Question: What do Doublets Teach Us about Inerrancy?

Occasionally there are two different versions of the same story in Scripture that often appear to conflict on some details. The Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives are a prime example along with the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his followers. So both the beginning and ending of Jesus's earthly life are marred by apparent discrepancies. Sometimes these potential errors are more significant than others and it is true that plausible solutions exist for a large swathe of them, but some, admittedly, do not lend themselves easily to harmonization and look like genuine errors. An explicit example of one without an easy solution is the fate of Judas in Matthew (27:3-10) and Acts (1:16-19). Did Judas (Lk) or the chief priests buy the field (Mt)? Did Judas die by hanging (Mt) or by falling headlong, bursting open and having his bowels gush out (Lk)? Was the field named Akeldama "to this day" because the priests bought it with blood money (Mt) or did "everyone in Jerusalem hear about this" because Judas died there (Lk)? I've seen very poor apologetics along the lines of, "If you send your daughter to the store to purchase something then it would be accurate to say she bought it from one perspective and you did from another." But if I threw money away--as did Judas-- and someone picks it up and purchases something with it, in no meaningful sense can it be said Judas purchased the field. If they had donated the money to the poor, would we feel comfortable saying that Judas gave the money to the poor? Other solutions rely on the equivocating notion that the temple priests didn't accept it and the money remained Judas's despite him clearly giving it back by throwing it on the floor. These poor solutions are not very convincing.

The examples above from the New Testament compare stories from one book of scripture with another or several others. I do not want to focus on these issues because curiously enough, in the Pentateuch, there are often two different versions of the same story right next to one another in a single work! These are referred to as "doublets" and while they will be highlighted below, first we will examine a "triplet" that occurs in the New Testament . Acts 9, 22 and 26 provide us with three separate recollections of Paul's conversion. The gist of the incident is clearly delineated but there appear to be subtle differences.

Acts 9:3-9 Acts 22:6-11 Acts 26:13-16
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' 5 He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.' 7 The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 6 'While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" 8 I answered, "Who are you, Lord?" Then he said to me, "I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting." 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 I asked, "What am I to do, Lord?" The Lord said to me, "Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do." 11 Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.' 13 when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads." 15 I asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The Lord answered, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you."

Acts 9 says Paul's companions heard the voice but saw no one whereas Acts 22 says they heard not the voice but saw the light. Acts 26 says they saw the light, that was allegedly brighter than the sun, and fell down but Acts 9 depicts them as standing speechless. We can also ask as Keener does, "Did the commission come on the road (26:16-18), through Ananias (9:15-17), or in Jerusalem (22:21)?" (Baker Exegetical V2). Quite a few translations harmonize one difficulty by interpreting 22:9 as "they did not understand the voice" instead of "they did not hear the voice." This is undesirable as Fitzmyer writes, "This distinction may be valid for Greek in general, but it 'does not accord with Lukan usage.' See 10:46; 11:7; 14:9; 15:12; 22:7." [AB Acts Commentary pg 426] Keener extends this: "Some scholars seek to resolve the difference by appealing to classical usage: άκονω with the genitive (as in 9:7) means to "hear a sound" whereas with the accusative (as in 22:9) it means to "hear with understanding." Luke, however, does not observe this distinction in his writings (e.g., Luke 2:47; 6:18, 47), and it appears that the lxx, other nt writers, and Epictetus also do not." How do we make sense of this? Keener distinguishes between ancient and modern historiography:

Ancient historians fleshing out minor details of a simpler account might flesh it out differently on different occasions. Such variation could also function as a deliberate rhetorical device; Tannehill suggests that when recounting events that he has treated before, Luke likes "to vary details and emphasis" and sometimes goes further than modern readers feel comfortable with, creating conflicts for attentive readers. The difference is less consequential than modern arguments often make it (cf. comment on Acts 22:9); it is certainly less than many differences between accounts of the same events in Josephus's War and his Antiquities of the Jews. That Josephus composed differently even in such elite works, each potentially read by the same audience as the other, suggests that ancient audiences normally saw little problem with, and probably often expected, such rhetorical variation.

