Mention King David to most people, and you’ll only hear good things. He was the handsome boy who defeated the giant Goliath; the warrior who bested jealous King Saul, winning the hearts of the people; the man who became the pious second king of Israel; the author of the Psalms. But in The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne, Oct.)--one of PW's Best Religion Books of 2013--Joel Baden, a Yale Divinity School professor, probes the historical evidence, revealing that the Bible’s pro-Davidic overlay obscures a series of events that reveal a David who achieved and maintained power by any means necessary, sometimes in a less-than-heroic way.
Baden was heavily involved in the Jewish youth movement in high school and traveled to Israel almost every summer. “Being Jewish remains an important part of my identity,” Baden says, “and it probably doesn’t hurt that I teach at a Christian divinity school, where one is always conscious of one’s religious standing.“ His commitment to Judaism led him into biblical scholarship, and it introduced him to the rabbinic writings that approach the Bible as “an infinitely deep text, one for which there will never be a lack of questions or possible answers.”
Baden did his undergraduate work in Judaic studies at Yale, and his graduate studies in Semitic languages and Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago and Harvard—a robust background for a critical scholar. While many of his current students are not interested in critical readings per se, Baden says he aspires “to make people aware that their views of the Bible are beliefs, not objective facts; faith claims rather than historical claims.” Understanding the historical David “allows us to see what sorts of ideals we have imposed on David over the millennia, and thereby to recognize more clearly what we value as a culture.”
The two figures who loomed largest for Baden, with his Jewish background, were always Moses and David. He notes that there is “more about them in the Bible than almost everyone else combined. The problem with Moses is that, from a critical perspective, there isn’t much to be said in the realm of history.” But, he adds, “David is, to my mind, the only figure from the Hebrew Bible for whom there is a full enough story to make a narrative, and whose historical existence is accessible enough to conjecture as to what his life may have been like.”
The Historical David isn’t intended as a Jewish reading of the text; the essence of critical scholarship, Baden says, is “the giving up of any preconceived approaches to the Bible.” While he’s not trying to make any faith claims in the book, Baden expects that there might be “some backlash from those with particularly strong faith commitments to the traditional understanding of what David represents, especially as the model/ancestor of the Messiah, Jewish or Christian.”
While some are likely to see Baden’s approach to David as an attack on a keystone of faith, his respectful presentation is not about debunking faith in the virtue of David—it’s about provoking thought.