Saul was the first king of Israel. He began to reign shortly before 1000 B.C. But how old was he when he became king? And how many years did he reign?

If you pick up the Jewish Publication Society translation, you will read: “Saul was … years old when he became king; and when he had reigned two years over Israel” (1 Samuel 13:1).

The first sentence has an omission, and the second sentence makes no sense—it is not a complete sentence. In the New Jewish Publication Society translation, the translators drop a footnote that tells us, “The number is lacking in the Hebrew text; also, the precise context of the ‘two years’ is uncertain.”

In the Revised Standard Version translation, the first part of the verse contains the same ellipsis as in the New Jewish Publication Society translation. The second half of the verse is rendered: “And he reigned … and two years over Israel,” with a footnote that says, “Two is not the entire number. Something has dropped out.”

The New English Bible reads: “Saul was fifty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for twenty-two years.”

The Jerusalem Bible simply omits the verse entirely, and begins 1 Samuel 13 with verse 2. A footnote explains: “The Heb. reads ‘Saul was one year when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for two years, which is absurd.”

The Hebrew text is obviously corrupt. The Hebrew words ben shanah at the beginning of the verse can be read as “a year” (or “one year”) or as having the number of years missing.a So translations that follow the Hebrew text literally either leave the number out or state that Saul began to reign when he was one year old.

An early Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible called a targum explains that the Hebrew text really means that Saul was like a one-year-old when he became king, because he had no sins.

The Septuagint, a third-century B.C. translation into Greek, leaves the verse out entirely. Even at that early date the translators could not make sense of it, so they simply suppressed it. Some English translations do likewise.

A few manuscripts of the Septuagint, however, do include the verse and say that Saul was 30 years old when he became king. So some English translations, such as the New International Version, use this number.

The New English Bible says Saul was 50 years old when he began to reign, on the strange ground that, according to 2 Samuel 4:4, Saul had a grandson before he died and “the text may contain a misunderstood abbreviation for [50]”!b

As to the second half of the verse, the Hebrew text says Saul reigned “two years,” but the Hebrew form for “two years” that is used here is not what would be expected. (It says shtai shanim instead of shnatayim.) So we immediately suspect corruption here too. The New English Bible changes “two years” to “22 years” because it is “an easy correction”(!), the assumption being that “twenty” dropped out.

Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, gives Saul a 40-year reign in one place (18 years before Samuel’s death and 22 years after Samuel’s death [Antiquities VI.14.9, par. 378]) and 20 years in another place (Antiquities, X.8.4, par. 143). In Acts 13:2, it is said Saul reigned 40 years. This simply compounds the uncertainty.

Perhaps some ancient scroll will someday be found that will tell us what the Hebrew text originally said. Then we may know how old Saul was when he became king and how long his reign lasted.-Ed.