King David’s Tomb: A Different Perspective

“Those who trust in the Lord shall be like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever” (Psalms 125:1).

Dr. Ari Zivotofsky’s well-presented article “What’s the Truth about … King David’s Tomb?” addresses the question of the true location of King David’s Tomb from a Biblical as well as an archaeological perspective. In the article, Dr. Zivotofsky emphatically states that “the area known today as Mount Zion was not part of inhabited Jerusalem in King David’s time, and it is highly improbable that he was buried there.” The Bible tells us that “…the City of David is Zion” (1 Kings 8:1) and that “David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David” (1 Kings 2:10). If, as Dr. Zivotofsky claims, the present-day Mount Zion was uninhabited during the time of King David, then it is not only highly improbable, but quite clearly impossible that King David was buried there.

But what evidence is there that present-day Mount Zion was not inhabited during the reign of King David? The answer is that since no evidence of occupation during the era of King David has been discovered there, that proves it was not occupied at that time. In other words, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence! This is a very dangerous stance to take with regard to the archaeology of Jerusalem. Many archaeologists and historians claim that in the general Jerusalem area there is a dearth of artifacts and remains of buildings from the eras of Kings David and Solomon, which gives them reason to doubt there ever was such a capital city. Some take an extreme position, carrying this line of reasoning one step further: “I am not the only scholar who suspects that the figure of King David is about as historical as King Arthur,” asserts Philip R. Davies, professor of Biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, England.1 Those of us who follow the unfolding story of Jerusalem archaeology realize that Davies is hardly a lone voice. In the world of academia, his opinion is close to, if not representative of, the majority view. And on what basis are the views that there was no Davidic capital of Jerusalem and that Kings David and Solomon did not exist predicated? The absence of evidence is evidence of absence. As I already stated, this is a dangerous position to take.

A tel is a mound that consists of a layer of ruins built upon other layers of ruins. Jerusalem is not a tel in the traditional sense of the word; it’s a city of hills with bedrock a few feet below the surface. In some places bedrock even protrudes above the land surface. This is because when an inhabited area was destroyed, the conquerors would remove the debris all the way down to the bedrock and build anew. (Recently the esteemed British scholar and archaeologist Kenneth A. Kitchen quipped about Jerusalem, “We are lucky to have anything really old at all!”)2

Archaeology is the art of interpreting physical finds based on ever-evolving scientific principles. The interpretation of the archaeologist is subject to his or her prejudices, therefore scholars who doubt the veracity of the Bible will interpret the finds in a certain way. Those who believe in the accuracy of Biblical history will interpret them quite differently. Leaving the inaccuracy of archaeological “evidence” aside, I would like to address the issue of the location of King David’s Tomb from a Biblical and a historical perspective.

Ancient Jerusalem consisted primarily of two large hills, the Eastern Hill and the Western Hill. The northern part of the Eastern Hill is occupied by the Temple Mount and the long, southern slope stretching downward is an area referred to as the archaeological City of David.

The Western Hill consists of the Armenian and Jewish quarters of the Old City as well as the area adjacent to the south of the Armenian Quarter, commonly called Mount Zion. Historically, the City of David, Mount Zion and King David’s Tomb were all located on the Western Hill. During the course of the twentieth century, archaeologists “moved” the City of David and Mount Zion over to the southern slope of the Eastern Hill. (Despite the move, people still commonly refer to the Western Hill as Mount Zion.) The question is: Is King David’s Tomb located on the Western Hill, where tradition has always placed it, or is it located on the Eastern Hill as the archaeologists claim?

The Bible tells us that King Chezekiah repaired gaps in the city wall adjacent to the City of David. The newly constructed wall was moved a bit closer to the center of town, slicing through several homes. The stones removed from the demolished homes were used to build the new wall. The prophet Isaiah stated as much, “You [Chezekiah] have seen also the breaches of the city of David, that they are many … and the houses that you have broken down to fortify the wall” (Isaiah 22:9-11). A section of Chezekiah’s wall was found by Professor Nahman Avigad shortly after the Six Day War of 1967. The dating of the wall can be determined by an analysis of the method with which the wall was constructed and by the pottery shards that were found inside the wall. And, indeed, the wall passes right through some ancient homes. Avigad’s discovery has been dubbed the Broad Wall, named after a wall mentioned in the book of Nechemiah. The wall is located in the Jewish Quarter on the Western Hill. According to Isaiah, Chezekiah’s wall was part of the wall of the City of David. Therefore, it follows that the City of David must have been on the Western Hill and not the Eastern Hill as archaeologists claim.

