Peopling the Biblical World

The Biblical world at various eras is probably the most intensely studied society in human history. Just how many books, for instance, have been written about Palestine in the time of Jesus? Despite all that work, though, we still have major areas of ignorance about such a basic issue as population. If we look at a country today, that is such a critical theme. How many people are there to pay taxes, to serve in armies, to populate cities, and to feed those cities? Numbers are not everything, but nor are they nothing. So just how many people lived in Palestine – broadly defined – at any given time? And how many in Jerusalem itself?

Biblical sources are full of numbers of various kinds, and I find myself at the skeptical end of readers. Whatever we think of accounts of the Exodus, it would take a stubborn true believer to think that such an event involved 600,000 men, not counting the women and children (Exodus 12.37). Some three million migrants in all, crossing Sinai? Bishop John Colenso – a mathematician as well as a Biblical scholar – effectively shredded such figures in the 1860s and 1870s, however often they still get defended on Internet sites.

Or what are we to make of David’s census, recorded in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21, set around 1000 BC? The project was inspired by Satan, who thus emerges as the true founder of historical demography. Under extreme protest, David’s servant Joab “reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded: in Israel there were 800,000 soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were 500,000.” The Chronicles figure is even higher: “In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword. But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering.” That would imply a minimum population for ancient Israel of some six or seven million, far above what modern scholars would think vaguely feasible. Even if that did include David’s wider empire, it still stretches credibility to the limit.

Of course, this does all raise an added question: were the Biblical writers inventing the numbers out of whole cloth, or did they have some actual official source on which they were relying, even if not accurately? I don’t know the answer.

Personally, I tend to discount most such figures, whether for whole populations, or for armies or populations or migrants, and that attitude extends wholeheartedly to writers like Josephus. In my view, pre-modern societies (Biblical and otherwise) basically had little idea of such numbers, and compensated by putting forward impressive sounding statistics that were conditioned largely by the limits of the counting systems available to them. They basically had no idea of what concepts like “a million” (for instance) actually meant, beyond “a really large and stunning figure.”

In these issues at least, call me an agnostic

Let me say right away that critical scholars whom I respect immensely differ substantially from me on these issues. I have heard the argument that if we are looking at ancient Israel between, say, 800 and 600 BC (Iron Age II), our archaeological evidence gives a solid and reliable record for the production of goods such as olive oil. That allows us to calculate roughly what national production might have been, and just how many people would have been needed to consume those goods. Based on that sound empirical argument, then it is credible to suggest that Israel truly was as densely populated as the higher Biblical estimates suggest, at that particular time. Even so, we have a lot of leeway in estimating actual population figures.

Or to take another credible source, look at 2 Kings 15: 19-20, where the Assyrians impose a tax around 738 BC. The figures imply a population of some sixty thousand households, say three to four hundred thousand people. Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors also recorded the number of Israelites they carried off at various times, but these numbers are also shaky, and subject to much debate. What they do suggest very strongly is that, outside Jerusalem, most Israelite towns and cities were very small affairs, in effect glorified villages.

If you want to see just how much scholars differ on such themes, then look at the interesting Wikipedia section on the Demographic History of Palestine. Issues of definition are critical. Are we counting just “Palestine” – ie, the old Mandate territory that now constitutes Israel, Palestine and the Gaza Strip – or including the closely related lands to the east of the Jordan? And are we counting Jews, or the many non-Jewish populations that certainly existed within that area, for instance in Jesus’s time? I offer a sample of the discussion:

Applebaum argues that in Herod’s kingdom, there were 1.5 million Jews, a figure Ben David says covers the numbers in Judea alone. Salo Wittmayer Baron estimated the population at 2.3 million at the time of Emperor Claudius. According to Israeli archeologist Magen Broshi argues that West of the Jordan the population did not exceed 1 million … a study by Yigal Shiloh of The Hebrew University suggests that the population of Palestine in the Iron Age could have never exceeded a million.

That is an extremely wide range, especially as Herod’s kingdom stretched well beyond the limit of modern day Israel. We need to read such accounts very carefully to see exactly who they are counting, and in what land area. (See also the entry on Historical Jewish Population Comparisons).

To put all that in perspective, the population of British Mandate Palestine was around 750,000 to a million in the 1920s. The modern population of combined Israel/Palestine (roughly the same area) is now around 12.7 million, likely rising to 18.5 million by 2035.

It is still harder to deduce the population of particular cities. What, for instance, is the demographic history of Jerusalem? Biblical minimalists suggest that the city would scarcely have existed before the ninth or eighth centuries, and that it might not have had more than a few thousand people in the Persian period. Others would disagree powerfully with those statements. By Hezekiah’s time – late eighth century – estimates range from six to twenty thousand.

The figures we are offered are inflated to an outrageous extent. Here for instance is 2 Maccabees describing the sack of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes in the 160s BC:

Then there was massacre of young and old, destruction of boys, women, and children, and slaughter of young girls and infants. Within the total of three days eighty thousand were destroyed, forty thousand in hand-to-hand fighting, and as many were sold into slavery as were killed.

Bear that very high number in mind when we look at some more credible numbers later.

