Stories about new biblical discoveries appear yearly in major newspapers around the world. These stories focus especially on King David. Thus, in recent years, Eilat Mazar (of Hebrew University) has announced that she found David’s palace in Jerusalem, and the tunnel he used to conquer the city; Yossi Garfinkel (also of Hebrew University) claimed that he discovered David’s provincial palace at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa; and last year, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) promoted the discovery of the Canaanite citadel in Jerusalem conquered by David. At the end of this past year, two new stories appeared: evidence for David’s kingdom at the site of Khirbet Summeily, announced by the excavation’s co-director Jimmy Hardin of Mississippi State University; and a new reconstruction of the historical context of David’s empire, from Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa.
But do all of these announcements give an accurate picture of what scholars – of archaeology, epigraphy, or the Bible – actually do? Certainly, there has been major debate in recent years about the historicity of David’s kingdom. Long taken as a given, over the last two decades there have been significant attacks – from archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein, or historians like Mario Liverani – on the idea that David ruled over any significant portion of what is now Israel (plus the West Bank), let alone a major empire controlling most of the Levant. Such attacks have helped to show how recent scholarly attempts to find the historical David suffer from a lack of direct evidence and proper attention to method. In each step of the process of publicizing scholarship on the historical David – from academic discussion through press release to news article – these problems are increasingly minimized, and we end up with stories that mislead the public. In short, claims that are very much under debate are presented to the public as already proven.
Let’s take a closer look at Galil’s reconstruction: it was first laid out in two articles in Ugarit-Forschungen and Semitica that served as the basis of the press release. In that reconstruction, David was the ruler of a major kingdom (as in the Bible) that included most of what is now Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and southern Lebanon. David was in competition with two other major rulers of the Levant, Hadadezer of Zobah in southern and eastern Syria (known from the Bible), and Taita(s) of Palistin (made up of northern “Philistines” or Sea Peoples) in northern Syria (known from ancient inscriptions). Forming an alliance with the northern and southern Philistines in order to defeat the Arameans of Zobah, David ended up creating an empire that extended to the Euphrates.
What is the basis for this reconstruction? One of the linchpins is the identification of Taita of Palistin with Toi of Hamath (a city in northern Syria) of 2 Samuel 8:9, based on the location of the site and the apparent similarity of the names. As neither David’s name nor the names of these other rulers (Hadadezer and Toi) appear in contemporary inscriptions, it is therefore important to argue that one of these kings can be found in primary sources. The identification was first argued in detail by Charles Steitler in 2010 and further promoted by Brian Janeway, but this identification ignores an important problem: it is not at all certain that Toi is the original name in the text. While the name Toi appears in some ancient versions, others give the name as Tou. In addition, the passage in 2 Samuel (8:9-10) is paralleled in 1 Chronicles (18:9-10); and there, all versions of the text – including the Hebrew – have Tou. Text criticism therefore suggests that the original form of the name was very likely Tou, and that Toi was a scribal error. This sort of textual analysis is essential to scholarly use of the Bible, but it is missing from this reconstruction of David’s empire. When we conduct it, we see that the names Tou and Taita have nothing in common beyond the first letter, and so we lose the only possible primary source for any of the kings of 2 Samuel.
Another key foundation of the reconstruction is the identification of Palistin, the kingdom in northern Syria, with the Philistines (known otherwise only from the southern coastal plain of Israel). However, only one inscription out of seven mentioning this kingdom gives the name as Palistin. In five others it is Walistin, and in the last the first half of the name is missing. Galil’s presentation of this evidence is misleading: he does not give a tabulation of the different forms, and he presents the reconstructed form without noting the difficulties of the reconstructed Pa. Instead of downplaying this lack of attestation of “Palistin,” we should ask whether this single occurrence can be seen as reliable. The ending -in is an additional problem: It does not appear to be a suffix but an essential part of the name, one missing from all contemporary forms of the word “Philistine” (the English is misleading: the Hebrew term is pileshet, the Egyptian plst, the Assyrian and Babylonian palashtu, pilashtaya, etc.). Even if Palistin is a reliable form, its root is not the same as “Philistine.” Therefore, any attempt to link this kingdom to the Philistines is merely guesswork.
To justify his reconstruction of a Davidic empire controlling a large portion of the Levant (as “possible, and even reasonable”), Galil points to other large kingdoms and empires that existed in the Levant: Palistin, Carchemish in the 12th century BCE, as well as the brief Aramean kingdom of Hazael in the late 9th and early 8th centuries (centered on Damascus). But all of these examples were based in Syria. The largest kingdoms in the southern Levant are the Hasmonean kingdom, and perhaps the kingdom of Josiah (although there is no clear extrabiblical evidence for it). But each of these kingdoms was much smaller – covering only large portions of Israel and the West Bank plus a small part of western Jordan. Indeed, before the modern period, the states of the southern Levant lacked the manpower and resources to control large areas, as was possible in the northern Levant. It is therefore hardly reasonable to suggest such a kingdom for David.
As may be clear by now, a major problem with this reconstruction is the lack of critical historical methodology in reading sources. Proper historical analysis involves at its very core the evaluation of sources and their reliability. But here, each source is treated in the same way, as equally reliable. Royal inscriptions from the time of the ruler in question are approached no differently from the biblical texts, which consist of extended literary narratives extensively edited, if not written, centuries after the events they purport to describe, and preserved only in divergent manuscripts dating centuries later still. The main underlying assumptions here are that these sources must fit together as part of a single world, a historical one; therefore, the Bible is represented essentially as a historical document. This is a flattening of the huge differences in genre, audience, and goals of each text. It represents a naïve, and ultimately misleading, approach to reading texts.