Some people erroneously believe that ill-informed Christian pilgrims during the Middle Ages mistakenly named the Western Hill Mount Zion and the City of David. Not so. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, the Western Hill was the site of the City of David (Wars of the Jews, Book V, chap. 4). Josephus, a resident of Jerusalem and a Kohen who served in the Second Temple, was intimately familiar with the geography of Jerusalem and its environs. His writings are the primary source for the history of the late Second Temple period and have served as an invaluable tool in the field of archaeology. Josephus’ knowledge of the City of David was also based on a tradition that can be traced all the way back to the Davidic Dynasty. If he claims that the Western Hill is the site of the City of David, I am inclined to agree with him rather than take the word of a few modern-day revisionist historians.

Could it have been that the location of King David’s Tomb was forgotten during the years of the Babylonian exile? No. Nechemiah mentions that during the Post-Exilic period, the walls of the city were repaired “to a place opposite the sepulcher of David” (Nechemiah 3:16). Josephus refers to the sepulcher of David several times. Similarly, in writing about the early years of the Bar Kochba rebellion, the Roman historian Dio Cassius (ca., 200 CE) mentions King David’s Tomb (Roman History 69:14). Throughout the generations, Jews and non-Jews have referred to Mount Zion and to King David’s Tomb. Despite the tradition dating from Josephus’s time until 1914 placing King David’s Tomb, the City of David and Mount Zion on the Western Hill, archeologists claimed that all of these sites were really on the Eastern Hill. Were one to subscribe to the predominate archaeological view, one would have to believe the highly unlikely scenario that one morning every Jerusalemite awoke and could no longer remember where Mount Zion was located. The residents of Jerusalem then took a wild guess and assumed that it must have been on the Western Hill. Fortunately, in 1913, French archaeologist Raymond Weill came along and informed everyone they had guessed wrong and it was really on the Eastern Hill. Archaeologists may subscribe to Weill’s theory, but I don’t buy it.

One way archaeologists determine the extent of an ancient inhabited area is by studying the contour of the surrounding burial grounds. Since burials were rarely conducted within the city limits, the assumption is that the city extended to the area of the cemeteries. Numerous First Temple period gravesites have been found in Jerusalem. The overall contour begins east of the Eastern Hill and follows a southern course along the Kidron Valley, around the southern edges of the Eastern and Western Hills and northwards, west of the Western Hill.3 Had only the Eastern Hill been inhabited, then we would expect to find the contour of the burial grounds to surround the Eastern Hill only. However, the contour indicates that both hills were occupied concurrently.

(Because of editorial constraints, I do not wish to address the issue of the Tosefta quoted in Dr. Zivotofsky’s article concerning Rabbi Akiva. But suffice it to say that the reading of the same Gemara text as printed in the Yerushalmi is quite different. In addition, not only is the Kidron Valley east of the Eastern Hill, it goes southward and turns west of the Western Hill.)

One reason archaeologists are reluctant to place the Biblical Mount Zion on the Western Hill is because there is no natural water source there. The city inhabitants would have required many large cisterns in order to survive. Even if the cisterns had cut into the bedrock, they would not have been adequate because most bedrock is porous. Without waterproof plaster, the water would seep through the rock to a lower level. Many scholars believed that waterproof plaster was not invented until well into the Iron Age, long after the era of the Jebusites and King David. Without plaster, there are no cisterns. And yet, in the late 1950s, Yigael Yadin was excavating a Late Bronze Age level (corresponding to the pre-Davidic time of the Jebusites) at Hazor. He writes:

The most exciting aspect of the excavations in this area was the many bottle shaped, rock-cut cisterns. …In one cistern, the upper, more porous parts of the rock were even plastered! This one [cistern] went out of use for water storage as early as the Late Bronze period. It is one of the earliest examples of its kind known in the country and disproves the allegation that plastered cisterns were first introduced by the Israelites in the 12th and 11th centuries BCE.4

Speaking of water sources, there are two sources of water that are associated with ancient Jerusalem. One is mentioned a few times in Tanach, the Gihon (Gichon), and the other, mentioned in the Talmud, is the Shiloah (Shiloach). Archaeologists have been puzzled by these two sources since there is only one known underground stream in Jerusalem. That 1,750-foot underground stream begins its course at the eastern slope of the Eastern Hill, runs under the hill and flows into a small pool at the southern base of the hill. Archaeologists solved the two water-source problem by calling the beginning of the stream Gihon and the terminus Shiloah. However, there are a number of problems with this universally accepted solution.

