1 Samuel 13:1 – The Matter of Missing Words in the Bible

Posted By on July 31, 2008

1 Samuel 13:1 is sort of a classic OT textual criticism problem.  The United Bible Society’s Handbook for Translators of 1 Samuel describes the problem this way:1

This verse follows the standard formula for introducing kings of Israel (and later also of Judah) in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. But this verse contains one of the most difficult textual problems in the book of 1 Samuel, if not of the whole Bible. The following table shows the great diversity of solutions to the problems:

Problem 1 Problem 2
njps “… years old” “two years”
kjv “one year” “two years”
rsv “… years old” “… and two years”
at “… years old” “… years”
niv “thirty years old” “forty-two years”
reb “thirty years old” “twenty-two years”
nasb “forty years old” “thirty-two years”
neb “fifty years old” “twenty-two years”

The Masoretic Text (MT) literally says “Saul was a son of a year in his reigning and two years he reigned over Israel.” Obviously there are two errors in the Hebrew text as we have it today: (1) Saul was not one year old when he became king, and (2) he reigned more than two years.

The first error is obvious, since the book of 1 Samuel tells us plainly how Saul was chosen and anointed king — and he was a full grown man. The second error is plain when viewed against Acts 13:21 (and when reading the account of Saul’s kingship in the OT).

Now, in one regard, this is no different than any other text-critical problem. You detect the error in the present text, then work to find out how it came about, and consult other manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible for the solution. But there’s the rub — in the case of 1 Sam 13:1, there are no other reliable manuscript readings.

Interpreters and translators have followed many solutions to this textual problem (and note that the choice of solution for “problem 1″ gives rise to the reading of “problem 2″). Quoting from the UBS Handbook again:

(a) Some translations, following the example of the Septuagint, omit the entire verse (so tev, frcl, and itcl).

(b) Some translate the verse but leave blank spaces as in rsv (so also nrsv, nab, Osty, and bp).

(c) Others leave only the first number blank.

(d) Some follow the first-century Jewish historian Josephus and Acts 13.21, and claim that Saul ruled for (about) forty years. Compare niv “Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.” The “thirty years” is based on a few late Septuagint manuscripts.

Solution (d) above may seem the best at first glance, but a major problem with this is that early in his rule Saul already has a grown son able to command troops (see verse 2). Therefore Saul must have been older than thirty when he became king.

Note well the comments about solution “d” – the only reason some versions read “thirty” in the verse is because the number is found in a few LATE manuscripts of the LXX. But that number cannot be right.  Where does “thirty” come from in those few manuscripts? The textual note on the verse in the Word Biblical Commentary summarizes the answer nicely:2

A few LXX mss, have “thirty,” though this seems to be a secondary calculation (cf. 2 Sam 5:4). Since Jonathan was old enough to have 1,000 troops under his command in v 2, and since Saul had a grandson before his death (2 Sam 4:4), an age of forty or more is plausible. The whole verse is lacking in most LXX mss.

The “thirty” was simply borrowed by some LXX scribe from 2 Sam 5:4, which is talking about DAVID!  They were confused by the error, and that was their solution!

The textual reality, as it stands today, is that the number is lost. We just don’t have any manuscript evidence for a coherent reading.

For our purposes, in my mind this is the same sort of issue as I’ve just covered in regard to Joshua 8:30-35 and Jeremiah. I’d approach it the same way with respect to inspiration. There *was* some thing produced by the process of inspiration, where men were the immediate source of the text, and God was the ultimate source. When that *produced thing* was finished, I believe the text was whole (that there WAS a coherent reading in 1 Samuel 13:1). Since that time, transmission of the text was left to human beings, and now we have a missing word or words.

What’s the point?  Only to note two things:

(1) like traditional articulations of inspiration, I believe that inspiration does not apply to copying the final product. There is no guarantee from God in the Bible that transmission of the text would be inerrant. Our copies of the Scripture (one the simplest level) are “inerrant” when they reflect the contents of the original thing produced. Of course, we’ve spent weeks on this blog already dealing with the reality that inerrancy concerns a lot more than this issue (and I promise we’ll get back to those things). in 1 Samuel 13:1, then, our Bible is “errant” in that something is missing, but NOT in the sense that the original thing produced by inspiration was wrong. The original product of inspiration was whole. Perhaps (like the historical problems readers have brought up) we will find manuscript evidence for 1 Sam 13:1. That would be cool. But until then, I believe it is philosophically and theologically coherent to stick with a process of inspiration that produced a whole product that was inerrant.

