CORRECTING CHRONOLOGY –
THE GENESIS TIMELINE RECOVERED
Summary: The conventional biblical timeline is presented in the King James Bible and was supported by the work of Bishop Ussher in his magnum opus, Annals of the World. But does his work stand up to scrutiny from both biblical and secular scholars? There is much debate. I touch on that debate here, pointing out the distinction between the creation of the universe and the creation of humankind. the pivotal issue has to do with whether the Masoretic Text’s chronology or the Septuagint’s chronology is correct. What does the Septuagint teach that opens up a vital dialogue between biblical and archeological timelines?
When we think of the chronology of the Bible, we think of Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656). Ussher published his famous ancient chronology in 1650. His chronology proposed the date of creation to be October 23, 4004 B.C., (on the first Rosh Hashanah although that day slipped over into a Sunday). Many other pre-enlightenment scholars also indicated that the age of the world, according to Scripture, was approximately the same: This includes 3761 B.C. (by Jose ben Halafta, a disciple of Akiba), 3992 B.C. (by Johannes Kepler), and Sir Isaac Newton (4000 B.C.)
Ussher relied upon the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11, as published a few decades earlier (1611) in the King James Bible.[i] Genesis 5 and 11 both present 10 generations in a male lineage, that tells the age of the Patriarch and his age when his “child of promise” was born. As mentioned earlier, the child referenced was not the first-born child, but the child in the genealogy that led to the birth of the Messiah (as traced by Matthew and Luke in the New Testament).
There are several ways to calculate the timeline, depending upon specific fixed dates the Bible provides that are usually accepted by both biblical and secular scholars. One of those critical dates is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. That date is fixed on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), 586 B.C. ± 1 year.[ii] This day falls in July or August on our Gregorian calendar. From this date, calculations trace back to the split of Israel’s Kingdom into ten tribes in the North (Ephraim) and two tribes in the South (Judah), which is typically set ca. 936 B.C., and then back to Solomon’s Temple (four years into his 40-year reign), ca. 972 B.C. Thus, David’s reign began about 1016 B.C. and Saul’s reign about 1056 B.C. These dates are conventional. Despite being the majority view, my book, Rebooting the Bible establishes dates about 40 years earlier. This is the first step to right the ship regarding biblical chronology.
But after these events, the timeline blurs. The counting of time considers the period of Judges and the Conquest of Canaan following the Exodus. The length of the captivity in Egypt is much debated. Depending upon how this question is settled, the births of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can then be easily placed in the timeline. From Abraham, the chronology dates to the Tower of Babel incident (which can only be estimated), then the Great Flood of Noah (which is specific). Lastly, the creation of Adam and Eve is set (which may or may not be the date the entire Creation was spoken into existence – that is, the universe, not just the founding pair of homo sapiens sapiens), all by the Logos, the Word of God. Note: The date that Adam and Eve were created by the hand of God may not be in the same “week” as the date when Creation took place. There are many other factors to consider when dating the universe from a biblical perspective that are beyond the scope here. The date for the creation of Adam and Eve, which this author believes is historically true, is distinct from the age of the universe.
Of course, most secular authorities in Archeology accept that Abraham was the father of all Semites; his estimated birth date ranges from about 2300 B.C. to 2000 B.C. (I place his birth year at 2128 B.C.) Before that, academia doesn’t trust the Bible’s chronology whatsoever. Therefore, one of my goals in Rebooting the Bible (Parts 1 & 2) is to offer a date that can be synchronized with Archeology, something which the timelines of Ussher and the King James Bible cannot do.
The dating schema of Ussher found itself surrounded by enlightenment critics at the end of the eighteenth century. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) dealt near fatal blows to Ussher’s Chronology. Henceforth, by the middle of the nineteenth century, theologians began to doubt the legitimacy of the chronology. Three decades later in 1890, with conservative theologian William Henry Green’s article “Primeval Chronology” published in Bibliotheca Sacra (as far as Ussher’s chronology was concerned), the wheels came off the wagon. Biblical chronology would be compromised. And the end came, for theology, for setting a date to identify the creation of Adam and Eve, and for Young Earth Creationists, would now lose support of most evangelicals.
Green stated, “We conclude that the Scriptures furnish no data for a chronological computation before the life of Abraham; and that the Mosaic records do not fix and were not intended to fix the precise date either of the Flood or of the creation of the world.”[iii] Famous Reformed Theologian, B.B. Warfield, commented that it is “precarious in the highest degree to draw chronological inferences from genealogical tables.”[iv]
Indeed, one of the most critical areas to examine is whether the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 are complete and intended as a record telling us the number of years that elapsed “from Adam to Noah” and then “from Shem to Abraham.” Consequently, by 1901, virtually all theologians with an academic bent no longer affirmed the conventional dating of the age of the world in correspondence with the Bible. The two Princeton Theologians identified above, Green and Warfield, naturally fell into this category as they led the rest of the most highly regarded scholars in evangelical theology down the “primrose path.” There are exceptions, but they are usually dismissed as Biblicists without academic value.