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When we turn to the press releases, we see that the discussion is even further simplified. The result is that the public is shortchanged and misled: it gets a highly distorted view of the reliability and certainty of this scholarship. For instance, we see the difficulties of identification glossed over. In the Haifa press release, Taita becomes “Tai(ta)”. This may seem like a small change, but it is very misleading. The name always occurs in the inscriptions as Taita(s) – the ta(s) element is never reconstructed or questionable; and it is not an optional suffix but an integral part of the name. But writing the name as “Tai(ta)” presents the questionable identification of Tou (Toi) and Taita as a given. Similarly, in the press release Walistin is never even mentioned. The name of the kingdom is simply Palistin. More broadly, the press releases play up David even more than the scholarly articles do. For example, in the Mississippi State case, the possible relevance of the data for David’s kingdom is emphasized by the excavation co-director in the press release. Yet the original article in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology, which serves as the basis of the press release, David is never mentioned.
But what is most problematic about these press releases is that they present the public with a distorted view of what scholars in biblical studies, archaeology, and Semitic studies actually do. When viewed together, they make it appear that we spend our entire careers trying to evaluate (or, even worse, prove) the historicity of David’s great empire. In reality, most scholars in these fields are not concerned much if at all with these issues. Archaeologists who excavate these sites discover much about everyday life, how people lived, where they lived, what they ate, what sorts of communities they belonged to, how they cared for their dead, who they traded with, how they saw the world around them. Biblical scholars, meanwhile, are concerned with more sophisticated ways to interpret the texts (from comparative literature, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, and many other fields). They are publishing a great deal of interesting work on how the biblical David is a later constructed David, attempting to find not the original David but the earliest David of memory. Or how the figure of David was understood in second-temple Judaism, where we see much interest in aspects of this figure that are absent from canonical biblical texts. It is therefore noteworthy that the Haifa press release labels Ugarit-Forschungen and Semitica “leading journals.” While they are respected, they are simply not the publications for groundbreaking work in biblical studies, archaeology, or ancient history. We see a similar but even bigger problem in the Mississippi State press release, describing Near Eastern Archaeology as “a leading, peer-reviewed journal” – when it is in fact aimed at a non-scholarly audience.
So what can be done about communicating the results of this groundbreaking work to larger audiences? Much of the responsibility lies with us. Galil engages extensively with the public, through his many contributions to the ALMMG (Ancient Levant and Mediterranean Multidisciplinary Group) and elsewhere on social media. This type of engagement is to be applauded. As scholars, we have an obligation to interact with the public to let them know about the state of the field – but to do so responsibly. We need to be able to articulate our understandings of the past: not just details about our often narrow specialties, but a vision of what we imagine the ancient world and its people were actually like.
 Gershon Galil, “David, King of Israel, between the Arameans and the Northern and Southern Sea Peoples in Light of New Epigraphic and Archaeological Data,” Ugarit-Forschungen 44 (2013): 159-174; Galil, “A Concise History of Palistin/Patin/Unqi/‘mq in the 11th-9th Centuries BC,” Semitica 56 (2014): 75-104.
 Charles Steitler, “The Biblical King Toi of Hamath and the Late Hittite State ‘P/Walas(a)tin’,” Biblische Notizen 146 (2010): 81-99. See also Amihai Mazar, “The Search for David and Solomon: An Archaeological Perspective,” in The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, by I. Finkelstein and A. Mazar, ed. Brian B. Schmidt (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007), 137-138.
 The name Toi appears in the Masoretic Text, the Targums, and a couple of Septuagint manuscripts (as well as in the Roman-era historian Josephus); most manuscripts of the Septuagint along with the Vulgate and Peshitta have Tou.
 This was first proposed by J.D. Hawkins, one of the leading experts on the Syrian inscriptions of Palistin, and again supported by Janeway. See Hawkins, “The Amuq, and Aleppo: New Light in a Dark Age,” Near Eastern Archaeology 72 (2009): 164-173; also “The Inscriptions of the Aleppo Temple,” Anatolian Studies 61 (2011): 35-54.
 Hawkins argued that Palistin was the original form, and then it became Walistin later, but this is speculative. The only form of the name we can be sure of is Walistin.
 See Matthew J. Adams and Margaret E. Cohen, “The ‘Sea Peoples’ in Primary Sources, in The Philistines and Other “Sea Peoples” in Text and Archaeology, ed. A.E. Killebrew and G. Lehmann (SBL Archaeology and Biblical Studies 15; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 662 note 19.
 To these we can add later historical examples: the Seleucids (based in Antioch for most of the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE), the short lived empire of Queen Zenobia (out of Palmyra in the 3rd century CE), and the Umayyad caliphate (7th-8th centuries CE, with its capital at Damascus). The only possible exception I am aware of to this pattern is the Nabataean kingdom (of the early Roman period), extending over a sizable area but one that was largely desert.
 James W. Hardin, Christopher A. Rollston, and Jeffrey A. Blakely, “Iron Age Bullae from Officialdom’s Periphery: Khirbet Summeily in Broader Context,” Near Eastern Archaeology 77 (2014): 299-301.
Michael Press is a Visiting Scholar in the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University. He received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University in 2007, and is the author of Ashkelon 4: The Iron Age Figurines of Ashkelon and Philistia (Eisenbrauns, 2012).