From time to time, a person reading the Bible will come across names or numbers in two or more passages that
seem to contradict each other. After thoroughly studying the context of the passages in order to make certain
that the assumed contradiction is not just a misunderstanding of the text, the reader then concludes that the
passages do indeed contradict one another. For example, 2 Kings 24:8
says that Jehoiachin succeeded his father as the nineteenth king of Judah at the age of eighteen, whereas
2 Chronicles 36:9 informs us that he was "eight years
old when he became king." The honest person must admit that these two passages are in disagreement. The question
that must be asked is: Do such disagreements indicate that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God? No, they
The fact is, differences within two or more biblical accounts may be the result of copyists’ errors.
Oftentimes, modern man forgets that whenever duplicates of the Old Testament Scriptures were needed, copies had
to be made by hand—a painstaking, time-consuming task requiring extreme concentration and special working conditions.
In time, an elite group of scribes, known as the Masoretes, arose just for this purpose. In their respected work
on critical biblical issues, A General Introduction to the Bible, Norman Geisler and William Nix observed:
The Masoretic period (flourished c. A.D. 500-1000) of Old Testament manuscript copying indicates
a complete review of established rules, a deep reverence for the Scriptures, and a systematic renovation of
transmission techniques…. Copies were made by an official class of sacred scribes who labored under strict rules
(1986, pp. 354,467; cf. also pp. 371,374,380).
The Masoretes went above and beyond the "call of duty" in order to make the most accurate copies humanly
possible. Out of respect for the Word of God, these copyists took numerous precautions to "guarantee" precise
duplication. As Eddie Hendrix noted:
When a scribe finally completed the laborious task of copying it with a catalog of detailed
information about that book, the catalog listed the number of verses, words, and letters that should occur in the
book. The catalog also listed the word and the letter that should fall in the middle of the book. Such minute
checks contributed to a high degree of copying accuracy (1976, p. 5).
Anyone who has studied the exacting conditions under which the Masoretes worked, and the lengths to which
they went to ensure fidelity in their copies of the Scriptures, could attest to the fact that their goal was to
produce accurate copies—even to the point of reproducing errors already present in the much older copies from
which they were working. The Masoretes were some of the world’s greatest perfectionists.
They were, nevertheless, still human. And humans are prone to make mistakes, regardless of the care they take
or the strictness of the rules under which they operate. The copyists’ task was made all the more difficult by
the sheer complexity of the Hebrew language, and by the various ways in which potential errors could be introduced
(even inadvertently) into the copying process. There are at least seven important ways in which a copyist
might change the text accidentally, including such actions as:
(a) omissions of letters, words, or whole lines;
(b) unwarranted repetitions;
(c) transposition (the reversal of two letters or words);
(d) errors of memory;
(e) errors of the ear;
(f) errors of the eye; and
(g) errors of judgment (Geisler and Nix, 1986, pp. 469-473).
Such errors, especially before the Masoretes came on the scene, could account for the alleged discrepancies
in various parts of the Bible (cf. 1 Kings 4:26;
2 Kings 8:26;
2 Chronicles 9:25;
22:2). For example, biblical scholar Gleason Archer has stated:
"Even the earliest and best manuscripts that we possess are not totally free of transmissional errors. Numbers
are occasionally miscopied, the spelling of proper names is occasionally garbled, and there are examples of the
same types of scribal error that appear in other ancient documents as well" (1982, p. 27). Do copyists’ errors
appear in other ancient documents, too? Most assuredly! Corruptions in the writings of the Greek classics are
very common. Take, for instance, the secular works of Tacitus. They are known to contain at least one numerical
error that Tacitean and classical scholars have acknowledged as a copyist’s mistake (Holding, 2001). These scholars
recognize that at some point in history, a copyist accidentally changed a number (from CXXV to XXV). Why is it,
then, that biblical critics will not recognize the same possibility when supposed discrepancies are found in the
Bible? Just as those who copied secular historical documents sometimes misspelled names and numbers, scribes who
copied the Bible from earlier texts occasionally made mistakes. The complexity of the Hebrew language and its
alphabetic/numeric system no doubt served as an even greater challenge for the scribes.
