19 September 2019

When’d the events of the bible take place?

Humanity largely uses the Gregorian calendar, Pope Gregory’s 1582 update of the Julian calendar, which was Julius Caesar’s 46BC update of the old Roman calendar, which according to legend was an update of Romulus’s 10-month 360-day calendar. So, y’know, it’s clearly not the calendar Moses used.

Add to this the fact the bible’s authors didn’t really tie their events to specific dates. They rarely said, “On the , such-and-so gave this prophecy….” Didn’t occur to them to be this kind of exact. That’s a western priority, and one a lot of today’s middle easterners share. But it’s not an ancient middle eastern one. Doesn’t make a story more true, or feel more real and less mythological or fairy-taleish, when you can begin with an exact date instead of “Once upon a time.”

This lack of dates makes westerners bonkers: We wanna know when these events happened! What year did the Exodus take place? What year did Abraham die? When’d Noah’s flood happen? We want details, dangit. But honestly, we don’t have those details. We have estimates, based on the few clues the bible provides.

So this article isn’t gonna give you any peace of mind about these dates. All I have are best guesses; namely the guesses of various Christians who don’t always know what they’re doing.

Things which mess up our estimates.

If you crack open two different bible commentaries, bible dictionaries, bible handbooks, encyclopedias, or any reference materials, you’ll discover they all have different timelines of when the events of the Old and New Testaments took place. Unless one person is quoting another, none of ’em line up. None.

There’s a number of reasons for this, and not just because the authors of these reference materials have some favorite theories that they’re sticking to.

TEXTUAL VARIANTS. There’s not just one Old Testament, y’know. There are at least five.

  1. Orthodox Christians base their Old Testament on the Septuagint.
  2. Roman Catholics tend to base their Old Testament on the Vulgate, although they frequently correct it against other Old Testament texts.
  3. Jews and Protestants tend to base their Old Testament on the Masoretic Text, a Hebrew-language bible produced between the 7th and 10th centuries.
  4. Samaritans have their own copy of the Penteteuch, which they’ve been copying since their sect began.
  5. Then there’s the Dead Sea Scrolls, copies of the OT produced by an isolationist Judean sect in the first century… which some present-day bibles include as part of the basis of their translations. Certainly not all of them.

And—no surprise—sometimes the data in these Old Testaments don’t line up. In Genesis 5.25, the Masoretic Text (and therefore probably your favorite bible) says Methuselah was 187 when he begat Lamech. But in the Septuagint it says he was 167; and according to the Samaritans he was 67.

There y’go: Three variants. Which of the Old Testaments got it right, and which of ’em got corrupted after centuries of copyists? We don’t know. Jews and Protestants are gonna be biased in favor of our favorite OT, and claim our bibles have it right, but on what basis can we claim this? Any of us have a 12th-century-BC copy of Genesis to double-check against? No? Well okay then.

So some of the numbers we have in our bibles aren’t solid numbers. I know; plenty of people insist the bible has no errors—or at least their bibles are inerrant. So these numbers are absolutely solid. But wishing it were so, isn’t gonna make it so. As the next bit is gonna make more obvious.

ACCOUNTING ERRORS. Whenever a new king took the throne in either northern Israel (headquartered in Samaria) or southern Israel (headquartered in Jerusalem), the year they take power is usually dated by the reign of the other Israeli king. Like so.

1 Kings 15.1 KJV
Now in the eighteenth year of king Jeroboam the son of Nebat reigned Abijam over Judah.

When Abijam ben Rehoboam became king of Jerusalem, Jeroboam ben Nebat had been king of Samaria for over 17 years. (I know; the text says it was his 18th year. Well, during the first year of your life, you weren’t 1 year old. You were 1 at the end of it. Same deal here.) And once Abijam died two years later, same deal.

1 Kings 15.9 KJV
And in the twentieth year of Jeroboam king of Israel reigned Asa over Judah.

Once Jeroboam himself died, we swap kingdoms and compare his son’s accession year with that of the other king:

1 Kings 15.25 KJV
And Nadab the son of Jeroboam began to reign over Israel in the second year of Asa king of Judah, and reigned over Israel two years.

