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The Historical Significance of Contradictions

I have been talking about the contradictions in the Bible and why they matter – not simply to problematize assumptions about the inerrancy of the Bible (“See: there are contradictions!”) but also for other things.  My overarching point is that they matter both for understanding the historical value of the biblical narratives and for appreciating their literary quality.

In terms of historical value, many people read the Bible to know what actually happened in biblical times.  But if the accounts are contradictory, how can we know what happened?   I’ll later be pointing out how that is a difficult question for the New Testament, but I thought it might be useful to show how it is a fundamental problem with the Old Testament as well – right from the beginning, with the stories in Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch.

It was the contradictions that made scholars originally come to think that the Pentateuch (i.e., the first “five books” of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were not written by one person (Moses) at one time, but instead comprised a number of different sources from different authors written at different times, filled with contradictory claims.   Here is how I talk about the matter in my college-level textbook on the Bible, in the context of discussing how discrepancies began to make scholars of the nineteenth century reconfigure their understanding of the Pentateuch as something other than “objective history.”


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 …

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What Is the Apocrypha (of the Old Testament)?
Sources for the Hebrew Bible: A Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    Judith  July 5, 2018

    “…elite corps of informed individuals…” – thanks for my first chuckle of the day.

  2. Avatar
    jbskq5  July 5, 2018

    One of the most fascinating possibilities to me in the realm of OT scholarship is the idea that Yahweh was but one member of a Canaanite pantheon, worshipped henotheistically at critical times in the development of the nation, but otherwise revered alongside Baal, Asherah, and other gods until redactions by D and P mostly eliminated this idea from the Pentateuch. I know this isn’t your wheelhouse, but in your opinion, to what extent is this an accurate summary of the development of Israelite religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2018

      I don’t believe Yahweh was in the Canaanite pantheon, but El was.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  July 6, 2018

        While it’s true that Yahweh nowhere appears in the Ugaritic (Ras Shamra) Tablets and was not a member of the West Semitic pantheon, Deuteronomy 32:8-9 casts Yahweh as one of the “sons” of El. I quote from Mark S. Smith’s book The Origins of Biblical Monotheism:

        “…the texts of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls show an Israelite polytheism that clearly focuses on the central importance of Yahweh for Israel within the larger scheme of the world, yet this larger scheme provides a place for all the other gods in the world. Moreover, even if this text is quite mute about the god who presides over the whole arrangement, it does maintain a place for such a god who is not Yahweh. The title Elyon (‘Most High’) seems to denote the figure of El (called El Elyon in Genesis 14:18-22); he is par excellence not only at Ugarit but also in Psalm 82. The author of Psalm 82 wishes to depose this older theology, as the Israelite God is called to assume a new role as judge of all the world. Yet at the same time, Psalm 82, like Deuteronomy 32:8-9, preserves the outlines of the older Israelite theology it is rejecting.”

        • Bart
          Bart  July 8, 2018

          I’m not sure you’re reading his statement correctly. This paragraph does not say that Yahweh was one of the gods of the Canaanite pantheon.

          • Avatar
            JohnKesler  July 8, 2018

            I know he wasn’t, which is why I said that Yahweh “was not a member of the West Semitic pantheon.”

      • Avatar
        mkahn1977  July 15, 2018

        Wasn’t Yahweh or yahu a god of the midianties?

    • kadmiral
      kadmiral  July 6, 2018

      El, the supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon, was the original god of Israel (this is why Israel is called Isra-EL and not Isra-jah). Yahweh was not originally a member of the Canaanite pantheon, and I am not sure he ever was, except for perhaps the early Israelites when Yahweh was initially introduced. When Yahweh was brought to Israel from the south, eventually El and Yahweh were blended (this is why there is no serious polemic against El in the OT). The attributes of El were ultimately attributed to Yahweh, and El slowly disappeared. See Mark S Smith’s “The Early History of God”, Frank Cross’ “Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic”, and Thomas Romer’s “The Invention of God.”

  3. Avatar
    Anton  July 5, 2018

    Minor differences dont matter as long as big picture is ok.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 5, 2018

    Very helpful! Keep going!

  5. Avatar
    mikezamjara  July 5, 2018

    Dr Ehrman I would like to ask you what do you think of the forms of the name o f god. Is it Yahweh or Jehova?. What is the majority opinion of the experts in the field?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2018

      Jehovah is a made up name by English theologians/Bible translators, made by taking the consonants of the divine name YHWH and adding the vowels of Adonai (= Lord). It is usually thought that the tetragrammaton YHWH was pronounced something like Yahweh.

