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Did Goliath the Philistine Really Exist?

painting of Biblical David and Goliath
David and Goliath, Osmar Schindler, 1888. Credit: Wikipedia Commons, public domain

The most famous individual Philistine in history is undoubtedly Goliath. He was the warrior who appears in the Bible as the enemy of the Israelites in the time of David. As a youth, David famously challenged and killed Goliath. Yet ironically, given his fame, there are many historians who believe that Goliath the Philistine did not really exist. What does the evidence show?

Who was Goliath?

First of all, let us establish who Goliath really was. He appears in the Bible in an account in the Book of First Samuel. The story takes place in the 11th century BCE. After being driven back by King Saul, the Philistines brought a large army to the Israelites and met them in the Valley of Elah. Goliath, their most prominent warrior, challenged the Israelites to present a warrior to fight him in single combat.

Famously, none of the Israelites wanted to fight him, but a young David (long before he was king) had the courage. He picked up five smooth stones from a nearby riverbed. Using his sling, he hurled one of them towards Goliath, striking him in the forehead and killing him.

The account describes Goliath as very large. He was almost 9 foot 6 inches, or 2.9 meters tall. Some researchers claim that Goliath’s height was originally just 6 foot 6 inches, and that a copyist error produced the larger number. However, this is disproven by the information that the Bible gives about the weight of his armor.

In any case, Goliath was from Gath, one of the cities of Philistia. Not only was this the home of Goliath, but it was also the home of several other ‘giant’ warriors. They were all part of a tribe known as the Rephaim. The Rephaim were not ethnically Philistines. They were a people who lived in various parts of Canaan throughout its Bronze Age history. Therefore, it appears that Goliath was actually a mercenary for the Philistines.

Why many scholars believe Goliath did not really exist

The idea of two armies meeting together and one particularly impressive warrior challenging the opposing army to single combat is obviously not unbelievable. Such a concept was common in the ancient world, particularly among cultures connected to Greece. The Philistines were from the Aegean, so this is perfectly logical.

Really, the main reason why many scholars believe that Goliath did not exist is because of his enormous size. Again, even though some have tried to argue that the original text said he was much smaller, this does not match up with all of the other information about Goliath in the Bible. Nor does it fit with the other information the Bible provides about the other members of the Rephaim.

Therefore, it is an inescapable conclusion that Goliath was supposed to be incredibly large. The Biblical account makes him larger than the tallest human in modern times. For this reason, many people conclude that Goliath did not really exist.

Another reason why some researchers believe that Goliath did not really exist is due to his armour. Supposedly, the Biblical description of his armor marches Greek armor of the sixth century BCE. This is obviously inconsistent with the setting of the story, which is 11th century BCE Palestine, which leads some scholars to conclude that Goliath did not really exist.

Goliath’s size

Although it is true that Goliath was allegedly taller than even the tallest person from modern times, the difference is not great. The tallest documented man from modern times was Robert Wadlow. He grew to an impressive height of 8 foot 11 inches. This is barely more than six inches shorter than Goliath.

There are actually about two dozen verified examples of people in modern times being over 8 foot in height. Therefore, although the possibility of Goliath’s height is not completely confirmed by modern examples, it is clearly within the realms of plausibility.

However, some reject this evidence on the basis that most of these exceptionally tall people had trouble walking. Therefore, even if Goliath was as tall as the Bible claims, he could not have been a warrior.

This claim is refuted by evidence from ancient Egyptian records. For example, a document from the 13th century BCE called the Papyrus Anastasi I contains a description of the land of Canaan. In this description, there is a reference to a group of warriors called the Shasu who are over 8 foot tall. The Egyptians appear to have used the term ‘Shasu’ quite loosely to apply to several different nomadic groups. Therefore, in this context, it could well apply to the Rephaim.

In any case, this proves that there really were warriors of exceptional height in ancient times. It also confirms that they were active in Canaan around the time of David.

Hoplites from the 7th century BCE, depicted on pottery
Ancient Greek mercenaries often fought as hoplites, depicted above on a piece of pottery dating to the 7th century BC. Credit: Chigi Painter / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Did Goliath use Greek hoplite armor?

What about the argument that the armor of Goliath proves that he did not really exist? Does his armor really match the armor used by Archaic Era Greek hoplites? And if not, is there an alternative explanation for his armor?

One problem is that a significant part of Goliath’s armor is his coat of mail made of overlapping plates, usually called scale armor. As Professor Jeffrey Zorn pointed out, this was not part of seventh to fifth century BCE Greek armor. Goliath also had a shield-bearer by his side, which also does not match Archaic Greek customs.

Furthermore, it is difficult to see how David could have struck Goliath on the forehead if the latter was wearing Greek hoplite armor. On the other hand, being struck on the forehead would be perfectly possible with the type of helmet shown as being used by the Philistines in Egyptian depictions of the Sea Peoples.

The early Near Eastern armor of Goliath

In contrast, overlapping scale armor was a common part of the equipment of elite soldiers (such as chariot warriors) of the Near East, including those in Syria and Palestine. This was the case from even before the era in which Goliath allegedly lived.

Notably, the Assyrians used iron scales rather than bronze ones. If the account about Goliath was written after the Assyrian era of Israelite history, we would likely expect Goliath’s scale armor to be described as made from iron. Yet, the fact that it is described as being made from bronze or copper supports the conclusion the account of Goliath comes from before the Assyrian period.

Depictions from the Late Bronze Age also attest to the use of copper or bronze greaves, just like Goliath had. Furthermore, his use of both a spear and a javelin is consistent with elite chariot warriors of the Levant in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages.

Contemporary evidence that Goliath really did exist

One more piece of evidence that Goliath really did exist comes from an ancient inscription. This inscription comes from Gath, where archaeologists found it in 2005. Scholars generally call it the Tell es-Safi inscription, since Tell es-Safi is the modern site of Gath.

The inscription dates to about 1000 BCE. It therefore dates to more or less exactly the period in which Goliath supposedly lived. The inscription contains just two names. One of them is spelt ‘ALWT’ and the other is ‘WLT’. Note that this script did not use vowels. Both names are etymologically similar and may just be variations of the same name.

Notably, both names appear to be closely related to the name ‘Goliath’. In Hebrew, that name was spelt ‘GLYT’. It is very, very possible that the inscription’s ‘ALWT’ is simply a variation of ‘GLYT’ (perhaps a variation due to dialectal differences).

It appears that this name is not attested anywhere in Canaan before or after this inscription. Surely, it is impossible to ignore the astonishing coincidence that Goliath’s name (or a version thereof) is attested in Canaan only from the era in which Goliath allegedly lived. More than that, it is attested specifically in the very city that Goliath was supposed to be from.

Even if this inscription does not refer to the Biblical Goliath (although it very well could), this demonstrates that the Bible’s description of Goliath is an exact match for the time and place in which he allegedly lived. This supports the conclusion that he really did exist.

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