A solution to the chronological problems of the Hebrew Kings

Edwin R. Thiele has brought order out of chaos in his examination of the Hebrew reigns of the monarchies, thus giving us a renewed confidence in the accuracy of the Scriptures.

Edwin R. Thiele is a former missionary, editor, college and university professor who is now retired. He has gained worldwide recognition for bringing "order out of chaos" in the area of the chronology of the Hebrew kings. The work entitled The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, published by Eerdmans in 1966, resulted in a growing respect being accorded the accuracy of the Bible record. His most recent work, published in 1977 by Zondervan, is A Chronology of the Hebrew Kings. Thiele holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago (1943) and a D.D. degree from Andrews University (1965).

Perhaps most perplexing of all at tacks made on the Bible are those focused on the chronology of the Hebrew kings. While the subject may at first glance seem uninteresting—and even boring—the implications of contradictory data are considerable, as skeptics and Bible scholars alike have well understood. Little wonder, then, that for more than 2,000 years scholars have wrestled with synchronisms and lengths of reign for the rulers of Judah and Israel in the books of Kings.

It can be shown, however, that charges of error in the king lists are not justified. Once the basic chronological principles employed by the Hebrew recorders are understood, the regnal data of Kings are amazingly reliable and may be woven into a pattern of internal harmony in ac cord with contemporary chronology at every point where a precise con tact can be established. 1

At first glance, however, disagreement rather than agreement seems to predominate. In 1 Kings 15:25 Nadab in Israel is said to have begun his reign of two years in the second year of Asa of Judah, but according to 1 Kings 15:33 he was succeeded by Baasha in the third year of Asa. That would give him only one year rather than two. Ac cording to 1 Kings 16:23 Omri began in the thirty-first year of Asa and reigned 12 years. But according to 1 Kings 16:29 he was succeeded by Ahab in the thirty-eighth year of Asa, which would give him only seven, not 12, years.

The statement in 2 Kings 3:1 that Jehoram (Joram) began to reign in Israel in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat of Judah appears to dis agree with the statement in 2 Kings 1:17 that he began in the second year of Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat. According to 2 Kings 8:25 Ahaziah of Judah began in the twelfth year of Joram of Israel, but according to 2 Kings 9:29 he began in the eleventh year.

In 2 Kings 1:17 we are told that Jehoram of Israel began in the second year of Jehoram of Judah, and thus Jehoram began in Judah before Jehoram came to the throne in Israel. But according to 2 Kings 8:16 Joram began in Israel before Jehoram began in Judah, for Jehoram began in the fifth year of Joram.

According to 2 Kings 9:24, 27, Jehu slew Jehoram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah on the same occasion. So Jehu began in Israel at the same time that Athaliah succeeded Ahaziah in Judah. And according to 2 Kings 15:25-27 Pekahiah in Israel was slain and succeeded by Pekah in the fifty-second year of Azariah of Judah. So the years of Israel from the beginning of Jehu to the death of Pekahiah should be equal to the years of Judah from the accession of Athaliah to the death of Azariah in his fifty-second year. But the years of the two nations for this period are as follows:

(see the original pdf for the table)

Not only is the total for Israel not the same as the total for Judah, but the years for Israel are about a dozen years in excess of the years of contemporary Assyria, while those of Judah have long been known to be about a quarter of a century in excess of contemporary Assyria.

Difficulties such as these have brought many of the world's leading Biblical scholars to the conclusion that the numbers of the Hebrew kings are grossly in error, and are not to be relied on for the establishment of a sound chronological pattern of Hebrew history. In the Encyclopaedia Britannica we have the following opinion expressed: "Errors which have vitiated more or less the entire chronology have crept in. ... The length of the reigns of the various kings is not the same ac cording to the traditional and the synchronistic figures. Since, how ever, it is clear on various grounds that these synchronisms are not original, any attempt to base a chronological scheme on them may be disregarded. . . . Unless Assyrian or Babylonian records touch those of Israel and Judah, no certainty is possible; nor, in spite of the ingenuity expended on the problem, have scholars reached an agreement. The presence of errors in the Biblical figures is patent, but it is not equally clear where the errors lie." 2

