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How accurate is Biblical chronology?

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Archives / 1984 / March

 

 

How accurate is Biblical chronology?

Warren H. Johns
Warren H. Johns is associate editor of MINISTRY.

 

No one since the Reformation has had such an impact upon the study of Biblical chronology as James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh in Ireland. In 1 658 the English edition of his Annales established the evening of October 22, 4004 B. c. as the beginning of Creation week! John Lightfoot, a Greek scholar and vice-chancellor at Cambridge, had achieved an even greater precision a few years earlier by declaring that man had been brought into existence at 9:00 A.M. on a Friday morning, 3928 B.C.

Ussher's date for Creation, based in part on Old Testament figures and in part on astronomical cycles, eclipsed the figure suggested earlier by Lightfoot. His date of 4004 B. c. for Creation appeared in the margin of an English Bible in 1701, and his chronology, popularly known as the "Received Chronology," provided dates for most Bibles during the next two centuries. The Cambridge University Press printed his dates in its Bibles up until 1900, and the Oxford University Press until 1910.

Ussher's chronology has suffered an almost continuous series of challenges. The writings of Plato described how the lost "continent" of Atlantis had become submerged some 9,000 years before his time. The Babylonian scholar Berosus, writing in the third century B.C. , placed the Flood at 36,323 B.C.,1 and the ancient Hindu philosophers dated the origin of the world 1,972,949,085 years before the present (1984). 2 Of course, with no independent method to check such figures, Ussher's chronology survived unscathed.

Interestingly, one of the first to come to his defense was Sir Isaac Newton. In The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, Newton roundly criticized the Egyptian chronologists because they had set the origin of their kingdom prior to 5000 B.C. and "out of vanity have made this monarchy some thousands of years older than the world." 3

Despite serious challenges from studies in the natural sciences as well as ancient history, Ussher's dominating influence in the arena of Biblical chronology did not slacken until the rise of modern archeology. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt in 1799 and its decipherment by Champollion in the 1820s provided the key to unlock the meaning of monument inscriptions and papyrus kings' lists. The history of Egypt had already been divided into thirty dynasties by Manetho, an Egyptian priest of the third century B.C., and modern discoveries revised and refined Manetho's chronology. Astronomical observations on the rising of the Dog Star, (called Sothis in Egyptian) led to the development of a Sothic cycle that could be used to verify dates as early as 2000 B.C. For example, an observation of the Dog Star made in the.seventh year of Sesostris HI has been dated by scholars between 1876 and 1871 B.C. Eleven Egyptian dynasties preceded that of which Sesostris was a member, and thus the founding of the Egyptian monarchy is generally believed to have been about 3000 B.C. The problem is that Ussher set a date of 2348 B.C. for the Flood, and the founding of the Egyptian nation could not have occurred until after the Flood, according to scriptural evidence. The father of the Egyptians was the Biblical Mizraim (Gen. 10:6, also translated as "Egypt" in the R.S.V.), who was a grandson of Noah and was not born until after Noah's family had disembarked from the ark.

Ussher's chronology does not take into account the construction of the pyramids. The fourth Egyptian dynasty contained three prominent individuals—Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus—who were the masterminds behind the building of the three largest pyramids. The Egyptologist Alan H. Gardiner dates the beginning of their dynasty at 2620 B.C., nearly three centuries before Ussher's date for the Deluge. Scholars have suggested that it may have taken as many as 100,000 laborers working thirty years to build the largest pyramid, the 481-foot-high Cheops pyramid at Gizeh. Pushing back the date of the Flood to about 3400 B.C. as is done in the Septuagint translation (see MINISTRY, March, 1981, p. 24) would provide the time needed for the development of Egyptian society to the point where specialized skills could handle such mammoth undertakings as pyramid construction. But such a date would be more than a thousand years earlier than the figures offered by Ussher.

A few scholars have suggested that the problem is not with Ussher's chronology, but with Egyptian chronology, which should be compressed by several centuries. Since the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, archeologists have successfully decoded Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hittite documents written in cuneiform script on clay tablets. This resulted in the development of detailed chronologies covering large spans of the first and second millennia B.C. Many of the Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite kings can be crossdated with the reigns of Pharaohs in Egypt. If we compress Egyptian chronology, then we have to do the same with all the other chronologies of the ancient Near East a seemingly impossible task because of their inter locking nature and their being anchored to astronomical data. No one has successfully done this!

The results of archeology, then, suggest that Ussher's date for the Deluge must be adjusted a minimum of a thousand years. Some Christians are understandably opposed to making such a chronological leap. They argue that in altering the Biblical date for the Flood we are, in effect, exalting science over Scripture and allowing archeology to determine how we should read scriptural data. But we have already allowed archeology to interpret, illuminate, and shape our thoughts on dozens of Biblical texts if we give any credence to Biblical archeology. It would be inconsistent not to give archeology a fair hearing on chronology if we are already utilizing it fully in other matters. This is not to say that archeology sits in judgment on the Bible any more than it can determine whether the Bible is an inspired document. That is the task of theology.

