Most English translations of the Bible (e.g. NASB, NIV, KJV, NRSV), following the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament,1 say that Goliath was six cubits and a span tall. The ESV, for example, says the following:

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. [1Sam. 17:4]

Converted into more modern measurements, this is 3.2 metres (9 feet, 6 inches), if measured by the 18 inch cubit, or 3.5 metres (just over 11 feet), if the 21 inch cubit is used.

Some reference sources cite medical conditions  such as acromegaly2 which could have resulted in this height,3 a suggestion found even in some professional medical works.4

There is also another possibility, however: some ancient sources give Goliath’s height as ‘four cubits and a span’,5 i.e., about 2.1 metres (six feet, nine inches). The NAB and the NET6 are versions of the Bible that follow these sources:

A champion named Goliath of Gath came out from the Philistine camp; he was six and a half feet tall. [1Sam. 17:4 (NAB)]

Then a champion 1  came out from the camp of the Philistines. His name was Goliath; he was from Gath. He was close to seven feet tall. [1Sam. 17:4 (NET)]

Also see the following footnotes on 1Sam. 17:4 from various versions of the Bible:

ESV
Hebrew; Septuagint, Dead Sea Scroll and Josephus four [cubits]

GNB
[Hebrew] nine feet; [one ancient Hebrew manuscript and one ancient translation] seven feet.

NLT
Hebrew 6 cubits and 1 span [which totals about 9.75 feet or 3 meters]; Greek version and Dead Sea Scrolls read 4 cubits and 1 span [which totals about 6.75 feet or 2 meters]

Would 2.1 metres be tall enough for Goliath to be classed as a ‘giant’?

A 6 foot 9 inch Goliath (2.05 metres) would have been at least 20 centimetres taller than the heroes found in Iron Age Mycenaen tombs,7 and 30-40 centimetres taller than the average Iron Age man; this proves that even the heroes of the time were only 10-15 centimetres taller than the average, and a man 30 centimetres taller than these heroes would have been a real giant, almost 40 centimetres taller than the average man (King Saul need not have been more than 6 feet tall to be head and shoulders above all in Israel [1Sam. 9:2], and at 6 feet 9 inches Goliath would still have been significantly taller).

What about Goliath’s weapons and armour?

Some people might object that Goliath’s weapons and armour make little sense for a warrior shorter than the traditional reading. However, such objections are not well founded:

‘…first of all, the text does not say that Goliath’s spear was as big or as long or as heavy as a weaver’s beam. It just says that the “shaft” (lit. “arrow”) of his spear was as (D) a weaver’s beam. Yagael Yadin points out that the comparison between Goliath’s spear and a weaver’s beam is not saying that the shaft of the spear was as big as a large timbered crossbeam of a loom. Rather, the narrator is describing a looped cord or rope that was attached to the spear that enabled a warrior to throw it harder and further. This looped cord looked somewhat like the cord loops of a weaver’s beam; thus the analogy.  It has nothing to do with the size of his spear. Thus it also has no bearing on the size of Goliath. Likewise, the six hundred shekel (fifteen pounds) weight of the iron spearhead certainly  would not require a ten foot tall giant to throw it.’

Hays, ‘Reconsidering the Height of Goliath’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (48.5.708), (2005), p. 708

(Spears were also commonly used to thrust at short range [requiring less effort], rather  than thrown [note Goliath  does not throw his spear].)

‘Yadin provides pictures of a real weaver’s beam as well as ancient paintings of soldiers from the ancient Near East holding such looped weapons. His evidence is so convincing that, as I point out,  the majority of commentators on 1 Samuel follow Yadin.’

Hays,  ‘A Response to Clyde Billington’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (50.3.515), (2007).

Further reading

Most of the text in the answer above is taken from J. Burke, ‘How tall was Goliath?’ (2010) from the Challenges & Answers Series. The full article (PDF format) is available online here.
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Notes
1. The medieval Hebrew text on which almost all modern English translations of the Old Testament are based.
2. A pituitary gland disorder resulting in giantism
3. ‘However, D. Kellermann suggests that Goliath’s symptoms in 1 Samuel 17 match those of pathological gigantism (a pituitary condition known as acromegaly), including a tunnel-vision type of visual defect, which David presumably took advantage of in defeating him. If so, then the MT reading need not be considered an exaggeration.’, Li, ‘Goliath’, in Arnold & Williamson (eds.), ‘Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical books’, p. 356 (2005).
4. ‘The biblical giant Goliath  may have been afflicted with  acromegaly.’,  Ember & Ember,  ‘Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology’, p. 392 (2004)
5. The textual evidence for a  shorter height is found in the following sources:
  • The LXX (commonly known as the ‘Septuagint’, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, completed no later than the mid-2nd century BCE).
  • 4QSam (one of the  Hebrew  copies of the book of Samuel found among the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’, this text contains 1-2 Samuel, and although parts of the text are damaged, 1 Samuel 17:3-6 is not; this text dates to around 50 BCE and is the oldest Hebrew copy of this part of 1 Samuel, so it is significant that it has the shorter height).
  • Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 6.171 (1st century CE; Josephus was a 1st century Jewish historian, and although it is not likely that Josephus had access to historical records of Goliath other than the Biblical texts, the height he gives demonstrates that this was already recorded in the Hebrew Bible by his day, long before the taller height).
  • Lucian recension (an early 3rd century revision of the LXX text).
  • Codex Vaticanus (a significant 4th century Greek manuscript containing almost all of the Old and New Testament).
  • Codex Alexandrinus (a significant 5th century Greek manuscript containing almost all of the Old and New Testaments).
6. The NET has the following footnote to the verse:
Heb “his height was six cubits and a span” (cf. KJV, NASB, NRSV). A cubit was approximately eighteen inches, a span nine inches. So, according to the Hebrew tradition, Goliath was about nine feet, nine inches tall (cf. NIV, CEV, NLT “over nine feet”; NCV “nine feet, four inches”; TEV “nearly 3 metres”). However, some Greek witnesses, Josephus, and a manuscript of 1 Samuel from Qumran read “four cubits and a span” here, that is, about six feet, nine inches (cf. NAB “six and a half feet”). This seems more reasonable; it is likely that Goliath’s height was exaggerated as the story was retold. See P. K. McCarter, I Samuel (AB), 286, 291.’, NET, footnote on 1 Samuel 17:4 (1 ed. 2005).
7. ‘Archaeology has shown that the heroes buried in the “royal tombs” at Mycenae were 1.76-1.80 mtr. tall, while the height of the average man at that period (according to the skeletons excavated) was 1.64 mtr. both in the Aegean lands and in Canaan.’, Margalith, ‘The Sea Peoples in the Bible’, p. 49 (1994).
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