Biblical Archeology

Biblical Archeology: Must We Rise Old Testament Chronology

In spite of recent allegations of astronomical fraud, Ptolemy's dates remain valid.

Julia Neuffer, before her retirement, was an associate book editor at the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Washington, D.C. She is presently at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she is assisting Dr. Lawrence T. Geraty in editing the Heshbon reports and other publications.


In late 1977 articles began to appear in the general press, as well as in scientific magazines, about a forthcoming book by Robert R. Newton, The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), which attempts to prove that the ancient Alexandrian astronomer fabricated much of his observational data and manipulated computations to prove his astronomical theories. What difference does Ptolemy's astronomy make to the readers of MINISTRY? Probably none at all.

However, Newton's book extrapolates from the main astronomical argument to a necessity for overhauling ancient Babylonian chronology, beginning with 747 B.C., in the period corresponding to the latter part of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Has the dating of a considerable segment of Old Testament history been thrown into doubt?

Inquiries about this have come in from some who have read a press report, not the book itself, which is almost entirely technical astronomical argument. This press item has been cited by Jehovah's Witnesses in vindication of their own rejection of Ptolemy's chronology.

They shift Nebuchadnezzar 21 years earlier and so have 2,520 years from his year 19 (his destruction of Jerusalem) to 1914 (their date for God's kingdom). Some who end the 69 weeks in A.D. 30 use Anstey's outmoded (yet recently re printed chronology, which proposes moving Cyrus 82 years later—long after his son Cambyses—so as to begin the weeks at his year 1. Neither shift is possible.

Newton holds that Ptolemy's alleged astronomical fraud undermines the reliability of his chronological scale, thus requiring a reevaluation of "much Babylonian chronology" and the discarding of whatever cannot be verified from in dependent sources. To do so, however, is entirely unnecessary. The presently accepted chronology of the period, although in accord with Ptolemy, has long been soundly established from many in dependent ancient documents unearthed and deciphered by modern archeologists.

We should, indeed, expect to find errors in the earlier period of Ptolemy's chronology if in fact he, as Newton assumes, arbitrarily devised for his own purposes the list of kings known as Ptolemy's Canon (which he used as a time scale to date many eclipses and other events discussed in his astronomical works), and if he fabricated the lengths of those kings' reigns for which he had no records. However, in the only part of his book relevant to Old Testament chronology—some 4 1/2 pages of the final chapter—Newton himself admits that he did not examine "the evidence available from sources other than Ptolemy for the earlier years." Thus, being unaware of the documentary evidence unearthed by archeologists—some of it published as early as the 1880's—that corroborates Ptolemy's time scale, he arrives at the sadly irrelevant and ill-supported conclusion that "all re search in either history or astronomy" based upon Ptolemy's work must now be redone.

What evidence do we have that Ptolemy's chronological scale, the canon, is not a product of fraudulent astronomy?

The canon—a list of the reigns of kings covering nine centuries—includes those of Babylonian and Persian kings, Alexander the Great and his Macedonian successors in Egypt, and the Roman emperors down to Antoninus Pius. 1 Since its purpose is not to name every king, but to provide a complete series of whole regnal years, it omits kings who ruled less than a year, and equates the regnal years with Egyptian calendar years, which always had 365 days, with no 366-day leap years unlike the Semitic and other lunar years of variable length. 2

Not only is it incredible that Ptolemy could have concocted the list without reliable ancient records, he probably did not even compile it, but inherited it from his predecessors. The Babylonians, and others who dated by regnal years, began numbering again with each reign instead of in a single, continuously numbered era such as we do today. Therefore, in order to compute the time between eclipses, or any other events, one would need to know the number of years counted for each intervening reign. 3

Such a lis. of reigns was a necessity, as a time-measuring tool, for astronomers who used records of ancient observations dated in regnal years. Ptolemy, as an Alexandrian astronomer, probably had access to cumulative lists preserved there, in the Egyptian reckoning, down to his day. The canon could have been compiled through the centuries from Babylonian and later king lists, or from lists of eclipses dated in specific regnal years. (Such lists, on clay tablets, are extant today from about 747 B.C.)

