Goliath of Gath -- Was he a real person?

"Then a champion came out from the armies of the Philistines named Goliath, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head, and he was clothed with scale-armor which weighed five thousand shekels of bronze. He also had bronze greaves on his legs and a bronze javelin slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver's beam, and the head of his spear weighed six hundred shekels of iron; his shield-carrier also walked before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel and said to them, 'Why do you come out to draw up in battle array? Am I not the Philistine and you servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will become your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall become our servants and serve us.'" -- 1 Samuel 17: 4-9

Goliath -- even today, 3,000 years later, we know of the giant of the Philistines. But was he a really a man, or a myth told to enlarge the image of David, King of Israel (who we now know for certain was a real person), much like the American Myth of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree? The Bible does not give us much information about Goliath. We know that he was from Gath, a city of the Philistines, but do we know where Gath is today?

According to Dr. Aren M. Maeir, The Institute of Archaeology, Bar Ilan University, at a webpage entitled "Tell es-Safi/Gath: The period of the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, at least from an archaeological point of view, is in fact well represented at Tell es-Gafi."

Although there is a bit of a controversy regarding the exact location of Gath, most scholars believe that it was located at the site known as Tell es-Safi. This tell, which is situated approximately halfway between Ashkelon and Beth Shemesh, on the border between Philistia (the southern coastal plain of Israel) and the Judean Shephela (foothills), is one of the largest biblical sites in Israel (ca. 40 hectares/100 acres). Settled almost continuously from the Chalcolithic period (5th mill. BCE) until modern times, it is a veritable mine of archaeological evidence from all periods. Although its impressive size and archaeological promise were noted during the last century, until recently, very little archaeological research had been conducted at the site. Aside from a brief, two-week excavation conducted in 1899, only cursory visits and illicit robber excavations (conducted by the late General Moshe Dayan) took place at the site.

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[W]e have found stratigraphic evidence spanning from the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 13th cent. BCE) until the late 8th cent. BCE (Iron Age IIA). Of some importance is the fact that we have found impressive finds from the "middle stage" of the Philistine culture between the 10th and 8th cent. BCE. This phase is missing at many other Philistine sites and is of importance for the understanding of the development of the Philistine culture.

In addition, these remains can be dated to a very important period during and immediately after the “United Kingdom” of David and Solomon. In recent years, some scholars have questioned the veracity of the description of the events in this period as portrayed in the Bible. Accordingly, it is claimed that there is little, if any, non-biblical archaeological and historical evidence that relates to this period. But in light of the extraordinarily rich finds that were discovered at Tell es-Safi, it would appear that, at least from an archaeological point of view, this period is in fact well represented at this site. To this, one can add that the rich finds appear to support the view that Gath did in fact have a primary role among the Philistine cities during the earlier stages of their history.

Having found what certainly seems to be the Biblical Gath of the "United Kingdom" period, is there any evidence from that site that Goliath actually existed? Not directly (so far), but indirectly there is some evidence supporting the existence of Goliath of the Philistines.

On Nov. 10, 2005, the Jerusalem Post published an article entitled "Goliath Found?" which, while not pointing directly to the ancient giant of Gath, certainly provides some evidence that he actually existed. According to the article:

A very small ceramic shard unearthed by Bar-Ilan University archaeologists digging at Tell es-Safi, the biblical city "Gath of the Philistines," may hold a very large clue into the history of the well-known biblical figure Goliath.

The shard, which contains the earliest known Philistine inscription ever to be discovered, mentions two names that are remarkably similar to the name "Goliath".

Are these inscriptions the Goliath mentioned in 1 Samuel? Professor Aren Maeir, Chairman of Bar-Ilan University's Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology says that is highly improbable. The names are apparently not the same as Goliath of Gath, even if they are similar to the Biblical Goliath. Still, the fact that these names are found on this ancient pottery shard has some bearing on the truth of the Biblical account. According to the article:

Regardless of the low odds, the archaeological find may be seen as the first clear extra-biblical evidence that the story of the battle between David and Goliath may be more than just a legend.

Written in archaic "Proto-Canaanite" letters, the inscription found on the shard, dating to the 10th or early 9th century BCE, contains two non-Semitic names: Alwt and Wlt. Most scholars believe the name Goliath, of non-Semitic origin, is etymologically related to various Indo-European names, such as the Lydian name Aylattes.

Following intense examination of the inscription, Prof. Meir (along with his colleagues Prof. Aaron Demsky, an expert in epigraphy at Bar-Ilan University, and Dr. Stefan Wimmer, of Munich University) has concluded that the two names which appear in the inscription are remarkably similar to the etymological parallels of Goliath.

Okay, I am not an epigraphologist (if there is such a thing). I don't understand directly the significance of the two names as they relate to the name Goliath. However, what is apparent to me from the article is that the simple fact that since the names Alwt and Wlt are found on these pottery shards, since they are near relatives of Goliath (epigraphically speaking), it is certainly much more likely that Goliath was the name of an actual living human being. Moreover, since these pottery shards date to the period of the United Kingdom, it certainly adds credence to the fact that a person named Goliath may have existed at the time of King David, or slightly before . . . say, when he was a mere child.

So, while these shards do not point directly to the existence of Goliath, they certainly serve as evidence for the conclusion that a person with such a name could have existed during the same time period as David. Moreover, this discovery adds further ammunition to rebutting people like Donald Harman Akenson who, in his book Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, posits that the first eleven books of the Old Testament were written during the Babylonian exile. After all, if the mysterious genius actually wrote the books that constitute the history of the Old Testament during the Babylonian exile, he had to be a very, very smart guy to know that the name Goliath would have been a name that would be archaeologically proven to have even possibly existed around the time that King David (who was a real person) actually lived. I think believing an unknown genius would predicted that discovery takes a lot more faith than I have.


Steven Carr said…
'Written in archaic "Proto-Canaanite" letters, the inscription found on the shard, dating to the 10th or early 9th century BCE, contains two non-Semitic names: Alwt and Wlt.'

The Koran calls Goliath 'Galut' which is similar to 'Alwt'.
This is really interesting because I've asked the same question to myself, because sometimes I think he was a mythological figure, I've read a lot about it.

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