A Beginner’s Guide to Biblical Scholarship – by Jennifer Bird

permission-grantedJennifer Bird has written a very readable book which introduces the academic study of the Bible. It is called Permission Granted: Take the Bible into Your Own Hands (Westminster John Knox, 2015).

The book is aimed at people who might never have encountered biblical scholarship, but who are curious to learn something about it. And the style of writing very much has this audience in mind. Its range of topics is drawn from throughout the Christian Bible, such as the Creation stories, the various things which the Bible has to say about sex, the spectre of violence within the Bible, the virgin birth, the historical Jesus, and Paul. The topics are introduced and presented in a way that is non-confrontational, yet which does not shy away from the critical issues which scholars raise about them.

Bird’s aim is to get confessional readers of the Bible to read it with different questions in mind. This might even, she suggests, enhance their reading.

One of the examples she discusses is the narrative of David and Goliath, in 1 Samuel 17. Bird notes that there are two other narratives in the Bible which suggest, contrary to 1 Samuel 17, that somebody other than David was responsible for killing Goliath. David was later given credit for killing Goliath, explains Bird, in an attempt to bolster his reputation. Understanding what the story in 1 Samuel 17 is trying to accomplish should, she contends, deepen our appreciation of the Bible.


Should the fact that Goliath appears to be killed by other people, in other versions of the story, rock one’s faith? No, says Bird:

On the contrary, it can enrich one’s faith to read passages in the Bible in a way that respects the purposes for which they were written.

Check it out: Permission Granted website.

Diagnosing Goliath: Gigantism, Acromegaly, Pituitary Tumours, etc

gigantismIn modern times, various medical experts (and many people who are not medical experts) have attempted to diagnose the cause of Goliath’s gigantic height. One recurring suggestion is that poor old Goliath was suffering either from gigantism or acromegaly, caused by excessive growth hormones.

Malcolm Gladwell, in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (2013), traces this diagnosis of Goliath’s stature to a 1960 article in the Journal of the Indiana State Medical Association, “Hereditary Hyperparathyroidism” (53: 1313-1316). Since then there have been a number of supporters, including Gladwell himself, S.W. Lamberts (1992), Dag Moskopp (1996), M. Feinsod (1997), Vladimir Berginer (2000), Vladimir Berginer and Chaim Cohen (2006), and Stephen K. Mathew and Jeyaraj D. Pandian (2010).

For a number of reasons, such endeavours cannot rise above sheer speculation.

  • First, the height of Goliath in the probably older LXX version is only 6 3/4 feet. Even given an average male Philistine height of just over five feet, Goliath’s height is hardly a sure sign of any medical abnormality.
  • Second, the details of the story are dubious. Famously, in 2 Samuel 21, it is “Elhanan” who kills Goliath of Gath, not David. So when modern medical experts draw inferences from the details in the story about David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, the grounds for doing so are poor.
  • Third, the story in 1 Samuel 17 emphasizes theological reasons for David’s victory (David has faith in his god Yahweh, while Goliath mocks this god). To treat such a story as good data for medical diagnosis is, therefore, very misguided.

Such considerations have not put a stop to efforts to diagnose Goliath. The latest medical article on the subject is by Deirdre E Donnelly and Patrick J Morrison (“Hereditary Gigantism-the biblical giant Goliath and his brothers”, Ulster Medical Journal, May 2014; 83(2): 86–88).

Donnelly and Morrison take the Bible at face value, seemingly accepting that there was a “Flood” and that the Bible is a good witness to giants at the dawn of time:

Giants have been around since time began; they are first described in the Bible in the book of Genesis (6:1-4)…

Giants lived together as a number of separate races, before and after the Flood….

The giants from Gath were present after the Flood. One possible answer to the often raised question of why the Nephilim giants, present before the Flood were not eradicated by it, could be that new mutations in the AIP gene (or other genes) caused new families of giants to appear

Although it shouldn’t have to be said – the worldwide “Flood” is not an historical event! Donnelly and Morrison’s analysis of medical conditions developing in periods defined “before” and “after” the Flood is, well, silly.

Donnelly and Morrison proceed to connect the name of one group of giants mentioned in the Bible, the ענקים (Anakim) to the Hebrew term ענק (necklace). Which is fair enough. But from this they suggest that the term might possibly refer to the goitre. They then leap to the fabulous conclusion that Goliath’s condition was “hyperthyroidism, possibly due to underlying pituitary gland, or other endocrine, dysfunction”.

Not satisfied with these leaps of fancy, Donnelly and Morrison then reconstruct Goliath’s alleged family tree “from Samuel and Chronicles” (by which they must surely mean the giants mentioned in 2 Sam 21:15–22 and its parallel in 1 Chron 20:4–8). Some of these giants are said to have six fingers, a not uncommon symptom of gigantism. In their reconstructed family tree, Donnelly and Morrison indicate members affected by the hereditary autosomal dominant pituitary gene with black shading,  and indicate the presence of hexadactyly (six-fingeredness) with the + symbol:


The big problem here is that 2 Sam 21:15–22 and 1 Chron 20:4–8 don’t actually mention any family relations. Donnelly and Morrison seem to have read the term “offsprings of the Raphah” (ילידי הרפה) in these passages a little too literally. The term refers generally to the giants of Gath as descendants of the Rephaim/Giants. How Donnelly and Morrison came up with Goliath’s three sons, is more puzzling, but it is not from reading anything in the Bible. In addition, their inclusion of Lahmi as brother of Goliath appears to be ignorant of the well-known interpretation of this phrase as a harmonization with 1 Samuel 17. Elhanan is made to kill Goliath’s brother, rather than Goliath himself, thereby removing the embarrassing contradiction with the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 (in which David, rather than Elhanan, kills Goliath). Lahmi does not appear in the more original 2 Samuel 21.  There is simply no “family tree” to be reconstructed here. So the authors’ conclusion about a “hereditary” condition is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.

