Numeric Discrepancies in Bible Translation

Sometimes there are numerical and mathematical discrepancies between bible translations. Example: in 2 Sam 15:7 Absalom worked on his coup of David’s kingdom for 40 years in some translations, but four years in other translations. What do we do about those?

The 40 years translation comes from the Masoretic text (Hebrew) and appears in translations like the KJV. While the four years appears in translations of the Greek Septuagint. The Masoretic Text is from around 1000 AD but the Greek Septuagint and others like the Dead Sea Scrolls are from around 400 BC. These are different translations of the old testament that diverge in varying places. More on those two manuscripts here.

2 Sam 15:7 (KJV) Now it came to pass after forty years that Absalom said to the king, “Please, let me go to Hebron and pay the vow which I made to the LORD.

2 Sam 15:7 (NLT) After four years, Absalom said to the king, “Let me go to Hebron to offer a sacrifice to the LORD and fulfill a vow I made to him.

The KJV is using the Masoretic Text while the NTL is using the Greek Septuagint. Which version is correct?

The Backstory:
Amnon and Absalom were both sons of David with different mothers (David had around eight wives that we know of), and Absalom had a younger sister. Amnon raped his sister Tamar and Absalom was angry about it and David did nothing. Two years after Tamar was raped, Absalom killed Amnon and fled to his maternal grandfather’s kingdom and he stayed there for three years (2 Sam ch. 13). Then after that David allows Absalom to come back but David puts him in house arrest and refused to see him for two years (2 Sam ch. 14). Absalom campaigns to start a coup against David and he does this for either four or forty years according to 2 Sam ch. 15.

David married Absalom’s mom, the daughter of the King of Geshur in 2 Samuel 3:3, and since she was a foreign king’s daughter. This was likely a treaty marriage which only makes sense if David is king already when he married her, which means this at the start of his reign in Judah. This means at the max Absalom was born at the beginning of King David’s reign when David was 30, and he reigned for 40 years total so he died at age 70 (2 Samuel 5:4). Absalom could not have sought revenge by murdering his half-brother for his sisters rape as a baby. Absalom, Tamar, and Amnon were all adults of marital age when the rape occurred. Furthermore, Absalom couldn’t plot against David for 40 years since David only reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4-5) and Absalom was born no earlier than the beginning of his reign in Judah. Therefore the four years from the Greek Septuagint is correct and the 40 years from the Masoretic is incorrect.

This transmission error reminds me of another in Numbers 3:28 with the number of firstborn Kohathites counted. Some translations say 8,600 people and others say 8,300 people. 8,300 is the correct answer since the total number of firstborns from all three Levite clans is 22,000 (Num 3:39) because that sum is made from the number of Merarites (6,200 ) and Gershonites (7,500) added to Kohathite. 8,300 + 7,500 + 6,200 = 22,000, the Masoretic text adds an extra 300 to the Kohathites while the greek text says 8300.

A similar discrepancy exists for the reign of King Saul as well. 1 Sam 31:1 says Saul reigned for two years in some translations, while it says it reigned for 42 years in others. Meanwhile, in Acts 13:21, Paul says Saul reigned for 40 years. What is happening here?

1 Samuel 13:1 (KJV) Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,

1 Samuel 13:1 (NLT) Saul was thirty years old [this age is only mentioned in the Greek manuscripts] when he became king, and he reigned for forty-two years.

Which version is correct? The solution to this is simple, we should start by just reading a few more verses.

1 Sam 31:1 (KJV) Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, 2 Saul chose him three thousand men of Israel; whereof two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and in mount Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin: and the rest of the people he sent every man to his tent. 3 And Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, Let the Hebrews hear. 4 And all Israel heard say that Saul had smitten a garrison of the Philistines, and that Israel also was had in abomination with the Philistines. And the people were called together after Saul to Gilgal.

1 Sam 13:1 (NLT) Saul was thirty years old [this age is only mentioned in the Greek manuscripts] when he became king, and he reigned for forty-two years. 2 Saul selected 3,000 special troops from the army of Israel and sent the rest of the men home. He took 2,000 of the chosen men with him to Micmash and the hill country of Bethel. The other 1,000 went with Saul’s son Jonathan to Gibeah in the land of Benjamin. 3 Soon after this, Jonathan attacked and defeated the garrison of Philistines at Geba. 4 All Israel heard the news that Saul had destroyed the Philistine garrison at Geba and that the Philistines now hated the Israelites more than ever. So the entire Israelite army was summoned to join Saul at Gilgal.

