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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Canon

I was fascinated by a recent article in The New Yorker magazine regarding archeological evidence of the kingdom of David. The article suggests that a scholarly debate has raised new questions about how the Bible should be regarded and whether it is a valid source of historic truth. Although of far less consequence, it reminded me of a similar debate regarding King Arthur, a subject that I had studied many years ago. These may not seem quite parallel at first but bear with me.


Most scholars attribute the Arthurian stories to Celtic and early Pictish folk tales dating from the 9th and 10th centuries with an overlay of Christian and 14th century chivalric motifs. In brief, my contribution to the debate was premised on an intermingling between Norse Skalds and Celtic Bards in the period from 600-900 AD during which the oral tradition was still dominant. In both cultures, story tellers were powerful figures, the tales they exchanged at tribal gatherings serving in part as news, history and political promotion. Their livelihood was underwritten by patron chiefs and in return they were expected to endow their lieges with legendary powers and prowess. In short the poets were king makers--and in time they became so powerful that both the Celts and the Norse periodically expelled them fearing they would usurp their patrons. By tracing the prose Eddas dating to the early 800's to the earliest Celtic texts in the 11th century I conjectured that elements of the Arthurian stories were Norse in origin later canonized by the Celts.


To my good fortune, an archeological dig uncovered an intact Norse longboat on the banks of a Dublin river providing the first evidence of a Norse presence fully 500 years before the earliest of Celtic documents passed into the written tradition. It was no great leap of imagination on my part to suggest that the stories of these two peoples influenced one another for hundreds of years and passed into the texts that form Arthurian canon.

But what of the historic Arthur, did he really exist? Most scholars today conjecture that a historic Arthur, first mentioned in a 9th century work by the monk Nennius, was more than likely a Roman trained tribal chief or war lord and not the romantic figure of The Once and Future King. Be that as it may, Arthur was a dominant presence in early British and Celtic History—and the widely held belief that he would rise again to defeat Britain’s foes remained a potent political factor well into the 15th century. Simply put, Arthur , the legend not the man, loomed so large in people's belief that those with pretension to the British crown went to elaborate ends to prove their legitimacy, through forged documents and relics.


So, what does this have to do with David, much less biblical provenance? The New Yorker article focused on a long-standing and heated exchange between archeologists regarding the case for and nature of the historic David and his kingdom. David is a foundational figure for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. While all assert he was a great King and prophet, his dynasty led directly to Jesus Christ hence his importance is not solely as the leader of a reunified Jewish kingdom but the key link in a spiritual chain to the Son of God. Problematically, some scholars now assert that archeological evidence for David’s kingdom remains scant to nonexistent raising doubts as to his historic existence and the underlying biblical canon.

One school suggests that David was a real figure, the chief of a large confederation of Jewish and non-Jewish nomadic tribes. That would explain the absence of a fixed Temple and other structures mentioned in the scriptural text, and what we would associate with the seat of a great kingdom. While some throw doubt on any case for a historic David, others suggest his kingdom was a powerful amalgamation of nomadic tribes that had a thriving economy based on copper mining and smelting, established and widespread economic trade, laws and institutions and the men and materiel to conquer and enforce their rule.

Still other archaeologists point to structures that could be construed as David’s seat of power and his temple, although dating them has proven contradictory and the styles of architecture widely differ. One bold thinker even suggests that David’s throne and his temple are in fact the Temple of the Mount, the holiest of places in modern day Jerusalem, a view that has its own implications in a region already fraught with religious and political strife.

While clearly the question of David’s existence is of far greater relevance today than the case for a historic Arthur—the debate points up the stark differences between those who take the Bible as the literal truth, and those who either dismiss the notion entirely or accept it selectively. My purpose is not to weigh in on this debate but rather to suggest that history, a putative recounting of fact, and faith that is based solely on acceptance of canon as literal truth are both built on shaky ground. But let me first acknowledge that I am wading into deep waters—well beyond my theological or scriptural knowledge, and what I am about to say is a personal observation, not epistemology.


It will come as no surprise to anyone who has made even a cursory study of the Bible that the origins of the old and new testaments as currently constituted are themselves the subject of wide debate among scholars. The first five books ascribed to Moses and known as the Pentateuch in Greek or the Torah (the laws) in Jewish tradition contain elements that some scholars ascribe in part to Sumerian and Babylonian creation myths, while the remaining books of the old testament include or exclude manuscripts according to the politics and beliefs of various rulers, translators and patrons over the course of time. Similarly, the contemporary new testament has stricken books--sometimes referred to as the gnostic gospels, that represent mystic or some would say heretical views ascribed to early and pre-Christian sects. Debate about what constitutes the Bible itself only further contributes to fractious questions about its literal versus spiritual truth.

For me, debate over David’s historic existence or the historic legitimacy of the Bible are limiting. They can be neither wholly proven nor disproven by any means at our disposal, but either way my faith does not rest on biblical text for validation. For me, scripture is a point of departure from which to explore our relationship with the universe, with humanity, and with God. We do not need scripture to tell us to love our neighbor, or to refrain from doing harm, we can discover the truth of it in our hearts. I enjoy attending church and never fail to learn something new, but the truths I find there are not through a recitation of words or liturgy but the thoughts and contemplations they inspire—the echoes of eternal truths known to us all—whether we have ever read scripture or not.

Was there a great king David—we may never know. Was Arthur real or not—it does not matter. The stories and beliefs they engendered had--and continue to have real meaning as the inspiration of our ideals and our faith. At a time when we are so greatly tested, when humanity’s future hangs in the balance yet again, we must search for truth within us, not in the ruins or tailings of the past.

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