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Finding Problems in the Old Testament

I have been explaining that while at Princeton Theological Seminary, I started finding that there could be mistakes in the Bible.  My first realization of this involved my study of the Gospels, but I was studying the Hebrew Bible as well, and I finally got to the point where I had to admit there appeared to be mistakes there as well.  Lots of mistakes.  Contradictions, discrepancies, historical errors.  And these show up right off the bat, in the book of Genesis.

Let me detail some of the differences I started finding, as I later summarized them, many years later, in my textbook on the Bible, where I talk about why Moses almost certainly didn’t write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy) and about some of the tensions one finds in the text.

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As already mentioned, the critical scrutiny of the traditional view of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch deepened and became more rigorous as scholarship advanced.   In addition to the problems just mentioned, other troubling features of the narratives came to the fore.   I have already mentioned the fact that there are numerous anachronisms in the stories of Genesis:  camels were not domesticated in Canaan in Abraham’s time (despite what is said in the stories), for instance – or in the time of Moses.  So too the Philistines did not exist as a nation yet (even though they show up in these chapters).  Nor did the city of Beersheba.   The stories that contain such references could not have been written in Moses’ day in the 13th century BCE; they must have be dated to a time no earlier than the 11th century or so, and possibly much later.

What is more, there are clear indications that these books were not written by one author at all, especially in the internal tensions that can be found among the stories and the various doublets that they present.

The internal tensions came to be seen as particularly significant.  Nowhere were these tensions more evident than …

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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:

  • According to Genesis 1, plants were created on the third day; only later, on the sixth day, were humans created. But not according to Genesis 2.  There we are told that “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground” before there were any plants or herbs on the earth (2:4, 7).
  • According to Genesis 1, all the animals, of all kinds, were created before humans, on the fifth and sixth days. But according to Genesis 2, “man” was created first (2:7), and then the animals – who were made in order to provide companionship for the man (2:19).  Note:  it was only after man was made that “the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air.”  None of the animals existed, according to this account in chapter 2, before the man was made.
  • According to Genesis 1, humans, both male and female, were created at the same time, as the pinnacle of all creation (1:26-27). But in Genesis 2 the LORD God first creates “man” (adam); he then creates all the animals in order to provide a companion for “man.”  And when none of them is deemed suitable, then, and only then, does the LORD God make a woman out of a rib that he has taken from the man.
  • It was also noted by careful scholars that the deity is called different things in the two accounts. In Genesis 1 the deity is called, in Hebrew, Elohim – the word that is normally simply translated in English as “God” (even though it is plural); but in Genesis 2 the deity is suddenly called “Yahweh Elohim,” which comes into English usually as “LORD God.”   The word “Yahweh” was believed in ancient Israel to be the personal name for God, and eventually it was regarded as being so holy, that faithful Jews were not allowed even to pronounce it without committing a blasphemy.  God is called by this personal name thousands of times in the Hebrew Bible.  But he is called a number of other things as well: Lord, God Almighty, God the King, and so on.  It is striking that only one of these terms is used in Genesis 1, and the other term occurs only in Genesis 2.  That would make sense if the two stories came from different sources, each with its own view of what happened at the creation, and each with its own favored term for the deity.
  • In that connection, it was noticed that the two accounts seem to have different conceptions of the deity (not just different terms for him). In Genesis 1, God is the Powerful, Almighty, Creator of all things; he is distant, and remote, and above all things. But not in Genesis 2, and its companion story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3.   There God is portrayed in anthropomorphic terms – that is, he appears virtually in human guise.  He is here on earth; he works with the dirt; he performs an operation on Adam; he walks through the garden of Eden in the cool of the evening (3:8); he doesn’t know where Adam and Eve are hiding (3:9); and he talks with them and wants to know – as if he doesn’t know — if they’ve done something he told them not to do (3:11).
  • Finally, the interests of the two stories are different in key ways. We have already seen that the first creation account, among other things, wants to stress that the Sabbath observance is rooted in the fabric of existence.   The second account has nothing like that concern.  Here there seems to be an interest in explaining some of the ultimate questions that people have asked over the centuries:  Why do women experience such pain in childbirth? Why is it so difficult to provide enough food to eat?  Why are men dominant over women?  It is also interested in explaining less pressing curiosities, such as why snakes crawl on their bellies instead of walk around like all other creatures.

