Are there errors in the parallel accounts of Asa?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: When we compare 2 Chronicles 15 and 16 with 1 Kings 15, we find a contradiction in when Baasha went to war with Asa (the problem verses are really 2 Chronicles 15:19 and 16:1). The two solutions proposed are 1) reckoning the "36th year" to be the 36th year of the Kingdom of Judah, the 16th year of Asa; and 2) a copyist error, where 35 and 36 should really read 15 and 16. Either way, there is still a problem - 2 Chr. 15:15, 19 says God gave them rest until the 35th year, which would be the same year the rest began. Do you have any insight into this tangle?

Answer: First let me say that I appreciate the fact that you are not threatening to throw the Bible away because of a copyist error in some of its ancient documents — but that you are just looking for some help in untangling the issue. Now, I don’t have any original thoughts on a solution to this dates-and-times mismatch, but I am most comfortable with the idea that this is probably a copyist error. As such, we cannot separate the verse that you have in view for the others that most likely connect to it — but this will vary with the interpretations.

Your question tells me that you probably have the same hearty (as opposed to brittle) view on biblical inerrancy that I have — considering the original documents as inerrant under the terms of “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978)” which leaves room for minor errors appearing in our best manuscripts. I feel sorry for believers who require any version of the English Bible to be error-free — because a certain number of minor variations (none of which affect any doctrine) would be normal for any data. But a brittle inerrantist would have to toss the Bible away at this point… or else hold the purported error in horrible tension until someone resolved it.

But the more reasonable among us understand that a copyist error does not affect the existence of God, his plan for redemption, the historicity of Jesus Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit, etc.… and a copyist error is the worse this can be… but some of the solutions avoid even that. Following are some of my favorite explanations.

The most common solution can be seen in J.A. Thompson’s (H. G. M. Williamson’s) offering that these dates do not refer to Asa’s reign but to the division of the monarchy.

…. H. G. M. Williamson proposes a chronology which, though speculative to a degree, provides a helpful outline. He proposes that the invasion by Zerah came in the middle of a period of peace. After Asa’s victory the celebration of 15:9–15 was the climax of Asa’s reform as well as a victory festival. It is based on a working hypothesis that the chronological references to the thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth years relate not to Asa’s reign but to the division of the monarchy. These two dates would then correspond to the fifteenth and sixteenth years of Asa.

Thompson, J. A. (1994). 1, 2 Chronicles (Vol. 9, pp. 273–274). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges commentary also offers the possibility that, in addition to the copyist error, we might be confounding Judah’s identity in the divided kingdom with Asa’s reign specifically. They offer a corrected reading.

….the six and thirtieth year] According to 1 Kings 16:8 Baasha was succeeded by his son Elah in the six-and-twentieth year of Asa. The number thirty-six is probably therefore wrong. It should be noticed however that the thirty-sixth year of the separate kingdom of Judah corresponds with the sixteenth year of Asa, so that possibly two different reckonings are here confused, and so we should read, In the six-and-thirtieth year, that is, in the sixteenth year of Asa. So in 2 Chronicles 15:19 we should read, in the five-and-thirtieth, that is, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Asa.

H. D. M. Spence-Jones notes in The Pulpit Commentary that in addition to an obvious textual error that the text reflects a difference between chronic and acute hostilities.

Ver. 19.—There was no more war. The Hebrew text should be adhered to, which simply says, there was not war unto, etc. The five and thirtieth year. There can be little doubt that the text originally said “twentieth,” not “thirtieth” (see also ch. 16:1). The parallel, after the identical words of the previous verse already noted, goes on emphatically to speak of the fact that “there was war between Asa and Baasha all their days:” and the same statement is repeated in the thirty-second verse of the same chapter (1 Kings 15:16, 32). The following verse (33) says that Bahasa’s twenty-four-year reign began in Asa’s third year. Putting the various and apparently somewhat varying statements together, they must be held to say, first, that a state of war was, indeed, chronic between Asa and Baasha (which way of putting need not disturb the correctness of ch. 14:5, 6, and of the fifteenth verse of our chapter), but that in the six and twentieth year of Asa, which would be the last or last but one of Baasha’s life, latent war gave place to active hostilities, and Baasha (ch. 16:1) came up to Judah to invade it, and to build Ramah—a course of conduct which was the beginning of the end for him (comp. 1 Kings 16:8; our ver. 10; and ch. 16:1, 9).

Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). 2 Chronicles (pp. 183–184). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.

In their Commentary on the Old Testament, Keil & Delitzsch discuss how the Hebrew text shows a difference between chronic and acute hostilities. Their amended reading of 2 Chronicles 16:1 reflects on your subject verse in 2 Chronicles 15:19.

2 Chron. 15:19. V. 19 is different from 1 Kings 15:16. In the latter passage it is said: war was between Asa and Baasha the king of Israel כָּל־יְמֵיהֶם, i.e., so long as both reigned contemporaneously; while in the Chronicle it is said: war was not until the thirty-fifth year of Asa’s reign. This discrepancy is partly got rid of by taking מִלְחָמָה in the book of Kings to denote the latent hostility or inimical attitude of the two kingdoms towards each other, and in the Chronicle to denote a war openly declared. The date, until the thirty-fifth year, causes a greater difficulty; but this has been explained in 2 Chron. 16:1 by the supposition that in the thirty-sixth year of Asa’s reign war broke out between Asa and Baasha, when the meaning of our 16th verse would be: It did not come to war with Baasha until the thirty-sixth year of Asa’s rule. For further remarks on this, see on 16:1.

Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (1996). Commentary on the Old Testament (Vol. 3, pp. 622–623). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

According to J.M. Hicks, the texts in question are not actually parallel.

While 2 Chronicles 15:19 seemingly parallels 1 Kings 15:16, their statements contrast.

“There was no more war until the thirty-fifth year of Asa’s reign.” (2 Chronicles 15:19, NIV)

“There was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel throughout their reigns.” (1 Kings 15:16, NIV)

While the chronological problem was discussed in the introduction to 1 Chronicles 14, placing Chronicles and Dtr [the Dtr, the Deuteronomistic Historian, is the overall historical voice of the books Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings which are our primary source for the history of Israel from the time of the tribes until the fall of the Kingdom of Judah. Evan Plante] side-by-side highlights the significant difference. How can the Chronicler contradict his source so explicitly? Whereas Dtr believes there was war between Israel and Judah “throughout their reigns” (lit., “all their days”), the Chronicler believes that Asa lived in peace until his thirty-fifth year.

Steiner (221–223) suggests that the two texts do not have the same function though they are literary parallels. Second Chronicles 15:19 serves as the conclusion of 2 Chronicles 15:1–18 and thus describes the peace of Asa’s reign in the light of his covenant renewal. However, 1 Kings 15:16 is an introduction to 1 Kings 15:17. Chronicles, as an exegete of Dtr, clarifies the structural relationship. Strictly, 2 Chronicles 15:19 is not parallel to 1 Kings 15:16 because it concludes the previous section rather than introducing the next one (as 1 Kgs 15:16 does). Chronicles understands that Asa had peace before his war with Baasha. The two texts do not have the same function and, therefore, are not parallel. Asa had a time of peace, but then he also had a time of war that filled the latter part of his reign. The Chronicler interprets Dtr’s “all their days” as referring to the final years of Asa’s reign. If the date is thirty-six years after the schism (894 B.C.) or a textual variant is the problem (15 instead of 35), then Asa would have experienced war with the northern kingdom during most of his reign (from 894–869 B.C.).

Hicks, J. M. (2001). 1 & 2 Chronicles (pp. 352–353). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.

