Category Archives: Bible Backgrounds

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

There are two different biblical traditions on Goliath's height. Exactly how tall was he?
There are two different biblical traditions on Goliath’s height. Exactly how tall was he?

Did you know that there are two different biblical traditions for Goliath’s height? The Hebrew text (MT) of 1 Samuel 17:4 lists Goliath’s height at “six cubits and a span,” while a copy of the book of Samuel from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam[a]) along with copies of the Septuagint (LXX), list Goliath’s height at “4 cubits and a span.” For all you mathematicians that may be reading this, that is a two cubit difference. “Great,” you might say, “what exactly is a cubit?” A cubit is the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger, or roughly, 18 inches. We have to add the word “roughly” because, quite obviously, the length from one person’s elbow to the tip of their middle finger may be shorter or longer than that of someone else. To add to the confusion, in the ancient Near East, some countries had what was known as the “royal cubit,” as well as the “common cubit,” which would be a bit shorter. Royal cubits varied from country to country. For example, the royal cubit in Egypt was 20.65 inches, while in Babylonia it was 19.8 inches (Clyde E. Billington, “GOLIATH AND THE EXODUS GIANTS: HOW TALL WERE THEY?,” JETS, 50/3, 2007, pp. 489-508). Depending on the size of an individual, the common cubit would be even less than the royal cubit. Given that the common height of an ancient Israelite was somewhere between 5 feet and 5 feet 3 inches, this could make the common cubit somewhere between 16-17 inches. Billington notes that an 18 inch cubit would mean the person was about 5 feet 8 inches (taller than most Israelites of this period).

Goliath's height was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span. A span is the length between the thumb and the little finer with the hand spread as far apart as possible.
Goliath’s height was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span. A span is the length between the thumb and the little finger with the hand spread as far apart as possible.

These various measurements of the cubit are only the beginning of the uncertainty regarding Goliath’s height, because we also must consider how long a “span” is. In the ancient world, a span was the distance between the tip of the thumb and the little finger when the hand was spread apart. Billington estimates that a person who is 5 feet tall would have a span of about 7 1/2 inches. At 6 feet tall, my own span measures 8 3/10 inches. Like a cubit, the length of a span depends on the size of the person. Two spans are usually considered to make a cubit, although they are in fact a little short of a cubit. By using the conventional 18 inch cubit and 9 inch span (both of which seem too large for an ancient Israelite), Goliath’s height either comes to 9 feet 9 inches (MT), or 6 feet 9 inches (4QSam[a] and LXX). These are the heights we frequently hear referenced by pastors and teachers when commenting on 1 Samuel 17:4. However, if we adjust the size of the cubit and span to what would be more likely for an ancient Israelite, then, according to Billing, 16.5 inches would be a reasonable cubit and 7.5 inches would equal a span. Some quick calculations make Goliath’s height, according to the MT, to be about 8 feet 9 inches (8.875), and according to 4QSam(a) and the LXX to be about 6 feet 1 inch (6.125). This second figure seems impossibly low for a “giant” like Goliath and we might be tempted to automatically throw it out as a possibility. However, two considerations should be borne in mind. First, we should not judge Goliath’s height based on modern standards, but rather on ancient Near Eastern standards. Today someone who is 6 feet or taller is a common occurrence, but remember, most people in the ancient world were nearly 9 inches to 1 foot smaller. Second, it is important to examine the textual evidence for each reading. In other words, which reading, “4 cubits and a span,” or “6 cubits and a span,” seems to have the most solid evidence for being the original reading?

Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert Leinweber --- Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis
Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert Leinweber — Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

To summarize, we have seen that Goliath’s height depends on the size of both the cubit and the span, and which reading of the text is the most reliable. This means that Goliath’s actual height could have been anywhere between 6 feet 1 inch and 9 feet 9 inches. Before continuing, when seeking the truth about Goliath’s height, we should caution ourselves concerning our own prejudices. For some, a person 9’9″ is out of the realm of reality, and they would therefore be inclined to the “more reasonable” reading of 6′ 9″ – 6’1″. Others, however, raised on the traditional story of David defeating the giant Goliath, would almost consider it a sacrilege to suggest that Goliath might be in the 6 foot range, as opposed to the 9 foot range. Whichever way our prejudices run, they do not help us get at the truth of Goliath’s height. Only by examining the evidence, which includes the height of people in the ancient world, the relative lengths of a cubit and span, and the textual evidence for the most reliable reading, will we be be able to come to a conclusion that seems plausible.

Which Reading of 1 Samuel 17:4 is the Most Reliable?

The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text copied by scribes known as the Masoretes.
The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text copied by scribes known as the Masoretes.

Our English Bibles traditionally follow the reading of the Hebrew manuscripts known as the Masoretic text (MT). As a result, I find myself partial to the MT. Anytime there is a suggested reading that is different, I want to hang on to the reading of the MT. Why? It is no doubt a very reliable tradition of the text so that’s one reason. But I must admit that the other is, because I’m used to the readings found in the MT (which admittedly is not a good reason). On this particular passage, however, bible scholar, J. Daniel Hays argues in a very convincing way for the reading found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam[a]) and the Septuagint (LXX). In other words, he argues that the text should read “4 cubits and a span” (you can find one of his articles, a response to Billington, here). His reasons are summarized below.

