Believe it or not, this is a loaded question. Bible skeptics cite this question as an example of the Bible contradicting itself, and therefore being unreliable. Although many of the supposed “contradictions” in the Bible can be explained and proven to not actually be contradictions at all when the proper context is applied, this one is not so easily solved. I believe, as Christians, we should be ready and able to respond to attempts to discredit the Bible. So let’s look at what we’ve got.
In Genesis 46, Jacob’s sons have returned home from Egypt where they went to buy food for their families because of the devastating famine plaguing the land. The brothers had just learned that Joseph, the brother that they had sold into slavery many years before, was alive and had become the second most powerful person in all of Egypt- answering only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph had told his brothers to return home and tell their father Jacob that his son Joseph was still alive, and to bring Jacob, all of their families, and all of their belongings to live in Egypt where they would be taken care of. Genesis 46:8-27, lists all the descendants of Jacob that came into Egypt. For each of the mothers of Jacob’s children( Leah, Zilpah, Rachel, and Bilhah) the text lists each person included and gives a subtotal. Verse 26 notes that the number of Jacob’s direct descendants, excluding his daughter-in-laws, is 66. (The subtotals equal 70, but the figure of 66 in verse 26 doesn’t include Jacob because he isn’t his own descendant or Joseph and his two sons because they were already in Egypt.) Verse 27 then adds Jacob, Joseph and his two sons back in and gives a total number of people in Jacob’s household of 70. A picture is worth a thousand words:
As a matter of fact, the Old Testament confirms this number two more times. Exodus 1:5 says, “The total number of Jacob’s descendants was 70.” Deuteronomy 10:22 says, “Your fathers went down to Egypt, 70 people in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of the sky.”
The problem comes in when Stephen says in Acts 7:12-14, “When Jacob heard there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers the first time. The second time, Joseph was revealed to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. Joseph then invited his father Jacob and all his relatives, 75 people in all…”
So, how can this apparent contradiction be explained? A quick internet search will yield quite a few theories to reconcile these numbers and some of the details may surprise you. We’ll go over the two general categories of theories along with their strengths and weaknesses.
Before we begin, let’s put this “contradiction” into perspective. Although there are minor copyist errors in numerals and small variations in Hebrew characters across Bible translations, none of these remove or alter doctrine in any way whatsoever. Actually, the existence of so many translations is an ingenious method of text preservation that makes it easier to detect errors and correct them by comparing translations. Our God is truly amazing! So, to toss out the entire Bible because of such minor and inconsequential errors (that are shockingly few and far between given the age of the documents) is the very definition of “throwing out the baby with the bath water”.
The first theory is that Stephen doesn’t contradict the Old Testament at all, but is merely counting in a “different” way. Eric Lyons writes in his article Jacob’s Journey to Egypt, “Similar to how a person truthfully can give different degrees for the boiling point of water (100 degrees C or 212 degrees F), different figures are given in the Bible for the number of Jacob’s family members who traveled into Egypt.”
For example, those who ascribe to this theory would point out that Genesis 46 explains that some people are omitted from this count- specifically the wives of Jacob’s sons. Verse 26 notes that the total number of Jacob’s descendants, not including Jacob’s daughter-in-laws, number 66 people. Verse 27 then states that Joseph, plus his two sons that were born in Egypt, plus Jacob himself (4 more people total) equal 70 people. In Acts, Stephen doesn’t say whether he is making these same exclusions or not. So theoretically, these people assert that Stephen could have been taking the base number of 66 people, and adding Jacob’s living daughter-in-laws back in to arrive at 75 (We know Judah’s wife had died by this point and it is possible that Simeon’s wife had also died since 46:10 shows that Simeon had another son by an unnamed Canaanite woman. Joseph’s wife would not be counted since she was an Egyptian and already in Egypt). So 66 + 9 additional daughter-in-laws = 75. To be honest, though I see problems with this theory (listed below), the Bible doesn’t really include enough information to disprove the theory.
Here are the problems that I see with this theory:
First, the assumption that Stephen would have counted extra people not included in the Old Testament tallies violates the entire premise that Stephen was simply counting in a “different” way. An example of counting in a “different” way is the fact that there are 24 books in the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh), yet 39 books in our Protestant Bibles. They are the same books, but the Tanakh combines into one some of the books that are separated in our Bibles, such as I and II Samuel, etc. This is a true difference in counting. The material is identical, but the books are grouped differently, therefore counted differently. Counting different people and coming up with a different number is not counting the same people and coming up with a different number. Make sense? (Did I mention some of these theories require convoluted math?)
