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The chronology of the Bible is the elaborate system of life-spans, "generations," and other means by which the passage of events is measured over the 4,000 years between the Creation of the world and the re-dedication of the Temple in 164 BCE. It is theological, not historical in the modern sense, and functions as an implied prophecy whose key lies in the identification of the final event.
The passage of time from the Creation to the Exodus is measured by adding the ages of the Patriarchs at the birth of their firstborn sons, later through express statements, and later still by the synchronised reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah. The Exodus takes place in the year 2666 AM, exactly two thirds of the way through the four thousand years, the Temple is commenced 480 years, or 12 generations of 40 years each, after that, and 430 years pass between the building of the Temple and its destruction. The 50 years between the destruction of the Temple and the "Decree of Cyrus" and end of the Exile, added to the 430 years for which the Temple stood, produces another symmetrical period of 480 years, and the 374 years between the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees and the Edict of Cyrus completes the 4,000 years.
As recently as the 18th century, scholars of the stature of Isaac Newton believed that the date of Creation was knowable from the Bible. Today, the Genesis account of Creation has long since vanished from serious cosmology, the Patriarchs and Exodus are no longer included in most serious histories of ancient Israel, and it is almost universally accepted that Joshua and Judges have little historical value. Even the monarchy is questioned, and although scholars continue to advance proposals for reconciling the chronology of the Books of Kings, there is "little consensus on acceptable methods of dealing with conflicting data."
(The following table is derived from Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past; notes within the table as cited)
While difficulties with the Biblical text make it impossible to reach sure conclusions about its chronology, perhaps the most widely held hypothesis is that it embodies an overall scheme of 4,000 years (a "great year") taking the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees in 164 BCE as its end-point. Two motives may have led to this: first, there was a common idea at the time of the Maccabees that human history followed the plan of a divine "week" of seven "days" each lasting a thousand years; and second, a 4,000 year history – even longer in the Septuagint version – would establish the antiquity of the Jews against their pagan neighbours.
|1 AM||Creation (Adam)||From Creation to Abraham, time is calculated by adding the ages of the Patriarchs when their first child is born. It seems possible that the period of the Flood is not meant to be counted in the count – for example, Shem, born 100 years before the Flood, "begot" his first son two years after it, which should make him 102, but Genesis 11:10-11 specifies that he is only 100, suggesting that time has been suspended.|
|1946 AM||Birth of Abraham||The period from the birth of Shem's son to Abraham's migration to Canaan is 365 years, mirroring Enoch's life-span of 365 years, the number of days in a year. There are 10 Patriarchs between Adam and the Flood and 10 between the Flood and Abraham – the Septuagint adds an extra ancestor so that the second group is 10 from the Flood to Terah. Noah and Terah each have three sons, of whom the first in each case is the most important.|
|2236 AM||Entrance into Egypt||The period between Abraham's call to enter Canaan (2021 AM) and Jacob's entry into Egypt is 215 years, calculated from the ages of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the period in Egypt is stated in Exodus 12:40 as 430 years, although the Septuagint and Samaritan texts both only 430 years between Abraham and Moses, and the Paul in the New Testament agrees with them and against the Hebrew Bible.|
|2666 AM||Exodus||There is conflicting information on how long Israel is to spend in Egypt: Exodus 12:40 says 430 years, but Exodus 6:14-25 says this is made up of only four generations (Levi to Moses); similarly, Genesis 15:13 predicts the oppression will last 400 years, while Genesis 15:16 says Abraham's descendants will return in the fourth generation - the alternatives cannot be matched exactly, but the number 4 seems to play a central role in all of them. The Exodus (2666 AM) occurs exactly two-thirds of the way through the 4,000 years, marking it as the pivotal event of the chronology. It is also two-thirds of of the way through the 40 notional "generations" of 100 years each, with Aaron, the first High Priest, being the 26th generation from Adam.|
|3146 AM||Solomon's temple||The period from the foundation of the Temple in Solomon's fourth year to its destruction is 430 years, found by adding the reigns of the kings of the United Kingdom and of Judah from the fourth year of Solomon. The fourth year of Solomon came exactly 1,200 years after the birth of Abraham (Abraham was born in 1946 AM if the two years of the Flood are excluded), and there were exactly 20 kings in both Judah and Israel following Solomon, despite Judah lasting more than a century longer than Israel. "It seems very likely that [some of the minor kings of Israel] have served simply to make up the numbers" (Auld, 2010).|
|3576 AM||Exile||The period from the destruction of the Temple (3576 AM) to the "Decree of Cyrus" and the end of the Exile (3626 AM) is 50 years, which, added to the 430 years for which the Temple stood, produces another symmetrical period of 480 years.|
|3626 AM||Edict of Cyrus||Scholars have established that the exile lasted approximately fifty years, but the Book of Jeremiah puts it at 70 years, "clearly on ideological grounds." (70 is 7x10, the number 7 symbolising divine perfection, 10 symbolising fullnes). The Book of Ezra uses a 50-year time-frame when it places the commencement of the Second Temple in Cyrus's first year (358 BCE), in accordance with the jubilee law of Leviticus.|
|Rededication of the Temple||The final period is the 374 years between the Edict of Cyrus (538 BCE) and the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees (164 BCE). The overall 4,000 year cycle is calculated backwards from this point.|
The presence of the chronology makes it theoretically possible to construct an accurate chronology of the Biblical history, but in practice the many areas of confusion, vagueness, and discrepancy have made this impossible. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that there are three different versions of the chronology to consider, the Masoretic text, used in Jewish Bibles and Christian bibles in the Western tradition, a Greek text called the Septuagint, used in the Orthodox churches and dating from the last few centuries before Christ, and a second Hebrew text called the Samaritan Pentateuch, used today by a Jewish sect in northern Israel. Probably none of the three is the original system.
