Two more contradictions in OT numbers?

[draft: Apr 15, 2012]

Someone wrote in this question:

"Word on the street is that the Bible is God's own written word and as far as I understand, this means no errors on[or] contradictions in the text itself. Your website does a good job of refuting some of the toughest ones, but there are 2 that seem undefendable.

"What's the deal here? I was told this is a scribe error, which seems fair enough, but doesn't the possibility of making errors at all undermine the Bible's credibility? How can I be sure that some versets [verses] about important stuff (salvation, commandments etc) [are not] plagued with errors as well?

I dug up some basic data for her and here's what I sent:


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Here’s some data for you to work with, in thinking through this:


Generally, scholars distinguish between the original texts (autographs) and all subsequent copies. The ‘official position’ on ‘inerrancy’ (which I personally hold) runs something like this:


“NO INFORMED CHRISTIAN contends for the inerrancy of the presently existing copies of the prophetic-apostolic autographs, far less for the inerrancy of the many translations and versions based on certain families or selections of those copies. Claims for inerrancy are not in principle to be extended beyond the originally inspired scriptural writings, even if the extant ancient copies, despite minor textual variations, give the impression of comprehensive identity even in details. Nothing requires or demands that such reproductions of the inspired originals be errant. Many of the early transcripts might indeed have been inerrant, in view of the care exercised in copying important manuscripts, particularly in copying Scripture. But such inerrancy would have resulted from painstaking human carefulness only, and not from the Holy Spirit’s special inspiration that governed the initial prophetic-apostolic writings. The question posed by the extant copies therefore concerns not their inerrancy but rather their corruption or infallibility:  do they reliably convey the Word of God, or are they undependable? The Apostle Peter declares the prophetic word as it was known in his day to be “sure” (bebaios, 2 Pet. 1:19; cf. Heb. 2:3), and the Apostle Paul repeatedly characterizes the transmitted word as “trustworthy” (pistos, 1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8).” [Henry, C. F. H. (1999). Vol. 4: God, revelation, and authority (220–221). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.]


“The dictionary defines inerrancy as “being without error.” Most definitions of inerrancy share that negative description. The question raised then by that definition is, What is error? Can the Bible use approximations and still be without error? Can a New Testament writer quote freely from the Old Testament and claim that the resultant quotation is without error? Can a biblical writer use the language of appearances without communicating error? Can there exist different accounts of the same event without involving error? Admittedly, the data of Scripture often includes approximations, free quotations, language of appearances, different accounts of the same occurrence. Can that data support a definition of inerrancy as “being without error?” Obviously, the data and the definition must harmonize if that is a correct definition of what the Bible teaches about its own inerrancy. Perhaps the tension would be erased if we defined inerrancy positively—the inerrancy of the Bible means simply that the Bible tells the truth. Truth can and does include approximations, free quotations, language of appearances, and different accounts of the same event as long as those do not contradict. For example, if you were to report to me that a mutual friend had a hundred-thousand dollar income last year, I might well say (especially if I had never considered him to be a rich man), “Are you telling me the truth?” When you reply, “Yes,” that would be an inerrant reply, even though his income for reporting to the Internal Revenue Service was $100,537. That approximation would tell the truth.

Or if I said, “Sunrise over the Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen.” And if you replied, “Really, is that so?” to which I said, “Yes, that’s true,” my statement with its own use of language of appearance would tell the truth, although the sun does not literally rise over the Grand Canyon.” [Ryrie, C. C. (1981). What you should know about inerrancy. Current Christian issues (30–31). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.]


“A second excuse for diluting the importance of inerrancy is that since we do not possess any original manuscripts of the Bible and since inerrancy is related to those originals only, the doctrine of inerrancy is only a theoretical one and therefore nonessential. It is true that we do not possess any of the original manuscripts of the Bible, and the doctrine on inerrancy, like inspiration, is predicated only of the original manuscripts, not on any of the copies. The two premises in the statement above are correct, but those particular premises do not prove at all that inerrancy is a nonessential doctrine. Obviously, inerrancy can be asserted only in relation to the original manuscripts because only they are the original record of what came directly from God under inspiration. The very first copy of a letter of Paul, for instance, was in reality only a copy and not the original that Paul himself wrote or dictated. Both inspiration and inerrancy are predicated only on the originals. But would an errantist claim that inspiration is a nonessential doctrine, on the basis of not having the originals, and not attributing inspiration to the copies? I think not. Then why does he say that about inerrancy?” [Ryrie, C. C. (1981). What you should know about inerrancy. Current Christian issues (24). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.]



