Evangelical Bible Scholarship, Protecting the Text, and Shepherding the Flock

Kaspars Ozolins’s account of “Who killed Goliath?” is highly unlikely—mostly only evangelical Bible scholars will agree—and his approach is also quite unsatisfactory, because it rests on views about the nature of the Bible and its production that run contrary to mainstream scholarship and appear to presuppose biblical inerrancy.

See Synopsis of Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?

By Robert Rezetko
University of Copenhagen & University of Sydney
October 2023

The story of David and Goliath is one of the best-known and most-loved stories in the Old Testament. Probably just about everybody knows, including those who have never actually heard or read the biblical story, that the gist of the story is that against all odds (except for the fact that his God was on his side!) the (Israelite) “underdog” David killed the (Philistine) “giant” Goliath. That central part of the story goes like this in 1 Samuel 17:48–51 (ESV[1]):

“48 When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49 And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. 50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David. 51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.”[2]

It is crystal clear in this passage that David was responsible for Goliath’s death. David struck him in the forehead with a stone and severed his head with a sword. But many are probably unaware that elsewhere in the Old Testament it was actually somebody else who killed Goliath. Another passage in the same book of Samuel, 2 Samuel 21:19 (ESV), says:

“And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.”[3]

To further complicate the issue, another Old Testament passage, 1 Chronicles 20:5 (ESV), which is synoptic or parallel to 2 Samuel 21:19, says that Elhanan did not kill Goliath but rather the brother of Goliath:

“And there was again war with the Philistines, and Elhanan the son of Jair struck down Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”[4]

What really happened? Who killed Goliath? David or Elhanan? And who did Elhanan kill? Goliath or Goliath’s brother Lahmi?

The issue in these passages, and very many others like it throughout the Old and New Testaments, have been especially problematic for evangelicals who affirm “the unity and internal consistency of Scripture,” “that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration,” and “being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching...” (The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy).[5] Consequently, evangelicals have gone to great pains to try to resolve “alleged” contradictions, discrepancies, errors, etc. in the biblical text. There is a vast number of encyclopedic books and websites devoted entirely to this topic,[6] in addition to innumerable discussions elsewhere in Bible commentaries, introductions, and so on. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see why evangelicals devote so much energy to such problematic texts given their views on the nature of the Bible (in addition to their views on how the Bible was produced).

Returning to the specific matter of who killed Goliath, ancient and modern commentators, Jewish and Christian, have proposed a number of solutions for the disagreement between the biblical stories. These revolve around whether the “contradiction” is apparent or authentic.[7]

1. Apparent (“unreal”) contradiction:

a. David and Elhanan were alternative names for the same person; David was his regnal or throne name and Elhanan was his personal name.

b. Goliath was not a unique name; there were two or more giants from Gath who were named Goliath.

c. Goliath was a title or type-name or descriptor for a giant or warrior rather than a personal name.[8]

2. Authentic (“real”) contradiction:

a. The Hebrew text of 2 Samuel 21:19, or the texts of both 2 Samuel 21:19 and 1 Chronicles 20:5, was/were corrupted by a careless scribe(s), resulting in the contradiction with 1 Samuel 17, but the original text that precedes the corrupt text(s) can be ascertained through textual criticism.

b. 2 Samuel 21:19 preserves the truth of Goliath’s death—he was killed by Elhanan—and later either the name of the giant killed (Goliath) or the entire incident of his killing was transferred or transformed into the story of 1 Samuel 17 to magnify David’s achievements and enhance his reputation; David did not really kill Goliath even though 1 Samuel 17 says he did.

c. 1 Chronicles 20:5 reflects the effort by an author, or an editor, to rewrite and thus resolve, at least in his own composition, the contradiction between 2 Samuel 21:19 and 1 Samuel 17; the modification is both harmonization and fabrication.

Scholars and laypersons have put forth their arguments for each of these possibilities. While there is the occasional exception, views 1a, 1b, and 1c have largely fallen out of favor and few today seriously entertain them as viable solutions. Most Bible scholars, and virtually all non-evangelical commentators, hold that 2b and 2c combined are the best explanation for the current situation in the biblical text. They take this view for two reasons. First, they argue that it is the most plausible explanation for the ideological, literary, and textual features of the books. Second, they are not predisposed to harmonize or resolve contradictions in the Bible in order to prove “the unity and internal consistency of Scripture” and that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching...”

