The House of David and the Chinese Zhou Dynasty: A Comparative Study

According to the Old Testament a collective made up of twelve tribes, known as the Israelites, colonized an area of the Levant known as Canaan, eventually establishing a monarchy ruled by kings such as David and Solomon in the 10th century BCE. The territory ruled by these monarchs is said to have comprised a vast area, which at its northernmost point reached the Euphrates river in modern-day Iraq and the borders of Egypt in the south (1 Kings 4:21). In its prime, the capital city of this state featured a gold-decked temple built by Solomon, a king who is said to have been recognized by leaders throughout the world (1 Kings 10:24). Mismanagement and a descent into ungodliness signaled the end of this golden age, and the kingdom subsequently split into the two smaller kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

While one must be wary of overstatement, it is possible to draw similarities between the story of the Israelites and the lives of another ancient tribe that lived some 8000 kilometers away—the Zhou tribe of China. In a way reminiscent of that in which the Israelites established themselves in Canaan, the Zhou tribe overthrew the incumbent ruling class—the Shang Dynasty—and established a line of kings called the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled for centuries over a large territory in what is now Western China.

The similarities do not stop there. The Zhou kings governed with what they claimed was the “Mandate of Heaven.” According to this idea, monarchs ruled with the approval of the gods, such that if a king ruled unfairly he was believed to have lost this approval, ultimately resulting in his downfall. Similarly, overthrow, natural disasters and famine were seen as a sign that the ruler had lost his mandate. There is a parallel to be drawn here when one considers the stories of the Israelites as told in the Old Testament’s historical books. Not only did kings rule with divine favor, but when they were loyal to their god Yahweh, they were rewarded with periods of prosperity (1 Kings 4:20-28). Conversely, when kings encouraged their populace to indulge in the worship of other gods, then Yahweh would see that their king was deposed, usually by means of an invasion by a neighboring tribe such as the Assyrians or the Babylonians (1 Kings 11:9-11 and 1 Chronicles 5:23-26).

A third similarity concerns their dating. There is still some disagreement with regards to the chronology of the early Chinese dynasties. Nevertheless, regardless of which theory of dating is used, scholars agree that the Zhou Dynasty started to rule at the same time as David and Solomon, with most putting the early reign of the Zhou kings in the 11th and 10th centuries BCE—exactly at the time when the Israelites are said to have established their monarchy.

A final similarity is that in the post-Enlightenment era, people began to doubt the historicity of both realms. Many scholars, particularly those in the West, began to consider the stories of the ancient dynasties of China to be mythical, particularly given that the earliest sources to which people had recourse dated from several centuries later, such as the books of history written by the philosopher Confucius. Doubts were less commonplace about the early Israelite kings. Not only would one be made a pariah in Christendom if one were to suggest any form of errancy in the pages of the Bible, there was also the very real possibility that one may be hounded by Church authorities or prosecuted by the state for blasphemy.

The improvements in archeological techniques gave people the opportunity to verify, or otherwise, these established traditions. Prior to the 18th century, digging to find traces of former empires had typically been undertaken by treasure hunters more concerned with the pecuniary rather than the educational value of their finds. But in the post-Enlightenment period, both the methods and motivation of those unearthing the past improved following the examples set by archeologists such as Flanders Petrie and Augustus Pitt Rivers. Additionally, our knowledge and skills of analysis concerning ancient texts improved and, more recently, the insights offered by scientific procedures such as radiocarbon dating mean that we can now understand with a reasonable level of certainty what happened in the past and when. So, what evidence is there now for the Zhou and Israelite tribes and the monarchies that they subsequently established?

For the Israelites, their first mention in a source outside of the Bible comes in the form of the ‘Merneptah Stele’[1], a granite tablet named after the Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled Egypt from 1213 BCE to 1203 BCE. The stele celebrates a number of Merneptah’s military victories, one of which was over the Israelites. However, there is no mention of the Israelites in another extrabiblical resource for another 300 years. This comes as a reference on a similar tablet, the ‘Mesha Stele,’ from the nearby Moabite kingdom. Here, the victories by the Moabite king Mesha over the kingdom of Israel are mentioned and its god Yahweh is namechecked. No references to Israel or the Israelites have yet come to light from the intervening three-and-a-half centuries in a document or inscription from a neighboring polity.

