Archive for July, 2011

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Is the Bible’s chronology of the kings of Israel accurate?

July 30, 2011

The Challenge

In the late 19th century, critical scholar Julius Wellhausen claimed the Biblical chronology of the kings of Israel was a literary invention for religious purposes, which had been edited and revised several times from a variety of different sources, rather than a genuine historical record.[1]

For the next 70 years, critical scholars continued to treat the chronology as historically worthless and irreconcilable.[2]

The Facts

In 1951, Biblical scholar Edwin Thiele published ‘The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings’, a harmonization of the Biblical record of the kings of Israel (originally as a doctoral dissertation). By the time of the second edition (slightly revised), it was recognized that Thiele’s work was a significant breakthrough in establishing the historical validity of the Biblical chronology.[3]

Reception

Though criticisms have been made of Thiele’s chronology,[4] [5] [6] [7] its value and general validity have been acknowledged widely.[8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

It remains the typical starting point for study of the chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah[13] [14] with few modifications,[15] [16]   and has been applied successfully in other fields of Ancient Near East study, such as the chronologies of Assyria and Babylon.[17]

The reliability of the chronologies in 1-2 Kings has been supported by archaeological evidence; Grabbe notes that the chronology in these books ‘agrees with what can be gleaned from extra-biblical sources’, and that ‘even if we had no external sources we could have reasonable confidence in the biblical sequence’.[18]


[1] ‘That a process of alteration and improvement of the chronology was busily carried on in later times, we see from the added synchronisms of the kings of Israel and Judah,’, Wellhausen, ‘Prolegomena to the History of Israel’, p. 278 (1885).

[2] ‘Driver remarked that, “the length of the reigns of the various kings is not the same according to the traditional and the synchronistic figures. Since, however, it is clear on various grounds that these synchronisms are not original, any attempt to base a chronological scheme on them may be disregarded.” Kittel stated his view that, “Wellhausen has shown, by convincing reasons, that the synchronisms within the Book of Kings cannot possibly rest on ancient tradition, but are on the contrary simply the products of artificial reckoning. . . The Israelitish numbers and the parallel numbers referring to Judah do not agree at the points at which we are able to compare them.” Robinson also was impressed by Wellhausen’s evaluation: “Wellhausen is surely right in believing that the synchronisms in Kings are worthless, being merely a late compilation from the actual figures given.” * R. H. Pfeiffer’s opinion was that, “The chronology based on the synchronisms is of course less reliable than the one based on the regnal periods, since the synchronisms were figured from the regnal periods. Neither chronology is wholly accurate . . . In spite of these discrepancies, inaccuracies, and errors, the chronology of Kings is not fantastic.” 5 J. F. McCurdy expressed himself to the effect that, “Many of the numbers given, especially the synchronisms, are erroneous, as is proved by the fact that no attempt to harmonize the two series has been successful . . . Startling inconsistencies are also found where the several synchronisms for the same king are worked out.” K. Marti gave his observation: “The synchronistic notes betray their character as ‘subjective additions of the Epitomator.’ It is clear, to begin with, that this noting of synchronisms was not in actual use during the existence of the two kingdoms. . . Almost along the whole line, the discrepancy between synchronisms and years of reign is incurable.” C. H. Gordon observed: “The numerical errors in the Books of Kings have defied every attempt to ungarble them. Those errors are largely the creation of the editors who set out to write a synchronistic history of Judah and Israel, using as sources two sets of unrelated court chronicles. Combining two elaborate sets of figures was not an easy task. But even with due regard for the difficulties involved, the editors did not execute the synchronisms skillfully.”’, Thiele, ‘Synchronisms of the Hebrew Kings – A Re-evaluation: I’, Andrews University Seminary Studies, pp. 14-125 (1), 1963.

[3]A marked advance in biblical scholarship was made in the publication of The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, U. of Chicago Press, 1951, by Dr. E. R. Thiele. In his revised edition in 1965 (Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, Mich.), Dr. Thiele asserts the soundness of his basic thesis and conclusions as confirmed by scholars since his first edition.’, editorial, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (9.1.60), 1966.

[4] ‘Thiele’s view contains positive elements, but it also poses numerous difficulties. He incorrectly understood the annals of Tiglath-pileser III, and his determination that Menahem died in 742 contradicts the testimonies of the contemporaneous Assyrian inscriptions.10 In his desire to resolve the discrepancies between the data in the Book of Kings, Thiele was forced to make improbable suppositions. He assumed that the system of counting the years of reign changed every few generations, or even after a few decades. This is improbable, and cannot be proved. Similarly, he presumes that the Northern and Southern Kingdoms numbered their years both by the local count and by that practiced by the other kingdom, also for short periods, while this practice ceased in other periods. Thiele even went so far as to assume that while this practice had fallen into disuse, there were scribes who continued to calculate the years in accordance with it. There is no basis for Thiele’s statement that his conjectures are correct because he succeeded in reconciling most of the data in the Book of Kings, since his assumptions regarding Biblical chronological principles are derived from the chronological data themselves, whose reliability is unclear.’, Galil, ‘The Chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah’, p. 4 (1996).

[5]but his harmonizing approach has not gone unchallenged, especially because of the many shifts in the basis of reckoning dates that it requires (e.g., Jepsen 1968: 34–35)—shifts which were unlikely in actual practice. The numerous extrabiblical synchronisms he invokes do not always reflect the latest refinements in Assyriological research (cf. E.2.f below). In many cases, he posits an undocumented event in order to save a biblical datum (e.g., the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Jeroboam II as coregent; Thiele 1983: 109)’, Cogan, ‘Chronology (Hebrew Bible)’, in Freedman, (ed.), ’The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary’, volume 1, p. 1006 (1996)’, Freedman, DN (1996).

