1 Samuel 13:1 is sort of a classic OT textual criticism problem.  The United Bible Society’s Handbook for Translators of 1 Samuel describes the problem this way:1

This verse follows the standard formula for introducing kings of Israel (and later also of Judah) in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. But this verse contains one of the most difficult textual problems in the book of 1 Samuel, if not of the whole Bible. The following table shows the great diversity of solutions to the problems:

Problem 1 Problem 2
njps “… years old” “two years”
kjv “one year” “two years”
rsv “… years old” “… and two years”
at “… years old” “… years”
niv “thirty years old” “forty-two years”
reb “thirty years old” “twenty-two years”
nasb “forty years old” “thirty-two years”
neb “fifty years old” “twenty-two years”

The Masoretic Text (MT) literally says “Saul was a son of a year in his reigning and two years he reigned over Israel.” Obviously there are two errors in the Hebrew text as we have it today: (1) Saul was not one year old when he became king, and (2) he reigned more than two years.

The first error is obvious, since the book of 1 Samuel tells us plainly how Saul was chosen and anointed king — and he was a full grown man. The second error is plain when viewed against Acts 13:21 (and when reading the account of Saul’s kingship in the OT).

Now, in one regard, this is no different than any other text-critical problem. You detect the error in the present text, then work to find out how it came about, and consult other manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible for the solution. But there’s the rub — in the case of 1 Sam 13:1, there are no other reliable manuscript readings.

Interpreters and translators have followed many solutions to this textual problem (and note that the choice of solution for “problem 1” gives rise to the reading of “problem 2”). Quoting from the UBS Handbook again:

(a) Some translations, following the example of the Septuagint, omit the entire verse (so tev, frcl, and itcl).

(b) Some translate the verse but leave blank spaces as in rsv (so also nrsv, nab, Osty, and bp).

(c) Others leave only the first number blank.

(d) Some follow the first-century Jewish historian Josephus and Acts 13.21, and claim that Saul ruled for (about) forty years. Compare niv “Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.” The “thirty years” is based on a few late Septuagint manuscripts.

Solution (d) above may seem the best at first glance, but a major problem with this is that early in his rule Saul already has a grown son able to command troops (see verse 2). Therefore Saul must have been older than thirty when he became king.

Note well the comments about solution “d” – the only reason some versions read “thirty” in the verse is because the number is found in a few LATE manuscripts of the LXX. But that number cannot be right.  Where does “thirty” come from in those few manuscripts? The textual note on the verse in the Word Biblical Commentary summarizes the answer nicely:2

A few LXX mss, have “thirty,” though this seems to be a secondary calculation (cf. 2 Sam 5:4). Since Jonathan was old enough to have 1,000 troops under his command in v 2, and since Saul had a grandson before his death (2 Sam 4:4), an age of forty or more is plausible. The whole verse is lacking in most LXX mss.

The “thirty” was simply borrowed by some LXX scribe from 2 Sam 5:4, which is talking about DAVID!  They were confused by the error, and that was their solution!

The textual reality, as it stands today, is that the number is lost. We just don’t have any manuscript evidence for a coherent reading.

For our purposes, in my mind this is the same sort of issue as I’ve just covered in regard to Joshua 8:30-35 and Jeremiah. I’d approach it the same way with respect to inspiration. There *was* some thing produced by the process of inspiration, where men were the immediate source of the text, and God was the ultimate source. When that *produced thing* was finished, I believe the text was whole (that there WAS a coherent reading in 1 Samuel 13:1). Since that time, transmission of the text was left to human beings, and now we have a missing word or words.

What’s the point?  Only to note two things:

(1) like traditional articulations of inspiration, I believe that inspiration does not apply to copying the final product. There is no guarantee from God in the Bible that transmission of the text would be inerrant. Our copies of the Scripture (one the simplest level) are “inerrant” when they reflect the contents of the original thing produced. Of course, we’ve spent weeks on this blog already dealing with the reality that inerrancy concerns a lot more than this issue (and I promise we’ll get back to those things). in 1 Samuel 13:1, then, our Bible is “errant” in that something is missing, but NOT in the sense that the original thing produced by inspiration was wrong. The original product of inspiration was whole. Perhaps (like the historical problems readers have brought up) we will find manuscript evidence for 1 Sam 13:1. That would be cool. But until then, I believe it is philosophically and theologically coherent to stick with a process of inspiration that produced a whole product that was inerrant.

(2) An example like this helps us to factor in yet another facet of what we actually find in the biblical text.  When we get back to inerrancy, we’ll have to return here and pick this up as part of trying to find a definition that works.

  1. Omanson, R. L., & Ellington, J. (2001). A handbook on the first book of Samuel. UBS handbook series (252). New York: United Bible Societies.
  2. Klein, R. W. (2002). Vol. 10: Word Biblical Commentary : 1 Samuel. Word Biblical Commentary (122). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.