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In this question: Are any notable biblical characters historical figures? the answer touches the Davidic dynasty and not king David himself. I was wondering whether or not there was a real "king David" to whom can be attributed all of the following accomplishments, as they are all attributed to him by the bible (old testament):

  • Being one of the first kings of the Israelite people.
  • Conquering and settling Jerusalem (called Jebus before the conquest).
  • Conquering relatively vast territories and bringing the borders of the kingdom of Israel (not modern day Israel) to their biggest extent ever.
  • Actually being called David (or something resembling that name)
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jamiec Sep 20 '17 at 11:13
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There does not seem to be an abundance of evidence, although it is the opinion of scholars that King David likely existed.

The evidence we do have:

The Tel Dan Stele

The Tel Dan Stele is written in Aramaic script without vowels which makes translation difficult, allowing for multiple interpretations. Scholars seem to agree that the first part of a phrase refers to house, but disagree if the second part of the phrase is "beloved", "uncle", or "house".

The consensus seems to be that the stele refers to a "House of David":

The inscription, which dates to the ninth century bce, that is to say, about a century after David was thought to have ruled Israel, includes the words Beit David ("House" or "Dynasty" of David"). It is the first near-contemporaneous reference to David ever found. It is not conclusive; but it does strongly indicate that a king called David established a dynasty in Israel during the relevant period. - Source

The Mesha Stele

The Mesha Stele is also thought to contain the Name David in two places, which scholars consider a very reasonable translation, however it is not certain. This paper is a series of updates and corrections to an earlier paper, however it still explains the problem in establishing the text on the stele.

I will update with the original paper when I find it.

The City of David

The City of David is a subject of much scholarly debate, of which the Wiki page has a good summary of. There is evidence of pots and sculptures that have been dates to a time that corresponds to what scholars agree would have been King Davids reign.

The evidence we have so far shows only that:

  • There may have been a "House of David"
  • There was a functioning city and government that corresponds with the time and place King David is thought to have ruled

We don't yet have enough evidence to say for sure that King David existed, or that the claims made about him are true.

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    @SigmaX, the Bible also gives the losers history, when Israel loses :) – Benjol May 15 '12 at 12:00
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    I was talking about the Davidic dynasty in particular. And the point was that a "losers history" account of the Davidic dynasty would be an important source of information about the Davidic dynasty -- just like the "loser's history" of the Babylonian invasion is good evidence that it was actually as significant as, say, the Babylonian might claim. – SigmaX May 16 '12 at 17:45
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    I'm slightly puzzled that the biblical account doesn't count as evidence. It is a lot less of a hero-worshiping history than many ancient sources (most biblical figures are presented as extremely flawed people so it doesn't exactly look like a whitewashing victor's history). Of course the bible is not history but a story with a purpose. But it seems unlikely that the purpose was to glorify minor figures or to simply make stuff up. It should deserve equal weight with other ancient sources. – matt_black Jun 9 '16 at 23:08
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    @SigmaX David is criticised in the bible for his later decisions, which include wife stealing (not just adultery) and premeditated murder. It also includes quelling a rebellion led by his own son, whose execution he publicly mourns immediately afterward. Sorry, but your characterization that David is only praised in the bible is wrong. And the bible is Saul's account as much as it is David's. Saul was highly praised at first as well. – fredsbend Sep 16 '17 at 15:58
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    @Sigma I realize it's an old post and you may no longer have interest in it, but a hallmark of SE is timeless questions and answers. – fredsbend Sep 17 '17 at 17:36
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Some scholars will tell you that the evidence for a David, even a dynasty founding king David, might be there. Sonny Ordell's answer lists the sparse and weak evidence we have for that.

But the way you phrased the question poses an additional difficulty: the listed qualities attributed to that King David cannot be all true.

The archaeological evidence for the vast territories conquered in the time to be considered are just not there, the exact situation and circumstances for the establishment of the dynasty, its predecessors or the changing status of Jerusalem are all unclear outside of the biblical references themselves. Sometimes current research findings directly contradict the claims made about that time in the bible. In such a case the conflicting evidences have to be weighed against each other for plausibility.


update:

There are different fields of scientific enquiry dealing with the subject matter: archaeology, history and theology. These fields have requirements for evidence that differ only in their details. From a historian's point of view finding one piece of evidence is very interesting but an undesirable status. Finding two pieces of evidence is more desirable. Sometimes you only have one have to make do. But if you have at least two pieces and the two pieces are in essential agreement and independent from another then a very important step in the direction of reliable evidence has been made. If some theologians are content with the single evidence they get from the bible that is another matter.

