Does The Bible Contradict Itself?

By Pastor Bruce K. Oyen

An Interesting Subject To Think About: Does The Bible Contradict Itself? 
     We have an interesting subject to think about when we compare Numbers 25:9  with 1 Corinthians 10:8. Both verses refer to the same historical events that took place under the leadership of Moses, a man of God known for many things, but especially as the one through whom God gave the Jews the 10 commandments.
Some Facts About Moses And Paul
     For those readers who are not familiar with the Bible, Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Old Testament, the 4th one of which is Numbers. Several centuries later, the apostle Paul and some companions preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the city of Corinth. And Acts 18:8 tells us that “many of the Corinthians  hearing believed, and were baptized.” This was the start of the Corinthian church. 
     Paul and his companions stayed in Corinth for several months to do follow-up work among those new Christians. Then they moved on to other places to preach the Gospel. But Paul was compelled to send the Corinthian Christians some letters to help them in their Christian lives. We call those letters 1st and 2nd Corinthians. In 1st Corinthians 10:8, Paul made reference to the events recorded by Moses in Numbers 25:9. Paul said the number of persons who died by God’s judgment on their sins was 23,000, but Moses said the number was 24,000. The Zondervan KJV Study Bible footnote on 1 Corinthians 10:8 says this: “The Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) texts of Num. 25:9 have 24,000.” So, who was right? Moses or Paul? Did Paul contradict Moses? In other words, does the Bible contradict itself?
Different Ways To Solve the Discrepancy
    This seeming discrepancy of numbers between Moses and Paul is resolved in different ways. This same study Bible resolves the problem with this statement: “It is clear that Paul is not striving for exactness. He is only speaking approximately. First-century writers were not as concerned about being precise as 21st-century authors often are.”
     This difference in the numbers between Moses and Paul is thought by many persons to be proof that the Bible contains historical, but not doctrinal, errors in it, and, therefore, it can’t always be trusted when it comes to its historical statements. Even many true Christians think this way.
     One example of this is Roger E. Olson. He is a true and dedicated believer in Jesus Christ as his Savior, and is a theologian and prolific author on Biblical subjects. I have profitably read some of his books: “Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities” (read four times); “Against Calvinism” (read twice); “Questions To All Your Answers” (read once, and yes, that is the correct title); “The Westminster Handbook To Evangelical Theology” (read once); and “The Mosaic Of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries Of Unity And Diversity” (read once). To say I have profitably read these books is not to be understood as a blanket endorsement of everything in them. I reject some of his opinions, especially about some points about the Bible, as the following sentences will show.
     In his book, “The Mosaic Of Christian Belief,” Olson has a chapter called “Christian Scripture.” Toward the end of the chapter, Olson discusses the numerical difference between Numbers 25:9 and 1 Corinthians 10:8. Then he asks a question and gives an answer to it. Here  is what Olson wrote: “Which is correct? To insist that this kind of minor inconsistency did not exist in the original manuscript (either of Numbers or 1 Corinthians) is completely unnecessary. Scripture’s authority does not depend on freedom from such minor discrepancies which — given the culture and type of literature and the author’s intent — should probably not be called errors. Rather, Scripture’s authority depends on the authorship, presence and power of the Holy Spirit communicating spiritual life and truth through it.”  
     Let me make a few comments on Olson’s statements. For one thing, we must admit that, at  first, there seems to be an inconsistency between what Moses wrote and Paul’s reference to it. Remember, I said “at first.” Second, Olson says the Bible contains “minor discrepancies,” and then says they “should probably not be called errors.” I’m not sure what they should be called, if they are, in fact, discrepancies. If Moses was right, Paul was wrong. If Paul was right, Moses was wrong.
Both Moses And Paul Were Right
     It is possible that both men were right. It is very possible that they gave different numbers because they counted differently. Not only is that possible, I believe that was the case. Many Bible scholars have found this to be an easy explanation that proves there is no real contradiction between Moses and Paul.
We Can Resolve The Problem
    In contrast to The Pulpit Commentary’s note on 1 Corinthians 10:8, we don’t need to leave the problem unresolved. Here is what that commentary says: “The number given in Num. 25:9 is twenty-four thousand. We cannot give any account of the discrepancy, which is, however, quite unimportant.”.
How The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Resolved The Problem