Literary evidence at least points to the city in Jesus’s time being a significant Mediterranean community, but the range of estimates varies widely. Here is a sample from the Wikipedia entry on the first century AD:

The population of Jerusalem in the time of Josephus has been estimated to be around 80,000 …   During the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE), the population of Jerusalem was estimated at 600,000 persons by Roman historian Tacitus, while Josephus, estimated that there were as many as 1,100,000, who were killed in the war. … After the Roman victory over the Jews, as many as 115,880 dead bodies were carried out through one gate between the months of Nisan and Tammuz. Arguing that the numbers given in historical sources were usually grossly exaggerated, Hillel Geva estimated from the archaeological evidence that the actual population of Jerusalem before its 70 CE destruction was at most 20,000.

On which, all a non-specialist can really comment is: Huh? Twenty thousand or a million?

Looking at various sources on the city in Jesus’s time, I see a consensus of between forty and seventy thousand permanent population at any given time, a number that of course swelled enormously during the great pilgrim festivals, likely into the hundreds of thousands, and maybe a quarter million or more. You would get a similar effect during times of war and crisis, when many thousands of rural dwellers would seek the security of a well-fortified city.

Without forcing exact numbers, I would not argue too strongly with the accessible account offered some years ago by Christian History and Biography:

The population of Palestine in Jesus’ day was approximately 500,000 to 600,000 (about that of Vermont, Boston, or Jerusalem today). About 18,000 of these residents were clergy, priests and Levites. Jerusalem was a city of some 55,000, (about the size of Wheaton, Illinois, today) but during major feasts, could swell to 180,000.

Even so, the question arises where these figures are coming from? This passage summarizes the classic account in Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 82-84. This book was published in German in 1969, but many of its materials were far older, dating back to the 1930s and 40s.

For all his legendary scholarship, Jeremias was of course making many assumptions. In theory, it should be an easy deduction. You take the inhabited area of the city, which is well established by archaeology. Then you eliminate areas that were not permanently inhabited because they served as official or ritual structures, the Temple being an obvious example. You are left with an inhabited area in terms of (say) square meters, and you multiply that by a plausible figure for density of population, as established from comparable societies, whether ancient or modern.

And after doing that simple and logical work, you are still left with a phenomenally wide range of possible answers. Just to illustrate the difficulties involved, let me quote one of Jeremias’s famously erudite footnotes, stating his position in the 1940s:

Ancient figures for the inhabitants of Jerusalem are unreliable. (Pseudo-Hecateus, as quoted in CA 1.197, gives 120,000 for the period before 100 BC; Lam. R. 1.2 on I.I, Son. 70f, gives figures amounting to 9 1/2 billion.) Consequently we must try to calculate the number of inhabitants from the area of Jerusalem. …. Now the density of the population in Jerusalem, including the suburbs, fifty years ago was about one person to every 30 square metres (about 135 persons per acre), but since the ancient city consisted only of the area inside the walls, we may guess at a somewhat greater density, about one person to 25 square metres (about 160 per acre). So we have a figure for the population of ancient Jerusalem of about 55,000 to 95,000. The smaller figure is the more probable, and even that may still be too high.

By the 1960s, he was still more conservative, lowering the estimated population density:

This results in a population of about 20,000 inside the city walls at the time of Jesus, and 5,000 to 10,000 outside. This figure, of from 25-30,000, must be the upper limit.

Later scholars would put that figure significantly too low, and raise Jeremias’s estimate to, say, 70,000, or even 100,000. Everything depends on how we estimate the population densities of ancient cities. But ultimately, who knows for sure? Even for Rome itself, the city’s population at its height is guesstimated anywhere from 250,000 to 1.5 million.

If there is one impression we get time and time again, it is the small and indeed intimate size of ancient Jerusalem. And also, the fact that nobody really knows the numbers for sure.






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  • stefanstackhouse

    Of course we don’t have the original autographs. I thus tend to view OT numbers, especially, with some suspicion. Ancient Hebrew used letters rather than Arabic numerals (which had not yet been invented), and since language does change over time, can we be absolutely certain that the multitude of copyists always got it right, or that WE have gotten it right as we read and translate the text that has been passed down to us? Also, can we be absolutely certain that some ancient scribe somewhere in the chain didn’t think it would be a good idea, and would make God look greater, to inflate some numbers, or even insert some?

    The thing is: what point of doctrine hangs on this? Does it really matter whether there were a million plus men of military age in ancient Israel and Judea, or one tenth as much? This only matters if you are actually holding not merely to a belief in Biblical Inerrancy (as defined by the Chicago Statement), but also to a claim that the scriptures have miraculously been preserved absolutely intact without any change or addition since the original autographs. This is NOT what inerrancy claims, and I doubt that anyone who knows much of anything at all would hold to it or wish to have to defend it against a mountain of contrary evidence.

  • noel

    It interesting you mention population. In discussions of population numbers of the Book of Mormon, in order to make the geography fit Mesoamerica, LDS scholars argue that the writers of the stories in the Book of Mormon exaggerated the numbers.

  • steve burdan

    interesting article – on the face of it, I agree we are almost completely limited in even creating a best guess-timate of population volume. common sense would tell us to put very little weight on accuracy of numbers (scientific accuracy far more important to us today – only last 150 years?). but for Biblical authority questions, this issue of numbers must be addressed…