Were Samson’s Superhuman Abilities Really That Far-fetched?
The story of Samson is one of the more far-fetched stories in the Bible. It’s like an ancient Superhero story; the story of a man whose magical hair gives such superhuman strength that he could kill a thousand soldiers with a jawbone, pull a temple down from the inside, and tear a lion apart with his bare hands.
But lately, archaeologists have been starting to stumble on hints that Samson just might have been a real person.
No, they haven’t discovered locks of hair that give people superhuman strength – but they’ve found little clues that all the crazier parts of the story just might have started with reality.
The Philistine War with Israel Really Happened
At the core of Samson’s story is the war between the Philistines and Israel. The Philistines , in the Bible, are treated as foreign oppressors with religions and values that, to the Israelites, seemed strange and blasphemous. That was what made a Samson a hero – while the Philistines dominated them, he was wild and strong enough to slaughter thousands of them.
There’s almost no question, at this point, that this war really happened. The five cities of the Philistines have all been turned into archaeological sites, and everything they left behind fits perfectly with the idea that they were the Israelites’ mortal enemies.
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Samson Slays a Thousand Men with the Jawbone of a Donkey (c. 1896–1902) by James Tissot. ( Public Domain)
The Philistines moved into the neighborhood in 1200 BC. At most, this was a hundred years before Samson was born. Based on the pottery they brought with them, they came from Aegea and they brought with them Greek Gods and customs that the Israelites would have seen as barbaric.
A massive, powerful army came with them, too. Even the Egyptians, whose military was far more powerful than the Israelites, kept records that describe the Philistines as a nearly unbeatable army that raided them from the sea.
When Samson supposedly lived, their violent new neighbors would have seemed like the worst people alive. They were foreign conquerors who still hadn’t assimilated into the society around them. They ate animals the Israelites considered unclean, worshipped gods they considered evil, and some of their foreign ideas were starting to spread.
An Ancient Seal Shows Samson Fighting a Lion
It’s one thing to prove that the Philistines existed but proving that a single man like Samson lived is a much taller order. There are little hints, though, that suggest that the story might have more of a basis in truth than you’d expect.
One of the biggest clues in a tiny seal about half an inch wide, showing a man and a lion locked in combat. On its own, it might not seem like much – but it’s where it was found that makes it special.
The seal was found in a home in Beth Shemesh, the city in which Samson is said to have been born and the place where he was buried. It seems to depict a story from his life: his barehanded battle with a lion. And most significantly of all, it was made in the 12 th century BC – the century in which he’s believed to have lived.
The "Samson seal" found at Beth Shemesh. Image: Raz Lederman, courtesy of Tel Beth Shemesh Excavations
It doesn’t conclusively prove that he killed a lion with his bare hands, but it strongly suggests that the story of Samson fighting the lion didn’t start off as a mythical story of some distant past. When people first started telling it, Samson was either still alive or had only just recently died.
That just might mean that, whether Samson really killed a lion with his bare hands or not, he was tough enough that the people around him were willing to believe it happened.
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Samson by Franz von Stuck, 1891. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Prisoners Really Were Blinded and Worked on Mills
Before the Philistines killed Samson, according to the Biblical version of the story, Samson’s eyes were gouged out and he was forced to push a massive millstone, grinding corn.
This wasn’t make-believe – this was a real punishment. The Hittites came up with it, and their records show that it worked pretty well exactly how its described in the story of Samson.
Hittite administrators sent out multiple letters with lists of captives who have been put to work in mill houses grinding corn. In most of these lists, there’s a mark next to the captive’s name – each one is either labeled “sighted” or “blinded”.
Outside of the story of Samson, there isn’t direct proof that the Philistines used it, but it’s extremely likely. The Philistines conquered the Hittites around Samson’s time and almost certainly picked up some of their ideas along the way.
Whether a man named Samson ever really was blinded and tied to a mill we can’t say for sure – but there’s every reason to believe that it happened to more than few Israelites who crossed the Philistines.
Samson and Delilah by Anthony van Dyck, circa 1628-1630. ( Public Domain )
Tearing Down a Philistine Temple Was Physically Possible
The craziest part of the story of Samson is the end. In his final moments, according to the Bible, Samson pushed against two pillars in a Philistine temple. The pillars collapsed under his might and the roof came crashing down on the Philistines inside, killing them all.
When you imagine it happening in a modern building, it seems a bit absurd. Recently, though, archaeologists have excavated real Philistine temples from around that time and, as it turns out, it’s not as crazy as it might seem.
Philistine temples really were supported by two main pillars that made up the foundations of the building. If someone was able to knock those two pillars down, the roof really would have come crashing down on everyone inside.
Knocking them over wasn’t as impossible as it might sound, either. The pillars were made out of cedar wood resting on stone support bases. It would certainly wouldn’t be easy to break through them, but it’s hypothetically possible that one of the cedar poles could have been pushed free of the stone base.
They were close together, too. In the temple in the Philistine city of Gath, the pillars were just two meters apart – close enough that a tall man would have been able to stand between them and push against them both, just like in the story.
Samson destroys the temple. ( Public Domain )
Could Samson Have Been A Real Person?
Of course, none of that proves that there was a man named Samson who could tear lions apart with his bare hands. Proving the existence of a single man who lived 3,000 years ago is nearly impossible, and there’s little reason to believe we’ll ever find conclusive proof that Samson existed.
What it does show, though, is that his story was rooted in real history. The Philistines we’ve been told Samson fought against really were there, and they really did live in the way the story says.
The background details, at least, are true, and it’s very likely that there was a real man who inspired the story as well. How you fill in the details of his life, though, will always be a matter of faith.
Top image: Samson and Delilah by Jose Etxenagusia, 1887. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Oliver
American Friends of Tel Aviv University. "Ancient seal may add substance to the legend of Samson." ScienceDaily. August 13, 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120813103403.htm
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“In Israel, Diggers Unearth the Bible’s Bad Guys”. USA Today . July 10, 2011. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-07-10-Bible-israel-archeology-10_ST_N.htm
Jansezian, Nicole. “Archaeologists Uncover Philistine Temple”. Travelujah. August 8, 2010. http://www.travelujah.com/blogs/entry/Archaeologists-Uncover-Philistine-Temple-
Mazow, Laura Beth. “Competing Material Culture: Philistine Settlement at Tel Miqne-Ekron in the Early Iron Age.” The University of Arizona . 2005. https://repository.arizona.edu/handle/10150/193997