 

I will pick up here in my next post.[/private

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Finding More Problems in the Old Testament
How I First Realized There Are Mistakes in the Bible

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Comments

  1. wawawa  May 11, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, what is the name of your textbook on the Bible?

  2. Chuck205  May 11, 2017

    Where did the idea that Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      We don’t know who actually came up with it, but it was a widespread Jewish belief already several centuries before the Christian era.

  3. doug  May 11, 2017

    I think complicated attempts to reconcile Biblical discrepancies are actually points *against* Biblical inerrancy. For if the Bible was really the word of God, presumably God would want it to be clear and intelligible to even the least scholarly people, not confusing and conflicted.

    • iameyes137  May 13, 2017

      So true. Many of the Gnostics of the first couple of centuries of Christianity argued that the god of the Old Testament was actually a lesser deity. That is an easy belief to arrive at when one looks at things like you mentioned.

  4. RonaldTaska  May 11, 2017

    For me, the “huge” problem, is with the most important part of the Old Testament, The Ten Commandments. God gives Moses a set of commandments and then, after the first set is destroyed, tells Moses that he is going to give him another exact copy of the first set only to give him a completely different set of commandments. Hmmm? How can that one be explained?

  5. searchingfortruthineverything  May 11, 2017

    I’ve heard some explain that the different creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are merely two different parallel accounts of creation each of them emphasizing on different perspectives of the creation and they each focus on a different part of the creation.

    Genesis 5 adds a different view on the genealogy of Adam and adds more detail to his line of descent then the earlier account that focuses more on Cain and Abel

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      Yes, that’s precisely the view that I’m arguing does not actually work when you look closely at the text.

  6. hasankhan  May 11, 2017

    Do you have a book that lists all the problems? Or do you plan to write one or a series of blog posts?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      I deal with lots of the major problems in the New Testament, at least, in my book Jesus Interrupted.

  7. Oikonomos  May 11, 2017

    What convenient timing. I just recently finished reading Genesis. What’s interesting is how some of the english translations vary on Genesis 2:19. The NRSV has “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal . . . ” whereas the ESV has “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed[f] every beast of the field . . .” leaving the door open to the lay audience like myself to see that as saying the creation of animals had already taken place, and as being consistent with chapter 1. However, the footnote for the passage in the ESV says, “Or And out of the ground the Lord God formed . . . ” As a believer and being familiar with the popularity of the ESV among evangelicals, and absolutely no knowledge of Hebrew, I’m curious if this choice of wording is debatable, or if the ESV editors simply tried to smooth over the contradiction by hiding the correct reading in a footnote.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      Yes, the ESV is just smoothing over the problem.

      • Barnsweb  May 17, 2017

        I gave up on Christian Bibles and finally purchased three translations of the Hebrew to English – AND The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible.

        Have you reviewed “Let’s Get Biblical”, volumes 1 and 2 by Rabbi Tovia Singer? I don’t buy into everything claimed, but he has pointed out a number of passages that are absolute perversions of their Scriptures by Christains.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 14, 2017

      The Hebrew of that part of Gen 2:19 is: וַיִּצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן-הָאֲדָמָה כָּל-חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה
      Literally, it says, in Hebrew: “So created, YHWH Elohim, from the clay, all living things of the field.”

      Note:
      – The sentence starts with a waw prefix, which is usually translated as “and,” but, depending on context, can also mean “but” or “also” or “yet” or “so”. In this case, because of the context of the previous verse, Gen 2:18, the meaning is closer to “so”.
      – The Hebrew word I here translate as clay — adamah — is directly connected to the same root for Adam, or “man”. In other words, both Adam (or human beings in general) and the “living things of the field” are made from adamah (clay, dirt, ground, earth, etc.)
      – The word I here translate as “created” — yitzer — carries the connotation of forming or moulding or otherwise sculpting out of a material. In other words, the “living things” are sculpted out of the adamah. The tense is the simple perfect, meaning it’s just a plain old preterite. Hebrew grammar doesn’t have complex verb forms like the pluperfect, e.g. “having created” or “having had created” etc. Such temporal aspects must be implied within the context of the sentence.
      – The word I here translate as “living things” — chayyat — literally means living things, but, by way of context (i.e. “of the field”) suggests animals that live on grasslands, such as cows, horses, gazelles, sheep, goats, and ungulates in general. Specifically, the author means to say the domesticated, pastoral herd animals.