Before examining the limitations of Biblical archeology in respect to chronology, we should revel a bit in its distinctive triumphs. A remarkable correlation is achieved between events described in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and events in the waning years of the kingdom of Judah. Thanks to the discovery of an astronomical tablet listing numerous solar, lunar, and planetary phenomena during Nebuchadnezzar's thirty-seventh year, we can date to the very day the capture of the Jewish king, Jehoiachin, in Nebuchadnezzar's eighth year (2 Kings 24:12). The date was March 16, 597 B.C., and the final assault appears to have been launched on the Jewish Sabbath.

For earlier Biblical events we have a wealth of information from Assyrian tablets describing campaigns against the nations of Israel and Judah and even mentioning Biblical kings by name. Perhaps the greatest help to Biblical chronology in the period of the monarchy results from the discovery of Ahab's name in Shalmaneser Ill's account of the Battle of Qarqar dated accurately to the year 853 B.C. This could only have been Ahab's final year on the throne because another Assyrian inscription, Shalmaneser's famed Black Obelisk, describes the later Israelite, King Jehu, as giving tribute to him in 841 B.C. The Bible allows exactly twelve years between the reigns of Ahab and Jehu. Because the Assyrian records have been correlated with records of eclipses and the well-established chronology of Ptolemy of Egypt (see MINISTRY, October, 1978, p. 22) we can consider the date 853 B.C. to be an anchor date for the dating of all Hebrew kings back to the time of David.

The impact of Assyrian and Babylonian finds led to a major revision of Ussher's chronology for the period of the monarchy. The one scholar who ultimately solved the intricate problems of harmonizing the apparently conflicting data for the reigns of the Hebrew kings was Edwin R. Thiele, professor emeritus of Andrews University (see MINISTRY, January, 1978, p. 22). In summary, Thiele found Ussher's dates to be up to half a century too old because he was unaware of the existence of three critical factors: (1) coregencies, or overlapping reigns between a father and son; (2) the use of two different calendars, the one beginning in the spring and the other in the fall; and (3) the difference between accession and nonaccession year methods for determining the first year of a king's reign. Taking all of the above factors into account, Thiele discovered an underlying harmony in the Biblical records that is not only internal but external as well. Once he solved these apparent discrepancies in the Biblical data, he found that the reigns of the Jewish kings matched the Assyrian chronology perfectly.

A more recent triumph for Biblical chronologists is the dating of the year of the Exodus to 1450 B.C. as an alternative to a thirteenth-century date. Building upon Thiele's monumental work, William H. Shea, another Andrews University professor, has taken seriously the statement of 1 Kings 6:1 that fixes a time period of exactly 480 years between the Exodus and Solomon's fourth year. 4 It is plausible that Solomon's fourth year was not the fourth year after David's death, but the fourth year of a coregency with his father that is implicit in the scriptural account (1 Kings 1:32-39; 5:lff.). Thus Solomon's fourth year, 970 B.C. , was the year of David's death and the year the first foundation stone was laid for the long-awaited Temple. If that be true, then the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 would date the Exodus to the year 1450 B.C., the year for the death of the powerful Egyptian monarch, Thutmose III. Shea has marshaled a wealth of evidence to support the idea that Thutmose was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and Hatshepsut the princess who adopted Moses. As a result of the precision achieved through a use of the Sothic cycle and the recording of new moon dates for Thutmose III and his son Amenhotep II, we can pinpoint the death of Thutmose III to March 17, 1450 B.C. , the very time of the year when the first Jewish passover must have been celebrated! Most likely Thutmose III was the Pharaoh who drowned in the Red Sea.

While Biblical archeology has made outstanding progress in the precise correlation of Biblical events with secular history throughout the period of the monarchy, the further back in time we proceed, the more difficult it is to find synchronisms. The first mention of the name of Israel in Egyptian records is on the Merneptah Stele (c. 1220 B.C.), but we find no allusion to the Exodus in Egyptian inscriptions, mainly because ancient Egyptians never recorded their defeats. The only reliable basis for accurately dating the Exodus is the one statement in 1 Kings 6:1. Archeology thus far has not turned up anything prior to the Exodus by which Biblical events can be accurately dated.