In the KJV, that first verse ends with a comma so it continues directly into the next verse. That means the “two years” is a timestamp in the history of Saul’s reign. Saul was anointed king and then spent two years building his army, then he initiated war with Israel’s Philistine oppressors. The NLT translation is giving us the total number of years for Saul’s reign, combining the first two years he spent transitioning Israel into a monarchy, and the next 40 years where he committed actions as the king of Israel. This war with the Philistines was his first kingly act initiating the 40 years. So he reigned for 42 years in total. The distinction between the first two years and the 40 is important because that is what explains Acts 13:21.

Acts 13:21 (NLT) Then the people begged for a king, and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years.

All translations agree on this passage and since it is from the new testament the Greek Septuagint vs Masoretic text distinction does directly not apply. However, According to the Greek manuscript of 1 Sam 31:1, Saul’s total number of years is 42, so these 40 years would have been separated by the initiation of his war with the Philistines. Note: The Septuagint says Saul became king around age 30 but the Masoretic doesn’t mention his age at all. This doesn’t matter since the age is irrelevant but I’m pointing it out as another distinction.

My rule for discrepancies like this between manuscripts that involve numbers is that since math doesn’t lie, go with whichever numbers are mathematically correct, and in the above-mentioned cases, it is the Greek Septuagint, which is the older of the two anyway. However, this logic only applies in cases where one number in a math equation is the discrepancy, what about in cases where the lack of information or assignment of the numbers is an issue? Example: According to 2 Sam 2:10, Ishbosheth reigned for two years, yet David reigned in Hebron as King of Judah for seven and a half years (2 Sam 5:4-5). David became king of Judah after King Saul’s death (2 Sam 2:4), and he became King of Israel after Ishbosheth died (2 Sam 5:3), so how could he have been the king of Judah for seven and a half years if he was made king of Israel after Ishbosheth died, and Ishbosheth only reigned for two years?

Maybe David and Ishbosheth didn’t become king at the same time and Ishbosheth was king for the last two years of David’s seven-year reign in Hebron? Sounds nice but it’s not what happened. David and Ishbosheth became king around the same time. After hearing about Saul’s death in 1 Sam 31, David moved from Ziklag in Philistia, back to Hebron in Judah in 2 Sam 2:1-3. Then David was anointed king by the tribe of Judah, and he asked Israel to be their king as well.

2 Sam 2: (NLT) 4 Then the men of Judah came to David and anointed him king over the people of Judah. When David heard that the men of Jabesh-gilead had buried Saul, 5 he sent them this message: “May the Lord bless you for being so loyal to your master Saul and giving him a decent burial. 6 May the Lord be loyal to you in return and reward you with his unfailing love! And I, too, will reward you for what you have done. 7 Now that Saul is dead, I ask you to be my strong and loyal subjects like the people of Judah, who have anointed me as their new king.”

However, Ishbosheth Saul’s son was just made king in Gilead:
2 Sam 2:8 But Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, had already gone to Mahanaim with Saul’s son Ishbosheth. 9 There he proclaimed Ishbosheth king over Gilead, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, the land of the Ashurites, and all the rest of Israel. 10 Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he became king, and he ruled from Mahanaim for two years. Meanwhile, the people of Judah remained loyal to David. 11 David made Hebron his capital, and he ruled as king of Judah for seven and a half years.

Let’s take another look at 2 Sam 5:4-5:
2 Sam 5:4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years in all. 5 He had reigned over Judah from Hebron for seven years and six months, and from Jerusalem, he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirty-three years.

Notice, it says David reigned from “Hebron” for seven and a half years and from “Jerusalem” for 33 years. David didn’t just move to Jerusalem as soon as Israel made him king, he had to conquer Jerusalem and take it from the Jebusites, and this would have taken time. This is explained in the next few verses.