Errors of the ear also may have played a part. If a scribe was writing the text as it was being read to him,
the reader actually may have said one thing but the scribe heard another. Other differences might
have been the result of an error of memory. A scribe may have looked at an entire line, memorized it, and copied
it from memory without looking at it a second time during the copying process. When he went to write one of the
numbers in the two passages, however, his memory failed him; what he thought he remembered the original
text having said was not what it actually said. Such could have been the case in
2 Chronicles 22:2, where it says that Ahaziah was 42 years old when
he became king of Judah. In light of other Scriptures (2 Kings 8:17, 26),
one understands that Ahaziah could not have been 42 when he inherited the throne, because this would make him two
years older than his father. The correct reading of Ahaziah’s age is "twenty-two"
(2 Kings 8:17), not "forty-two." When one stops to consider the
extremely poor conditions under which most copyists worked (poor lighting, crude writing instruments, imperfect
writing surfaces, etc.), it is not difficult to understand how inadvertent errors such as these might occur from
time to time.
Is God to be blamed for these errors? Although some would like to think so, one must remember that an author
is not responsible for errors that are found in copies made of his book. God cannot be blamed for errors made
by those who have copied the Scriptures in the distant past. Nor can He be held accountable for those who continue
to print copies of the Bible today. It is not God’ s fault that various publishing companies today have printed
translations of the Bible containing such things as misspelled words, incorrect numbers, duplicate words, etc.
Would it be God’s fault if we decided to copy the whole Bible by hand, with the result being a copy of the Bible
containing some misspelled names and a few wrong numbers? Certainly not! God is not responsible for the errors
made by those who produce copies of the Bible.
But why do we not possess infallible copies of the infallible originals of the Bible books? Archer has observed
that it is
because the production of even one perfect copy of one book is so far beyond the capacity of
a human scribe as to render it necessary for God to perform a miracle in order to produce it. No reasonable
person can expect even the most conscientious copyist to achieve technical infallibility in transcribing his
original document into a fresh copy.... But the important fact remains that accurate communication is possible
despite technical mistakes in copying (1982, p. 29).
Indeed, accurate communication is possible despite technical mistakes in copying. In the more
than two decades during which Apologetics Press has published its monthly journal, Reason and Revelation,
we never have had someone suggest that as a result of an inadvertent mistake they were unable to comprehend the
meaning, or detect the intent, of an article. Cannot the same be said of the Bible? Surely it can! Archer
Well-trained textual critics operating on the basis of sound methodology are able to rectify
almost all misunderstandings that might result from manuscript error…. Is there objective proof from the surviving
manuscripts of Scripture that these sixty-six books have been transmitted to us with such a high degree of accuracy
as to assure us that the information contained in the originals has been perfectly preserved? The answer is an
unqualified yes (1982, pp. 29-30).
In every case when the Bible’s defenders refer to that Grand Book as being "inspired," they are by necessity
referring to inspiration as it pertained to the original manuscripts (routinely referred to as "autographs"),
since there is no such thing as an "inspired copy." "Aha!," the skeptic might say, "since you no longer possess
those autographs, but only slightly flawed copies made by imperfect humans, that makes it impossible to know
the truth of the message behind the text."
