One skeptic wrote to affirm that he “knew” the Bible contained contradictions, and challenged us to unravel the following alleged discrepancy. In 2 Kings 25:8, the Bible reads: “Now in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem.” In discussing the same historical event (i.e., the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar), Jeremiah wrote: “Now in the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, who stood before the king of Babylon, into Jerusalem” (52:12). The skeptic noted a three-day difference between the two accounts, and asked: “So when did Nebuzaradan arrive to destroy Jerusalem—on the seventh day or the tenth day?”
As we respond, let us once again consider the context in which these two passages appear. Zedekiah, King of Judah, had warred in open rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. Subsequently, the King of Babylon sent his army to besiege Jerusalem, where Zedekiah held court. At one point during the siege, as Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers breached the city’s walls, Zedekiah and the troops still loyal to him quietly slipped away and attempted to make good their escape. Their attempt was thwarted, however, when they were captured and taken to Nebuchadnezzar, who commanded that Zedekiah’s sons be slain before his eyes, and that he then be blinded and imprisoned until his death. Shortly thereafter, as a result of Zedekiah’s rebellion, the Babylonian king sent the captain of his personal bodyguard, Nebuzaradan, to lead his army against the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to lay waste the city.
Nebuzaradan is designated within the text of both 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52 as “captain of the guard.” Burton Coffman observed that “He was one of the great generals in command of the armies of Babylon” (1993, p. 331). His title, “captain of the guard,” indicates that apparently he was the chief of King Nebuchadnezzar’s bodyguards (see Keil and Delitzsch, 1982, p. 514). But the literal translation of the title actually reveals much more than that. Miller has noted that “Nebuzaradan is literally designated as ‘captain of the slaughterers,’ which might indicate that he was the chief executioner, or the captain of the royal bodyguard (cf. Gen. 37:36; 39:1; 40:3)” (1991, p. 466). Spence and Exell designated him as “chief of the executioners” (1950, p. 489), as has Barnes (1972a, p. 308).
Did Nebuzaradan come to Jerusalem on the seventh day as the writer of 2 Kings indicated, or, as Jeremiah wrote, on the tenth day? There are at least two potential explanations for the seeming discrepancy. First, Keil and Delitzsch allow for the possibility that “This difference might be reconciled, as proposed by earlier commentators, on the assumption that the burning of the city lasted several days, commencing on the seventh and ending on the tenth” (1982, p. 514). In other words, one writer may be discussing Nebuzaradan’s activities from their beginning, while the other writer is discussing those same activities from their conclusion.
This solution receives support from an in-depth examination of the original language of the texts. The phrasing of Jeremiah 52:12 and 2 Kings 25:8 is very similar in the Hebrew—with one important exception. In Jeremiah 52:12, the last part of the verse states literally that Nebuzaradan came “in [to] Jerusalem.” The Hebrew preposition “in,” which conveys the idea of being “inside” or “within” (cf. Judges 1:21, Zechariah 12:6 [KJV/ASV], 1 Kings 15:4, et al.), is not present in 2 Kings 25:8. It therefore is quite possible that Nebuzaradan came to Jerusalem on the seventh day, but actually went inside the holy city on the tenth day.
Second, the three-day difference in the two accounts may be a copyist’s error. This is the position favored by Keil and Delitzsch (1982, p. 515) as well as Spence and Exell (1950, p. 489). Whenever duplicates of the Old Testament Scriptures were needed, copies had to be made by hand—a painstaking, time-consuming task requiring extreme concentration and special working conditions. Eventually, an elite group of scribes arose just for this purpose: the Masoretes. Geisler and Nix observed:
The Masoretic period (flourished c. A.D. 500-1000) of Old Testament manuscript copying indicates a complete review of established rules, a deep reverence for the Scriptures, and a systematic renovation of transmission techniques.... Copies were made by an official class of sacred scribes who labored under strict rules (1986, pp. 354, 467; cf. also pp. 371,374,380).
Anyone who has studied the exacting conditions under which the Masoretes worked, and the lengths to which they went to ensure fidelity in their copies of the Scriptures, could attest to the fact that their goal was to produce accurate copies—even to the point of reproducing errors already present in the much older copies from which they were working.
They were, nevertheless, still human. And humans are prone to make mistakes, regardless of the care they take or the strictness of the rules under which they operate. The copyists’ task was made all the more difficult by the sheer complexity of the Hebrew language, and by the various ways in which potential errors could be introduced (even inadvertently) into the copying process. Geisler and Nix have compiled a list of at least seven important ways in which a copyist might change the text accidentally, including such actions as: (a) omissions of letters, words, or whole lines; (b) unwarranted repetitions; (c) transposition (the reversal of two letters or words); (d) errors of memory; (e) errors of the ear; (f) errors of the eye; and (g) errors of judgment (1986, pp. 469-473).
Such errors, especially before the Masoretes came on the scene, could account for the alleged discrepancy in the passages under discussion here. For example, Archer has noted:
Even the earliest and best manuscripts that we possess are not totally free of transmissional errors. Numbers are occasionally miscopied, the spelling of proper names is occasionally garbled, and there are examples of the same types of scribal error that appear in other ancient documents as well (1982, p. 27).
Dr. Archer then provided numerous examples of what he termed “misreading similar-appearing letters,” based on the complexity of the Hebrew language and its alphabetic/numeric system (pp. 37-39). It is at this point that the alleged discrepancies in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52 may well enter the picture.