  1. The earliest Hebrew manuscript, 4QSam(a), which dates to the middle of the first century BC, reads “4 cubits and a span.” Hays points out that this particular manuscript is 1,000 years older than our earliest copy of the MT (935 AD), although he admits that the reading “6 cubits and a span” found in the MT goes back to at least 200 AD.
  2. “The major early Septuagint texts all have this reading.” Hays also notes that Josephus refers to Goliath’s height as “4 cubits and a span.”
  3. Hays points out the well-known fact that the MT of 1&2 Samuel has a number of scribal errors. Furthermore, although 1 Chronicles does not include the story of David and Goliath, he notes that where 1 Chronicles is parallel with 1&2 Samuel, Chronicles always agrees with the reading of 4QSam(a) and the LXX when it differs from the MT. Hays also argues that it is much easier to explain how “4 cubits” was changed to “6 cubits” rather than the other way around. The word for “cubit” in verse 4 and “hundred”in verse 7 look very similar in Hebrew. Hays says that a scribe copying the manuscript accidentally looked down at verse 7 and saw the number “6” (as in six hundred) and copied it into verse 4. This is a well-known copying mistake called “parablepsis” (“a looking by the side”).
  4. The story never refers to Goliath as a giant. This is an interesting observation frequently overlooked. Although the story clearly does reference Goliath’s size, which would be intimidating whether 4 or 6 cubits is the correct reading, it does not focus on it. I will have more to say about this below.
  5. Some argue that the weight of Goliath’s weaponry and armor better fits someone who is 6 cubits rather than 4. However, Hays goes to great lengths to demonstrate that regular-sized people (e.g., in the military) often carry this kind of weight.
  6. Saul’s answer to David as to why he cannot fight him references Goliath’s skill as a warrior, not his height.
  7. Some argue against the “4 cubits and a span” reading by saying if Saul was “head and shoulders” taller than anyone else in Israel, and the average Israelite was 5 feet to 5‘3″, then Saul would be nearly as tall as Goliath. Hays says that this is precisely the point! Tall Saul should have been the one to face tall Goliath. The interest of the story is to demonstrate Saul’s fear and lack of faith, as he was the most likely candidate to confront Goliath.

Conclusion: Goliath’s Height

Photos such as these found on the internet are bogus. No archaeologists in the Middle East have ever uncovered a human of this size. Goliath was a descendant of the Nephilim but his height was not the exaggerated height shown here.
Photos such as these found on the internet are bogus. No archaeologists in the Middle East have ever uncovered a human of this size. Goliath may have been a descendant of the Nephilim  (he is called a “rapha” in 2 Sam. 21), but his height did not consist of the exaggerated height shown here.

Although I have always been inclined toward the reading of the MT, as noted above, I must admit that Hays presents some strong arguments. The most convincing to me include what he calls “the external evidence.” This concerns the textual evidence. The fact that 4QSam(a) is earlier than the MT and that it, and Chronicles, and the LXX, always agree with each other whenever there is a variant is compelling. The well-known problems of scribal errors in the MT of Samuel also contributes to this, as does the fact that parablepsis is a plausible argument for how the reading got changed. Furthermore, Josephus, living in the first century AD is also a witness to the reading “4 cubits and a span.”

Hay’s “internal evidence” includes examining the text which involves a discussion of Goliath’s armor and the fact that he is never mentioned as a giant. This was interesting and I agree with Hays to a point on this. However, while 1 Samuel 17 does not call Goliath a giant, there are two other passages that infer he was a descendant of the Nephilim. Joshua 11:22 speaks about the conquest of the land, especially focusing on the Anakim (descendants of the Nephilim, see my other related posts here and here). This passage states that the Anakim only remained in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod (all Philistine cities!). It should be recalled that Goliath is from Gath. The description of his tall stature certainly suggests a connection with the descendants of the Nephilim. Furthermore, 2 Samuel 21:15-22 relates four stories of Philistines who are killed by David’s men. Each one is said to be related to the “giant” (the word is “rapha” which is the singular of Rephaim). This reference is to Goliath and here he is associated with the Rephaim, who were also considered to be descendants of the Nephilim. Therefore, although the story in 1 Samuel 17 may not refer to Goliath as a “giant,” it seems certain that other passages indicate he was a descendant of the Nephilim. However, I still believe the “external evidence” that Hays produces argues for the “4 cubits and a span” reading. Goliath could be a descendant of the Nephilim without being over 9 feet tall. Considering the average height of an Israelite at this time, someone who is roughly 6 1/2 feet would certainly be an intimidating presence.

Finally, in spite of all of the fantastic (trick) photography on the internet, no remains of people who were 9-10 feet tall have ever been found in the Middle East. These pictures of so-called Nephilim are dubious (see photo above on left). Since the average height in the ancient Near East was between 5 feet and 5’3,” and since archaeology seems to confirm this (at least to this point), and since the textual evidence leans toward the reading of “4 cubits and a span,” I conclude that Goliath was most probably on the taller side of the 6-foot range, as opposed to the 9-foot range of the MT.

