According to the Old Testament, about 3,000 years ago a mighty duel took place between Goliath, champion of the Philistines, and a shepherd boy named David, who would go on to become king of the Israelites. Prior to the contest, the armies of both nations had been in a stalemate for 40 days, and each day the Philistine champion would issue a challenge to the Israelites, for any of them to fight him in single combat in order to decide the victors of the war.
The narrative goes that David finally stepped forward with naught but a sling and a bag of stones. With one carefully aimed projectile, David felled the much larger Goliath and ultimately won the war for the Israelites. The tale has been a popular symbol of the weak prevailing over the strong for the last 3,000 years, but in this age of archaeological discoveries, is it possible to prove whether Goliath, in fact, existed?
Bronze Age 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)
Such is the depiction of Goliath from the Old Testament. This passage has, however, generated two different schools of thought; that the narrative was based on fact, but recorded after living memory, or that it was complete fabrication by the Israelites.
The biblical description of Goliath’s bronze armor, as well as his station, is accurate. Warriors with such an array were called “champions” and they routinely took their place at the head of an army, fighting on the front line. Homer called them promachoi, and an excellent example of such a warrior would be Achilles from The Iliad.
This claim is supported by the Egyptian reliefs at Medinet Habu, which depict warriors dressed much like Goliath, identified as Philistines. However, Haaretz notes that the helmet, which did not seem to protect Goliath’s head, may have been different:
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.
Goliath’s scale armor is also the subject of debate, as this armor would have gone out of style over a hundred years prior to the match. However these anachronisms could be explained if Goliath had chosen to emulate his ancestors and honor their ancient style. After all, the champion of an army would have free rein to equip himself with armaments he felt most comfortable with.
Combat by proxy
“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 was as bloody in biblical times as it is today. Often, during the Bronze Age, when armies met on the field they would choose to have two representatives duke it out to determine the victor, rather than see both sides lose thousands of able-bodied men, which would weaken the region militarily, as well as domestically. In those days warriors believed their gods would support their champion and choose the outcome.
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).
Literacy and record keeping
Perhaps the strongest argument against the existence of Goliath is the scarcity of scribes in the region at the time. There is little evidence of the existence of scribes in Jerusalem prior to the 7th-6th centuries. This would mean the tale of David and Goliath was not documented until 300 or 400 years after the events took place.
However, outside of Jerusalem there is evidence that records were maintained in the region as early as the 9th century BC:
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.
The story of Goliath would not necessarily have had to wait several hundred years for documentation. In fact, it is quite possible that it was written in real time, or shortly after. Of course, there is also the oral tradition of keeping stories, for which the Israelites are well known and which is impossible to account for.
In summation, until archaeologists find the massive armor of Goliath, it is impossible to say for sure whether or not this gigantic man truly existed. The archaeological evidence, however does not rule out the possibility that the Old Testament’s claims are authentic. In fact, the evidence seems to strongly suggests that the story is accurate.