Why Establishing a Chronology of the Old Testament Is So Difficult

February 3, 2014 — 1 Comment

The study of biblical chronologies is viewed as one of the most difficult subjects of Old Testament studies. This is because the Old Testament books are arranged in chronological and theological order. Because these books were organized according to theological themes, perhaps it was not the intention of the authors of these books to provide perfectly chronological records, but instead to tell the history of Israel from a theological point of view.

Why Establishing a Chronology of the Old Testament is so Difficult

Photo Credit: Ryk Neethling

Therefore the task of a chronologist, according to the Tyndale Bible Dictionary,  is to “examine the pertinent biblical and non-biblical information, note areas of correlation among all the data, and finally establish a working system into which the most facts can be fitted.” With this careful (and even scientific) process an accurate chronology of Old Testament events can be reconciled.

This blog post will share a few dates which are known with certainty in the Old Testament while at the same time sharing why establishing a chronology of the Old Testament is difficult.

I. Firm Dates Known with Certainty in the Old Testament

Bible scholars can identify specific Old Testament events is with good accuracy most of the time.

For example, because of the records of the Assyrian and Babylonia chronologies that can be correlated with the reign of an Israelite or Judean king, accurate Bible dates can be determined within 10 years from 1,000 BC to 900 BC. Furthermore, after 900 BC, the margin for error shrinks to less than a year, according to David Howard in his book, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books. This is because of the careful records kept by the kings of Assyria and Babylon, as well as some type of datable astronomical event. With the necessary information, accurate dates can be reconciled.

However, this type of information is rare and mostly limited to after 1,000 BC. Dates such as Abraham’s journey to Canaan and the Exodus are less certain. Lack of data for these events is unfortunate because “the Bible does not have exact synchronic references in these earlier periods, and thus we see wider margins for error in dating such events as the exodus.” 1 Therefore, the farther you reach back into Old Testament history the larger the margin of error is. Conversely, more recent Old Testament historical events possess more confidence in their dates such as the ascension of David and Solomon’s rule and the final fall of Jerusalem.

One of the dates scholars can have confidence in is the ascension of David to the throne in 1010 BC (2 Sam. 1:1-2; 2:1-4). 2 Another date Bible scholars can be sure of is the date of Solomon’s rule over the United Kingdom of Israel. The period of 40 years of Solomon’s reign in 900 BC can be predicted within one year of accuracy because “Assyrian and Egyptian historical records can help us assign a date to Solomon’s rule.”  3 These lists from the Assyrians and Egyptians confirm that Solomon ruled over Israel from 970-930 BC.

Another date which can be relied on is the fall of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, in 586 BC. This is because of contemporary Babylonia records. From these records three dates can be firmly correlated and established in Judah’s history:

  1. The death of Josiah in 609 BC,
  2. The battle of Carchemish in 605 BC,
  3. The end of the reign of Jehoaichin in 597 BC. 4

With these dates the fall of Jerusalem can be securely established as 586 BC because Zedekiah reigned for 11 years (2 Kings 24:18) until King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and burnt the temple (2 Kings 25).

II. Sources Used to Establish Biblical Chronologies

A. Biblical Sources

The main sources explicitly stated to be used in the Old Testament to record events and help in establishing Old Testament chronologies are the “Chronicles of the Kings of Judah” and “Chronicles of the Kings of Israel.”

In addition to these two sources a total of 32 different are sources cited as being the basis for what is recorded in the books of Chronicles and Kings. These biblical sources can be summarized into three categories:

  1. Official annals;
  2. Genealogical records;
  3. Prophetic recordings. 5

The sources which were used most to compose most Old Testament historical books were the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah and Chronicles of the Kings of Israel which were annals (official court records) kept by the schools of the prophets. 6 These sources should be the main focus of Bible students who attempt to understand and interpret the Bible.

B. Extra-Biblical Sources

I strongly believe in the inspiration, inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture, therefore it is difficult for me to place a high emphasis on extra-biblical materials.

