Sunday, October 30, 2005

Solomon's Temple

Let us consider the building of Solomon's temple. This is described both in I Kings and in I and II Chronicles. Both state the dimensions of the temple as 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. A cubit is 17.5 inches, or about 0.45 meter. So, all told, the temple occupied 36,000 cubic cubits (say that three times fast) or 3280 cubic meters. I Chronicles 22:14 says that David prepared a hundred thousand talents of gold and a million talents of silver, plus so much bronze and iron that it could not be weighed, plus timber and stone. A talent is about 75 lbs, or 34.5 kg, so we have 3,450,000 kg of gold and 34,500,000 kg of silver.

That is quite a bit of gold and silver. Let's get a better idea of how much that is. Gold has a density of 19.3 g/cc and silver has a density of 10.5 g/cc. To convert to kilograms per cubic meter, we have to multiple by 1000 (since there are 1,000,000 cc per cubic meter, and 1000 g per kg). So, we have 19,300 kg/m3 for gold and 10,500 kg/m3 for silver. So if we divide the weights by the densities, we get volumes of gold and silver, specifically 179 m3 of gold and 3286 m3 of silver. That's a total of 3465 cubic meters of gold and silver. The whole temple was only 3280 cubic meters. And remember that there was bronze and iron beyond measure. If 34,500,000 kg of silver was not beyond measure, the amount of bronze and iron must have been at least that much again. Iron is less dense even then silver, at 7874 kg/m3 and bronze is only slightly denser at 8300 kg/m3, so we can at least double the volume required for the metals.

But Solomon didn't stop there. There was also stone and wood. I Kings 5:14 says that Solomon rotated three groups of 10,000 people, one group per month, to bring wood back from Lebanon. If each person brought back only 100 lbs of wood per month, that would be one million pounds (455,000 kg) of wood coming every month. I cannot find a place where it says how long this went on, although I Kings 5:11 does say that Solomon gave wheat and oil as payment "year by year." Wood is (of course) less dense even than water. The value I found for Western Red Cedar is 0.35 g/cc, or 350 kg/m3, about one thirtieth the density of silver. So, as a very rough first approximation, we have half as much volume of wood coming in every month as there was silver in total, so that fills in another temple's worth of volume every two months. Even with the inevitable waste during the construction process, that is a lot of wood!

And then there were the 80,000 stone hewers and the 70,000 transporters bringing in rock. Stone is probably harder to quarry than trees are to cut, but there fifteen times as many people working on that.

One possible way to escape this dilemma is to note that Solomon was also building a palace for himself. But I Kings 7:2 says his palace was only 100 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, or 150,000 cubic cubits, about four times the volume of the temple itself. With the precious metals we filled one temple, with bronze and iron at least one more, with wood a minimum of 1.5 more (three months of wood at two months per temple equivalent), plus the stone. And all of the gold and silver was explicitly set aside for the temple, not the palace.

But perhaps there is another explanation. Maybe the Bible is not an accurate record of what really happened. Maybe somebody wanted people to think that Israel had been something more than it was.

What do you think?


Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Bucky,
I'm not a historian, just an empirical scientist. I've decided that there's too many problems with translating historical records -- for example, Hebrew numbers are very weird, and even if the original records were accurate I'm not sure we'd be able to interpret them correctly.

While I find the Bible generally useful in an 'illustrative' way, I've become more concerned about finding 'testable propositions' that I can validate empirically, vs. attacking (or defending) historical accuracy. What are -you- looking for?
Ernie Prabhakar [drernie at ]

Alan Lund said...

Hi, Ernie.

I agree that historical documents can be problematic and that translating and interpreting them correctly is difficult. We have a hard enough time ascertaining the truth about events that are happening today, with all of the biases and hidden agendas. Really, that was a major factor in my deconversion, that our information and our ability to interpret it are so imperfect as to make eternal damnation immoral (on God's part). Since the God of Christianity cannot be immoral, I conclude he does not exist. (That's a rough approximation, anyway.)

But I do think that the Bible can be examined as a historical document and that some statements can be made about it. If the numbers about the temple were all that were fishy, or if the improbability of Matthew learning of a secret meeting between the chief priests and guards were all that were suspect there, I probably would not mention them. But I think they are a contributing part of a larger pattern, a pattern than can be recognized. I tried to develop that pattern with Matthew, and I will be continuing to do so with Solomon.

If what the Bible says is so incomprehensible that it cannot be critiqued, then it is too incomprehensible to be usefully believed.

But stick with me on this and keep me honest.

Anonymous said...

The Bible also says that David had collected too much material for the temple and that Solomon put the left over material in God's treasury.