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Acts 13:21 is usually taken to mean that Saul reigned 40 years. However, some hold that the forty years are to include Samuel's time on the scene before Saul's reign began. Here are the revelant verses in the NIV:

20 All this took about 450 years. "After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years.

Here are a few commentators who mention this view:

Barnes:

By the space of forty years - During forty years. The Old Testament has not mentioned the time during which Saul reigned. Josephus says (Antiq., book 6, chapter 14, section 9) that he reigned for 18 years while Samuel was alive, and 22 years after his death. But Dr. Doddridge (note in loco) has shown that this cannot be correct, and that he probably reigned, as some copies of Josephus have it, but two years after the death of Samuel. Many critics suppose that the term of 40 years mentioned here includes also the time in which Samuel judged the people. This supposition does not violate the text in this place, and may be probable. See Doddridge and Grotius on the place.

Poole:

by the space of forty years, are to be joined with the foregoing verse, and the other foregoing words in the verse read with a parenthesis: and thus they show how long Samuel the prophet (as he is here called) exercised his prophetical office, which was the space here mentioned, partly before Saul was anointed king, and in part afterward; in which, as another Moses, he cared for, and went in and out before, the people of God, the like space of forty years. This computation of St. Paul might also agree more with the Septuagint, and be according to the then current account, which (not being of more consequence) St. Paul would not controvert at this time, having greater matters to speak of unto them.

Bengel:

Σαοὺλ—Βενιαμὶν, Saul—Benjamin) Paul had been of the same name and tribe.—ἔτη τεσσαράκοντα, forty years) Here the years of Samuel the prophet and Saul the king are brought together into one sum: for between the anointing of king Saul and his death there were not twenty, much less forty years: 1 Samuel 7:2, “While the ark abode in Kirjath Jearim—twenty years” (a considerable part of Samuel’s ministry before the reign of Saul).

Meyers' Commentary, however rejects it:

ἔτη τεσσαράκ.] ʼΕβασίλευσε Σαοὺλ, Σαμουήλου ζῶντος, ἔτη ὀκτὼ πρὸς τοῖς δέκα· τελευτήσαντος δὲ δύο καὶ εἴκοσι, Joseph. Antt. vi. 14. 9 (according to the usual text, in which, however, καὶ εἴκοσι is spurious; see Bertheau on Judges, p. xx.). In the O.T. there is no express definition of the duration of Saul’s reign. However, the explanation (Erasmus, Beza, Calovius, Wolf, Morus, Rosenmüller, Heinrichs) that ἔτη τεσσαράκ. (which, in fact, contains the duration of ἔδωκεν … Σαούλ) embraces the time of Samuel and Saul together, is to be rejected as contrary to the text; and instead of it, there is to be assumed a tradition—although improbable in its contents, yet determined by the customary number 40—which Paul followed

Who is correct: Barnes or Meyer? Does this interpretation "not violate the text," or is it "to be rejected as contrary to the text?" I'm not asking how long Saul reigned. My question strictly concerns this verse's meaning: Does the language & grammar of Acts 13:21's Greek limit the forty years to Saul or does it allow Samuel's pre-Saul career to be included in them?

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  • You should include the verse 1 Samuel 13:1 in this question as well for future search results and context, as you asked that in Judaism-SE.
    – Michael16
    Aug 12 at 12:03

2 Answers 2

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The statement that Acts verse combines two reigns into Saul's period is just a conjecture, not based on the text. It must be derived based on the 1 Samuel 7:2 (ark abode for 20 years), and 1 Samuel 13:1 Masoretic Text which seems to be obscure and unreliable. Both Josephus and Paul are clear about the number.

1 Sam 13:1

NASB Saul was [thirty] years old when he began to reign, and he reigned [forty] two years over Israel. (notes: 1 Samuel 13:1 As in some LXX mss, but very uncertain; MT one year old)
RV Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign; and he reigned two years over Israel.
ESV Saul lived for one year and then became king, and when he had reigned for two years over Israel. (translation notes: Hebrew Saul was one year old when he became king, and he reigned two years over Israel (see 1 Samuel 10:6); some Greek manuscripts give Saul's age when he began to reign as thirty years).
ISV Saul was 30[a] years old when he began to reign, and he ruled for 42[b] years over Israel.
Translation notes: a. 1 Samuel 13:1 So a few late LXX mss.; the Heb. lacks 30
b. 1 Samuel 13:1 Lit. two; cf. Acts 13:21; Josephus’s Antiquities VI.14.9 cites Saul as reigning 18 years before Samuel’s death and 22 years after. But Antiquities X.8.4 cites only 20 years for Saul’s reign.

The Cambridge commentary on 1 Sam 13:1 states,

Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel] The Hebrew cannot be thus translated. It is the common formula for denoting the age of a king at his accession, and the length of his reign. See 2Sa 2:10; 2Sa 5:4; 1Ki 14:21, &c. We must render, “Saul was [ ] years old when he began to reign, and reigned [ ] and two years over Israel.” Either the numbers were wanting in the original document, or they have been accidentally lost. 30 is supplied in the first place by some MSS. of the Sept., and is a plausible conjecture. The length of Saul’s reign may have been 22 or 32 years. He was in the prime of life when elected king, and his reign must have been of some considerable duration. But if he was only 30 years old at his accession, the events here recorded cannot have happened till at least 10 or 15 years after that event, for Jonathan, who has not been mentioned before, now appears as a stout warrior. In this case we have no account of the early years of Saul’s reign. This view appears to be preferable to the supposition that Saul was older at his accession, and that the history is continuous. See Introd. Ch. III. The whole verse Is omitted by the older copies of the Septuagint, and possibly was not in the original text.