  8. Jason  May 11, 2017

    Not related to OT inconsistency, I traded in some books to Half Price Books tonight and grabbed a copy of “Peter, Paul and Mary Magdelene” with the proceeds, which I then put in a “Little Free Library” that happens to be next to a church up the street. I’ve always wondered-do published trade authors see any residuals from second hand transactions like that? If not, I hope you don’t mind (and I hope that choosing that particular LFL wasn’t too passive-aggressive.)

  9. DestinationReign  May 12, 2017

    Great points about the disharmonies between Genesis 1 and 2. And as I’ve pointed out in previous replies, Christian apologetics fails miserably at addressing the viable criticisms of things like this. (The same is true for inconsistencies throughout the Gospels). To reiterate previous replies – the scriptures are most certainly divinely inspired, but not as something to be processed as literal history and cohesively compared. The Bible is an esoteric book full of divine clues to show us we are in a false reality-construct. (I am very interested in your thoughts on all of this.)

    What you mention about God not being “named” until Genesis 2 is very important. Notice that Gen. 1:1 says the Elohim created the heavens and the earth, but when Yahweh is introduced in Gen. 2:4, it says he created the earth and the heavens. (They are flipped.) That is a divine clue that Yahweh is not the supreme, true benevolent God. In Genesis 1, everything was “GOOD” according to the Elohim. But when Yahweh is introduced, here comes sin, death, the corruption of creation, pain through childbirth, etc. (The Elohim BLESSED the male and female when he/they told them to be fruitful, but Yahweh CURSED everything and added pain to childbirth.)

    The same can be said for eating from the trees. The Elohim said that man could eat from ALL the trees, but Yahweh forbade man to eat from the tree of good and EVIL – that he created. (Remember, all was good in Genesis 1. There was no “evil.”) So again, while under Yahweh’s administration (earth/heavens), man has been living under a corrupted and even false reality, and not the true utopian reality of heavens/earth. This is the divine “riddle” that Christians, and Jews, and even Muslims (Allah = Yahweh) have yet to figure out. They are giving their energies over to the “God” of the corruption of creation. Man is thus choosing this corrupt existence by choosing to worship that God instead of the true benevolent Creator(s) of Genesis 1 – the Elohim. Thoughts?

  10. AggieGnostic  May 12, 2017

    I always found it interesting in Genesis the passage “Then God said, “Let US make mankind in OUR image, in OUR likeness” (plural) and then switches to singular in the next passage, “So God created mankind in HIS own image,
    in the image of God HE created them; male and female HE created them.”

    Lots of theological questions in just a couple of verses! Almost makes me think someone added the second (singular) passage to alleviate confusion from the earlier plural passage but in doing made it even more confusing.

  11. Eskil  May 14, 2017

    What is you opinion about the cabalistic meditations that speculate that in Genesis 1:1 “bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim ve et haaretz” Elohim is actually the object of the creation and not its subject i.e. Elohim is created similarly to the heavens and the earth and that the subject (real creator) is another hight emanation or god (that is not present in the above text but can be derived in various ways)?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      These meditations are always creative and amazing, but they rarely seem to get at what the author was actually trying to say.

  12. geofromnj  May 14, 2017

    Given that Genesis was written men (and not by some immaterial deity), and by virtue of the very text, the authors were not witnesses to what is reported (for example, they don’t say, “I saw God create the heaven and the earth,”, or “I saw Noah build his ark”), why would anyone think that what is written is literally true? The authors were simply not there.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      I think the idea is that God inspired these people to write the truth.

