Saturday, 14 February 2015

Differences between Ezra's and Nehemiah's lists

The table at the end of this post presents, side by side, two lists of the Jews who returned form the Captivity in Babylon during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, but many discrepancies between the two lists have been pointed out in the past. I have no illusions about explaining authoritatively the reason for these discrepancies, but I intend to:

  •  Note all the details that differ from one list to the other (for the solution to a problem begins by an understanding of what is the problem);
  • Try and show that there are logical and plausible explanations for these discrepancies.

None of us knows all the truth, and it would be presumptuous to make claims where the Bible is silent. But the attitude of the believer to the Word of God should be one of reverent faith in what is written. I may not understand all I read; I may not be able to explain all the apparent contradiction; but I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and “worthy of all acceptation”.

So, what are the problems? A simple comparison of the two lists reveals two discrepancies:

A. The totals are not equal to the sum of all the families

At the end of each list is given the total number of those who returned from the captivity, and this total is identical for both lists: 42,360. The problem is that neither of the lists adds up to 42,360: in Ezra’s list there are only 29,818 people mentioned, and in Nehemiah’s, 31,089. There are therefore over ten thousand people missing from the detailed lists (12,542 in Ezra’s list, 11,271 in Nehemiah’s). There are two possible explanations for this discrepancy:

  • Ancient Jewish literature (Seder Olam Rabah, c. 29, p. 86) says that the extra people are Israelites from the ten tribes who had been taken to Assyria, and not Babylon. Those of Judah and Benjamin who returned were identified by their families, but some from the other tribes heard of the return of their brethren form the Exile, and joined them; these were not mentioned by name.
  • Different words are used in the text. The beginning of the lists uses the word enowsh (“man”), whereas the total is linked to the word qahal (“multitude”): “The number of the men of the people of Israel … The whole congregation together …” (Ez 2:2, 64; Ne 7:7, 66). It is possible, therefore, that only the men were listed by name, and that the woman and children[Note 1] supply the extra ten or twelve thousand.

Either suggestion is possible; the first seems more likely (to me).

B. The details in the two lists don’t match

In the table below, every line highlighted in yellow has a difference between the numbers supplied by Ezra and those by Nehemiah (there are twenty eight identical entries, and twenty with some difference). Before examining some of the possible explanations for this fact, allow me to highlight that it confirms the authenticity and the veracity of the two lists:

  • Authenticity confirmed — Some would suggest that the differences exist because the two list are forgeries, but their differences really prove the opposite. If we remember that Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one book until the third century A.D., it’s hard to imagine some Jew going to the trouble of producing a false list of names, and not making sure that both records of that list (in the same book) were identical. By what we know of human nature, that would be virtually impossible. Some working to a deadline might make one or two small mistakes, but even the most mediocre of forgers wouldn’t make so many mistakes (twenty mistakes in forty eight entries!) in two lists which he wants everyone to believe are identical. The differences between the two lists prove that they are separate and authentic documents, and not a forgery.
  • Veracity confirmed — Others would state that these differences can only be the result of errors during the process of copying the ancient manuscripts of the Bible, and that there is no way of knowing the original numbers. They state that both lists are false — not because they were forged, but because they contain errors. IBut I suggest that the differences between the lists are far too many, and far too varied, for that to be possible. It is a known fact that, when copying a list of names and numbers, it is very easy to make a mistake. Even with all the care taken by the Jews in copying the Scriptures (a subject well worth researching) we must admit that, if left to human skill, some errors would be inevitable — but not to the extent seen in this case. Over 40% of the numbers exhibit some variation, and the differences don’t follow any pattern. When differences due to copyist errors creep into a copy, it is usually easy to see why the mistake was made, but the variations in these two lists don’t conform to any patter that could be explained by sloppy copying[Note 2].

Thus, I suggest that the differences between the two lists prove that what we have in our Bibles today is what Ezra and Nehemiah wrote so many centuries ago. If the Jews had wanted to fool us forging two lists, they would surely have been more careful with their forgery; if the Jews were sloppy in copying the Scriptures and allowed errors to creep in, the differences between the lists would not be so many, and so varied.