Albright, the renowned American scholar, said: "It is incredible that all these numbers can have been handed down through so many editors and copyists without often be coming corrupt. . . . We note that the century between 842 and 742 B.C. is occupied in Kings by four Judahite reigns, totaling 128 years. . . . The excess of some 24 years can be eliminated entirely by disregarding the total reigns attributed to the kings of Judah and basing our re vised estimates of their reigns solely on the synchronisms with Israel (which throughout contradict the regnal totals of the kings of Judah). . . . By similar methods we are in a position to revise the chronology of the period which antedates the rebellion of Jehu. In this period, how ever, most of the synchronisms were calculated by some later editor, so they cannot be used as primary material, though they do enable us to correct the regnal totals for the rulers of the Omride Dynasty." 3

A point of primary importance in resolving the problems is the method employed for reckoning the regnal years. According to the accession-year system—post-dating—the year when a king began his reign is termed his accession year, and his first official year begins with the next new year. Years reckoned in this way are equal to actual years and absolute time. According to another method, however—ante-dating, or the nonaccession-year system—the year when a king began his reign is termed his first year and his second official year begins with the next new year. Since the last year of the old king and the first year of the new ruler are the same year, years reckoned according to this method are counted twice and therefore totals increase by one year for every reign over absolute time. When this system is employed it is necessary to deduct one year from the official length of every reign in order to keep in accord with absolute time and with reigns reckoned in accord with the accession-year method.

A comparison of the lengths of reign of the rulers of Israel and Judah for the period immediately after the disruption reveals the system each nation then was using. Jeroboam began in Israel in the same year that Rehoboam began in Judah, and Ahaziah died in Israel in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat of Judah (2 Kings 3:1). When the 86 official years of Israel for this period are reduced to actual years for each king, they are exactly equal to the 79 years of Judah. Thus the numbers of Judah and Israel, which throughout this period appear to contradict each other, are found to be harmonious, and the fact is revealed that at this time Judah employed accession-year reckoning and Israel followed the nonaccession-year method. The following are the numbers involved:

(see the original pdf for the table)

Careful study of the data reveals that Judah employed the accession-year system from Rehoboam to Jehoshaphat, but then shifted to Israel's non-accession-year system when, in a period of rapproachement between Judah and Israel, Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat was married to Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (2 Kings 8:18). Judah followed the non-accession-year system for the reigns of Jehoram, Ahaziah, Athaliah and Joash, and then shifted back to the accession-year system with Amaziah and followed it to the end of its history. That this change was made at this time is shown by the two synchronisms for the accession of Ahaziah, in the eleventh year of Joram (2 Kings 9:29) according to the old accession-year system, but in the twelfth year of Joram (2 Kings 8:25) according to the newly adopted non-accession-year method. In Israel non-accession-year reckoning was employed from Jeroboam to Jehoahaz, but under Jehoash Israel adopted the accession-year system simultaneously with Amaziah of Judah and used it to the end.

Both Judah and Israel followed their own systems of reckoning for the lengths of reign of their own rulers and also for the synchronistic years of the rulers of the other nation.

In Israel the regnal year began with the month of Nisan in the spring and in Judah it began with Tishri in the fall.

Another chronological procedure that needs to be understood is the system employed for the regnal data of Omri, who ruled half of the nation of Israel while Tibni ruled the other half (1 Kings 16:21, 22). Omri was raised to the throne in the twenty-seventh year of Asa at his elimination of Zimri (1 Kings 16:15, 16). But the synchronism for his accession is the thirty-first year of Asa and the length of his reign was 12 years (1 Kings 16:23). Omri terminated his reign in the thirty-eighth year of Asa when he was succeeded by Ahab (1 Kings 16:29). The datum for the length of Omri's reign includes both the years of his overlap with Tibni and those of his sole reign, but his synchronism denotes the year when his overlap with Tibni ended and his sole reign began. This system of re cording I have termed "dual dating."

It is vital that this procedure be understood, for it is used not only for Omri but also for Jeroboam II and Pekah in Israel and for Jehoshaphat and Azariah in Judah. The greatest problems with the chronological data of the Hebrew kings have arisen from a failure to under stand the employment of dual dating for the reigns involved. These data were recorded to set forth the details of the overlapping reigns to which they applied, and they fit those reigns with exactitude. When, how ever, the original historical situations are not understood and an at tempt is made to apply these data to ordinary reigns of our own invention, they will not fit, and we find ourselves bewildered and ready to condemn as contradictory and erroneous data that are actually perfectly sound.