Similarly, internal evidence for such a great kingdom is scant. There are no inscriptions supporting the existence of the early kings, no state documents describing matters at court or any source concerning the bureaucracy that would have been necessary to administer such a realm. According to apologists, Solomon’s great temple and palace complex are either buried underneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where political sensitivities preclude excavation, or were destroyed by subsequent invaders. However, no other building, however insignificant, has been found in Jerusalem dating back to the 10th century BCE. Archeologists have not even found a piece of broken pottery in Jerusalem that can be dated back to this time, and if there is anything that ancient cultures did a lot it was to leave behind the remnants of pots, plates and jugs that had been dropped. Periodically, a claim will be made that remains of David and Solomon’s empire have been found, but all can be attributed to confirmation bias. None of the claims ever comes from a disinterested analysis of the findings. The dearth of evidence has led Finkelstein and Silberman to conclude that Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE was little more than a “small hilltop village.”[2]

Here is the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord’s temple, his own palace, the terraces, the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. (1 Kings 9:15)

One such case of confirmation bias comes from attempts to unearth evidence of the early Israelite monarchs outside of its capital city Jerusalem, in three cities known to have been inhabited by their people. In 1958, a team led by archeologist Yigael Yadin found a city gate at Megiddo, behind which were six rooms or “chambers.” He had already found a similar gate connected to six chambers at Hazor, and through reinterpretation of the records of an earlier excavation in Gezer, also deemed that a gate found there was of the type found at Megiddo and Hazor. Yasin excitedly suggested that the findings confirmed building work in these cities ordered by no other than King Solomon himself, as referenced in the above Bible verse.

However, Yadin’s discoveries must be seen in context. Initially serving as the head of Israel’s military under its first prime minister David Ben Gurion and eventually as its Deputy Prime Minister, he worked at a time when the newborn state of Israel’s hierarchy were desperate to find confirmation of its biblical origins. His interpretation of the data is almost a textbook case of confirmation bias. Based on pottery found in the area, the gates at these cities dated to at least a century later, and were more likely to have been built during the reign of the later King Jeroboam II in the 8th century BCE. The gates and surrounding architecture also copied a style of building known as the ‘bet-hilani’, which originated in nearby Syria in the 9th century BCE. How could the Israelites in Solomon’s time have copied a style that did not yet exist—unless one makes the absurd claim that they were able to look into the future, perhaps with divine assistance, for their architectural inspiration?[3]

Such was the influence of theology on our interpretation of findings at Israelite sites that it was only from the latter parts of the twentieth century that fully secular histories of the area began to appear. In 2006, a book written by James Maxwell Miller and John Haralson Hayes attempted to chart the origins and history of the states of Israel and Judah without recourse to biblical evidence. It concluded soberly that “if one is not convinced in advance by the biblical profile, then there is nothing in the archeological evidence itself to suggest that much of consequence was going on in Palestine during the tenth century BCE, and certainly nothing to suggest that Jerusalem was a great political and cultural center.”[4]

Until the late 1800s, there was also no firm evidence for the Zhou tribe or their kings appearing in the archeological record either. However, following the expansion of archeology in the Far East, archeologists began to find a great number of curious items of interest at various sites in China from the end of the 19th century onwards. They appeared to be made out of material such as the shoulder blades of oxen or the undersides of turtles (what biologists call their ‘plastron’). The vast majority contained etchings which were initially misunderstood by those unearthing them. Eventually, Wang Yirong, the Chinese politician and scholar, recognized that what was written thereon was ancient writing—early versions of the ‘Hanzi’ characters used today. Given the name “oracle bones,” they were used extensively by the Shang Dynasty that was eventually overthrown by the Zhou tribe.[5]

The Shang people would write questions to the gods on the bones. They were then burnt, and the way in which they cracked provided the user with the gods’ answers. They were a somewhat desperate way of attempting to tell the future typical of many ancient civilizations, such as the method of examining the entrails of sacrificed animals used by the Romans. Such bones continue to be found in great numbers even now. As recently as 2008, for example, no fewer than 6,000 were discovered during excavations at a temple in northeastern China. Often, the etchings on the bones ask for reassurance regarding trivial issues, such as the volume of rain on the following day. However, the name of the Zhou tribes and their leaders appear often in the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang kingdom. They are mentioned sometimes as a friendly tributary neighbor and at other times as a hostile competitor. The bones provide us with an important and extensive primary source for the existence of the Zhou tribe in the 11th and 10th centuries BCE.