      • Robert
        Robert  July 6, 2018

        I would rather credit this invention of the name Yehovah to the Masoretes, unless you really want to emphasize the importance of the introduction of J by Gian Giorgio Trissino.

  6. Avatar
    mannix  July 5, 2018

    The issue of contradictions is problematic only directly proportional to one’s fundamentalism. It is my understanding (subject to correction) the Pentateuch was written after 1000 BC by Jewish scholars. One could simplify the purported events in question thusly:

    Creation: An account claiming a supernatural entity (God, Yahweh, LORD, etc ) as responsible for the present existence. The concept of a moral code (right or wrong) and consequences of violation of such.

    Flood: A story created to “wipe the slate clean”…too many people around to account for. The animal issue
    accounted for the persistence of fauna. (Somehow all the flora survived being underwater for over a month)

    Exodus: Another story created to justify Israel’s claim to it’s location. Further development of a moral code (10 Commandments), and promise of a Messiah

    Yes, oversimplified….but looking at it this way, it doesn’t matter who wrote the books.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  July 5, 2018

    Given the time lapse between the origins of these stories, and when people first began writing them down, it would be strange if there were not many such contradictions. More than you’d find in the gospels, which began to be written within one human lifespan of the events being recounted.

    Self-evidently, a story about a time before writing existed was not written down at the time it occurred. Stories about events living people actually witnessed may often contain huge contradictions as well (true to this day), and may well contain mythic elements, but cannot be categorized as mythology in the true sense.

    I do wonder sometimes if there was a real Abraham, a real Isaac, a real Moses. We’ll really never know. Noah I’m pretty sure was made up out of whole cloth, though that bit about him getting drunk and lying around naked sounds like it had some real-life inspiration to it.

    Because all stories are sacred to me, knowing these are stories doesn’t diminish their importance for me.

  8. Avatar
    paulfchristus  July 5, 2018

    Very Good and VERY interesting.
    A very enlightening read.
    And yes it matters.
    Thank you for the posting.

  9. Avatar
    don4409  July 5, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, In another post you mention that Bernhard Anderson says there is no way Moses could have written the Pentateuch in the thirteenth century BCE (parts of the text presuppose knowledge of later centuries). I got one of his books from the library “Understanding the Old Testament” but it did not have that information. What book of Dr. Anderson’s would you suggest if I wanted to study “Moses did not write the Torah?” Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2018

      He was my teacher, both in my seminary degree and my PhD, and he certainly thought this. Is it in UOT? I thought it probably was — but are you sure it’s not? He spends chapters talking about the documentary hypothesis, no? That is built on the very idea that the Pentateuch was not (could not have been) the work of one author and certainly was not the work of Moses. OFf hand I don’t recall what he says about anachronisms.

  10. Avatar
    fishician  July 5, 2018

    This points out what I think is a fundamental flaw in fundamentalism. People get more caught up in stories than in histories. People will cry even when they know the story they are reading or the movie they are watching is pure fiction. When fundamentalists assert that the Bible is flawless history it forces the reader to do all sorts of mental contortions to justify that belief, and the story part gets lost in the shuffle. I suspect many people move away from faith altogether because they are put into an all-or-nothing choice about the Bible. I have heard Ken Ham (Answers In Genesis, etc.) assert that if you don’t accept the book of Genesis as factual then there is no reason to accept the rest of the Bible. I think he’s right, but I don’t think I came to the conclusion he was hoping for!

  11. cheito
    cheito  July 5, 2018

    Dr Ehrman:

    I understand the OT and the entire bible, the way Jeremiah understood it in his generation. According to (Jeremiah 8:8) the ‘lying pen of the scribes’ edited God’s law to such an extent that they converted it into a lie. Genesis is a very good example of what Jeremiah is talking about. I don’t blame God for what the scribes did to the record of God’s works through Moses and the rest of his ancient eyewitnesses.

    Most humans corrupt everything God has created! Look at what they have done with sex?

    God will not change human sexuality, nor will he abolish the institution of marriage, just because some people have corrupted the sexual act and the meaning of marriage. Neither will God prohibit the drinking of wine because some people abuse it. God will deal with the abuser and the corrupter, and will get rid of the liar.

    According to Jeremiah 2:21, God reminds Israel that “He planted them a faithful seed” and asks them, ‘How then have you turned yourself before Me Into the degenerate shoots of a foreign vine? So how would we answer God’s question to the Israel in Jeremiah’s time?…

    Therefore I conclude that God has done everything perfectly but we have corrupted everything God has done, including God’s testimony through his servants the prophets and his apostles.