Try applying such a concept—that no longer being in personal possession of a perfect original makes knowing
truth impossible—to matters of everyday life. Gleason Archer has done just that, using something as simple as a
It is wrong to affirm that the existence of a perfect original is a matter of no importance
if that original is no longer available for examination. To take an example from the realm of engineering or of
commerce, it makes a very great difference whether there is such a thing as a perfect measure for the meter, the
foot, or the pound. It is questionable whether the yardsticks or scales used in business transactions or
construction projects can be described as absolutely perfect. They may be almost completely conformable to the
standard weights and measures preserved at the Bureau of Standards in our nation’s capital but they are subject
to error—however small. But how foolish it would be for any citizen to shrug his shoulders and say, "Neither you
nor I have ever actually seen those standard measures in Washington; therefore we may as well disregard them—not
be concerned about them at all—and simply settle realistically for the imperfect yardsticks and pound weights
that we have available to us in everyday life." On the contrary, the existence of those measures in the Bureau
of Standards is vital to the proper functioning of our entire economy. To the 222,000,000 Americans who have never
seen them they are absolutely essential for the trustworthiness of all the standards of measurement that they
resort to throughout their lifetime (1982, p. 28).
The fact that we do not possess the original autographs of the Bible in no way diminishes the usefulness, or
authority, of the copies, any more than a construction superintendent not being in possession of the original
measures from the Bureau of Standards diminishes the usefulness or authority of the devices he employs to erect a
building. This point is made all the more evident when one considers the inconsequential nature of the vast
majority of alleged discrepancies offered by skeptics as proof of the Bible’s non-divine origin. Does not the
"quality" of the "discrepancies" submitted to us by skeptics reveal just how desperate skepticism is to try to
find some discrepancy—any discrepancy—within the Sacred Text? But to what end? As Archer noted:
In fact, it has long been recognized by the foremost specialists in textual criticism that
if any decently attested variant were taken up from the apparatus at the bottom of the page and were substituted
for the accepted reading of the standard text, there would in no case be a single, significant alteration in
doctrine or message (1982, p. 30).
Most Bible critics are completely indifferent to the principles of textual criticism. They disregard rules
of interpretation, and treat the Bible differently than any other historical document. These skeptics assume
that partial reports of an event are false reports, that figurative language must be interpreted literally, and
that numbers always must be exact and never estimated. But the most frustrating truth for skeptics to accept
involves copyists’ errors. Even though textual critics in secular studies readily acknowledge such errors when
studying the writings of historians like Josephus, Tacitus, or Seutonius, critics of the Bible hypocritically
reject the explanations involving copyists’ errors.
EXAMPLES OF COPYISTS’ ERRORS
Who Killed Goliath? (2 Samuel 21:19;
1 Chronicles 20:5)
Some might be surprised to find out that an alleged contradiction hovers over one of the most famous battles
to have ever taken place on the Earth—the clash between David and Goliath. Whereas, in
1 Samuel 17 the detailed record clearly shows that David defeated
the defiant Philistine giant (Goliath), 2 Samuel 21:19 says that
Goliath was killed by "Elhanan, the son of Jaare- oregim the Beth-lehemite" (ASV). Furthermore,
1 Chronicles 20:5 states that "Elhanan the son of Jair killed
Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam." So who
actually killed Goliath? And how does Elhanan fit into all of this?
First, we must recognize that Jair and Jaareoregim are the same person. The widely quoted Albert Barnes noted
that this difficulty may have begun when oregim, the Hebrew word translated "weaver" in this passage, ended
up being placed on the wrong line by a copyist—something that has been known to happen in several instances (see
Spence and Exell, 1978, 4:514). Therefore, Jair, combined with oregim, became Jaare-oregim in order
to make it fit with proper Hebrew grammar.
Second, the phrase "Lahmi the brother of " is absent in 2 Samuel 21:19.
[The King James Version inserts the phrase "the brother of " between "Bethlehemite" and "Goliath."] In the Hebrew,
eth Lachmi (a combination of "Lahmi" and the term "brother") appears to have been changed into
beith hallachmi (Beth-lehemite) in 2 Samuel 21:19. With
this simple correction, the two texts would be in clear agreement (Clarke, 1996). In other words, "the brother
of " and the name "Lahmi" likely were mistakenly combined by a copyist to form what is translated in English as
"Beth-lehemite" in 2 Samuel 21:19. Thus, "the
2 Samuel 21 passage is a perfectly traceable corruption of the
original wording, which fortunately has been correctly preserved in
1 Chronicles 20:5" (Archer, 1982, p. 179). A fair, in-depth
examination of the alleged difficulty shows that there actually is no contradiction at all, but simply a copyist’s
How Old Was Jehoiachin When He Began His Reign?