Eric Lyons joins many others in suggesting that 2 Chronicles 15:19 was the copyist’s error — and that the rest of the text was subsequently adjusted. But note Lyon’s (Keil and Delitzsch’s) emphasis on the ease of such an error.

In the book of 1 Kings we read that Baasha became the third ruler of the Northern kingdom (Israel) “in the third year of Asa king of Judah…and reigned twenty-four years” (15:33). Then, when Baasha died, his son Elah became king over Israel “in the twenty-sixth year of Asa king of Judah” (16:8, emp. added). However, 2 Chronicles 16:1 reads: “In the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Asa, Baasha king of Israel came up against Judah and built Ramah, that he might let none go out or come in to Asa king of Judah” (emp. added). The obvious question that anyone has who reads these two passages is: How could Baasha be ruling over Israel in the thirty-sixth year of Asa’s reign, when 1 Kings 16 clearly indicates that Baasha had died when Asa (the third king of the southern kingdom) was only in the twenty-sixth year of his reign? Is it possible to reconcile 1 Kings 16:8 with 2 Chronicles 15:19-16:1? Or, is this a legitimate contradiction that should lead all of us to conclude that the Bible is a worthless manmade book of myths?

There are two possible solutions to this problem. To begin with, it may be that the numbers recorded in 2 Chronicles 15:19 and 16:1 simply are the result of a copyist’s error. Although skeptics may scoff at attempts to reconcile “contradictions” by claiming a copyist must have made an error sometime in the distant past, the fact is, copyists were not infallible; inspired men were the only infallible writers. Whenever duplicates of the Old Testament Scriptures were needed, copies had to be made by hand—a painstaking, time-consuming task requiring extreme concentration. History records that copyists (such as the Masoretes) had as their goal to produce accurate copies of Scripture and that they went to great lengths to ensure fidelity in their copies. They were, nevertheless, still human. And humans are prone to make mistakes, regardless of the care they take or the strictness of the rules under which they operate. The copyists’ task was made all the more difficult by the sheer complexity of the Hebrew language and by the various ways in which potential errors could be introduced.

In their commentary on 2 Chronicles, Keil and Delitzsch proposed that the number 36 in 2 Chronicles 16:1 and the number 35 in 15:19 are a scribal error for 16 and 15, respectively. The ancient Hebrew letters yod and lamed, representing the numbers 30 and 10, could have been confused and interchanged quite easily (though inadvertently) by a copyist. Merely a smudge from excessive wear on a scroll-column or a punctured or slightly torn manuscript could have resulted in making the yod look like a lamed. Furthermore, it also is possible that this error occurred first in 2 Chronicles 15:19. Then to make it consistent in 16:1, a copyist may have concluded that 16 must be an error for 36 and changed it accordingly (Archer, 1982, p. 226). Hence the numbers 35 and 36 could have arisen out of the original 15 and 16. With such an adjustment, the statements in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles are harmonized easily.

Eric Lyons,

I’ll end with Tekton Apologetics’ offering. They have a comprehensive yet approachable apologetic on the many challenges to this segment of biblical history. I recommend that you visit the link below this section and read the entire segment — because I cannot do justice to their nuanced interpretations in this venue. That being said let me share the appropriate section which involves some give-and-take based on Gleason Archer’s work.

[In a flow of answering objections] A similar copyist error has been suggested for 2 Chr. 15:19, which refers to Asa's 35th year of reign. Gleason Archer is quoted:

If the number was written in numerical notation of the Hebrew alphabetic type . . . then 'sixteen' could quite easily be confused with 'thirty-six.' The reason for this is that up through the seventh century BC, the letter yod (=10) greatly resembled the letter lamed (=30), except for two tiny strokes attached to the left of the main vertical stroke. . . It required only a smudge from excessive wear on the scroll-column to result in making the yod look like a lamed--with a resultant error of twenty. It is possible that this error occurred first in the earlier passage, in II Chr. 15:19 (with its '35' wrongly copied from an original '15'); then to make it consistent in 16:1, the same scribe (or perhaps a later one) concluded that '16' must be an error for '36' and changed it accordingly on his copy.