Donnelly and Morrison go on to explain that Goliath was killed due to impaired vision, caused by his autosomal dominant pituitary gene. Here things descend into pure speculation:

Goliath was killed by David who threw a stone at his forehead (Samuel [sic] 17:49). This gives further evidence that he suffered from pituitary gland dysfunction; a pituitary tumour pressing on his optic chiasm, and consequent visual disturbance due to pressure on his optic nerve, would have made it difficult for him to see the stone in his lateral vision. Pituitary giants look impressive in terms of stature, but may not have speed and agility to match their perceived strength. David, having agility, particularly having declined the heavy set of armour that was offered to him, and being skilled at sling shots, may have found a way around the fearsome looking giant by firing a sling shot from the side of the battlefield….

Goliath himself had a shield bearer precede him, possibly to indicate to Goliath the direction of the approaching foe.

Donnelly and Morrison then cite the other medical experts who have speculated on Goliath’s condition, as “fact”:

The fact that Goliath may have had a pituitary tumour was recognised by Vladimir Berginer in a paper in 2000.

For the reasons provided above, the conclusions of those who have attempted to diagnose Goliath are far from “fact”. The modern diagnosis of Goliath is an entirely misguided enterprise from the get go. It is made more absurd in this case by the misinterpretation of biblical passages as involving a “family tree” where there is none in fact. In their acknowledgements, the authors thank “the theological reviewer who carefully checked our statements on the Biblical giants for accuracy and who provided very helpful comments including original Hebrew text”. Donnelly and Morrison would have received better advice if they had been told to stick to the diagnosis of living patients and leave biblical characters alone.

Does Rapha’ appear on a 9th-Century BCE Jar at Tell es-Safi/(“Gath”)?

In two articles, one co-authored with Esther Eschel, Aren Maeir suggests that he may have found a further example of the term or proper name רפא (rapha’) on a ninth-century BCE jar found  at  Tell es-Safi/(“Gath”). That means that the jar was inscribed during Philistine rule, before the later Judean rule of the city.

The term רפא (rapha’) is sometimes apparently just a proper name (“Raphah”; e.g. 1 Chronicles 8:2). Yet it is also used to describe various giants, including the Goliath of Gath who opposed David’s elite soldiers  (2 Samuel 21:18-22). The plural of the term is the more familiar רפאים (Rephaim), which the Bible uses to describe various ancient heroes and kings, as well as (in Deuteronomy) entire races of giants.

Here is a picture of the jar, along with a larger view of the fragments on which the inscription was found:


There is a big problem with reading these Phoenician letters,  however, as Aren Maeir and Esther Eschel discuss in the articles. The first letter (reading  right-to-left) is only partial, and does not clearly look like any particular ninth-century r. It could be a d or an ayin. But it is very hard to tell. The second letter is probably a p, but a g is not ruled out by the authors. The final letter (on the left) is also unclear, and while plausibly an aleph, it could be a l.

With this level of uncertainty, Maeir and Eschel conclude,

we tentatively prefer the first suggested reading of  רפא … but one should not rule out the other possible readings

Maeir also suggests that the Tell es-Safi inscription might be compared with stamped-handle inscriptions from no earlier than eight century BCE, which had previously been uncovered at Tell es-Safi, and which also probably evidence the name רפא. If so, “the רפא family might be seen as an important family/clan on a local scale over several generations”. Possibly. But as there is a fundamental uncertainty in reading the letters of the inscription, further conclusions are likewise uncertain. Still, it is an interesting possibility.

The studies also consider the meaning of the רפא root as “healer”, but dismiss it due to the lack of a definite article (and the lack of sufficient space for one in the gap in the jar to the right of the inscription).

I suggest another possibility. The term may be related instead to Akk. rabā’um (‘to be large, great’), and its derivative rabium (< rabūm; ‘leader, chief, prince’). Notably, the well-known personal name Hammurabi is alternatively spelled Hammurapi at Ugarit (ca. 1200 BCE). By the ninth century BCE, the term in West Semitic may arguably have settled with the spelling r-p-ʾ. The derivation is suggested or supported by Joseph Aistleitner, Georg Sauer, George E. Mendenhall, Samuel E. Loewenstamm, and (with more extensive reasoning) Michael L. Brown. The term is sometimes paired with “king” (mlk) in IA Palestine, as on Samaria Ostracon 24 – which may support the parallelism with r-p-ʾ=’prince’. If so, and if the letters should be read this way, the jar may have belonged to a prince or nobleman, rather than to a family with the name רפא.


Maeir, Aren M. ‘The Rephaim in Iron Age Philistia: Evidence of a Multi-Generational Family?’ Pages 289–97 in ‘Vom Leben umfangen’: Ägypten, das Alte Testament und das Gespräch der Religionen. Gedenkschrift für Manfred Görg, eds. S. J. Wimmer and G. Gafus (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014).

Maeir, Aren M., and Esther Eshel. ‘Four Short Alphabetic Inscriptions from Iron Age IIA Tell es-Safi/Gath and Their Contribution for Understanding the Process of the Development of Literacy in Iron Age Philistia.’ In ‘See, I Will Bring a Scroll Recounting What Befell Me’ (Ps 40:8): Epigraphy and Daily Life—From the Bible to the Talmud Dedicated to the Memory of Professor Hanan Eshel, edited by Esther Eshel and Yigal Levin. JAJSup. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, forthcoming.

Maeir, Aren M. ‘The New Seal from Jerusalem: The Gath Connection.’ The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) weblog. 2 March 2008.