Book Review: From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology: Part I

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Excerpt Book review: From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology, by Andrew E. Steinmann. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. Hardback, 421 + xxxviii pages. Continue reading

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The Bible doesn’t just “contain” chronological markers. It abounds in them. This is unlike the sacred writings of most other religions. Islam’s Qur’an has numerous references to events in the past histories of the Arab tribes, with no indication of just when those events took place. The Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism consists of a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna having to do with Arjuna’s hesitation to participate in a battle, but the reader is left in the dark about the when and where of the battle. Modern interpreters of the Gita are not even sure in which millennium to place the dialogue. In contrast, immediately after introducing the important topics of Creation and the entrance of sin into the world, the Bible devotes chapter 5 of Genesis to the numbering of years of Adam and his descendants down to Noah. After Noah and the Flood, further numbers are given that have traditionally been used to calculate the years to Abraham and his immediate descendants, and after that to the Exodus. First Kings 6:1 dates the fourth year of King Solomon to the 480th year of the “going-out”, i.e. the Exodus, so that the time from the Exodus to the beginning of construction on Solomon’s temple was 479 years.

 

The counting of years continues throughout the kingdom period, which exhibits the most complex set of chronological data of the biblical corpus. This time is covered by six major books of the Bible: 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. There are 125 exact chronological markers for the 410 years from the first year of Solomon to the release of Jehoiachin from prison, plus numerous chronological clues of a more general nature. The precise markers include lengths of reign for the various monarchs, cross-synchronizations between the two Hebrew kingdoms, and year-synchronisms to Assyrian and Babylonian kings whose times of reign can be calculated from extra-biblical sources.

 

The New Testament also has much to say about when its events happened. An example is the multiple synchronisms given in Luke 3:1-2 that date the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to A.D. 29. From this wealth of information in both testaments, it is evident that the Divine Author of Scripture considered chronology to be important. The abundance of dates, spans of time, and synchronisms has also served as an invitation to interpreters to try to systematize this information into a rational scheme, one that dates events according to a long-term calendar. The earliest such attempt of which we have any knowledge was by Demetrius, a second-century B.C. Jewish scholar whose works are known from fragments preserved in later authors. The writings of Josephus (died ca. A. D. 100) contain much chronological information, but his summation of years for the time of the kingdom and earlier are grossly wrong; only in events closer to his own time, for some parts (but not all) of his history related to the Herodians, and in his citations of the chronology of Tyrian kings can his chronologies be demonstrated to be accurate.


In the second century A.D. the Seder Olam Rabbah of Rabbi Yose sought to give a consistent chronology from the Creation to the Bar Koseba rebellion (A.D. 132-135). (Yose’s mentor Rabbi Akiba called the leader of the revolt Bar-Kochba, “son of the star” referring to the messianic prophecy of Numbers 24:51, but Yose wrote his name as Bar-Kozeba, “son of the lie.”) In the third century A.D. the Christian martyr Julius Africanus attempted to relate biblical chronology to Greek and Roman histories. Portions of his work survive in later authors, most notably Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. A.D. 260-340), whose Chronological Canons contain a wealth of information derived from Africanus and from other ancient authors whose writings have been lost. In the seventeenth century, the Annals of the World of Archbishop Ussher used the date of 4004 B.C. for the creation of the world that was published 40 years previously by Thomas Lydiat. Ussher also assumed, based on some misunderstandings in the works of Josephus regarding the date of Herod’s death, that Christ was born in 4 B.C. The work of Lydiat and Ussher thus gave 4000 years from Creation to the birth of the Messiah. This appealing figure, combined with Ussher’s extensive scholarship in other matters, was so impressive that for many years his chronology was printed in the margins of the KJV Bible. Of interest in this regard is the chapter in From Abraham to Paul that brings in several lines of evidence to show that Herod died sometime between January 10 and April 9 of 1 B.C., not in 4 B.C., and the birth of Christ should be placed in the timeframe that was given by almost all early Christian writers: from mid or late 3 B.C. to sometime in early 2 B.C.