How confident, then, can we be that early Biblical events such as the Flood and Creation itself can be accurately dated? The problem all along has been that Biblical writers used different chronological conventions than those we use today, and thus we are apt to misinterpret the data if we take it at face value as did Ussher. For example, if one adds up all the figures given for the reigns of the Hebrew kings from the beginning of Solomon's reign to the end of Zedekiah's, one will have a figure well in excess of the correct figure. If one adds up all the data for the rule of the judges given in the book of Judges, one is faced with a total that is incompatible with the 480-year figure in 1 Kings 6:1. The data from Judges would expand the figure one hundred years or more. 5

The only way to derive a date for the Flood is to add up the numerical data given for the patriarchs from Shem through Joseph, but we have just seen that the process of adding a series of figures both for the time of the monarchy and the time of the judges yields an erroneous total. Could the same be true of the patriarchal lineage?

This is a very real possibility, and it is further complicated by the fact that there are three different renderings of the Genesis genealogies—the Masoretic text (MT), the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), and the Septuagint (LXX)—and two extra-Biblical sources for the Genesis genealogies—the Book of Jubilees and the works of Josephus. A careful comparison of all the figures given in these genealogies for both the antediluvian and postdiluvian patriarchs leads one to conclude that all the differing accounts have suffered various degrees of emendation. The reasons for the emendation are twofold: (1) scribes or copyists found inherent problems in the numerical data and sought to solve those problems by altering certain figures; (2) ancient scribes, wishing to find support for preconceived chronological schemes, altered the scriptural data.

In considering the first reason, we find that ancient chronologists must have been confronted with the problem of three patriarchs prior to Noah—Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech—having lifespans extending well beyond the Biblical Flood date as calculated by the Samaritans. The ancients, of course, did not date the Flood using a B.C. system, but rather anno mundi (A.M.) years beginning with Creation. Of the five independent lines for the Genesis 5 genealogies, only two of them—SP and Jub.—agree exactly on a given Flood date, which they have set at 1307 A.M. The A.M. dates of 1656 in the MT, 2262 in the LXX, and 2256 in Jos. can all be demonstrated as derivative from the SP and Jub. date of 1307 A.M. This is done by comparing the various figures given for the antediluvian patriarchs (Table 1). Keep in mind that a chronology is constructed by adding up the fatherhood age of the patriarchs, that is, the time between successive genera tions. The longevity, or lifespan, figures are useful in determining when each patriarch died, but not in developing a chronology from Creation to the Flood. In Table 1 we quickly learn that Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech all died the year of the Flood, that is, 1307 A.M. according to the SP. However, the longevity data from the MT and LXX are consistent in allotting these individuals at least a hundred years more life than does the SP. Such evidence suggests that some of the earliest manuscripts (pre-SP) must have had three of the first nine antediluvians living more than a century beyond the 1307 A.M. date for the Flood—an impossibility in light of the fact that Scripture emphasizes the Flood as being universal and only Noah's immediate family, that is "eight souls," as being survivors (Gen. 7:7; 1 Peter 3:20).

The MT, LXX, and SP represent three distinct and differing textual attempts at solving this glaring discrepancy. First, the SP solved the problem by shortening the life spans of the three "problematic" patriarchs so that all three died in the same year, 1307 A.M., which is highly unlikely. Second, the LXX, a Greek translation that can be traced back to a Hebrew Palestinian original somewhat similar to the Samaritan version, lengthened the generation span between all the antediluvians by adding one hundred years to the fatherhood age for each, thus changing the Deluge date so that the three "problematic" patriarchs are depicted as dying before the Flood began. The MT, which is the basis for the King James Version and most modern versions, took a third approach. It added 100, 120, and 129 years to the fatherhood ages of Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech, respectively, so that they all died prior to the Flood. Interestingly, the MT left untouched the figures for Jared's father, who died in 1290 A.M., and the figures for Jared's son, Enoch, because he was being translated centuries before the Flood. This hypothesis explains the anomaly of why the Masoretic text has fatherhood figures identical to the SP for the first five and the seventh patriarchs, but totally different for patriarchs six, eight and nine. It explains also why virtually all ancient manuscripts agree on the figures for Noah, since no problem was posed in his surviving the Flood by centuries. Thus all the major textual lines for the antediluvian period seem to have undergone differing degrees of manipulation, and therefore we cannot use the figures given in Genesis 5 for constructing a precise chronology.

If that conclusion be true for the antediluvian period, we would have good reason to suspect that a similar pattern of manipulation holds true for the postdiluvian genealogies that are found in Genesis 11. And indeed it does, but for different reasons. In the postdiluvian period we have the same pattern of discrepancies, one chronology being shorter than the other by increments of 100 years for each generation. Either a century has been added to each father hood age in the shorter chronology, or deducted from each stage in the longer chronology. The one hundred year differences could not have been a mere coincidence. Whereas in the Genesis 5 chronologies it was a matter of addition, the reverse seems to be true in the Genesis 11 chronologies. If it were a process of addition instead of subtraction, both the LXX and the SP should yield 129 years, not 79 years, as the fatherhood figure for Nahor, grandfather of Abraham. Again as in the antediluvian period, we find that the Samaritan Pentateuch preserves the oldest account of these ancient genealogies, and its figures have undergone later revision by all the other genealogical texts. That is not to say, however, that the SP holds the original text for the Genesis genealogies. We have already seen how the SP arbitrarily alters the longevity figures for three of the first nine patriarchs.