From Nabonassar to Alexander the Great (i.e., from 747 B.C. past the end of the Old Testament period) the length of every reign given in Ptolemy's Canon is corroborated by one or more of a series of ancient documents—chronicles, king lists, inscriptions, astronomical texts, and business texts in both clay and papyrus—that are dated in specific regnal years of various kings. 4 These records come primarily from Babylon, but also from Egypt and even from Persia.

Two Babylonian tablets, bearing multiple data on the sun, moon, and certain planets, give an absolute B.C. fix on Nebuchadnezzar's and Cambyses' years; also, 14 Aramaic papyri from Egypt—each bearing a Semitic lunar date and the same date in the Egyptian 365-day year—make it possible to compute the B.C. years of four later Persian kings. 5

The latter part of the canon is not relevant to the Old Testament. Alexander's death links the canon with the Greek Olympiad dating, and the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra, synchronizes precisely with an Era of Augustus. Thence the canon is aligned with several types of Roman chronology, such as the consular lists, and later the Era of Diocletian, which connect to our present A.D. reckoning.6

Newton has produced no valid evidence for his supposed high rate of error in the canon before the Nebuchadnezzar fix (he concedes a low rate after that). Actually, it is entirely compatible with the Babylonian records for that period and amply corroborated by other ancient documents. The contention that Ptolemy was an astronomical fraud in no way determines whether or not his canon is correct. One might as well argue that because a man is a poor carpenter we are to throw away his measuring tape as faulty, even though it has been tested and found to agree with the standard measure.


1 The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 154 (cf. pp. 152, 153); Siegfried H. Horn and Lynn H. Wood, The Chronology of Ezra 7, 2d ed., rev. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1970), p. 128 (cf. pp. 40-43).

2 The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 2, pp. 103, 104; Horn and Wood, op. cit., pp. 34, 35.

3 The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 138; SDA Bible Dictionary, "Chronology," sec. I.

4 Babylonian Chronicle; Esarhaddon Chronicle; Chronicle of the Years 680-625; Chronicles of Chaldean Kings, Babylonian King List A, eclipse tablet LBART 1417, Nabonidus' Harran Inscription, the Nabonidus Chronicle, the Behistun Inscription, the Saros Tablets, Daliyeh Papyrus 1, and various dated business tablets. Documentation of these ancient sources, and discussion of certain chronological items, will appear in my longer article (on which this one is based) in Andrews University Seminary Studies, scheduled for spring, 1979.

5 On the two astronomical fixes and on the papyri, see The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 3, pp. 88, 89, and note; for the latter, see Horn and Wood, op. cit., pp. 78-82, 129-135.

6 Horn and Wood, op. cit., pp. 23-27; The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 1,'pp. 177, 178; vol. 5, pp. 239, 240.


Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Julia Neuffer, before her retirement, was an associate book editor at the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Washington, D.C. She is presently at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she is assisting Dr. Lawrence T. Geraty in editing the Heshbon reports and other publications.

October 1978

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

The Danger of Fale Ideas regarding Justification

Satan works in a special manner to confuse the mind on this issue.

Preaching the Word in Haiti

American evangelism, Haitian style, produced some delightful problems that every evangelist could wish he had!

Ask the Editor

Where do the editors of "Ministry" stand on the current discussions regarding the nature of Christ and righteousness by faith?

Righteousness by faith symposium in Washington

From August 6 to 11 a number of church leaders met together in the Washington area and shared their points of view.

Fifty years later...

Reflections on the fiftieth anniversary of MINISTRY lead to the conclusion that a half century of "business as usual" is not a success for editors or readers.

Ingathering: Motivations

David H. Sharpe appeals to pastors to examine the methods they use to motivate church members.

Health and Religion

We need retail outlets dedicated to both health and truth the essence of the Adventist health message.

Science and Religion: The Heavens Declare God's Glory

Increasing knowledge about space brings ever greater lessons concerning God's character.

"Are We Poor or Just Broke?"

After reviewing a lifetime of frugality, a minister's wife realizes she gave the wrong answer.

President's Page

The author, who recently invited church members to speak out, shares responses from his survey.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)