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Now: Literary Inconsistencies in the Old Testament

Yesterday I started answering a question about whether the problems in the Hebrew Bible were as significant as those in the New Testament, and my response was: Yes! Even more so! In yesterday’s post I talked about the problem with the manuscripts. In this post I’ll talk about internal discrepancies and contradictions. Rather than write the whole thing out, though, I’ve decided just to include a chunk that deals with the issue from my Introduction to the Bible, as I did once before, many years ago on the blog.  In the context of my discussion in the book, am talking about what 19th and 20th century critical scholars discovered with respect to discrepancies within the Pentateuch, leading to the theory that the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture actually derived from four major sources, written at different times, that have been spliced together, creating internal problems.


The internal tensions came to be seen as particularly significant. Nowhere were these tensions more evident than in the opening accounts of the very first book of the Pentateuch, in the creation stories of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. Scholars came to recognize that what is said in Genesis 1 cannot be easily (or at all) reconciled with what is said in Genesis 2. These do not appear to be two complementary accounts of how the creation took place; they appear to be two accounts that are at odds with each other in fundamental and striking ways. Read them carefully yourself. Make a list of what happens in chapter one, then a list of what happens in chapter 2, and compare your lists. Among other things you will notice the following:

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Did the Exodus Happen?
What About the Original *Old* Testament?



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  September 11, 2019

    Bart, how did you reconcile or explain these differences when you were a Bible believing Christian? Were they a major stumbling block for you and other fundamentalists? I suspect evangelical Christians have “no difficulty” reconciling these passages.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2019

      Nope, none at all. Most common explanation: Genesis 1 is giving the overview; Genesis 2 the play by play.

  2. epicurus
    epicurus  September 11, 2019

    It’s too bad the people who want the Ten Commandments displayed on govt. property don’t realize or don’t care that the second set – the replacement set – given to Moses in Exodus 34 are different – and much more boring- than the ones he got in Exodus 20.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  September 14, 2019

      Not only are the two sets of Ten Commandments different, but I believe it is the second set that is actually called the Ten Commandments! I’ve always felt that if one is going to display them at courthouses, the second set should be used…especially to not boil the kid in its mothers milk! 😂

  3. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  September 11, 2019

    I don’t know if this example serves as a sign of literary inconsistency.
    Both in Genesis 1: 22 and in Genesis 3:26 God refers to himself as “us,” when the authors speak of God in the singular and always use the pronoun “he.”
    Some apologists believe that they solve this inconsistency by appealing to the Holy Trinity, which is not possible at any time in the Hebrew Bible (nor in the NT, by the way). Others resort to the trick that God refers to himself using the royal we (pluralis maiestatis), although more than “us” should then be translated “nosism”.

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 11, 2019

    You know, all this suggests that a trade book focusing on difficulties in the Old Testament would be a good project. It would pull together a lot of information and unify the discussion of textual difficulties in what Christians take to be the Bible. It would be very clear, then, that the same problems, inconsistencies, etc. are present in the entire book, both Old and New Testaments– throughout the entire document.

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  September 11, 2019

      And I know others have done something like this but they aren’t YOU. It would be nice to have a unified perspective, from the same scholar, covering all of the Bible. Like, you don’t already have enough to do. I’m just saying it would be nice. I’m sure you would bring a unique perspective and find ways to make the work refer to your other books, particularly in regard to passages that would later be used by Christians to incorporate Christ into Old Testament Prophecy. You might reference traditional Jewish understanding of the “Fall”. If I am not mistaken, Original Sin is not a Jewish concept and never has been.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 12, 2019

        Ah, right! Yeah, it’s an interesting idea. I’ll think about it.

        • Avatar
          HawksJ  September 16, 2019

          Please do, and also please continue this blog series on OT inconsistencies and contradictions. Fascinating stuff!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2019

      Ah, some good books like that out there, e.g., Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, and Silverman and Finkelstein, Unearthing the Bible.

  5. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  September 11, 2019

    Implied in your discussion is an expectation or something similar that there should be a single account that should have no internal differences. I can’t imagine why anyone would think that. I’m not blind. I see that some people claim to do. Some people also found it persuasive that their grandfathers didn’t look like gorillas.

    Why should the Pentateuch be internally consistent? If it should not, then why is it important to point out all the inconsistencies? It seems like a fool’s errand.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  September 11, 2019

    After I read Friedman’s book Who Wrote the Bible? I went back and read Genesis carefully. Fortunately, my New American Standard bible translated Yahweh and Elohim differently, so you can tell the difference. It was so obvious that were parallel but slightly different stories woven throughout Genesis! But I never noticed it until Friedman pointed it out to me. Much like many of the things I can now see in the NT thanks to your books and seminars. I am so glad that there are scholars like you and Friedman who write trade books, so us commoners can learn what the churches don’t teach us!