Caesarea Philippi and the Nephilim?

Caesarea Philippi and the Nephilim?

The Nephilim are first mentioned in Genesis 6:4.
The Nephilim are first mentioned in Genesis 6:4.

My title for this article is actually greatly abbreviated. If I were to have written out the entire title it would have been something like, “What do Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Phillippi, the Nephilim, the worship of Baal, and the locations of Mount Hermon and the land of Bashan all have in common? The question sounds crazy and some Bible readers may not even be familiar with places like Mount Hermon or Bashan, and probably know very little about the mysterious Nephilim. So a very natural question is, “Who knows and who cares?” If you’ll bear with me and read through this entire post, I will try to demonstrate the connection between each of these subjects and what we can learn from their connection. Personally, the connection between these subjects has opened my eyes up to things that I had never noticed in Scripture before. As a side-light, it has also increased my conviction that learning biblical geography can help one better understand and appreciate certain stories in the Bible. I will tackle each of these subjects one at a time. As I move from item to item the picture I’m seeking to convey should become more clear. Much of the insight for this post must be credited to Dr. Michael Heiser and his recent book, THE UNSEEN REALM.

Caesarea Philippi

This artistic recreation of the pagan sanctuaries at Caesarea Philippi is on display at the archaeological site.
This artistic recreation of the pagan sanctuaries at Caesarea Philippi is on display at the archaeological site. The buildings from left to right are: 
1. The Temple of Augustus Called the Augusteum (On the Left); 
2. The Grotto or Cave of the God Pan (Behind the Temple of Augustus)
; 3. The Court of Pan and the Nymphs (To the Right of the Temple of Augustus); 
4. The Temple of Zeus (In the Middle)
; 5. The Court of Nemesis (To the Right of the Temple of Zeus); 
6. The Tomb Temple of the Sacred Goats (Upper Right); 
7. The Temple of Pan and the Dancing Goats (Bottom Right)

Caesarea Philippi is famous biblically for being the place where Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matt. 16:13; cf. Mark 8:27). After the disciples mentioned many well-known biblical people, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” To which Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Caesarea Philippi is an interesting place for this confession since, as is usually pointed out by any good commentary, it was a seat of pagan worship in a predominantly Gentile area.

The city known as Caesarea Philippi in Jesus’ time, was originally established by Alexander the Great as a countryside shrine to the Greek god Pan located in a cave that possessed an underground stream so deep, it was considered bottomless. The place was named Paneas and later during the reign of Herod the Great, Herod built a city there. In honor of the emperor, he also built a temple to Augustus. After Herod’s death, his son Philip expanded the size of the city and renamed it Caesarea Philippi in order to honor both Caesar and himself, as well as to distinguish it from the Caesarea built by Herod on the coast. Today the city retains its ancient name, being pronounced Banias (the locals pronounce “p” like “b”). Anyone who checks a good Bible commentary can discover this information, and although it is significant that Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ in this pagan city, it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the history of this area.

Mount Hermon, Baal, and the Nephilim

Caesarea Philippi/Banias sits at the foot of Mount Hermon in this photo, a mountain believed to be the dwelling abode of Baal in ancient times.
Caesarea Philippi/Banias sits at the foot of Mount Hermon in this photo, a mountain believed to be the dwelling abode of Baal in ancient times.

As the photo above illustrates, Caesarea Philippi/Banias is located at the foot of Mount Hermon (see center and bottom of photo). Mount Hermon is part of a range that divided the land of Israel from ancient Syria and Phoenicia (modern Lebanon). The Phoenicians, worshippers of Baal (think Jezebel–e.g., 1 Kgs. 18:19), actually considered Mount Hermon to be the mountain of Baal. Long before Alexander the Great instituted the worship of Pan in the area, Baal was the main attraction. In fact, Mount Hermon was also known as Mount Baal-Hermon in biblical times (Judg. 3:3; 1 Chron. 5:23).

As if the worship of Baal doesn’t provide Mount Hermon with enough of a tarnished reputation, there is still a more nefarious incident associated with it. According to the Book of Enoch, and Jewish tradition, Mount Hermon was the gathering place of the rebellious angels who descended from its heights to mate with the daughters of men, resulting in the birth of the Nephilim. I have included a copy of chapter 6:1-6 of the Book of Enoch which relates the incident:

<img class=”size-full wp-image-2399″ src=”” alt=”The Book of Enoch taught that the rebellious angels of Genesis 6 descended from Mount Hermon to mate with the daughters of men and give birth to the Nephilim.” width=”255″ height=”394″ /> The Book of Enoch taught that the rebellious angels of Genesis 6 descended from Mount Hermon to mate with the daughters of men and give birth to the Nephilim.

Book of Enoch
6:1 And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. 2 And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’ 3 And Semjâzâ, who was their leader, said unto them: ‘I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.’ 4 And they all answered him and said: ‘Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.’ 5 Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. 6 And they were in all two hundred; who descended ‹in the days› of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it (Charles, R. H. (Ed.). (1913). Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Vol. 2, p. 191). Oxford: Clarendon Press.).