Following their overthrow of the Shang Dynasty, King Wen and King Wu built the Zhou capital cities of Fengyi and Gaojing in the 11th century BCE. The two cities covered a total area of 15 square kilometers and faced each other across the Fenghe River in modern-day Changan County in the Shaanxi Province of Western China. Collectively known as Fenghao, the cities can be seen as the Zhou “Jerusalem.” Dating back to the 11th century BCE, the site and its surroundings continue to be excavated by archeologists following its designation as an “important national cultural heritage site” by the Chinese government in 1961. More than 400 tombs, most containing large quantities of relics, have been excavated at the site. Even pits where disused chariots were placed when they had fallen into disrepair have been found.[6]

The Zhou Dynasty comes at the time of China’s Bronze Age, when bronze was used to make a wide range of items, such as weapons, chariot parts and storage vessels for wine. As expected, many thousands of bronze artefacts have been found at sites connected with the Zhou tribe. One such use for the metal was the creation of “ritual bronzes.” These were used to store items required in the afterlife by Zhou kings and nobility and with which they were buried; one grave contained no fewer than 200 of them. They are of particular interest to the historian as, in addition to mentioning the names of Zhou kings, they are often inscribed with much detail on subjects as diverse as the military history of the period, the bureaucratic structure of the royal court and even lawsuits among the gentry. A large collection of these items is held in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.[7]

In many ways the difference between the evidence for the Zhou kings and those of the early Israelite monarchs is stark. While some apologists hold that traces of David and Solomon’s empire would not be found over three thousand years later, the case of the Zhou Dynasty gives an insight into what remnants can reasonably be expected from a kingdom of the age and the type described in the Old Testament. So why is there a silence of some 350 years from the first mention of Israel on the Merneptah Stele to the Mesha Stele, whilst the Zhou tribe were busy creating a major civilization in the Far East?

“Israel is laid waste and his seed is not”

 (text of the Merneptah Stele)

A tantalizing clue can be found on the Merneptah Stele in the form of the above quote; the Egyptians believed that they had destroyed the Israelites completely—or they are overexaggerating what was a considerable reduction in their numbers. It could be that there is no mention of them following Merneptah’s cull because there were too few of them to be building the Temples and palaces mentioned in the Old Testament. Indeed, many population models say that human population growth does not become exponential until somewhere after the tenth generation.[8] This would explain the Israelites’ lack of attestation in extrabiblical sources for a few centuries; they had not yet regrown in numbers sufficient to be noticed by neighboring tribes.

In 1993, part of a stele containing a Canaanite inscription was discovered by Gila Cook in what was the Israelite city of Dan. Among its words is a reference to the “House of David.” (There is also the argument that the Mesha Stele contains this phrase.) The suggestion was made that the stele contained evidence for a line of kings descended from David. While some considered that the stele proved the existence of a major monarchy in the Levant at the time, it may be that the David of the Old Testament has been mythologized just like the Jesus of the New Testament was by the authors of the Gospels. In the same way that Jesus may not have walked on water or have come back from the dead, David was perhaps not in charge of a massive kingdom, but of a small group of Israelites that evaded the cull described on the Merneptah Stele. If David was anything more than this, we would still expect to be unearthing evidence of his reign today, in the same way that Chinese archeologists are still regularly finding artefacts to confirm the early kings of the Zhou Dynasty.

Notes

[1] For more information about the Merneptah Stele, see: “Merneptah Stele” (July 2019). Joy of Museums Virtual Tours website. <https://joyofmuseums.com/museums/africa-museums/egypt-museums/cairo-museums/egyptian-museum/merneptah-stele/>.

[2] Israel Finklestein & Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002).

[3] Details about the Syrian ‘bit-hilani’ can be found on Wikipedia.

[4] James Maxwell Miller & John Haralson Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (London, UK: SCM Press, 2006).

[5] For more about oracle bones, see: Emily Mark, World History Encyclopedia, February 26, 2016, s.v. “Oracle Bones.”

[6] For more information about the archeology of Fenghao, the capital of the Zhou dynasty, see: “Fenghao Site” (February 15, 2008). Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People’s Republic of China. <http://en.chinaculture.org/library/2008-02/15/content_36824.htm>.

[7] For details on the Met Museum’s collection of Zhou bronze artefacts, see: Department of Asian Art, “Shang and Zhou Dynasties: The Bronze Age of China” (October 2004). In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-present. The Met Museum website. <https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shzh/hd_shzh.htm>.

[8] For more details about population growth models, see: Larry MacPhee, “Population Growth.” Online DIY Bio Labs, Simulations, and Resource Links, Northern Arizona University e-Learning Center. <https://www2.nau.edu/lrm22/lessons/population_growth/population_growth.html>.


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