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What was the world population around 970 BC? What was Palestine's population around 970 BC? Does the following bible verse fits in the current historical world population estimatives?

In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.

2 Samuel 24:9

Accordingly to Bible Timeline the verse is about somewhen around 970 BC

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If you're looking for a Biblical interpretation you might want to try this StackExchange site instead: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com –  jfrankcarr May 30 '12 at 11:51
@jfrankcarr I'd rather have a skeptical point of view –  Jader Dias May 30 '12 at 12:17
Edited to complete the sentence, as I think it was misleading without the second half. At the time in question, Israel and Judah were supposedly one pan-Jewish state. –  T.E.D. May 30 '12 at 13:34
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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

According to the graph on the World Population wiki page, global population at 1000 BC was about 50 million. The vast majority of that would have been in the areas of intensive farming, which at that time means Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and perhaps the Indus valley.

So that number doesn't seem completely out of line. However, Israel is much more marginal agricultural territory than Mesopotamia. Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel, by Paula M. McNutt postulates a far lower population for the area. In particular, based on archeological evidence, perhaps 40,000 people in the 12th century (which gives them a lot of ground to cover to make a over a million warriors in the next 2 centuries). She admits this doesn't jibe well with biblical accounts.

For a modern comparison, the state of Israel today has about only 1.5 million men considered "fit for military service". So this passage would have you believe they almost had as many available in the same area 3000 ago as they could muster today.

Note that current thinking is that Samuel was written sometime around 630-540 BCE, which would have been 300 to 500 years after the events being described. As such, this portion of The Bible should not be taken as a literal history.

The edit I made to the question (adding back in the bit about Judah) should be your first clue. There was no such thing as "Judah" until the civil war after the death of Solomon in 930 (50 years later). That's when the state split, with the 10 northern tribes continuing to call themselves "Israel" and the two southern ones calling themselves "Judah" (which was one of the two tribes' names).

So the sentence is an anachronisim. There was no such split then, and "Judah" was just one of the 12 tribes in the country. Most likely if such a report were given, it either wouldn't have been split up at all, or it would have been split up by tribe (which would have required 12 numbers, not two).

Samuel was trying to relate a story, and tell some deeper truths about the authors' conception of God. It was not trying to be a modern-style historical documentary. If you are poking around in it looking for history in every detail, you are completely missing the point.

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some people would disagree with "this portion of the Bible shouldn't be take literally. (though I do agree) You might want to change it to say for historical proposes... –  Russell May 30 '12 at 15:12
I didn't say "shouldn't be taken literally". I said "should not be taken as a literal history". That seems to me to have the same meaning as your proposed change. Anyone who thinks it should be taken as a literal history is perfectly free to downvote the answer. –  T.E.D. May 30 '12 at 15:32
Thanks for bringing up the context of the Bible, people forget that much of it was written far after the events described. The Bible is not History, but it allows us to look at events through a different set of lenses. –  MichaelF May 30 '12 at 16:35
Well, most of it isn't a great historical reference. However, Mark was written only a generation or so after the events described, Acts was nearly contemporanious, and Paul's letters, while not all actually written by Paul, were essentially a snapshot of the Christian community at the time they were written. –  T.E.D. May 31 '12 at 14:18
@T.E.D. Dont worry, I up-voted your answer, just trying to be slightly less biased. Your answer was very good. –  Russell Jun 1 '12 at 13:33
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According to this site the population was around 100 million and the jewish population was 2 million people, fitting the biblical narrative.

But it could be that this data was extracted solely from the bible, and not from other sources.

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The world population estimates of the time period would suggest that an adult male population of 800K in Palestine is a plausible number. That said, numbers in the Bible have been mistranslated at times so that's why I'd suggest the hermeneutics site to probe that aspect. –  jfrankcarr May 30 '12 at 13:08
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