Doublets in Scripture

We now turn to the doublets in the Old Testament. The commentary section on Genesis in the Jewish Study Bible writes [emphasis mine]:
One aspect of narrative in Genesis that requires special attention is its high tolerance for different versions of the same event, a well-known feature of ancient Near Eastern literature, from earliest times through rabbinic midrash. The book presents, for example, two accounts of Abram/Abraham’s attempting to pass his wife off as his sister (12.10-20; 20.1-18; cf. 26.1-11, where Isaac does the same), two accounts of God’s making a covenant with him (ch 15 and 17), and two accounts of how Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (32.23-33; 35.9-15). In these instances, most modern biblical scholars see different antecedent documents that editors (known as redactors or compilers) have combined to give us the text now in our hands. This could not have happened, however, if the existence of variation was seen as a serious defect or if rigid consistency was deemed essential to effective storytelling. Rather, the redactors have chosen a different approach, retaining variant versions and treating them as sequential events in the same longer story. The result is a certain measure of repetition, to be sure, but the repetition is in the service of a sophisticated presentation of themes with variations in a book rich in narrative analogy, revealing echoes, and suggestive contrasts. For the Rabbis of Talmudic times and their successors through the centuries, the exploration of those subtle literary features provided an indispensable insight not only into the first book of the Torah (the most sacred part of the Tanakh) but also into the mind of God.
Failure to recognize these doublets in scripture as coming from separate sources has led to a lot of confusion over the years. Friedmann [The Bible with Sources Revealed] listed the following 31 examples of doublets in the Pentateuch:

[1] Creation. Gen 1:1-2:3 (P) and Gen 2:4b-25 (J).
[2] Genealogy from Adam. Gen 4:17-26 (J) and 5:1-28,30-32 (Book of Records).
[3] The Flood. Gen 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 7,10,12,16b-20,22-23; 8:2b-3a,6,8-12,13b,20-22 (J) and 6:9-22; 7:8-9,11,13-16a,21,24; 8:1-2a, 3b-5,7,13a, 14-19; 9:1-17 (P).
[4] Genealogy from Shem. Gen 10:21-31 (J and P) and 11:10-2 (Book of Records).
[5] Abraham's migration. Gen 12:1-43 (J) and 12:4b-5 (P).
[6] Wife/sister. Gen 12:10-20 (J) and 20:1-18 (E) and 26:6-14 (J). (Triplet)
[7] Abraham and Lot separate. Gen 13:5, 7-11a, 12b-14 (J) and 13:6, 11b-12a (P).
[8] The Abrahamic covenant. Gen 15 (J, E, and R) and 17 (P).
[9] Hagar and Ishmael. Gen 16:1-2,4-14 (J) and 16:3,15-16 (P) and 21:8-19 (E). (Triplet)
[10] Prophecy of Isaac's birth. Gen 17:16-19 (P) and 18:10-14 (J).
[11] Naming of Beer-sheba. Gen 21:22-31 (E) and 26:15-33 (J).
[12] Jacob, Esau, and the departure to the east. Gen 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:1-9 (P) and 27:1-45; 28:10 (J).
[13] Jacob at Beth-El. Gen 28:10,11a,13-16,19 (J) and 28:11b-12, 1 7-18, 20-22 (E) and 35:9-15 (P). (Triplet)
[14] Jacob's twelve sons. Gen 29:32-35; 30:1-24; 35:16-20 (JE) and Gen 35:23-26 (P).
[15] Jacob's name changed to Israel. Gen 32:25-33 (E) and 35:9-10 (P).
[16] Joseph sold into Egypt. Gen 37:2b,3b,5-11,19-20,23,25b-27, 28b, 31-35; 39:1 (J) and 37:3a, 4, 12-18, 21-22, 24, 25a, 28a,29-30 (E).
[17] YHWH commissions Moses. Exod 3:2-4a,5,7-8,19-22; 4:19-20a (J) and 3:1,4b,6,9-18; 4:1-18, 20b-21a, 22-23 (E) and 6:2-12 (P). (Triplet)
[18] Moses, Pharaoh, and the plagues. Exod 5:3-6:1; 7:14-18, 20b-21, 23-29; 8:3b-11a, 16-28; 9:1-7,13-34; 10:1-19 , 21-26, 28-29; 11:18 (E) and 7:6-13,19-20a,22; 8:1-33,12-15; 9:8-12 (P).
[19] The Passover. Exod 12:1-20,28,40-50 (P) and 12:21-27,29-36, 37b-39 (E).
[20] The Red Sea. Exod 13:21-22; 14:53,6,9a,10b,13-14,19b,20b, 21b,24,27b,30-31 (J) and 14:1-4,8,9b, 10a, 10c, 15-18,21a,21c, 22-23,26-27a, 28-29 (P).
[21] Manna and quail in the wilderness. Exod 16:2-3,6-35a (P) and Num 11:4-34 (E).
[22] Water from a rock at Meribah. Exod 17:2-7 (E) and Num 20:2-13 (P).
[23] Theophany at Sinai/Horeb. Exod 19:1; 24:15b-18a (P) and 19:2b-9,16b-17,19; 20:18-21 (E) and 19:10-16a, 18,20-25 (J) (Triplet)
[24] The Ten Commandments. Exod 20:1-17 (R) and 34:10-28 (J) and Deut 5:6-18 (D). (Triplet)
[25] Kid in mother's milk. Exod 23:19 (Covenant Code) and 34:26 (J) and Deut 14:21 (D). (Triplet)
[26] Forbidden animals. Leviticus 11 (P) and Deuteronomy 14 (D).
[27] Centralization of sacrifice. Leviticus 17 and Deuteronomy 12.
[28] Holidays. Leviticus 23 (P) and Numbers 28-29 (R) and Deut 16:1-17 (P). (Triplet)
[29] The spies. Num 13:1-16,21,25-26,32; 14:13,2-3,5-10,26-29 (P) and 13:17-20,22-24,27-31,33; 14:1b, 4,11-25,39-45 (J).
[30] Heresy at Peor. Num 25:1-5 (J) and 25:6-19 (P).
[31] Appointment of Joshua. Num 27:12-23 (P) and Deut 31:14-15,23 (E).