2 Sam 5:6 David then led his men to Jerusalem to fight against the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of the land who were living there. The Jebusites taunted David, saying, “You’ll never get in here! Even the blind and lame could keep you out!” For the Jebusites thought they were safe. 7 But David captured the fortress of Zion, which is now called the City of David. 8 On the day of the attack, David said to his troops, “I hate those ‘lame’ and ‘blind’ Jebusites. Whoever attacks them should strike by going into the city through the water tunnel.” That is the origin of the saying, “The blind and the lame may not enter the house.” 9 So David made the fortress his home, and he called it the City of David. He extended the city, starting at the supporting terraces and working inward. 10 And David became more and more powerful, because the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies was with him.

The solution here is that David and Ishbosheth became king at the same time after Saul’s death, and when Ishbosheth was killed two years later, David was received as king by Israel. However, he was still in Hebron and had to conquer Jerusalem before he could rule from it. This conquest would have taken time and based on the numbers we have it would have taken about five and a half years (7.5 – 2 = 5.5). So before conquering Jerusalem, David was an honorary king over Israel, but it was not counted until after he conquered Jerusalem. The text doesn’t directly give a time frame, but this unknown variable fits into our equation which subtracts two years out of the seven years for David’s reign of Judah from Hebron. Therefore, even though the later five years of his seven-year rule in Hebron as King of Judah were after Ishbosheth’s death, it was before he conquered and moved to the new capital Jerusalem, the “City of David” and established himself formally as King of all of Israel.

Another conflict with the reign of Saul exists concerning how long he reigned after Samuel died. Jews from the 1st century like Paul in Acts 13:21 and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus believed that Saul reigned for 40 years. However, Josephus suggests (Antiquities, book 6, chapter 14, section 9) that Saul reigned for 18 years while Samuel was alive, and 22 years after his death. Since David was made King at age 30 when Saul died that would mean that David was eight years old (30 – 22 years) when Samuel died. Eight years old seems a little young for the events that occur in David’s life up until Samuel’s death. Saul gave David his daughter Michal as a wife, after killing 100 Philistines. Even though his military victories are the result of God’s grace (1 Sam ch. 17) and 200 philistines (1 Sam 18:27), marriage seems unlikely for a male younger than 12-13 years old. In addition, why would Johnathan who would have been at least 20 (old enough to be drafted in the army), want to be best friends with an 8-year-old (1 Sam 18:1-4)? Plus we know he had a beard according to 1 Sam 21:13 which is when he first fled Saul who was jealous of him and tried to kill him. He pretended to be an insane man (drooling on his beard) because the Philistines recognized him as the one that slew Goliath. This is in addition to David talking about the sexual/ritual purity of his soldiers when being offered Presence Bread in 1 Sam 21:1-6. I don’t imagine these things applying to an eight-year-old.

Alternatively, some scholars suggest he probably reigned two years after the death of Samuel. The thought is that Saul started chasing David again around 8 months after Samuel died in 1 Samuel ch. 25. In 1 Sam ch. 26-27, David and his men run from Saul and hid in Ziklag (in Philistia) for 16 months (1 Sam 27:7). This totals up to two years (8 + 16 = 24 months). Then after Saul died, David returned to Judah (2 Sam 2:1) and became king at age 30. It appears the Bible itself doesn’t agree with what Josephus wrote about how long Saul reigned before and after Samuel’s death, or even how old Saul was when Samuel died, so those numbers can be anything as long as the ends of that time frame line up. Eight years old is too young to have a beard, be married, and be a leader of grown men and evening instruct them on ritual purity and sex practices. So a distribution of 18 and then 22 does not seem correct and since the bible doesn’t even say it we don’t have to accept it. Saul’s reign lasting two more years (or anything less than 15 years) after Samuel’s death seems more reasonable to me since David would be at least 13 years (if Saul lived another 15 years after Samuel’s death) when he slew Goliath.

Some numeric discrepancies between Septuagint and the Masoretic Text like the ages of the patriarchs between Noah and Abraham (Gen ch. 5 and 11) are still debated since we don’t have a third source to confirm. The Dead Sea Scrolls don’t have this part of Genesis and the new testament doesn’t directly quote from it. Although the genealogy of Luke 3:35-36 contains unique elements only found in the Septuagint version of Genesis 11. This and other scriptural references to the old testament suggest that the New Testament favors the Septuagint manuscript of the Old Testament. However, the pro-Masoretic camp has suggested that New Testament copyists referenced the Septuagint for Old Testament quotes because Greek was the business language of the day and most 1st century Jews were only using the Greek text. Until we get a third witness or some direct revelation the debate will continue for those chapters. In the meantime, we can use the clues we are given to solve the simpler discrepancies.

