Dating Saul

Author: Richard Abbott

Cited From:

The reign-length of Saul

The purpose of this page is to consider the reign-length of Saul, as indicated by the various pieces of information in 1 and 2 Samuel. The difficulty arises because the passage in which Saul’s age at accession, and regnal length, has been damaged at an early stage of transmission of the text. Hence other secondary clues must be used, and the results are not certain. The resolution of the problem has bearing on how the book of Judges dovetails with the books of Samuel, as well as links with external matters.


  1. Basic information
  2. Assumptions and inferences
  3. Timelines and interpretations
  4. Chronological implications

Basic information

The basic Old Testament information on which this study is based is as follows:

The damaged text: 1 Samuel 13:1

Saul was XXX years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for XXX-two years.

A few late Septuagint manuscripts have thirty for the first figure, but it is missing from the Hebrew. Many modern translations insert forty for the second figure, following Acts 13:21.

1 Samuel 9:2 – description of Saul

He [Kish] had a son named Saul, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites – the word bahur is used here, suggesting not youthfulness but vigour (the word often being used of warriors). The emphasis is on Saul’s capacity for rule, not his age.

1 Samuel 10:1 – Saul anointed for rule.

Samuel … “Has not Yahweh anointed you leader over his inheritance..

1 Samuel 11 – Saul confirmed as king by the people

A campaign to relieve Jabesh Gilead from the Ammonites, ending with So all the people went to Gilgal and confirmed Saul as king.

1 Samuel 13:3, 4 – Jonathan at Saul’s accession

A thousand men were with Jonathan at Gibeah … Jonathan attacked the Philistine outpost at Geba…

1 Samuel 14:49 – Saul’s family

Saul’s sons were Jonathan, Ishvi and Malki-Shua. The name of his older daughter was Merab, and that of the younger was Michal. His wife’s name was Ahinoam…. 1 Chronicles 8:33 lists the sons as Jonathan, Malki-Shua, Abinadab and Ish-Baal. 2 Sam. 21:8 tells us that Saul also had a concubine Rizpah, with whom he had two sons Armoni and Mephibosheth. The preceding verses indicate a series of campaigns, and the following chapter describes a prolonged action against the Amalekites. At the start of the following chapter, Samuel anoints David as a young man for future kingship.

1 Samuel 16:18 – David enters Saul’s service

“… a son of Jesse … is a brave man and a warrior …” … David came to Saul and entered his service. The description suggests a mature man who had already gained the respect of others.

1 Samuel 17:33 – David at the confrontation with Goliath

You [David] are not able to go out against [Goliath] and fight him: you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth. It is often thought that this recounts a rather earlier episode concerning Saul and David, than the account in chapter 16 of David entering military service. It is otherwise hard to account for several features, including Saul’s inability to recognise David on his arrival.

1 Samuel 18 – David’s rise to fame

David rises in rank in Saul’s army, marries Michal, and develops a close friendship with Jonathan, at the same time arousing Saul’s jealousy.

1 Samuel 19-27 – David in exile, pursued by Saul

David leaves Saul, Jonathan and Michal, and moves repeatedly from place to place to elude Saul. He remains in Gath for 1 year 4 months, as well as unspecified times in more remote locations. During this time Samuel dies, and David marries Ahinoam and Abigail, Michal having been given in marriage to Paltiel.

1 Samuel 28-31 – the death of Saul and Jonathan

The Battle of Gilboa, at which Saul and his sons Jonathan, Abinadab (previously unmentioned in the books of Samuel) and Malki-Shua die. Saul’s body is publicly displayed at Beth-shan, but recovered by men of Jabesh Gilead for burial.

2 Samuel 2 – Regnal details for David and Ish-bosheth

David moves to Hebron, where he reigns for 7 years 6 months. Also Ish-bosheth son of Saul was forty years old when he became king over Israel, and he reigned 2 years.

2 Samuel 4:4 – Jonathan’s son

Jonathan … had a son … He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel … His name was Mephibosheth. 1 Chronicles 8:34 names him as Merib-Baal.

2 Samuel 5:4 – Sumamry of David’s reign

David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned for forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirtythree years

Acts 13:21, recording a speech by Paul

[God] gave them Saul … who ruled for forty years.

Josephus, Antiquities Book 6, Ch. 14:9

Saul reigned 18 years while Samuel was alive and after his death 2 years.