This objector incorrectly understands Archer to be advocating a position that there were "two duplicate smudges causing the same error simultaneously." Archer is only positing one smudge, corrected, and a second "smudgeless" correction made in light of the first correction, thus resulting in two copying errors: One because of a smudge, the other because of the incorrect "correction" made because of the smudge.

The objector then naively suggests that "if the yod of 15:19 had seemed smudged, the scribe might have looked at 16:1 for clarification. Unless 16:1 was also smudged, the natural deduction of the scribe would be that the letter in 15:19 was in fact a yod. He would then have copied the first yod properly."

That is simply not the case. It might be borne in mind that copyists were not necessarily literate and may have had no idea what they were copying. A scribe may not have had the means to make a "deduction."

However, even if they did, this does not in any way guarantee that they would make such a deduction as suggested. Let's lay out how this could easily have worked:

And there was no more war unto the five and tenth year of the reign of Asa. In the six and tenth year of the reign of Asa Baasha king of Israel came up against Judah, and built Ramah, to the intent that he might let none go out or come in to Asa king of Judah.

This would be the original. Now let's get that smudge in place:

And there was no more war unto the five and **** year of the reign of Asa. In the six and tenth year of the reign of Asa Baasha king of Israel came up against Judah, and built Ramah, to the intent that he might let none go out or come in to Asa king of Judah.

You'll say, "That's easy to figure out." But what if that "smudge" followed the texture of the papyrus and made it look like:

And there was no more war unto the five and thirtieth year of the reign of Asa. In the six and tenth year of the reign of Asa Baasha king of Israel came up against Judah, and built Ramah, to the intent that he might let none go out or come in to Asa king of Judah.

So then what do you do (assuming of course you are a literate scribe)? The next numerical contextual clue is in 16:12 which refers to Asa's thirty-ninth year. An adjustment to "six and thirtieth" is an obvious option. (The original smudge could also have afflicted the "six and tenth" of course, with the same results.)

Note that a later scribe need not always have been familiar with the particulars of the history. Nor again, if they were actually illiterate and from their perspective merely copying symbols, is it sensible to suggest that the scribe could have "remembered" or consulted 1 Kings 15. In fact, even if they were literate, the fact is that most quotations in antiquity were done by memory, not by looking things up, and it's open to question as to how much of Kings was available, to whom, and when

[An objector asserts:] Rather than I Kings 15 or II Chr.16:1 being used to prevent a copying error in II Chr. 15:19, an error arises because of a smudge. Then, this new smudge error causes the intentional change of a perfectly clear text in 16:1.

[Tekton asserts] In the age before laser printers, no text was ever "perfectly clear" and numbers especially were subject to interpretation, as they provided few contextual markers other than other, nearby numbers. There are also the sorts of errors wherein a scribe's eyes look at the wrong line and copy and incorrect character from a previous line, which fits well here.

So (and as promised) there are no original ideas here — but there has obviously been much discussion throughout the centuries on this issue. I’m among the commentators who wouldn’t even want the originals of the biblical documents if they were available to us… because people would surely worship them as artifacts rather than for the ideas they contain. This is why I consider the occasional manuscript “ding” to be a good thing. They are so rare that they highlight just how reliable our biblical manuscripts are. They also highlight context, history and interpretive issues that people might not otherwise consider.

That being said, I realize that there are different “types” of believers. Some have an uncomplicated relationship with God and his word (… which is a wonderful gift!) — and this copyist error is a non-issue for them. But there are others of us who are compelled to assess the data continually… like me (and perhaps you). I’ve been a believer for many decades now, but I still need to align everything I take in or observe with my Christian worldview to feel congruent — and that’s a never-ending battle… but one I enjoy. As such, thank you for bringing this question to me. I’ve enjoyed seeing the experts work their ways through this.

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