     Consider what this commentary says: “Paul is speaking about how many died in that one day; he does not include others who were killed subsequently, among them being leaders in the rebellion, whom God ordered Moses to hang (Num. 25:4).”
How The Keil And Delitzsch Commentary On Numbers Resolved The Problem
    This commentary says the following:”The Apostle Paul deviates from this statement in 1 Cor 10:8, and gives the number of those that fell as twenty-three thousand, probably from a traditional interpretation of the schools of the scribes, according to which a thousand were deducted from the twenty-four thousand who perished, as being the number of those who were hanged by the judges, so that only twenty-three thousand would be killed by the plague; and it is to these alone that Paul refers.”
How Adam Clarke’s Commentary On Numbers 25 Resolved The Problem
    Clarke’s commentary says this: “St. Paul, 1 Cor. x. 8, reckons only twenty-three thousand; though some MSS. and versions, particularly the latter Syriac and the Armenian, have twenty-four thousand, with the Hebrew text. Allowing the 24, 000 to be the genuine reading, and none of the Hebrew MSS. exhibit any various reading here, the two places may be reconciled thus: 1, 000 men were slain in consequence of the examination instituted ver. 4, and 23, 000 in consequence of the orders given ver. 5; making 24, 000 in the whole. St. Paul probably refers only to the latter number.”
How the Jamieson, Fausset, And Brown Commentary Resolved This Problem
    Here is what that commentary set says on 1 Corinthians 10:8: “If this were a real discrepancy, it would militate rather against inspiration of the subject matter and thought, than against verbal inspiration. The solution is: Moses in Numbers includes all who died “in the plague”; Paul, all who died “in one day“; one thousand more may have fallen the next day [KITTO, Biblical Cyclopædia]. Or, the real number may have been between twenty-three thousand and twenty-four thousand, say twenty-three thousand five hundred, or twenty-three thousand six hundred; when writing generally where the exact figures were not needed, one writer might quite veraciously give one of the two round numbers near the exact one, and the other writer the other [BENGEL]. Whichever be the true way of reconciling the seeming discrepant statements, at least the ways given above prove they are not really irreconcilable.”
How John Calvin Resolved The So-called Numerical Error in 1 Corinthians 10:8.
    The long quote is given so readers can see his point in its context. Calvin wrote this:
“8. Neither let us commit fornication. Now he speaks of fornication, in respect of which, as appears from historical accounts, great licentiousness prevailed among the Corinthians, and we may readily infer from what goes before, that those who had professed themselves to be Christ’s were not yet altogether free from this vice. The punishment of this vice, also, ought to alarm us, and lead us to bear in mind, how loathsome impure lusts are to God, for there perished in one day twenty-three thousand, or as Moses says, twenty-four. Though they differ as to number, it is easy to reconcile them, as it is no unusual thing, when it is not intended to number exactly and minutely each head,7 to put down a number that comes near it, as among the Romans there were those that received the name of Centumviri,8 (The Hundred,) while in reality there were two above the hundred. As there were, therefore, about twenty-four thousand that were overthrown by the Lord’s hand — that is, above twenty-three, Moses has set down the number above the mark, and Paul, the number below it, and in this way there is in reality no difference. This history is recorded in Numbers 25:9.
There remains, however, one difficulty here — why it is that Paul attributes this punishment to fornication, while Moses relates that the anger of God was aroused against the people on this account — that they had initiated themselves in the sacred rites of Baalpeor.9 But as the defection began with fornication, and the children of Israel fell into that impiety, not so much from being influenced by religious considerations,10 as from being allured by the enticements of harlots, everything evil that followed from it ought to be attributed to fornication. For Balaam had given this counsel, that the Midianites should prostitute their daughters to the Israelites, with the view of estranging them from the true worship of God. Nay more, their excessive blindness, in allowing themselves to be drawn into impiety11 by the enticements of harlots, was the punishment of lust. Let us learn, accordingly, that fornication is no light offense, which was punished on that occasion by God so severely and indeed in a variety of ways.”
     One thing we learn from these quotes is that some problems in the Bible can be resolved by taking into account all the facts available to us.
     The quotes from the commentaries by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Adam Clarke, Keil and Delitzsch were taken from the commentaries section on this website: The quote from John Calvin was taken from this website: The other quotes were taken directly from the books themselves.
      Another very helpful book is by Gleason L. Archer. It is called “Encyclopedia Of Bible Difficulties.” It can be read online at this website:

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