(2 Kings 24:8;
2 Chronicles 36:9)
In 2 Kings 24:8, we read that Jehoiachin succeeded his father
as the nineteenth king of Judah at the age of eighteen.
2 Chronicles 36:9 informs us that he was "eight years old
when he became king." Fortunately there is enough additional information in the biblical text to prove the correct
age of Jehoiachin when he began his reign over Judah.
There is little doubt that Jehoiachin began his reign at eighteen, not eight years of age. This conclusion
is established by Ezekiel 19:5-9, where Jehoiachin appears as going up and down among the lions, catching the
prey, devouring men, and knowing the widows of the men he devoured and the cities he wasted. As Keil and Delitzsch
observed when commenting on this passage: "The knowing of widows cannot apply to a boy of eight, but might well
be said of a young man of eighteen." Furthermore, it is doubtful that an eight-year child would be described as
one having done "evil in the sight of the Lord"
(2 Kings 24:9).
The simple answer to this "problem" is that a copyist, not an inspired writer, made a mistake. A scribe
simply omitted a ten, which made Jehoiachin eight instead of eighteen. This does not mean the Bible had errors
in the original autographs, but it does indicate that minor scribal errors have slipped into some copies of the
Bible. [If you have ever seen the Hebrew alphabet, you no doubt recognize that the Hebrew letters (which were
used for numbers) could be confused quite easily.]
Hadadezer or Hadarezer?
(2 Samuel 8:3, 16, 19;
1 Chronicles 18:3; KJV and ASV)
This discrepancy obviously came about through the mistake of a scribe. It is very likely that Hadadezer (with
a "d") is the true form since, "Hadad was the chief idol, or sun-god, of the Syrians" (Barnes, 1997; cf. Benhadad
and Hadad of 1 Kings 15:18;
11:14; etc.). As William Arndt stated, "D and R may be distinct
enough in appearance in English, but in Hebrew they are vexingly similar to each other" (1955, p. XV). There should
be no doubt in our minds that Hadarezer simply is a corrupted form of Hadadezer. Surely, one can see how a copyist
could easily have made this mistake.
When Did Absalom Commit Treason? (2 Samuel 15:7)
When David’s son Absalom finally returned after killing his half-brother Amnon, Second Samuel 15 indicates
that "after forty years" passed, Absalom left home again and committed treason. Anyone who knows much
Israelite history quickly realizes that Absalom most certainly did not spend 40 years at home during this time,
for David’s entire reign was only 40 years (2 Samuel 5:4). The
number given in 2 Samuel 15:7 probably should be four years,
which is more in keeping with the lifetime of Absalom, who was born in Hebron after David’s reign as king began
(2 Samuel 3:3). The number "four" also agrees with such ancient
versions as the Septuagint, the Syriac, the Arabic, and the Vulgate. There is little question that the number
"forty" represents a copyist error.
How Many Stalls did Solomon Have? (1 Kings 4:26;
2 Chronicles 9:25)
1 Kings 4:26 indicates that Solomon owned 40,000 stalls.
However in 2 Chronicles 9:25 the number 4,000
is given. Both numbers obviously cannot be correct. Likely, respected biblical commentators Keil and Delitzsch
were correct when they stated that the forty thousand figure in
1 Kings 4:26 "is an old copyist’s error" (1996, p. 39). We learn
elsewhere in the books of 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles that Solomon’s chariots were but 1,400
(1 Kings 10:26;
2 Chronicles 1:14). It makes sense then that 40,000 horses could not
possibly be required. In a way of comparison, Albert Barnes indicated that the "Assyrian chariots had at most three
horses apiece, while some had only two. 4,000 [sic] horses would supply the full team of three to 1,200 and the smaller
team of two to 2000 chariots" (1997). The four thousand figure appears to be the more probable of the two renderings.