One example is the unsettled debate over the existence of the historical Jesus. If you are looking for two independent sources for his existence you cannot use the gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Lukas for that. Those are dependent from one another (although the exact relationship is still a hot matter of dispute). Finding a letter of Pilate detailing the circumstances of a very unusual execution of a jewish troublemaker and an Alexandrian account of a very unusual passover around 30 CE reported to them from their Jerusalem brethren in faith at roughly the same time and you have the perfect sensation.

So, it may be less surprising now, but: the bible is evidence. The bible does not get special treatment because it is the bible. But this is true either way. The bible is not discounted as evidence; but every piece of evidence is required to be treated the same. It is literary history in some of its parts (we would all agree that the psalms are not?) with varying degrees of reliabiliy. One big problem is that the actual texts are written with a huge historical distance from the times depicted in them in the case of Davidic kingship and everything before.

While some argue that a few of the earliest texts in the Old Testament are probably written in the 8th century BCE some even argue that the core texts of the Old Testament weren't written before the exile and remained in flux, slowly solidifying into the received text until the 2nd century CE. That means eyewitness accounts or those accounts of contemporaries are not extant for the time in question. As time progresses historical depictions get more and more distorted. Case in point: The hittites mentioned in the bible (one of the sins attributed to David was that he sent Uriah the Hittite to his certain death for want of his beautiful wife (2Sam), Solomon extracted tribute 2Chron)… were indeed regarded as literary invention.

Then the ruins of Hattusa were found and in there the vast archives of a once big empire. Triumph for biblical archaeology! "Atheist science doubted their existence as Bible hokum. Yet: The Hittites really did exist!" That is in a sense very true. But it is a double edged sword for biblical literalists and fundamentalists: The biblical Hittites are not the Hittites.

The Hittites as depicted in the bible are indeed a military mighty enemy. Unfortunately this gets into conflict with the universally established timeline: The vast Hittite empire centered in Anatolia wholly disintegrated in the great bronze age collapse. What remained or re-emerged in its place and certainly so in the close neighbourhood to the Israelites were the so called Neo-Hittite (City-)States. Carrying forth the culture and traditions for some time. Much smaller in scale and far removed from the once powerful empire of kings like Hattusili and Suppiluliumas. Conflicts between those two entities – Israelite Davidic empire and Hittite empire – on that scale are off by a few centuries. On the other hand: conflict between a small Davidic fiefdom (very well may have been on the rise then) and a few local Neo-Hittite small powers are a very plausible match – yet again: not on the scale as depicted in the bible.

Since the different fields of archaeology, history and theology are differing in their details when researching the same place and time, it is consequently difficult to present an over-arching consensus. Most researchers of archaeology and history seem to converge on the view depicted below although there is no complete consensus: mainly that the account given of the entire united monarchy is less than a historical narrative depicting actual events accurately but more like a mythological construct from much later times using the methods of history writing to lay out a plan for the great future to come. Within the field of theology there is even more dissent since some participants in that discussion insist that it is simply all true or that the evidence from the Bible has greater credibility than anything else.

What follows are the counterpoints to the view that the King David existed exactly as depicted in the bible or in the consequence, that such a king even existed at all:


In "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Isreal and the Origin of Sacred Texts" Finkelstein lists clearly, why "Appendix D: Why the Traditional Archaeology of the Davidic and Solomonic Period Is Wrong"

The most important archaeological evidence used to link destruction levels with the Davidic conquests was the decorated Philistine pottery, which was dated by scholars from the beginning of the twelfth century BCE until about 1000 BCE. The first strata that did not contain this distinctive style were dated to the tenth century, that is, to the time of the united monarchy. But this dating was based entirely on biblical chronology and was thus a circular argument because the lower date for the levels with this pottery was fixed according to the presumed era of the Davidic conquests around 1000 BCE. In fact, there was no clear evidence for the precise date of the transition from the Philistine style to later types.