1. It’s highly unusual for a small 1,750-foot-long stream to have two names, one for each end.

2. The Talmud (Sukkah 48a) relates that for the Temple Water Drawing ceremony on Sukkot, messengers were sent down to the Shiloah to draw water and bring it back up to the Temple Courtyard through one of the southern gateways, called the Water Gate. If Gihon and Shiloah are the same stream, why did the Temple messengers bypass Gihon and travel an additional 1,750 feet further south to the Shiloah?

3. The underground stream is on the eastern slope of the Eastern Hill. The Gihon was, in fact, on the western side of the City of David. As it states in Chronicles 2 (32:30), “Chezekiah also blocked the upper watercourse of Gihon, and diverted it straight down to the west side of the City of David.”

4. The verse above refers to the “upper watercourse of the Gihon.” That qualification certainly implies that there was a lower watercourse. The archaeological Gihon is a single source for the underground stream. How do the archaeologists explain the existence of an upper and lower watercourse? They can’t.

The solution to these problems is as follows. To the west of the Western Hill are two tremendously large cisterns. One is located at the western base of the Western Hill and its modern name is the Sultan’s Pool, referring to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who had the walls of the old city constructed. The other cistern is located in Independence Park, behind the Sheraton Plaza Hotel, and is called the Mamila Pool. Before archaeologist Raymond Weill came along, the Sultan’s Pool was known as the Lower Gichon and the Mamila Pool as the Upper Gichon. In ancient times, these two cisterns were supplied with water by means of an aqueduct system, traces of which can still be seen. Thus, the author of Chronicles knew what he was writing. The City of David and Mount Zion were clearly located on the Western Hill.5 Additionally, the Shiloah was the underground stream located on the Eastern Hill. Both ends of the stream had a single name—Shiloah.

Where is King David’s Tomb located? Tradition, dating all the way back to the time of King David, says that it is on present-day Mount Zion. I have presented here a number of arguments supporting this long-held tradition. Archaeologists have recently “moved” Mount Zion to the Eastern Hill and have called the area City of David. Our Sages said, “Kol ha’meshaneh, yado al ha’tachtonah, The burden of proof is on the one who seeks to change.” This is true with regard to tradition and also with regard to moving mountains.6

Rabbi Reznick is a maggid shiur in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, New York. He has written numerous books and magazine articles on the topic of Jewish history and archaeology. He is presently a scholar-in-residence for the David Dov Foundation of Lakewood, New Jersey, which is dedicated to the research of Biblical archaeology by Orthodox scholars.

1. Biblical Archaeology Review 20:4, (July/Aug. 1994).

2. Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), 151.

3. Ephraim Stern, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, (New York, 1993), 713.

4. Yigael Yadin, Hazor: The Rediscovery of a Great Citadel of the Bible (New York, 1975), 123.

5. For an analysis of the derivation of the name Gihon, see my article: “Moving Mount Zion” Jewish Action (summer 2001): 38-43.

6. After completing this article, I found the following quote from Meir Ben Dov, a Jerusalem archaeologist of some note, concerning the location of King David’s Tomb.

A number of scholars engaged in research on Jerusalem have reverted to the mediaeval theory suggesting the upper city (Western Hill)—today’s [Mount] Zion—as the tomb’s location. These propositions can now be accepted since recent archaeological discoveries have shown that the city rose to the upper hills already during the reign of the kings of Judah. Hence, one should not reject out of hand the location of the graves (of the Davidic Monarchy) in the upper city (Western Hill) of which [Mount] Zion is an integral part (Jerusalem: Man and Stone [Tel Aviv, 1990], 237).

As an interesting aside, I read recently that Dame Kathleen Kenyon, the famed archaeologist who excavated for a number of years in Jerusalem in the 1960s, found a goodly number of early First Temple shards on present-day Mount Zion but threw them away. Since Kenyon was a minimalist, she firmly believed that Mount Zion was not inhabited during the First Temple period, and that it was only inhabited in the second century BCE. She therefore concluded that the shards did not belong on Mount Zion, and she tossed them out.

This article was featured in the Summer 2007 issue of Jewish Action.