 

The rise of anti-supernatural theories for the origin of the Bible introduced a new way of interpreting the Bible’s chronological information, particularly in the Old Testament. Many of the timespans were declared to be artificial constructs of late-date writers and redactors who were assumed, without real evidence, to be the authors of Scripture. These mysterious figures (J, E, D, P, H, Dtr and the other “daughters” Dtr1, Dtr2 etc., without end) would necessarily have to make many mistakes in the fine details of chronology when referring to events that transpired long before their time. Wellhausen labeled this subjective dissection of texts the “scientific” approach to understanding the Bible and the history of Israel. With this mindset, there was no point in using the Bible’s chronology to try to reconstruct history. In particular, Wellhausen labeled the complex data of the kingdom period as useless for such a task. Wellhausen’s approach is still popular among those who have a low opinion of the inspiration of Scripture, as exemplified by the title of Jeremy Hughes’s 1991 monograph: Secrets of the Times: Myth and History in Biblical Chronology.

 

The scientific method as used by genuine scientists, however, is not the presupposition-based method of De Wette, Wellhausen, Noth, Hughes, and others who pursue current modifications of the discredited Documentary Hypothesis. True science starts with observation. This means assessing the data, and not rejecting any particular datum in the field of interest unless there is some compelling reason, based on the other data, to do so. The next step is to attempt to systematize the data by formulating a hypothesis. This was the procedure of all the early chronologers: Rabbi Yose, Africanus, Eusebius, Ussher, and the various writers of conservative Bible histories who attempted to give timelines for the events of the Bible. There are several prerequisites in pursuing this approach if it is to be credible. The researcher should be familiar with the languages in which the Scripture was written and with the modes of expression of those languages. He or she must also study the customs of the nations with whom the Hebrews had contact. It is essential to understand how these cultures counted the time, whether days, months, years, or reign lengths; formulating presuppositions in these matters that contradict the essential data (the method of the Documentary Hypothesis) is not acceptable. 

 

Archaeological discoveries of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries greatly advanced the successes of those who followed this “inductive” (i.e., truly scientific) method of interpreting the Bible’s chronological data. With the increased understanding of how ancient recorders measured time, it was recognized that many of the conjectures of the older interpreters needed revision. Rabbi Yose’s assumption that the chronology of the kingdom period could be determined by adding all the reign lengths of the kings of the southern kingdom, subtracting one year from each king’s reign because of his assumed “nonaccession” reckoning, was not justified; neither was the system of Africanus/Eusebius that did the same but using accession reckoning. Both of these methods overlooked the fact that the Hebrews, like the Egyptians, sometimes measured a king’s years from the start of a coregency, not from the start of his sole reign. A close look at the historical data for the reign of Herod the Great showed that Ussher’s date for the birth of Christ was wrong by at least one and possibly two years. Ussher also misunderstood the biblical texts that relate Jehoiachin’s captivity to the accession year of Amel-Marduk, so that his starting point of 588 B.C. for Jerusalem’s fall was one year too early, with a consequent distortion of all prior B.C. dates. In the 1920s, the Belgian scholar Valerius Coucke started from the same passage in Ptolemy’s Canon that Ussher used to get an absolute (B.C.) date, but he correctly interpreted the biblical texts to calculate 587 B.C. for the fall of Jerusalem. This date was confirmed in 1956 with the publication of the Babylonian Chronicle that showed that the captivity of Jehoiachin began on the second of Adar (April 16), 597 B.C. This illustrates a general truth: our understanding of the historical texts of the Bible has been enhanced by progress in both exegesis and archaeology. In the proper use of the inductive method, neither of these disciplines can be neglected.

 

The progress just mentioned in exegesis and in understanding the ancient methods of recording time has resulted in a chronology for the Old Testament that is coherent, that is, internally self-consistent. Progress in the field of archaeology has allowed that biblical chronology to be tested at several critical points. The proper methodology in both areas has produced convergence in the findings of the two disciplines, something that was not anticipated by those who doubted the historicity of the Bible’s chronological information. Jack Finegan’s Handbook of Biblical Chronology is the principal overview that summarizes the raw data in historical and archaeological findings that demonstrate this convergence.


A second essential resource in studying biblical chronology is The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings by Edwin R. Thiele (pronounced TEE-luh). Thiele did an extensive investigation of the methods of measuring time used in the ancient Near East, and also of biblical texts related to the divided kingdom, in order to determine the dating methods used by the authors of Chronicles, Kings, Jeremiah and Ezekiel for the time of the divided monarchy. Thiele stated his rejection of the presupposition-based approach as follows:


I eliminated the inclination, as certain fairly well established dates in Hebrew history were being approached, to endeavor to modify the pattern one way or another to cause it to conform to preconceived ideas of what it ought to be at those points . . . as the pattern was being developed there was no knowledge of the date b. c. of any event or king . . . Then, on the completion of such a pattern, I meant to test the results by a comparison with the established dates of contemporary history (Mysterious Numbers, pp. 16-17).


