Tall tales: Research examines Goliath's true height

While it is possible that Goliath was quite tall and even may have dwarfed most of his contemporaries, he was still a normally sized human being, at least by today’s standards.

Photo of two men sitting together shows Prof. Jeff Chadwick (BYU) and Prof. Aren Maeir (BIU) at the nature park entrance to Tell es-Safi, site of the ancient biblical city of Gath (photo credit: JEFF CHADWICK)
Photo of two men sitting together shows Prof. Jeff Chadwick (BYU) and Prof. Aren Maeir (BIU) at the nature park entrance to Tell es-Safi, site of the ancient biblical city of Gath
(photo credit: JEFF CHADWICK)
Goliath may have a towering place in biblical history, but the Philistine warrior described as a giant may not actually have been that tall, according to new research by Prof. Jeff Chadwick of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies.
Chadwick, an archaeologist with the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project in Israel, delivered an illustrated academic presentation called “Four Cubits and a Span – The Size of Biblical Goliath as Reflected in Fortification Architecture at Tell es-Safi/Gath” at the 2020 Annual Meeting of ASOR – the American Schools of Oriental Research – which was held online last month.
Prof. Jeff Chadwick (BYU) measures a stone ashlar block in an ancient wall with a special 54 cm "cubit" stick [Photo credit: Jeff Chadwick]Prof. Jeff Chadwick (BYU) measures a stone ashlar block in an ancient wall with a special 54 cm "cubit" stick [Photo credit: Jeff Chadwick]
The presentation was based on Chadwick’s seven-year project to identify ancient metrics in Israel, as well as his work over the last 20 years as an archaeologist with the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project in Israel, where he collaborated with Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, director of excavations at Gath. It shows that while it is possible that Goliath was quite tall and may even have dwarfed most of his contemporaries, he was still a normal-sized person, at least by today’s standards.
Goliath, the Philistine warrior who was bested by David in a one-on-one battle that has become an emblem for all underdogs courageously triumphing over fearsome adversaries, has long been portrayed as a giant. Several ancient sources, including Samuel 1 in the Bible, specify his height as “six cubits and a span,” but four other ancient sources state Goliath’s height as “four cubits and a span.” These are the Vaticanus manuscript and Lucian recension of the Greek Septuagint (LXX-b and LXX-l), the Samuel manuscript of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam-a), and the Samuel narrative reported by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Antiquities 6:171). Many biblical scholars prefer the “four cubits and a span” reading as the most likely measure.
Since 2013, Chadwick has conducted research on the ancient measurements known as the cubit and the span as part of an extensive project on ancient measurements in general. Visiting dozens of archaeological sites in Israel, and measuring hundreds of different architectural features in their excavated remains, Chadwick has identified the length of the ancient cubit as 54 centimeters, and the length of the ancient span as 22 centimeters.

Photo shows Prof. Jeff Chadwick (BYU) stands on the excavated stone foundation of the ancient Iron Age city wall of Gath, the home town of biblical Goliath -- the wall foundation measures 2.38 meters wide (four cubits and a span)
Sites where these measurements were found by Chadwick include not only ancient Gath, but also Jerusalem, Hebron (Tel Rumeide), Beersheba (Tel Sheva), Ekron (Tel Miqne), Tel Arad, Tel Beit Shemesh, Tel Gezer, Tel Megiddo, Tel Jezreel, Tel Beit She’an, Tel Hatzor, Tel Dan, and et-Tell (Bethsaida).
Preliminary results of his metrics project were presented by Chadwick at the November 2016 ASOR Annual Meeting and are currently being prepared for publication.
In the 2020 ASOR presentation, Chadwick noted that the height metric for Goliath found in 1 Samuel 17:4 is absolutely unique – no other person’s height is reported in specific metrics in the entire Hebrew Bible. For example, while King Saul is noted as being head-and-shoulders taller than other Israelite men (1 Samuel 9:2), there is no specific measure given for his height. Chadwick wondered why a precise measurement for the Philistine champion’s height was reported.
Given that “four cubits and a span” (2.38 meters) has been determined to be the thickness of Gath’s city wall, in the very era that Goliath is supposed to have lived (the horizon of late Iron Age I or early Iron Age II), Chadwick proposed that the Hebrew Bible author (probably the so-called Deuteronomist of the late seventh century BCE) metaphorically rendered the extraordinary size of Goliath by describing him as being as tall as the width of his city’s wall.
“It seems like an appropriate literary device, to characterize Goliath as being as big as a city wall” Chadwick said.
He added that he was not claiming Goliath was not the giant described by the Bible, only that the very tall height given for the Philistine is probably not a literal height but a comparative measure. A person standing 2.38 meters (7 feet 9½ inches), or even something near that, would be extremely tall even today. In the Iron Age, an average man’s height was reportedly in between five feet and five foot three. The tallest three American basketball players in the NBA of recent memory – Shawn Bradley, Yao Ming, and Manute Bol – stood 7 feet 6 inches (2.286 m.) tall. So the report of Goliath’s height would remain quite impressive, even if it were in reality a metaphoric comparison to the thickness of his city’s wall.
He also explained that he was not offering a commentary on the veracity of the Goliath account in the Bible nor was he taking the position that Goliath was either a real person or a literary invention, nor was he making any statement about the historicity of the David and Goliath battle narrative. Noting that there are differing approaches to all these questions, Chadwick explained that his presentation was strictly aimed at inquiring where the biblical writer would obtain the “four cubits and a span” metric to describe the Philistine.
Tell es-Safi, also known in Hebrew as Tel Tzafit, is located in south central Israel, east of Ashdod, where the Coastal Plain meets the Judean foothills. The large mound, which is a nature reserve, is the site of the ancient and very large city of Gath, a major Canaanite city in all periods of the Bronze Age and capital of the Philistine pentapolis in the Iron Age. The city was located on the south bank of the Eila Valley stream bed.
Gath is famous in the Bible as the home of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:4) and also as one of the places where David sought refuge from King Saul (1 Samuel 21:10-15).