You see how it works.

Well, everybody who’s ever put together a chronology of the kings of Samaria and Jerusalem, have had to deal with the maddening fact these numbers don’t line up. Go ahead; crack open a bible and try to create a neat timeline of who was king in comparison with the other kings. I tried it when I was a kid, and found to my annoyance I couldn’t. I assumed I was just doing it wrong, but I’ve since found nobody else can do it either. Some of these kings have gotta rule longer than the scriptures state they did.

And it doesn’t help at all that Chronicles sometimes gives entirely different dates.

  • Baasha ben Ahijah died in the 26th year of Asa ben Abijam’s reign, 1Ki 16.6-8 yet somehow built a city in the 36th year of Asa’s reign. 2Ch 16.1
  • Omri became king in the 31st year of Asa ben Abijam’s reign, and reigned 12 years, 1Ki 16.23 yet died seven years later in the 38th year of Asa’s reign. 1Ki 16.28-29
  • Ahaziah ben Ahab was either 22 years old 2Ki 8.26 or 42 2Ch 22.2 when he became king for a year.
  • Jehoiachin ben Jehoiakim was either 18 years old 2Ki 24.8 or eight 2Ch 36.9 when he became king for three months. He was succeeded by his uncle 2Ki 24.17 or brother. 2Ch 36.10

Yep, there are errors in the bible. But let me remind you: When it comes to what the authors of scripture are trying to teach us about God, his character, our salvation, or the important stuff we need to know, these errors are irrelevant. They affect nothing. The bible’s still totally trustworthy on theological subjects. It’s just when we’re trying to make bible timelines, people start to pull their hair out in frustration… yet try to pretend there totally aren’t errors in the bible that are messing ’em up.

One theory which lets people fudge the reigns so they overlap, is to claim Israeli kings had co-regencies: An elderly king let his son run the country for him. (Much like Mohammad bin Salman al Saud currently runs Saudi Arabia for King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud.) It’s loosely based on the fact David had Solomon anointed king during his lifetime: 1Ki 1.32-40 If Solomon’s reign is figured to start then, it overlaps David’s reign, and other kings might overlap for years. It’s a plausible theory… but the authors of scripture don’t identify any other overlaps, so it’s all conjecture.

Anyway this is why laymen figured the only people who could put together a good, solid, authoritative bible chronology, had to be bible experts. Which brings us to the next bit:

JAMES USSHER (1581–1656), former archbishop of Armagh for the Church of Ireland, is hardly the first guy to put together a timeline of the bible’s events, but he’s definitely the best known. His book Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti/“The Old Testament Years, Deduced from the First Origins of the World” (commonly called The Annals of the World) rehashes biblical history, overlaps it with other historical events, and fixes years to everything.

You may have heard the year 4004BC thrown around as the date of creation, especially if you’ve been listening to young-earth creationists. (They adopted Ussher’s chronology long ago, and kinda made it central to everything they teach.) They claim Ussher came by it through adding up the ages of the Genesis patriarchs. That’d be incorrect. Ussher believed Jesus was born in 4BC, and the universe was created 4,000 years before; a nice round number. Then he wedged the rest of the dates into that four millennia. They sorta fit, because if you do actually add the patriarchs’ ages in the Masoretic Text, you come to roughly that many years, give or take 50.

In any event, study bibles started using Ussher’s dates right away, and preachers and commentators have quoted them ever since. So generations of Protestants grew up with the idea God created the cosmos in 4004BC—all evidence to the contrary.

THE GENESIS GENEALOGIES. But back to adding up the dates of the patriarchs. I also did this back when I was a kid.

You start with Avram/Abraham. How long ago did he exist? Most folks figure he was alive and kicking around 2000BC, so let’s start there. And according the the KJV, Avram’s dad Terah was 70 when he was born; Ge 11.26 Avram’s grandfather was 29 when Avram’s dad was born; Ge 11.24 and so on. You can work all the way back to Shem in Genesis 11, and work from Shem’s dad Noah to Adam in Genesis 5. Once you add up all these ages you find yourself going back 1,946 years; so 2000BC minus 1,946 equals the year 3946BC. Right? (Tweak it 28 years and Ussher was right on the money.)

