Q&A: Ezra and Nehemiah discrepancies

Ezra and Nehemiah discrepancies

Question

If the Bible is inerrant, then why are there discrepancies in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7?

Answer

I have an undergraduate degree in accounting. I enjoy math. While in law enforcement, I became a Certified Fraud Examiner. When conducting an audit everything was supposed to add up correctly, but when they didn't it was troubling. To reconcile records I always attempted to go back to the original sources and reconstruct everything. Unless there was fraud, I typically found that someone made a coping error, mistook a debit for a credit, or simply couldn't do elementary math. Except in cases of fraud, I always found that there was a reasonable explanation for any discrepancy. The Bible autographs (original documents) are inspired, infallible, inerrant, and authoritative (2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). The Bible also likes accurate math. And since God cannot lie, fraud definitely is not an issue (cf. Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Heb. 6:18). So why the apparent discrepancies in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7?

Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 both offer somewhat identical lists of the people who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. However, there are some differences as noted in this chart.

Ezra 2
Nehemiah 7
Difference
Ezra 2:5 - The sons of Arah, 775 Neh. 7:10 - The sons of Arah, 652 123
Ezra 2:6 - The sons of Pahath-moab, … 2,812 Neh. 7:11 - The sons of Pahath-moab, … 2,818 6
Ezra 2:8 - The sons of Zattu, 945 Neh. 7:13 - The sons of Zattu, 845 100
Ezra 2:10 - The sons of Bani, 642 Neh. 7:15 - The sons of Binnui, 648 6
Ezra 2:11 - The sons of Bebai, 623 Neh. 7:16 - The sons of Bebai, 628 5
Ezra 2:12 - The sons of Azgad, 1,222 Neh. 7:17 - The sons of Azgad, 2,322 1,100
Ezra 2:13 - The sons of Adonikam, 666 Neh. 7:18 - The sons of Adonikam, 667 1
Ezra 2:14 - The sons of Bigvai, 2,056 Neh. 7:19 - The sons of Bigvai, 2,067 11
Ezra 2:15 - The sons of Adin, 454 Neh. 7:20 - The sons of Adin, 655 201
Ezra 2:17 - The sons of Bezai, 323 Neh. 7:23 - The sons of Bezai, 324 1
Ezra 2:28 - The men of Bethel and Ai, 223 Neh. 7:22 - The men of Bethel and Ai, 123 100
Ezra 2:33 - The sons of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, 725 Neh. 7:37 - The sons of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, 721 4
Ezra 2:35 - The sons of Senaah, 3,630 Neh. 7:38 - The sons of Senaah, 3,930 300
Ezra 2:41 - The singers: the sons of Asaph, 128 Neh. 7:44 - The singers: the sons of Asaph, 148 20
Ezra 2:42 - The sons of the gatekeepers: … 139 Neh. 7:45 - The gatekeepers: … 138 1
Ezra 2:59-60 - The following … 652 Neh. 7:61-62 - The following … 642 10
Ezra 2:65 - 200 male and female singers Neh. 7:67 - 245 singers, male and female 45

There are 17 differences, to be exact, not even including some of the common Hebrew name variations, etc. Unfortunately, I can't go back to the original sources as the biblical autographs don't exist. However, both books (Ezra 2:64-65; Neh. 7:66-67) definitely agree on the total number of Israel's congregation (42,360) and the number of singers and servants (7337). This seems rather puzzling. What could possibly explain these other differences? Can we reconcile these books?

It is important to understand that both Ezra (c. 430-400 B.C.) and Nehemiah (c. 430-400 B.C.), were written by the same author. They are a compilation of a number of separate sources that were merged together to form one whole book in the Jewish canon. So, how could the same author have so many differences? Or how could there be so many copying errors? I don't believe this is the case. Both accounts include people not mentioned in the other account. Indeed, Ezra contains 494 people not listed in Nehemiah. But if we add Ezra's 494 to Nehemiah's listing of 31,089, we obtain 31,583. Likewise, if we add Nehemiah's additional 1765 people to Ezra's list of 29,818, we get 31,583. So, the books balance and math actually works. Inconsistency here is actually divine consistency!

So then, why were there inconsistent lists? Well, the lists seem to be a composition of different lists (cf. Neh. 7:5). This is easily seen in that some of the family names are listed by ancestral families and yet others by geographical location. Moreover, these books were written at different times. The list in Ezra may have been gathered before leaving Babylon and contained the different waves of Israelites (i.e. some may have followed Zerubbabel [Ezra 2:2] and others Ezra [Ezra 8:1]). However, Nehemiah's list may be of those who actually arrived in Jerusalem and helped build the temple (cf. Neh. 7:1). During the intervening years between the two books, it is likely that people were born and others may have died. Individuals or even groups could have decided not to make the journey, as implied in Ezra 2:1. Also, Nehemiah records that he used a register that he found (Neh. 7:5) and Ezra does not. This implies that there may have been numerous ongoing records of the Israelites that returned from captivity. Note also that Nehemiah 7:5 uses the phrase "who came up at the first," which additionally implies that the names listed were the first to respond and that others (whose names aren't listed in Nehemiah) may have followed later in different waves of Israelites. So, differences in sources, times, waves of individuals, and locations could easily result in the numerical differences for each family.

In addition, the contents of the list of families isn't even meant to be complete. For instance, Ezra 2:64 states the entire congregation was 42,360 people, but his list only adds up to 29,818, which is a difference of 12,542 people. Likewise, Nehemiah 7:66 says the total number was the same as Ezra, but his figures only add up to 31,089 – a difference of 11,271. But in the end the math doesn’t lie. As shown above, both Ezra's and Nehemiah's figures add up to 31,583. However, the entire congregation of 42,360 minus 31,583 is 10,777. What could possibly account for this great difference? It can probably be attributed to the women and children that were not counted (cf. Ezra 2:2; cf. the non-canonical book 1 Esdras 5:41).

Related Topics

Overview of the Book of Ezra

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).