Despite its obvious importance, the number of ancient Jerusalem’s inhabitants is a subject that is often ignored.
Until recently, writers who did deal with the matter based their estimates on ancient literary sources, which, however, are generally considered to be untrustworthy.1 Even Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, who is usually quite exact with figures, is unrealistic when it comes to population figures. For example, he tells us that there were 204 villages in the Galilee, of which the smallest had 15,000 inhabitants (Jewish War, III, 3, 2, pp. 587f.)—an obvious impossibility.
Josephus’ population figures for Jerusalem are equally unreliable. The Romans, he tells us, left 1,100,000 Jerusalemites dead when they captured and destroyed the city in 70 A.D. Josephus’ figure for Jerusalem’s population at the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. is 120,000 (Contra Apion, I, 197, pp. 242f.) Here Josephus relies on the authority of Hecataeus, a Greek historian and ethnographer. This, too, as we shall see, is an exaggeration.
With the accumulation of modern archaeological data, we now have a far more reliable method of estimating the population of ancient cities, including Jerusalem. This requires only a reliable estimate of the size of the city and an understanding of the density of population in ancient urban areas generally.