As it turns out, I had apparently written a bit on this when I first launched Tank years ago. You may have already read through this (it is not very detailed compared with my later writings):


And, before we turn to the specific passages you mention, here’s a quick assessment of the reliability-for-theology issue you raise:


“Of course, we do not possess the originals which could be examined to establish or disclaim inerrancy. Some have therefore assumed that the whole issue of inerrancy of the autographs is practically irrelevant even if it is doctrinally important. Such an assumption disregards the divine origin of Scripture as described in 2 Peter 1:20–21. It makes a great difference as to whether a document was right at the start but was slightly miscopied and whether it was wrong from its beginning. A document wrong from the beginning would make textual criticism a fruitless exercise. There would be no value in working back to such an original. But do not copyist errors negate the importance of infallible autographs? They certainly would if the transmission of the Biblical text corrupted it beyond recognition. But the evidence is against such a perverted text. Archer observes that a careful study of the variants of the various earliest manuscripts reveals that none of them affects a single doctrine of Scripture.” [The Issue of Biblical Inerrancy in Definition and Defense—GJ—V10 #1—Wtr 69—12]


Lindsell insists, however, that textual reconstruction by lower criticism has “produced a product” that can unqualifiedly be said to be “the Word of God.… We can say honestly that the Bible we have today is the Word of God” (p. 37). It is, of course, the case that evangelical Christianity insists that both the ancient originals and the copies of those originals give us the revealed truth of God in propositionally reliable form, and that in popular parlance we speak not only of the inspired Hebrew and Greek originals but even of our contemporary Bible translations as “the Word of God,” but surely in the latter case not unconditionally so. Alvah Hovey, a sturdy champion of biblical inerrancy, almost a hundred years ago rebutted those who contend that the inerrancy of the autographs requires in turn inerrant copies and even inerrant translations, since the benefits of inerrancy would then supposedly be lost to all but the first readers. “But this,” he asserted, “is a mistake; for the errors from transcription, translations, etc., are such as can be detected, or at least estimated, and reduced to a minimum; while errors in the original revelation could not be measured” (Manual of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, p. 83).” [Henry, C. F. H. (1999). Vol. 4: God, revelation, and authority (230–231). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.]


“F. J. A. Hort’s verdict remains timely, however, that “for practical purposes in the case of the New Testament, textual critics have been successful in restoring [the copies] to within 99.9% accuracy” and that “only about one word in every thousand has upon it substantial variation supported by such evidence as to call out the efforts of the critic in deciding the readings” (B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, “Introduction,” p. 2). According to Joseph P. Free this is the equivalent of about a half page in a five hundred-page New Testament (Archaeology and Bible History, pp. 4–5). And Bruce writes that “the variant readings about which any doubt remains … affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice” (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? pp. 19–20). Whatever uncertainties copying has contributed, the Bible remains virtually unchanged and its teaching undimmed. The text of Old and New Testaments alike has been preserved even in the copies in a remarkably pure form. Not a single article of faith, not a single moral precept is in doubt.” [Henry, C. F. H. (1999). Vol. 4: God, revelation, and authority (235–236). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.”


On matters of theology, our problems are in the area of interpretation of the words and not the actual text itself.


Now, on the subject of differences in the OT text —with specific disagreements between Chronicles and the parallels in Samuel/Kings—we should note first that the number of disagreements is small. Here is a chart of the differences in numbers, with their probable origin (from EBC).

The disagreements are 19 out of 213 numbers, with only 5 (or maybe 6) being considered a ‘Scribal error’. In the cases of scribal error, of course, we only know this because we have a way to check/correct it—so there is no real problem in getting to the correct text, nor in understanding HOW the error arose.


And even some of the possible scribal errors may not be such at all.


