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LP0.2 Dating the Bible

Dating ancient events has always proved challenging.  For one thing, there have been numerous calendars that different cultures have used and synchronizing them is not always easy.  The Egyptians had a 12 month calendar but each month had the same 30 days, (three 10 day weeks, no less). The Romans had several calendars; the original Julian calendar had only 355 days which we all now know will never work. 

Dionysis Exeguus did an admirable thing for Christianity in centering dates around the birth of Christ, but he is also responsible for an error that caused it to be off.  The problem is that Herod the Great, responsible for killing all the babies under two to murder the Christ child, died in 4 B.C. so Jesus could not be born later than that.  So all date calculations need to account for that.

Consequently dating the Bible appears to be as much art as science.  Different sources give dates that, while close to each other, rarely match especially the farther back you go.  One of the early modern attempts at dating the events in the Bible was done by James Ussher in the 17th century.  He based his dates primarily on then known dates of events in the bible and time periods like the years between the patriarchs. The following are examples of bible verses that specify time periods:

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Mat 1:17-18 ESV)

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the LORD.  (1Ki 6:1 ESV)

And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison.  (2Ki 25:27 ESV)

Ussher’s work was a scholarly work for its time.   Furthermore, Ussher integrated known historical data to produce not just a bible history but a world history aptly named Annals of the World, a tome of greater than 1200 pages.

Since that time scholars have been able to co-ordinate more historical records of other civilizations  with events in the new testament.  Even with that there is still no firm estimate of the exact year of the birth of Adam or a lot of other biblical events.  Part of the reason is that per the scientific community man has been around longer than the bible seems to accommodate.

I have used a number of sources in looking at dates.  Timeline.biblehistory.com is a very good web site with a timeline chock full of dates and facts that correspond bible history dates with world history and middle east history. I have used Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible for forty odd years now and it has some dates, more approximations,  in amongst all the bible details there.  Rose’s Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Timelines is a more recent publication and has a wealth of date knowledge in it among many other things.

Eerdman’s Handbook has the least precise date data.  In the book they make statements regarding the difficulty of constructing timelines.  For example, Erdmann’s says that there appears “at first glance” enough evidence to construct an accurate timeline regarding the chronology of the Kings. They cite that the reigns of the Kings are clearly given and the events that affected both kingdoms are given.  The book writes:

“However, serious problems arise on closer inspection.  For instance, in Judah, the total from Rehoboam to Ahaziah’s death is 95 years, whereas the identical period of Israel from Jeroboam to Joram’s death, totals 98 years.”[i] 

The book gives more examples like this explain the challenges of making accurate time charts even when an abundance of time data appears to be given.

Consequently lot of bible history just avoids putting a date to an event.  I personally think that giving dates that are a good estimate is better than not having dates at all because they give a historical overview timewise that puts things in perspective.   

The following chart gives an idea of how different sources estimate dates and which dates they provide.  All dates are BC.

Event Ussher Rose[ii] Timeline.bible…[iii] Eerdman’s[iv]
Creation 4004[v] No estimate 3954 No estimate
Abraham’s Birth 1996[vi] 2166 or 1999 1946 20th century
David’s Birth 1085[vii] 1011 1040 11th century
Isaiah  Birth 759 (date of prophecy)[viii] 760 766 740 (date of prophecy)

For a look at an attempt at reconciling this complicated problem there is a dissertation named ‘Chronology of the Old Testament: A Return to the Basics’ available online, but I did not find it an easy read[ix]


[i] Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible, William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1973, p. 269

[ii] Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps and TimeLines, Rose Publishing, Peabody Massachusetts, 2005, the timeline is on a foldout page at the very beginning.

[iii] http://timeline.biblehistory.com/home, that web page opens up a time line that spans all of bible history,

[iv] Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible, William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1973, Charts are provided p 118-121, 374-375 that give approzimate dates

[v] https://archive.org/details/AnnalsOfTheWorld/page/n11

[vi] https://archive.org/details/AnnalsOfTheWorld/page/n17

[vii] https://archive.org/details/AnnalsOfTheWorld/page/n69

[viii] https://archive.org/details/AnnalsOfTheWorld/page/n95

[ix] http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books%20II/Jones%20-%20Chronology%20of%20the%20OT.pdf

May 20th, 2019 Posted by | The Law and The Prophets | no comments

LP0.1 Only The Law and the Prophets Had Divine Status

There are some things in Christian churches that are assumed. Even though there is no proof, these tenets are accepted without questioning. For example, some assume water baptism every time the word baptism is used. Some assume that the 66 books in the protestant bible are the Word of God, complete and entire. That the law and the prophets is the Old Testament is another assumption.

In fact, there are equations that some people have in their minds:

  • The law and the prophets = the Word of God
  • The law and the prophets = the old testament
  • The Old Testament = the Word of God

Does the Bible itself teach this? Some use verses like 2Tim 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21 to say it does. But that is circular reasoning. The word “scriptures” is really “writings”.  Not all writings were given divine status. Maccabees was scripture in existence in original Christianity times, but not all include this in their interpretation of what “all scripture” is in 1 Tim 3:16, so the word “all” is not all-inclusive. Rather “all scripture” in 1 Tim 3:16 refers only to those writings that were actually considered the word of God. And what people considered scripture in 100 AD is different than what 21st-century Christians call scripture.

