What’s the Truth about … King David’s Tomb?

by | in Israel

Misconception: King David is buried on Mount Zion, in a room that bears the inscription “King David’s Tomb.” Mount Zion is located just outside and to the south of the Armenian Quarter and Zion Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Fact: Evidence indicates that the area known today as Mount Zion was not part of inhabited Jerusalem in King David’s time (tenth century BCE) and that he was not buried there. Rather, King David was buried in the southeastern area of Jerusalem’s real Old City, which is located to the south of the Temple Mount and Dung Gate and is known today as Ir David—the City of David.

Background:1 The question regarding King David’s Tomb seems almost as inane as the riddle popularized by Groucho Marx on his 1950s game show “You Bet Your Life.” In order to guarantee that no one left his show empty-handed, Marx would ask a losing contestant: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” (He would usually accept “Grant” as a correct answer despite the fact that the US National Park Service states that “technically, no one is ‘buried’ in Grant’s Tomb. The 159-foot neo-classical structure is a tomb, therefore both General Grant and his wife are ‘entombed’ above ground” and not buried.2) Unlike Marx’s joke, however, the question concerning King David’s burial site is not trivial.

Signs direct visitors to Mount Zion through a series of anterooms to an interior room housing a cloth-covered granite cenotaph. This site is believed by many to be the tomb of King David.3

To locate King David’s actual burial site, one need only consult the Bible to discover that King David died and was buried in Ir David, the City of David (1 Kings 2:10).4 The same place, City of David, also appears in Samuel 2 (5:7, 5:9), which describes how the text states that David captured a fortress named Metzudat Tzion from the Jebusites and renamed it “the City of David.” Thus, in order to find his burial site, one needs to ascertain the location of Metzudat Tzion, i.e., the City of David.

The name “Zion” appears in Tanach in reference to the original, ancient Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, Byzantine pilgrims mistakenly thought that the hill located south of today’s Old City’s Armenian Quarter was part of that ancient city and named it “Mount Zion.”5 This error was not recognized until 150 years ago when archaeological evidence suggested, and more recently has conclusively shown, that the city captured by David was on the smaller, lower hill located to the south of the Temple Mount (the modern-day City of David). That lower hill was the site of the Jebusite city which then became King David’s capital, and constituted the whole Jerusalem for probably more than 200 years until it gradually expanded westward and incorporated the area that is today known as Mount Zion.6

The erroneous notion that King David is buried on Mount Zion developed over a period of many centuries. During the middle of the second century CE, Jerusalem was razed, Jews were banished from the area, and the knowledge concerning the true location of King David’s Tomb was lost. By the mid-fourth century, the tombs of King David and his father, Jesse, are described as being in Beit Lechem.7 The first mention of Mount Zion as King David’s final resting place was in the ninth century, and by the eleventh century, this fallacy was so well-established that the Crusaders erected a Gothic cenotaph, in this case an empty sarcophagus, to mark the site, which remains until today.8

In the twelfth century, the colorful Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela related that during his stay in Jerusalem, he heard a fantastic story regarding the re-discovery of King David’s Tomb. Two Jewish workers employed by the Christian patriarch to reconstruct a damaged monument on Mount Zion accidentally happened upon a secret passage and found themselves in a palace made of marble columns. Within the palace was a table upon which rested a golden scepter and golden crown, with riches all around. The workers decided this was King David’s Tomb. Suddenly, they were struck down by a fierce wind and heard voices that told them to leave immediately. Three days later, the two workmen were sick in bed and could not be persuaded to return to the site.9

The present building housing the cenotaph was erected in 1335, but it is built on top of what is probably a second- to fourth-century building. Little was known about the building until a shell exploded there during the War of Independence in 1948, affording an opportunity for archaeological excavations during repair work. In 1951 an Israeli archaeologist and expert in synagogue architecture, Jacob Pinkerfeld, who was later killed in a terrorist attack at the 1956 Archaeological Convention at Ramat Rachel, carried out an archaeological survey. Behind the cenotaph of King David, Pinkerfeld found a niche that was part of the original structure of the building, and beneath the floor, he found three earlier floor levels: a Crusader floor, a late Roman or early Byzantine floor and the plaster of the original building’s floor. He noted that the niche was oriented towards the Temple Mount and concluded that the building was originally a synagogue and the niche was the aron.10 Others have argued with his conclusion, and based on various reasons, asserted that it was possibly a church or a Judeo-Christian synagogue.

