Did Paul’s memory fail him when writing 1 Corinthians 10:8?

By Madison Ruppert

When writing Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, specifically the eighth verse of the tenth chapter, some commentators have argued that the Apostle simply forgot the number listed in the Old Testament and thus made an erroneous statement. 1

Paul wrote, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (1 Cor 10:8 ESV)

Most believe this verse is referring to Numbers 25:9 which reads, “Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.” While this appears to be the most likely reference and thus is followed by most modern translations in their cross-reference system, some disagree.

Gleason Archer, for example, “asserts [in Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties pp. 141, 401, according to Utley] that the OT passage Paul is referring to is not Num. 25:1–9, but Exod. 32. He makes a good point in that 10:7 quotes from Exod. 32:4 and that Exod. 32:35 mentions the Lord’s smiting of the people apparently even beyond the 3,000 of v. 28. This is surely a viable contextual option.” 2

While Archer’s view is in the minority, it seems more tenable than a simple memory lapse, especially given the fact that Paul was not only writing under the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 3:16) but was someone who would have closely studied the Hebrew scriptures (Philippians 3:5).

Unfortunately, the memory lapse view is not wholly isolated 3 and indeed some equally untenable propositions have been raised as well.

The Apologetics Study Bible, for instance, claims, “The most likely explanation is that Paul was relying on a version of the Greek Bible not known to us.” 4 Is that really the most likely explanation? I think not.

Indeed there are other explanations which seem much more likely.

1. Paul was not citing an exact figure when writing 23,000 and neither was Moses when writing 24,000. Both authors could have been engaging in a practice common to this day: rounding of large numbers.

This practice was quite common in the ancient world, especially when an author did not have to present an exact figure.

John Calvin, for instance, writes:

Though they differ as to number, it is easy to reconcile them, as it is no unusual thing, when it is not intended to number exactly and minutely each head, to put down a number that comes near it, as among the Romans there were those that received the name of Centumviri, (The Hundred,) while in reality there were two above the hundred.

[…]

Moses has set down the number above the mark, and Paul, the number below it, and in this way there is in reality no difference. 5

2. Paul says that 23,000 fell in a single day while Moses wrote that 24,000 died in total. Moses’ number includes everyone who died while Paul’s is only those who died in one day and one thousand could have died the following day 6.

Matthew Henry, for example, says that the plague “in one day slew twenty-three thousand, besides those who fell by the hand of public justice.” 7

Another commentator writes:

A possible solution to the apparent discrepancy in the death count found in Numbers 25:9 (24,000) and Paul’s figure of 23,000 may reside in the phrase one day. Moses and most of Israel were mourning the death of those who had been executed by the judges (Num. 25:5) or killed by an ongoing plague. Meanwhile Phineas was dispatching an Israelite man and Moabite woman in their last act of immorality (Num. 25:6-8), which brought to completion God’s discipline of the immoral Israelites and ended the death toll by plague at 24,000, a number probably intended as a summary figure. 8

Yet despite these solutions which, in my estimation, seem much more probable and deal more respectfully with Paul’s writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, some still claim, “It is more respectful to credit the [Apostle] with a trifling inadvertence than to suppose, with [F. Godet’s Commentaire sur la prem. Ép. aux Corinthiens (Eng. Trans.)] that he makes a deliberate understatement to be within the mark.” 9

Whatever the solution may be, this problem is so small that it likely hasn’t even crossed most readers’ minds. However, since it crossed mine, I thought it would be best to lay out some of the approaches in order to help out those who also wonder about such “trifling” issues.

  1. “A plain discrepancy between this statement and Num. 25:9, where the number is twenty-four thousand. It may have been a lapse of memory.”

    Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887). 1 Co 10:7.

  2. Robert James Utley, Paul’s Letters to a Troubled Church: I and II Corinthians, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2002). 116.
  3. “There is no more probable explanation of Paul’s figure than that it was simply due to a lapse of memory”

    C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Continuum, 1968). 225.

  4. Ted Cabal, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen, Paul Copan, J.P. Moreland and Doug Powell, The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007). 1722.
  5. John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010). 1 Co 10:8.
  6. “The solution is: Moses in Numbers includes all who died “in the plague”; Paul, all who died “in one day”; one thousand more may have fallen the next day”

    Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997). 1 Co 10:8.

  7. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994). 1 Co 10:6–14.
  8. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985). 1 Co 10:8.
  9. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Volume II: Commentary (New York: George H. Doran Company). 860.

4 Responses to Did Paul’s memory fail him when writing 1 Corinthians 10:8?

  1. I think it’s almost unquestionable that Paul (or Paul’s source) was influenced by Exodus 32.28 (and related texts) here – where Levites kill 3,000 of the golden calf idolaters. Compare the Greek of the relevant part of 1 Cor 10.8 with that of Ex 32.28:

    1 Cor 10.8: καὶ ἔπεσαν μιᾷ ἡμέρᾳ εἴκοσι τρεῖς χιλιάδες
    Ex 32.28: καὶ ἔπεσαν … τῇ ἡμέρᾳ εἰς τρισχιλίους…

    It’s been noted – independently of consideration of 1 Cor 10.8 – that the golden calf incident shares similarities with the incident of the idolaters of Numbers 25. What pretty much solidifies for me that Paul (or his source) conflated these two is that Philo, in Spec. leg 3.22, lists 24,000 as the number of those killed in the _golden calf incident_. Philo was roughly contemporary with Paul, and there are numerous lines of connection between them.

    Even further: just a single chapter later from Numbers 25, it is mentioned that there were 23,000 listed from the tribe of Levi. Mody (2007: 67) suggests that “Paul may have deduced that 23,000 Levites went out and killed one person each” (in the Ba’al incident). The fact that Phinehas appears in Num. 25.7 strengthens this.

    • Phenomenal point. I think, contextually speaking, the Ex 32 reference seems the most probable. I was totally unaware of the other lines of evidence you mentioned. I sincerely thank you for pointing it out.

      The biggest issue I struggle with, however, is the fact that so many scholars over the centuries have understood the First Corinthians passage to be referring to Numbers. Why is that, in your estimation?

      • No problem – glad to have helped!

        I actually went ahead and kinda posted my reply as it own post on one of my blogs. But I had added that the main connecting link between 1 Cor 10.8 and the Numbers passage was the use of πορνεύω: “μηδὲ _πορνεύωμεν_ καθώς τινες αὐτῶν _ἐπόρνευσαν_” in 1 Cor; “ὁ λαὸς _ἐκπορνεῦσαι_ εἰς τὰς θυγατέρας Μωαβ” in Numbers 25.1.

        Not like that phrase is all that rare in the Hebrew Bible/LXX or anything. But, considering both are in conjunction with a similar number (23,000/24,000) – plus the mention of idolatry in 1 Cor 10.7…

  2. Pingback: Are there contradictions in the Bible? | Seek Theos

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