For example, take one of the measurements of the Molten Sea (from the passage you refer to). Ryrie (and others) offer a simple explanation:


"The laver in 2 Chronicles 4:2. In describing the measurements of the laver, the circumference is given as thirty cubits (or 540 inches if the cubit was 18 inches) and the diameter is ten cubits (180 inches). However, circumference is arrived at by multiplying the diameter by pi (3.14159), and that total is more than 565 inches, an apparent contradiction. One writer resolves the problem by saying that “in the culture of the day the measurement was not only accurate, but also ‘inerrant.’ ” (Robert Mounce, “Clues to Understanding Biblical Accuracy,” Eternity, June 1966, p. 18). However, there is a better solution that does not include sleight of hand. The ten-cubit measurement was from brim to brim; that is from one outside edge to the other. But verse 5 states that the width of the edge was a handbreadth, or about 4 inches. So the inside diameter was ten cubits (180 inches) minus two handbreadths (8 inches). Multiplying 172 inches by pi, the total is 540 inches, the same circumference as given in verse 2." [Ryrie, C. C. (1981). What you should know about inerrancy. Current Christian issues (88). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.]



But on the volume question (the 2K versus 3K), commentators generally assume (and adduce textual evidence—so it is not mere guesswork) that one of the readings is original, but they cannot agree on which one is original:


“Yet before accusing the Bible of deliberate and unconcealable falsification, one should consider the likelihood of accidental corruption by a later scribe. Chronicles’ larger number could have arisen either through a mistaken reading of the dual alpayim (“two thousand”) in Kings as plural alap_îm, “thousands”) and then through supplying a “three” (which occurs four times in the preceding verse), or through an unclear reading of the numerical symbols—the use of which is demonstrable archaeologically, from the eighth-century Samaritan ostraca down to the fourth-century Elephantine papyri—i.e., reading three short vertical strokes for an original two (cf. Payne, “Validity,” p. 122).” [Payne, J. B. (1988). 1, 2 Chronicles. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 4: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (453). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.]


“The figure of three thousand baths does not agree with two thousand in 1 Kgs 7:26. The number three here may have been inadvertently transferred from v. 4, where it occurs four times.” [Thompson, J. A. (2001). Vol. 9: 1, 2 Chronicles (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (219). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.]


“There is some variation regarding the capacity. The MT of 1 Kgs 7:26 reports two thousand baths; however, the capacity is not given in the OG [Old Greek] and is found only in some Lucianic MSS of Bas [LXX]. Josephus (Ant. 8.79) records three thousand baths.” [Dillard, R. B. (2002). Vol. 15: Word Biblical Commentary : 2 Chronicles. Word Biblical Commentary (33). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]




But others simply find no real evidence of a problem to begin with:


“Perhaps the best reconciliation is that the Sea had a capacity of 3,000 baths but actually contained only 2,000.” [BKC]


“1 Kings 7:26 states that this laver held only 2,000 baths. The difference may be that, while the laver itself only held 2,000, an additional 1,000 baths were needed to supply the system, which included the smaller lavers (vv. 6, 14).” [Ryrie, C. C. (1994). Ryrie study Bible: New International Version (Expanded ed.) (647). Chicago: Moody Publishers.]


“The meaning is, that the circular basin and the brazen oxen which supported it were all of one piece, being east in one and the same mould. There is a difference in the accounts given of the capacity of this basin, for while in 1Ki 7:26 it is said that two thousand baths of water could be contained in it, in this passage no less than three thousand are stated. It has been suggested that there is here a statement not merely of the quantity of water which the basin held, but that also which was necessary to work it, to keep it flowing as a fountain; that which was required to fill both it and its accompaniments. In support of this view, it may be remarked that different words are employed: the one in 1Ki 7:26 rendered contained; the two here rendered, received and held. There was a difference between receiving and holding. When the basin played as a fountain, and all its parts were filled for that purpose, the latter, together with the sea itself, received three thousand baths; but the sea exclusively held only two thousand baths, when its contents were restricted to those of the circular basin. It received and held three thousand baths” [Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (2 Ch 4:3). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.]


So, as with most/all of the numerical disagreements, a reasonable solution can be found by digging and looking at the problem from different perspectives.



Now, on the 700 versus 7000 question, opinions vary between those who argue that the Chronicler is inflating the number to make David ‘look better’ (which is not actually very culpable, given the fact that the culture would have KNOWN this literary device--cf. the victory song "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands", I Samuel 18.7) and those who simply see the (obvious to me) textual/scribal issue in the text (smile)…


There are actually TWO changes in that verse (which your email sources seem to omit).


Your sources gave:

·         2 Samuel 10:18 David killed 700 charioteers & 40,000 foot soldiers

·         1 Chronicles 19:18 David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers.


