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Finding More Problems in the Old Testament

Yesterday I started detailing some of the contradictions and historical or scientific problems with the Old Testament that I started to find when I was a graduate at Princeton Seminary, starting to examine the Bible not as the inerrant revelation from God Almighty but as a more human book that could indeed have mistakes in it.  The account I gave of these problems was lifted straight from my textbook: The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.  There’s a reason for that.  The problems I found early on in my more scholarly investigation of the Bible have stuck with me and continue to strike me as some of the truly most important ones, and therefore the ones most appropriate to introduce to college students themselves reading the Bible critically for the first time.

This is a second and final post on the same topic: a few more comments on a few more problems that strike me as completely irreconcileable, once a person admits that there can indeed be problems in the Bible.   Again, this is excerpted from my textbook.  Afterward I have a few reflections on how such problems affected my Christian faith.


These kinds of differences suggested to scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that Genesis 1-3 was not providing one account composed by one author at one time, but two different accounts composed by two different authors at two different times – with different interests, understandings of the deity, and views about what happened when humans were created.

Moreover, and just as important, the literary inconsistencies of Genesis are not unique to these two chapters.  On the contrary, there are such problems scattered throughout the book.   You can see this for yourself simply by …

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Eyewitnesses and the Gospels: A Blast From the Past
Finding Problems in the Old Testament



  1. mjt  May 12, 2017

    Do the sources in the Pentateuch ‘line up’ properly? That is, does the ‘J’ source consistently call god one name, while the ‘E’ source consistently refer to him by a different name?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 14, 2017

      It’s pretty consistent — but I haven’t actually looked (or remember) if it’s 100%. Maybe someone else on the blog knows (sorry, but I’m out of town for a couple of weeks and not near my books).

  2. Stephen  May 12, 2017

    Prof Ehrman

    Can you tell me if my perception is correct that the impulse to systematize and reconcile is an essentially modern one and the ancients were less concerned with reconciling their sources than making sure that none were excluded (even to the point of placing divergent accounts side by side like in Genesis 1-3)?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 14, 2017

      Not quite. There were in fact scholars in antiquity, from Tatian to Origen to Augustine and beyond who were intent on figuring out how to reconcile the different accounts, both OT and NT.

  3. Petter Häggholm  May 12, 2017

    And then the poor livestock get killed yet again, a third time—at least their firstborn—in Ex. 12:29. I wonder how literalists deal with this? Repeated but unmentioned attempts by the Egyptians to restock their herds by importing cattle? Or perhaps God resurrected the cows twice, in order to multiply his wonders (11:9)?

  4. hasankhan  May 12, 2017

    So Book of Genesis is part of Torah? Does that mean same problems exist in Torah as well?

    The people who wrote the gospels, did they make a claim that holy spirit inspired me to write this and I did not learn it from anyone? If they did not make such a claim and it was just memories preserved on paper, then it can have errors and the problem in that case is in their recollection of the verses and not what was already revealed by God to Moses or Jesus.

    The problematic claim would be that the Bible is literally word of God inspired to people other than Jesus and Moses and it is free of errors. That puts the blame on God instead of those who claim to quote him. God by definition is perfect and all knowledgeable so the conclusion would be that people lied when they made the claim that I’m inspired directly by holy spirit to write this.

    If the people themselves never made such a claim and it was later on decided that everything is literally word of God then that person would have to provide some basis for that claim because it doesn’t seem to be the case.

    In my opinion the safest claim could be, God did explain the creation of universe and had consistent explanation but as people recalled and collected the verses and wrote them down, they wrote things that were not there, or missed parts that were in fact there or simply mixed and reordered things (deliberately or by mistake). Which is something you’d expect from humans.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 14, 2017

      Yes, Genesis is the first of the five books of the Torah. ANd no, the authors of the Gospels make no claims about being inspired.

      • SidDhartha1953  May 19, 2017

        Though an editor of the Gospel of John (21:24) asserts that everything the author says is true. Did the early interpreters of the NT make a distinction between divine inspiration and certain knowledge?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 21, 2017

          Something can be true without being inspired by God.

          • SidDhartha1953  May 24, 2017

            But to be certain that everything he said was true, the attestor would either have to share all the same knowledge independently, or have some reason to believe him to be infallible.

  5. RonaldTaska  May 12, 2017

    For those new to this blog, I strongly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted” for a discussion of New Testament contradictions. This book changed my views more than any I have read, It really helped me and, without being too dramatic, changed my life.

    I still think this series of posts could be expanded into a really good book.

