Search the Site


What Is the Tel Dan Inscription and Why Is It Significant?

Well, there’s a minority position out there that holds that virtually none of the Hebrew Bible has any valid historical information in it and that it was all composed at a later period to justify the existence of the beginnings of Jewish existence in Palestine.  That’s a minority position, but it’s been very vocal.  And one of the things that it does, as I said, is just to say that there’s no history in the so-called historical books of the Hebrew Bible. 

Most scholars reject that out of hand at the get-go, and they say even though the Bible is not a history book, it certainly has been using historical sources.  It has been using court records.  It has been using family traditions, recollections, and from that creating this very dynamic narrative that’s got some elaborations, folk tales, but also has some valid historical information.

The discovery of this one particular artifact called the Tel Dan Inscription, because it comes from a site in Northern Israel called Tel Dan, has I think made inroads into the so-called minimalist position, which would negate any historicity for any parts of those so-called historical books.  It’s a fragment or rather three fragments of an inscription written on stone in Aramaic, and it dates probably from the 9th century BCE.  And it talks about how the Aramaic king, probably Hazael—doesn’t mention him by name—but how he conquered many of the cities in Palestine.

By this time, there’s a northern and southern kingdom.  The united monarchy of Saul, David, and Solomon has split and there’s the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah.  And this was apparently a victory stele, which is set up in the city of Dan, which is one of the cities this Aramean or Syrian general conquered.  And he says that he conquered Jotham and Azariah.  These are the two kings, about which the Bible writes.  So that in and of itself indicates that the stories of those two kings are not totally fictitious. There were two kings by that name.

And in mentioning Azariah, it says that he’s from the House of David, that he’s a David-ide.  That’s his lineage.  Even though it’s a couple of hundred years after David would have ruled, there’s the understanding that the dynasty of which he was part goes back that far.  And it’s the first extra-biblical mention of David in ancient near eastern literature.  And it seems to call into question—it seems to; from my viewpoint it certainly does—call into question the notion that David is a completely fictional character. He may be legendary.  He may be kind of the King Arthur of ancient Israel where all kinds of fantastic tales and narratives grew up about him just because he was so charismatic.  But there’s an element of a real person underlying the biblical stories about David, and the Tel Dan Inscription does a lot towards authenticating that.

  • meyers-carol

    Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Emerita Professor of Religion at Duke University. An archaeologist as well as a biblical scholar with a special interest in gender in the biblical world, she has served as a consultant for many media productions dealing with the Bible. Her hundreds of publications include: commentaries on Exodus and on several biblical prophets; an edited reference work, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000); and Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2013).