But the text of the 2 Samuel passage actually says “40,000 horsemen” (not ‘foot soldiers’), so there are two variances (700 versus 7000; and ‘horsemen’ versus ‘foot soldiers’).


So, we can find “less-conservative” interpreters who “assume guilt” about the 7K but have to resort to ‘regular’ text-critical principles to explain the second variance. It would logically be more consistent to infer that BOTH variances would be due to textual/scribal issues than one to propaganda and one to copyist error—in the same verse!


"The Arameans were again defeated.—Seven thousand chariots.] 2 S. 10:18 “seven hundred chariots,” an intentional change by the Chronicler to magnify David’s victory. But the change of “forty thousand horsemen” (2 S.) to forty thousand footmen can only be explained on the ground that the Chronicler preserves the original text. Otherwise no footmen would be mentioned in 2 S.” [ICC]



So, if you assume that 700 is the original, then you have to assume that Chronicles--and Josephus, whose numbers agree with Chronicles--were in error (either due to exaggeration or scribal/copyist error), but if you assume that 7K (and foot soldiers are original) then it is simple to understand the variants in Samuel as ‘normal but infrequent’ copyist errors. We have hard textual data that suggests that Chronicles has the original reading, and the numbers (but not the nouns) in Josephus support this:


“David killed seven thousand Aramean charioteers and forty thousand infantry: These same numbers are already known in one text tradition of Samuel (Josephus; cf. the proto-Lucianic recension). 2 Sam 10:18 MT reads: “Seven hundred charioteers and forty thousand cavalry.” “Seven hundred” may have become “seven thousand” by simple textual attraction to the word “thousand” later in the verse. The military classification of the second group as infantry seems more proportionate to what we would expect, that is, that infantry would number more than chariots, rather than that the cavalry would number more than chariots. Does this indicate a more original reading or a correction? The Chronicler changed the description of the death of Shophach from “he wounded (Shophach) and he died there” (2 Sam 10:18) to “he also put to death Shophach” … Josephus Ant. 7.128, “seven thousand cavalry and forty thousand infantry,” and 2 Sam 10:18 LXXL and OL: “seven hundred Aramean charioteers and forty thousand infantry.” Samuel MT and LXX: “seven hundred Aramean charioteers and forty thousand cavalry.” McCarter, II Samuel,269, reconstructs “seven hundred Aramean charioteers and forty thousand cavalry” as the best text in Samuel. He mistakenly says that 1 Chr 19:18 and Josephus agree, whereas Chronicles divides the troops into charioteers and infantry while Josephus divides them into cavalry and infantry. The numbers in Chronicles and Josephus do agree. In short, Chronicles depends at least partially on a non–MT reading in its Vorlage." [Klein, R. W., & Krüger, T. (2006). 1 Chronicles : A commentary. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (406). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.


“In the light of 18:4, the Chronicles figure of 7,000 charioteers, or horsemen, is to be seen as the original that lies behind the numeral 700 in the present MT of 2 Samuel 10:18 (its LXX = Chron). Likewise Chronicles’ identification of 40,000 as “foot soldiers” is the correct reading, as opposed to Samuel’s “horsemen” (NIV mg.), because the figure approximates the total of 20,000 plus 22,000 foot soldiers given in chapter 18 (vv.4–5). As Wenham (“Large Numbers,” p. 45) summarizes it, “1 Chronicles 18:4–5 is the fullest and most coherent text, and it is fairly easy to see how the other texts could have derived from it.” [Payne, J. B. (1988). 1, 2 Chronicles. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 4: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (402). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.]


So, using basic principles of textual criticism (e.g. the text which best explains the origination of the others is most likely the original), we arrive back at the ‘scribal error’ case [one of the 5 out of 213 disagreements].


It has been my experience that these types of ‘surface’ disagreements are fairly easy to resolve (and most have been resolved in centuries past), but also that they have no real relationship (content-wise) with the message of God in/through the bible nor any impact on the trustworthiness of that revelation.


There are factual difficulties in the data--I do not want to imply otherwise--but they are not generally related to simple text-critical problems (which are often very easy to solve).


We have much more difficult problems with understanding the language and interpretation of that revelation—at least in many of the details.


I hope this helps some in your process of thinking through this, friend—


Best wishes for your spiritual journey!

glenn, April 15, 2012

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