  6. flyboydh1  May 12, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’d like an opportunity to address the contradictions you mention in the above article:

    Genesis 6:19 – 7:2. This is a common theme in Torah. General descriptions followed by detailed descriptions of a particular command. Here is a great example. The general description in 6:19 is telling Noah that 2 of each must be taken in order to preserve the species, I.e the minimum number of each. 7:2 tells Noah a specific number of kosher animals, I.e 7 pairs of each kosher animal. The additional pairs of kosher animals would later be used for sacrificial purposes.

    Exodus 9:6. Read the text very carefully, it says only the livestock in the fields will die (9:3). So this did not apply to any livestock inside the stables. There is no contradiction here.

    Please see Jewish commentators, especially Rashi, before making such conclusions. The Jewish Sages and many others were/are extremely sensitive to every possible contradiction, I can assure you. If you feel there is still a contradiction after allowing the Sages a chance, then by all means write whatever you find. The other example you give also is not a contradiction concerning the Name of G-d…see Rashi commentary.

  7. llamensdor  May 12, 2017

    Not being a scholar, and only tangentially familiar with the Talmud, do you know how the Babylonian Talmud deals with any of these discrepancies, as for example, the different sequences of creation in the Genesis versions?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 14, 2017

      Off hand I don’t know. Maybe someone else on the blog does?

  8. Silver  May 13, 2017

    An off-topic question please. You frequently state that one criterion for judging the historicity of a bible event is ‘multiple attestation’. I have recently been reading Paula Fredriksen ‘Gospel Chronologies, the Scene at the Temple, and the Crucifixion of Jesus’ where she states “Multiple attestation of itself demonstrates not authenticity, but antiquity” (p 6) indicating that this does not show a thing happened but simply it was believed to have happened. (She makes this clear with reference to the Nativity stories.) Do you hold this view and does it apply to all the criteria you cite? If that is the case does this not significantly water down the use of these for getting to what REALLY took place? What more does the historian do to get to the facts?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 14, 2017

      Yes, I completely agree with this. What multiple attestation shows is that a tradition is earlier than any of the surviving witnesses to it. But of course the more independent witnesses you have the more ancient the tradition has to be. Doing history is a matter of establishing the relatively probability of whether something happened; rarely, with antiquity, do we have certainty.

  9. ask21771  May 14, 2017

    In the Bible is Satan meant to be a literal being or just a symbolic metaphor

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      Depends I suppose on what part you’re reading. In Job he is a fictional character; in most of the NT he’s very real.

    • flyboydh1  May 15, 2017

      Satan in the Hebrew Bible and the NT are diametrically different. Satan (a Hebrew word) means “stumbling block.” For a great example (outside of Job) look up Numbers 22:22 in an interlinear Bible. The English text does not render it as “satan” rather as “adversary”. The Hebrew pronunciation is “satan.” Read the entire chapter so you see it in context and how it’s used. In Judaism, satan, is an agent of freewill and completely obedient to G-d. Christianity invented a different version of satan, opposing G-d as god of this world (ex. 2 Cor 4:4), departing from the true monotheistic nature of Judaism (as does the trinity).

  10. James Cotter  May 14, 2017

    ” But that will come as a very big surprise to a careful reader of Genesis. For it is quite clear in Genesis not only that God appeared to the patriarchs as The LORD (Yahweh), but that they called him by that name.”

    so is it possible that the author of exodus did not know that the patriarchs called god yhwh?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      Genesis and Exodus have the same authors/editors.

      • James Cotter  May 15, 2017

        so how did he forget that god revealed himself to the patriarchs as yhwh? or is it a later redactor who has introduced the name yhwh at a later time and placed it in to the story?

        is this what you mean when you say :

        There are clearly different sources that have been incorporated into these stories. That is made all the more evident by the doublets (and the triplet) that we observed earlier in the Patriarchal narratives.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 16, 2017

          There discrepancy was created because the redactor combined different sources into his narrative, and these had different views of the matter.

          • SidDhartha1953  May 19, 2017

            My impression is that the redactors of the Pentateuch were aware that they were editing different source material together and made no systematic attempt to reconcile every discrepancy. Rather, they were preserving multiple ancient traditions in a way that made sense to them, though it doesn’t necessarily make sense to us now. Is that a view held by some scholars?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 21, 2017

            It’s certainly possible. Or they simply didn’t see the contradictions that resulted from their editorial activities.