Some issues like the ones in Numbers 3:28 can happen from copy errors or damage caused by the wear and tear of manuscripts. Numbers 3:28 has 8600 Korathites in Masoretic and 8300 in Septuagint. One possibility could be that one letter got interpreted as another because the ink faded in certain places. The Hebrew number system uses Hebrew letters via the gematria system. In Gematria each Hebrew letter has a numerical value. In Hebrew, the difference between the letter gimel (ג‎) which has a value of three, and vav (ו‎) which has a value of six is that gimel has a horizontal serif at the top and a diagonal line at the bottom (like the English letter “R”). If the two marks are missing then the gimel may look like a vav and this could be the reason it got translated as a “6” causing 8300 to become 8600. This is one idea, but there could be various reasons for it. In the end, we have the older Septuagint manuscript, showing us the correct version.

These discrepancies don’t devalue the word of God as truth. It simply reminds us that while God is perfect, humans are imperfect and live in an imperfect world that causes decay. Despite mistranslations and copyist errors here and there, God has made it so that we can have multiple manuscripts to fill in any errors that come through. So when one manuscript gets something wrong two others will get that thing right. Truth is determined by the word of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15, 2 Cor 13:1), and these manuscript function as “witnesses”. Looks like God built a self-correction mechanism for any issues that occurred over the years.

For your reading pleasure:
An overview of the Saul vs David story:
Samuel is the prophet that initially anointed Saul as king (1 Sam ch. 10). Saul failed to keep God’s instruction so then God had Samuel anoint David as King (1 Sam ch .16). David becomes popular after slaying Goliath and Saul became jealous and persecuted David (1 Sam ch. 18-24). Saul makes peace with David after he spares his life in 1 Sam ch. 24, and in the next chapter Samuel dies (1 Sam 25:1). The rest of chapter 25 is about David marrying Abigail the widow of Nabal. In chapter 26, Saul breaks his promise and goes after David again, David spares his life again and Saul promises to leave him alone. In chapter 27, David doesn’t take any chances and then seeks refuge amongst the Philistines, Israel’s enemies, under the guise of a being defector. King Achish gave David and his men the city of Ziklag to stay in with their families. 1 Sam 27:7 says they lived in Ziklag for a year and four months (16 months). They didn’t leave until after Saul died when he lost to the Philistines in 1 Sam ch. 31 (2 Sam ch. 1-2). In 2 Sam ch. 2, David is made king over the tribe of Judah and Ishbosheth Saul’s son is made king of Israel. David reigned as king of Judah for 7 years and then became king of Israel and reigned for 33 years, making his reign 40 years in total (2 Sam 5:4-5). When Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, was killed in a coup, David was named King, and then conquered and moved to Jerusalem (2 Sam ch. 4).

David King of Judah:
During the seven years David reigned in Judah, he and Ishbosheth had a civil war and David’s side was gaining the upper hand. In 2 Sam ch. 3, Ishbosheth gets into an argument with his adviser Abner over one of Saul’s concubines, and Abner defects and goes to make peace with David. David agreed to negotiate if his first wife Michal the daughter of Saul, was returned to him. She was given away to another man by Saul when David first fled from him (1 Sam 25:44). Abner agreed and Ishbosheth gave her back. At this point, David had 7 wives in total. His 6 other wives included, the two he acquired after Samuel died (1 Sam 25:39-43), and the four he acquired as king of Judah (2 Sam 3:2-5). Just as Abner was going to consult with the elders of Israel to turn on Ishbosheth, he was killed by David’s right-hand man Joab (Sam 3:22-30) out of revenge for his brother Asahel who was killed in a battle between Israel and Judah (2 Sam 2:18-32) and David was furious because they had just brokered peace (2 Sam 3:31-39). Meanwhile, the people on Ishbosheth’s side were disheartened and two of them killed Ishbosheth (2 Sam ch. 4). Afterward, since they now had no king, Israel agreed to be subjected to David (2 Sam ch. 5).

Resources:
Various translations of 2 Sam 15:7
Various translations of 1 Sam 13:1
Comments on Acts 13:21

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