Second, we really don’t have enough information given in Acts to do anything other than speculate on how Stephen might have arrived at 75 instead of 70. (Because of this, there are actually multiple variations of this theory in which varying combinations people are speculated to be used in Stephen’s tally- we are only addressing the theory regarding the added wives here.)
Third, for this math to work out, you have to assume that Simeon’s wife was dead. We really have no idea if she was or not.
Fourth, the Genesis tallies add Jacob, Joseph, and Joseph’s two sons to their base number of 66. If Stephen adds Jacob’s living daughter-in-laws to the base number of 66, then Jacob, Joseph, and his two sons are left out of the total completely. If this is the case, then it means that Stephen was only referencing Jacob’s direct descendants that came into Egypt (and for some reason adding in the daughter-in-laws when the Old Testament did not) and was not referring to verse 27 at all, which states the total number of Jacob’s household in Egypt was 70.
I warned you it was confusing!
The second theory is that Stephen was actually quoting from the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) in which case, he didn’t contradict the Old Testament at all. This is how the verses in question read in the Septuagint:
Genesis 46:26-27 “All those who went to Egypt with Jacob- those who were his direct descendants, not counting his son’s wives- numbered 66 persons. With the nine sons who had been born to Joseph in Egypt, the members of Jacob’s family, which went to Egypt, were 75 in all.”
Exodus 1:5 “The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy-five in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.”
Before we go any farther we should probably address the small freak out some of you may be having due to the fact that this theory involves Stephen quoting a Greek Bible translation rather than a Hebrew translation. The fact of the matter is, this theory is most probably correct. However, although it solves the problem of whether or not Stephen contradicted the Old Testament, it creates a whole host of other questions.
If you want further explanation of the fact that Jesus and the apostles primarily used and quoted the Septuagint, this article by Bible Study Tools, What Bible Did Jesus Use, explains it very well. In Matthew, Jesus actually quotes the Septuagint 90% of the time and the Hebrew only 10% of the time.
However, now we have a whole new question. Which translation gets it right in this instance? Is 70 the correct number or 75? First we need to make something clear: both the Hebrew and the Greek agree that the number of Jacob’s direct descendants that went to Egypt, excluding Jacob (because he can’t be descended from himself) and excluding Joseph and his sons (because they were already in Egypt and didn’t have to go there) is 66. The issue is with which individuals are included in the Greek tally of Jacob’s total household to total 75. There are obviously three options regarding which translations is correct: the Hebrew (also called the Masoretic), the Septuagint, or both. Let’s take a look at all three.
Both are correct: How could it be both? Similar to the first theory, those who ascribe to this belief say that it is a “mere matter of counting”.
We’ve already discussed how our Bibles come up with the total of 70. 66 direct descendants plus Joseph, his two sons, and Jacob equals 70. Notice above in the Septuagint, however that the same verse reads a little differently. The number of direct descendants is still 66, but to that number the Septuagint adds nine sons born to Jacob in Egypt for a total of 75 people. Those who like this theory say that the Septuagint adds Joseph’s grandsons and great grandsons to equal 75.
The main problem I have with this view is the same as its counterpart above: Leaving people out and adding different people in and arriving at a different number is not the “same” as counting the same individuals in a different way. Although, technically, if we’re only discussing Jacob’s direct descendants who went to Egypt (both texts agree on 66) I’d have to agree. However, the numbers in question are really 70 and 75, which means the real question is how many people should be included in the tally of Jacob’s household.
Also, remember that the Septuagint says specifically that Joseph’s 9 sons are added to Jacob’s direct descendants (66) to equal 75 (not just any 9 people) whereas the Hebrew specifically says only 2 of Joseph’s sons are included in the tally. A detail that must be noted, is that when you add the subtotals listed for each of the mothers of Jacob’s children, they only add up to 74: verse 15 gives Leah’s subtotal as 33, verse 18 gives Zilpha’s subtotal as 16, verse 22 gives Rachel’s subtotal as 18, and finally verse 25 gives Bilhah’s subtotal as 7. Conversely, the subtotals listed in the Hebrew add up to 70 like they should. Those that ascribe to the belief that the Septuagint and Hebrew are the same must maintain that the Septuagint adds four of Joseph’s grandsons and one of his great- grandsons to come to a grand total of 7 sons (including Ephraim and Manasseh). When added to the base number of 66, you’re still short 2 people.
