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

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