In ancient times there were numerous books that people read. In the time of original Christianity, for example, the Shepard of Hermas was very popular. Many accepted it as a prophetic book. It was read in churches. But hardly anyone today would even consider it as a “scripture” Nevertheless, to many, it had that status in the early centuries after Christ.

The modern bible with its collection of books bound together as a unit is a modern tool.  Modern Bibles are not in agreement as to which books are the Word of God.  The Roman Catholic Bible contains the “Apocrypha”.  The Apocrypha includes books like Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch including the Letter of Jeremiah.  The  Tewahedo Bible in Ethiopia has, for example, the 27 books in the Protestant bible plus 28 – Sirate Tsion (the book of order), 29 – Tizaz (the book of Herald), 30 – Gitsew, 31 – Abtilis, 32 –  The I book of Dominos, 33 –  The II book of Dominos, 34 –  The book of Clement, 35 – Didascalia.[i]

There is more variation in biblical canons than the above paragraph includes but the point is that there are multiple modern versions of the Bible with differing book counts and that weakens the modern Protestant argument that their bible is the complete and original Word of God.

Furthermore, it is known that Reformers like Martin Luther challenged the validity of certain books in the Protestant canon of scripture.  Luther challenged Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation in the New Testament and Esther in the Old Testament.

Added to this is the fact that while Christians lump the books into one generically named Old Testament (not named so until 170 AD by Melito of Sardis) the Hebrews divided their bible into three sections, the Torah or Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.[ii]

Interestingly, the Prophets section in the Hebrew Bible includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings while Chronicles is in the Writings.  I had the pleasure of talking with a rabbi about the Hebrew scriptures. I asked him about books in the Writings like Job.   He informed me that they have an expression that went like, “Truer than if it were true”.  He said while that he didn’t believe Job actually lived, what was taught in there was vital truth.  But it was not part of the Law and the Prophets.

Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles are all in the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible.

There were no “bibles” at the time original Christianity was formed. There were individual scrolls, the scroll of Isaiah, the scroll of Jeremiah, and so on. There is no evidence that the old testament as we know was accepted in its entirety as the Word of God in the first century.  Furthermore, the evidence suggests that only those books labeled the law and the prophets were read as scripture in the synagogue or by Christian groups of the first centuries after Christ.  That is not to say that the other books of what we call the old testament were not available. And while new testament books like Paul’s epistles were available they too were not read in Christian gatherings at least during and immediately after the first century AD.

Since there was no “bible” in original Christianity we can only look at references to see what books had the authority of the “word of God”

Let’s look at some of the references that Jesus and Paul used.

And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, if one rise from the dead. (Luke 16:31)

And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

But this I confess unto thee, that after the Way which they call a sect, so serve I the God of our fathers, believing all things which are according to the law, and which are written in the prophets; (Act 24:14)

The Law and the Prophets are what both Jesus and Paul referred to as the writings that should be believed.
Jesus speaks about which books to consider:

Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me; (John 5:39)

The Septuagint was available in Jesus’ time, but he apparently didn’t use it. Where he was there were only scrolls of individual books. There are no references to Job, Esther, or Ecclesiastes by Jesus or Paul. The one certain determination about which books had divine status when we read the gospels was whether they were part of the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets are certainly less than what the rabbis in Jesus’ time or the bishops in the fourth century decided were “scripture”.  One principle of original Christianity is that what was considered scripture was the Law and the Prophets.  That means just the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament, and the prophetic books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, etc.

The Hebrew Version of the Old Testament is called the Masoretic text.  There was a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint and it had the poetic books and the historical books besides the Law and the Prophets.  Scholars say that the quotes that the new testament writers cite from align more closely with the Septuagint than with the Masoretic text.  That doesn’t mean that the disciples preferred the greek version, a possible explanation is that the Septuagint was translated from earlier scrolls than the Masoretic text we have today and thus was more accurate.

If you are like me you are not ready to throw out the Writings section of the Old Testament and I am not saying to do so.  I read books like 1 and 2 Chronicles and the poetic writings like Psalms and Proverbs all the time

The point of this article is to show the change in perspective from the time of original Christianity to now.  For a good while in the last centuries, Christian churches have grown to take the position that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are inerrantly the “Word of God” whereas it appears that to the first century Christians, not all 66 books were considered such.

For the above reasons, I am dedicating a section labeled the Law and the Prophets to the website with the view of looking at what Jesus and his disciples called scripture and quoted from.

[i] https://www.ethiopianorthodox.org/english/canonical/books.html The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church Faith and Order page.

[ii] The Encyclopedia Brittanica Online page on the Hebrew Bible, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hebrew-Bible

© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith Revised 2019.  All Rights Reserved.

February 19th, 2009 Posted by | Original Christianity, The Law and The Prophets | one comment