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New technology connects ancient stele with King David—but not everyone agrees

Researchers claim cutting-edge digital imaging has ended a decades-old debate within the archaeological community, but many remain unconvinced.

Detail of the Mesha Stele. The ancient basalt monument, also known as the "Moabite Stone," bears a Canaanite inscription documenting the victories of King Mesha of Moab. The stele is currently on display in the Louvre, Paris. Credit: Mbzt via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of the Mesha Stele. The ancient basalt monument, also known as the "Moabite Stone," bears a Canaanite inscription documenting the victories of King Mesha of Moab. The stele is currently on display in the Louvre, Paris. Credit: Mbzt via Wikimedia Commons.

Using state-of-the-art digital imaging techniques, researchers have concluded that the “Mesha Stele,” which dates to the ninth century BCE and bears a Canaanite inscription in the name of King Mesha of Moab, does indeed contain a reference to the biblical King David.

The finding is the latest development in a decades-old debate within the archaeological community on whether the basalt stone slab, also known as the “Moabite Stone,” mentions the biblical monarch.

Discovered in 1868 in the Jordanian town of Dhiban (known as Dibon in biblical times) east of the Dead Sea, the stele is inscribed with an account of King Mesha’s military victories over his enemies, including Israel, as mentioned in the bible in the Second Book of Kings. However, shortly after it was found, the roughly 2,800-year-old stone slab was broken into several pieces, with the damage making it difficult to decipher the ancient text, even though a paper-mache impression, or squeeze, had been made of the inscription.

The stele, which was eventually restored, is displayed in the Louvre in Paris. It measures about 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide, and contains 34 lines of text, with the possible “House of David” reference appearing on the 31st line. The debate centers around five letters corresponding to “bt,” or “house of,” and “dwd” meaning David. While two of the letters were clearly visible in the past, three others were not.

To try to solve the mystery, the researchers, Andre Lemaire and Jean-Philippe Delorme, used a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), in which numerous digital images are taken of an artifact from various angles and then combined. The results, the researchers claim, confirm that the reference is indeed to the “House of David.”

“These insights… not only confirm that the Mesha Stele references the ‘House of David’ but also allow us to draw new conclusions about the various historical and biblical events described in the text, Lemaire and Delorme write in the Biblical Archaeological Review.

The finding has, not surprisingly, split the archaeological community and antiquities scholars, with some supporting the reading, others contesting it and some still uncertain.

“Because of the broken nature of that part of the stele we have to be careful with the reading,” said Dr. Joe Uziel, head of the Dead Sea Scroll Unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. “It’s possible but I’m not certain,” he added.

An earlier study, published by Tel Aviv University with the College de France, had found that the word which Lamaire and Delorme interpret as “House of David” refers instead to King Balak, a Moabite ruler known from the Book of Numbers.

Professor Israel Finkelstein, who co-authored that 2019 study, is standing by his previous conclusions.

“I really can’t detect what the authors of the BAR article see in Line 31 of the Mesha Inscription,” he said.

Even as the scholarly dispute continues, Uziel said that new technologies, which he himself is using on the Dead Sea Scrolls, are helping scholars decipher ancient texts in ways that were impossible before.

“All of a sudden we can see more,” he said.

As imaging and technology continue to improve, Uziel is hopeful that both this and other ancient texts will come to life.

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