The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation
The Tel Dan inscription, with its apparent reference to “the house of David,” has generated much controversy. In this revision of his 1999 dissertation at the University of Sydney, Athas provides a thorough study of the inscription and offers an interpretation that must be taken seriously. The majority of studies of the Tel Dan fragments are based on an examination of published photos or hand-drawn facsimiles. Athas decries this approach; his evaluation is based on a lengthy examination of the fragments in the Israel Museum of Jerusalem (p. 4).
Utilizing a precisely defined method outlined in his introduction (pp. 2–3), Athas begins by establishing the archaeological context of the fragments. He concludes that “the fracturing” of the fragments occurred in the early eighth century B.C. (p. 16). He then provides a detailed epigraphical analysis of the fragments (pp. 18–93) and argues “that there is a very real epigraphical connection between Fragment A and Fragment B” (p. 93). An even lengthier paleographical analysis follows (pp. 94–174), which confirms the proposed date of around 800 B.C. (p. 164). Athas next addresses the question of the arrangement of the fragments, concluding that “Fragment B must be placed below Fragment A” (p. 190).
Having addressed these methodologically foundational issues, Athas offers his textual analysis of the fragments (pp. 192–254). He includes his transcription and translation, provides a detailed line-by-line commentary, and concludes this chapter with an analysis of the language of the inscription (in his opinion, Old Aramaic), a grammatical survey of the inscription, and a glossary. As for the reading dwdtyb in Fragment A, line 9, Athas interacts with scholarly opinion (pp. 217–25) and concludes, “I cannot stress enough that dwdtyb should be regarded as a toponym and not a reference to a Davidic dynasty. Although this label may have had an etymology going back to a Davidic dynasty, this is not how the author of the Tel Dan Inscription used it. Rather, the author was here referring to a geographical entity. My contention is that this geographical entity was Jerusalem” (p. 226, italics his).
A historical commentary follows (pp. 255–315) in which Athas discusses, among other things, the authorship of the inscription (in his opinion, Bar Hadad II, son of Hazael), the identities of the kings of Israel and Bayt-Dawid mentioned in the inscription (in his opinion, Jehoahaz son of Jehu and Joash son of Ahaziah, respectively), and the significance of the toponym Bayt-Dawid, which he concludes is “the equivalent of the biblical ‘City of David,’ ” referring to a city-state, not a regional state (p. 280). If correct, this means “that Jerusalem’s sovereignty over the regions of Judah was more token and ideological than an actual political reality” (ibid.). In this chapter Athas also reconstructs a timeline of events referred to in the inscription and correlates these with the biblical data.
Athas concludes that “the Tel Dan Inscription neither confirms nor denies the biblical assertion that a certain David lent his name to a fortress in Jerusalem” (p. 308). He adds, “This, however, is because that naming event is outside the inscription’s scope, the inscription being interested in other matters. Given the evidence, however, it certainly looks as though it was the case. As such, we cannot say that we have pinned David down outside the pages of the Bible. We may well, so to speak, have found a footprint, even a fresh one, but he himself still eludes us. We are, however, hot on his heels and our confidence in finding him has greatly increased. The Tel Dan Inscription does not give us proof of an historical David, but it may certainly be admitted as evidence” (pp. 308–9).