To assert that the Book of Enoch teaches that the Nephilim are a result of the rebellious angels who descended from Mount Hermon, is not to suggest that this is necessarily a historical fact. It is only to assert that it was taught in Jewish tradition to be the place of this event. This tradition further enhances the evil reputation surrounding this area. Jews of the 1st century would certainly have been aware of this tradition, as the Book of Enoch was well-known to them. In fact, Peter, the very one who confesses Jesus to be the Christ at Caesarea Philippi, alludes to the Book of Enoch in 2 Peter 2:4-5.

Before leaving a discussion of Mount Hermon, it’s important to point out that its name also has significance. As Heiser states, “Just the name ‘Hermon’ would have caught the attention of Israelite and Jewish readers” (The Unseen Realm, p. 201). The name Hermon is derived from the Hebrew words ḥerem (a thing devoted to God for destruction) or ḥaram (the verb form which means to devote to destruction because it is set apart to God alone). These are the words used in the Conquest narrative (Deut.-Joshua) to describe the utter destruction of the people of Canaan. Heiser believes that this word is particularly connected with the descendants of the Nephilim (e.g., Num. 13:33). Whether Heiser’s theory–that the utter destruction was aimed at the descendants of the Nephilim–is correct must wait for a future post. My point here is that the use of this word once again seems to associate Mount Hermon with the Nephilim.

Bashan–the Place of the Serpent

This map show the area of Bashan colored in green on the right.
This map shows the area of Bashan colored in green on the right.

Moving out in an ever-widening circle, Bashan is the territory in which Caesarea Philippi and Mount Hermon reside. Although one meaning of Bashan is “fertile, stoneless piece of ground,” another meaning of this root is “Serpent” (Lete, del O. G. (1999). Bashan. In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst [Eds.], Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible [2nd extensively rev. ed., p. 161]). Bashan has associations with the Rephaim, descendants of the Nephilim going way back in antiquity. Bible students should recall that Israel, under the leadership of Moses conquered this territory which belonged to Og king of Bashan. In fact, Joshua 12:4-5 says it this way:

“The other king was Og king of Bashan and his territory, who was of the remnant of the giants [Hebrew = Rephaim], who dwelt at Ashtaroth and at Edrei, and reigned over Mount Hermon, over Salcah, over all Bashan, as far as the border of the Geshurites and the Maachathites, and over half of Gilead to the border of Sihon king of Heshbon.”

Tablet like these discovered at the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit further confirm that Bashan was known as "the place of the serpent," and the territory of the Rephaim.
Tablets like these discovered at the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit further confirm that Bashan was known as “the place of the serpent,” and the territory of the Rephaim.

Note the references to Mount Hermon and the Nephilim in this passage. Not only does the Bible state that King Og of Bashan is a descendant of the Nephilim, according to Heiser the designation of Og as an “Amorite” associates him with Babylon. Furthermore, the dimensions of his bed (see Deut. 3:8-11) “are precisely those of the cultic bed in the ziggurat called Entemenanki–which is the ziggurat most archaeologists identify as the Tower of Babel referred to in the Bible” (Heiser, The Unseen Realm, p. 198). All the connections start to become a little mind-blowing, not to mention confusing for some. I’ll leave it to those interested in pursuing this further to read Dr. Heiser’s book. The point here is that Bashan, the territory in which Caesarea Philippi resides, has ancient associations with the Nephilim, as well as carrying the meaning of  “the place of the Serpent” The association of Bashan with “The place of the serpent,” as well as being a dwelling place of the Rephaim ( a word used in the Bible for the descendants of the Nephilim) also finds confirmation in the Canaanite literature discovered at Ugarit (see photo on left).

The Gates of Hades (Hell)

This cave in Caesarea Philippi, known as the Cave of Pan was also called, "The Gates of Hades." The cave is still visible today to anyone visiting Banias.
This cave in Caesarea Philippi, known as the Cave of Pan was also called, “The Gates of Hades.” The cave is still visible today to anyone visiting Banias.

Finally, in returning to Caesarea Philippi, given the associations of this area with Greek gods, Baal, the Nephilim, and the name “place of the serpent,” it should come as no surprise that it was also associated with the realm of the dead. The Canaanites taught that the Rephaim were the dead spirits of ancient kings, thus associating Bashan with the underworld. Interestingly enough, the Cave of Pan in Caesarea Philippi was called, “The Gates of Hades.” This may be related to the idea that the cave was believed to be a bottomless pit (see comments above). Against this background, Jesus’ statement following Peter’s confession that “the gates of Hades [hell] will not prevail against it (i.e., the church),” is very illuminating!

In conclusion, the fact that Peter’s confession occurs in a pagan area is remarkable enough. But when one learns the history of the area and the traditions associated with it, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ the Son of God takes on greater significance. This confession is declared in “the place of the serpent.” It is declared in an area associated with divine (the Nephilim), as well as human (worship of Baal) rebellion. In the darkest place possible, Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and the light of God shone on Bashan through Peter’s confession.