These extra biblical materials have not been subject to the same levels of preservation nor continuous interpretation that specific biblical texts have endured. Bible students holding a high view of authenticity and accuracy of the Bible should be cautious of “external texts like archaeological findings [which] provide weak support for the historical writing in the Old Testament.” 7 Even though a large emphasis should not be placed on extra biblical materials there are still strong synchronisms that exist between the Babylonia and Assyrian records and the Bible.

The nation of Israel was located between Assyria (later Babylonia in the Northeast) and Egypt (in the Southwest). During these times there were numerous wars, sieges, and conquerings occurring between these nations. Because these nations kept detailed records for what they did and when they did them, that information can be reconciled with information in the Old Testament to establish accurate dates, especially when astronomical events (solar and lunar eclipses) were recorded.

These various extra biblical records are:

  1. official records of military campaigns;
  2. official inscriptions related to a specific victory or dedication;
  3. annals which list the major accomplishments of a ruler;
  4. pieces of poetry with inscriptions on them. 8

It is important to remember that these pieces of extra-biblical information “supplement” the account of the Bible. They are not to replace or invalidate the inspired inerrant text.

Among some of the most abundant extra-biblical information that helps to establish biblical chronologies are the limmu lists of the nation of Assyria. These lists were records of significant events that occurred each year under that specific king. These lists provide valid information that can be corroborated with the Old Testament “by a number sources, they can be used with confidence in reconstructing the chronology of the corresponding period of biblical history.” 9

III. Significant Dating Factors Used to Establish Biblical Chronologies

When seeking to establish an Old Testament chronology of events it is important to know that neither Judah nor Israel under the Divided Kingdom recognized each other’s dating system. Each nation wrote its own history using its own dating system. This is one of many difficulties that arise when attempting to establish Old Testament chronologies.

A. Regnal-Year Dating and Co-Regencies

Both Israel and Judah utilized what is called Regnal-Year Dating which is a dating system by reference to the years of a king’s reign. (The New Living Translation Study Bible has a great explanation of chronologies.)

Even though both Israel and Judah used regnal-year dating, they utilized this system in different ways. Thankfully the Assyrian and Babylonia kings appear in the Old Testament text (particularly 2 Kings and in Chronicles) which makes it possible to assimilate the regnal dating of the Old Testament with regnal dating of the Assyrian and Babylonian time.

1. Accession-Year Dating

Accession-Year Dating was when a nation (particularly Babylon and Assyria) counted the year that a new king took his throne as belonging only to the previous king.

This meant that the year that a king took the throne was not counted as part of his reign. Therefore his “first year” was actually the second year of reigning as king. Another way to explain the accession-year system is that it “distinguished a king’s accession year (the incomplete calendar year in which he began to reign) and reckoned by the number of New Year days a king lived in his reign.” 10 This leads to a separate “accession-year” which is excluded from the account of a king’s reign and is rather credited to the previous king whose reign just ended. Israel used accession-year dating under David and Solomon, and the practice of accession-year dating continued under the Southern Kingdom of Judah. 11

2. Non-Accession-Year Dating

Egypt and the Northern Kingdom of Israel recorded what is called Non-Accession-Year Dating.

In “Egypt (and elseware) the new king reckoned the partial year as his Year 1, disregarding his predecessor. This is the non-accession-year system, or ante-dating. And that’s what the kings of Israel used.” 12 This mean that one year would often be counted twice: once for the previous king and one for the new king.

The Northern Kingdom used non-accession-year dating possibly because it wanted to distinguish itself from the Southern Kingdom (from which it had rebelled). Or it might have been used because Jeroboam I (son of Nebat) had spent time in Egypt to escape from King Solomon and learned about that system while there (1 Kings 12:2). Further explanation for the non-accession year system is that “the remainder of a previous king’s last year is counted as the first year of his successor, and then subsequent years are calculated from Nisan to Nisan in Israel, or Tishri to Tishri is Judah.” 13

3. Co-Regencies

Another factor that makes creating a biblical chronology difficult is co-regencies.

For example, the nation of Judah sometimes made their sons “co-regents” as a way to provide on the job training and to ensure a smooth transition of kingship power. In Judah, Jehoshaphat, Jerhoram, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, and Manasseh all began as co-regent kings with their father. Because of co-regencies in both Judah and Babylon (Belshazzar, a king in Babylon also was a co-regent with his father, Nabonidus), another layer of complexity is added to the dating of events.

