Is the story of the Philistine champion Goliath a distant memory of an event that took place in the 11th century B.C.E. or a fable by priests conspiring in Jerusalem 400 years later?
Some 3,000 years ago, the Israelites and Philistines faced off on opposite sides of Elah Valley. Throughout 40 days of stalemate, every day, a gigantic warrior named Goliath stepped forward from the Philistines’ ranks and shouted his challenge: to fight him in single combat. The Israelites quailed and held back, until a shepherd boy named David arose and, armed with naught but a slingshot, triumphed.
So goes the biblical narrative (1 Samuel 17:4), which has been immortalized in popular culture since the day it was written, becoming a symbol of the weak prevailing over the powerful.
True history is made up not of stones or words but of people. Was there ever a mighty warrior named Goliath who challenged the Israelites in the 11th century B.C.E.? Is the story based on distant memory from 3,000 years ago, or much later fabrication?
One argument in favor of the historical narrative is that Bronze Age societies commonly employed single combats as proxies for the clash of two armies, to determine the outcome of a war. Evidence of that is legion. Another is that names are among the easiest things to pass down in oral tradition. But the most crucial argument is that the biblical description of Goliath’s armor fits archaeological discoveries from his very era. And now new archaeological evidence from Philistine Gath obliquely supports the case that the biblical narrative reflects historical realities, albeit through a prism, and was not pure 7th century B.C.E. wishful thinking.
Now let us meet the narrative’s antagonist, Goliath.
A champion named Goliath
As the two armies confronted each other across the valley, a huge figure armed to the hilt stepped forward through the ranks of the Philistine army:
“A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath” (1 Samuel 17:4).
Goliath’s birthplace was the city of Gath, the largest city of the Philistine Axis lords (1 Samuel 16:17-18). In 2017, archaeologists digging in the ancient Philistine capital discovered an inscription on a small sherd of pottery, found lying on a floor of a house dating to the 9th century B.C.E.
The inscription contained the name WLT (Semitic languages were and are generally written without vowels).
This was the second example of Philistine writing found in Gath: In 2005 the excavators found a similar inscription, with the name ‘ALWT.
Linguists explain that the etymology of the names ‘ALWT and WLT is similar to that of the name Goliath. The fragments were subsequently dubbed the “Goliath sherds”.
If nothing else, these inscriptions prove that people with names very similar to Goliath lived in Gath during the early Iron Age.
Warrior of the Bronze Age
The Bible gives a very detailed description of Goliath’s arms and armor.
“He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze… on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back”. (1 Samuel 17: 4-7)
This description in the account of Samuel 17:4-7 and 53 has generated two approaches, one treating the narrative as the distant memory of a mostly factual event that happened in the 11th century B.C.E., and another that suspects the event was fabricated by priests in Jerusalem, conspiring to create their own version of history.
The biblical description of Goliath’s arms and armor is accurate for his time: bronze helmet, a coat of bronze mail, bronze greaves, scimitar (curved sword with convex cutting edge) and a bronze spear.
Warriors arrayed in this way were called champions; they were at the front of the field and often led the attack. Homer calls them promachoi, meaning first-men. We recognize them from the warrior vase found at Mycenae, as well on the Egyptian reliefs at Medinet Habu from 1174 B.C.E. years ago, depicting an invasion by the “Sea People”.
The Medinet Habu reliefs depict some Sea People warriors with feathered headdress, and bearing swords, round shields and spears, whom the Egyptian texts among the reliefs identify as Philistines, Tjekker, and Danuna – peoples from the Aegean. Other Sea People depicted with round caps were called the Tursha, and yet others with horned helmets were called the Sherden – other Aegean tribes.
As for Goliath, his helmet evidently did not protect his forehead. Although he is called a Philistine, his helmet sounds like it more closely resembled either the horned helmets worn by the Sherden, or the round caps of the Tursha in the Medinet Habu reliefs.
Moving on: what about Goliath’s greaves? Depictions of Egyptian and Near Eastern Bronze Age warriors show them bare-legged. But greaves were definitely part of the panoply Mycenaean warriors bore in the 13th century B.C.E. and later. The Warrior Vase of Mycenae depicts the spearman with greaves. Bronze greaves have been found in tombs in Greece and Cyprus.