Patterns of Evidence: Exodus

Patterns of Evidence: Exodus

Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, interviews archaeologists and egyptologists in search of evidence for the biblical Exodus
Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, interviews archaeologists and egyptologists in search of evidence for the biblical Exodus

Did the Exodus happen? Many leading archaeologists and Bible scholars today say, “No.” Others argue that there may have been a small group of slaves that escaped Egypt, but the historical events didn’t happen the way they are described in the Bible. Even among evangelical scholars who accept the biblical account as historical, there is a debate regarding the date of the Exodus (this article from Wikipedia is an example of the skepticism of most regarding the Exodus). All of this confusion surrounding the Exodus led filmmaker Timothy P. Mahoney to begin a 12-year quest to discover if the Exodus really happened as it is told in the Bible, or not. The result of his investigation is a book and film entitled Patterns of Evidence: Exodus. Mahoney explains that his original reason for going to Israel and Egypt was to do a documentary about the route of the Exodus and the location of the real Mount Sinai. However, when he arrived in the Middle East, he was asked why he would want to make a documentary about an event that never happened. You can see his interview with Fox News here where Mahoney explains how this question changed the direction of his project and eventually led to the making of Patterns of Evidence: Exodus.

Patterns of Evidence: The Initial Quest

The ancient city of Avaris which has been excavated over the past 30 years shows evidence for an ancient Semitic/Canaanite people.
The ancient city of Avaris which has been excavated over the past 30 years shows evidence for an ancient Semitic/Canaanite people.

Mahoney’s initial quest led to disappointment. He was introduced to the most popular theory regarding the date of the Exodus, which is the time of Ramesses II (13th century B.C.). As the film points out, one of the bases for this proposal is Exodus 1:11, which mentions that the Israelites built the city of Ramesses. The city has a narrow history of 200 years (1300-1100 B.C.). The problem is, there is no evidence for a settlement of Israelites, or an exodus from Egypt during this period. Mahoney began to wonder if there was a city that showed archaeological evidence for a group of ancient Israelites. He heard about the excavations going on at the ancient city of Avaris, which happens to lay underneath the southern sector of the later city of Ramesses in the Nile Delta. There he was told by the director of excavations, Manfred Bietak, that a large group of ancient Semitic people (25-30,000) had been discovered. According to Bietak, these people were originally a free people who enjoyed a special status and were shepherds. This sounded to Mahoney like the biblical account, but Bietak discouraged that interpretation because he holds to the Ramesses II date for the Exodus and this settlement was much to early to qualify as an early settlement of Israelites.

Searching for Patterns of Evidence

Patterns of Evidence focuses on 6 major events recorded in the Bible visualized by a timeline wall, and proposes that these 6 events can be found in Egyptian history. However, some suggest that the current chronological timeline used by scholars needs to be adjusted.

Although discouraged at first, Mahoney decided that his search should proceed along the scientific lines of searching for patterns of evidence, wherever that evidence might lead. Mahoney chose 6 important events in the biblical chronology: 1) Israelites descent into Egypt; 2) the multiplication of the population; 3) slavery; 4) a judgment on Egyptian society; 5) a massive and sudden exodus; and 6) the conquest of Canaan. Was there a time period in Egyptian history that corresponded to these 6 events? According to Mahoney, and other scholars he interviews, the answer is “Yes.” Mahoney, along with such scholars as David Rohl, Bryant Wood, and John J. Bimson, contend that the period of Ramesses II is the wrong period to look for the Israelite exodus from Egypt (thus it is no surprise that evidence is lacking for this time period). Some of these scholars would contend for an earlier date of around 1450 B.C., which is traditionally the date accepted by some evangelical scholars. This date is based on 1 Kings 6:1 which states that Solomon began building the Temple 480 years after Israel left Egypt. It’s generally agreed that Solomon’s reign began about 970 B.C. and the construction of the Temple began around 966 B.C. Adding 480 years to these dates takes one back to around 1450-1440 B.C. Mahoney introduces a massive amount of evidence to demonstrate that there was a time in Egyptian history that corresponds with the 6 major events mentioned in the biblical account (I’ll leave it to you to watch the video. It is a fascinating and informative investigation whether you agree with the conclusions or not). There is still a problem, however. The problem is that even the early date of 1450 B.C. does not appear to be early enough. The pattens of evidence that Mahoney discusses take one back into the period known in Egypt as the Middle Kingdom, and this is a full 200 years earlier than the 1450 B.C. date!

Is Egyptian Chronology Correct?

This chart is one example of a change in the current Egyptian timeline employed by scholars. For an explanation of this timeline see
This chart is one example of a change in the current Egyptian timeline employed by scholars. For an explanation of this timeline see the following link at

Patterns of Evidence points out that all chronologies of the ancient world are based on Egyptian chronology. Egyptian chronology has been considered established for a long time and many (including many noted evangelical scholars) refuse to consider that there could be major errors in it. However, there is a growing number of scholars looking into a “revised” Egyptian chronology (see the example above and the link for an explanation). The current chronology that is used, not only creates problems for the biblical account, but it also requires gaps of time to be inserted into the chronologies of other ancient nations in order to make them synchronize with Egyptian history. This suggests there may be a problem. David Rohl and John J. Bimson, among others, are convinced that Egypt’s chronology needs an overhaul. Others are convinced that an early date for the Exodus (i.e., 1450 B.C.) is still the best explanation (see Bryant Wood’s arguments against Rohl’s chronology here).

