Problem: 23,000 or 24,000 people died in a plague
Verses: Numbers 25:9, 1 Corinthians 10:8; Status: Minor

This is Paul writing in 1 Corinthians 10:8:

We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. (ESV)

Almost everyone seems to agree that this is a reference to Numbers 25:9:

Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. (ESV)

I can think of a number of ways that an inerrantist could reply:

  1. Paul isn't talking about Numbers 25:9
  2. Although 23,000 people died in one day, the remaining 1,000 died more slowly
  3. There is a scribal error, but the original manuscripts were in agreement

There's a lot of wriggle room here, though none of these answers are particularly convincing. Eschewing these possibilities, the NIV Study Bible says instead:

It is clear that Paul is not striving for exactness. He is only speaking approximately. First-century writers were not as concerned about being precise as 20th-century authors often are.

This would be a good argument if Paul had changed the number to a nice round sum, such as 25,000. But he didn't. By far the most likely explanation is that Paul simply made an mistake - he was probably writing from memory, or he might have had a bad translation of Numbers. He certainly would have written 24,000 if he had known that was what the Hebrew said.

Still, if you think that Paul simply didn't care about the precise number, you can say that this is not really an error. But it feels like an error.

Updated: 2008-05-29

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