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
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    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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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about teleologically adjusting historical narrative to meet a narrative from another humanities discipline. History does not serve to tell confirming tales of cultural narratives. – Samuel Russell Sep 11 '14 at 22:01
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    Concur that it is off topic now; there are too many peripheral issues that drag this out of history and into other narratives. Is there a way we can adjust it to merely ask what the world population was in 970 BCE and how the figure was derived? – Mark C. Wallace Sep 12 '14 at 11:15

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.

Here's what McEvedy and Jones' Atlas of World Population History has to say on this very subject:

The collapse of the Egyptian Empire in 1200BC left Palestine
and Jordan defenceless: the Philistines seized the coast, the children of Israel moved in from the desert. According to scripture the Israelites were numbered at something over 2m. Ten thousand would be a better figure, but if they were few they were tenacious: they multiplied and proselytized with such remarkable success that by 800BC they constituted rather more than half the total population of the area - say 0.3m out of 0.5m

For a modern comparison, the state of Israel today has about only 1.5 million men considered "fit for military service". So this Biblical 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 anachronism. 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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    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
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    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
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    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
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    -1:"which would have been 300 to 500 years...As such, this portion of The Bible should not be taken as a literal history." Very wrong: From your source: "combining a number of independent texts of various ages" i.e: There were documents that dated back to the time of the actual events that were compiled and edited to arrive that the current text. Traditional biblical scholars also agree to this. According to your reasoning, if today someone writes a book about Columbus based on solid written sources, it's not history because Columbus lived a few hundred years ago. Not really... – user2590 Aug 11 '13 at 7:45
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    @T.E.D. "Most likely if such a report.." Hebrew text effectively quotes Yoav: Are you saying the quote was later falsified or fabricated? Why? The distinction between Israel and Judah dates to before the civil war-very ancient roots going back to patriarchal times: Joseph and Judah. (The kings of Israel were from the tribe of Joseph & in the prophets we find the "House of Joseph"-Amos 5:6 1 of many) The split was just the final manifestation of the rivalry. Just as "Dixie" referred to the Confederate states before the Civil War, "Israel" referred to the northern areas. – user2590 Aug 11 '13 at 8:21

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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    That site assumes that biblical account of history is accurate, therefore the 2 million. – Michael Sep 9 '14 at 7:12
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    An agricultural or nomadic population of 2 million doesn't have 1.3 million "able-bodied men who could handle a sword". You are at least an order of magnitude off, even if we accept the 2 million (which also seems rather inflated) – Greg Mar 31 '20 at 2:03
  • Archeological evidence alone refutes any chance such numbers were even remotely possible. Where are the dwellings, cities and villages, of these millions of people? The land of Israel is very small and a large portion of it is an inhospitable dessert. It’s also been excavated for around 200 years. For comparison, the population of Egypt at the time is roughly estimated at about 4 million, and that’s a global superpower even though it was in relative decline. – Boaz Aug 3 '20 at 18:54

I love looking at this history and finding out the truth. Thank you for allowing people to participate. According to Numbers 26:51 there were 601,730 fighing men + Levites around 23,000. This is around 1451BC, 2553b,etc Total fighting men 624,730 In Genesis 46:27 it says there were 70 souls brought to Egypt. 1706BC (255 years) So 226 years later, it is possible to do an equation to see if this figure seems reasonable. x2 = 1,249,460 + (as suggested 1.3 million is pretty close to arms length possibility)

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