An Evaluation of Patterns of Evidence: Exodus

For more information on Patterns of Evidence: Exodus see the website at
For more information on Patterns of Evidence: Exodus see the website at

Mahoney is up front about coming from a Christian family and growing up believing in the historicity of the Bible. However, he admits that when he began his investigation into the evidence for the Exodus, it created some doubt and concern. But, as he says at the end of the film, he was determined to go wherever the evidence led. Although one could accuse Mahoney of entering this project with a biased point of view, as archaeologist Bryant Wood points out in his interview with Mahoney, “everybody in the field is biased.” Not only is it impossible for a human being to have no bias, but in my small exposure to the world of archaeology I have learned that conclusions are often heavily motivated by theological or political agendas. Therefore I find Wood’s next point even more important when he states, “I can not make up the evidence, I can not plant it in the ground,” and he encourages everyone to look at the evidence and make a decision based upon it. This is what Mahoney seeks to do in the film. The film interviews scholars, archaeologists, and Egyptologists of all persuasions. Some believe the biblical story is reliable and some do not. I find Mahoney’s treatment fair, although he is clearly coming from an evangelical perspective. In the end, he does not firmly endorse one view over another, but the film does indicate, as the title suggests, that there are some strong Patterns of Evidence for believing the biblical story of the Exodus.

The Church in Rome: Jews and Greeks

The Church in Rome: Jews and Greeks

Why did Paul write the Church in Rome? This article helps to answer that by looking at the beginning and makeup of the Church in Rome.
Why did Paul write the Church in Rome? This article helps to answer that by looking at the beginning and makeup of the Church in Rome.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of the use of ethnic terms. In fact, no letter in the New Testament uses as many ethnic terms, or duplicates the frequency with which Paul uses such terms as Romans. A tabulation of the following words illustrates my point. The word “gentiles/nations” occurs 29 times in Romans; “circumsion/uncircumcision” occurs 15 times; “Jew” is found 11 times as is “Israel”; “Greek” is used 6 times; while “Israelites” occurs 2 times and “barbarians” once. This comes to a total of 75 ethnic references in Romans. Although Paul uses various ethnic designations, all of the words can be boiled down into two distinct groups of people: Jews and Greeks (or gentiles). This would be similar to an author today using ethnic designations such as “Afro-American,” “black,” “Caucasian,” and “white.” Although 4 different words are being used, only two groups of people are being described. Paul’s frequent usage of these ethnic terms suggests something about the population that made up  the church in Rome in the first century, as well as potential reasons why he was writing to them. The following article seeks to fulfil a promise made last year in a post entitled, “Jews and Greeks in the New Testament.” I recommend reading that article first (or rereading it if it has been awhile) as it provides some necessary background for what I will be discussing here.

The Beginnings of the Church in Rome

peter-preachingAll scholars agree that the beginnings of the Church in Rome are shrouded in obscurity. However, it is noted that “visitors from Rome” were among those who heard Peter’s sermon on that  first Pentecost Sunday that the church began (Acts 2:10). It is usually thought that the gospel may have first reached Jewish synagogues in Rome through some of these witnesses. Even if this was not the case, Jews in Rome were closely in touch with what was happening in Jerusalem, and there were frequent goings and comings between these two important cities in the Roman empire. So it is reasonable to assume that the gospel message reached Jewish ears in Rome not long after that first Pentecost in one way or another, and that some responded by becoming believers in Jesus. This reconstruction suggests that the original makeup of the Church in Rome would have been mostly Jewish in the beginning, with perhaps some proselytes or God-fearers (Gentile attenders of the synagogue) also coming to faith.

We know from Roman records that in 41 A.D. the emperor Claudius restricted the public meeting of the Jews in Rome. The reason seems to relate to trouble within the synagogues in Rome. While the cause of this trouble is not specified, an educated guess would be that it involved disputes over Jesus as the Messiah. We know from the Book of Acts (e.g., Acts 17:1-9; 18:4-8, 12-17) that this was a major cause of, not only disruption in the synagogues, but civil disruption as well. Further evidence may be provided by Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 A.D. The Roman writer Suetonius states that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome because they kept rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” Although the correct form for Christ in Greek would be “Christos,” many scholars think that Suetonius simply got the name wrong. This statement, as well as the evidence from Acts, suggests that the synagogues in Rome were experiencing the same kind of conflict going on in synagogues throughout the empire regarding the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. Indeed, we might ask, what else could cause such violent conflict in Jewish synagogues of this era?

The Church in Rome and the Gentile Majority

This interesting tombstone from Rome shows 2 Jewish menorahs, but the inscription is in Greek. Paul's letter to the Romans makes it clear that the Church in Rome consited of Jews and Greeks.
This interesting tombstone from Rome shows a Greek inscription flanked by 2 Jewish menorahs, as well as other Jewish symbols. Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it clear that the Church in Rome consisted of Jews and Greeks.