Assumptions and inferences

As well as the basic pieces of information above, the following extra items appear reasonable:

  1. Saul was about 20 when Jonathan was born – it is more likely he was a little older, given the apparent tendency of Israelite kings to have children in their mid-twenties.
  2. Jonathan was about 18 at the start of Saul’s reign – he was entrusted with leading an attack on a Philistine outpost at this time (1 Samuel 13:2,3). Again, a higher figure is more probable. The sum of these first two gives Saul’s age at his accession to the throne – in this case 38. It is difficult to see how this could be realistically reduced to 30 years to fit the Septuagint reading of 1 Samuel 13:1, though a few years’ reduction could be made.
  3. Ish-bosheth – presumed to be the same as Ishvi of 1 Samuel 14:49 – was younger than Jonathan.
  4. Jonathan and David were approximately the same age – the closeness of their friendship does not preclude widely differing ages but renders it less likely.
  5. David was a young man at the time of the encounter with Goliath, during Saul’s reign. 1 Samuel 17:33 contrasts David “you are only a boy” with Goliath “he has been a fighting man from his youth“, and the same Hebrew word na’ar is used in both phrases. The same word is, for example, used of Joseph at age 17. This would suggest that Saul had reigned long enough for David to have encountered him once as a youth – probably in his teens – in connection with Goliath, and a second time rather later when he entered his service in a military capacity.
  6. Samuel is getting old when he anoints Saul for kingship (1 Samuel 8:1-4). Since his sons were old enough (though not moral enough) to be judges themselves at this time, they must be presumed to be around 30, and Samuel at least 50 years old. He lived to anoint David as well, but died before the battle of Gilboa.

As a starting-point, it will be supposed that the XXX-two value for Saul’s reign length should be replaced with 2, 12, 22, 32, or 42 – in other words just the tens figure has been lost and the units figure is correct.

Timelines and interpretations

The following diagrams show how the above pieces of information can be combined.

First, suppose Saul reigns for 2 years. Jonathan is about 18 at the start of Saul’s reign, and David is 30 at the end of it, so David is about 10 years older than Jonathan. Mephibosheth – five years old when Saul and Jonathan die – was born when Jonathan was only 15. Ish-bosheth was at most 20 when he became king over Israel. This combination seems improbable given the basic information listed above, as few of the implied connections fit vey well. The age difference between David and Jonathan could be lessened by supposing that Saul and Jonathan were both older than the values shown – for example if Saul was about 10 years older and Jonathan in his late twenties at the time of his father’s accession. However, it is not at all clear that 2 years is sufficient time for all of the events recounted in 1 Samuel 13-27 (David’s rise to fame within Israel, his marriage, and subsequent flight from place to place) to fit within a two year span, given that rather over a year is accounted for purely at Gath. Additionally, David would be 28 when Saul took the throne, and it is not clear that the description of him as a youth would have been used.

Now suppose Saul reigns for 12 years. David and Jonathan are about the same age, thus making this an appealing solution. Both are about 18 when Saul becomes king. Mephibosheth is born when Jonathan is about 25, again a reasonable value. Ish-bosheth is at most 30 when he takes Saul’s place as king. Saul is about 50 when he leads his troops to the defeat at Gilboa.

If Saul reigned for 22 years, David is about 10 years younger than Jonathan, and is less than 10 years old when Saul takes the throne. Ish-bosheth could be nearly 40 when he took the throne (depending how long after Jonathan he was born), fitting with 2 Samuel 2. Jonathan would be about 35 when Mephibosheth was born. Presuming Samuel anoints David at around 20 years of age, he would have been at least 60 at this point of time, a realistic figure. This reign-length also fits with Josephus’ information, though not of course with Paul’s as recorded in Acts. Saul would be around 60 at Gilboa.

Suppose Saul reigned for 32 years. David is about 20 years younger than Jonathan, and is himself born a few years after the start of Saul’s reign. He would also, of course, be substantially younger than Michal, Saul’s younger daughter. Jonathan is about 45 when his son Mephibosheth is born. Samuel would be rather over 70 years old when anointing David, and Saul around 70 at the Battle of Gilboa.

Finally, what if Saul reigned for 42 years? David is about 30 years younger than Jonathan. He was born over a decade after the start of Saul’s reign. Once again he is substantially younger than Michal. Jonathan is about 55 when his son Mephibosheth is born. Samuel would be rather over 80 years old when anointing David, and Saul would be leading his army at the Battle of Gilboa at an age of around 80.

It is clear from the above that a 2-year reign seems unlikely. Hardly any of the basic pieces of information can be preserved. Conversely, a reign-length for Saul of more than 30 years suffers from opposite problems. David and Jonathan differ considerably in age, and Jonathan is unusually old for Mephibosheth to be his firstborn. It also seems unlikely that Saul would still be actively leading his army to battle at over 70 years of age.

So the balance of probability seems to favour a reign between 10 and 20 years. This means that most of the basic information points and reasonable suppositions about the lives of the individuals concerned can be met, and agrees with the tradition Josephus knew.

However, it does not fit with the speech of Paul at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. There are a number of possible resolutions to this. It is possible that Paul’s intention was to say that David (who he goes on to mention immediately after) reigned for forty years, and that the clause has become misplaced from one sentence to the other. Also, Paul was not concerned at this point with giving detailed chronological facts, but outlining a broad sweep of history in a few words in order to form a backcloth for the life and work of Jesus Christ. Finally, it may well be that several diverse traditions concerning Saul were in existence, and that the forty year option was the one Paul had been taught.