They are then forced to speculate as to the identity of two more people to add. There are lots of different opinions on who those people might be. Now, it is interesting to note that in the Greek, verse 20 states that there were “sons born to Manasses” (Manasseh), yet it only lists one son and only one son is added into the subtotal of Rachel’s sons and their families- Machir. I Chronicles 7:14, however, says that Manasseh had two sons- Asriel and Machir. Remember I noted above that the subtotals in the Greek do not add up to the grand total for Jacob’s household of 75. If verse 20 has erroneously omitted Asriel in its list and its subtotal, yet included him in the grand total of 75 – then we have found the mistake. It doesn’t completely solve the inconsistency though, because verse 27 specifically states that Joseph had 9 sons born in Egypt and even with the addition of Asriel you only get a total of 8. Nevertheless, we must still add Jacob back in (because the subtotal for Leah’s sons and their families includes him). The addition of Jacob gives us the correct figure of 75. However, even if we somehow came up with an additional son to add to Joseph to reconcile verse 27’s claim of 9 sons, once we added Jacob back in, we’d have a grand total of 76- which would still be inconsistent.
If both aren’t correct, then which one is- the Hebrew (Masoretic) or the Greek (Septuagint)?
Let’s weigh the options. We’ve already established that when Jesus and the apostles quote the Old Testament, they usually side with the Septuagint.
However, when it comes to preservation of text, normally, the majority rules- meaning whichever text the majority of the translations corroborate is considered the accurate text. In this particular case, the Dead Sea Scrolls corroborate the Septuagint, but the Samaritan Pentateuch and Flavius Josephus (a first century Jewish scholar and historian) corroborate the Hebrew. The Dead Sea Scrolls however, are translated from a much earlier (older) Hebrew text than any of the above, so it is interesting that it agrees with the Septuagint.
Another issue with the Septuagint in this case, is that although it cites the number 75 in both Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5, it disagrees with itself in Deuteronomy 10:22. In the Septuagint, Deuteronomy 10:22 reads, “With seventy souls your fathers went down into Egypt; but the Lord thy God has made thee as the stars of heaven in multitude.” We’ve also noted that the subtotals for the sons of each of Jacob’s wives do not agree with the total for Jacob’s household in verse 27. (The subtotals add up to 74.) The Greek also lists that Joseph had 9 sons in verse 27, yet only lists 7 (if you include the listed grandsons and great-grandsons as sons)- another inconsistency.
So, what’s the verdict? With regard to whether or not Stephen contradicted the Old Testament when he said that a total of 75 people came to Egypt, in my opinion, it is clear that the answer is no since he was quoting from the Septuagint. If, however, you ask whether 70 or 75 descendants of Jacob came into Egypt, I would have to say that the Bible doesn’t seem to provide enough information to come to a definitive conclusion. The Septuagint includes Joseph’s extended family for some reason (they could be included in the older text that the Greek is translated from). However, if these are intended to be included, then the Greek has an error in the listing of these sons. If Joseph’s extended family should not be included, then the Hebrew gets it right.
Does that mean that the word of God contains an error? Well, not exactly. It means the Hebrew possibly contains an error, but we don’t have enough information to decide, and the Greek definitely contains an error- either a copyist error in the listing of Joseph’s family or an error in the inclusion of Joseph’s extended family at all.
I like what Barnes says in his commentary regarding the whole dilemma, “The number of children of Israel is very particularly noted. But the Scripture lays no stress upon the number itself, and makes no particular application of it. It stands forth, therefore, on the record merely as a historical fact.” In other words, nothing else in the Bible is affected whether the number is 70 or 75.
I say somewhat tongue in cheek: If this question were posed to me by a Bible skeptic, I feel sure that upon recounting all of the minute details of the various arguments to vindicate Stephen and/or reconcile the numbers, said skeptic would have fallen asleep or at least daydreamed through half so that they could not adequately counter my arguments. In the event that said skeptic had remained alert and still offered objection, I would point out the fact that the actual number of Jacob’s direct descendants that went to Egypt (66) is agreed upon by both the Greek and the Hebrew. The only thing that is disputed is whether or not Joseph’s extended family should be included, and if so, which ones. I’d also point out that the number doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of things anyway.