When Thiele finished the pattern and attempted to match it to dates in Assyrian and Babylonian history, he found that the biblically-based pattern was inconsistent with the commonly accepted date for Battle of Qarqar in which Shalmaneser III fought Ahab of Israel. By further study of Assyrian sources, Thiele showed that the date assigned by most Assyriologists to the Battle of Qarqar was in error by one year. Thiele’s investigation of this issue is largely responsible for the fact that Assyriologists now accept the date for the Battle of Qarqar that Thiele advocated. Thiele’s chronology for the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah needed correction by later scholars, and my own work showed that his dates for Solomon through Athaliah of the southern kingdom, as well as his date for the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, were one year too late in both cases. On the other hand, his dates for the northern kingdom (Israel) have needed no modification since they were first published in 1944. Thiele’s determination of the basic methods of those who gave us the chronological data of the kingdom period makes Mysterious Numbers a second important resource (outside of the Bible itself), along with Finegan’s Handbook, for the study of biblical chronology.

 

It is utterly false to say that all this (inductive-based) biblical scholarship was driven by an attempt to adjust the biblical data to the secular scholarship of archaeology. This cannot be the case because Thiele’s biblically-based studies have been used to correct several important dates in ancient Near Eastern history. These include the year of Ahab’s conflict with Shalmaneser III, the year of Jehu’s tribute to that same monarch, the year of the fall of Samaria (to Shalmaneser V in 723 B.C., not to Sargon in 722 or 721; Assyrian records show that there was no campaign in the west in 722 or 721), and the year of Menahem’s tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III (743 or 742 B.C., not the 738 that was advocated before the publication of the Iran Stela in 1994, eight years after Thiele’s death). No other system of biblical chronology has had such a record of success. It should be pointed out that the final step of the scientific method is whether the hypothesis is able to correctly predict new data. This has been accomplished through Thiele’s findings. Any chronological scheme that does not follow the basic principles outlined by Thiele regarding how the Hebrews measured the years of their kings will at some point reject either the biblical data, the archaeological data, or both.

       

The third important resource is the subject of this review. But first a disclaimer. When the ABR editors requested that I provide a review, I replied that since From Abraham to Paul accepts without modification my chronology for the Hebrew kingdom period (which is basically a revision in just a few places of Thiele’s work), I would not be considered an objective critic. It is a foregone conclusion that I would approve this core section of the book. I therefore requested that someone else do the review. The ABR staff said to go ahead anyway, but I thought it advisable to provide a caveat lector.

 

The above historical survey was intended to provide the necessary background so that readers of the book being reviewed can appreciate its significance. That significance may be expressed as follows: From Abraham to Paul embodies the success that the inductive method has achieved in interpreting the chronological texts of the Bible. No such success has attended the efforts of the anti-supernaturalist interpreters; not only is there no consensus among their various chronologies, but their one unifying principle, namely the assumed late-date authorship of the historical parts of the Bible, cannot explain the accuracy of the Bible’s chronological information in those places where it can be tested. That accuracy is demonstrated throughout Dr. Steinmann’s book.

 

Andrew Steinmann is Distinguished Professor of Theology and Hebrew at Concordia University Chicago. He has authored Intermediate Biblical Hebrew and commentaries on Proverbs, Daniel, and Ezra/Nehemiah in the Concordia series. His published research on the reign of Herod and on the date of the return of the exiles from Babylon, along with his commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah, have established him as the leading authority on the history and chronology of the post-exilic period, up to and including the birth of Christ and the nativity narratives. Although Dr. Steinmann has a high view of the inspiration of Scripture and the book is valuable as an apologetic resource, the works of scholars of various theological viewpoints are treated fairly. It is unfortunate that its rather high price will deter many. Concordia probably will not lower the price at any time soon, since sales have exceeded expectations. With these remarks, I will close Part 1 of the review. Part 2 will deal with specifics of the chronological material.

 

Rodger C. Young received a BA degree in physics from Reed College, Portland OR, and BA and MA degrees in mathematics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In addition, he has done graduate work in theology and Biblical languages at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO. Mr. Young has worked as a computer application developer and systems analyst at Monsanto and IBM. Following his retirement in 2003 he has devoted himself to the study of Biblical chronology and has authored a number of articles on that subject. His extensive work on Biblical Chronology can be found on his website at: http://www.rcyoung.org/papers.html


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