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Dictionary of Christianity and Science: Biblical Chronology

James HannamThe following is an entry by James Hannam (PhD, University of Cambridge) in the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017), in which more than 125 leading thinkers have encapsulated the meaning and significance of 450 major terms, theories, people, and movements on how science relates to the Christian faith.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, When Was Each Book of the Bible Written?]


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The events in the Old Testament narrative can be assigned absolute dates and correlated to nonbiblical sources back to the beginning of the divided monarchy in the 10th century BC. Before that time, the lack of external material and precise durations in the Bible itself make establishing a chronology more difficult. For the New Testament, a high degree of certainty is possible about the date of Jesus’s death and some significant episodes in the book of Acts.

The Divided Monarchy

The historical books of the Bible, especially 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, and 2 Chronicles, provide a list of rulers and the lengths of their reigns for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This is typical of the records discovered by archaeologists in respect to other civilizations. The biblical list can be correlated to these nonbiblical sources using events that are mentioned in both. The most famous of these is the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib mentioned in 2 Kings 18:13-19:36 and 2 Chronicles 32:1-21, as well as in Assyria’s own annals. Two hundred years earlier, the Egyptian pharaoh Sheshonq I carried out a raid that took in several Canaanite and Judean cities. This is mentioned in the Bible at 1 Kings 14:25 and commemorated by Sheshonq in inscriptions on his temple at Karnak in Egypt.

The durations the Bible gives for the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah do give rise to some difficult questions of detail. For example, when 2 Kings 21:19 says that King Amon of Judah ruled for two years, it may be that this includes both the first and last year of his reign or neither. This would mean that one year could be double counted or undercounted with that of his predecessor or successor. So Amon might have reigned for barely a year or almost four. Using correlations within the Bible and with events mentioned in extrabiblical sources, it is possible to establish that double counting was common in the northern kingdom but probably abandoned in the southern kingdom in the 7th century BC. Judah and Israel also seem to have marked the new year six months apart, in spring in Judah and in fall in Israel. By taking such complications into account, the accuracy of the biblical king lists can be better established and events in the Bible synchronized with those in other ancient Near Eastern civilizations.

The king lists are known as “floating” or “relative” chronologies by historians because they tell us what happened relative to other events but do not provide absolute dates. Thus, for example, we can say with confidence that King Hoshea of Israel ascended the throne four years before Shalmaneser V of Assyria because we know Shalmaneser captured Samaria in his fifth year, which was the ninth year of Hoshea. But we cannot, from this information alone, tell in which year Hoshea’s reign started.

To provide absolute dates, historians depend on rare references to astronomical events that can be dated precisely due to the regular movements of the stars. On June 15, 763 BC, a near total eclipse of the sun was visible over a swath of the Near East. The event was noted in the official list of Assyrian high officials, providing the earliest absolute and uncontroversial date in ancient history. By counting from this event through the king lists, historians can provide absolute dates to all the other episodes recorded in Hebrew, Egyptian, and Assyrian chronicles. Thus we know Hoshea’s reign started in 732 BC, Shalmaneser’s reign started in 727 BC, and Samaria fell in 722 BC.

These dates are relatively uncontroversial. A minority of chronologists, such as Peter James, have attempted to construct other chronologies that differ from the mainstream reconstructions. Although some of these alternative models are superficially attractive, they have received little wider assent. Correlation of biblical events to particular archaeological remains has also proven difficult. The examination of potsherds and carbon dating are not presently accurate enough to provide absolute dates to archaeological finds, and they require external calibration in any case. It may well be that dendrochronology (dating from counting tree rings) and ice cores will eventually allow absolute dates to be assigned to some of the remains dug up in the Levant.

The United Monarchy and Earlier

Prior to the invasion of Canaan by the pharaoh Sheshonq in 925 BC, there are no external sources that corroborate events described in the Bible. Indeed, precisely dating the raid of Sheshonq is only possible by using biblical evidence. Thus chronology prior to this date can only be established using internal evidence in the Bible itself. This means that dates for the reigns of the kings Saul, David, and Solomon cannot be determined precisely since there is no external control to mediate questions such as the “double counting” described above. However, uncertainties for this period are unlikely to be more than a few years in either direction.

The lack of external sources is in no way surprising. The 13th to 10th centuries BC are known as the Bronze Age collapse, when several ancient Near East civilizations went into decline or disappeared completely. This is precisely the environment in which an upstart kingdom such as David’s Israel could enjoy a period of expansion as the power of its neighbors waned. However, the collapse means that very few written sources pertaining to Canaan exist for this time.

These issues become even more acute for events before the United Monarchy. The dates provided by the biblical authors themselves become less precise for the period of the Judges and previously. External sources remain scarce. Furthermore, as the Hebrews did not at this time form an identifiable kingdom, there is less reason for them to be mentioned in the official documents of other civilizations. It is also unfortunate that Exodus does not give the name of the Pharaoh who released the Israelites. While he is traditionally identified with Rameses II, there is no way to be sure.

In recent years, ice cores and improved carbon dating have caused the entire chronology of the second millennium BC to be revised. The eruption of the volcano Thera in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, previously thought to have happened after 1500 BC, has now been redated to approximately 1620 BC. With all chronology before 1200 BC so fluid, it is not possible to assign absolute dates to biblical events.

Internal evidence in the Bible dates the exodus to before 1400 BC, in which case Joseph probably lived in about 1800 BC and Abraham left Ur a couple of centuries earlier. In the mid-20th century, the archaeologist William Albright suggested that the exodus took place rather later, in the 13th century BC. His dating, which was based on destruction layers and artifacts that he had uncovered in

The New Testament

Unlike many other biblical authors, Luke is concerned to provide his readers with precise dates, and other authors in the New Testament make reference to outside events. However, though most events in the New Testament can be dated to within a year or two, there are still areas of controversy. For example, the nativity narratives are difficult to reconcile, and most scholars prefer Matthew’s date for the birth of Jesus of around 6 BC. At Luke 3:1 the evangelist tells us that John the Baptist’s ministry began in the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. This is likely to mean AD 26. The Gospel of John, preferred by many scholars for being an eyewitness account, dates the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem to 46 years after it was completed, which would be AD 28.

All the Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified at Passover on a Friday. This means he must have died on AD April 7, 30, although AD 33 also has its partisans. The events in the Acts of the Apostles occurred through the 30s to the 50s and conclude with Paul a prisoner in Rome in about AD 62. Both he and Peter were executed during the persecutions of Nero shortly thereafter and are known to have taken place in AD 64.

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