In the antediluvian period we have suggested a single explanation that accounts for all the divergencies between the various manuscripts for the data found in Genesis 5—they were grappling with the apparent problem of having three patriarchs surviving the ordeal of the Flood without ever having boarded the ark! But this explanation does not explain why the postdiluvian figures of Genesis 11 were altered. That brings us to our second reason for the altering of Biblical data: scribes were endeavoring to support a preconceived chronological scheme. One example of this is that the LXX has inserted an extra Cainan after the third position of the postdiluvian list. This addition is suspect because the name Cainan, which is fourth on the list of postdiluvian patriarchs, is identical to the fourth name in the antediluvian genealogy, and because its accompanying fatherhood and life-span figures are identical to those attached to the next name on the list. No other two patriarchs have the same names, nor do any two have identical numerical data. Why the extra Cainan? It appears that the addition may have been to support a preconceived chronological system.

Scholars have attempted for scores of years to determine what were the chronological schemes that would account for these major alterations in the genealogies. Some have suggested that ancient scribes attempted to superimpose a system of jubilees upon Old Testament chronology, and others have suggested a scheme using the Babylonian sexagesimal system in place of the Jewish decimal system. But the simplest explanation seems to be that millennial speculations led to the alteration of genealogical data.

For example, the data in the Septuagint would suggest that the alterations, such as the addition of an extra Cainan, were made in order to achieve a date of 4000 A.M. for the Exodus. Thus the giving of the law, according to the LXX, took place exactly four thousand years after the Creation event. The above tally indicates how the total was achieved.

Furthermore, the Septuagint has exactly one thousand years extending from the Exodus to the last return of the Jewish exiles under the direction of Ezra in Artaxerxes' seventh year (Ezra 7 and 8). Here, I believe, is another example of millennial speculation whereby two significant events were linked together the return of Israelites from Egyptian bondage and the last major return of Jewish exiles from Babylonian captivity.

The Masoretic text likewise appears to have suffered alterations in order to support some kind of a millennial scheme. It is significant that the MT has a total of exactly three thousand years spanning the time from Creation to the completion of the Temple. In other words, the Temple was completed and dedicated in the year 3,000 A.M. This is not likely to be coincidental, although that possibility cannot be ruled out. The breakdown of how this figure was achieved is to the right.

The millennial schemes that have been discovered lying buried within the data of the Masoretic and Septuagint chronologies link Creation with perhaps the two most important events in Jewish history—the giving of the law and the building of the Temple. In Jewish chronology the reference point for all chronologies must be Creation, rather than the Flood. In later Jewish thought millennialism was tied in with Messianic expectations, so that the development of a chronology became very important for Jewish scholars. 6 Much of Jewish millennialistic speculation has filtered into the works of Christian chronologists, including Ussher, who allotted exactly four millennia from Creation to the Messiah's birth.

It is unfortunate that the figures covering the earliest eras of Biblical chronology—the antediluvian and immediate postdiluvian—were altered to the point that we cannot be sure of the original figures in all cases. However, numerical data used to construct a chronology from the Exodus to the Exile appears to be on a sound basis and has excellent correlations with archeological, astronomical, and historical evidence. Unless new manuscript evidence comes to light for the earliest eras, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to achieve a precise dating for events prior to Abraham. In spite of this inherent inability, Scripture does suggest that the time span from Adam to Abraham is in terms of thousands of years, rather than tens of thousands or millions of years!

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1 Stanley Jaki, Science and Creation (New York:
Science History Publications, 1974), pp. 97, 98.

2 John F. Kirkaldy, Geological Time (Edinburgh:
Oliver and Boyd, 1971), p. 4.

3 Cited in Colin Renfrew, Before Civilization
(New York: Knopf, 1973), pp. 21, 22.

4 William H. Shea, "Exodus, Date of," The
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979), vol. 2, pp.
230-238.

5 For example, see The Interpreter's Dictionary of
the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), vol. 1, p.
583.

6 Rabbinic literature has many millennial allu
sions whereby history lasts exactly six thousand
years followed by a seventh thousand-year period of
rest. See Daniel T. Taylor, The Reign of Christ on
Earth (Boston: H. L. Hastings, 1883), pp. 25-28.
The pseudepigraphal work 2 Enoch 32:3-33:1, is
the earliest Jewish work to compare the seven days
of Creation to seven thousand years of history.

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