In contrast to the consensus view, most evangelical commentators take the view expressed by 2a, that the original biblical text can be detected and restored from later manuscripts that have errors in copying or transmission. For some, the text of 2 Samuel 21:19 is corrupt, but that of 1 Chronicles 20:5 is not, thus Samuel is simply corrected to look like Chronicles. For others, the texts of both Samuel and Chronicles are corrupt, so an original text is reconstructed that later became corrupted in both books as we now have them. A prominent reconstructed wording that reflects this view is, “And Elhanan the son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed the brother of Goliath the Gittite,” which subsequently became in Samuel, “And Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite” (cf. ESV translation, above), and in Chronicles, “And Elhanan the son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite” (cf. ESV translation, above). A recent journal article by Kaspars Ozolins presents the most comprehensive and sophisticated argument for the view that the texts of both 2 Samuel 21:19 and 1 Chronicles 20:5 should be corrected on the basis of a hypothesized original text. According to him, that text is: “And Elhanan the son of Jaur the Bethlehemite struck down the brother of Goliath the Gittite.”[9]

At this point one might expect that I would present and review the arguments for and against Ozolins’s view, in addition to the pros and cons of the other proposed solutions listed above. This would be one possible next step. Also, those who know me and my published work, and who consider the title and content of this article to this point, will surmise that I probably reject view 2a and Ozolins’s notable argument for it, and that I probably agree with the consensus view (2b and 2c combined). Both inferences would be true, thus all the more reason to go into the nitty-gritty. But I have begged the reader’s attention with enough details to this point, so instead my detailed discussion of the historical, literary, and textual details are given in a larger work in progress.[10] Rather, here I would like to move in a different direction, because I think it will be more interesting to the readership of this article on The Bible and Interpretation website.

I do not know Ozolins personally, but on the basis of his degrees, affiliations, and other publications, I believe we can reasonably conclude that he holds to the evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy.[11] The issue that concerns me, and which I have recently discussed elsewhere in the co-written introduction and in my individual contribution to Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?,[12] is how a fine evangelical scholar like Ozolins, who is able to write a noteworthy academic article on a complex topic like “Who killed Goliath?” in the Bible, will then use his conclusion (even if correct) to foster other evangelical views about the Bible that far exceed the scope of his conclusion and in fact are dubious and/or erroneous, and he seems to do so with the ultimate objective of reassuring his evangelical audience about the validity of those views. Let me elaborate.

In the abstract to Ozolins’s article, we are told:

“Along these lines it is further argued that a text-critical analysis is a viable option for resolving the tension with 1 Sam 17, without the need to resort to additional literary or source-critical solutions.”[13]

And this statement is fleshed out a little more in the very last sentences of the article’s conclusion:

“The evidence presented above consistently points to accidental visual oversight instead of deliberate changes or revisions. Cases in which parallel words exist in complementary distribution with one another and are visually similar are more naturally explained as the product of accidental scribal error instead of deliberate editorial change. As such, the solution presented here should be seriously considered as a proximate reconstruction of the original text of 2 Sam 21:19, and the basis for the parallel in 1 Chr 20:5.”[14]

Fair enough. If Ozolins’s reconstruction of the original text and the process of textual corruption are correct, then in this case at least, the solution to who killed Goliath might be reachable “without the need to resort to additional literary or source-critical solutions” and without asserting “deliberate changes or revisions” or “deliberate editorial change.” As I said already, I do not agree with Ozolins’s solution to the problem at hand, but here I will grant that he is correct for the sake of argument. A problem arises, however, when he moves beyond the case of “Who killed Goliath?” and beyond the context of a peer-reviewed journal article into other contexts, specifically into wider and more popular evangelical contexts, where he enlarges the implications of his conclusion before his evangelical audience.

I am aware of two such contexts, one on the website of The Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary and another on the website of Tyndale House at Cambridge University.[15] Both of these articles end with two similarly-worded “important lessons” learned (from his text-critical conclusion on “Who killed Goliath?”).