In the fifteenth century, following an attempt by the Jews to purchase the site, the Muslims wrested control from the Franciscans,11 and for the next five centuries all non-Muslims had restricted access to the site. Nonetheless, Jerusalem’s Jews would make an annual pilgrimage there on Shavuot, King David’s yahrtzeit.12 It was only after the War of Independence, when Mount Zion came under Israeli control, that free access to the site was granted to people of all religions. Since 1948, Israel’s Department of Religious Affairs has administered both the King David’s Tomb, which is used as a synagogue, and the upper room, which is left open for Christian visitors. The site was one of the few “holy sites” under Israeli control from 1948 to 1967. Currently, the Diaspora Yeshiva, which a year after its founding in 1967 moved its men’s division to its current home on Mount Zion, oversees the entire complex. The building also includes the Last Supper Room, right above King David’s Tomb, and other sites of significance to Christians. Because of this, there have been repeated discussions over the years, including during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent visit to the Vatican, about transferring it to the Church, despite the fact that the Diaspora Yeshiva permits free access to all. Even though the site does not contain King David’s Tomb, it should be clear to all that it has been sanctified as a site of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer for centuries and should be treated as a Jewish holy place.

If King David is not buried on Mount Zion, then where is he buried? The first clue is from the Bible, which states that King David, his son King Solomon and the kings of Judea who followed for the next 150 years13 were buried in “Ir David.” This likely refers to a subsection of the modern-day area known as the City of David. Another important source regarding the location of the royal burial site is found in Nechemiah (chap. 3), which describes the teams set up to repair the walls of Jerusalem. The text describes the groups of workers and the region of the wall they repaired in an orderly fashion, circumnavigating the city wall. It states that Shallun, the son of Colhozeh, built, among other things, the “wall of the Pool of Shelah [Shiloah]” until the stairs that go down from the City of David. It further states that Nechemiah, the son of Azbuk, repaired the wall “as far as opposite the tombs of the [the house of] David” (15-16). From this description it is clear that 500 years after King David was buried, the location of his tomb was still well known and that it was located near the southeast corner of the city, inside the walls, near the Siloam, otherwise known as the Shiloah (Shiloach) Pool.14

Rabbi Akiva, 600 years later, was also familiar with the site.15 He was once asked why the graves of the Davidic dynasty were allowed to be within the city walls despite his opinion that all graves should be re-interred outside the city boundaries due to reasons of tumah (ritual impurity). He responded that the impurity of King David’s grave was diverted out of the city to the Kidron Valley via a rock channel (Tosefta, Bava Batra 1:11 [p. 399, Zuckermandel ed.]; Yerushalmi, Nazir 9:3). Because the Kidron Valley is located on the eastern side of the City of David, Rabbi Akiva’s statement is further evidence that the sought-after grave is located in the City of David.16

Given that the City of David is so small17 and that there are very specific descriptions in Tanach and by Chazal regarding the location of the burial site, French archaeologist-Egyptologist Raymond Weill went searching for the tomb in 1913. This was the first archaeological expedition conducted by a Jew, with funding from a Jewish sponsor (the mission was funded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild) and at a clearly “Jewish” site in the Land of Israel.

Weill, whose complete report was not published until 1947, was successful in finding important artifacts, and possibly the kings’graves themselves.

Weill discovered eight man-made cave-like structures that he described as tombs, as well as a ninth cave in a second expedition between 1923 and 1924. He designated these caves T1 through T9 and proclaimed that the most monumental, T1, was King David’s Tomb. T1 is a long tunnel, with some features of an ancient burial cave. Unfortunately, the caves were used as a quarry during the Roman period, making it difficult to restore them.

Weill’s conclusion was initially accepted by the archaeological community, but today many archaeologists disagree with him. They claim that the caves he found are not identical to other First Temple period tombs, and furthermore, they argue, it is not certain that these structures are from King David’s period (tenth century BCE). They suggest instead that these clearly well-planned structures were water cisterns or cellars from the Second Temple period. Those who continue to support Weill’s contention argue that no other cisterns like those have ever been found and that their structure is not ideally suited for that purpose. Weill’s supporters concede that there are indeed no other tenth-century BCE tombs known in Jerusalem and that Weill’s findings are not identical with the many known Jerusalem eighth-century tombs. However, an exact similarity cannot be expected; firstly, the known eighth-century tombs were not those of kings or royalty and secondly, the tombs in question were built 200 years later. Finally, they argue, there is really no way to know what Weill’s caves looked like before they were destroyed by the extensive quarrying.