Moreover, recent studies have revolutionized the dating of Philistine pottery. In recent decades, many major sites have been excavated in the southern coastal plain of Israel, the area of strong Egyptian presence in the twelfth century BCE, and the region where the Philistines settled. These sites included three of the cities mentioned in the Bible as the hub of Philistine life – Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron (Tel Miqne) as well as several sites that served as Egyptian forts. The latter disclosed information about the Egypto-Canaanite material culture in the last decades of Egyptian hegemony in Canaan.

(emphasis added)

His conclusion is that the Omride dynasty might have closer ties to the biblical record, while the information in there about the King David is extremely unreliable, if not fictional at all.

An even more extreme view currently hold is:

There is no evidence of a United Monarchy, no evidence of a capital in Jerusalem or of any coherent, unified political force that dominated western Palestine, let alone an empire of the size the legends describe. We do not have evidence for the existence of kings named Saul, David or Solomon; nor do we have evidence for any temple at Jerusalem in this early period. What we do know of Israel and Judah of the tenth century does not allow us to interpret this lack of evidence as a gap in our knowledge and information about the past, a result merely of the accidental nature of archeology. There is neither room nor context, no artifact or archive that points to such historical realities in Palestine's tenth century. One cannot speak historically of a state without a population. Nor can one speak of a capital without a town. Stories are not enough.

The linguistic and literary reality of the biblical tradition is folkloristic in essence. The concept of a benei Israel … is a reflection of no sociopolitical entity of the historical state of Israel of the Assyrian period… (Thompson, Thomas L. (1992). Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written and Archeological Sources)

From a historian's viewpoint it seems necessary to add that still not all information in the bible is:

  • that the Bible cannot be considered reliable evidence for what had happened in ancient Israel; and
  • second, that "Israel" itself is a problematic subject for historical study

The authors and editors of Samuel and Chronicles did not aim to record history, but to promote David's reign as inevitable and desirable, and for this reason there is little about David that is concrete and undisputed.

Summing up the relatively current views of theology oriented scholars and historians, between "no historical David at all" and almost maximal "full historical account":

“All in all, skeptical views of David have not substantially changed the way the history of the early period of Israel's kingship is written. Perhaps, in the future, David will disappear from histories in the same way the patriarchs, the matriarchs, and the exodus have done. Presumably, then, an archaeological or sociological reconstruction of conditions in eleventh- and tenth-century Palestine that depicts life in the area before urbanization and before undisputed evidence of a monarchy will replace him, or perhaps the beginnings of Israel's "real" history will again be pushed later in time, and the time of David will be seen as another mythical origin story. For now, however, David is overwhelmingly seen as a plausible and understandable character who was an important link between Israel's tribal period and the full-fledged kingdoms of Israel and Judah.” […] “Archaeology has not provided us with significant written remains from the early tenth century, but scholars still speculate that a tenth-century king could have employed scribes that kept records used in the day-to-day administration of commerce, military affairs, and other concerns of the court. Thus, common portraits of David today are usually cautious, neither fully minimal, in which David surely had no large empire or bureaucracy (or cannot be said to have had one), nor fully maximal, in which he conquered an impressive amount of territory and ruled a unified kingdom from Jerusalem. They are, however, most often very biblical." Excerpt From: Megan Bishop Moore;Brad E. Kelle. “Biblical History and Israels Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History.” 2011, pp. 232–233, 289/90 (e)

That leaves the concrete questions of the OP at:

  • Being one of the first kings of the Israelite people? -- Somewhat yes: the range being from maybe there actually was an important local chieftain to local king.

  • Conquering and settling Jerusalem (called Jebus before the conquest)? -- Unclear and unlikely but not entirely impossible.

  • Conquering relatively vast territories and bringing the borders of the kingdom of Israel to their biggest extent ever? -- Almost certainly not.

  • Actually being called David (or something resembling that name) -- Considering the first three questions: somewhat yes, but insignificant in its consequences.

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    a) There were no objective histories in biblical times so every other text or piece of evidence is also political or religious. Why would we discount the biblical narratives compared to others? b) not every biblical reference hasn't been proved with evidence. Once upon a time people doubted that the Hittites were real (they are mentioned in the bible). c) what is the consensus view of historians not just the views of those with serious doubts about the reliability? – matt_black Sep 18 '17 at 22:25

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