Couple problems with this clever plan though. First, we honestly don’t know when Abraham existed. A few centuries before the Exodus, obviously; but we don’t know when that took place either.

Second, the bible’s genealogies skip people. A lot. Compare Genesis with 1 Chronicles and you’re gonna find they don’t line up all that precisely, ’cause the Chronicler didn’t include everybody. Compare 1 Chronicles to Matthew, to Jesus’s genealogy, and you’re gonna find they don’t line up all that precisely either, ’cause the author of Matthew was trying to create an easy-to-memorize 14:14:14 pattern, Mt 1.17 not be comprehensive.

That’s the thing about bible genealogies: They aren’t as precise as westerners would like, either. They include all the ancestors their authors considered important… and didn’t mind skipping the rest. Really, the Genesis genealogies are about including all the famous ancestors of Noah and Abraham, the famous descendants of Noah and Abraham and Esau. Not so famous to us, millennia later, after all the stories of these famous ancient heroes have been totally lost. (Or maybe they still exist!—but they exist in other cultures’ mythologies, known under other names, and we don’t realize it. The flood story is in a lot of other mythologies, and Noah goes by a lot of different, unfamiliar names. For all we know, so do all the other people of Genesis.)

So is it worth our time to add up Genesis’s genealogies? Nah. Besides, archaeologists have found things which legitimately date way earlier than 4,000BC. The only people who object to these dates are young-earth creationists, who claim carbon dating must be wrong, because it “contradicts the bible”… but no it doesn’t; it only contradicts Ussher and their favorite Old Testament timelines.

NOT RECOGNIZING ANACHRONISMS. You’re gonna find a lot of timelines claim the Exodus happened in the 1200s BC. That’s because the Hebrews built the city of Ramesses, Ex 1.11 which was either named for the pharaoh Ramesses (ruled 1292–90BC) or his grandson Ramesses 2 (ruled 1279–13BC). Well, if there had to be a pharaoh Ramesses before there could be a city of Ramesses, the Hebrews had to be slaves in the 1200s BC. Stands to reason, right?

Let’s say that’s correct. So since the Hebrews were in Egypt 430 years, Ex 12.40 this means Israel and his 12 sons moved to Egypt in the 1600s BC, when Israel was 130. Ge 47.9 Since Abraham died around the time Israel (or Jacob) was born, Ge 25 that’d actually put Abraham in the 1700s or 1800s BC, not the 2000s BC like Ussher figured. Which throws off all the other dates in his chronology. Like I said, he had to stretch a few things.

Solomon’s temple to the LORD was dedicated 480 years after the Exodus. 1Ki 6.1 (Or 440 years, according to the Septuagint.) If the Exodus happened in the 1200s, it’d put Solomon’s reign in the 700s BC. Which is kind of a problem, because one of the few dates we do know for certain is that Assyria conquered northern Israel in 722BC. Doesn’t give us a whole lot of time for the reign of Solomon, plus the 19 kings of northern Israel, before the Assyrians invaded.

But y’know, Exodus clearly does state the Hebrews built Ramesses…

And they did. Not saying they didn’t! But when they built it, it wasn’t yet called Ramesses. Just like the city of Dan wasn’t called Dan when Avram went there. Ge 14.14 It was called Leshem till the Danites conquered it and renamed it for their ancestor. Js 19.47 So when somebody wrote Genesis, they referred to that city by the name they knew it by. Not the name Avram knew it by. When that same person wrote Exodus, same deal: The city wasn’t originally called Ramesses when the Hebrews built it. One of the pharaohs Ramesses likely renamed the city for himself… centuries after the Exodus.

So yeah, all the bible movies which make Ramesses, or his son Merneptah, the pharaoh of the Exodus? Got it wrong. Had to have. The chronology doesn’t fit the bible.