There are other examples of doublets outside the Pentateuch not listed by Friedmann who was interested in the composition of the first five books. Examples include: Saul chosen as king (1 Sam 9:15-16, 10:1 with 1 Sam 8:1-22; 10:17-19), Saul's death (1 Sam 31 with 1 Chron 10), David and the ark (2 Sam 6:1-11 with 1 Chron 13:5-14), Solomon (1 Kings 3:4 with 2 Chron 1:3, 1 Kings 11:41-42 with 2 Chron 9:29-30, 1 Kings 3:4-15 with 2 Chron 1:3-13), David's sons (2 Sam 3:2-5, 13-16 with 1 Chron 3:1-9) and King Asa (1 Kings 15:17-24 with 2 Chron 15:16-17:1). There are certainly conflicting details in some of these and those listed above. For example, the minimum age of service for Levites is 25 in Numbers 8:24 but 30 per Numbers 4:3, 23 and 30 and Moses's father-in-law is Reuel in Exodus 2:18 but Jethro in 4:18. The Jewish Study Bible is correct when it wrote: "In these instances, most modern biblical scholars see different antecedent documents that editors (known as redactors or compilers) have combined to give us the text now in our hands." Different source documents have been woven together in scripture which leaves us with a number of incongruities. Friedman subscribes to the documentary hypothesis, the belief that several authors composed the Pentateuch as opposed to tradition which asserts Moses wrote it. He identifies four sources in the Pentateuch: J is the Yawhist source, E is the Elohist source, D is the Deuteronomist source and P is the Priestly source. These are the letters you see above. One does not have to agree with all details of the documentary hypothesis to understand the force of the argument presented by the list above. We have many doublets, sometimes right next to one another, or even intertwined, that have mutually exclusive details. We can look at a few examples from the primeval history in Genesis and then form a few conclusions.

Multiple Creation Accounts in Genesis

A careful reading of Genesis 1-2 strongly suggests that we have two completely distinct creation accounts kicking off the Pentateuch that don't agree on all details when taken literally. Comparing the two accounts (1st = Genesis 1:2-2:3; 2nd = 2:4-2:25) reveals many differences: God's name is different (Elohim vs YAHWEH-Elohim), the order of creation is different (e.g. animals before or after humans?), the duration of creation is described differently (six days and one of rest vs "the day"), how God creates is different (by divine word: bar'a, or by fashioning: yatsar), the purpose of humans is different (rulers/stewards of the earth or caretakers of a garden), the primordial earth is different (watery-formless chaos that is ordered vs a desert turned into an oasis), and the image of God is different (transcendent in the first account but anthropomorphic and primitive in the second where we must ask, does he not know none of the animals will be a suitable helper for Adam?).I have treated this issue in more detail here.

