When it comes to media peg-manship and the Bible, it certainly appears that any old pretext will do.
Yet news pegs of any kind are remarkably absent with the most recent example of the genre, in The New Yorker dated June 29. The 8,500-worder by Israeli freelance Ruth Margalit consumes 10 pages of this elite journalistic real estate.
The cute headline announces the pitch: “Built On Sand.” Subhed: “King David’s story has been told for millennia. Archeologists are still fighting over whether it’s true.”
Was David the grand though flawed monarch the Bible depicts, or merely some boondocks bandit or sheik?
The debate affects current Israeli-vs.-Palestinian settlement politics, but in archaeology the last major news peg on David occurred 15 years ago while this pretext-free article appears in most news-crazed year imaginable.
That should tell media strategists something. Margalit’s reputation as a writer and skill at story pitches presumably helped, but the magazine’s editors knew that multitudes gobble up this stuff. The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is well suited to exploring such matters.
Pegs from the past? Any claims that David never even existed were all but eradicated by the 1993 discovery of the “House of David” inscription within a century of the king’s reign. A 1996 paper by Margalit’s central personality, Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, contended that though there was a David the Bible’s account of him is mostly exaggerated fiction. (Finkelstein later co-authored a 2006 book on this for popular audiences.)
Then in 2005, Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University made a dramatic announcement about unearthing what she believes is the foundation of David’s Jerusalem palace, indicating the grand scope of the Phoenecian building project the Bible describes. Finkelstein dissents.
Margalit is a sure-footed guide through these and other disputes among top archaeologists over the decades. She does not cite any Orthodox thinkers who accept the entirety of the Bible narrative as factual. The best scholarly book from that viewpoint is the readable “On The Reliability of the Old Testament” by British Egyptologist K. A. Kitchen of the University of Liverpool, a conservative evangelical.
Kitchen argues for the plausibility of David’s story in the context of broader Mideast history, surveys the scant material evidence, and explains why that’s so. An archaeologist’s maxim tells us “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” and Jerusalem’s many rounds of destruction reinforce the importance of the point.
Mazar depicted her find in 2006 for Biblical Archaeology Review, which followed with updates and coverage of archaeologists who doubt the claim.
Religion writers should be subscribers or at least familiar with this magazine, which is written for lay readers and blessedly free of technical jargon. It’s a prime source for keeping on top of new developments and story ideas in this field.