The Temple’s Pillar and Capital Heights
When King Solomon built his magnificent temple, he constructed two 18-cubit-high bronze pillars and set them by the vestibule in the front of the temple (2 Chronicles 3:15; NOTE: A cubit is approximately 18 inches). He even gave them names: Jachin on the right, and Boaz on the left (1 Kings 7:21). On the top of each hollow pillar was a five-cubit-high capital (called chapiter in the KJV), covered with “nets of network,” “twisted threads of chainwork,” and rows of pomegranates (1 Kings 7:17-18,20, NASB).
When one compares the various biblical accounts that address the temple pillars and capitals (1 Kings 7; 2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 3; Jeremiah 52), two questions immediately come to mind. First, why does 2 Chronicles 3:15 indicate that the two 18-cubit-high pillars (1 Kings 7:15; 2 Kings 25:17; Jeremiah 52:21) were “thirty-five cubits” high? Second, were the pillar capitals “five cubits” high, as mentioned in 1 Kings 7:16 and Jeremiah 52:22, or “three cubits,” as recorded in 2 Kings 25:17?
First, one must keep in mind that the biblical apologist does not have to pin down the exact solution to a particular question in order to exonerate a Bible writer of an alleged mistake. Just as Christians do not have to know every detail about Jesus obtaining a donkey (Matthew 21:1-7) in order to acquit Him of an alleged theft charge, Bible believers can reasonably defend the Bible’s integrity without pinning down the exact solution to a problem. Over a century ago, J.W. McGarvey commented on this point as follows:
We are not bound to show the truth of the given hypothesis; but only that it may be true. If it is at all possible, then it is possible that no contradiction exists; if it is probable, then it is probable that no contradiction exists.... It follows, also, that when there is an appearance of contradiction between two writers, common justice requires that before we pronounce one or both of them false we should exhaust our ingenuity in searching for some probable supposition on the ground of which they may both be true. The better the general reputation of the writers, the more imperative is this obligation, lest we condemn as false those who are entitled to respectful consideration (1886, 2:32).
Truly, the apologist need show only one or more plausible possibilities of harmonization in order to negate the force of the charge that an inspired penman erred. We abide by this principle in the courtroom, in our treatment of various historical books, as well as in everyday-life situations. It is only fair, then, to show the Bible the same courtesy by exhausting the search for possible harmony between passages before pronouncing one or both accounts false. Although it may be that no one knows for sure why differences exist for the pillar and capital heights, we can offer more than one logical possibility.
At least three feasible explanations exist for the variation in the heights of the temple pillars. First, it is possible that one or more ancient scribes confused the Hebrew numeral letters גה (35) for יח (18). Similar to how printing companies today can make slight errors when printing copies of the Bible, and just as copyists’ errors can be found in various historical works (e.g., Tacitus, Josephus, etc.) without corrupting the overall integrity of the text, occasionally Bible readers will come across numbers, names, etc. that are the result of a copyists’ errors—not mistakes by the original inspired writers. (To read our foundational essay on this subject, see Lyons, 2007).
Second, it may be that whereas 1 Kings 7:15, 2 Kings 25:17, and Jeremiah 52:21 give only the height of the pillars, the chronicler also included the heights of the base, the capitals, and all other decorations on the pillars. Consider a somewhat parallel illustration of two people measuring the height of a modern church building. One person climbs the steps and measures from the floor of the porch to the underside of the roof, and obtains a measure of 25 feet. Another person, however, measures from the base of the building, up the seven steps, over the roof, to the top of the steeple. He calculates the height at 55 feet. Is it possible for both calculations to be accurate? Indeed. They are accurate measurements of what the inspectors chose to include in the “height of the church building.” Regarding the temple pillars, it may be that the figure in 2 Chronicles simply includes more materials than the number recorded in 1 and 2 Kings and Jeremiah.
Third, it is also possible that the height of each pillar was more specifically 17½ cubits, or that a half of a cubit of each pillar was hidden in the roundness of the capitals, and that the number 35 represents the length of both pillars added together. Interestingly, 2 Chronicles 3:15 does not indicate that “each” pillar was 35 cubits high, but simply that the “two pillars” were “thirty-five cubits high.” Translators of the New International Version believed this explanation was probable, and actually inserted “together” (in brackets) into their translation of 2 Chronicles 3:15. Thus, “in the front of the temple he made two pillars, which [together] were thirty-five cubits long.”
So what about the capital heights? Why does 2 Kings 25:17 refer to them as being three cubits high, rather than five? As with the pillar heights, it is possible that the numeral “three” represents a copyist’s error. The Hebrew numeral letter ג (3) in 2 Kings 25:17 may have been mistakenly put for ה (5), as is found in 1 Kings 7:16 and Jeremiah 52:22. However, another explanation, which John Wesley postulated in the 18th century, also exists. In his commentary on 1 Kings, he suggested “the word chapiter is taken either more largely for the whole, so it is five cubits; or, more strictly, either for the pommels..., 2 Chronicles 4:12, or for the cornice or crown, and so it was but three cubits, to which the pomegranates being added make it four cubits..., and the other work upon it took up one cubit more, which in all made five cubits” (n.d.). Thus, both “three” and “five” could be correct, depending on exactly what the writers were including in the measurement of the capitals.
What are the correct answers to the questions at hand? Why exactly do differences exist in the numbers given for the pillar and capital heights? No one can be certain. But reasonable answers can be offered without assuming the original penmen erred.
Lyons, Eric (2007), “Inspired Writers and Competent Copyists,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/3268.
McGarvey, J.W. (1886), Evidences of Christianity (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).
Wesley, John (n.d.), Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, [On-line], URL: http://bible.crosswalk.com/commentaries/WesleysExplanatory Notes/wes.cgi?book=1ki&chapter=007.