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 0
Shephatiah 2:4 372 7:9 372 0
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 6
Elam 2:7 1,254 7:12 1,254 0
Zattu 2:8 945 7:13 845 100
Zaccai 2:9 760 7:14 760 0
Bani [Binnui] 2:10 642 7:15 648 6
Bebai 2:11 623 7:16 628 5
Azgad 2:12 1,222 7:17 2,322 1,100
Adonikam 2:13 666 7:18 667 1
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 0
Bezai 2:17 323 7:23 324 1
Jorah [Hariph] 2:18 112 7:24 112 0
Hashum 2:19 223 7:22 328 105
Gibbar [Gibeon] 2:20 95 7:25 95 0
Bethlehem 2:21 123 7:26 188 9
Netophah 2:22 56 Counted with Bethlehem
Anathoth 2:23 128 7:27 128 0
Azmaveth [Beth-azmaveth] 2:24 42 7:28 42 0
Kiriath-arim [Kiriath-jearim], Chephirah, and Beeroth 2:25 743 7:29 743 0
Ramah and Geba 2:26 621 7:30 621 0
Michmas 2:27 122 7:31 122 0
Bethel and Ai 2:28 223 7:32 123 100
Nebo [the other Nebo] 2:29 52 7:33 52 0
Magbish 2:30 156 Omitted
the other Elam 2:31 1,254 7:34 1,254 0
Harim 2:32 320 7:35 320 0
Lod, Hadid, and Ono 2:33 725 7:37 721 4
Jericho 2:34 345 7:36 345 0
Senaah 2:35 3,630 7:38 3,930 300
Jedaiah, of the house of Jeshua 2:36 973 7:39 973 0
Immer 2:37 1,052 7:40 1,052 0
Pashhur 2:38 1,247 7:41 1,247 0
Harim 2:39 1,017 7:42 1,017 0
Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the sons of Hodaviahm [Jeshua, namely of Kadmiel of the sons of Hodeveh] 2:40 74 7:43 74 0
Asaph 2:41 128 7:44 148 20
Shallum, Ater, Talmon, Akkub, Hatita, and Shobai 2:42 139 7:45 138 1
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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