Multiple Flood Accounts in Genesis

It turns out that a careful reading of the flood account demonstrates that the final editor took two separate narratives and has ingeniously woven them together. There remains, however, some friction between the two accounts leading to contradictory details (see here). Joseph Blekinsopp writes:
The arguments which have led scholars to postulate a combination of sources are fairly straightforward and have never been refuted. There are inconsistencies with respect to what was brought into the ark, the chronology, and perhaps the manner in which the deluge was brought about. We hear of one pair, male and female, of each species (6:19-20; 7:14-16), but also of seven pairs of clean and one pair of unclean animals (7:2-3, 8-9). We are told that the flood lasted 40 days (7:4, 12, 17; 8:6), or sixty-one, counting every day until the ground dried out (8:6-12), but we also hear of a duration of one hundred and fifty days (7:24; 8:3), a figure compatible with the five months from the beginning to the grounding of the ark on Ararat (8:4). While the description of the disaster as a downpour of rain (7:4, 12; 8:2) is not necessarily incompatible with the more mythological language of the bursting forth of the fountains of the great deep (7:11; 8:2) it is more natural to think of the latter as providing a quite distinctive perspective, especially if read in the larger context of Genesis 1-11.

We have often been reminded that repetition is not in itself an indication of the composite nature of a narrative . . . and with this we may readily agree. But the situation is rather different when we encounter parallel versions of episodes in which the parallels consistently exhibit distinctive characteristics. So, for example, Noah is told to board the ark with family members and specifically designated livestock. He does so, and then the command is repeated with the same people and differently designated livestock, and he does so again (6:18b-21, 22; 7:1-5). In such cases it is unreasonable to exclude editorial activity carried out according to canons somewhat different from those we would follow today." [The Pentateuch, pp 77-78]
Bill Arnold writes:
While it may seem odd to us at first that an editor retained such discrepancies, we may assume that the sources or traditions underlying the whole had already attained authoritative status, and the editor valued the traditions enough to retain the inconsistencies, which were not problematic in ancient literature." [Genesis Baker Exegetical Commentary, 96-97]

The Genealogy in Genesis 4-5

The genealogies in Genesis 4-5 appear to be by two different sources as well. Genesis 4 has the following order: Cain to Enoch to Irad to Mehujael to Methushael, and Methushael to Lamech. Genesis 5 has the following order: Seth to Enosh to Kenan to Mahalalel to Jared to Enoch to Methuselah to Lamech to Noah.
Kenton Sparks writes:
These two creation stories are followed by two different genealogies. As table 3 shows, these two genealogies are actually versions of the same genealogy, one that uses the name Yahweh (chap. 4) and another that uses Elohim (chap. 5). The names in the lists are almost identical, and are in nearly the same order. The chief variation is that the version in chapter 5 has combined the Seth and Cain segments from chapter 4 into a single, linear genealogy. Each genealogy provides the transition from the respective creation story to the flood story in chapters 6–9. As a result, we have two parallel creation/genealogy narratives leading up to the flood story, the Elohim version in chapters 1 and 5 and the Yahweh version in chapters 2–4.
As we already saw above, there are also two different versions of the flood story as well. Many problems in the Old Testament are the result of two or more different streams of thought being interpreted as a singular stream. Sparks writes:
According to the Yahwist, people knew of the divine name early in human history (Gen. 4:26), so that the revelation to Moses in Exodus 3 was not of the name itself but rather of the name’s significance, which meant “I am that I am.” The Priestly Writer gives an entirely different impression. He explicitly claims that the divine name “Yahweh” was first revealed to Moses at Sinai (see Exod. 6) and that even the patriarchs knew God only as El Shaddai (El = Elohim). Theological differences between the Yahwist and Priestly Writer are also visible in the flood story. The Yahwist reports that seven pairs of each clean species were loaded onto Noah’s ark, while the Priestly Writer had only one pair on board. The reason for this difference is transparent: the Yahwist needed the extra animals for Noah’s sacrifices after the flood, while the Priestly Writer, who did not permit sacrifices before the time of Moses and the tabernacle, did not need the extra animals.