"First, one should always pay attention to text-critical issues (what is sometimes called lower criticism) before resorting to other types of higher criticism (such as the claim that we are dealing here with two different, and contradictory, sources or traditions). Second, only in limited cases did scribes make deliberate changes when copying the text in front of them, so we should be cautious before making such claims unless there is very good evidence."

"Firstly, we needn’t be too alarmed by textual difficulties like this. Many of these issues can be resolved by a careful reading of the text, and one of the tools for this at our disposal is textual criticism. By comparing and examining variant manuscripts and parallel biblical passages, new solutions can be achieved. A related point concerns scribal habits. From what we know about their practices, scribes copying the Hebrew Bible rarely made deliberate changes to their text, and we should therefore be very cautious about claims that we are dealing here with two different, and contradictory, sources or traditions."

As I understand him, the two main lessons Ozolins wishes to draw from his text-critical analysis are these: First, textual criticism is able to resolve many contradictions in the biblical text without having to resort to other conventional methodologies such as source and redaction criticism. Second, most of the changes that happened to the biblical text were accidental changes rather than deliberate changes which in fact were “limited” and “rare.” In addition to these two main lessons, I believe there are several other “lessons” that are probably also in Ozolins’s mind, though I admit that I cannot be completely certain about all of these: (1) Contradictions in the Bible are usually or always “apparent” and rarely or never genuine. (2) Textual criticism can resolve not just “many” contradictions in the biblical text but probably “very many” or “most” of them. (3) Textual criticism, as in The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, deals mainly with “slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission.” (4) Textual criticism is capable of determining “the original text” or “the original wording” in most instances of manuscript variation. (5) Ozolins’s ultimate objective is to reassure his evangelical audience about the recoverability and reliability of the text of the Old Testament.

If I have interpreted Ozolins correctly—and I am reasonably confident that I have—my initial observation is that his “lessons” are characteristically evangelical and particularly for evangelicals who embrace the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Therefore, I hope Ozolins will pardon me for hammering on his publications, because in reality my critique extends much further. But I do have to wonder whether Ozolins would actually be able to evaluate open-mindedly the consensus view on who killed Goliath (views 2b and 2c combined) without defaulting straightaway to the conventional evangelical posture (view 2a, or alternatively to views 1a, 1b, or 1c). I also wonder whether the editorial board of Vetus Testamentum would have approved the publication of his journal article with those “important lessons”—the ones that are stipulated and implied in the two articles on evangelical websites—without serious engagement with the consensus views held by the majority of Old Testament Bible scholars and textual critics. Ozolins’s “lessons” are laden with difficulties, to the extent that I consider them to be dubious and/or erroneous. All the main points are tackled in Misusing Scripture and Misquoting Moses (see nn. 10, 12) and elsewhere. Several major problems are:

  • Ozolins’s text-critical-only or -mainly approach is undermined by the complex production history of the Old Testament writings, for example, the book of Samuel including its texts and traditions about David and Goliath.[16]
  • Ozolins’s sharp separation between textual criticism and literary criticism is widely rejected in mainstream scholarship on the Old Testament, which recognizes and struggles with the difficulty of distinguishing authors-editors-scribes in the composition-redaction-transmission process. Further to this point:
  • Ozolins’s sidelining of deliberate (editorial and) scribal change is undermined by the extensive evidence for intentional (editorial and) scribal intervention in the production of Old Testament writings and manuscripts.[17]

To summarize, my contention here has been that Ozolins’s account of “Who killed Goliath?” is highly unlikely—mostly only evangelical Bible scholars will agree—and his approach is also quite unsatisfactory, because it rests on views about the nature of the Bible and its production that run contrary to mainstream scholarship and appear to presuppose biblical inerrancy. There is much more to be said, but for now I would like to conclude this discussion by wondering, in the spirit of American evangelicals like Carlos Bovell, Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, and others, whether American conservative evangelicals might better serve the church and engage in scholarship if they finally abandoned their doctrine of biblical inerrancy and studied and taught the Bible without clinging to this fictitious presupposition and its interpretative constraints.[18]


[1] The English Standard Version is a popular translation of the Bible that is used by many Evangelicals. I cite it here since it is a more literal word-for-word translation that often reproduces more closely the underlying Hebrew of the Masoretic Text than does, for example, the New International Version (NIV).