  7. Avatar
    jwolfrath  September 11, 2019

    A quick google search suggests that fundamentalist Christians try to resolve the creation discrepancies by using the past perfect form of the verb in chapter 2, “Now the Lord God **had formed** out of the ground…” (actual NIV translation). Is there any justification for this reading of the text?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2019

      Well, the only real justification is that it allows the text not to contradict itself. (!) But no, there’s no linguistic/grammatical justification for it.

      • Avatar
        flcombs  September 12, 2019

        The NIV appears to be “special”. It also has unique wording to get rid of the “didn’t know my name” problem and many other things.

  8. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 11, 2019

    Is it true that the book of Josua was written (or compiled) by whoever compiled the pentateuch, so we really have a “hexateuch”?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2019

      That was once thought by some scholars, but not so much any more. It is part of the Deuteronomistic history, probably writtenby the same person, Joshua-2 Kings. Define here in my textbook: Deuteronomistic History: Scholarly term for the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings (the Former Prophets in the Hebrew Bible), all written by the same author or authors, which record the history of ancient Israel between the entry to the land and the exile in terms highly reminiscent of, and probably dependent on, the religious views set forth in the D source behind the book of Deuteronomy.

  9. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  September 11, 2019

    I just love this. I wrote a little book and made quite a few mistakes which editing missed. But that was OK: Nobody read it ! (Never mind based their lives on it!)

  10. Avatar
    jhague  September 11, 2019

    These differences brought about the idea that a writer(s) known as E, another known as J, priests known as P and D (Deuteronomy) all contributed to the Hebrew scriptures, Then R (Redactor) wove them all together. Correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2019

      That’s the standard view that’s been around since the 19th century. Most real experts think it’s overly simplified, and it probably is; but it’s still what most of us teach our students, since it’s complicated enough, though usually with the proviso that “it’s probably even more complicated than this.”

  11. Avatar
    Jim  September 11, 2019

    Re trade books, have you gone through John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book. If so, do you recommend?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2019

      Highly recommend. I wrote a review of it for a British newspaper. I’m trying to see if I can put the review out on the blog.

      • Avatar
        dvhcmh  September 19, 2019

        I just read Barton’s book, and it’s terrific, as you say. Despite having many of the same insights you do into the Bible, he is an Anglican priest. I can’t quite square that; can you? I know you can’t make windows into men’s souls, but have you any insight as to what he considers persuasive about Christianity from a scholarly viewpoint? I imagine he must find the resurrection narrative to be true along the lines of NT Wright??

        • Bart
          Bart  September 20, 2019

          Absolutely — I have no trouble at all squaring it. It’s a point I’ve made repeatedly on the blog, and most readers still find it hard or impossible to believe. The vast majority of Christians thorughout Christian history — including almost all of the very best modern theologians — do not root their faith in the literal accuracy of the Bible. That’s a conservative evangelical view/insistence. Others simply don’t share it. But the evangelicals get all the press…. And he probably does think Jesus was raised from the dead, yes; but unlike Wright, he almost certainly thinks that the NT accounts are not fully accurate on the topic, and that they contradict each other.

          • Avatar
            dvhcmh  September 20, 2019

            Thank you, Bart. But how is it people believe the resurrection account when they acknowledge so many other accounts in the Bible aren’t historically reliable ? Is it just a will to believe?Have you ever debated someone like Barton who is not an evangelical and who has a nuanced view of scripture but still believes?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 22, 2019

            I think the big problem many people today have is thinking that with the Bible it is “all or nothing” — either it has NO mistakes or it can’t be trusted at *ALL*. But we don’t treat other writings like that. I certainly don’t trust my newspaper like that! Some parts I think are actually right and some are actually wrong, and I judge on a case by case basis. So there is no contradiction in saying that Jesus probably did not walk on water but that he probably did rise from the dead. You have to make an evaluation in each instance.

  12. Avatar
    dankoh  September 11, 2019

    I would be interested in your thoughts on the parallels between the second version of creation (God creates man to work in the Garden of Eden) and the Attrahasis myth, where the gods complain of having to do all the work, so Ea creates (or has Enki create) man to “bear the load of the gods.”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Yes, this is one of a (large) number of instances where biblical myths have their parallels in other, much earlier, Ancient Near Eastern texts, esp., say, the Gilgamesh Epic (the flood) and various creation myths.

  13. Avatar
    doug  September 11, 2019

    And once someone is convinced of a single contradiction in the Bible, the Bibles authoritarian hold on that person (and the hold religious leaders have on that person) is threatened.

  14. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  September 11, 2019

    do you think genesis has support for monogamous marriage? i think that the text is about finding a suitable match for adam and doesn’t really addressing the question of monogamy or polygamy.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Not really. Just because God created one woman doesn’t mean that later people would have more than one partner. You’ll note that the partriarchs in Genesis in fact do have multiple wives, and are never ever condemned for it. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend polygamy :-), but Genesis certainly allowed for it.

