Q&A: Errors in the Bible

Errors in the Bible

Question

A few biblical errors for you:

  1. The earth does (Eccl. 1:4) and does not (2 Peter 3:10) abideth forever.
  2. The workers on the Temple had 3,300 (1 Kings 5:16) and 3,600 (2 Chron. 2:18) overseers
  3. Joseph was sold into Egypt by Midianites (Gen. 37:36) and by Ishmaelites (Gen. 39:1).
  4. Saul's daughter, Michal, had no sons (2 Sam. 6:23) and had 5 sons (2 Sam. 21:8) during her lifetime.
  5. There were 550 (1 Kings 9:23) and 250 (2 Chron. 8:10) chiefs of the officers that bare the rule over the people.
  6. Josiah died at Megiddo (2 Kings 23:29-30) and at Jerusalem (2 Chron. 35:24).
  7. David took seven hundred (2 Sam. 8:4) and seven thousand (1 Chron. 18:4) horsemen from Hadadezer.
  8. Ahaziah was 22 (2 Kings 8:26) and 42 (2 Chron. 22:2) years old when he began to reign.
  9. Jehoiachin was 18 (2 Kings 24:8) and 8 (2 Chron. 36:9) years old when he began to reign, and he reigned 3 months (2 Kings 24:8) and 3 months and 10 days (2 Chron. 36:9).
  10. Saul was killed by his own hands (1 Sam. 31:4), by a young Amalekite (2 Sam. 1:10) and by the Philistines (2 Sam. 21:12).
  11. Solomon made a molten sea which contained 2,000 (1 Kings 7:26) and 3,000 (2 Chron. 4:5) baths.
  12. Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain after six (Matt. 17:1, Mark 9:2) and eight (Luke 9:28) days.

Answer

In every religion there is some variation of opinion as to what particular ideas really mean, as to interpretation, and sometimes even as to textual accuracy of preserved sacred manuscripts. A scribe who miscopies a word does not somehow make an entire system of religion untrustworthy. Rather, it is when a unified system of thought is untrustworthy in a significant matter that the system is impeachable and untrustworthy as a whole.

Except for the first point (#1 below), these particular issues are not terribly significant to the broad scheme of the Bible's theology. Nevertheless, I know that such issues are troubling to many people because they call into question the Bible's veracity.

In explaining these apparent discrepancies and actual discrepancies, I will try to offer reasonable harmonizations for some passages, and to explain why others may be reasonably attributed to scribal errors in copying manuscripts. My argument is that the Bible's trustworthiness is absolute with regard to its original manuscripts, and that in its more important doctrines and facts the manuscript evidence demonstrates that the original words have been well-preserved. In some minor points, the original words are less well-preserved, but not so badly that we cannot reasonably determine what the original probably said, and not so badly that any significant doctrine is in question.
  1. The earth does (Eccl. 1:4) and does not (2 Pet. 3:10) abideth forever.

    Ecclesiastes is proverbial and poetic, frequently using hyperbole. Also, the word translated "forever" ('olam) sometimes just means "perpetually." The point in Ecclesiastes really isn't that the earth will remain eternally, but that it far outlasts the generations of men that come and go.

  2. The workers on the Temple had 3,300 (1 Kings 5:16) and 3,600 (2 Chron. 2:18) overseers.

    There may have been a copying error at some point with regard to this text. Some Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) manuscripts list 3,600 at 1 Kings 5:16. We do not affirm the infallibility of all manuscripts and copies of the biblical documents, but only of the originals. Copying errors and discrepancies are not uncommon, and they do not affect significant doctrines. On the other hand, it may simply be a different method of reckoning a certain group of 300 Israelites -- Kings may include them with this group, while Chronicles may include them with the leaders mentioned in 1 Kings 9:23 and 2 Chron. 8:10.

  3. Joseph was sold into Egypt by Midianites (Gen. 37:36) and by Ishmaelites (Gen. 39:1).

    In this story, the Midianites are the Ishmaelites (see Gen. 37:28).