With the expulsion of the Jews from the city of Rome in 49 A.D., the Church in Rome would have mostly consisted of gentiles (Many scholars believe only Jewish leaders were actually expelled from Rome. If this was the case, some Jewish believers would have remained in the Church.). After the death of Claudius in 54 A.D., many Jews returned to Rome. Aquila and Priscilla are examples of this. Although they left Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews (Acts 18:1-2), they had returned to Rome by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5). However, by the time some of these Jewish believers returned, circumstances would have changed. The Church in Rome would now have consisted of gentile leadership and a gentile majority. That the Church in Rome consisted of a majority of gentiles when Paul wrote his epistle, seems clear from a number of references in the letter (e.g., Rom. 1:5-6, 13). As Thomas Schreiner states, “When he [Paul] reflects on the composition of the Roman church, he apparently conceives of it mainly as Gentile. This is confirmed by Rom. 11:13, which specifically addresses the Gentiles, and by 15:15–16, where Paul justifies his boldness in the letter since he has a particular calling as a ‘minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’” (Schreiner, T. R. (1998). Romans (Vol. 6, p. 14). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books). This historical shift from a church which consisted mainly of Jewish believers and leadership to one that consisted mainly of Gentile believers and leadership, was bound to create some problems when Jewish believers began returning to Rome. Ben Witherington III sizes up the problem this way: “They [the Jews] have been marginalized by the expulsion, and Paul is addressing a largely Christian Gentile audience in Rome which has drawn some erroneous conclusions about Jews and Jewish Christians” (Witherington III, Ben. (2004). Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (p. 12). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

Historical and Cultural Context and Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome

The Church in Rome shifted from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority
The Church in Rome shifted from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority

Being aware of the historical context described above, as well as the cultural context (i.e., problems between Jews and Greeks, see my previous article cited above), opens a new window of understanding into Paul’s Letter to the Romans. First, the 75 ethnic references in the letter (Jew and Greek, etc.) suggest that ethnic relationships in the Church in Rome are a major concern of Paul’s. Second, a number of the doctrines that Paul writes about in the letter begin to make sense against this background of ethnic tension. For example, Jews and Greeks are all sinners (Rom. 3:9), both Jews and Gentiles are saved in the same way–by faith (Rom. 3:28-30), and Abraham is the father of those who are uncircumcised as well as those who are circumcised (Rom. 4:9-12). Furthermore, as one understands the historical switch from Jewish majority to Gentile majority in the Church in Rome, Paul’s exhortations in Romans 9-11, as well as Romans 14-15 make a lot of sense. For example, Paul argues that God is not finished with Israel (Rom. 11:11-12, 15, 25-26), and that the Gentiles need to recognize their debt to Israel and not be arrogant (Rom. 11:17-23). Paul’s discussion about not being divisive over food and the observation of certain days also highlights some of the struggles between Gentile and Jewish believers (Rom. 14:1-15:6). This understanding of the historical/cultural situation in the Roman Church helps us to better appreciate how significant Paul’s statement in Romans 10:12 is when he says, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (ESV).

The Church in Rome was Not a Church As We Think of Church

An excellent article in on Roman housings shows an artistic rendering of what ancient tenement houses or insulae would have looked like.
An excellent article in on Roman housing shows an artistic rendering of what ancient tenement houses or insulae would have looked like.

To further appreciate the situation Paul is addressing, one other historical/cultural insight is important. When we talk about the “Church in Rome,” we are not referring to a single congregation which meets in a large public building somewhere in the city. Nor are we speaking about a “megachurch” in the sense that some might think of today. Rather, we are speaking of a number of groups of people meeting throughout the City of Rome, either in houses or apartment (tenement) complexes. Paul’s greetings in Romans 16 are instructive regarding this point. Paul notes that some Christians meet with Priscilla and Aquila “in their house” (Rom. 16:5). Besides this group Paul mentions several other groups meeting in Rome (Rom. 16:10, 11, 14, 15). Along with these groups, Paul mentions a number of individuals but does not cite what group they may be meeting with. Rome was a city of one million people in the first century and Christianity was not a legal religion, therefore, Christians could not meet in a public building. The groups that Paul mentions suggests that the Church in Rome was scattered throughout the city and meeting in houses or apartments. This small-group setting would mean that any tension between believers would be very noticeable and potentially volatile. This makes Paul’s words in Romans 14:1 and 15:7 about “welcoming” one another very significant. People who feel unwelcome in a small-group setting will not stay around for long. Conversely, those who are making them feel unwelcome may not even invite them in! The result would be a horrible fractioning of the body of Christ in Rome, something that the fledgling church certainly did not need.

How History and Culture Help Us Understand the Letter to the Romans

The unity of Jews and Gentiles was a primary concern of Paul's, not only in Romans, but also in other espistles written by the apostle.
The unity of Jews and Gentiles was a primary concern of Paul’s, not only in Romans, but also in other espistles written by the apostle.

Although Paul’s letter to the Romans probably had several purposes (one being his desire to receive their assistance on a trip to Spain–Rom. 15:24), the historical and cultural background we have traced in these two articles relating to “Jews and Greeks,” demonstrates that the unity of the Church in Rome was a significant concern of Paul’s. As Craig Keener points out, “Given this situation, what the Roman Christians needed was what we would call racial reconciliation and crosscultural sensitivity” (Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Ro). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). This is a message that is easily overlooked without the proper background knowledge. Yet it is arguably one of the most important teachings in the Letter to the Romans. There are many good resources available today for understanding the background to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I have noted a few of them in this post. Hopefully, these posts (about Jews and Greeks) will help to encourage those interested in the study of the Bible about the significance of knowing the historical and cultural background in which the Bible was written.

