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On Bible (Manuscript) Contradictions: Number Differences, and Major Differences (Judges 19:2)

December 27, 2021 5 comments

In apologetics study, one focus is on addressing the skeptics’ claims of supposed “Bible contradictions,” and here I appreciate such blogs as the “Domain for Truth” series answering the skeptics to show that such supposed conflicts are not actually conflicts when we correctly understand the meanings of words, such as in genealogies and direct descendants versus multiple-generation ones:  the Bible languages did not have differing words for “son” versus “grandson” or “great-grandson” as we have in English, for instance.

But another area of contradictions, that I have recently looked at, is that of textual variant contradictions:  where one set of manuscripts has one word, and other manuscripts have a different word, and a real contradiction exists, in that the two differing meanings cannot both be true, and are mutually exclusive.  This comes up especially when reading the King James text as compared to modern English translations, and interacting with KJVO people.  Most of these differences are relatively minor; yet some feel that even a number count difference is worth some study time and then writing about — insisting that the number in one manuscript is correct, over the other number; as for example in Luke 10:1 and 17, did Jesus send out 72, or 70, to preach?  An online article that addresses this 72/70 question then concludes that “The King James Bible is always right. Accept no substitutes.”

It’s well and good to put forth reasons and good logical arguments in support of one particular view over another (72 instead of 70).  But then consider the following other textual problem in the KJV/NKJV and MEV (all based on same manuscript sets):  in these translations, 2 Chronicles 22:2 states that Ahaziah was 42 years old when he became king.  However, the same KJV/NKJV/MEV in the parallel passage, 2 Kings 8:26, state his age as 22 years old; in fairness to the MEV and NKJV, both of these translations add the footnote of  the parallel text 2 Kings 8:26, “twenty-two.”  These same three texts agree in 2 Chronicles 21:5, 20, that Ahaziah’s father Jehoram was 32 when he became king, and reigned 8 years — meaning that he was about 40 when he died, and his short life is noted as the result of God’s judgement upon him for his great wickedness.

The obvious way to understand this is that Ahaziah was 22 years old, not 42 (which would put him at 2 years older than his own father!), but the KJV/NKJV/MEV retained their faithfulness to a specific set of manuscripts – even retaining this obvious number error found in a particular set of manuscripts of 2 Chronicles 22.  But to insist, after examination of a different text such as Luke 10, that ‘the King James Bible is always right,’ goes beyond what ought to be claimed; clearly the King James translation, by its limiting to only certain manuscripts, does include errors such as in 2 Chronicles 22:2.

But aside from the small differences such as numbers, there are at least a few Bible texts where even one word in differing manuscript sets makes a great difference in the understanding of that text.  One example I recently encountered was Judges 19:2, and the word which describes the woman — in some manuscripts, as “played the harlot,” others “was unfaithful”, while others have “became angry.”  According to one version of the story, the wording in KJV and similar translations, this woman had been a-whoring with one or more men in sexual immorality.  Further, according to some Bible teachers (including, for instance, the MacArthur Study Bible notes) — and going beyond even what that version of the text says — the Levite should never have married her in the first place because she was already a harlot before he married her.  This view then sees a type of divine retribution, lex talionis, in that the woman at the end experienced what she had previously done in her own sin.  From the Matthew Henry commentary, as one such example:

(Referring to the woman returning to her father’s house): Perhaps she would not have violated her duty to her husband if she had not known too well where she should be kindly received. Children’s ruin is often owing very much to parents’ indulgence.  …

Many bring mischief of this kind upon themselves by their loose carriage and behaviour; a little spark may kindle a great fire. …  In the miserable end of this woman, we may see the righteous hand of God punishing her for her former uncleanness, when she played the whore against her husband, v. 2. Though her father had countenanced her, her husband had forgiven her, and the fault was forgotten now that the quarrel was made up, yet God remembered it against her when he suffered these wicked men thus wretchedly to abuse her; how unrighteous soever they were in their treatment of her, in permitting it the Lord was righteous. Her punishment answered her sin, Culpa libido fuit, poena libido fuit—Lust was her sin, and lust was her punishment. By the law of Moses she was to have been put to death for her adultery. She escaped that punishment from men, yet vengeance pursued her; for, if there was no king in Israel, yet there was a God in Israel, a God that judgeth in the earth.

The other meaning of the word in Judges 19:2, became angry, of course gives us a very different view of this same text.  The narrative itself, outside of that phrase in verse 2, says nothing that would suggest that the woman was a harlot — no mention of any other man or men; the husband actually comes to her trying to win her back, only to later — when his own life was in peril — send her out to the mob, and then the next morning addressed her casually, a ‘let’s go’ attitude.  Certainly in any other setting — without the meaning given in some manuscripts in verse 2 — the narrative suggests instead a man of poor character, with a bad-temper, similar to what is observed in our day the social situation of an abusive man who regrets his bad temper after the fact and comes to the injured party (such as the abused wife) promising that it won’t happen again; and then after some time, the bad temper does return — when things aren’t going well, the old nature resurfaces.

Other articles have addressed this specific passage in more detail, regarding the two possible meanings of 19:2, such as this post written for general audience.  In my online searching I also came across a 17 page (PDF-format) academic paper,  “Was the Levite’s Concubine Unfaithful or Angry? A Proposed Solution to the Text Critical Problem in Judges 19:2,” which looks at the details of the different manuscript sets, and sets forth a case that the original and earliest wording was “and she was furious with him,” which at later points in time was changed to the rendering in the MT (and KJV group) of ‘played the harlot.’  The Abstract:

Judges 19:2 poses a text critical problem that has vexed scholars for over a century. According to the MT, the Levite’s concubine left her husband and returned to her father’s house in Bethlehem because she had “played the harlot against him.” According to LXXA , the woman left her husband because she was “angry with him.” However, no other Greek, Latin or Aramaic variant of the verse supports MT or LXXA. This article proposes a new hypothesis for understanding the relationship among the various textual variants of Judg 19:2. It will be argued that the earliest Vorlage used the verb עבר in the hitpa‘el form which has the meaning “to be furious”. This Vorlage is reflected in LXXA . Later scribes then read the verb עבר in the qal form that has multiple meanings that depend on context. LXXB translated the verb in Greek with the meaning of “to move on”. In contrast, Pseudo-Philo interpreted the verb with the meaning of “to transgress”. The MT, which emended “to transgress” to “to play the harlot”, represents the final stage in the redaction process.

Manuscript contradictions is an interesting topic, with differences that sometimes can have major interpretive differences.  As the scholarly paper linked above notes in the introduction: Was the woman unfaithful to her husband or did she become angry with him? Clearly, a story that revolves around a common place conjugal disagreement is a very different narrative than a story that describes the consequences of a woman’s adultery and abandonment of her husband. …. The relationship among the various textual variants of this verse has interested scholars for over a century.

All such contradictions, of course, must be taken on a case by case basis by looking at the various English translations as well as any other texts that reference the same person or event (if such are available), as well as considering the different manuscripts and the actual sense and context of a narrative passage.