David, History, and Evangelicals: A Response to Chris Heard

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

My fellow blogger Chris Heard has written a post, “David’s sons and the history of biblical ideas,” in which he addresses some of the issues I raised in my post on the priesthood of David’s sons, Rereading 2 Samuel 8:18: “David’s Sons Were Priests.” Some of the issues Chris raised deserve some kind of response. It is impossible to provide a detailed response to every one of these issues, but I hope with this response to Chris’ post, to clarify some of my views and address some of Chris’ concerns.

The Historical Issue

Chris wrote: As Claude wrote, the Chronicler apparently found it unacceptable for non-Levites to be priests, but, in Claude’s words, “Since David performed some priestly functions in the Jerusalem cult, it is very possible that he delegated some of his priestly responsibilities to his sons.” Claude apparently means this as a historical point about David, which I judge a tenuous point to make.


There is much debate about the historicity of David and some events related to his kingdom. Those who are familiar with the history of the debate also know that scholars on both sides of the issue cannot come to a definite conclusion.

Notwithstanding the unwillingness of scholars and archaeologists to accept the reality that David is mentioned in extra-biblical sources, archaeological discoveries make references to the “house of David,” clearly indicating that David was a historical figure. The name of David appears in the Tell Dan stela, in the Mesha stela, and possibly in the Karnak monument commemorating Shishak’s conquest of cities in Canaan.

If David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his city, and even if Jerusalem was a small city, it is possible that he would become king or leader of the Jebusite city and assume some of the duties associated with the religious life of the city. I have no problem in accepting the historical reality of “the house of David.

“From “Priests” to “First Ministers”

Chris wrote: we are basically presented with the dilemma that either the author of the smallest original unit containing 2 Sam 8:18, as well as (presumably) the tradents who preserved that unit through to canonical expression, either (a) did not know anything about the Priestly Torah’s insistence that only Levites may be priests, or (b) were not bothered enough by David’s flouting of these commandments to rewrite the text or to insert an editorial comment on the impropriety, or (c) they themselves were not happy with this situation but thought it represented historical reality, and they were historically sensitive enough to realize that times change.

Chris’ statement may reflect a lack of understanding of the theology behind the Deuteronomistic history (even though I doubt it). The books of 1 and 2 Samuel are part of what is known as the Deuteronomistic history and were probably the work of the people involved in Josiah’s reform c. 622 B.C.

In their book The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein and Silberman wrote (p. 14) that “archeology has provided enough evidence to support a new contention that the historical core of the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History was substantially shaped in the seventh century B.C.E.”

Finkelstein and Silberman also wrote (p. 14): “And we shall side with the scholars who argue that the Deuteronomistic History was compiled, in the main, in the time of King Josiah, aiming to provide an ideological validation for particular political ambition and religious reforms.”

The book of Deuteronomy, which is the initial chapter of the Deuteronomistic History, makes a clear distinction between the Levitical Priests and the Levites. The writers of the Deuteronomic History were well aware that there were priests who were not Levites. In fact, at the instigation of the reformers, Josiah “deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places of Judah and round about Jerusalem” (2 Kings 23:5).

So, the historian knew about priests who were not Levites. It is the Deuteronomist who insisted that all priests be Levitical priests. Chris’ statement, that the writers of 2 Samuel 8:18 “did not know anything about the Priestly Torah’s insistence that only Levites may be priests” is incorrect because it was the writer or writers of 2 Samuel 8:18 and the whole Deuteronomistic history who insisted that all priests must be Levitical Priests.

The tradition initiated in the seventh century continued in the post-exilic period and the Chronicler was very adamant that only descendants from the tribe of Levi could become priests. In saying this, I am avoiding the controversy between the Zadokites and the Aaronites, an issue that, I believe, is very evident in the book of Chronicles.

The Dictation Theory

Chris wrote: Many on the conservative/evangelical end of Christendom apply to the Bible a Qur’anic model of inspiration, resulting in the idea that God basically wrote the Bible by means of dictation to human secretaries.

I am surprised that Chris could make such a statement. His statement that evangelicals believe in the dictation theory is mind-boggling. The statement shows that Chris may not have a clear understanding of the evangelical movement. The fact is that only a minority of fundamentalist Christians would accept dictation theory. Many conservatives and evangelicals are not fundamentalists and they reject the dictation theory.

I hope he is not including me among those who believe in the dictation theory. If Chris has been reading some of my posts, he should know by now that I reject any view that can be classified as dictation theory. I believe in the inspiration of Scriptures but I reject any aspect of the dictation theory.

Chris’ Conclusions

At the end of his post, Chris wrote: By implication, it seems that the restriction of the priesthood to the Levites did not occur in some pre-monarchical wilderness experience, real or imagined, but sometime relatively late in the monarchy or after it. The whole thing has implications for the authorship and provenance of the Torah and of the book of Samuel.

First, I never said that “the restriction of the priesthood to the Levites occurred in some pre-monarchical wilderness experience.” To the contrary, I inferred in my post that the restriction was the work of the Chronicler. What I did not say in the post was that I believe the restriction originated at the time of Josiah’s reform.

Second, I never implied in my post that the Torah was the work of Moses or that the book of Samuel was written by Samuel himself or even written in the early monarchy. Maybe if I had given more detailed information in my post, Chris would have had a better understanding of my own position.

Now, let me clarify what I tried to convey in my post. First, I believe that David and his sons exercised some form of priestly duties by virtue of having conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites. Yes, I believe in a historical David and I believe that there was a “house of David.”

Second, I believe that with the Deuteronomic reform the cultus was centralized in Jerusalem and that all non-Levitical priests were removed from official duty and that in the seventh century, restrictions were established on who could serve as priests.

Third, in the post-exilic period, the Chronicler made an attempt at eliminating the reference that David’s sons served as priests in Jerusalem because during his days only Levites could serve as priests.

I hope these clarifications will give Chris a better understanding on where I stand on these issues.

Reference: Israel Finkelstein and Neil A. Silberman, The Bible Unearthed. New York: The Free Press, 2001.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to David, History, and Evangelicals: A Response to Chris Heard

  1. DrChrisHeard says:

    >Just to clarify: I never had any intention of arguing against you, Claude. I was just intrigued by what you wrote and thought I would make some additional comments about the text from my own perspective.I do think the question of why the Deuteronomistic Historian would either preserve or create claims that some of his (yep, I’m assuming) “heroes” did things contrary to Deuteronomistic ideology is interesting. Perhaps that is one of the things that makes the Deuteronomistic Historian an historian.Oh, and just so you’ll know, I have no doubt that David existed and was considered a king of at least Judah. I have debated this point against Jim West’s skepticism many times. But I’m not as confident in the specific details of 1-2 Samuel’s account of his life and reign.

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  2. DrChrisHeard says:

    >Oh, please also see my comment on the Higgaion post in question.

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  3. DrChrisHeard says:

    >Sorry to leave so many comments, but just to be clear about this sentence: Chris’ statement, that the writers of 2 Samuel 8:18 “did not know anything about the Priestly Torah’s insistence that only Levites may be priests” is incorrect because it was the writer or writers of 2 Samuel 8:18 and the whole Deuteronomistic history who insisted that all priests must be Levitical Priests.Please recall that I offered that statement as one of three alternatives, the third being that the authors were simply good historians reporting activities of which they basically didn’t approve (if they were guided by the Deuteronomistic outlook, as does seem almost unassailably likely).Also, I was trying to be sensitive to the possibility that the Deuteronomistic Historian(s) inherited 2 Sam 8:18 from an earlier source, whose authors might genuinely not have known anything about the Deuteronomistic reforms due to living earlier.

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