(2) An example like this helps us to factor in yet another facet of what we actually find in the biblical text.  When we get back to inerrancy, we’ll have to return here and pick this up as part of trying to find a definition that works.

  1. Omanson, R. L., & Ellington, J. (2001). A handbook on the first book of Samuel. UBS handbook series (252). New York: United Bible Societies.
  2. Klein, R. W. (2002). Vol. 10: Word Biblical Commentary : 1 Samuel. Word Biblical Commentary (122). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

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12 Responses to “1 Samuel 13:1 – The Matter of Missing Words in the Bible”

  1. aeneas says:

    I’ve remained silent on the issue of inerrancy during all the discussions because my faith is not shaken by textual inconsistencies. However, I have enjoyed reading the exchanges because it helps me discuss the issue with non-believers or those believers who are troubled by the types of textual problems like those listed here. Towards that end, and at the risk of going off on a tangent, what is your opinion on John Shelby Spong? I have a friend who tries to deal with inerrancy issues by turning to his books. I fear I will have to read one of his books just to have a discussion, but I really don’t want to! My head hurts just contemplating it. She says he knows his stuff, but I have my doubts.

  2. jimgetz says:

    The biggest problem I have with your assessment is the assertion that there actually is some fabled original MSS to go back to. I know you’ve blogged on it previously, but the real problem for a view of inerrancy “in the original autographs” is that the divergent traditions found between the MT, LXX, DSS etc sometimes point not simply to a different final version but to completely divergent textual traditions based on differing proto-MSS. That is to say, there’s no Ur-text to go back to. E. Tov’s discussion of these issues in his book on text criticism should be enough to give most “autograph” inerrantists pause.

  3. MSH says:

    @aeneas: The short answer is that I don’t consider Spong a scholar or even a careful thinker. I’m not sure who does consider him either (I’m sure there must be someone who isn’t a layperson, but I don’t know). Here’s an example of his careless thinking on the virgin birth.

    It is true that, in the OT, there is no unambiguous use of almah (the word for “maiden” often translated “virgin” in isa 7:14) that ONLY means virgin (never sexually active). There are only several that COULD speak to a virgin. Just nothing clear. Another Hebrew word, betulah, is by far the more unambiguous word for virgin.

    That said, we cannot divorce clear thinking (logic) from the question – which is what anti-virgin birth writers like Spong do all the time. Spong would have us believe that since almah AT LEAST always means “young woman of marriageable age”, it CANNOT mean “never sexually active.” This is just dumb. It requires us to conclude that ALL women in Israel who were of marriageable age (basically 13 on up) were also NOT virgins. This is insipid logic. I have two daughters. They are both, by biblical standards (age 16 and 14) of marriageable age – they are both almahs. They also happen to be virgins. The lesson is this: Not all almahs were virgins, but many and perhaps most were – virginity is a SUBSET of almah. For Spong (and others) to so stupidly (or, deliberately) ignore this simple fact of reality is irresponsible. The question is, was the woman of Isaiah 7 a virgin? We don’t know. My view is that she probably was not, since I take almah here to be a technical term for the wife of the king (there is an Ugaritic parallel that supports that notion). This has nothing to do with Mary’s status as a virgin, though, since the prophecy did NOT originally speak of her (it gets fulfilled in Isaiah’s own time and own book and is later picked up by analogy by Matthew – a subject for another Naked Bible thread some time). The NT text is perfectly clear in several places that Mary was a virgin.

  4. MSH says:

    @jimgetz: This overstates the evidence. There’s a problem with Tov’s proposition: the evidence trails ENDS at 300 BCE. In short, he can’t know how the divergence we see at Qumran began. All we know is that there is divergence. Tov’s view is possible – that we have inherited a divergency because there was never “one final text.” It is also possible that there WAS one final text after a process but other forms of the text were kept alive. This is akin to what happens after textual standardization ca. 100 CE – we got the Masoretic text but segments of the rabbinic community didn’t like the product of standardization and kept other readings (text traditions) alive. Thanks to Aptowitzer, we have a record of just how widespread this practice was post-standardization. The point is that Tov can’t claim omniscience and shouldn’t.