In summary, the known facts, based on Biblical texts and nearly universally accepted archaeological findings, are the following: King David is buried in the southeastern section of the City of David and not on Mount Zion; one would expect his tomb to be well planned and unique; and a well-designed, large man-made cave has been found in the likely area. Logic suggests, although it cannot be proven with certainty, that the T1 cave is indeed the burial place of the Kings of Judea, beginning with Kings David and Solomon.18

Today, the City of David is part of a national park and is administered by the non-profit organization called El-Al. For more information on this area located at the heart of Jerusalem, visit http://www.cityofdavid.org.il/index.html.

Rabbi Dr. Zivitofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

1. For material on this subject, see: Doron Bar, “Kever David b’Har Tzion B’Shnotehah Harishonot shel Hamedinah,” Al Atar 11 (5763): 85-95; Yoel Elitzur, “Achen! Kivrei Beit David,” Al Atar 11 (5763): 15-27; Gabriel Barkay, “L’ba’ayat Makom Kivrehem shel Malchei Beit David Ha’achronim,” Bein Chermon L’Sinai: Yad l’Amnon (1977): 75-92; Bargil Pixner, Biblical Archaeological Review (May/June 1990); Hershel Shanks, “The Tombs of David and Other Kings of Judah,” Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (New York: 1995), 35-43 and Ora Limor, “King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion: The Origins of a Tradition,” in D. Jacoby & Y. Tsafrir (eds.), Jews, Samaritans and Christians in Byzantine Palestine (Jerusalem, 1988), 11-23 [Hebrew].

2. See http://www.nps.gov/gegr.

3. King David actually has another “tomb” as well. There is an area in Jerusalem just north of the Old City known as “The Tombs of the Kings” that is today owned by the French government. A sign hanging there says “Tombs of the House of David.” These burial caves, which were excavated in 1863, are most likely from the Hellenistic period and are those of Queen Helene of Adiabene, her son Munbaz and their families (see Doton Goren, “Parshat Kivrei Hamelachim,” HaTzofeh, 5 January 2005, 12, 14).

4. This was unusual because in the early First Temple period, people were generally not buried within the city limits.

5. It has always been common to name structures (and texts) after long-deceased, important persons. For example, Solomon’s Stables are located on a section of the Temple Mount that was added by Herod 900 years after King Solomon reigned. Thus, associating the Tower of David near Jaffa Gate with King David is just as absurd as associating Solomon’s Stables or Solomon’s Pools with King Solomon, or Yad Avshalom with King David’s rebellious son Avshalom.

6. When used in the Bible, the phrase “Mount Zion” often refers to the Temple Mount. There are indeed some people who erroneously cling to the notion that Mount Zion was part of the ancient City of David and that King David is buried there. See Leibel Reznick, “Moving Mount Zion,” Jewish Action, (summer 2001): 38-43. http://www.ou.org/publications/ja/5761summer/. Rabbi Y.M. Tukitchinsky devoted an entire chapter of his Ir Hakodesh v’Hamikdash (vol. 2, chap. 4) to “proving” that Mount Zion was within the Jerusalem of Kings David and Solomon. Many of their arguments compress the more than 400 years of the First Temple into one unified period. There is little doubt that at the time of the Churban (Destruction of the First Temple) in 586 BCE, Jerusalem included most of today’s Jewish Quarter, possibly extending as far as the modern Jaffa Gate and including Mount Zion. Evidence derived from walls or other artifacts from that period in those regions reveals nothing about what Jerusalem looked like at the start of the period. No one denies that over the course of the First Temple period Jerusalem greatly expanded and eventually did include Mount Zion, but the question here concerns the boundaries of Jerusalem at the time of King David’s death (ca., 965 BCE). The overwhelming evidence is that during the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, Jerusalem was the small area known today as the City of David and did not encompass Mount Zion. This is the unanimous opinion today among archaeologists and Biblical scholars, as clearly shown in the articles cited in note 1. As Jane Cahill stated in her November/December 2004 article in Biblical Archaeology Review: “One thing on which all scholars agree: In the time of David, Jerusalem was confined to what is still called the City of David…” (20). The list of scholars includes Rabbi Zalman Koren, who was the consultant to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and remains the consultant to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on matters relating to archaeology and Old City issues. Although lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, credence must be given to the total absence of artifacts in the most excavated site on earth. Absolutely nothing has been found on Mount Zion dating back to earlier than the eighth century BCE, while down below, in the City of David, a plethora of material dating back to pre-history has been uncovered. Among the findings were segments of the Canaanite Wall on the western side, thus demarcating the city limits, which were below Mount Zion.