And on 1 Sam 7:2 it says,

And it came to pass, &c.] Better, And it came to pass, from the day when the ark rested in Kirjath-jearim, that a long time elapsed, even twenty years. Twenty years was not, as the E. V. seems to imply, the whole duration of the Ark’s sojourn at Kirjath-jearim, but the time that elapsed before the reformation now to be recorded.

Daniel Whedon on 13:1

Saul reigned one year — This verse, translated in accordance with its parallels in 2Sa 2:10; 2Sa 5:4; 1Ki 14:21; 1Ki 22:42, and 2Ki 8:26, reads thus: Saul was a year old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel. All attempts to make the Hebrew text mean anything else are uncritical and do violence to the language. More literally, the Hebrew is, A son of a year was Saul at his being king; that is, upon his becoming king. So, too, in the passages referred to above, A son of forty years was Ishbosheth; A son of thirty years was David, etc. According to the Chaldee, which many have followed in their interpretation, the meaning is, Saul was an innocent child when he began to reign; that is, like a little child a year old. But this interpretation stands opposed to the usus loquendi of the language, as is seen in the passages above referred to, and others like them. It follows, therefore, that certain numerals have fallen out of the Hebrew text in both sentences, for it is evident both that Saul was more than a year old at the beginning of his reign, and that he reigned over Israel more than two years. This defect can now be supplied only by conjecture. According to Josephus, and Act 13:21, he reigned forty years; and since he had a son old enough at the beginning of his reign to command a division of his army, it would seem that he must have been at least forty years old when he began to reign. It is difficult to reconcile this with the facts and dates of David’s life, for he began to reign when thirty years old, (2Sa 5:4,) and that was after Saul’s death; and yet at the time of his victory over Goliath he must have been at least fifteen years old. Had Saul reigned twenty-five years before that event? That seems hardly possible; but we can fill up the defective text of this verse by no more authoritative numbers than those above given.

We don't have the verse in the best Septuagint (Old Greek) copies. The number present with Josephus and Paul confirms that our best bet should 40 (round figure and 42 exact). This (1Sam 13:1) is not the only interpolation in the Hebrew transmission. The critical English LXX translation states on this book 1 Kingdoms (1 Reigns):

1 Reigns This is the longest of the three OG sections, and it sets the stage. In relation to the MT, the following verses are not included: 13.1; 17.12–31, 41, 50, 55–58; 18.1–5, 10–11, 17–19; 23.12. The most significant is the shorter version of events surrounding the David and Goliath story in chapters 17–18. While the Hebrew text underlying the OG is not identical to the MT, it nevertheless is quite close, and comparison to the latter proved helpful in understanding the Greek text. The Hebrew of 1 Samuel has suffered in transmission, though this is not readily apparent simply by reading the text. Rather it is evident when compared to the OG and the Qumran Samuel manuscripts.

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The Greek is actually very uncomplicated in Acts 13:21. It consists of an opening clause and a series of explanatory statements about the king given by God. Let me set this out to make it clearer.

Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul

  • son of Kish,
  • a man of the tribe of Benjamin,
  • for forty years.

Note these three explanatory phrases that provide more information about the king that God gave "to them": Whatever one says about any one of them must be said about all of them. They all apply to the Saul as king of Israel.

Put more bluntly and forcefully, Saul was not a partial or occasional son of Kish - he was always a son of Kish; Saul was not an occasional or part-time member of the tribe of Benjamin - he always was; Paul was not partly reigning for 40 years - he reigned for the full forty years.

That is, I cannot see how this sentence can be construed to mean a shared reigned or shared time period. It simply says that Saul reigned for 40 years.

Now whether one wished to make that a round number and suggest that the actual time of Saul's reign was perhaps 42 years as the obvious ellipsis in 1 Sam 13:1 hints at, is an entirely different matter. That is, the actual Hebrew of 1 Sam 13:1 is garbled (see appendix 2 below) and has gaps; thus, it usually reconstructed with the help of the LXX and Acts 13:21 to read:

Saul was [thirty] years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for [forty]-two years over Israel. [Note: the two [ . ] here show the gaps in the MT.]

However, the meaning of Acts 13:21 is unambiguous - Saul reigned for [about] 40 years.

APPENDIX 1 - A note about Chronology

Some of the commentators attempt to amend the text to fit a pre-exiting Chronology which Acts 13:21 forbids. However, many of these extra-Biblical theories have been abandoned.

The Chronology of Samuel's Judgeship and the extent by which it overlaps the reign of King Saul is not stated, so little can be deduced about the time periods. All that can be said is that Samuel was very old (possibly 90 years??) when he died.

Further, the 20 years that the ark resided at Kiriath-jearim was before the judgeship of Samuel; ie, Samuel appears to have begun his office of chief judge of Israel at the battle of Ebenezer at Mizpah. [It may have been that Samson's 20 years as judge occurred during this 20 years but this cannot be confirmed.]

In any case, Samuel remained judge for the next many years (perhaps 30 years??) until the Israelites asked for a king at which time Samuel might have been 60 years old. He lived some time after this - long enough to anoint Saul's successor, David, and possibly died about 10 years before Saul died; but again, this is speculation based purely on the sequence of events in 1 Sam 6 to 30.

APPENDIX 2 - 1 Sam 13:1

As noted above, the Hebrew of 1 Sam 13:1 is garbled with gaps in the text and literally reads as per the translation given in the NRSV:

Saul was�.�.�. years old when he began to reign; and he reigned�.�.�. and two years over Israel.

This text is usually reconstructed with the help of the LXX and Acts 13:21 to read something like that given in the NASB (and also NIV and others):

Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty-two years over Israel.

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