In my last post I discussed the legacy of Samson, one of the Bible’s most misunderstood heroes. However, that post was specifically aimed at believers who (to my mind) misread Samson and his legacy. Therefore I presented a defense of the biblical hero against such critics in the Church. For this post, I would like to now offer a defense of Samson against those critics who are skeptics (or non-believers).
The historicity of the heroic account of Samson’s life has long been debated among scholars. In fact, many seem hesitant to even comment on the historicity of the life of Samson at all. Some view him as mere myth, others as a historical figure whose feats became highly exaggerated over time. Yet there are those, such as Dr. Bryant G. Wood, who advocate that the story of Samson (as found in the Book of Judges) is consistent with all the historical evidence. Therefore, in this post I will explore the evidence for Samson.
However, I acknowledge that many skeptics, before even considering the evidence, will have already decided the story of Samson is not true on the account of his “supernatural” strength. For such skeptics, the stories of Samson’s strength defy natural law, and is thereby myth as far as their concerned. Of course, Samson did not possess this strength naturally, but by way of God (Judges 14:6; 15:14). Hence he possessed “supernatural” strength, NOT natural strength. In many regards, this debate on Samson’s strength is similar to debates on miracles in general. A miracle is by its very definition, an event that cannot be explained by the natural laws of the universe. In other words, it is an act of divine intervention that defies natural laws. Therefore, vital to any discussion concerning whether or not miracles can occur, is a person’s own presuppositions. Specifically, if someone does not believe in God, but naturalism (the belief that only natural laws govern the universe), then miracles are by default non-existent. Meaning since miracles seemingly overturn the laws of nature, which from this presupposition is not possible, then miracles are rendered impossible. On the other hand, if someone does believe that God exists and is involved in the world, then there is no difficulty at all in accepting that miracles also exist and do indeed occur. Meaning miracles are a byproduct of God, who created the universe and the natural laws that govern it.
To explore this debate a little further, let us now consider if miracles really overturn the laws of nature to begin with. The phrase “laws of nature” is simply a way of describing how the world usually works or operates. For instance, if someone were to drop an object from their hand, it would fall to the ground. That is simple gravity, the law of nature. However, if when someone dropped the object I was able to reach out and catch it before it hit the ground: Did I just overturn the law of gravity? The answer is no, I simply intervened. Similarly, God, who created the universe and the laws of nature that govern it, is more than able to reach into the world and intervene. In fact, the Bible itself is a collection of books filled with numerous examples of men and women helped by divine intervention. Therefore, Samson’s supernatural strength (from God), while miraculous, is not sufficient grounds to discount his story as myth. If skeptics can just place their presuppositions aside, there is actual historical evidence for Samson.
First, Samson’s life is recorded in the ancient Book of Judges. This book records the period in history of the Hebrew people after Joshua (and the conquest of Canaan) up until the time before the monarchy, when Israel had kings. It is titled after the name given to the leaders (Judges) over Israel during this time period. The actual author of this historical document is not known, but tradition informs us the book was written by the prophet Samuel, the last Judge of Israel. Although some experts argue it is more probable that Samuel assembled much of the accounts from the period, and subsequent prophets such as Nathan and Gad, both of whom had ties to King David’s court, had a hand in further shaping and finalizing the book. Regardless, it is an important ancient record of Israel’s history. The exact date of its composition remains unknown, but the recurring phrase “in those days Israel had no king” strongly suggests it was completed after the establishment of the Israeli monarchy (10th / 11th century BC). In other words, just after the time of the Judges. The fact that Samson is recorded in this book as one of the major Judges of Israel in its pre-monarch period, is solid grounds to assert that he was historical and NOT mythological — regardless of whatever view one takes concerning his strength. Moreover, as with other biblical heroes, the text does NOT whitewash Samson’s story, but records his very human character, flaws and all. Further illustrating the historical reliability of the text.
Once more, several recent archeological discoveries have provided further evidence that the biblical account of Samson is historical. For instance, the archeological record has long confirmed the Philistines presence in the area, especially during the time of Samson (12th century BC). But more recent excavations have dated the destruction of Philistine sites to the early 10th century BC. Why is this significant? Because such dating is consistent with the rise and fall of the Philistines in this region. Specifically, they had a period of ascendancy (or rise to power) before the Israeli monarchy (in the time of Judges) and were subsequently defeated by David around the late 11th century BC. Thus the later destruction of Philistine sites (after their defeat) in the area would naturally date around the early 10th century BC. In other words, the archeological evidence for the Philistine rise and fall in the area is consistent with the biblical record.
