Did Samson Really Destroy the Philistine Temple With His Bare Hands?
‘Then Samson bowed with all his might,’ says the Bible ‘and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were in it.’
In Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges we read:
And when their hearts were merry, they said, ‘Call Samson, that he may make sport for us.’ So they called Samson out of the prison, and he made sport before them. They made him stand between the pillars; and Samson said to the lad who held him by the hand, ‘Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, that I may lean against them.’ … And Samson grasped the two middle pillars upon which the house rested, and he leaned his weight upon them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ Then he bowed with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were in it. …
This is one of the most famous stories of the Old Testament. Samson, who judged Israel for 20 years (Judges 16:31), lived in the first half of the 11th century B.C. His death occurred in Gaza (Judges 16:1), which hasn’t been excavated because a city sits on top of the ancient ruins. Thus, we have to look for other temples in the regions of the ancient Philistines to see if they have two central pillars supporting the roof.
Four such buildings have been found. In 1972, a Philistine temple from the 11th century B.C. was uncovered at Tel Qasile (near Tel Aviv). In the main hall two round stone bases remained, on top of which wooden pillars supporting the roof rested. Two more temples discovered at Tel Miqne (ancient Ekron) — dated to between 1167 and 1050 B.C., before or during Samson’s lifetime — exhibited the same characteristics regarding two pillars. A fourth similar temple was excavated at Tell es-Safi/Gath. These pillars would have been 6-7 feet apart from each other. Ekron is mentioned in the Bible in Joshua 13:2-3, 13; 15:11; 19:43. The Ark of the Covenant was there for a time (1 Samuel 5:10; 6:1-8).
Tell es-Safi is ancient Gath — the hometown of the most famous Philistine, Goliath (1 Samuel 17:4). The Ark of the Covenant also resided for a time in Gath (1 Samuel 5:8), and it (along with Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron) was one of the five most important Philistine cities of the Philistines (1 Samuel 6:17). This temple is dated to the 9th century B.C., so it’s later than Samson, but it is more evidence of such Philistine structures with two central pillars, in conjunction with the other three examples that did exist before or during Samson’s lifetime.
Note that it is believed that cedar posts rested on top of stone bases. Thus, it’s not a matter of Samson causing completely stone pillars to crumble — which is what I previously assumed, and probably what most people think — but rather, to simply dislodge the cedar columns (about one foot in diameter) from their bases. In the Tel Qasile temple, the cedar posts were held in place only by the weight of the roof, and were about 6 feet apart (descriptions differ), able to be reached by a tall man. The pillars at the Ekron temple are about 7 and a half feet apart. The very fact that these two temples had pillars at different distances from each other illustrates that the pillars at Gaza may have been even closer together, making it easier still to topple them.
We can estimate the arm span of large men today and in recent times, by measuring that of NBA players. Wilt Chamberlain’s span was 7’8”, as is current player Dwight Howard’s. Shaquille O’Neal’s is 7’7”, while Alonzo Mourning and Andre Drummond could reach 7’6”, Kevin Durant and Yao Ming, 7’5”, and the late great Bill Russell, 7’4”. All of these men could have easily reached the two pillars in the temple at Tel Qasile, standing between them.
But in light of these facts, in conjunction with actual archaeological finds, we know that it was possible for a big man to reach the central pillars in at least one of the four Philistine temples that have been discovered. Those are simply facts. But would a man have the strength to pull them down? Well, according to the Guinness World Records, Canadian Gregg Ernst has lifted 5,340 pounds. The heaviest train pulled by the neck, according to the same source, weighed 71,650 pounds (35.8 tons), using a cable a little larger than 1/16 of an inch (2 mm); the record was achieved by Ukrainian Dmytro Hrunskyi in Dnipro, Ukraine, on May 10, 2022.
Is it naturally possible, then, to do what Samson is reported to have done? Maybe so. It’s not impossible that he was as strong or stronger than Gregg Ernst or Dmytro Hrunskyi. Samson is known as one of the most legendary strongmen of all time, after all (probably just behind the semi-mythical Hercules in that regard). In any event, Christians and Jews believe that God answered the recorded prayer of Samson: “O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once” (Judges 15:28).
Another “problem” with the account of Samson’s death, however, remains: the ostensible prima facie questionability of at least 3,000 people (Judges 16:27) perishing in a temple that was probably not all that large. It comes down to the complex issue of the Old Testament use of numbers. The Book of Judges, like other Old Testament books, appears to habitually use neatly rounded and, I contend, deliberately exaggerated (non-literal) large numbers: “120,000 men” who died fighting against Gideon (8:10), etc. During most of early Church history, large biblical numbers were interpreted in a symbolic manner, and in fact, we have reason to believe that this was actually the Old Testament writers’ intentions.