These suggestions confirm that the two lists should be treated as free from forgery and free from mistakes, but they don’t explain the differences between the two lists. If what we have today in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 is exactly what they wrote, preserved for us by the power of God, why is Nehemiah’s list so different form Ezra’s? Three suggestions have been put forward:

  • Many authors suggest that the difference is due to the time when both lists were drawn up; one list could have been prepared when the people were getting ready to leave Babylon, indicating all those who planned on making the trip, while the other could include only those who effectively left Babylon and arrived in Jerusalem, some months afterwards[Note 3]. Maybe some would have given their name when they knew of the possibility of a return, but drew back afterwards; others maybe decided to go at the last minute, without previously giving their names. In view of such a long journey, fraught with dangers and perils, it is very likely that many wold change their minds at the last minute. 
  • Some suggest that only Ezra’s list is correct, and that Nehemiah found a corrupt copy of this list. Nehemiah says: “And I found a register of the genealogy of them which came up at the first, and found written therein …” Thus, what Nehemiah wrote was a faithful and true copy of a document he found — but the document was corrupt. Those who suggest that believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, attributing the differences between the two lists to the document that Nehemiah quotes from. It is certainly true that the Bible quotes things that others have said and written which were not true[Note 4], but I find it hard to imagine that something like that happened in this case, as Nehemiah and Ezra were contemporaries.
  • Some commentaries (Davidson, JFB, TSK[Nota 5]) mention an explanation given by someone called Alting, who says that Ezra mentions 494[Note 6] people that Nehemiah doesn’t, and Nehemiah mentions 1,765 that are not mentioned in Ezra. If we add to Ezra’s 29,818 the 1,765 surplus of Nehemiah, we will get 31,583. And if we add to the 31,080 of Nehemiah the 494 surplus of Ezra, we will also get exactly 31,583. Alting is quoted by Davidson, who in turn is quotes by JFB, TSK, Clarke, etc., as if this detail was the solution to the problem. Unfortunately it proves nothing, being simply a characteristic of the relation between any two lists of numbers[Note 7].

Only the first of these alternatives seems plausible to me. I can’t affirm that that was what happened, but I can see how it could have happened. On the other hand, I admit my ignorance of all the details involved, and it could well be that the Lord had other reasons behind leading Ezra and Nehemiah to write down these two lists, so different one from the other.

Hopefully these suggestions, and the detailed table below, might help someone to discover more about these two very interesting records.


Note 1 — Some think that the ratio of women to men in this case is impossible (if the excess refers only to women, then only one in three men would be married; if we include children in the excess, the ratio of married men to single men would be even smaller). Certainly it’s not a normal ratio; but if we remember that many Jews chose to remain in Babylon rather than face the long and perilous journey back to a deserted and abandoned land, it’s not hard to imagine that there would be many more young and single men (with less worries and weight) willing to make this trip back to the promised land, while the majority of married men with children would be more hesitant about such a journey.

Note 2 — For example, in the first difference between the lists Nehemiah has 123 people less that Ezra, while in the second he mentions 6 people more. To change 2812 for 2818 (the second difference in the list) is easy to explain (one could easily change the last “2” for and “8”, repeating the digit that has already appeared in the number), but to change 775 for 652 (the first difference) is hard to attribute to a copyist error. I have used the illustration with our numerical system, fully aware that in Hebrew these details would not apply. But the principle is the same for all languages: changes that are the result of copyist errors follow a pattern that can be explained by lack of attention, or a slip of the eye; but difference which are so varied one from the other, as is the case in these two lists, need another explanation.

Note 3 — The journey was long — Ezra, for example, took four months (Ez 7:8-9).

Note 4 — For example, the serpent said to Eve: “Ye shall not surely die”. The Bible contains this record, not because the serpent’s words were true, but because it is true that the serpent spoke these words.

Note 5 — DAVIDSON, Samuel. Sacred Hermeneutics developed and applied. Edinburgh: Thomas Ckark, 1843, pág. 554. “JFB” is Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s commentary, and “TSK” is the Treasure of Scripture Knowledge.

Note 6 — I took a while to understand this, so I’ll try and explain it in more detail; it might help someone. If we compare Ezra’s list with Nehemiah’s and, in every record where Ezra’s number is greater than the corresponding number in Nehemiah, we make a note of how many people Ezra mentions more than Nehemiah, we will find that all these add up to 494. Ezra mentions 123 more of the children of Arah than Nehemiah (775-652), 100 more of the children of Zattu (945-845), 100 more of the children of Bethel and Ai (223-123), 156 more of the children of Magbish (156-0), 4 more of the sons of Lod, Hadid and One (725-721), one more of the sons of the porters (139-138), and 10 more of the sons of Dalaiah, Tobiah and Nekoda (652-642). The sum of all these surpluses (123+100+100+156+4+1+10) is 494.

Note 7 — You can test this yourself. Make two lists with five or six entries in each (or more, if you’re feeling adventurous), and fill them in with random numbers. The total of the first list, plus the surplus of each record which is greater in the second list, will always be equal to the total of the second list plus the surplus of each record which is greater in the first list.

© W. J. Watterson

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