    For me it doesn’t matter. There was a thing produced at the end of the process that, under providence was given canonical status. This process includes editing. Neither Tov nor anyone else can claim that there was not a text approved by the community at large (perhaps not unanimously, but by overwhelming consensus). I agree that it cannot be regained or reconstructed en toto, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

  5. Chet Silvermonte says:

    MSH, you’re more or less a fan of the eclectic text of the NT, right? You generally buy into the goals and methods of modern text criticism? But if we embrace later phases of editing as part of the process God used (instead of declaring these to be corruptions), don’t we need to rethink the assumptions of modern text criticism? Couldn’t the round of editing that went into producing the Majority Text family be part of the process, since that ended up getting circulated more? (I.e., if God is also in the editing, doesn’t that lend weight to taking a more democratic view of which text is the correct text?) The answer to these questions is probably a resounding “maybe” and an uncomfortable “we have no way of knowing”.

  6. MSH says:

    @Chet Silvermonte: To your first couple questions: Yes.

    This is a good question. As it stands now, I do distinguish between the production of the thing (the text) and its copying. I doubt that copyists (I speak of the professional class of scribes associated with OT transmission here) would have been handed the task of copying something incomplete or in transition, or that they would have seen their task as including further editing. I don’t think the same way about the NT, only because the text was essentially copied under duress by people whose primary qualification (and maybe only qualification) was that they could write. But even that reality does not mean that those copyists saw themselves as thoughtful editors or critics of the thing they were copying. It just has to do with the reality that a copyist who wasn’t really a copyist by profession would have a greater propensity to be more loose with the text (i.e., they’d have fewer inhibitions about changes in the presence of a textual difficulty or ambiguity). All that said, I don’t see this as part of the inspiration process.

  7. DJR says:

    I thank God for a discussion like this one. Being a layman and also new to the site, I don’t know if anyone has posted exactly how many instances there are of textual criticisms in the entire protestant canon of scripture, but I could probably find a list online. However, from what I do know the criticisms are broken into two categories (at least in my mind): those that would affect the ‘truth’ of scripture in concept (God’s nature, will) and those that are merely related to dates, names, history, timelines….etc. However, I am also aware that a mind not translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light would need obly the issue of 1 Samuel as excuse enough to dismiss all things Bible related entirely.

  8. MSH says:

    @DJR: Agreed that someone could just come along and run into 1 Sam 13:1 and go off the deep end unnecessarily (but that information is in some study Bibles, so it isn’t a secret). There are textual issues in every verse of the Bible, if you really get into the minutiae of the text. I’d say 95% are in the “who cares” category (did Jesus go “to” the temple or “toward” the temple?). Of the remaining five percent, I’d say easily the majority are in the “mildly interesting” category when it comes to meaning. The rest affect the meaning of the passage significantly, BUT it is true that no doctrine depends entirely (or even “mostly”) on text-critical issues. The reason is simple. Doctrine (especially important doctrines) do not derive from prooftexting (single verses); they derive from and are molded by multiple passages.

  9. dennj says:

    someone above said “…if God is also in the editing”

    aside from that being an ..INTERESTING… idea, God apparently didn’t see fit to protect all the 100s of 1000s of copies and translations from errors (the Septuagint pretty much settles that question) so why would anyone assume He would do any “editing”?

  10. MSH says:

    @dennj: because the “editing” refers to activity DURING the process of inspiration; copying refers to transmitting that thing produced by the process of inspiration.

  11. Greg says:

    Do you agree that in Paul’s day the text of 1 Sam 13:1 had been lost/damaged for sometime? That his “about 40 years” statement from Acts 13 is an estimate, which was in agreement with the common opinion of the day? That Paul did not have an exact time frame?

    • MSH says:

      I wouldn’t venture to guess what manuscripts were around at the time of the writing of Acts. The number forty (given it occurs with such regularity) may be artificial, used to denote a generation or cycle. However, the number may be a guess, as you suggest. The number may have been passed on as a tradition (which would suggest the MT text of 1 Sam 13:1 had been lost by the first century). Josephus uses the same number (Josephus, Ant. 6.14.9 §378) but elsewhere Josephus reports a twenty year reign (Ant. 10.8.4 §143). That number might represent another guess.

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