Who’s the tallest man that ever lived? In modern times, the record still sits with that perennial favourite of the Guinness Book of Records Robert Wadlow. Born in 1918 in Illinois, USA – he lived to only 22 years old, dying from complications caused by his height and the underlying condition – hypertrophy of his pituitary gland. He grew to the enormous height of 2.72m or 8ft 11in.
The current record is held by Sultan Kosen of Turkey, who measures in at a mere 2.51 m (8 ft 3 in).
However, both of these two are overshadowed by another, larger man. His name? Goliath the Philistine.
This is the giant made famous in the story of David and Goliath found in the Old Testament of the Bible – 1Samuel 17. He came to a sorry end – with a stone in his forehead and his head cut off by the young man David. How tall was he? Well, if you look at the bible, it tells us. Most English translations tell us that was “six cubits and a span” tall – this is over 9 feet tall, or about 3 metres. The average British man is about 5ft 11in or 1.8 metres. So Goliath would have been more than 50% bigger than this.
No wonder the Israelites were scared of taking him on in single combat.
However, there might be a couple of problems – and they have always bothered me a bit.
1. There has never been anyone recorded at this height.
2. The skeleton of a man of this kind of height has never been found.
3. People this height have usually grown tall because of a medical condition – meaning they would normally make lousy fighters.
4. Average heights have increased substantially over the centuries. For example – people living in Britain at the same time as David (around 1000BC) were on average 5 inches smaller than today. The British Museum website puts it like this : “The average man was 1.69 metres (5 foot 6 inches) in height, the smallest known was 1.6 metres (5 foot 2 inches) tall and the tallest was 1.8 metres (5 foot 11 inches).”
Now, I am committed to the idea that the bible is inspired by God, and take it seriously as a historical document. So, perhaps there have been giants around at various points (there are certainly enough folk stories about them to indicate that this might be the case – e.g. Jack and the Beanstalk) – and I’ve simply not met one.
There is however another possibility. Translations of the Old Testament into English (and other languages) are based primarily on the Hebrew Masoretic Text. This was the text of the OT that was fully compiled between 700-900AD – based on much earlier manuscripts. In this text, Goliath is “6 cubits and a span” – i.e. over 9ft tall. In 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered which included many much older manuscripts of some of the books of the OT. What was remarkable was how close these much older texts were to the later ones that were being used up to that time. The differences between them were tiny – this is one of the bits of evidence that puts to sleep the argument that “the bible has been changed as its been passed down over the generations”. The evidence is the opposite to this.
However, there were a couple of small differences and one of them can be found in 1Samuel 17:4 – where Goliath is described as being “4 cubits and a span” – i.e. 6ft 9in. The Septuagint and Josephus which are both older than the Masoretic text, also have 4 cubits and a span. Did someone copying this down at some point decide to ‘big-up’ the story a bit – and add 3 extra feet to Goliath’s height?
Now, if your army is made up of men who averaged 5ft 6in (1.6 metres) then having a warrior who was 6ft 9in (2.05m) is still pretty scary – fully 15inches (45cm) taller. So Goliath would have been a giant – but maybe not quite as much as 4 feet taller than everyone else.
We will never know exactly how tall Goliath was – but this is another way of looking at a familiar story.