Errors of the ear also might have played a part. If a scribe was writing the text as it was being read to him, the reader actually may have said one thing but the scribe heard another. Or, the difference between 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52 may have been an error of memory. A scribe may have looked at an entire line, memorized it, and copied it from memory without looking at it a second time during the copying process. When he went to write one of the numbers in the two passages, however, his memory failed him; what he thought he remembered the original text having said was not what it actually said. When one stops to consider the extremely poor conditions under which most copyists worked (poor lighting, crude writing instruments, imperfect writing surfaces, etc.), it is not difficult to understand how inadvertent errors such as these might occur from time to time.
The Masoretes had a policy of making notes in the margins of their copies in order to indicate obvious differences among the manuscripts from which they were copying. Further, they were not averse to calling attention to possible mistakes by their less meticulous forerunners. But the Masoretes made no such note of any alleged discrepancy between 2 Kings 25:8 and Jeremiah 52:12. In this case, they may not have thought that a comment was warranted, considering the type of resolution I discussed earlier (i.e., that the two passages in question actually refer to the activities of two different days).
But why can we not possess infallible copies of the infallible originals of the Bible books? Archer has observed that it is
because the production of even one perfect copy of one book is so far beyond the capacity of a human scribe as to render it necessary for God to perform a miracle in order to produce it. No reasonable person can expect even the most conscientious copyist to achieve technical infallibility in transcribing his original document into a fresh copy.... But the important fact remains that accurate communication is possible despite technical mistakes in copying (1982, p. 29).
Indeed, accurate communication is possible despite technical mistakes in copying. In my eighteen years of editing Reason and Revelation, I never have had someone suggest that as a result of an inadvertent mistake they were unable to comprehend the meaning, or detect the intent, of an article. Cannot the same be said of the Bible? Surely it can! Archer concluded:
Well-trained textual critics operating on the basis of sound methodology are able to rectify almost all misunderstandings that might result from manuscript error.... Is there objective proof from the surviving manuscripts of Scripture that these sixty-six books have been transmitted to us with such a high degree of accuracy as to assure us that the information contained in the originals has been perfectly preserved? The answer is an unqualified yes (1982, pp. 29-30).
In every case when the Bible’s defenders refer to that Grand Book as being “inspired,” they are by necessity referring to inspiration as it pertained to the original manuscripts (routinely referred to as “autographs”), since there is no such thing as an “inspired copy.” “Aha!,” the skeptic might say, “since you no longer possess those autographs, but only slightly flawed copies made by imperfect humans, that makes it impossible to know the truth of the message behind the text.”
Try applying such a concept—that no longer being in personal possession of a perfect original makes knowing truth impossible—to matters of everyday life. Archer has done just that, using something as simple as a yardstick.
It is wrong to affirm that the existence of a perfect original is a matter of no importance if that original is no longer available for examination. To take an example from the realm of engineering or of commerce, it makes a very great difference whether there is such a thing as a perfect measure for the meter, the foot, or the pound. It is questionable whether the yardsticks or scales used in business transactions or construction projects can be described as absolutely perfect. They may be almost completely conformable to the standard weights and measures preserved at the Bureau of Standards in our nation’s capital but they are subject to error—however small. But how foolish it would be for any citizen to shrug his shoulders and say, “Neither you nor I have ever actually seen those standard measures in Washington; therefore we may as well disregard them—not be concerned about them at all—and simply settle realistically for the imperfect yardsticks and pound weights that we have available to us in everyday life.” On the contrary, the existence of those measures in the Bureau of Standards is vital to the proper functioning of our entire economy. To the 222,000,000 Americans who have never seen them they are absolutely essential for the trustworthiness of all the standards of measurement that they resort to throughout their lifetime (1982, p. 28).
The fact that we do not possess the original autographs of the Bible in no way diminishes the usefulness, or authority, of the copies, any more than a construction superintendent not being in possession of the original measures from the Bureau of Standards diminishes the usefulness or authority of the devices he employs to erect a building. This point is made all the more evident when one considers the inconsequential nature of the vast majority of alleged discrepancies offered by skeptics as proof of the Bible’s non-divine origin. Does not the “quality” of the “discrepancies” submitted to us by skeptics (and that we are reviewing in this issue of Reason and Revelation), reveal just how desperate skepticism is to try to find some discrepancy—any discrepancy—within the Sacred Text? But to what end? As Archer has noted:
In fact, it has long been recognized by the foremost specialists in textual criticism that if any decently attested variant were taken up from the apparatus at the bottom of the page and were substituted for the accepted reading of the standard text, there would in no case be a single, significant alteration in doctrine or message (1982, p. 30).
The axe of infidelity has not felled the tree of inspiration. The skeptic may hack away to his heart’s content. But in the end, it will be the axe, and he who wields it, that will fall—not the mighty timber that is God’s Word. Or, as the Bible itself concludes: “As I live, saith the Lord, to me every knee shall bow, And every tongue shall confess to God.” (Romans 14:11). God: 3; Skeptics: 0.
Archer, Gleason L. (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Barnes, Albert (1972a reprint), Barnes’ Notes on the Old and New Testaments: Samuel-Esther (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Barnes, Albert (1972b reprint), Barnes’ Notes on the Old and New Testaments: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Coffman, Burton (1993), Commentary on II Kings (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix (1986), A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody), revised edition.
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1982 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Spence, H.D.M. and J.S. Exell (1950), The Pulpit Commentary—I & II Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).