I was wondering when Paul refers to the 23,000 killed in one day in 1 Cor 10, is he referring to the incident in Numbers. In Numbers it says 24,000 were killed. I’ve heard different explanations. 1) Paul says one day and so the remaining 1000 were killed the next day 2) it refers to the golden calf incident. Is it possible there’s a copyist error we are just not aware of? Even though we don’t have conflicting manuscripts, we can’t necessarily rule that out right? Any info you may have would be great.
Believe it or not, I have seen this point brought up before. It is an obscure question, but one which is worth adressing. There are a couple of possible explanations, as you mention.
1. A scribal error. When manuscripts are copied, the first kind of errors to slip into the text is with numbers. This is especially true with Hebrew which uses letters for numbers, somewhat like Roman numerals. The problem is that with Hebrew numbers, the letters used are pretty similar. It is very easy for a copying error to come into the manuscript. With numbers, it is less likely for the error to be corrected later on because of context. For example if you saw the word extablish in a text, you would know right away that x appeared instead of s. Given that they are near each other on the typewriter, this is even more believable. However, if you saw 23,000, unless you knew ahead of time that the correct number is 24,000 the context does not help you to find the copying error. I have stated when speaking on the topic of "How We Got the Bible" that we have a nearly perfect New Testament, but an Old Testament with a number of copying errors which is, nevertheless, an excellent representation of the original. In the case you refer to, clearly there is no important theological question at stake in the difference between 23,000 and 24,000. I believe this is extremely likely to be the explanation of the apparent inconsistency between 1 Cor 10 and Numbers.
2. Paul is wrong and the Bible is not fully word-for-word and number-for-number accurate. To be intellectually honest, we need to consider this possibility. In other words, we ought to at least consider that Paul was flat wrong. Perhaps the difference is so small that God simply does not care about absolute perfection in the original text of the Bible over such unimportant things as these. I do not accept this conclusion, but remain cautious. Who am I to say that God absolutely would not allow a single mistake into the Bible, even in the original. I do not agree with this conclusion, but I do not want to make unfounded and perhaps unnecessary assumptions about the Bible.
3. There is some logical explanation behind the difference and that both 23,000 and 24,000 are correct if one knows the details of the context of the two seemingly disparate accounts in 1 Cor 10 and Numbers. I cannot rule out this possibility. Like you mention below, it is not beyond the realm of possibility 1000 were killed the next day. I do not like this explanation because it seems kind of fishy. It is ad hoc. In other words, we are making up an idea, not because of any evidence at all, but simply to make the two accounts appear to not contradict. If I were a non-beliver, I probably would scoff at this idea. That does not mean that it is WRONG, but in my opinion it is a bit fishy. Obviously, we will never be able to prove this speculation either right or wrong, which is a weakness of this explanation. Again, I do not know for a fact that this is an incorrect explanation, but I am skeptical.
4. Paul is rounding off more than the writer of Exodus. This is a variant of explanation #2 above. It seems unlikely that exactly 23,000 people died in any case. If one person said that gold costs 1029 dollars an ounce and another says that it costs 1030 dollars an ounce, they can both be 100 % correct, with the second person simply rounding off more, In fact, if we require perfection, probably 1029 dollars an ounce is not correct either. So possibly, Paul’s number is just slightly more rounded than the one found in Exodus.
I have already stated that I prefer explanation #1. It is very likely that there existed slightly variant versions of Exodus in the times of Paul. Bear in mind that he was probably using a Greek Old Testament as his reference. Even if we do not have a version of the Greek text which includes this, it does not prove that such a variant reading did not exist. Having said that I believe the explanation to be a scribal error, I cannot prove this is correct. I wish I had definite answers to all such questions, but I do not. In any case, for anyone to claim that the difference between 1 Corinthians 10 and Exodus to be some sort of proof that the Bible is not inspired is a huge stretch, to say the least.
John Oakes, PhD