  12. Avatar
    anthonygale  July 5, 2018

    Do you agree with the Documentary Hypothesis? I’ve read Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible but nothing much outside of that or any alternative theories. I was especially fascinated with how he put the flood story in two fonts to show how each, presumably from individual sources, can make a coherent whole. If that is correct, that was some intricate editing. In an example of discrepancy you gave from the Gospel of John: the first sign…many signs…the second sign, that seems like it could be explained by simply inserting one work into another. But in the case of the flood story (and elsewhere I would imagine) you get stretch of J…stretch of P…another stretch of J…more P. That seems like it would require a lot more attention to detail. In that case, how could “the redactor” not have noticed the discrepancies? It’s possible of course, but it makes me think writing factual history was never their intent. If this was a merging of different versions of the same traditions, perhaps this is similar to what later church fathers did when they decided Jesus was both human and divine rather than deciding on one or the other?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2018

      My sense is that most scholars today think it is much more complicated than the simple J-E-D-P, but the ins and outs are mind boggling. So I agree wiht the *basic* idea but don’t think we can know exactly how the process worked. As a shortcut, I pretty much hold to it.

      • Avatar
        Hormiga  July 6, 2018

        Wouldn’t it be more accurate to speak of a Composite Hypothesis, of which the Documentary Hypothesis (hypotheses, actually) is a subset? The theory that the Bible, both OT and NT, was patched together from many different sources seems much more firmly established than any identification of the particular sources (JEPD, for example).

        • Bart
          Bart  July 8, 2018

          Yes, the Documentary Hypothesis is simply one specific hypothesis. When it was devised, it wasn’t one of many, or the subset of a larger group. It was the one being proposed.

  13. Avatar
    doug  July 5, 2018

    It’s sad to see the literary contortions people go thru to try to make the scriptures consistent. One would think if there were a book inspired (or written) by God, it would be very clear and consistent, so as not to lead to misunderstandings or skepticism. God (if it existed) would not need the differing explanations of fallible humans to get his points across.

  14. talmoore
    talmoore  July 5, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, slightly off-topic question.

    I’ve been focusing my research for the past few months on the period from the Theran collapse (ca. 1625 BCE, when the volcanic island of Thera erupted in the Aegean, causing apocalyptic devastation in the eastern mediterranean) to the Mycenaean collapse (ca. 1150 BCE, when some kind of regional conflict devastated most of the eastern mediterranean civilizations). The reason being that I’ve got it in my big head that I’m going to do an annotated translation of the Torah (there’s that rabbit hole again!).

    Anyway, I’ve developed this hypothesis that the Moses story is actually based on Ramesses the Great’s war with the Hittites. That is, the character of Moses and the Exodus is actually based on Ramesses marching his armies through Canaan into war with the Hittite Empire (possibly to the Battle of Qadesh). And along the way, Ramesses set up shrines or alters to the god Horus, to bless his military venture. And the composer(s) of the Torah got their exodus narrative from oral histories and monuments (such as stelae) commemorating the event.

    Where did I get this idea? Well, Moses comes from the Hebrew M-Sh-H. And the Egyptian name Ramesses is Ra-M-Sh-w. Hence, Moses is just Ramesses without the god Ra. Ramesses’ army was probably also made up of a lot of Canaanites, many of which were probably descended from the Hyksos who controlled Egypt a couple centuries earlier. Ramesses also marched his army along the King’s road, which travels north-south just east of the Jordan river valley, exactly where the Hebrews supposedly travelled. And as for Horus, the name of Moses’ brother Aaron (‘Aharon) has the egyptian name of Horus (H-rw) right in there, which suggests that “Aaron” was the founder of the priesthood of Horus worship that was set up by Ramesses.

    Anyhow, my question is this. I’ve been searching for any works by scholars who may have already considered this hypothesis, but I can’t find any. Have you read any hypotheses along this line? Do you know of any scholars who have suggested this theory?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2018

      I’ve heard of connections between Moses and Ramesses etymologically, but really don’t know anything about it. I suppose any Hebrew Bible scholar could give you some bibliography (you could try my colleague Joseph Lam, a semitic linguist)

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  July 6, 2018

      Try Gary Rendsburg at Rutgers. Primo (IMHO) Hebrew bible scholar.. I’ve corresponded with him a few times, nice guy.

