For example, in the same verse of scripture 2 Sam 8:4 the different versions don’t agree. The youth in my group want to know why the different versions differ, and if they’re supposed to be the inerrant word of God, why aren’t the all the same? What am I supposed to tell them? They won’t buy the "different people translated the Hebrew differently" argument. They want to know how the numbers could be translated different from one English version to the next, and what the actual text of Hebrew says versus the English translations. Thanks for you time.
2 Samuel 8:4 (21st Century King James Version)
4And David took from him a thousand chariots, and seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand footmen; and David hamstrung all the chariot horses, but reserved enough of them for a hundred chariots.
2 Samuel 8:4 (New International Version)
4 David captured a thousand of his chariots, seven thousand charioteers and twenty thousand foot soldiers. He hamstrung all but a hundred of the chariot horses.
2 Samuel 8:4 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
4 David captured 1,700 horsemen and 20,000 foot soldiers from him, and he hamstrung all the horses, and he kept 100 chariots.
2 Samuel 8:4 (American Standard Version)
4 And David took from him a thousand and seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand footmen: and David hocked all the chariot horses, but reserved of them for a hundred chariots.
First of all, you can tell the youth in your group with great confidence that the entire Scripture–Old and New Testament–is inspired. You should remember that there are two issues to be kept separate. First, there is the question of the inspiration of the original Scripture as written by the Bible writers. I believe it can be shown with a fantastic array of evidence that the Bible, as originally written, is inspired by God. You did not ask me about the inspiration of the original. That is a huge subject by itself. I have written a lot on this subject. Let me suggest to you my book "Reasons for Belief" (available at www.ipibooks.com) I believe this is not the issue you are asking about, but please feel free to direct another question to me.
Then there is the issue of copying. This is the issue which is relevant to the apparent "inconsistency" in 2 Samuel 8:4. Have those who copied the Bible over as much as two thousand years given us absolutely perfect copies? The answer is no. The original text was perfect in every way, but those who copied the manuscripts made errors in copying. I cover the nature of these copying errors in my book already mentioned above, "Reasons for Belief." Let me give you a very brief version, but then you can go to the web site. You will find an article titled "A Remarkable Collection." With the New Testament, the time period between when the originals were written down and the oldest fragmentary manuscript (the Rylands Papyrus) is about fifty years. The time span before which we have entire copies of the New Testament is less than three hundred years. Besides, we have literally thousands of manuscripts, and many dozens in the first two hundred years. For this reason, we can reconstruct virtually the exact Greek New Testament. There is virtually no important verse or even word in question here. However, even with the New Testament there is a small number of copying errors for which scholars are not absolutely certain what was the original Greek. We can be perfectly confident in the inspiration of the original Greek text, and quite confident (but not perfectly so) with the current Greek text because of a very small number of copying errors.
The case with the accuracy of the copying of the Old Testament is good, but not as good as with the New Testament. Until the late 40s, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts we had were from about AD 900–almost 1500 years after the originals were composed. Obviously, the possibility of mistakes in copying over that great period of time was large. We are very fortunate to have the discovery in 1948 of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not all these scrolls were biblical, but many were. The Dead Sea biblical manuscripts were from about 250 BC to about 50 BC–some even later. The Dead Sea Scrolls closed the gap between the originals and the oldest available manuscripts by about two thirds. Amazingly, the Dead Sea Scroll version of Isaiah is very similar to the Masoretic Text (that of AD 900). But there were a number of differences. These include things like misspellings, words reversed in order, relatively unimportant words lost or added. Bottom line, there is no significant theoligical or doctrinal difference imposed by the relatively minor copying errors which occurred over a little over 1000 years. We can reasonably assume the same for the time between the originals and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here is my overall assessment. We have a nearly perfect Greek New Testament and a Hebrew Old Testament which is not as perfect, but which is on the whole very faithful to the original.
Now, let me talk about 2 Samuel 8:4. There is one problem in copying Hebrew which probably outweighs most of the others. This is the copying of numbers. The Jews used a system of numbering something like Roman numerals. They used letters for numbers. Making this particularly difficult, the letters which were used for numbers happened to be quite similar. This made it quite likely that if any errors were to occur in copying, numbers were probably the most likely. Add to this the fact that with words a mistake is obvious, but with numbers it is not. For example, what if I wrote the word appke. You would immediately know this was a mistake and correct the k to l, especially if it occurred in a sentence such as "Yesterday I ate an appke." With numbers, the context is not anywhere near so helpful. For example if I told you that David’s men killed 170 men, when the actual number was 1700, unless you knew something from another source, you would not realize this was an error. Bottom line, the most common copying error in the Old Testament is with numbers. We need to take things like the numbers reported in 2 Samuel 8:4 with a bit of a grain of salt. Now, let us think about this for a minute. Is it important to the meaning of the text the exact number of horses and foot soldiers? I do not think so. It is the meaning of the story which God wanted to convey. At first, it may be disturbing to people to understand that the original Scripture was perfect and inspired, but that we have a Hebrew Bible with copying mistakes, but this is the case. I believe, however, based on evidence such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, that such mistakes are not significant to any important Bible teaching.
In the end, I think an element of faith must come in here. By faith, I believe that God has used human instruments to preserve the Bible and that he has done so in a way which protected the foundational meaning of the text. By faith I believe two things. 1. The originals were perfect and inspired. and 2. The copy are not perfect, but God protected his word and the meaning is fully preserved. I believe these two things both by faith and because the evidence backs up these claims.
One more thing. I am traveling in Monterrey Mexico and do not have access to the different versions of the original Hebrew, so cannot answer the specifics. In general, the King James version was not based on the best available manuscripts, and is less reliable. My guess is that there is a problem of one word here. In other words, is the original 1000 chariots and 700 charioteers or is it one thousand seven hundred chariots and charioteers. My guess is that the more modern versions are correct. However, you can see that the meaning of the text is not changed by such a minor difference.
I hope this helps to clear up the problem. I also hope that the youth pastor in question is able to come back and take on this very important job!
John Oakes, PhD