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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Chronology of the Old Testament

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CHRONOLOGY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT . The importance of a fixed era by which to date events was not discovered by the Hebrews until after their national existence came to an end. All the endeavours to fix such an era which we find in our OT like the dating of the building of Solomon’s Temple 480 years from the Exodus ( 1 Kings 6:1 ) belong to the post-exilic period. During the existence of the monarchy all that was thought necessary was to date by the years of the reigning king. If we had a complete series of public documents for all the reigns, this would answer very well for historical purposes. But what has actually come down to us is at best only a fragmentary series of notices based in part on official records.

Numerical statements there are in plenty in the Bible, and among them all those in the Books of Kings most deserve attention as the basis for a scientific chronology. At first sight their accuracy seems to be guaranteed, because they check each other for the time covered by the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Not only does the author give us the length of the reigns in the two lines, but he has taken pains to work out a series of synchronisms, that is, he dates the accession of each king by the regnal year of his contemporary monarch in the other kingdom. But comparison of these figures with each other shows that they cannot all be accurate. For example, we learn that Jehoshaphat of Judah came to the throne in the fourth year of Ahab of Israel; also that Ahab reigned 22 years. Yet we are told that Ahaziah, who followed Ahab after his death, came to the throne in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat, and in addition that Ahaziah’s brother Jehoram, who could be crowned only after the two years’ reign assigned to the latter, succeeded in the eighteenth of Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:41; 1 Kings 22:51 , 2 Kings 3:1 ).

This example makes us give up the synchronisms and turn our attention to the length of reigns, where we have reason to suppose that the figures are drawn from earlier documents. The history gives a convenient point of division at the accession of Jehu in Israel and of Athaliah in Judah, for these two came to the throne in the same year. The two series of lengths of reigns ought to give the same sum for the period. But they do not. In one line we find 95 years and in the other 98.

It is possible that the discrepancy here is due to the mode of reckoning. The reigns are given as so many years without regard to fractions, yet it will be manifest that few if any reigns are an exact number of years with no months or days. Where the method of dating by regnal years is in vogue, the fractions may be treated in two ways. If a king dies in the tenth year of his reign, for example, the calendar year may continue to be called his tenth; and the next calendar year will be the first of his successor. But it will also be possible to begin at once to date by the first year of the new king, making the next calendar year his second. In this latter case the public records will show more years (judging by the dates) than there actually are, by one in each reign. According to this method, the number of years from Rehoboam to Athaliah would be 90, which cannot be far from correct. The next period, however, from Athaliah to Hezekiah, and from Jehu to the fall of Samaria, gives us greater difficulty. Here we find the sum of years in one line to be greater than in the other by more than twenty. The various hypotheses which have been advanced to overcome this discrepancy do not concern us in the present article. All that we need to note is that the figures of the Hebrew text do not give us a sure basis for a chronology.

If this is true in what we have reason to suppose is the most reliable of the OT dates, the case is even worse when we examine the earlier period of the history. No doubt the authors of the Pentateuchal narratives thought themselves able to give the length of time which had elapsed from the creation of the world. There is no other way to interpret their language. In the genealogy of the sons of Adam, for example (Genesis 5:1-32 ), we read how Adam was 130 years old when he begat Seth, Seth 105 years old when he begat Enosh, and so on down to the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in which the Flood came. The summing up of the figures gives us 1656 years from the Creation to the Flood.

The unhistorical character of the numbers in this table is now generally conceded. The conclusions of natural science concerning the duration of man upon the earth are enough to invalidate the calculation. But this gives additional interest to the inquiry as to what the authors had in mind. It has been pointed out that if to the sum we have just obtained we add the years from the Flood to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, we get 2666, that is, two-thirds of 4000. Now the interest that the writer had in this calculation was probably due to the theory which he had formed or which had come down to him by tradition, that the length of time from the Creation to the coming of the Messiah would be 4000 years.

Four thousand is 100 generations of 40 years each. Any one who is familiar with the OT figures will recall how common it is to find 40 years as a round number. The 40 years of the wilderness wandering, 40 years of peace in the time of several of the Judges, 40 years each for David and Solomon, are sufficiently marked. Then we recall the 480 years from the Exodus to the building of the Temple 12 generations of 40 years each. It is probable also that a similar term was counted from the building of the Temple to its rebuilding under Darius or to the end of the Exile, while it is not without significance that the duration of the Northern Kingdom was calculated to be 240 years.

All this shows that these late Biblical writers were dominated by a theory. It must be noticed also that more than one theory had an influence. The Greek translators, working in the second century before Christ, had a Hebrew text which differed considerably from ours in this matter of numbers. They reckoned nearly 600 years more from the Creation to the Flood than the sum in our Bible, while from the Flood to the Call of Abraham they make nearly 800 more. The copy of the Pentateuch which circulated among the Samaritans has a still different system. The question which of these systems is the earliest is still unsettled. It may be said to have only an academic interest, since we know that no one of them gives us authentic data for the antiquity of the world.

Fortunately our appreciation of the Bible does not depend upon the accuracy of its dates. In general the picture it gives of the sequence of events from the time of the Judges down to the Fall of Jerusalem is correct. Of late years we have received welcome light on the dates of certain Biblical events from the Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions. These empires had made great advances in astronomy, and consequently in the regulation of the calendar. While they did not date from a fixed era, they had a reckoning of time which secured accuracy for their historical records. Each calendar year was named for an official whom we call an eponym , and records were kept showing the series of eponyms with brief notes of the events in each one’s year. These lists have come down to us in fragmentary form, but we are able by them to correct some of the dates of our Hebrew history. The accuracy of the Babylonian system has been tested by its records of eclipses as far back as the year b.c. 763.

More than a hundred systems of Biblical Chronology have been invented or reckoned out another testimony to the uncertain nature of the Biblical data. The received system, which has found a place in the margin of our reference Bibles, is well known to be that of the learned Archbishop Ussher. By the Babylonian canon we are now able to correct its figures. These are for the early period too high. Thus for David, Ussher gives us the date 1056. But reckoning back from the earliest Assyrian allusion to Israel, this should be about 1010. The amount of error is less as we come down to later times, and disappears at the Fall of Samaria. From David down to the capture of Babylon by Cyrus, therefore, we are able to give approximately correct dates for our history. Before the time of David there must be some uncertainty, which up to the present time has not been much mitigated by the Egyptian inscriptions. From the time of the rebuilding of the Temple under Darius we are also in uncertainty, though this period does not bulk largely in the received OT.

H. P. Smith.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Chronology of the Old Testament'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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