Atheists and skeptics like to point out numerical difficulties in the Bible to prove that it is full of mistakes. For example, in 2 Samuel 15:7, the King James translation says that after 40 years, Absalom asked the king to allow him to go and pay a vow. Most modern translations say it was four years. The King James follows the Hebrew Masoretic text, while the other translations use different manuscripts. The number four in Hebrew is “arba” and the number 40 is “arbaim.” It is easy to see how a copyist could confuse these two words, but we also need to understand how the Bible uses numbers.
The Jewish culture gave special significance to numbers, including 40. Some writings used numbers, perhaps not intending that they should be mathematically exact but symbolic. My friend Richard Hoyt has researched this, and he points out many times when the Bible tells us that something occurred over a period of 40 days, nights, or years:
Genesis 7:12 – It rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Genesis 8:6 – Noah waited 40 days before opening the window of the ark. Exodus 16:35, Numbers 14:33-34 – The Israelites wandered for 40 years. Exodus 24:18 & 34:28, Deuteronomy 10:10 – Moses was with God 40 days on the mountain. Numbers 13:25 – The spies returned from searching the land after 40 days. 2 Samuel 5:4 – David reigned for 40 years. 1 Kings 11:42 – Solomon reigned for 40 years. 2 Kings 12:1 – Jehoash of Judah reigned for 40 years. 1 Kings 19:8 – Elijah journeyed to Mount Horeb for 40 days and 40 nights. Jonah 3:4 – God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent. Matthew 4:2 – Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Acts 1:3 – Jesus appeared to people for 40 days after His crucifixion.
To understand how the Bible uses numbers, we must consider how a Jewish person at the time would have understood it. Numerical references frequently involve symbolic importance. One indicates unity or singleness of purpose. (See Acts 17:26 or Romans 5:12,15.) Ten indicates completeness – the ten plagues, the ten commandments, the tithe. (See Genesis 14:20 and 28:22 or Luke 15:8 and 19:11-27.) When biblical writers used 40 to indicate a period of time, they may not have meant an exact mathematical number. We do the same thing in English. You might say, “I’ve told you a thousand times” when we mean a large number but not literally a thousand.
Any time we read something, we have to ask, “How did people understand this statement at the time it was written?” It is critical that we consider not only who wrote it, to whom they wrote it, and why, but also how the receiver would have understood it. In the 2 Samuel 15:7 passage, there is also a question of the meaning of “after.” After what? Anointing a king was an important event and a significant time marker. If it means “after” the anointing of David to be king, then 40 years makes sense.
Bible numbers always have a message which is more important than the number itself. If we understand how the Bible uses numbers, we can resolve many of the challenges from atheists and skeptics.
Perhaps the theologian most often quoted by atheists today is Bart Ehrman. Ehrman graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary is a “Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He and has written many books harshly criticizing the Bible. Perhaps his most cited book is Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Atheists reference Ehrman using his credentials and position to declare his credibility. We suggest that Bart Ehrman’s bias relates to his motivation to sell books, not an open-minded search for truth. Here is one example:
“There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament…We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them…in thousands of ways” (pages 10-11). So what are the facts? If one manuscript says “Christ Jesus” and another says “Jesus Christ,” is that an error? Of the 400,000 errors that skeptics claim, most are differences in spelling or the order of words. Scholars studying manuscripts report a 99% agreement between all known manuscripts. None of the existing variations change any crucial element of the Christian faith.
Scholars have over 5700 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament available to them. Those manuscripts are not from one recent time. Some are from very early, and others are 200 or 300 years later. When you compare the earlier manuscripts with the more recent ones, you don’t find significant changes. This is true even though they are not in the same language. There are more than two million pages of text and yet no significant variations.
Bart Ehrman’s bias is explained in a book by Timothy Paul Jones. The book is Misquoting Truth published by Intervarsity Press.
