wordStanley leaned back and drew in a breath. “You’re right. But it still bothers me that there are these contradictions. They seem to seriously impeach the credibility — a good legal term — the credibility of these witnesses. If they’re in error about small things, then maybe they’re in error about big things.”

“Ah, we should talk about that,” I said. “It’ll give us time to order our entrées.” I ordered a pulled pork sandwich. Stanley went for the hamburger.

“Look. There’s not enough food on the menu to let us cover all the alleged contradictions in the Bible. And I’m sure I can’t address all of them from memory. We may have to call a recess and reconvene in a few days. But give me your number 1 contradiction — the one that gives you the greatest pause.”

Stanley chewed on a bite of burger and stared at the ceiling. “First Corinthians 10:8 gets the number who died in Numbers 25 wrong.”

(1Co 10:8 ESV) We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.

(Num 25:9 ESV) Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

“It can’t be both 23,000 and 24,000. Paul got it wrong. And I’ve looked at the commentaries. The oldest manuscript evidence for Paul’s statement says 23,000. There is no evidence that he originally wrote 24,000, and it was later copied wrong.”

I swallowed some barbecue and wiped my lips. “You’re right. The textual evidence does not help here at all. And the commentaries aren’t much help —

The judgment in this instance involves the infamous case of “the missing thousand,” for which there is not an entirely satisfactory solution. It is possible that Paul had one event in mind (Num. 25:9 but his memory picked up the number from a different event (the number of Levites in Num. 26:62); or perhaps he had access to an otherwise unknown tradition of this event, which seems unlikely since all other known Jewish sources have 24,000.

Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 456 (emphasis added).

D. A. Carson is a very conservative commentator, like Fee, and he also struggles here —

Although Paul clearly has the Numbers text in mind, he refers to twenty-three thousand casualties, while Num. 25:9 sets the number at twenty-four thousand. Koet (1996) suggests that Paul has fused together elements of the punishments mentioned in Num. 25:9 and Exod. 32:28 (which, unlike the Numbers text, says that the people died “that day” and that they “fell,” using the exact same word, epesan, as in 1 Cor. 10:8). Koet thinks Paul may have fused the two texts together so that the reference to Num. 25:9 would still be recognizable but that the echo of Exodus might also be heard. In his view, this explains why there is no mention of a punishment in 10:7: the punishment for the sin of Exod. 32:6 is incorporated into the reference to the punishment for the sin of Num. 25 in the subsequent verse.

Koet’s suggestion deserves serious consideration because it not only would clarify the numerical discrepancy (which many feel has not yet found a satisfying solution), but also would explain other features of Paul’s text. Still, unless or until other examples of such an intertextual use of numbers can be found in early Jewish or Christian literature, his argument will remain less than compelling.

“G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 726.

“However, some commentators believe Paul is speaking of those who died first day, assuming — or perhaps inspired to know — that 1,000 of the 24,000 died the second day.

The Greek text says 23,000 died, whereas the Hebrew and LXX texts of Numbers 25:9 says 24,000. Paul is speaking about how many died in that one day; he does not include others who were killed subsequently, among them being the leaders in the rebellion, whom God ordered Moses to hang (Num 25:4).

“W. Harold Mare, “1 Corinthians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 250.

“This is the theory favored by The Apologetics Press, a very conservative organization associated with the Churches of Christ. And it cannot be disproved, but neither can it be proved. And it does seem like special pleading to suggest that God gave Paul this special knowledge just so he could make this statement — when knowledge of how many died on the first versus the second day is so very incidental to Paul’s argument.

“So I find myself unconvinced by the arguments of Mare and The Apologetics Press, to be honest, although they could certainly be right. It’s just not very convincing to me.”

Stanley’s eyes got very wide. “I can’t believe it! I mean, I thought sure you’d come up with some hokey, rationalized argument — and yet you’ve been completely honest with me. Thank you!

“But if that’s so, doesn’t it bother you?”

“That,” I said, “is a very good question. And the answer is: No, it does not. Not even a little. My thinking is more along the lines of the early church fathers —

Thiselton points out that patristic writers show no awareness of or concern regarding the issue. While the exact number may be of interest to us, the point Paul was making was not dependent upon it. Paul’s point is that Numbers 25 serves as a warning to us since a huge number of people were wiped out due to their lack of self-restraint in the area of sexual immorality (and idolatry).

“Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 461.

“Now, compare this approach to the approach of The Apologetics Press

The answer lies in the fact that Paul states 23,000 fell “in one day,” while in Numbers 25 Moses wrote that the total number of those who died in the plague was 24,000. Moses never indicated how long it took for the 24,000 to die, but only stated that this was the number “who died in the plague.” Thus, the record in 1 Corinthians simply supplies us with more knowledge about what occurred in Numbers 25—23,000 of the 24,000 who died in the plague died “in one day.” …

Paul did not invent facts about Old Testament stories. Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names. The Holy Spirit revealed the Truth to him—all of it (cf. John 14:26; John 16:13). Just like the writers of the Old Testament, Paul was fully inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

(emphasis in original).

“Now, I apologize for rambling a bit, but the sandwich is really good and I’m enjoying my fries. Here’s the point I’ve been trying to get to: The argument made by The Apologetics Press and many others is based on faith. They insist on their interpretation as a matter of faith in Paul’s claims to be speaking the truth as an apostle of Jesus — interpreting that claim to include incidental details such as this.

“That is, they make three truth claims:

First, that Paul claims inspiration.

Second, the inspiration requires that all facts — no matter how incidental — be true.

Third, that what Paul says is true.

“And I don’t really care to disagree. Rather, my point is that, if you ‘prove’ the absence of a contradiction based on faith in the inerrancy of the text, defined this way, then the absence of a contradiction is no longer a form of Christian evidences. You cannot establish faith based on conclusions built only on faith. It’s circular.

“That doesn’t make it false. It makes it not Christian evidences or apologetics. In legal terms, when the question is: Is the Bible inspired? The absence of contradiction is not evidence of that claim, because the absence of contradiction is shown as merely a possibility — a possibility that is believed by faith. Got it? I mean, many people don’t, but they aren’t destined for law school. You are.”

Stanley quickly replied, “No, I get it. We’ve studied logic in class, and I see the circularity. It’s not proved. That doesn’t mean it can’t be believed. So … let me think a second here …

“So that means my preacher was wrong to declare that faith is built on the absence of contradiction in the Bible! Rather, the absence of contradiction is a faith claim itself — not a fact, not evidence on which my faith is based! Got it. Got it!

“So what does that mean about my faith? And all the other alleged contradictions?”

“Well, there have been some fairly lengthy books written laying out alleged contradictions, and some are pretty tough to sort out. This is one. But there are others.

“And I can only speak for myself, but they just don’t bother me in the least. I mean, I lose no sleep over these things, my faith is no weaker for my having read about them, and I only study them because every once in a while, I need to have a conversation like this. I mean, I see things very differently from most people.”

Read Part 3 “Dessert” here