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Inconsistencies in the Hebrew Bible

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, which is due out in the Fall. Here I 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:

  • 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).

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Historical Problems with the Hebrew Bible: The Exodus Narrative
Problems with the Hebrew Bible Manuscripts



  1. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  June 8, 2013

    I know of some really excellent preachers that can explain all the supposed contradictions to the “T”…yeah whatever?

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    John  June 8, 2013

    Thank you for your commitment to the pursuit. I’m fascinated that these names for God are the exact same names that the Canaanites used for Baal, which one would think would be a No No and so continues the Canaanite Conundrum.

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    RonaldTaska  June 8, 2013

    1. I am glad to see that you are using “boxes” in the new book. They are so helpful in your New Testament textbook.
    2. For my money, the most prominent Old Testament contradiction is Moses getting a second set of Ten Commandments which just happens to be very different than the first set.
    3. Of course, Thomas Paine wrote about the different numbers of returning Jewish exiles in different accounts which illustrates the same point in later Old Testament books.
    4. I think such discrepancies are more prevalent in the Gospels because there are four different accounts of the same events.
    5. The big question is how anyone could be convinced that the Bible is inerrant in the face of such overwhelming discrepancies?
    6. The evangelical community should quit arguing against this evidence and help people find a reasonable Christianity if such exists.

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    billgraham1961  June 8, 2013

    I love this blog!

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    Adam0685  June 8, 2013

    If I remember correctly, Moses is thought to have lived 1300-1200’s by more conservative Christians (I’m not sure what the various forms of Judaisms hold). From the viewpoint of critical scholars, was Moses a historical person and later unhistorical stories and traditions were added so as to make him a completely different person than he was (the historical Moses verses the Moses of Exodus). Or do most see him as a complete non-historical person (as the mythists’ see Jesus as non-historical.). One can ask this question of Abraham, David, and all the other major figures…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 9, 2013

      My view is not the most widely held one — in no small part, possibly, because most biblical scholars are either Christian or Jewish? But in my view Moses was not a historical person — or if he was historical, he was only remotely so (like, say, King Arthur; there *may* have been a British king of some sort after the Romans pulled out who had a small kingdom of some kind; but all the stories are just legends…..)

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    toddfrederick  June 8, 2013

    A couple of practical questions:

    1. This post is from a portion of your new book on the whole Bible…this is intended as an undergraduate textbook, I assume.. I am interested in purchasing a copy. Will this be easily available to the general public to purchase through Amazon and other consumer booksellers? I would also appreciate it if you would tell us when it is released for sale. For me, this seems to be a good reference to have regarding the structure and content of the whole Bible.

    2. About this blog membership…does the blog automatically remind us when we should send another membership payment or do we just send a contribution whenever we can?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 9, 2013

      1. Yes, it will be available on Amazon and in bookstores (published by Oxford University Press); it should be out in the early Fall.

      2. Yes, there is an automatic renewal in place, for all but one-month trial members.

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  June 9, 2013

      If you have an account with Amazon you can have them email you when a book you want becomes available. I assume this is true of all books. Everything I’ve ever wanted pre-release I’ve had them email me when it becomes available. You can also add a book to your Wish List and you can see it’s availability that way.

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    SHameed01  June 9, 2013

    Do you plan on writing a book in the future SPECIFICALLY dealing with the text of the Old Testament?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 9, 2013

      No, I’m afraid I lack the expertise. It’s a highly technical field, and it would take years for me to re-tool for it. But there are other books out there. Unfortunately, they tend to be for scholars.

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    maxhirez  June 9, 2013

    While we’re on Gen 1&2, I wondered if anyone knows when people started equating the talking snake with the Devil. I’ve never found any biblical instances of this identity (but I have neither an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible or perfect research methods.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 9, 2013

      Well, the book of Revelation speaks of Satan as the serpent of old — apparently making the connection. I don’t konw when it wsa first made, but a good place to look would be Elaine Pagels book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (which is about the Gnostic appropriateion of the traditions)

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    Eric  June 9, 2013

    Thank you,for this post,I have an interest in the Old Testament and was wondering if you could recommend any non christian O.T. scholars,books,blogs,or web sights,that deal with the discrepancies of the O.T.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 9, 2013

      I think a good place to start is Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible. And Finkelstein and Silverman, The Bible Unearthed. Both fascinating reading.

    • Avatar
      rhsondag  June 10, 2013

      Eric, You might try to listen to some of the lectures by Shaye Cohen of Harvard from his course on “Hebrew Scriptures.” It is available for free on iTunes University. He is a practicing Jew. However, he promised to be objective – and he succeeded very well. Some of the sessions are a little tedious because of the subject matter (e.g. the complexity of the food laws), but he is very witty. A primary focus of the course was to discuss how very differently Jews and Christians interpreted various passages from the Old Testament. I was raised Christian and attended parochial schools as a youngster (am now a skeptic). Therefore, I had some familiarity with Old Testament passages treated by Christians as pre-figuring Jesus. It was fascinating to learn what Jewish scholars thought of those same passages.