As stated, it has become standard practice to deny that the Bible’s genealogies furnish a timeline of ancient events. This denial holds true even for most “mainstream” Evangelical theologians. In fact, one way to distinguish between “mainstream” Evangelicals and Fundamentalist Evangelicals is what they affirm about biblical chronology. The Fundamentalists hold to the “young earth” and usually embrace the Ussher chronology. Mainstream Evangelicals avoid the question or claim that such allegiance is misplaced. They argue that the Bible’s authors never intended that the Genesis genealogies were to be used to calculate how many years passed from the beginning of the lineage to its concluding entry. It is suggested that the author intended something else by supplying dates for all the entries in the genealogy. What exactly that is, isn’t clear.
Indeed, most authorities make a sweeping assertion that none of the Bible’s genealogies yield a timeline at all. At the center of this discussion is whether all biblical genealogies follow the same pattern. Is it possible that the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 differ from other lineages given later? For example, later genealogies in Genesis, and distinct genealogies in Exodus, as well as 1 and 2 Kings (to name a few) mention the individual’s name but don’t give their ages. They also don’t supply dates for the ages of the patriarchs when each had his son of the promise (the Messianic “thread” in the genealogy) and how long they lived (the total number of years) as the chronologies do in Genesis 5 and 11.
This author is not ashamed to argue differently.
To make my position clear, the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies supply a precise chronology or timeline, while other lineages don’t follow this pattern. In the Genesis genealogy, the total years of the Patriarch’s life and his age when he had his “child of promise” matter. In conflict with the majority view, there is a strong argument that there are no gaps between generations listed in Genesis 5 and 11.
The argument, however, can get tedious. I take this up in Rebooting the Bible for those who wish to drill down and look at the information more closely. I will conclude this article with the table I’ve developed that does the comparison between the Septuagint’s chronology and the Masoretic Text’s chronology.
The pivotal point, which you will see when you study the chart, is when the patriarch begets the child that will commence the next generation. Both chronologies maintain the same length of life. But the difference is when the “child of promise” is brought forth (the way the Bible expresses the birth of the next generation).
Both chronologies maintain that their ancestors lived extremely long lives. Of course, this biblical assertion is challenged. But it is a matter of faith that the patriarchs did indeed live to great ages. And the fact that lives grew shorter exponentially after the Flood of Noah suggests that something had changed causing the length of life to decline sharply. While some have argued that it was due to atmospheric alterations of the planet after the Flood, others believe it has to do with genetic alterations, perhaps a continual increase in mutations in the body’s DNA. Regardless of the mechanism in force, Bible believers accept these long lives as stated in the Word.
One last caveat: The argument for the correct biblical chronology is for those who believe in the Bible. It is not relevant for those who dismiss the revelation of God through Genesis history concerning the biblical timeline and the dating of its patriarchs. And it does not settle the question of whether the earth is young or old. One can contend for an old earth but still hold that Adam and Eve were directly created through God’s hands and were not a product of evolution. In other words, the creation of the universe and the creation of humanity as it exists today (homo sapiens sapiens), can be distinguished in a timeline that still asserts that God created both directly through His creative power, not through evolution acting without His direct intervention.
[i] He also did an enormous amount of research across many sources of ancient history, before settling on the date published, which closely follows the MT.
[ii] Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the calendar for Jews. Many horrible things happened on this date in history. The curse of this day begins with the 10 spies coming forth, circa 1620 B.C., with the bad report on taking the land of Canaan vis-à-vis the good report of Joshua and Caleb. Both the first and second temples were destroyed (586 B.C. and 70 A.D. respectively). Bar Kokhba’s stronghold was captured by Rome and one year later on Tisha B’Av, Jerusalem was totally razed. In 1290, Jews were expelled from England by King Edward I; Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the day after Columbus set sail on his first American voyage. World War I began (1914), setting in motion many end-time events according to futurist eschatology. In 1942, Polish Jews were deported for the first time to Treblinka where many would die in the Holocaust. All of these dates took place on the 9th of Av. Coincidence or providence?
[iii] Green, William H., “Primeval Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April, 1890, p. 285-303. Retrieved 7-7-2018 from http://www.genevaninstitute.org/syllabus/unit-two-theology-proper/lesson-5-the-decree-of-creation/primeval-chronology-by-dr-william-henry-green/.
[iv] Warfield, Benjamin B., “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” Princeton Theological Review 9 / (1), 1911. p. 1-25.