7. See Limor, “King David’s Tomb.”

8. It should be noted that although Josephus (first century CE) erroneously suggested that the City of David included Mount Zion, he never implied that King David’s Tomb was located there. That notion only took root 800 years later. It is not unusual for places and meanings of words to be forgotten over time. For example, while no one discussed Kever Dan ben Yaakov for centuries, it suddenly “appeared” not far from Beit Shemesh less than 100 years ago. See Avi Shoshan, “Kever Dan,” Mechkarei Yehudah veShomron, 10 (5761): 207-218. In fact, in the 600 years between the Talmud and Rashi and Tosafot, the meaning of words such as tzvi, netz, nesher and korah all changed (Rashi, Chullin 59a, s.v. v’harei tzvi; Tosafot, Chullin 63a, s.v. netz). Traditions are delicate and need to be preserved accurately; what’s more, seemingly erroneous “traditions” need to be reexamined. Keep in mind that when Josephus was writing, Mount Zion had indeed been part of Jerusalem for over 700 years, and it is not unreasonable that he should have mistakenly thought it had always been. There is no evidence or reason to suspect that he had some form of tradition regarding this mundane matter.

9. In a fascinating twist, 700 years later, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Turkish city engineer of Jerusalem, knowing nothing about Benjamin of Tudela, also reported finding an extensive labyrinth of caves directly underneath the believed site of King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion. According to a theory by archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay, if these caves do indeed exist, it is possible that they were the second royal burial site of the House of David mentioned in the Bible in the period after the expansion of Jerusalem. Menashe was the first king to be buried at the site known as the Garden of Uzza.

10. If this is correct, it is an additional proof that it is not Kever David; it is unusual to build a synagogue over a grave, thereby barring Kohanim from entering.

11. This Muslim backlash against the Franciscans led to a Christian retaliation against the Jews that included a papal edict by Martin V forbidding Christians to transport Jews by boat.

12. See Yerushalmi, Beitzah 2:4.

13. Regarding King Solomon, see 1 Kings 11:43. For later kings, see 1 Kings 14:31, 15:8, 24, 22:51 and 2 Kings 12:22, 14:20, 15:7, 38, 16:20. Of the twenty-one kings of Judea, the Bible uses similar phraseology regarding the burial of the first fifteen kings, indicating that they were all buried in the same complex. Similar language is used again in Chronicles for Yehoyada the High Priest, who was an acting king for a time. The usual practice was to have family burial caves; however, this complex seems to have been dynastic and reserved for those who actually sat on the throne.

14. The recently uncovered Shiloah is a large reservoir fed by the robust Gihon Spring that was unquestionably the water source for the early city of Jerusalem, before any cisterns were dug and any complex aqueducts were constructed. See Hershel Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Review (September/October 2005): 17-23. That the late Second Temple period water system, which includes Solomon’s Pools and the Mamila Pool, supplied water to the city 800 years earlier, as Rabbi Leibel Reznick suggests in his original Jewish Action article (see note 6), is highly improbable. It is inconsistent to rely on archaeological tools to date certain structures and then ignore the same science in dating others. It should be noted that many authorities such as the Radak and Targum Yonatan assume that the Gihon Spring and the Shiloah are two names for the same water source, or two aspects of it—not two separate entities.

15. There is continuous evidence of familiarity with the site. Josephus records that John Hyrcanus opened one of the tombs of the Davidic line and looted it, and 150 years later Herod opened a second tomb and attempted to loot it as well (Josephus, Antiquities 16:7:1). Feeling remorseful, Herod later built a monument on top of the tombs. Thus, according to Josephus, the location of the tombs was known in the first and second centuries BCE (although he does not give the location), and they were said to contain much riches.

16. Even if one were to argue that Mount Zion was inhabited in King David’s time, based on this statement there is simply no way that King David’s Tomb is on Mount Zion, and it must be on the southern ridge known today as the City of David.

17. The whole City of David is only about forty dunams (ten acres).

18. No other reasonable suggestion has been tendered. However, Dio Cassius, a late second-century Roman historian, reports that the tomb of Solomon had collapsed in his period. It is possible that the Davidic tombs are indeed in the general area excavated by Weill but were destroyed by the extensive quarrying in the Roman period. This is the opinion of leading archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay (lecture in Jerusalem, November 27, 2006).

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2007.

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