[2] Goliath is mentioned by name six times in the (Hebrew) Old Testament: 1 Samuel 17:4, 23; 21:9 (Hebrew 21:10); 22:10; 2 Samuel 21:19; 1 Chronicles 20:5. In the famous story in 1 Samuel 17, he is called Goliath just twice but, as in the passage cited here, “the Philistine” 28 times (vv. 8, 10, 11, 16, 23, 26 x2, 32, 33, 36, 37, 40, 41, 42, 43 x2, 44, 45, 48 x2, 49, 50 x2, 51, 54, 55, 57 x2; see also 1 Samuel 18:6; 19:5).

[3] Transliteration of Hebrew behind italicized English words: wayyaḵ ʾelḥānān ben-yaꜥrē ʾōrg̱im bēṯ hallaḥmi ʾēṯ golyāṯ haggitti.

[4] Transliteration of Hebrew behind italicized English words: wayyaḵ ʾelḥānān ben-yāꜥûr [yāꜥir] ʾeṯ-laḥmı̂ ʾᵃḥı̂ golyāṯ haggitti.

[6] Several examples are Gleason L. Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001); Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008); https://apologeticspress.org/category/alleged-discrepancies; https://defendinginerrancy.com/bible-difficulties.

[7] For evangelical discussions of these views see Bill T. Arnold, 1 & 2 Samuel (The NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2003), 622–624; Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 449–450; Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 175–177; V. Philips Long, 1 and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020), 445–447; Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (2nd edn; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 296–297.

[8] On might propose a fourth view here, 1d: Perhaps both David and Elhanan killed Goliath! David hit him in the forehead with a stone, Elhanan pierced him in the heart with a spear, and David severed his entire head with a sword! Surely somebody has actually “argued” for this harmonizing “solution” to the problem!

[9] Kaspars Ozolins, “Killing Goliath? Elhanan the Bethlehemite and the Text of 2 Samuel 21:19,” Vetus Testamentum 72.4–5 (2021), 716–733. “Jaur” instead of “Jair” in Ozolins’s reconstruction is discussed in detail in his article, but those details are not important in the present context. Other evangelicals who proposed an original text like Ozolins’s, prior to the publication of his article, but without the rigorous details of his argumentation, include Chisholm, Interpreting the Historical Books, 176; and R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 704. The NET Bible (https://netbible.org) has the same (corrected) translation for both 2 Samuel 21:19 and 1 Chronicles 20:5. Interestingly, and somewhat oddly, the NIV has this (corrected) translation for 2 Samuel 21:19, but not for 1 Chronicles 20:5.

[10] Robert Rezetko, Misquoting Moses: The Problem of the Old Testament’s Words, and Why It Matters.

[11] Ozolins obtained a master of divinity degree at The Master’s Seminary, where inerrancy is affirmed, and he is currently an assistant professor of Old Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, another institution that affirms inerrancy. According to Al Mohler, the president of the seminary, “His [Ozolins’s] proven expertise in linguistics and Semitic languages is only exceeded by his passionate love of the Lord, his commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, and his joyful participation in the local church” (https://news.sbts.edu/2022/05/11/ozolins-joining-ot-department-at-southern-seminary).

[12] Robert Rezetko, Mark Elliott, and Kenneth Atkinson, “Introducing Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?” (pp. 3–75), and Robert Rezetko, “Building a House on Sand: What Do Evangelicals Do When They Do Textual Criticism of the Old Testament?” (pp. 95–127), in Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? (ed. Mark Elliott, Kenneth Atkinson, and Robert Rezetko; Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; London: Routledge, 2023).

[13] Ozolins, “Killing Goliath?,” 716.

[14] Ozolins, “Killing Goliath?,” 731–732.

[15] Kaspars Ozolins, “Who Really Killed Goliath?” (March 8, 2022), https://textandcanon.org/who-really-killed-goliath; Kaspars Ozolins, “Who Killed Goliath? The Puzzling Text of 2 Samuel 21:19” (April 14, 2022), https://academic.tyndalehouse.com/explore/articles/who-killed-goliath.