Another very recent discovery by archaeologists further proves that Samson was indeed historical. A small seal (about the size of a pebble) was found at Beit Shemesh near the River Sorek, which marked the boundary between the Israelites and their Philistine foes. In fact, most of the events of Samson’s life took place in the Sorek Valley near Beit Shemesh, i.e. he was born in Zorah located just south of it; and the Philistine city Timnah, where he met his wife, is to the west of it. So what is the significance of the seal? This seal depicts a man with long hair fighting a large animal with a feline tail that experts say is a lion. Specifically, it is believed the seal illustrates a scene from the Book of Judges where Samson is attacked by a lion in route to meet his fiancé in Timnah — just 4 miles from the dig site. The text tell us the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands (Judges 14:5-6). Interestingly, the coin shaped seal depicts the man fighting the lion with no weapons, just as it was written in the Samson account. Why is this significant? Because the seal in question also dates to the 11th century BC, which falls within the time period of the Judges. Moreover, its dating is within decades of when Samson would have died, when many people who knew him were still living. Therefore, it illustrates that accounts of Samson’s life were present and prominent (well known) in ancient Israel — even before the mighty Judge’s heroism was officially recorded for prosperity in the Book of Judges. Of course, some archeologists are reluctant to say the depiction is in fact proof of Samson, going only so far as to say that “his legend” was known and depicted. However, others have observed that the artifact is not only consistent in its depiction, but was also found in the right place and the right time for the biblical Samson — thus the seal is actual historical proof for Samson.
Now we come to the greatest of all Samson’s heroic feats, the destruction of the Philistine’s temple at Gaza. This account had long been challenged by cynics who argued that a temple could not have depended on two central pillars to support the roof, and that such a description was not in keeping with a typical architectural design of Middle Eastern temples. However, the biblical text is very clear in its description. The text says that Samson grasped the two central pillars that supported the temple, one with his right hand and the other with his left, then pushed them apart collapsing the temple. Although the actual Temple of Dagon at Gaza has never been excavated due to a modern city that now rests on top of it, others have — and with remarkable findings for this dispute. In 1972, the first Philistine temple ever found was discovered at Tell Qasile located north of Tell Aviv, and years later a second one was also discovered. Subsequent excavations revealed these two miniature temples shared a very unique design — the roof was supported by two central pillars. Once more, the pillar bases at the Tell Qasile temple measured 2 meters (6.56 feet) apart. Keeping in mind that the average male’s arm span is 2″ greater than their height, that means that a man (about 6’3″ tall) could definitely reach out and grasp both central pillars of the temple — just as the Book of Judges records for Samson. Moreover, given the design of these smaller Philistine temples, there is no reason at all to believe that a larger one, now long buried under the city at Gaza, would be any different. Therefore, the biblical description of Samson’s death, long thought to be implausible by cynics, is in fact, actually consistent with recently discovered and excavated Philistine temples. Archaeologist Bryant Wood has observed:
“The (biblical) writer knew his facts. He knew that Philistine temples were supported by two pillars and that this was how Samson pulled the temple down.”
Woods goes on to conclude that such knowledge could have only been derived from eye-witness accounts of people that lived during these times.
In any event, it is time to wrap this post up. The temptation for many today, especially in our secular culture, is to reject such accounts as Samson to conform to modern scientific dogma, i.e. naturalism. However, for those of us who profess belief in God, such miraculous accounts are not only plausible, but possible — and have indeed occurred throughout human history. Nevertheless, as discussed in this post, regardless of whatever view one takes towards miracles and/or miraculous events, there is ample historical evidence to affirm the biblical account of Samson. First, the story of Samson is contained in ancient text chronicling the history of Israel — text that only later became scripture. Second, there is a great amount of archeological evidence that confirms the biblical account of the rise and fall of the Philistines in the region of ancient Israel. Thirdly, an ancient artifact from the right place and time provides further historical proof of Samson. Finally, recently excavated Philistine temples have confirmed the biblical account of Samson’s death, leading many scholars to conclude that such accounts could have only come from eyewitnesses — at the very least they were consistent with the archeological record. Therefore, anyone who wants to argue that the story of Samson is mere myth must ignore a lot of evidence to the contrary – evidence that includes ancient texts, artifacts (seals) and a wealth of supporting archeological evidence. However, to those who keep an open mind, there is more than enough sufficient evidence to say that the story of Samson (as found in the Book of Judges) is both historical and true. In fact, time and time again, despite the view of skeptics, the historical evidence affirms the biblical record. As the archeological scholar Bryant Wood has observed:
” … the Bible is the world’s most accurate history textbook.”
Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.