New Testament Bible Background Commentary

New Testament Bible Background Commentary

New Testament Bible Background Commentary from IVP Academic
New Testament Bible Background Commentary from IVP Academic

IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition by Craig S. Keener, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 816 pp. Available from Amazon USA / UK

The New Testament Bible background commentary by Craig Keener has been a standard reference work for many years. The new second edition only makes this commentary more valuable. Keener has done a thorough revision of the original and has expanded his treatment of many passages. The goal has remained the same: “The sole purpose of this commentary (unlike most commentaries) is to make available the most relevant cultural, social and historical background for reading the New Testament the way its first readers would have read it” (p. 14). Thus, Keener is not seeking to offer theological commentary on the New Testament, but rather background material that will aid the reader in coming to theological conclusions. Although it is not his main focus, Keener also makes literary observations from time to time (for example, inclusios or chiastic structures–see his final chart at the end of the book entitled, “A Chiasmus: Acts 2:22-36“)

Keener’s audience remains the same as the first edition. He writes for “busy pastors and other Bible readers who have fewer resources and less time available” (p. 19). As a result, Keener omits most references that scholars and more curious Bible readers would find useful. With this target audience in mind, Keener’s New Testament background commentary begins with a 36-page introduction on how to use the commentary and why there is a need for such a commentary. As in the first edition, Keener has retained an introductory section discussing the significance of the gospels, as well as, New Testament letters. Each New Testament book is also preceded by a brief introduction. The glossary (also included in the first edition) has some new additions, such as “magic” and “Pilate,” while some definitions have been expanded such as “Satan” and “Son of God.” The maps and charts section at the end of the book remains basically unchanged (an additional map of Paul’s missionary journeys has been added rather than having one map for journeys one and two).

New Testament Bible Background Commentary: New Content

Craig S. Keener, author of IVP's New Testament Background Commentary
Craig S. Keener, author of IVP’s New Testament Bible Background Commentary

Besides the changes mentioned above, the commentary itself has been expanded in many places. As an example, I compared Keener’s treatment of Luke and Acts with the first and second editions of his commentary. These additions include anything from a sentence to a whole new paragraph. Sometimes additions are weaved around previous material and in other instances a new paragraph, or more, may be added. Some examples of ample additional material include Keener’s comments on ancient literacy in Luke 4:16, and his comments on hospitality and the woman who anointed his feet in Luke 7:43-46. Keener has greatly expanded his comments about Paul’s sea voyage to Rome (Acts 27), as well as his circumstances in Rome (Acts 28), compared to his earlier treatment of this material. Keener has also added some helpful new tables within the commentary such as Table 1 in the Gospel of Luke (“Early Parallels in Luke’), Table 2 (“Echoes of Hannah’s Song”–comparing the Mary’s Magnificat with 1 Samuel 2:1-10), and Table 7 in 1 Thessalonians (“Parallels Between 1-2 Thessalonians and Jesus’ Teachings”). At times, Keener has also omitted some material. For example, in the story about the widow of Nain in Luke 7:11-17, he omits his previous comment about what philosophers would often say to console the bereaved (compare Luke 7:13 in both editions).

What Can Be Learned From Keener’s New Testament Bible Background Commentary?

What can be learned from this commentary? Much more than there is space to tell! The reader will learn about ancient weights, measurements and money, funeral customs, weddings, geography (including how understanding certain facts about various ancient cities helps one to better understand a particular story), the nature of teachers and their disciples, honor and shame, kinship bonds and relations, education, schooling, and literacy, population estimates of various significant cities, Roman government officials, Roman armies (their makeup, their leaders), and on and on.

Whether you are new to the study of New Testament backgrounds, or a more knowledgeable student, Keener’s New Testament Bible background commentary contains something that everyone can benefit from. Allow me to cite two examples. Keener notes that ancient authors writing either histories (like Acts) or biographies (like the gospels) often drew parallels between people in the narrative. An example of this is the contrast between Zacharias’s response to the birth announcement by the angel with that of Mary’s (see comments on Luke 1:26-38, p. 180). Another helpful insight concerns the way ancient histories were written. Keener notes that ancient authors intentionally varied their vocabulary when talking about an identical event. He states, “This pattern should warn us not to read modern expectations of verbatim quotation into ancient works that no one would read that way” (p. 319, comments on Acts 1:1-5). This observation is helpful for understanding the slightly different versions that Luke gives of Jesus’ words before he ascends (comparing Luke 24 and Acts 1), as well as, Paul’s three slightly different accounts of his conversion.

In conclusion, Keener has made an excellent commentary even better with this newly revised edition. This is definitely a book that should be on everyone’s shelf who is interested in better understanding the New Testament.

Purchase The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament at Amazon USA / UK


  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic; 02 edition (January 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830824782
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830824786
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 2.2 x 9 inches

(Thanks to IVP for providing a copy of this New Testament Bible background commentary in exchange for a fair and unbiased review).