  13. JoshuaJ  May 15, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I have always been troubled not only by the discrepancies between Genesis 1 & 2, but also by the strange quotations of “Lord God” at the end of Genesis 3: “Then the Lord God said: See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil! Now, what if he also reaches out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life, and eats of it and lives forever (Genesis 3:22)?” Who is “Lord God” talking to, here? Angels? The other two “trinity” components? Other “Gods”? And why has “Lord God” only now (in this verse) become concerned about man eating from the “tree of life” and becoming immortal?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      It’s the same people “God” is talking to when he says in chapter 1 “Let *us* make man in *our* own image.” Usually it is thought that God is talking to his divine council, the divine beings who are with him in the beginning (see also Job 1)

      • JoshuaJ  May 16, 2017

        Fascinating! What strikes me as odd, here, is the concern that man might live on forever if the tree of life is eaten from. “Lord God” is so concerned, in fact, that he sets a guard at the path to the tree of life, presumably, to prevent the now “fallen” man from eating of the tree and living forever as a result. But isn’t that a major tenet of the Christian faith, the belief that we will all live eternally somewhere (in either heaven or hell)? We all live forever in that sense, don’t we? There are even passages in the OT (Daniel 12:1-3, etc.) that *seem to* suggest that all of mankind experience an eternal afterlife somewhere, which is why the concern about man living forever in Genesis 3:22 makes little sense to me. You may have already written about this, but what, in your opinion, is the writer trying to convey in his portrayal of “Lord God” being concerned about Adam and Eve living forever? Is this simply a different tradition in which an eternal afterlife was not thought possible as a result of “original sin”?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 17, 2017

          I think the idea is that they would never die if they ate the fruit. But yes, on the other hand, they would not have died if they restrained from eating from the *other* tree. So why would they have to eat from the fruit of the tree of life to live forever? It doesn’t really add up. But I will say there is no idea of “original sin” in this passage — that’s a much later Christian doctrine about how all humans have inherited a sin nature because of what Adam and Eve did.

          • Barnsweb  May 17, 2017

            The words of God in Genesis don’t imply eternal damnation from the “Fall”. We can see in the Hebrew Scripture that God told Cain he would be accepted/forgiven if he improved himself, and that he was capable to conquer sin and not have it reign over him or posses him. Since Jesus said to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God – this should be the first precept understood – that repentance to go back and do as God said to do will bring restoration of being accepted by God – not the magic cross or the magic wafer… but doing what God said is good and knowing the differences between good and bad or secular and holy.

          • JoshuaJ  May 17, 2017

            Regarding the problems in the order of creation between Genesis 1 & 2, what are your thoughts on the NIV rendering the waw consecutive in wayyiṣer by a pluperfect: “Now the Lord God had formed…” in Genesis 2:19? Is this at all a plausible translation, or is this just an attempt at damage control? Seems like it misses the whole point of the narrative that the animals were created in response to God’s declaration that it was not good that man should be alone (2:18).

          • Bart
            Bart  May 19, 2017

            I think the translators were trying to get rid of a rather obvious problem!

          • SidDhartha1953  May 18, 2017

            When YHWH said, If you eat, you will die, is it true that he may have meant, If you eat it, if will kill you, not necessarily, If you don’t eat it, you’ll never die. Or is there a clear presumtion of original human immortality in the Gen. 2 creation myth?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 19, 2017

            Interesting idea. Hadn’t thought of that.

  14. Barnsweb  May 17, 2017

    Seems to me that God introduced the beginning in a way to cause anyone to do a double take and note distinctions between the accounts, as a preface to His saying to carefully observe the distinctions He gave in the Torah (Law). I do appreciate your clarification of what you’ve come to understand so far, and give a very good definition to fundamentalist.

    I have yet to find any reason to believe Jesus claim to anything but a unique prophet who was to ascend to the Ancient of days (Daniel), and that he taught the Instructions in Righteousness in a way never taught by any other prophet.

    There is no doubt every book of the NT was altered, just as the Christians of Rome also altered the Hebrew Holy Scripture to fit false Christian doctrines taught by Paul and his disciples. Thankfully we still have the Hebrew accounts and the DSS for confirmation of what they were in Jesus’ day.

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