Did Nehemiah Poorly Copy Ezra? — Ezra 2:1–42 v. Nehemiah 7:5–45

Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when “copy/paste” was­n’t as sim­ple as long-press­ing a touch­screen to cause a con­text menu to appear allow­ing you to choose “select,” tap­ping “copy” in a sub­se­quent con­text menu which appears, nav­i­gat­ing to a dif­fer­ent text box, long-press­ing to pull up its con­text menu, and final­ly tap­ping “paste.” Oh no. Back in the day we used our mous­es to click-and-drag over the text we want­ed, pressed Ctrl+C to copy the text, nav­i­gat­ed to a dif­fer­ent text field, and final­ly pressed Ctrl+V to paste in what we want­ed. Sounds pret­ty archa­ic, does­n’t it? How­ev­er did we survive?

What if I told you that there was a time before even that method of copy­ing. Long ago. Before com­put­ers. Before the most basic of Tur­ing machines. Before even the print­ing press.

It was the age of hand­writ­ing (ask your par­ents if you’ve nev­er heard of this). Orig­i­nal copies (known as auto­graphs) were writ­ten by one’s own hand. If more than one copy was desired (which, let’s be hon­est, is the desire of just about every author), copies had to be made. For a long peri­od of his­to­ry, scribes tasked them­selves with copy­ing doc­u­ments, over and over and over.

The more impor­tant the doc­u­ment being copied, the greater the care tak­en would be. In fact, when it comes to the Bible, we are told that bib­li­cal scribes copied the texts in about as labo­ri­ous­ly time-con­sum­ing a method as pos­si­ble, so as pre­serve what was believed to be the words of God.

What are we to make of it, then, when we find sub­stan­tial con­tra­dic­tions between not insignif­i­cant pas­sages of the Bible con­tain­ing very def­i­nite details and in which the lat­ter pas­sage is a direct copy of the earlier?

That is the sit­u­a­tion seen in Ezra 2 and Nehemi­ah 7. [ref]You know Ezra and Nehemi­ah, right? They’re pret­ty easy to miss — far enough in that most peo­ple give on the “read through the Bible in a year” plans, but just before what the “well, I’ll just start with Psalms and go from there” folks will see. Bum­mer, right?[/ref]

Both Ezra and Nehemi­ah are speak­ing about groups of fam­i­lies who are return­ing from exile — from where, to where, and for why aren’t real­ly rel­e­vant here. Here is how Ezra intro­duces his list:

Now these were the peo­ple of the province who came up out of the cap­tiv­i­ty of those exiles whom Neb­uchad­nez­zar the king of Baby­lon had car­ried cap­tive to Baby­lo­nia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. 2They came with Zerub­ba­bel, Jeshua, Nehemi­ah, Sera­iah, Reela­iah, Morde­cai, Bil­shan, Mis­par, Big­vai, Rehum, and Baanah.

Ezra 2:1–2, ESV

Now, here is Nehemi­ah’s intro­duc­tion to his ver­sion of the list, leav­ing lit­tle doubt that the same group of peo­ple is being described:

… And I found the book of the geneal­o­gy of those who came up at the first, and I found writ­ten in it:

6These were the peo­ple of the province who came up out of the cap­tiv­i­ty of those exiles whom Neb­uchad­nez­zar the king of Baby­lon had car­ried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. 7They came with Zerub­ba­bel, Jeshua, Nehemi­ah, Azari­ah, Raami­ah, Nahamani, Morde­cai, Bil­shan, Mis­pereth, Big­vai, Nehum, Baanah.

Nehemi­ah 7:5b–7, ESV

Before con­tin­u­ing to the two lists of fam­i­lies, it is impor­tant to note that both Ezra and Nehemi­ah are describ­ing the same group of peo­ple — those who returned from exile to their own home­lands. The lists are not exiles plus addi­tion­al births or minus deaths or any oth­er assump­tion made in an attempt to rec­on­cile the two lists, as any such rec­on­cil­i­a­tion actu­al­ly casts doubt upon Nehemi­ah’s veracity.