      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  October 1, 2019

        polyandry? OK?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 2, 2019

          Right. Only allowed for men. Not sure why there were so many more women available than men; except in times of war, men always outnumbered the women (because of death in childbirth)

  15. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  September 11, 2019

    I took a free online Old Testament class. Some people point out discrepancies in the New Testament without looking at the Old. The story of Gilgamesh doesn’t get him to heaven (eternal life). They also kill the female goddess.
    You can’t base your belief in God based on the stories in the Bible or based on the historical truth of the Bible. Words we hear, say, read, and write matter. We create our own heart with these words. Loving-kindness and good are important words. Just like Hail, Triumph, etc.
    The history of the first several hundred years CE is interesting. I read today that Josephus had sons with interesting names. You really need to know real history when reading the Bible. You also need to read a lot of positive stuff to counter the negative.

    Later there was the addition of the Trinity and the Hail Mary.
    Maybe to have better chances at eternal life?

    Currently watching your New Testament classes ( from the library). Need to watch some more.

  16. Avatar
    Hon Wai  September 11, 2019

    Any plans to write the OT analogue of “How Jesus became God”, to be entitled “How Yahweh became God: revealing the hidden story of how an Ancient Near East tribal deity became creator of the world”? It will be another instant bestseller 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Nope. Good idea though. I’ve got too many other things I’m interested in working on though!

  17. Avatar
    forthfading  September 11, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What would be the purpose of combining different accounts into one? By this I mean, surely the person or persons realized these stories conflicted and people would realize this. What purpose would it serve to include both in your professional opinion?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      To provide a fuller story.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  September 15, 2019

        Also people in those days didn’t see contradictions as invalidating the argument the way we do. In their minds, each text had acquired sanctity and therefore had to be preserved.

        Later, these contradictions did make the rabbis of the Talmud uncomfortable, but they couldn’t remove one or edit them. So they twisted themselves into tiny knots (pilpul) looking for ways to resolve them. For example, when Noah takes 7 pairs of animals in one version and 2 in the other, the Talmud says this means 7 of all kosher animals and 2 of all the rest.

      • Avatar
        Boltonian  September 16, 2019

        According to Friedman, the splicing occurred after Israel (the northern kingdom) was sacked by the Assyrians and many fled south to their southern near-kinsmen in Judah. Although their religions bore some similarity they were not identical, so some editing was needed to create a (semi) coherent creation story and tribal history.

  18. Avatar
    Andrew  September 11, 2019

    Why do our English translations refer to “LORD” all the time, if the Hebrew text has an actual name, and that actual name switches between several variants? And if the Hebrew name is a plural, like “Elohim”, why render it in the singular? Shouldn’t the translation be true to the text and let the reader make up their own mind?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      LORD is used to refer to Yahweh, the personal name of God (YHWH); it is placed in caps to differentiate it from the actually word Lord (Adonai), which has only the first letter capped.

  19. Avatar
    RorscHaK  September 12, 2019

    How significant are the internal problems with the large-scale Exodus Narrative?
    Right off the bat I remember Moses’s genealogy, two midwives, 12 wells and 70 palm trees, Ezer&Elead and probably Judah&Tamar. Not sure if these are enough to block all possible apologetic routes.

    The population explosion is very unlikely but apologetics argue it’s within the realm of physical possibility so I guess I’ll give them that…

    And what’s your favourite inconsistency in Deuteronomistic History?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Is it phyically possible? Interesting question. I’m not so sure. The DH has numerous inconsistencies as well.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  September 15, 2019

        It is theoretically possible for 70 men to expand to 600,000 in around 6 generations, assuming each has 4 male children who survive to reproduce. The real problem is that this number would represent around half of the population that Egyptian agriculture was capable of supporting in those days, so their disappearance would cause huge disruptions in the economy. And that’s not even counting all the damage the plagues had done, and the total loss of the military at the Sea of Reeds. Egypt would have to spend a couple of generations recovering.

        But there is no evidence in the records, which contain no significant gaps, that a disaster of that magnitude happened during the period the Exodus could have taken place.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 16, 2019

          The 600,000 is the adult men; once you throw in the women and children (and consider death rates, infant mortality, and so on), how is it statistically possible?

          • Avatar
            dankoh  September 16, 2019

            Statistically, it’s not. Mathematically, it is. Which brings to mind Einstein’s observation about mathematics and reality.

  20. Avatar
    hankgillette  September 12, 2019

    There are lot of weird events in the Old Testament, but the one that I find most interesting (and puzzling) is that after God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and secure the release of the Israelites, on his journey, God tries to kill him!

    Not only that, but Moses’s wife Zipporah, chases God off with the bloody foreskin of their child. How did she know?

    We know that God is obsessed with foreskins, what with the circumcision requirement, but is the real story that God is terrified of foreskins, and that’s why he wants his people to dispose of them?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Yes, it’s arguably the wierdest story in the Pentateuch. Historically circumcision may have been a puberty rite. It was practiced in other cultures as well sometimes. But it’s very difficult to know what it’s all aobut.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  September 15, 2019

        Oh, it’s weird. But I think Job is weirder.

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