Same with all the estimates in all the reference books which insist on an Exodus in the 1200s. They went to a lot of trouble to try to jimmy the Exodus there. Although often it’s by ignoring when 1 Kings stated the temple was dedicated 480 years later: They make it only a short 300 years later or so, and force some of the events in Judges to overlap. Which they might have, but hardly that often.

The Old Testament dates.

Oh, I’m not so foolish as to create my own timeline. I’ll defer to the works of others. You get to pick which ones sound more reasonable.

I listed James Ussher’s dates. Plus those of William Hales, from his 1809–12 series A New Analysis of Chronology; Gleason Archer in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; and K.A. Kitchen and T.C. Mitchell in the New Bible Dictionary. No doubt you can check other references, or visit other websites, for other dates—assuming they haven’t just defaulted to Ussher.

All years BC (before Christ/before the Christian era), of course.

The flood.2349–483155
The Exodus.1491164814461260
The conquest of Canaan.1451–431608–15961406–13851220
Othniel’s judgeship.1405–13651564–241374-34
Deborah’s judgeship.1285–451406–13661216–11761125
Gideon’s judgeship.1245–051359–191169–29
Jephthah’s judgeship.1188–811253–471085–79
Samson’s judgeship.1133–131202–821095–75
Samuel’s judgeship.1096–951122–10841063–431075–35
Saul’s reign.1095–551110–10701043–101045–10
David’s reign.1055–151070–301010–9701011–970
Solomon’s reign.1015–9751030–990970–30971–930
The temple’s dedication.10121020959
Rehoboam’s reign over Jerusalem.975–58990–73931–13931–13
Jeroboam’s reign over Samaria.975-54990–68930–10931–09
Asa’s reign over Jerusalem.955–14970–29910–869911–869
Ahab’s reign over Samaria.918–897931–09874–53874–53
Jehoshaphat’s reign over Jerusalem.914–889929–04872–48870–48
Jehu’s reign over Samaria.884–56895–67841–14841–13
Joash’s reign over Jerusalem.878–39889–49835–796835–796
Uzziah’s reign over Jerusalem.810–783809–757790–39767–39
Hezekiah’s reign over Jerusalem.727–699725–696728–697728–697
Samaria conquered by Assyria.721719722/21722
Josiah’s reign over Jerusalem.633–10639–08640–09640–09
Nebuchadnezzar’s reign over Babylon.607–562607–561605–562605–562
Zedekiah’s reign over Jerusalem.599–588597–86597–587597–587
Jerusalem conquered by Babylon.587586587587
Cyrus’s reign over Susa.559–29551–36558–29539–30
Jerusalem’s altar rebuilt.536536536538
The temple rebuilt.515516516516
Darius’s reign over Susa.519–485553–51539–38522–486
Esther saves the Jews.514458478/77
Nehemiah’s rule over Jerusalem.454–16444–20446–430445–33
Malachi written.416420435460
Jesus born.45

New Testament dates.

I’ve dealt elsewhere with Jesus’s birth in 7BC, and death and resurrection and rapture in 33. There are various Christians who disagree with those dates, mainly because they got it in their heads Jesus died at age 33 instead of the year 33. Hence the claims Jesus died in the years 27 or 30; years which don’t match the gospels, but they allow Jesus to be born in 7BC or 4BC, depending on which year they prefer most.

Other than the reigns of emperors, kings, and procurators, Christians are guessing at all the dates. All of them. Educated guesses, based on tradition as much as bible, but still. All the New Testament’s events happen, and books were written, before the end of the century—and arguably before the Romans destroyed Israel in the year 70, ’cause you’d think the New Testament’s authors would’ve brought that up. (Especially since Jesus foretold it.) But they didn’t.

So the church started in 33. Paul became Christian before the death of Agrippa Herod 1 in the year 44, was tried before Porcius Festus’s term ended in 62, and died before Nero Caesar’s reign ended with his own death in 68. He wrote his letters within that time, probably starting with Galatians. The other apostles likewise wrote their letters and gospels before 70.

I know; if you were hoping for exactitude, it doesn’t exist. Sorry. You’ll have to settle for generality.

Bible background.