  15. Avatar
    Pattylt  July 5, 2018

    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 hailstorm killed not just humans but also all the “livestock” of the Egyptians that had been left in the fields (see 9:19-20; 25)

    At which during our Passover Seder all of us gave a loud aside of,”AGAIN” ! And no, it never bothered us although I really don’t know why not.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2018


    • Avatar
      prestonp  July 6, 2018

      How much time passed between 9:6 and 9:19-20; 25?

      “And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom, that God had put in his heart.” (2 Chr 9:23)

      “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:2-3)

      “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1)

      “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mat 2:3)

      “All” obviously doesn’t always mean “all” literally.

      Witherington says Genesis 1 is poetic prose and cannot be compared with “2” which is not.

      “It is of course true that any historian knows that one is dealing with probabilities and possibilities. But it serves no good purpose to rule out some possibilities in advance of actually doing the historical analysis. In other words, it is narrow-minded rather than open-minded to start with a skepticism about the role of the divine in human history, and write one’s history guided by that skepticism. That, as it turns out, is bad historiography, not good critical historiography.
      On the other hand, it is equally a mistake to do historical analysis in a gullible manner, ascribing all manner of things to the divine, when a sufficient human cause can be detected and described.” Witherington

      [As we turn to Ehrman’s chapter entitled “A Mass of Variant Views” let us start with a statement on p. 63— “Paul wrote letters..he did not think he was writing the Bible….Only later did someone put these letters together and consider them inspired.” Here we are dealing with a half truth appended to which is a false conclusion. It is quite right to say Paul did not think he was writing canonical books. He did however think that both his oral proclamation and his writing were inspired by God’s Spirit, and he says so repeatedly in these letters. The notion of inspiration is not something that came later and after the fact. Indeed, Paul was convinced from the outset that his preaching was the living word of God, and his writings likewise inspired.]

      Astronauts wanted to abort their mission to the moon as Saturn 5 rocket engines kicked in and blasted off and shook them violently. From the ground, all seemed smooth.

  16. Avatar
    ardeare  July 5, 2018

    Many believe that the man formed in Genesis 2:7 is separate from the original man created in Genesis 1:26-27. The use of the Hebrew article Eth ha ‘adam in chapter 2 is thought to designate a separate tribe of people (tillers) to which God would primarily use to make his presence and will be known. Jesus would eventually come from the lineage of tillers…..or so the story goes. So, no contradiction.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2018

      Even though God created eth ha-adam in 1:27 as well? OK, well, I’m familiar with the argument — it is one I used back in my conservative Christian days; but I have to admit, these days it seems a stretch..

  17. Avatar
    prestonp  July 5, 2018

    it is simply untrue to say that most scholars or the majority of Bible scholars or the majority of serious critical scholars would agree with Bart Ehrman in his conclusions about this or that NT matter.

    NT scholarship is a many splintered thing, and Ehrman’s position certainly does not represent a majority view, or the critical consensus about such matters.

    The other issue is— why mislead the general public about what “the majority of serious critical scholars” have been saying?

    I must disagree with the conclusion then when Bart says “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.” (p. 7). False. This is only so if one insists on a flat modern anachronistic reading of the text which pays no attention to what the authors are attempting.

    Equally pedantic and unhelpful is Bart’s analysis of Genesis 1 and 2(pp. 9-10), which are generally agreed to be two different ways of telling the story of creation, one more general, and one more focused on the creation of humankind. Besides the fact that Genesis 1 falls into the category of poetry or poetic prose and should not be analyzed on the basis of it being some sort of scientific account of creation, it is frankly not fair game to compare and contrast these two chapters as if they were attempting to say the same thing in the same way writing like modern historians. They are not. Ancient narratological conventions come into play.
    Ben Witherington

    I’m certainly surprised that in added detail and perspective, Ehrman wonders how light could have been created on the first day when the sun, moon, and stars were not created till the fourth day. It seems to me that even a full blown fundamentalist on the left would recognize that electromagnetic radiation inherit in the big bang produces more than a little light and, certainly, Ehrman believes in the big bang.
    Hank Hanegraaff

    I encourage everyone to review and study all the pertinent data and relevant theories. How can we be content if truth is left on the table and we failed to examine it? The pursuit of truth may be tedious at times, but nothing is more important or necessary, and it can be a lot of fun.

    Limiting the definition of “historical” by rejecting legitimate multi-sourced accounts of the miraculous prevents an honest appraisal of history.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2018

      I’m not sure which view of mine you’re talking about. If you mean that Genesis 1 and 2 are at odds with each other, then, yes indeed, that is the view of virtually every critical scholar on the planet. By critical scholar I mean anyone who does not have a religious perspective that directs their conclusions on the matter.

