The books of the Bible have come to us through the work of scribes who carefully preserved the received text. Over a period of hundreds of years, the biblical manuscripts were copied and recopied by hand in order to preserve the traditional reading of what was considered sacred text.
No original manuscript of any of the biblical books has survived. A group of scribes called the “Masoretes” took great care to make copies of the biblical books as accurately as possible. However, in the process of copying from their sources, the scribes made some errors that are present in the manuscripts used today to translate the Bible.
When copying errors are found in the text, scholars make an attempt to restore the text in order to discover the probable word or words used in the original manuscript. At times, however, in attempting to correct the text, scholars have proposed solutions that may contradict one another. One classic example is the textual problem found in 1 Samuel 13:1.
The Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 13:1 reads: Saul was one year old when he began to reign and he reigned over Israel two years. It is clear that as written, the text is not right, for Saul had grown children when he became king of Israel. It is evident that the numbers are missing in the text.
Scholars have made different attempts at restoring the text but their efforts have created more confusion. Below are some attempts made by translators to restore the text.
The New International Version (NIV) translates 1 Samuel 13:1 as follows:
Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.
The New American Standard Bible translates as follows:
Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-two years over Israel.
The New English Bible translates as follows:
Saul was fifty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for twenty-two years.
The Modern Reader’s Bible, a translation done by Richard G. Moulton translates as follows:
Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign and he reigned two years over Israel.
The American Standard Version translates as follows:
Saul was forty years old when he began to reign; and when he had reigned two years over Israel….
The King James Version translates as follows:
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel….
In the New Testament, Acts 13:21 says that Saul reigned forty-years over Israel.
A good explanation for the length of Saul’s reign is found in John Tullock’s book, The Old Testament Story, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981), p.123. Tullock wrote:
“The length of Saul’s reign is uncertain since a number is missing in the Hebrew text, which simply says, ‘he reigned . . . and two years’ (13:1). Most scholars would say he ruled about twenty-two years. If one takes the biblical evidence, twelve years might be more logical. The ark was captured by the Philistines some time before Saul began to reign. According to 1 Samuel 7:2, it was kept in Kiriath-jearim ‘some twenty years.’ It was taken to Jerusalem in the early part of David’s reign (2 Sam. 6:1-15), but David reigned for over seven years at Hebron before Jerusalem was captured (2 Sam. 5:5). If this twenty years is to be taken literally or even as meaning around twenty years, it would seem to limit Saul’s reign to no more than twelve years.”
The different readings for the length of Saul’s reign in the translations are only possibilities. Thus, if a translation says that Saul was 30, or 40, or 50 years old when he began to reign and then says that he reigned 42, 32, 22, or 2 years over Israel, that translation is not teaching biblical truth but educated possibilities. The fact is, that since the numbers are contradictory, then one or all of the translations may not be presenting the right information.
This, I believe, is the biggest problem in trying to guess the numbers missing is 1 Samuel 13:1. Since most students of the Bible only use one translation and never compare one translation against another, they believe that what the translation they are using is saying is what really happened, when in reality the translation may not reflect historical reality.
For instance, take the translation proposed by the KJV: Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel. People reading the KJV may believe that what follows in 13:2 happened two years after Saul became king. Other translations, such as NIV and several others, try to harmonize the Book of Acts with the text in Samuel by saying that Saul was king for forty-two years, when the length of his reign probably was much shorter.
Thus, 1 Samuel 13:1 must be reread in such a way that it preserves the dignity of the text and the historical realities related to Saul’s reign. Lately, several translations are leaving the numbers in the text blank. For instance, the NRSV and other translations translate as follows:
Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.
This translation is not elegant and is not what most people want, but it is better to leave the numbers blank than to convey false information to the reader, even when that information is based on an educated guess.
NOTE: For other studies on Saul, read my post Saul, King of Israel.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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