Dual dating for Azariah and Jeroboam II, it will be seen, will solve the very serious problems of the twelve excess years for Israel and the twenty-four extra years for Judah for that century. Here I will set forth in diagrammatic form the arrangements of reigns for the five areas where dual dating is involved. 4

For Omri the dual-dating pattern is shown on chart no. 1. That dual dating was not under stood in the centuries preceding the Christian era is shown by the variant data in the Greek texts of Kings which at 1 Kings 16:28 synchronize the accession of Jehoshaphat with the eleventh year of Omri instead of the fourth year of Ahab according to the Hebrew, and which at 1 Kings 16:29 place the accession of Ahab in the second year of Jehoshaphat in stead of the 38th year of Asa, as in the Hebrew. Chart no. 2 shows the Greek pattern for this period in which Omri begins his 12 years in the thirty-first year of Asa instead of his twenty-seventh year, as in the Hebrew pattern where dual-dating practice is followed.

From Jehoshaphat and Ahab to Athaliah and Jehu the pattern is as illustrated in chart no. 3.

Jehoshaphat began his 25 years (1 Kings 22:42) in 872 as coregent with Asa who was seriously ill in his thirty-ninth year (2 Chron. 16:12). The synchronism of his accession, however, is the fourth year of Ahab (1 Kings 22:41), which marks the end of his regency and the beginning of his sole reign in accord with dual-dating practice. The eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat, when Joram began in Israel, is the second year of Jehoram's regency with Jehoshaphat. While this coregency is revealed by the Israelite synchronism in 2 Kings 1:17 of Jehoram's accession, the Judahite regnal data of Jehoram begin his official eight years of reign in the fifth year of Joram (chap. 8:16, 17).

The pattern for the regnal data of 2 Kings 14 and 15 involving dual dating for Jeroboam II of Israel and Azariah of Judah is as shown on chart no. 4.

For Pekah in Israel chart no. 5 is the pattern of his dual dating. Hosea 5:5 points to two kingdoms in the north at this time, besides Judah in the south. If dual dating for Pekah is not understood, and if his 20 years are begun in 740 (2 Kings 15:27) and not in 752, the pattern as shown in chart no. 6 results.

In this pattern Pekah is thrust 12 years beyond his true position, bringing the accession of Hoshea 12 years beyond the twentieth year of Jotham, and causing his reign to overlap that of Hezekiah in accord with the following synchronisms as shown in chart no. 7.

Since all these synchronisms concern Hoshea, the last king of Israel, who ruled during the turbulent days when Assyria was devastating the land, we have indications that during those chaotic times the work of chronological recording was interrupted and that the final editors of Kings, failing to find any synchronism beyond that of the slaying of Pekah in the twentieth year of Jotham and not understanding dual dating, began the reign of Pekah in 740 instead of 752 and thus brought into being the synchronisms of 2 Kings 17 and 18.

That this is what happened is re vealed by the sequence in which the reigns were placed in 2 Kings 15. The custom in Kings is to place the reigns in accord with the sequence with which the rulers began. Since Pekah began in 752, his account should have followed that of Menahem, who also began in 752. Next should have been Jotham, who began in 750, and then Pekahiah, who began in 742. But the sequence in Kings reveals the following as the dates when it was thought that these rulers began their reigns:

(see the original pdf for the table)

Perhaps all this may seem to the casual reader to be "much ado about nothing." But, beyond the satisfaction that comes in finding a solution to a puzzle that has long perplexed us, the understanding of how to synchronize the lengths of reign for the rulers of Judah and Israel is re warding in that it helps justify faith in the accuracy and reliability of the Bible record.

Notes:

1 E. R. Thiele, "The Chronology of the Kings of Judah and Israel," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, III (July, 1944), 137-186; The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); and MN, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965).

2 "O. T. Chronology, Bible," Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. Ill, 1948, pp. 511, 512.

3 W. F. Albright, "The Chronology of the Divided Monarchy of Israel," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 100 (December, 1945), pp. 17, 19.


4 For fuller details of this subject see my studies, "An Additional Chronological Note on 'Yaw, Son of Imri,'" Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 222 (April 1976), 19-23; and "Coregencies and Overlapping Reigns Among the Hebrew Kings," Journal of Biblical Literature, 93 (June, 1974), 1974-200.

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Edwin R. Thiele is a former missionary, editor, college and university professor who is now retired. He has gained worldwide recognition for bringing "order out of chaos" in the area of the chronology of the Hebrew kings. The work entitled The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, published by Eerdmans in 1966, resulted in a growing respect being accorded the accuracy of the Bible record. His most recent work, published in 1977 by Zondervan, is A Chronology of the Hebrew Kings. Thiele holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago (1943) and a D.D. degree from Andrews University (1965).

January 1978

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