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 6, 2018

      So Hank Hanegraaf’s position is that within a few days of the big bang, there was life on earth?

      There wasn’t even an earth for life to be on yet.

      If you interpret the bible literally, which you have to do in order to believe Genesis anything other than a story with some nuggets of insight but no real knowledge, you believe all of this happened in a week. You can, as William Jennings Bryan did, say the days might not have been as our days, but that’s just a facile workaround, that nobody took seriously even at the Scopes Trial. Once you start saying this or that is a metaphor, you’ve surrendered, and there’s no reason to believe any of it, because let’s face it, the people who wrote this were not witnesses. There were no witnesses. There weren’t even bacteria. Life came into being untold ages after the big bang–the earliest estimation is 15 million years, and many believe it was much longer.

      What’s holding the earth in orbit if there’s no stars, including our own sun? What’s serving as an atmosphere? It’s fine to say “God did it” but please note that people all around the world have also told beautiful insightful creation myths, which are all different from this. Why do we ONLY believe the ancient Hebrews? Even when they can’t keep the story straight? Well, we all know why. But it’s not a good enough reason.

      • Avatar
        turbopro  July 8, 2018

        If I may: prokaryotes (some bacteria are prokaryotes) are the earliest known life forms, and are estimated to have originated about 3.5 billion years ago.

        What we call the universe originated as a singularity–high temperature, high density state–approximately 13.8 billion years ago. And to set the record straight: the singularity was neither big nor did it bang. The term ‘big bang’ is attributable to British astronomer Fred Hoyle, who for the most part may have coined the term pejoratively.

  18. Avatar
    ddorner  July 6, 2018

    What are we to make of Genesis 1:26 ” Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (?)

    Conservative fundamentalists say this is the Trinity, which is completely impossible and makes no sense. But is this a group of Gods, or is something lost in translation here? This certainly wouldn’t be the only verse in the OT that seems to point toward polytheism.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2018

      Yes, it’s often taken to refer to the divine council (think Job 1-2, e.g.)

  19. Avatar
    gbgarza  July 6, 2018

    I’m not trying to argue the bible has no contradictions, but isn’t criticizing phrases like “all of the livestock” a bit too assuming that their ancient use of that language would have the same strict quantitative semantics as today?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2018

      Do you mean that if an ancient writer said “all” he didn’t mean “all”? Maybe, I guess. But then why not just say “some”?

      • Avatar
        Bwana  July 8, 2018

        When a French writer says “tout le monde” he doesn’t necessarily mean to include every single inhabitant on the planet. Why then not just say “quelques-uns le monde”?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 9, 2018

          Good point. But you would need to show that the French idiom was used by Hebrew writers in antiquity. I think that’s the problem. “All the livestock” is not the same as “the whole world” or even the English “everyone” in a phrase like “everyone is doing that!”

      • Avatar
        gbgarza  July 10, 2018

        Your summary is on point: ‘If an ancient writer said “all” [in their language] he didn’t mean “all” [in our language]”. In our language, “all” has a very strict, literal sense. If we don’t mean “all”, we qualify it with something like “almost”, or “nearly”.

        I doubt ancient language was so strict in these semantics, both in general language and in storytelling. However, though this principle might apply to other parts of the Bible, on second look it isn’t even required to apply here; I don’t see a reason to think each of these plagues happened in immediate succession of one other. Who’s to say the ancient Egyptians didn’t have a chance to get more livestock between the 5th and 7th plague?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 12, 2018

          Are you imagining that the 7th one happened years later? That doesn’t seem to be the sense of the story.

        • Avatar
          HJeffWallace  August 24, 2018

          “All” means something in English today. It may mean a lot of things. It could even mean opposite things, but that has nothing to do with an ancient word that is not even English. If it is translated as “all,” then I would take it as not a nuanced variant, but to mean total. Now, if a few were missing in the count, that’s one thing, but…

  20. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  July 7, 2018

    “24 When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, 26 “Take this book of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God; let it remain there as a witness against you. 27 For I know well how rebellious and stubborn you are. If you already have been so rebellious toward the Lord while I am still alive among you, how much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officials, so that I may recite these words in their hearing and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, turning aside from the way that I have commanded you. In time to come trouble will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”

    Dr Ehrman, this is a strange text , it says that the people will definitely become corrupt after moses’ passing. i wonder if “work of your hands” could imply textual corruption? how is the author sure that the text will be in pristine condition when the ones looking after it will “do what is evil the sight of the lord” ?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2018

      He appears to be saying that they will do things contrary to what they are supposed to: not with the text (most of them couldn’t read), but for example in making idols.

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