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    Wilusa  June 9, 2013

    “Introduction to the Bible” is the exact title of the textbook? I think a lot of us will want to buy it! (Though I almost always ignore suggestions that I myself read any part of the Bible…)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 9, 2013

      I think the title will probably be The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.

      • Avatar
        TomTerrific  June 9, 2013

        I hope you let us know when it comes out so we can purchase it.

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    kwdaniels  June 9, 2013

    Perhaps a bit off topic, but when I was fundamentalist believer studying at a conservative seminary, I became struck by the extent to which liberal believers and even nonbelievers engaged in biblical scholarship. I had grown up in a cocoon, thinking that those most likely to be interested in biblical scholarship would be believers, specifically believers who understood the Bible to be divinely inspired (and inerrant!).

    Though I’m no longer a believer and am certainly not a scholar, I find the field of biblical studies to be endlessly fascinating, perhaps because of the influence the Bible has had in my past life and in the lives of those around me.

    I’m curious to know what primarily motivates nonbelieving scholars like you (or liberal believers like JD Crossan) to devote so much time and energy to the study of the Bible, even though you don’t consider it to be divinely inspired. Which of the following would you say are important for you and in what relative order?

    1) The biblical canon is a great and sublime work (or works) of literature. I study it for the same reason Shakespearean scholars study the works of Shakespeare.

    2) The Bible has had an enormous influence on Western culture and society. I study it because others consider it important, and I want to be a part of the conversation.

    3) I study it because, having become convinced the Bible is not divinely inspired, I want to understand how it originally developed from a naturalistic perspective. I want to show to myself and to others (including fundamentalists) how its contradictions, warts, and implausibilities reveal its human character, development, redaction, and motives of its authors and redactors.

    4) I study it because it offers pearls of wisdom that I can glean from it.

    5) Other?

  12. Avatar
    SHameed01  June 10, 2013

    Do you know of any books that extensively discusses textual criticism of the old testament?

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    gavm  June 10, 2013

    Prof Ehrman i have a question from left field but a genuine one. seeing as yr posting on genesis what do most NT scholars make on evolution. i know you prob dont go around asking them but im guessing you must have a general vibe. what do they tend to think happened?
    thanks as always

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      It depends almost entirely on the religious views of the scholars. Those who are committed to biblical accuracy (i.e. fundamendalists) do not subscribe to the theory of evolution. Virtually everyone else does. I certainly believe in the theory of evolution, just like I believe in the theory of gravity. 🙂

  14. Avatar
    jhague  June 10, 2013

    I agree with your view that Moses was most likely not a historical person. Is it also likely that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are not historical people? What about Saul, David and Solomon?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2013

      I think the characters in Genesis are all legendary, not historical; but once you start getting down to the time of the kingdoms, I think there are historical elements; my view is that David and Saul were regional kings whose stories ended up getting wildly exaggerated (and, of course, invented).

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    Mohy  March 2, 2014

    i watched many debates between Muslim scholars and christian scholars about the bible one of the interesting things i ve heard that chapter (2 Kings 19) and Isaiah 37 are identical. word for word could u comment on this how could this has happened ? and are the two books of different age or were they written at the same time
    could you elaborate this issue

  16. Avatar
    Mohy  March 12, 2014

    when did the word bible started to be used referring to OD and NT and who merged the old testament with the new testament and when ?
    I noted through my readings that the catholic bible has seven more books than King James bible could you comment on that please ? this is weird how the book of God could differ from one group to another?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 12, 2014

      Long story. Christians started talking about the “Old” Testament in the late second century, and for that, they, of course, thought there was such a thing as a “New” Testament. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have the Apocrypha. Too long to explain here, but if you’re interested, I talk about these additional 12-15 books in my textbook that has recently come out on the Bible.

  17. Avatar
    SHameed01  April 30, 2014

    Christians make all sort of attempts in reconciling contradictions in the Bible, which ones would you say are contradictions in the Bible of which there can be explanation provided in order to reconcile?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 30, 2014

      You can reconcile *anything* if you’re clever enough!!

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  May 1, 2014

        OOOPS! Sorry I mean to say “which ones would you say are contradictions in the Bible of which there CAN BE NO explanation provided in order to reconcile?”

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2014

          Well, there are tons. Was Jairus’s daughter dead *before* he came to ask for Jesus’ help (Matthew) or did she die while they were talking (Mark)? Was Jesus crucified the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten (John) or the morning after it was eaten (Mark). Etc. etc. Read my book Jesus Interrupted.