A closer look at the biblical text reveals co-regencies as an issue because “sometimes the number given is from the time a ruler became coregent; sometimes it is from the time he became king. Similarly the total years ruled may or may not include co-regency years and unless this is written into the translation it is not possible to make sense of the figures.” 14 This further adds to confusion, not necessarily errors in the biblical text. “When events are dated during the life of a king or coregent . . . it is a fact—which may not be significant—that these are dated according to his kingship. There are no instances of such events dated from the time of the king’s son became coregent.” 15

Even though this information might not be significant, it does make the task of establishing a historical chronology difficult.

B. Factors That Make “Year” Chronologies Difficult

Another factor that makes chronologies of the Old Testament difficult is that the “calendar year” was different than what is used today, and perhaps more importantly the calendar years used by neighboring nations were different than each other.

“This ambiguity in dates existed even in ancient times because neighboring kingdoms used different systems. Years in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah began in different seasons; a year in one kingdom, therefore, straddled two years in the other.” 16

No wonder counting years accurately is so complex! The nation of Israel used a calendar system that went from the month of Nisan to Adar in the Hebrew calendar (approximately April to March). 17 This calendar was also used by the nation of Babylon. 18

The nation of Judah used a calendar system that went from the month of Tishri to Elul in the Hebrew calendar (approximately September to August). 19 This calendar system started under the reigns of David and Solomon in the United Kingdom and continued during the Divided Kingdom for the Southern Kingdom. 20

Further complicating this is that the calendar systems of Israel, Judah, Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt used do not correlate to the modern January to December yearly calendar currently practiced in the modern world. Even if these nations all kept exact dates, it is difficult for modern scholars to work backward more than 3,000 years, reconcile the modern calendar system to ancient nation calendaring systems, and reconcile different calendar systems with each other independent of the modern calendaring system.

IV. Concluding Thoughts on Old Testament Historical Chronologies

This blog post has sought to share a few dates in the Old Testament which can be known with certainty while also sharing why establishing a chronology of the Old Testament is difficult. However, this does not mean the biblical text is fallible or incorrect. My goal has been to show that since we are often attempting to look backward 2,000 (or more) years, establishing dates in the Old Testament is difficult and therefore must be done with care.

Notes:

  1. David Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, 169.
  2. David Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, 167.
  3. Kenneth Kitchen, “How Do We Know When Solomon Ruled,” Biblical Archeology Review, (September/October 2001), 34.
  4. Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, eds., Tyndale Bible Dictionary, 277.
  5. David Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, 272.
  6. Rodger Young, “When Was Samaria Captured? The Need for Precision in Biblical Chronologies”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society¸ vol. 47, no. 4 (December 2004): 586.
  7. Gerhald Larsson, “Chronology as a Structural Element in the Old Testament,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, vol. 14, no. 2, (2000): 208.
  8. Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, eds., Tyndale Bible Dictionary, 272.
  9. Ibid., 276
  10. “Leslie McFall, “A Translation Guide,” 7.
  11. “Chronology of Israel’s Monarchy,” in NLT Study Bible, 563 quoted from Edward R. Thiele, “The Mysterious Number of the Hebrew Kings,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1983), 47-51.
  12. Kenneth Kitchen, “How Do We Know When Solomon Ruled,” 34.
  13. Leslie McFall, “A Translation Guide,” 7.
  14. Leslie McFall, “A Translation Guide,” 7.
  15. Ibid., 41.
  16. Kenneth Kitchen, “How Do We Know When Solomon Ruled,” 35.
  17. “Leslie McFall, “A Translation Guide,” 7 and Kenneth Kitchen, “How Do We Know When Solomon Ruled,” 35.
  18. “Chronology of Israel’s Monarchy,” in NLT Study Bible, 563.
  19. “Leslie McFall, “A Translation Guide,”7 and Kenneth Kitchen, “How Do We Know When Solomon Ruled,” 35.
  20. “Chronology of Israel’s Monarchy,” in NLT Study Bible, 563.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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