IS THE OLD TESTAMENT STILL RELIABLE?
If there are scribal errors in today’s copies of the Old Testament, many wonder how we can be certain the text
of the Bible was transmitted faithfully across the centuries? Is it not possible that it was corrupted so that
its form in our present Bible is drastically different from the original source?
The accuracy of the Old Testament text was demonstrated forcefully by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.
Prior to 1947, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of significant length did not date earlier than the ninth century
A.D. However, when the Dead Sea scrolls were found (containing portions of all Old Testament books except Esther),
this discovery pushed the record of the Old Testament text back almost 1,000 years. These copies were produced
sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100. One scroll found in the Qumran caves was of particular importance. It
was a scroll of the book of Isaiah, which only had a few words missing. What was amazing about this scroll is
that when it was compared to the text of Isaiah produced 900 years after it, the two matched almost word for
word with only a few small variations. In commenting on this comparative reading of the two texts, A.W. Adams
The close agreement of the second Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea with the manuscripts of
the ninth and tenth centuries shows how carefully the text tradition which they represent has been preserved.
We may therefore be satisfied that the text of our Old Testament has been handed down in one
line without serious change since the beginning of the Christian era and even before (as quoted by Kenyon, 1939,
Amazingly, a comparison of the standard Hebrew texts with that of the Dead Sea scrolls has revealed that the
two are virtually identical. The variations (about 5%) occurred only in minor spelling differences and minute
copyists’ mistakes. Thus, as Rene Paché noted: "Since it can be demonstrated that the text of the old Testament
was accurately transmitted for the last 2,000 years, one may reasonably suppose that it had been so
transmitted from the beginning" (1971, p. 191).
Even within the various passages of Scripture, numerous references to copies of the written Word of God can
be found. [It would be a gratuitous conclusion to assume that only one copy of the Scriptures existed during the
period that the Old Testament covers.] A copy of the "book of the law" was preserved in the temple during the
days of king Josiah (c. 621 B.C.), thus demonstrating that Moses’ writings had been protected over a span of
almost 1,000 years (2 Kings 22). Other Old Testament passages
speak of the maintenance of the Holy Writings across the years
During Jesus’ personal ministry, He read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue at Nazareth and called it
"Scripture" (Luke 4:16-21)—a technical term always employed in
the Bible for a divine writing! Jesus endorsed the truth that the Old Testament Scriptures had been
preserved faithfully. Even though Jesus read from a copy of Isaiah, He still considered it the Word of
God. Hence, Scripture had been preserved faithfully in the written record. Furthermore, considering that
even though Jesus condemned the scribes of His day for their many sins, not one instance in Scripture is it
recorded where He even intimated they were unfaithful in their work as scribes. Yes, Jesus gave approval to
copies (and translations—e.g., Septuagint) of the Old Testament by reading and quoting from them. We should do
One of the great language scholars of the Old Testament text was Dr. Robert Dick Wilson (1856-1930). A master
of over thirty-five languages, Wilson carefully compared the text of the Old Testament with inscriptions on
ancient monuments (as these two sources dealt with common material). As a result of his research, he declared
that "we are scientifically certain that we have substantially the same text that was in the possession of Christ
and the apostles and, so far as anybody knows, the same as that written by the original composers of the Old
Testament documents" (1929, p. 8).
For the believer, it is only logical to conclude that if a just God exists
cf. 19:1), and He expects man to obey Him
John 14:15), then His Will must be preserved. Since man is amenable
to God’s religious and moral laws, it surely follows that God, through His providence, would preserve accurate
copies of His divine Will in order that those who are created "in the image of God"
(Genesis 1:27) might be able to avoid the consequences of disobedience
and have access to the wonderful blessings in Jesus Christ
(cf. 2 Timothy 2:10). How could we do this if we did not have access
to accurate copies of the Bible?
WHAT ABOUT THE RELIABILITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT?