As we have pointed out before, the followers of Christ spoke Aramaic rather than Greek. The reason for this is that Aramaic was the language of the common people, and Christ dealt with the common people. The better-educated intellectuals of that day spoke Greek. Why then are the New Testament manuscripts written in Greek? Atheists have maintained that the Bible’s human authors were people other than the apostles and eyewitnesses, and they wrote the manuscripts at a later time.
Atheist scholar Bart Ehrman wrote, “It seems unlikely that the uneducated, lower-class, illiterate disciples of Jesus played the decisive role in the literary compositions that have come down through history under their names.” (From Ehrman’s book The followers of Jesus in history and Legend, page 45.)
Jesus and the Church of the first century indeed reached out to the common people. Christianity was not and is not a faith just for intellectuals. Paul certainly handled the academics, as demonstrated in Acts 17, when he carried on the debate with the Epicureans and Stoics in Athens. However, the claim that intellectuals wrote the scriptures later because the early Christians were too ignorant is an uninformed position.
Matthew the tax collector wrote the book of Mathew (Mathew 10:3). Tax collectors were not uneducated people, and the masses did not like them. The Romans required tax collectors to be fluent in several languages. They used a wax-covered wooden tablet called a pinax to record notes, which were then transcribed to papyrus. Luke was a physician, according to Colossians 4:14, and physicians were trained to pull eyewitness accounts into a coherent report as Luke did. (See Luke 1:1-4.) Paul certainly was capable of writing in Greek. Galatians 6:11 and Philemon 1:19-21 indicates Paul could do his own writing, but scribes sometimes wrote for individuals. Paul mentions that in Romans 16:22 and Peter in 1 Peter 5:12.
It is strange that atheists would attempt to denigrate the apostles’ intelligence and writing capacity when people living at that time did not choose to do so. The complaint about the Bible’s human authors was about their message of love and forgiveness free of greed and control. That problem still exists today. We can know the Bible is the word of God and came from God due to its message, not because of the academic pedigree of its human authors.
One of the exciting clues to the Bible’s credibility is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They consist of thousands of scrolls and fragments found in caves near Qumran on the Dead Sea’s northwest shore. These scrolls have been useful in showing that the Old Testament books in our modern Bibles are credible. Recently scientists have conducted DNA tests on Dead Sea Scrolls.
Many people suggested that the modern Bible is a modified copy of a modified copy of a modified copy, and thus is not trustworthy because of copying errors. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 2000 plus years ago. The fact that they agree with the biblical texts available today is strong evidence that there have not been massive copy problems in bringing us the written word of God.
Molecular biologists at Tel Aviv University have conduced DNA tests on Dead Sea Scrolls. They are using the DNA evidence to tell us more about the origin of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments. They have isolated animal DNA in 26 fragments. Two of the fragments came from cowskin, and 24 came from sheepskin. The DNA evidence supports the idea that the sheepskin scrolls came from scribes at Qumran, although the cowskin scraps came from elsewhere. A few fragments came from Masada some 55 kilometers south of Qumran.
With more and more evidence, we see more credibility for the manuscripts from which our Bibles came. We can trust the Bible and its message. Whatever differences we find in manuscripts are easy to overcome and to understand.
Skeptics often challenge the accuracy of the Bible manuscripts. The idea is that copies have been made of copies, causing errors to creep in as each copier makes mistakes and repeats the errors of previous copyists. Also, words change their meaning. An obvious modern example is the word “gay,” which does not have the same meaning now that it had 50 years ago. It is true that the original documents written in the first century do not exist. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain Old Testament documents from before the time of Christ. In January of 2018, the Library of Congress announced that it had obtained the oldest complete ancient Torah scroll sheet totally legible to the naked eye.
So how do we determine the accuracy of Bible manuscripts? We use copies of the biblical manuscripts that are very old and compare them to the documents that were used to produce a particular translation of the Bible. Gary Rendsburg writing in Biblical Archaeology Review (November/December 2019, page 51), said this about the Torah scroll in the Library of Congress: “The document is nothing short of outstanding! Compared to the other old Torah scroll sheets and fragments surveyed, this sheet, composed of five columns of text, is perfectly legible. Every single letter can be read easily.”