  4. Saul's daughter Michal had no sons (2 Sam. 6:23) and had 5 sons (2 Sam. 21:8) during her lifetime.

    Some manuscripts do indeed list Michal in 2 Samuel 21:8, but this is another copying error. Most manuscripts list Merab instead of Michal at 2 Samuel 21:8 (reflected in translations such as the NASB, NIV, NRSV, NKJV). This accords witht 1 Samuel 18:19 where we are told that Merab, not Michal, was the wife of Adriel (the father of the children mentioned in 2 Sam. 21:8).

  5. There were 550 (1 Kings 9:23) and 250 (2 Chron. 8:10) chiefs of the officers that bare the rule over the people.

    See comment on #2.

  6. Josiah died at Megiddo (2 Kings 23:29-30) and at Jerusalem (2 Chron. 35:24).

    The difference between these accounts may be one of perspective. Kings may speak from the perspective of the place where Neco (via his archers) mortally struck Josiah, but Chronicles from the perspective of where Josiah finally ended up. On the other hand, 2 Chronicles 35:24 does not actually say that Josiah died in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew, it simply says "and he died" not "where he died." The NKJV is a more literal translation at this point, reading: "... they brought him to Jerusalem. So he died, and was buried..." The difference between these readings is simply one of punctuation. The Hebrew itself is ambiguous on the point, and allows for either reading.

  7. David took seven hundred (2 Sam. 8:4) and seven thousand (1 Chron. 18:4) horsemen from Hadadezer.

    Here there is likely a copying error. The Septuagint shows seven thousand at 2 Samuel 8:4, as reflected in the NIV translation.

  8. Ahaziah was 22 (2 Kings 8:26) and 42 (2 Chron. 22:2) years old when he began to reign.

    The manuscripts disagree at 2 Chronicles 22:2. Some say he was 42, some say he was 22. Some translations follow the number 22 (NIV, NASB), while others follow 42 (NRSV, NKJV). Again, this is a scribal error.

  9. Jehoiachin was 18 (2 Kings 24:8) and 8 (2 Chron. 36:9) years old when he began to reign, and he reigned 3 months (2 Kings 24:8) and 3 months and 10 days (2 Chron. 36:9).

    There is also a discrepancy between the manuscripts in 2 Chronicles 36:9. Some say he was 18 (as per the NIV translation), others say he was 8. This is another scribal error. The issue of 3 months versus 3 months and 10 days is simply one of approximation versus precision. Chronicles attempts to give a more exact number than does Kings.

  10. Saul was killed by his own hands (1 Sam. 31:4), by a young Amalekite (2 Sam. 1:10), and by the Philistines (2 Sam. 21:12).

    The account of Saul's death in 1 Samuel 31:4 is what really happened. The "account" in 2 Samuel 1:10 is a lie told by the messenger in a vain attempt to win favor with David, the rival for Saul's throne. 2 Samuel 21:12 reflects the fact that Saul took his own life only in the course of the battle with the Philistines, and only because he had already been mortally wounded by them. The Philistines "struck him down" even if they did not deal the final death blow.

  11. Solomon made a molten sea which contained 2,000 (1 Kings 7:26) and 3,000 (2 Chron. 4:5) baths.

    There does not seem to be any discrepancy in the manuscripts at 2 Chronicles 4:5. Nevertheless, this figure is probably inaccurate. Doing the geometry (using a 10 cubit diameter, 5 cubit depth and 30 cubit circumference, per 1 Kings 7:23), the sea would not have been able to hold 3,000 baths. This figure was probably copied erroneously (not a difficult mistake to make if we note the ancient use of two short vertical strokes designating "2" and three such strokes designating "3").

  12. Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain after six (Matt. 17:1, Mark 9:2) and eight (Luke 9:28) days.

    Luke says that this occurred "about" (hosei) eight days later. Evidently, his sources (Luke 1:1-4) were a bit fuzzy on the specific number, so he approximated. Certainly eight is close enough to six that it should be considered a reasonable approximation.

I really do appreciate the difficulty these texts can pose, and I'm not trying to be flippant in attributing things to scribal error. Personally, I think that, given the size of the Bible and the millennia over which its texts have been preserved, it is remarkable that there are not more such errors. Moreover, I am encouraged to trust the Bible by noting that these errors do not occur in critical areas, and that they do not affect important doctrines.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.