[16] See, for example, A. Graeme Auld and Erik Eynikel, eds., For and Against David: Story and History in the Books of Samuel (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensum, 232; Leuven: Peeters, 2010); Uwe Becker and Hannes Bezzel, eds., Rereading the Relecture?: The Question of (Post)Chronistic Influence in the Latest Redactions of the Books of Samuel (Forschungen zum Alten Testament II, 66; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014); Walter Dietrich, Cynthia Edenburg, and Philippe Hugo, eds., The Books of Samuel: Stories—History—Reception History (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensum, 284; Leuven: Peeters, 2016); Cynthia Edenburg and Juha Pakkala, eds., Is Samuel among the Deuteronomists? Current Views on the Place of Samuel in a Deuteronomistic History (Society of Biblical Literature Ancient Israel and Its Literature, 16; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013); Philippe Hugo and Adrian Schenker, eds., Archaeology of the Books of Samuel: The Entangling of the Textual and Literary History (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, 132; Leiden: Brill, 2010). See also Robert Rezetko, Source and Revision in the Narratives of David’s Transfer of the Ark: Text, Language and Story in 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 13, 15–16 (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 470; London: T & T Clark, 2007), chs. 1–2; Robert Rezetko and Ian Young, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew: Steps Toward an Integrated Approach (Society of Biblical Literature Ancient Near East Monographs, 9; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014), 174–179. The latter is available free of charge at https://www.sbl-site.org/publications/books_anemonographs.aspx.

[17] The publications cited in the preceding note illustrate in detail the latter two problems summarized here. See also, for example, Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (4th edn; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2022), 305–318, 323–333; Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, 169; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 1–27, 309–316; and again, Rezetko and Young, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, 59–83, where the (still) current consensus views on the state of the Old Testament text is reviewed.

[18] The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not much of an issue for non-American evangelicals; consequently, they are not very bothered by the Bible’s contradiction about who killed Goliath. But I am also aware of the occasional American conservative evangelical scholar who also seems not to be very bothered by it, for example: “It must be admitted that we currently have no easy answer to this question.... Another way around the impasse is to admit that contradictions of this sort were not necessarily as disconcerting to ancient Israelite authors and editors as they are to modern readers” (Arnold, 1 & 2 Samuel, 624); “If we choose not to smooth the issue out by identifying Elhanan as David or suggesting two Goliaths, then we should understand the David and Goliath story as one akin to George Washington and the cherry tree—it may not be historically factual but it is true in a larger sense, since it accurately reflects the man’s character” (Herbert M. Wolf, revised by Robert D. Holmstedt, Commentary on 1–2 Samuel [The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015], Kindle e-book). To their credit, due to their commitment to biblical inerrancy, evangelicals like Ozolins will dig deep into text-critical problems in their effort to resolve them, and they can come up with interesting observations and clever solutions, and for this we can be grateful, even when their explanations of textual difficulties turn out to be unpersuasive. On another topic on one of the same evangelical websites, Ozolins claims that the Ketef Hinnom amulets “demonstrate two important things,” but there also his “lessons” on the “product” and “text” of the (entire!?) Old Testament are overblown. See Kaspars Ozolins, “The Ketef Hinnom Amulets” (November 5, 2021), https://academic.tyndalehouse.com/explore/articles/the-ketef-hinnom-amulets.

Article Comments

Submitted by Jim West on Tue, 10/31/2023 - 11:54


Textual 'corrections' are always a 'reach around'. Making up texts that don't actually exist in order to bolster arguments which ignore the text itself as it does exist has always smacked, to me, of dishonesty.

It treats the text dishonestly and advances conclusions that are dishonest.

Submitted by Robert Rezetko on Thu, 11/02/2023 - 11:00


My understanding is that Professor Ozolins was invited to comment or respond to this article, but declined because he prefers to let his Vetus Testamentum article stand as it is. I would only point out that the present article is not really about his text-critical arguments in his VT article -- indeed, for the sake of argument, I even granted that his solution to the contradiction might be correct -- but rather about how he like many others will (mis)use their academic work in more popular evangelical contexts to reassure their readers about the reliability of the biblical text and related matters. I can only understand his decision not to engage here in the context of Bible and Interpretation, as a further indication of the flip side of the coin: evangelicals will often respond to criticisms of their views only in evangelical contexts where they are not seriously challenged to defend their views like they would be elsewhere (cf. Misusing Scripture, p. 38 with references, p. 119 n. 32).

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