblical tradition offers with its Saul-David-Solomon sequence.
    It was possible so long as the evidence in hand was minimal such that the questions and research programs we might devise were by definition underdetermined.
    That window is closing fast. It is now possible and therefore it is now necessary to develop global hypotheses about Iron Age I-II Syria Palestine on the basis of a wealth of data, archaeological, inscriptional, and traditional. The wealth and variety of data, by a process of elimination, is disqualifying from serious consideration a host of conjectures and models thrown out there for consideration when it was possible for just about any idea to float, since it never ran into hard data capable of falsifying it.
    Such is no longer the case. It’s great time to be interested in these things. It is finally possible to get down to brass tacks.

  2. John,
    I am somewhat surprised by one thing that you said. “I . . . tweak it into a research program which you are uncomfortable with: let’s work with the data we have, not the data we wish we had.”
    I am not at all uncomfortable with your research program. I am uncomfortable with the your certainty of your results. Seeing that I have said next to nothing recently about my own ideas how how these matters pan out, I do find it interesting that you think you can read my mind. Actual, I’m quite happy with your research program as a research program and have no interest in trying to deal with nonexistent data. I also have no stake in the outcome of such a research program. When it comes to history, my inclinations are actually more maximalist than minimalist. Although when it comes to chronology for example, I’d probably describe myself as a “rangest” rather than either a maximalist or a minimalist. Within certain limits, I even have some sympathy with what the Yale classicalist Donald Kagan calls the “higher naivety.” I even agree that the evidence from Khirbet Qeiyafa, Khirbet ed-Dawwara, and Khirbat en-Nas either significantly changes the contours of the universe of possibilities or, less likely I think in the case of these cites, renders some aspects of our questions incoherent. A research program with a goal of defining the new universe of possibilities based on the new evidence is certainly worthy. But I think you want to a good deal more than this.
    As to specific issues, I may have more to say about them latter but for now I’m still trying to recover from proofing my CBQ paper and working on the latest rewrite of my Akkadian prayers.

  3. I would love to be able to read your mind, Duane, but, since I have trouble reading my own most days, that sounds like a feat beyond my reach.
    I included the word “perhaps” for a reason. But I’m glad I drew you out a bit. I have no problem with your fence-straddling with respect to chronology, reliabilty of traditions, proposed syntheses, and so on. That kind of doubt and uncertainty is a necessary point of departure.
    But then I am much in favor of moving beyond doubt and developing syntheses of existing data, even and perhaps especially of a contrarian nature.
    Here I stand foursquare with Finkelstein from a methodological point of view. I only differ with him with respect to the details of his synthesis. I share his commitment to pursuing, not a range of possibilities, but the most compelling possibility among many available. I am also in his corner with respect to the interdisciplinary breadth of his scholarship. Perhaps, however, he does not go far enough.
    Sorry to take you away from your prayers. But I suspect you will want to come back to these topics at your convenience.

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