Fam­i­ly (where Nehemi­ah gives a vari­ant name, it is bracketed)  Ezra reference  Ezra’s #  Nehemi­ah reference  Nehemiah’s #  Difference 
Parosh  2:3 2,172 7:8 2,172
Shephatiah  2:4 372  7:9 372 
Arah  2:5 775  7:10 652  123 
Pahath-moab, name­ly the sons of Jeshua and Joab  2:6 2,812 7:11 1,818
Elam  2:7 1,254 7:12 1,254
Zattu  2:8 945  7:13 845  100 
Zaccai  2:9 760  7:14 760 
Bani [Bin­nui] 2:10 642  7:15 648 
Bebai  2:11 623  7:16 628 
Azgad  2:12 1,222 7:17 2,322 1,100
Adonikam  2:13 666  7:18 667 
Bigvai  2:14 2,056 7:19 2,067 11 
Adin  2:15 454  7:20 655  201 
Ater, name­ly of Hezekiah  2:16 98  7:21 98 
Bezai  2:17 323  7:23 324 
Jorah [Hariph] 2:18 112  7:24 112 
Hashum  2:19 223  7:22 328  105 
Gib­bar [Gibeon] 2:20 95  7:25 95 
Bethlehem  2:21 123  7:26 188 
Netophah  2:22 56  Count­ed with Bethlehem 
Anathoth  2:23 128  7:27 128 
Azmaveth [Beth-azmaveth] 2:24 42  7:28 42 
Kiriath-arim [Kiriath-jearim], Chep­hi­rah, and Beeroth  2:25 743  7:29 743 
Ramah and Geba  2:26 621  7:30 621 
Michmas  2:27 122  7:31 122 
Bethel and Ai  2:28 223  7:32 123  100 
Nebo [the oth­er Nebo]  2:29 52  7:33 52 
Magbish  2:30 156  Omitted 
the oth­er Elam  2:31 1,254 7:34 1,254
Harim  2:32 320  7:35 320 
Lod, Hadid, and Ono  2:33 725  7:37 721 
Jericho  2:34 345  7:36 345 
Senaah  2:35 3,630 7:38 3,930 300 
Jeda­iah, of the house of Jeshua  2:36 973  7:39 973 
Immer  2:37 1,052 7:40 1,052
Pashhur  2:38 1,247 7:41 1,247
Harim  2:39 1,017 7:42 1,017
Jeshua and Kad­miel, of the sons of Hodavi­ahm [Jeshua, name­ly of Kad­miel of the sons of Hodeveh]  2:40 74  7:43 74 
Asaph  2:41 128  7:44 148  20 
Shal­lum, Ater, Tal­mon, Akkub, Hati­ta, and Shobai  2:42 139  7:45 138 
Names & quan­ti­ties are from the Eng­lish Stan­dard Ver­sion.

Out of forty entries [ref]Or thir­ty-nine entries, if you count Nehemi­ah’s, due to two entries being combined.[/ref], sev­en­teen of them are con­flict­ed. If Nehemi­ah were doing this as home­work, he would have only got­ten a 58%, which I’m pret­ty sure is fail­ing by almost any teacher’s stan­dard. [ref]Or a 59%, using Nehemi­ah’s com­bined entry, but that does­n’t change the conclusion.[/ref]

Accord­ing to one pop­u­lar apol­o­gist, the num­bers dif­fer­ing isn’t a prob­lem or con­tra­dic­tion because Ezra was writ­ten a few hun­dred years ear­li­er than Nehemi­ah. Appar­ent­ly this allows them to describe the same event using sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent num­bers because the facts of that event change whether you’re talk­ing about it at one point in his­to­ry or anoth­er. I’m not entire­ly sure how that’s sup­posed to make any sense, and I think the afore­men­tioned apol­o­gist knows that, as he pro­vides a sec­ondary hypothesis.

Copy­ist errors, it is reck­oned, could account for the errors. Despite what we are told about the bib­li­cal scribes’ obses­sive atten­tion to detail when copy­ing the bib­li­cal texts, it is all too easy for apol­o­gists to throw them under the bus when con­tra­dic­tions are point­ed out in the Bible. How can the scribes be con­sid­ered all but fool­proof while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly allow­ing them to have about a forty per­cent fail­ure rate in the con­text of Nehemi­ah 7?

A curi­ous note about the “copy­ist error” hypoth­e­sis is that as Nehemi­ah’s list pro­gress­es, the con­tra­dic­tions become less fre­quent. It would be far more con­vinc­ing that, at the end of a tedious list of names and num­bers, the scribes began mak­ing errors sim­ply due to bore­dom, tired­ness, and the like. How­ev­er, that the list begins with most of the errors and gets com­par­a­tive­ly bet­ter as it goes on does­n’t seem to fit the pro­file of what bib­li­cal über scribes would have produced.

A third option I have found is that the vari­a­tions are sim­ply due to “vari­a­tions in our Eng­lish method of spelling prop­er names,” [ref]Hayley, John W. Alleged Dis­crep­an­cies of the Bible. New Kens­ing­ton, PA: Whitak­er House, 1992. 352. Print.[/ref] which I can only assume means that the sev­en­teen fam­i­lies which are con­flict­ed between Ezra & Nehemi­ah’s account­ing are, in fact, thir­ty-four dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies, and that Ezra and Nehemi­ah were rather incom­plete in their details.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that third option does­n’t take into account Nehemi­ah’s admis­sion that he was copy­ing the ear­li­er account — not adding to or expand­ing it.

Ulti­mate­ly, it must be admit­ted that the Bible con­tains at least sev­en­teen con­tra­dic­tions, which should give pause to any­one who even mod­er­ate­ly believes that the Bible rep­re­sents “God’s per­fect word” or even that Nehemi­ah was writ­ing God’s words — why, after all, would God be such a poor copi­er of his own ear­li­er work (Ezra)?

We can­not even be sure which author was cor­rect — did Ezra pro­vide a cor­rect account­ing, or did Nehemi­ah’s lat­er account cor­rect the ear­li­er work? And why would Chris­tians expect us to take seri­ous­ly a book which con­tains irrec­on­cil­able details, the truthi­ness of which is impos­si­ble to know?

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Rick Beckman