Conclusion: I cannot go through every doublet nor would I claim there are necessarily errors in all of them or that plausible harmonizations do not exist for some of these apparent conflicts. Yet, we cannot escape the fact that many doublets exist in scripture and it appears that ancient authors weren't as hung up as we are today with leaving inconsistent details in a written work--even side-by-side. Many modern day exegetes are strong proponents of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy but the ancient authors who either edited distinct sources together or supplemented existing ones, had no concerns with minor inconsistencies and flat out contradictions in the final product of the text. It would appear, then, that the God who inspired them did not either. Doublets in the Bible certainly rule out inerrancy in the modern sense of the complete accuracy in all that it narrates Sometimes we approach the Bible from the wrong direction. We are post-Enlightenment, fact-literal westerners and tend to read the Bible as if was a modern work. In a sense we can't help it. Once Rome was converted to Christianity and it spread throughout the world, the Biblical stories became background knowledge or conventional wisdom for large portions of civilization--largely until modern science--including archaeology and history--challenged some of them. We read the Bible as if it exudes the same interests in relaying historical facts that we want it to. Nothing could be further from the truth. So many problems with the Bible today are fires of our own making because we get the genre of the text wrong and misunderstand it. Derek Kidner wrote the following in his commentary on Genesis:
"We have in the Bible some of the most beautiful poetry: pious, lyrical and erotic, and also some of the angriest. We have narratives of epic proportions, aetiologies and folktales that are at times stunningly profound and evocative, romances and adventure stories, some of them are ideologically tendentious or moralistic. There is patent racism and sexism, and some of the world's earliest condemnations of each. One of the things the Bible almost never is, however, is intentionally historical: that is an interest of ours that it rarely shares. Here and there, the Bible uses data gleaned from ancient texts or records. It often refers to great figures and events of the past . . . at least as they are known to popular tradition. But it cites such 'historical facts' only where they may serve as grist for one of its various literary mills. The Bible knows nothing or nearly nothing of most of the great, transforming events of Palestine's history. Of historical causes, it knows only one: Palestine's ancient deity Yahweh. It knows nearly nothing of the great droughts that changed the course of Palestine's world for centuries, and it is equally ignorant of the region's great historical battles at Megiddo, Kadesh and Lachish. The Bible tells us nothing directly of four hundred years of Egyptian presence. Nor can it take on the role of teaching us anything about the wasteful competition for the Jezreel in the early Iron Age, or about the forced sedentarization of nomads along Palestine's southern flank. . . . The reason for this is simple. The Bible's language is not an historical language. It is a language of high literature, of story, of sermon and of song. It is a tool of philosophy and moral instruction. To argue that the Bible has it wrong is like alleging that Herman Melville has got his whale wrong! Literarily, one might quibble about whether Jonah has it right with his big fish, but not because the story could or could not have happened. On the story's own terms, the rescue of Jonah is but a journeyman's device as far as plot resolutions go. But no false note is sounded in Jonah's fig tree, in Yahweh's speech from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, or in Isaiah 40's song of comfort."
It seems to me that we are reading the Bible incorrectly in some ways and expecting of it answers to questions it was never meant to answer and requiring of it things it never intended to do. The very inspired authors of scripture themselves had no issues with errors existing in the text side-by-side and that means God had no interest in creating an inerrant scripture either. Scripture is authoritative and inspired but not inerrant. It plainly teaches us itself that it has no concerns with inerrancy. Its time to rethink the idea that God sat down and penned a book from his perspective or mechanically dictated the words to ancient authors, but to think more of Him as moving over them, inspiring them to write and putting ideas in their heads. But it is impossible not to think that He allowed them freedom to speak through their own culture, beliefs and circumstances. In other words, God accommodated his message through fallible, sinful humans. If an exegete thinks God can't inspire and speak through a Scripture with conflicting doublets, I'd challenge them as having too low of a view of God's sovereignty.

Back to the Main Page

Christianity Q&A Page