How well do the New Testament documents compare with additional ancient, historical documents? F.F Bruce
examined much of the evidence surrounding this question in his book, The New Testament Documents—Are They
Reliable? As he and other writers (e.g., Metzger, 1968, p. 36; Geisler and Brooks, 1990, p. 159) have
noted, there are 5,366 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament in existence today, in whole or in part, that
serve to corroborate the accuracy of the New Testament. The best manuscripts of the New Testament are dated at
roughly A.D. 350, with perhaps one of the most important of these being the Codex Vaticanus, "the chief
treasure of the Vatican Library in Rome," and the Codex Sinaiticus, which was purchased by the British from
the Soviet Government in 1933 (Bruce, 1953, p. 20). Additionally, the Chester Beatty papyri, made public in 1931,
contain eleven codices (manuscript volumes), three of which contain most of the New Testament (including the
gospels). Two of these codices boast of a date in the first half of the third century, while the third slides
in a little later, being dated in the last half of the same century (Bruce, p. 21). The John Rylands Library
boasts of even earlier evidence. A papyrus codex containing parts of John 18 dates to the time of Hadrian, who
reigned from A.D. 117 to 138 (Bruce, p. 21).
Other attestation to the accuracy of the New Testament documents can be found in the writings of the so-called
"apostolic fathers"—men who wrote primarily from A.D. 90 to 160, and often quoted from the New Testament documents
(Bruce, p. 22). Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Tatian, Clement of Rome, and Ignatius (writing
before the close of the second century) all provided citations from one or more of the gospels (Guthrie, 1990,
p. 24). Other witnesses to authenticity of the New Testament are the Ancient Versions, which consist of the text
of the New Testament translated into different languages. The Old Latin and the Old Syriac are the most ancient,
being dated from the middle of the second century (Bruce, p. 23).
The fact is, the New Testament enjoys far more historical documentation than any other volume ever known.
Compared to the 5,366 Greek manuscripts "backing" the New Testament, there are only 643 copies of Homer’s
Iliad, which is undeniably the most famous book of ancient Greece. No one doubts the text of Julius
Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but we only have 10 copies of it, the earliest of which was made 1,000 years after
it was written. We have only two manuscripts of Tacitus’ Histories and Annals, one from the ninth century
and one from the eleventh. The History of Thucydides, another well-known ancient work, is dependent upon
only eight manuscripts, the oldest of these being dated about A.D. 900 (along with a few papyrus scraps dated at
the beginning of the Christian era). And The History of Herodotus finds itself in a similar situation.
"Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in
doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the
originals" (Bruce, pp. 20-21). Bruce thus declared: "It is a curious fact that historians have often been much
readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians" (p. 19). In 1968, Bruce Metzger, a
longtime professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton, stated: "The amount of evidence for
the text of the New Testament…is so much greater than that available for any ancient classical author that the
necessity of resorting to emendation is reduced to the smallest dimensions" (1968, p. 86). Truly, to have such
abundance of copies for the New Testament from within seventy years of their writing is nothing short of amazing
(Geisler and Brooks, 1990, pp. 159-160).
The available evidence makes it clear that the New Testament has been transmitted accurately over the past
2,000 years with relatively few variations. Consider this: Since the King James Version was first translated
(in 1611) and revised (one of the latest revisions taking place in 1769), several manuscripts came to light that
were older than those used in the KJV translation. When these manuscripts were compared and contrasted with
those used in the translation of the KJV, the Greek text used in its translation was seen to be essentially sound.
Although the translators of the American Standard Version (published in 1901) had access to more ancient Greek
manuscripts than did the KJV translators, the ASV differs very little from the KJV. And since most differences
are seen only in the matter of vocabulary choices, someone reading from the KJV has no difficulty listening to
a person reading from the ASV. The truth is, if the English language was not constantly changing, there would
not be a need for more translations of the Bible. We can be confident that we have accurate copies of the New
Testament today—a fact attested to by more than 5,000 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.