          • Avatar
            SHameed01  May 2, 2014

            Thank you! Also for those who are not familiar with your works, which book would you recommend of yours they read first?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 2, 2014

            Either Misquoting Jesus or How Jesus Became God.

          • Avatar
            SHameed01  February 27, 2015

            Just watched another of James White’s debate where talked about the contradiction account of Jesus’s crucifixion can be reconciled since the Greek word for “Day of Preperation” can also be translated as “Friday”, hence according to him there is no contradicition.

            Any comments?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 28, 2015

            Yes, the Day of Preparation for the *Sabbath* referred to Friday; but the Day of Preparation for the “Passover” was whatever day was immediately before the day of Passover, which could fall on any day of the week. So his explanation flat-out doesn’t work.

  18. Avatar
    HOLLY  September 24, 2014

    Which bible translation are you using for the above article? I am reading the scriptures you quoted using the Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation, both the 1984 edition and the 2013 revision, and they have added and/or changed the wording on some text so that they do not contain some of the discrepancies you mention. For example, they have added the word “sorts” to Exodus 9:6 which implies that not all the animals perished, but rather all sorts of animals. In the 1984 edition, they included a footnote that reads “or, ‘and all the livestock'”. They have removed this footnote entirely from the 2013 revision. I do not know on what basis they have added the word “sorts” but will try to find out.

    Can you recommend a translation that is closest to what the manuscripts on file actually say?
    Many thanks 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2014

      I was either using the NRSV or giving my own translation. I personally prefer the NRSV to all the others. It was done by a committee of very fine scholars — world experts, all of them — from a variety of religious and theological traditions.

  19. Avatar
    richard  November 24, 2014

    Dr Ehrman

    when the torah says that god is not pleased with animal sacrifices does that mean he developed a dislike for it?

    “I am fed up with olah-offerings of rams and the offals of fattened calves, and the blood of oxen, lambs and goats does not give Me pleasure”

    if the blood has ATONING powers and god inhales burnt animal flesh, then what is going on in the verse quoted above? the christians usually reply to this and say that there was not right attitude . But if BLOOD has MAGICAL powers, then it has NOTHING to do with one’s ATTITUDE, why is god TALKING about what he THINKS about blood when in the priestly literature blood is like magic and sinless and is used as a disinfectant?

    can you recommend any book which goes into detail about why there are different views on sacrifices in the old testament

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      The prophets were against thinking that following the cultic rituals of sacrifice could be pleasing to God if people did not live otherwise in ways that he approved. I don’t know of any *popular* and accessible books on the different sacrifices. If you want something short and to the point, I discuss them in my textbook on the Bible.

      • Avatar
        richard  November 25, 2014

        Does this mean that according to the prophets ,acting rightly is more IMPORTANT than the flesh and blood of the animal? So the animal sacrifice becomes a secondary thing? According to the prophets , are the Cultic sacrifices symbolic for changed person who lives his life in the way God approves ? I still don’t t get it Doctor ehrman . The prophet tells the Jews what gods thoughts are on blood and animal sacrifices. That which doesn’t please Yahweh yhwh doesn’t need. Doesn’t the prophetic understanding clearly contradict the Christian understanding? Christians say that human sinful nature, weak faith etc requires God to come down and kill himself on the other hand the prophets say good behaviour INFLUENCES sacrifice .

        • Bart
          Bart  November 25, 2014

          Yes, the prophets thought that moral action in accordance with God’s directives was more important than cultic sacrifice. Some Christians agreed with that. Others thought that Christ was a needed sacrifice. There never has been completely agreement about *anything* among Christians. Or among Jews.

  20. Avatar
    richard  November 25, 2014

    Here is what Marc Zvi Brettler, in *How to Read the Bible* (which was rereleased as *How to Read the Hebrew Bible*), says on page 150:

    Amos makes his points about the need for repentance and about divine punishment, but not by urging the people to follow the authoritative Torah text. We can be fairly certain that his failure to mention such a text is because in his day, no such Torah existed. This claim may seem surprising. Consider, then, what Amos means when he says: “Did you offer sacrifice and oblation to Me/ Those forty years in the wilderness,/ O House of Israel?” (5:25). In context, this is clearly a rhetorical question whose answer is clearly “no.” When Amos posed this question, he was taking for granted his audience’s belief that the Israelites did *not* offer sacrifices during the wilderness period.

    Mrquestioner2013: Dr ehrman does this mean that there is no conditional IF statement according to Amos, i.e if people did not live otherwise …

    So ATTITUDE was not in consideration ?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      I think Brettler, is absolutely right. There is no “if” clause in the passage he quotes (if that’s what you’re asking).

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