However, the shirt of scale armor that Goliath was purported to have was not thought to be within the Mycenaean panoply. Their soldiers were wrapped in wide bronze bands connected by hinges, protecting their bodies from neck to groin. A superb example of the Mycenaean armor was found in Dendra, a Bronze Age site in Greece. Scale armor had been thought to have gone out of use before the Mycenaean heyday, around 1400 B.C.E. But in 2006, bronze scale armor was discovered in a Mycenaean palace on the island of Salamis.
Now, if the story had been 7th or 6th century B.C.E. fiction, written hundreds of years after the event, the author would have had no idea how warriors had been garbed in the earlier Bronze Age. Skeptics supporting the narrative of fiction argue that the story of Goliath dresses him like Greek “hoplites,” heavily-armed soldiers who were deployed from the 7th to 5th century B.C.E.
One weakness in that hypothesis is that hoplites used neither scale armor nor shieldbearers, as Goliath was said to have had. So whoever wrote the story, Goliath wasn’t based on a hoplite.
On the other hand, if Goliath was real, he lived a century or more after the Mycenaean era and could have chosen to emulate their ancient style.
In summary, the Philistines have Aegean origins, like the Mycenaeans; the champion Goliath could have picked arms and armor as he saw fit, mixing styles of the Aegeanized warriors: headgear from one, greaves from another, and so on.
Bronze Age war by proxy
Not only does the description of Goliath’s arms and armor fit the archaeological evidence of Bronze Age warriors. So does his challenge:
“This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other. On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (1 Samuel 17:10-11)
War by proxy was a common practice in the Bronze Age, to spare the bloody cost of armies clashing. The peoples assumed their gods would intervene on their behalf (and when they didn’t, they assumed the gods were peeved at them). Examples abound.
The Egyptian warrior Sinuhe, who may or may not have existed around 4,000 years ago, tells of his one-on-one battle with a powerful enemy: “When he charged me, I shot him, my arrow sticking in his neck. He screamed; he fell on his nose; I slew him with his ax” (lines 137-140 in Lichheim 1996:79).
Another account of single combat occurs in the Babylonian Epic Enuma Elish, in which the god’s champion, Marduk, set out to crush Tiamat (who was either a creator goddess or a monstrous embodiment of terrible chaos, depending which ancient source you ask):
“He made the bow, appointed it his weapon. He mounted the arrow, set it on the string… with raging fire he covered his body” (lines 35-40 in Foster 1993:373).
Perhaps the most famous example of war by proxy is the duel between Paris and Menelaus in Homer´s Iliad (3.340-382): they stood champions for their armies, but the gods meddled. The outcome got messy.
Conspiracy in Jerusalem
So the narrative of two champions standing in for their armies makes sense, but skeptics query, among other things, when the story was written down for the first time: in real time, or centuries later.
Another skeptic argument relies on the paucity of epigraphic material from early periods of Israel and Judah: 3,000 years ago literacy was rare to nonexistent, they argue. There is no evidence of Hebrew scribes in Jerusalem capable of writing history before King Hezekiah’s time, the 6th and 7th centuries B.C.E., the skeptics say. Ergo, the Goliath story had to have been written in the 6th-7th centuries B.C.E., some 300 or 400 years after the event.
It is true that no Hebrew inscriptions have been found from the 11th -12th centuries B.C.E., when Goliath may have lived. It is also true that Hebrew inscriptions, ostraca, seals and graffiti that can be dated to the late 8th century B.C.E. or earlier, are scarce, much fewer than the number known from later periods. But there is evidence starting in the 9th century B.C.E., not long after Goliath: for instance the Mesha Inscription (a.k.a. the Moabite Stone); the Tel Dan stele with its Aramaic inscription; and the prophetic account presented in the Deir Alla text (a prophetic inscription relating visions of the seer of the gods Baalam) from the 9th or 8th century B.C.E.
So the story of Goliath may have been written in real time or shortly after. It didn’t have to wait for centuries.
To sum up, Goliath seems to have worn contemporary Bronze Age gear, scribes did exist shortly after his time and possibly within it, and the biblical descriptions suit other ancient texts referring to armies led by champions, rather than as the impersonal institutions of later texts.
Finally, there is testimony of 12th and 11th century warfare from the ancient Near East itself: battles between champions instead of armies, the mutilation of enemy corpses, shouting matches between warriors, weeping as a sign of manhood – these and many other things are not scribal inventions of the 7th century B.C.E. but well-attested realities of late Bronze Age life. And Goliath’s arms and armor are not much like those of a 5th century Greek hoplite as some suggest. The accurate description of a Bronze Age warrior’s equipment opens up the possibility that a memory was handed down over several centuries, embellished to be sure, but with a core of truth.