  11. jdub3125  May 14, 2017

    Professor can you digress a bit more, as follows:
    Passing through NC I visited an ill person in Baptist hospital in Winston-Salem and thought of you. Not because of Baptist nor for visiting the sick, but rather because there is a portrait of Mr. James Alexander Gray. Maybe some readers do not know the prominence of the Reynolds, Gray, and other families in early 20th century W-S to include numerous philanthropies including the Baptist medical / hospital complex and of course a Bible professorship at Carolina. Can you give a brief history of this professorship?
    Actually when W-S comes to mind, I prefer Krispy Kreme, or at least I did prior to the health craze. Especially when the hot doughnuts sign is on, more so than on Sunday morning between S.S. and church. On the other hand, it might help to have a couple of KK’s prior to having to stand up and hear a recital of the Apostles Creed.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      Yes, the Gray family has long been — and still is — highly important for major academic and medical philanthropies. My own endowed chair is named for James A. Gray, for which I am abundantly grateful.

  12. ftbond  May 22, 2017

    Dr Ehrman –

    Re: “It has been noted, for example, that in the fifth plague, the LORD killed “all of the livestock” of the Egyptians (9:6). So, based on this account one would think that “all” of the livestock were, indeed, dead. But then, just a few verses later, Moses performs the seventh plague, in which a terrible hail storm killed not just humans, but also all the “livestock” of the Egyptians that had been left in the fields (see 9:29-20; 25). Livestock? What livestock? ”

    I quickly read the account of the plagues you mention (above), and noted equally quickly that “all” the livestock referred to in 9:6 was very clearly a reference to “livestock that is in the field” (9:3).

    I also quickly noticed that in the seventh plague, the same condition was set, regarding “livestock in the field”, and even noted that “He who feared the word of the Lord of Pharaoh’s servants drove his servants and his livestock into the houses.” (9:20).

    In both plagues, it is quite clear that there is a difference between “livestock in the field”, and livestock elsewhere, such as in houses (or, perhaps stables – although it was quite common in those days for livestock to be kept in the same “house” where humans lived).

    It would appear to me that some who have made the same criticism that you have made mention of are reading the story with the same unrelenting and unthinking literalism as a typical fundamentalist might.

    Are we to presume, then, that this is what passes for “valid biblical criticism” with you? In other words, it is valid to pick one phrase from one passage, then another phrase from another passage, claiming they are in contradiction, all the while ignoring the broader context?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2017

      Interesting way to deal with the problem.

      • ftbond  May 23, 2017

        well, when on considers that most livestock was held by individuals, on a “household” basis, it becomes important.

        A family might have a cow, a donkey, and a couple of goats. And, archaeologically, we know that it was very common for these animals to be kept “in the house” – in a small stable or manger that was built as part of the house structure – in early Israeli homes, at any rate. (And, I should note, that in Hebrew, “in the house” is not necessarily quite that literal; it can basically mean “at the house”, or “by the house”).

        We get this mental image of someone having big herds of cattle and sheep out in the fields, and, I’m sure there were those that did indeed have some large herds. But, consider this: Large herds of cattle make sense (to us) because there are large “meat processing facilities”, and, refrigeration. But, “sales and transport” of steaks and ground beef were not the reasons large herds of cattle were kept in ancient days.

        Back then, in ancient Egypt (or, perhaps later in ancient Israel), if someone had a large herd of cattle, it was basically for the purpose of selling those cattle to individuals, who then kept them “in the house”.

        Typically, individuals that owned a cow, a donkey, and two goats did not let their livestock go wandering off into “the fields”. Rather, they kept them in, or at the house. Very often, there was a “paddock” – sometimes actually “constructed” as hedgerows enclosing an area, and this is where individuals kept their own livestock.

        Those who had large herds of, say, cattle or goats, were probably of a more wealthy status – and hence, one *could* argue that the plagues mentioned in these passages were targeted at the wealthy. (but, I’m not making that argument).

        In any case, when one reads (Exo 9:3) that the Lord would bring a “very severe pestilence on your livestock which are in the field”, and then later (Exo 9:6) that “all the livestock of Egypt died”, one *has* to acknowledge that it was the “livestock in the field” were clearly different than those that were “at the house”, and it was those “in the field” that were targeted, and thus, “all the livestock” which died *must* refer to those “in the field”. That is, unless one wishes to make the argument that somehow God overshot His mark, and sent a pestilence on (literally) “all” the livestock. Apparently, this is what some of our scholars wish to do.

        I’m simply wanting to point out that one has to get an idea of both cultural practices and linguistics, and bring those to bear on understand just about *anything* we read in the Torah. But, once that’s done, the *meaning* or *significance* of “livestock in the fields” becomes very important, and very indicitive. Otherwise, we’re left, as total ignoramus’s, thinking “*all* livestock was kept in the fields”, and therefore, “(literally) all livestock were killed”.

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