In Rediscovering Homer, Andrew Dalby notes the changing winds of opinion regarding the historical accuracy of Homer’s epic. He observes that trust gave way to doubt which gave way to, at least, acceptance.
Classical Greeks and Romans believed that the Iliad was in essence history: an accurate oral tradition had transmitted this knowledge to Homer, who made it into a great poem, and this in turn was transmitted orally and eventually written down. Scholars of early modern Europe down to the mid-nineteenth century became more and more skeptical of this belief. They were aware of many conflicting legends of the origins of European peoples, including this one, and they were inclined to believe none of them. Then two big scientific advances set off the swings of fashion. First, beginning in 1870, Heinrich Schliemann’s archaeological discoveries at Troy and Mykenai meant that flat skepticism had to give way to acceptance that these had been centers of power at the right time. Then, from the 1930s on, research into oral traditions showed that although historical events may be remembered for several centuries, details are not transmitted accurately and eventually become inextricably confused, and there can be no doubt that the Iliad was composed, purely on the basis of oral tradition, several centuries after the Trojan War would have taken place.
Indeed, it seems, Troy was a real place. Mycanae was an early Greek power. The Troy of the twelfth century BC was apparently destroyed by fire resulting from a hostile attack. No proof exists for the participation of Hector or Achilles, Agamemnon or Priam, yet nothing disproves their existence either.
I mention this today, because it seems that the same Enlightenment-powered forces that dismissed the Iliad as mere fantasy took their hatchets to the historical accounts of the Bible. They attempted to dehistoricize David and Solomon, even arguing that Israel as a nation had not existed until a fairly late date.
Certainly one cannot fault the skeptic for attempting to earn tenure by following the winds of fashion, we need to recognize the incredible amount of supposition that goes on in the attempting to make a positive statement about a text several thousand years old.
Just as no one working on the excavations at Troy has located a spearhead inscribed, “If found, please return to Odysseus,” no one has found the proof positive for the existence of King David. Lack of proof, however, does not constitute proof of non-existence.
In both biblical and literary reading, I would suggest that the efforts to draw conclusions has been pursued too vigorously. We simply cannot know if anyone named Achilles fought in the Trojan War, which probably did actually take place. We’ll never find evidence compelling enough to satisfy historians, that David killed Goliath. In both cases, I think, the quasi-scientific approach misses the point. Certainly both The Iliad and 1 Samuel give me literary evidence that these characters and their deeds exist, at least on the page. I can read them and experience them. They can inspire art and music, providing archetypes for later writers and assisting in the creation of a culture.
From the literary standpoint, that’s enough. Sometimes, those who dissect lose sight of the whole they are cutting into. We shouldn’t do that with either the Iliad or the Bible, regardless of the temptation.