Gladwell and Goliath

Michael Taylor is a regular contributor to Ancient Warfare magazine and the associated podcast. He recently watched this video based on Malcolm Gladwell’s new book on David and Goliath, which was also posted on Ancient Warfare’s Facebook page. Below, he shares some of his thoughts on Gladwell’s thesis.

In the introduction of his sure-to-be-bestseller, Malcolm Gladwell dissects the dynamics of David vs. Goliath, part of a longer discussion about “underdogs” (a version of this thesis in a TED talk is available through the AW website). Gladwell treats the story in 1 Samuel 17 as a historical event, and engages in a long discussion about how differences in weaponry, armor and even physiology (e.g. poor Goliath’s gigantism probably gave him bad eyesight) affected the outcome of the duel.

I found myself somewhat troubled by the Gladwell’s lithe assumption that the David vs. Goliath duel actually happened the way it happened. Certainly David was a historical king. Goliath may (or may not!) be based on a historical Philistine chieftain. However, Gladwell is not terribly savvy in his source criticism.

Consider who David is:

  1. a shepherd
  2. has divine favor (Yaweh)
  3. kills a great warrior (Goliath) with a missile weapon (sling stone)
  4. becomes king
  5. causes things to go wrong when he commits adultery (Bathsheba)
  6. is based on a hazy historical figure

Now who in Greek myth could this sound like? How about a Trojan prince named Alexander, nicknamed Paris.

Paris, after all:

  1. is a shepherd
  2. has divine favor (Aphrodite, who wins the beauty contest)
  3. is accepted as the son of the king
  4. causes things to go wrong when he commits adultery (Helen)
  5. kills a great warrior (Achilles) with a missile weapon (arrow)
  6. may be associated with a little-known historical figure (Alaksandu of Wilusa)

In short, the same tropes have been applied to the legends surrounding two Near-Eastern heroes. It is of course well known that stories circulated freely between the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze and Early Iron ages. The similarities between the Gilgamesh flood story, the Biblical Noah and the Greek Deucalion are case in point. Consider also the similarities between the godlike Gilgamesh and his grief for his mortal friend Enkidu with the godlike Achilles and his grief for his mortal friend Patroclus. The genre of “wisdom literature” can be found in the Hebrew Proverbs, the Babylonian “Counsels of Wisdom”, and the Greek poet Hesiod.

Certainly both Homer and the Hebrew Bible contain important historical information, mostly social and cultural in nature. But great caution must made in assuming that the narrative history found in these literary productions is reliable in the slightest. The David and Goliath story in 1 Samuel is a literary trope: young prince kills mighty hero. It does little to prove Gladwell’s pop social-science thesis.

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