The major textual witnesses to 1 Samuel 17 give two different heights for Goliath. In some manuscripts of 1 Samuel 17, Goliath is 4½ cubits, which at approximately 18 inches or 45cm per cubit (as general estimates) is 6 feet 8 inches or 2.02 metres. In other textual witnesses, Goliath is 6½ cubits, that is, 9 feet 7 inches or 2.93 metres. Texts in which Goliath’s height is only 4½ cubits are also missing many of the verses found in most modern translations of 1 Samuel 17  (with the notable exception of Codex Alexandrinus) . The missing verses are 1 Samuel 17.12-31 and 55-58, and almost only appear where Goliath’s height is given as 6½ cubits.

The average height of people in this region in the late centuries B.C. was about 3½ cubits (a little over 5 foot). Therefore, 4½ cubits would represent an extremely tall person, as tall as one would ever find, whereas 6½ cubits would represent an inhumanly tall being. In 1 Samuel 17, Goliath is described as a “man” (17.4) who looks for a “man” to fight him (17.10). In context, this probably means a warrior, rather than just any male (which the semantic range of the Hebrew ‘ish sometimes includes) – but it does not represent a superhuman. By contrast, the parallel story about the defeat of Goliath by Elhanan (not David) in 2 Samuel 21.19 comes in a passage that refers to various individuals as Rephaim – a term that is likened to the superhuman Anakim or Giants in Deuteronomy 2. Therefore, it is plausible that when “6½ cubits” (9 feet 7 inches) was written, the scribes may have wished to give the impression that Goliath was a superhuman Giant.

Thom Stark - The Human Faces of God
Thom Stark – The Human Faces of God

In a recent book (The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (Wipf & Stock, 2010)), Thom Stark makes a series of errors when he explains this textual variant:

According to the DSS and LXX, Goliath was six and a half feet tall, which at the time of David would certainly have been considered a giant stature. Human beings were generally much shorter than they are now. By the time of the Masoretes in the late first millennium C.E., almost two thousand years after the era of Goliath, six and a half feet tall was no longer so impressive. Thus the Masoretes amended the text, adding another three feet to Goliath’s stature, and that is why many Bibles today have Goliath at nine and a half feet tall. See McCarter, 1 Samuel, 286, 291.
(152, no. 1)

First, the “time of David” or “era of Goliath”, if they existed, is irrelevant. The only relevant time or era is the time of composition of these stories, and the object of inquiry is the meaning of a 9¾-foot-tall person. The story was still in development in the late Persian or early Hellenistic periods, as the textual variants between the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSSs), Septuagint (LXX), and proto-Masoretic (MT) manuscripts of 1 Samuel 17 show., as does the doublet in 2 Samuel 21.19. So, the relevant period for measuring average height is ca. 400-200 B.C.

Second, the use of “giant” to describe Goliath is misleading (see also p. 78 of Stark’s book). In a metaphorical sense, he would be considered a “giant”, i.e. an extremely tall person at 6 feet 8 inches tall. But at 9 feet 7 inches, or as a Rapha, Goliath is a “Giant” – that is, from a different race of superhumans. As biblical commentator P. Kyle McCarter – whom Stark cites – writes, Goliath is, metaphorically speaking, “a true giant in an age when a man well under six feet might be considered tall”. However, as McCarter adds, the “exaggeration” to nine feet seven inches is “fantastic” (1 Samuel, 291).

Third, Stark makes a serious error when he claims that the amendment from 4½ cubits to 6½ cubits was made in “the time of the Masoretes in the late first millennium C.E., almost two thousand years after the era of Goliath”, that it was made because average human height had increased by then and “six and a half feet tall was no longer so impressive” (sic), that it was only at this time that “the Masoretes amended the text”, and that this is the reason “why many Bibles today have Goliath at nine and a half feet tall”. Stark is right that the first extant Masoretic manuscripts, which are dated to the late first millennium C.E., read “6½ cubits” for Goliath’s height in 1 Samuel 17.4. But he is quite wrong to claim that the Masoretes were the first to make Goliath’s height 6½ cubits in that verse. In fact, there are textual witnesses from some 800 years earlier, much closer to the witnesses which have “4½ cubits”. Here is a summary of the major variants:

Textual witnesses Provenance Language Approx date Short or long Height
4QSama (DSS) Jewish Hebrew 50 B.C. short 4 1/2 cubits
Josephus, Antiquities 6.171 Jewish Greek A.D. 80 short (used as a source) 4 1/2 cubits
Symmachus (in Origen’s 4th column) Jewish Greek A.D. 200 long 6 1/2 cubits
Vaticanus (LXX) Christian Greek A.D. 300-400 short 4 1/2 cubits
Alexandrinus (LXX) Christian Greek A.D. 400-500 long 4 1/2 cubits
Vulgate Christian Latin A.D. 400 long 6 1/2 cubits
Codex Aleppo Jewish Hebrew A.D. 935 long 6 1/2 cubits
Codex Leningrad Jewish Hebrew A.D. 1010 long 6 1/2 cubits

So the reading of “6½ cubits” goes back at least to Symmachus’s Greek translaton in A.D. 200. Furthermore, as proto-MT texts are widely evident at Qumran (some 35% of biblical texts), the “6½ cubit” reading (associated with the proto-MT Greek manuscript and Vulgate) may well have originated in 400-200 B.C. Stark’s book regularly relies on the date of extant manuscripts as arguments for the priority of readings, whereas this is only one, and not the major, factor in determining “original” readings in textual criticism.

So – what’s the “true” height of Goliath? Well, that depends on which story you like best.