[6]  ‘Despite that fact of scholarly dedication, neither Thiele’s carefully argued University of Chicago dissertation, nor anyone else’s, has achieved as yet universal acceptance.’, Kaiser, ‘A History of Israel: From the bronze age through the Jewish Wars’, p. 293 (1998).

[7]Not all scholars are convinced by this solution, and commentators on the prophetic books often accept that dates can only be approximate.’, McConville, ‘Exploring the Old Testament, Volume 4: The Prophets’, p. viii (2002).

[8] ‘The chronology most widely accepted today is one based on the meticulous study by Thiele. Wiseman, ‘1 and 2 Kings’, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, p. 27 (1993).

[9]Increasingly his chronological scheme has come to dominate the majority of scholarly works and it is unlikely that his system can ever be overthrown without altering some well-established dates in Near Eastern history, for Thiele’s chronology is now inextricably locked into the chronology of the Near East.’, McFall, ‘A Translation Guide to the Chronological Data in Kings and Chronicles’, Bibliotheca Sacra (148.589.42-43), 1996.

[10] ‘Thiele’s system of chronology has been well received over the past 40 years and is now accepted as the basis for Israel’s chronology in a growing number of standard scholarly works.’, ibid., p. 42; see for example: Mitchell, ‘Israel and Judah until the Revolt of Jehu (931-841 B.C.)’, Cambridge Ancient History, volume 3, part 1, p. 445 (1982); Finegan, ‘Handbook of Biblical Chronology’, p. 249 (rev. ed.1998); Hess, ‘Chronology (Old Testament)’, in Porter (ed.), ‘Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation’, p. 55 (2007).

[11]Thiele’s chronology is fast becoming the consensus view among Old Testament scholars, if it has not already reached that point.’, McFall, ‘The Chronology of Saul and David’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (53.101.215), 2010.

[12]Thiele’s chronology (which differs from that of the present paper in only a few places) won the respect of historians because its dates agree with the following dates in Assyrian and Babylonian history: the Battle of Qarqar in 853 bc; the tribute of Jehu to Shalmaneser III in 841 bc; the capture of Samaria by Shalmaneser V in 723 bc; the invasion of Sennacherib in 701 bc; the Battle of Carchemish in 605 bc; and the first capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 bc.’, Young, ‘Tables of Reign Lengths From the Hebrew Court Recorders’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (48.2.232), 2005.

[13] ‘Thiele’s work has become a cornerstone of much recent chronological discussion (cf. De Vries IDB 1: 580–99; IDBSup: 161–66);’, Cogan, ‘Chronology (Hebrew Bible)’, in Freedman, (ed.), ’The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary’, volume 1, p. 1006 (1996)’, Freedman, DN (1996).

[14] ‘Although some would prefer to see transmission errors where Thiele invokes the above principles, his chronology remains the starting point for all discussions of the debate.’, Hess, ‘Chronology (Old Testament)’, in Porter (ed.), ‘Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation’, p. 55 (2007).

[15] ‘After 40 years Thiele’s chronology has not been significantly altered or proved to be false in any major area except in the matter of Hezekiah’s coregency.’, McFall, ‘A Translation Guide to the Chronological Data in Kings and Chronicles’, Bibliotheca Sacra (148.589.42), 1996.

[16]It remained then for others to complete the application of principles that Thiele used elsewhere, thereby providing a chronology for the eighth-century kings of Judah that is in complete harmony with the reign lengths and synchronisms given in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. The most thorough work in this regard was Leslie McFall’s 1991 article in Bibliotheca Sacra.22 McFall made his way through the reign lengths and synchronisms of Kings and Chronicles, and using an exact notation that indicated whether the years were being measured according to Judah’s Tishri years or Israel’s Nisan years, he was able to produce a chronology for the divided monarchies that was consistent with all the scriptural texts chosen.’, ibid., pp. 105-106.

[17] ‘In a 1996 article, Kenneth Strand wrote, “What has generally not been given due notice is the effect that Thiele’s clarification of the Hebrew chronology of this period of history has had in furnishing a corrective for various dates in ancient Assyrian and Babylonian history.”28 The purpose of Strand’s article was to show that Thiele’s methodology accomplished more than just producing a coherent chronology from scriptural data. His chronology, once produced, proved useful in settling some troublesome problems in Assyrian and Babylonian history.’, Young, ‘Inductive And Deductive Methods As Applied To OT Chronology’, Master’s Seminary Journal (18.1.112-113), 2007.

[18] ‘Grabbe suggests that the names and sequence of kings in Israel and Judah, and their approximate chronological placement, agrees with what can be gleaned from extra-biblical sources. To this extent the biblical framework (meaning primarily 1 and 2 Kings) is reliable: even if we had no external sources we could have reasonable confidence in the biblical sequence of Jeroboam I, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Omri, Ahab, Jehu, etc. in Samaria, and David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijam, Asa, Jehoshaphat, etc. in Jerusalem, along with their interrelationships. Beyond that it starts to get more and more tricky, with decreasing reliability in the biblical narrative as the detail increases (this is a general statement, and there are sometimes exceptions in specific instances).’, Grabbe, ‘Reflections on the Discussion’, Grabbe (ed.), ‘Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty’, p. 337 (2007).

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