The first notable attempt to turn the Biblical chronology into a chronology of the Bible was the 2nd century BCE Book of Jubilees; beginning with the Creation, it measures time in years, "weeks" of years (groups of seven years), and jubilees (sevens of sevens), so that the interval from Creation to the settlement of Canaan, for example, is exactly fifty jubilees (2450 years). More significant, at least for modern Jewish culture, was the Seder Olam Rabbah ("Great Order of the World"), a 2nd-century CE Jewish chronology which, with revisions, is still in use today as the traditional Jewish calendar. It provides dates for the Biblical history from the Creation to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, and dates its years Anno Mundo, from the Creation. Like the original Biblical chronology and Jubilees, its numbers are schematic: it allows, for example, 410 years for the duration of the First Temple, 70 years from its destruction to the Second Temple, and 420 years for the duration of the Second Temple, making a total of 900 years for the two temples. This schematic approach to numbers accounts for its most remarkable feature, the fact that it shortens the entire Persian Empire from over two centuries to just 52 years, mirroring the 52 years it gives to the Babylonian exile.
The early Church Father Eusebius (c.260-340), attempting to place Christ in the chronology, put his birth in 5199 AM, and this became the accepted date for the Western Church. As the year 6000 AM (800 CE) approached there was increasing fear that the end of the world was nigh, until the Venerable Bede then made his own calculations and found that Christ's birth took place in 3592 AM. Martin Luther (1483-1586) placed the Apostolic Council of Acts 15 in the year 4000 AM, believing this marked the moment when the Mosaic Law was abolished and the new age of grace began. This was widely accepted among European Protestants, but in the English-speaking world Archibishop James Ussher (1581-1656) switched the focus back to the birth of Christ, which he found had occurred in 4000 AM, equivalent, he believed, to 4 BCE, and thus arrived at 4004 BCE as the date of Creation. Ussher was not the first to reach this results, but his chronology was so detailed that his dates were incorporated into the margins of English Bibles for the next two hundred years.
(For detailed reconstructions of the chronology of the Hebrew kings, see Kings of Judah)
The chronology of the monarchy, unlike that of earlier periods, can be checked against non-Biblical sources and seems to be correct in general terms. This raises the prospect that the Books of Kings, linking the Hebrew kings by accession and length of reign ("king X of Judah came to the throne in the nth year of king Y of Israel and ruled n years"), can be used to reconstruct a chronology for the monarchy, but the task has in fact proven intractably difficult. The problem is that the books contain numerous contradictions: to take just one example, since Rehoboam of Judah and Jeroboam of Israel began to rule at the same time (1 Kings 12), and since Ahaziah of Judah and Joram of Israel were killed at the same time (1 Kings 9:24, 27), the same amount of time should have elapsed in both kingdoms, but the count shows 95 years passing in Judah and 98 in Israel. In short, "[t]he data concerning the synchronisms appeared in hopeless contradiction with the data as to the lengths of reigns."
Possibly the most widely followed attempt to reconcile the contradictions has been that proposed by Edwin Thiele in his The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (three editions between 1951 and 1983), but his work has been widely criticised for, among other things, introducing "innumerable" co-regencies, constructing a "complex system of calendars", and using "unique" patterns of calculation; as a result his following is largely among scholars "committed ... to a doctrine of scripture's absolute harmony" (the criticism is to found in Brevard S. Childs' Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture). The weaknesses in Thiele's work have led subsequent scholars to continue to propose chronologies, but, in the words of a recent commentary on Kings, there is "little consensus on acceptable methods of dealing with conflicting data."