(Re)writing the Bible: solving contradictions between Kings and Chronicles (and in the Gospels)

Solomon offering sacrifices

Solomon offers sacrifices at the dedication of the temple, Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht, Netherlands, 1430

I was raised in a denomination which firmly believed in the “inerrancy” of the Bible and any apparent contradiction between one part of the Bible and another had to be resolved. This usually meant that the alleged contradiction was explained in such a way that the contradiction no longer existed, and sometimes it meant “doubling up” with accounts of stories. For example, the Gospel of Mark tells a story of Jesus healing a man who was blind and begging beside the road. Mark specifically says this happened as Jesus was leaving the city of Jericho (Mark 10:46). Luke tells the same story, but in his version the incident took place as Jesus was entering the city of Jericho (Luke 18:35). A minor difference perhaps, but for someone who believes the Bible is free of any errors it is an important problem to resolve. I’ve heard a number of possible explanations which have been offered to explain away the contradiction: (a) Jesus actually healed two blind beggars, one as he was entering the city and another as he was leaving (this kind of “doubling up” has been used to solve several contradictions in the Gospels); (b) there were two cities called “Jericho” close to each other (the “old” city and a “new” city), and this miracle happened between them, as Jesus was leaving one and entering the other; or (c) Jesus left the city of Jericho but then turned around to go back and it was then that he healed the beggar, so he was both “leaving” and  “entering” at the same time. We can easily rule out (a) as the stories are so similar, with the beggar in both stories using identical words to address Jesus, that there could have been only one incident. Many ancient cities (such as Jerusalem) have both “old” and “new” districts to this day; however, while you might say, for example, that you are leaving the “old city” of Jerusalem and going to one of the new suburbs, you wouldn’t say you are leaving Jerusalem and entering Jerusalem, and you wouldn’t refer to the two areas in such a way that you could be said to be both entering and leaving the city at the same time, so (b) is highly improbable. We can also rule out (c) as being simply far-fetched and doesn’t fit with either Mark or Luke.  The simplest, most logical, and best solution to the problem is that the incident took place outside the city, and whether Jesus was entering or leaving wasn’t an important detail whose accuracy overly concerned the writers. One of them simply got this detail wrong.

However, for Bible readers who believe in inerrancy every detail has to be absolutely correct, and this results in the sort of mental and exegetical gymnastics such as the examples above. It’s quite plain from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that some of the writers were aware of similar contradictions or errors in versions of biblical books which were available to them, and they attempted to re-write them to remove the contradictions. How they did so is insightful for how the writers of the Bible themselves viewed “errors” and contradictions. I’ll go back to the different accounts of the history of Israel in Kings and Chronicles to provide an example.

The book of Kings describes how Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, and provides details of how he paid King Hiram of the Phoenician city of Tyre for some of the building materials, including a note about how Hiram was dissatisfied with the payment.

10 At the end of twenty years, in which Solomon had built the two houses, the house of the LORD and the king’s house, 11 King Hiram of Tyre having supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress timber and gold, as much as he desired, King Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee. 12 But when Hiram came from Tyre to see the cities that Solomon had given him, they did not please him. 13 Therefore he said, “What kind of cities are these that you have given me, my brother?” So they are called the land of Cabul to this day. 14 But Hiram had sent to the king one hundred twenty talents of gold. (1 Kings 9:10-14)

While selling or bartering with cities was not unheard of in the ancient world, it’s odd that Solomon paid Hiram with 20 cities when elsewhere in both Kings and Chronicles it is recorded that he was extremely wealthy and silver and gold were “as common as stones” in Jerusalem (1 Kings 3:13; 10:27; 2 Chronicles 1:12, 15; 9:27). Why not pay for the timber with silver or gold, and why buy gold when it’s already so plentiful and “common as stones”? Surrendering 20 cities also contradicts the claim made earlier (1 Kings 4:21) that “Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.”

It seems that the writer of Chronicles, who appears to have used an edition of Kings as one of his primary sources, also noticed the difficulties. Chronicles frequently quotes Kings word-for-word and when it came to this part of the story the Chronicler starts out in just this way by copying Kings: “At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon had built the house of the LORD and his own house …” (2 Chronicles 8:1). But then, in order to resolve the difficulty of handing over 20 cities to Hiram, Chronicles completely changed what followed: “Solomon rebuilt the cities that Huram had given to him, and settled the people of Israel in them” (v.2). This is the exact opposite of what is in Kings! In Chronicles it is Hiram who gives 20 cities to Solomon, and there is no mention of gold. The Chronicler didn’t simply avoid the problem by deleting the difficult verses (as he does elsewhere), he sets the record straight (at least as he sees it, or according to his other sources) and contradicts Kings. His new version avoids the difficulties of the fabulously wealthy Solomon being unable to pay for timber, and of Solomon bartering for gold when he purportedly already had plenty of it; and it removes the contradiction in Kings that Solomon expanded Israel’s borders but also purchased goods by ceding territory. So one book of the Bible “rewrote” an earlier version of history in another book of the Bible, and both versions continued to exist.

Which of the two accounts is correct we may never know. Chronicles provides a more consistent portrayal of Solomon as extremely wealthy and to whom neighbouring kings were subservient, but this does not mean it is a more accurate account; rather, it suggests that it was written at one time, possibly by a single author, with a deliberate agenda. As I pointed out in earlier posts, Kings has no problem with presenting the kings of Israel and Judah as deeply flawed characters, and in fact we can be fairly certain that to do so was one of the writer(s) main interests; Chronicles on the other hand sets out to portray David and Solomon as successful model kings. It sometimes does so by ignoring difficulties in Kings and “deleting” stories or details which don’t fit with its version of Israel’s history, but at other times, such as here, it “corrects” the record and provides an entirely new version. Both versions of Israel’s history are fascinating, and I am personally more interested in trying to discover the writers’ motives for recording history as they did than in attempting to reconcile difficulties or to “harmonise” the accounts. More important (to me) than knowing what actually happened is why the writers told different and conflicting stories; how their different accounts influenced the development of ideas and the unfolding of history; and how this helps me to understand the Bible.

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