GOODS South WFC3 ERS Details 1 [Courtesy NASA] Spires on west facade of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Can biblical chronology be used to date creation?

David H. Bailey
Updated 7 May 2018 (c) 2018

Introduction

The Bible is accepted as an inspired chronicle of mankind's search for existence, meaning and moral guidance by virtually all Christian denominations and also by the Jewish faith, whose Bible is the Old Testament. Even among those who assert the Bible to be the literal word of God, most are willing to accept that the Bible has some imperfections, such as translation errors, copyist errors, omissions and questionable inclusions, and, in any event, the Bible was never intended to be read primarily as a scientific or historical treatise -- Bible-inerrant. But others insisting on viewing the Bible as a perfect, complete and "inerrant" repository of God's word, and to them modern science is an affront to the authority of the Bible.

One issue that frequently arises is the biblical chronology, which, in traditional interpretations, has placed the creation in Genesis at 4000 BC, so that the earth, or even the entire universe, is a mere 6,000 years old. Needless to say, this reckoning, which is assumed by many in the creationist community [Hodge2007], is in utter disagreement with the findings of modern science, which dates the earth as approximately 4.5 billion years old (see Ages), and the universe as approximately 13.8 billion years old (see Big bang).

But setting aside the scientific measurements of the age of the earth and the big bang, and even setting aside "higher criticism" of the Bible, is it true that the Bible unambiguously assigns the date of 4000 BC for the creation in Genesis? Is it possible to establish a reliable, comprehensive chronology of the Old Testament, based only on the biblical text itself, or based on the biblical text together with well-established archaeological data from the Middle East?

Biblical chronology through the ages

Scholars have studied the chronology of the Old Testament for centuries, attempting not only to sort out the biblical record itself, but also to harmonize this chronology with that of other ancient societies. In the early Christian church, scholars such as Eusebius and Jerome wrote on the topic in detail. The medieval scholar Maimonides developed a chronology that was followed in the Jewish world for many years. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton among others devoted considerable effort in this area. Reverend James Ussher proposed a detailed chronology that pegged the epoch of creation in Genesis to be 4004 BC. Attempts to refine the biblical chronology continued through the 20th century [Jones2005b; Literalist2014].

Today, however, most biblical scholars, representing a broad range of denominations, concede that it is not possible to formulate a comprehensive Old Testament chronology, due to numerous internal disagreements and gaps in the scriptural record, together with difficulties in attempting to correlate the biblical record with Egyptian and Babylonian histories [Hyatt1964, pg. 33-44]. The following briefly summarizes a number of these difficulties and the consensus of biblical studies to resolve them. The intent here is certainly not to belittle the Bible was a work of scripture, but only to underscore the futility in trying to make precise claims about, say, the Genesis creation, based on the biblical text.

Adam to Abraham

Part of the difficulty with attempting to establish a biblical chronology is that early texts of the Old Testament substantially differ in some key details. For example, the following chart compares the genealogy of the patriarchs from Adam to Abraham, as given in Genesis 5 and 11, between the Masoretic Text (a version followed by most Christian Bibles today), and the Septuagint Text (an early Greek translation favored by Eastern Orthodox denominations) [Genesis2014]:

Masoretic (King James) Septuagint
Name Birth year Age at first son Years after first son Age at death Birth year Age at first son Years after first son Age at death
Adam 0 130 800 930 0 230 700 930
Seth 130 105 807 912 230 205 707 912
Enos 235 90 815 905 435 190 715 905
Cainan 325 70 840 910 625 170 740 910
Mahaleel 395 65 830 895 795 165 730 895
Jared 460 162 800 962 960 162 800 962
Enoch 622 65 300 365 1122 65 300 365
Methusaleh 687 187 782 969 1287 167 802 969
Lamech 874 182 595 777 1454 188 565 753
Noah 1056 500 450 950 1642 500 450 950
Shem 1556 100 500 600 2142 100 335 435
Arphaxad 1656 35 403 438 2242 135 330 465
Cainan 2377 130 330 460
Salah 1691 30 403 433 2507 130 330 460
Eber 1721 34 430 464 2637 134 370 504
Peleg 1755 30 209 239 2771 130 209 339
Reu 1785 32 207 239 2901 132 207 339
Serug 1817 30 200 230 3033 130 200 330
Nahor 1847 29 119 148 3163 79 129 208
Terah 1876 70 135 205 3342 70 205 275
Abraham 1946 100 75 175 3412 100 75 175

Note that the time period from Adam to Abraham is 1946 years in the Masoretic Text, but 3412 years in the Septuagint, a difference of 1466 years. The Samaritan Text, another early Jewish source, gives this period as 2377 years.

Even setting aside questions of whether such enormous lifespans are biologically possible, it is clear just from casual examination that there are anomalies in these figures. Note that in the Masoretic listing, among the 20 figures in the column "Years after first son," in all but six instances the last two digits are 20 or less. The odds of this happening are roughly one in 600,000. Five of these 20 figures end in 00, the odds of which are roughly one in 750,000. Among the 40 figures in the columns "Age of first son" and "Years after first son," all but six produce a remainder of 0 or 2 when divided by 5 (or, in other words, the final digit is 0, 2, 5 or 7). These odds are roughly one in 189 million. Along this line, note that the 1656-year period from Adam to the flood (see the entry for Arphaxad above) corresponds very closely to 86,400 weeks, which is a magic number in Egyptian cosmology, and which is memorialized even today in our reckoning of time: 24 hours x 60 minutes x 60 seconds = 86,400 seconds per day [Campbell1949, pg. 35-36].

Such analysis suggests, at the least, that these figures are not original, raw data, but instead have been edited and adjusted over the centuries. And the discrepancies between different manuscripts raise the possibility that none of the above genealogies is fully accurate and complete.

Abraham to David

The biblical account from Abraham to David provides substantially more detail to work with and also provides opportunities for corroboration with other histories. But there are significant difficulties here too. According to the scriptures, beginning in Genesis 11, Abraham left his home in Ur (probably near modern-day Baghdad) to head to Palestine. Joseph, the son of Abraham's grandson Jacob, was sold by his brothers to traders, who took him to Egypt where he lived in the royal court for 14 years. Joseph's brothers and families (70 persons in total) subsequently joined him in Egypt, where they settled in Rameses, according to Gen. 47:11.

Most traditional chronologies of this general period rely on Exodus 12:40, which states that the Israelites remained in Egypt 430 years (400 years in Gen. 15:13) after Joseph's family migrated to Egypt, and 1 Kings 6:1, which says that the work began on the temple of Solomon (King David's son) 480 years after the Exodus. The commencement of construction of Solomon's temple is dated by most present-day biblical scholars to approximately 970 BC. This reckoning places Joseph's family's migration to Egypt at 1880 BC, and the Exodus at 1450 BC.

However, there are serious problems with this chronology. To begin with, there is no mention in Egyptian or other records of the revolt and exodus of a large group of slaves in the 15th or 16th century BC. More importantly, the cities Pithom and Rameses, which the Israelites settled, according to Gen 47:11, and helped build, according to Exod. 1:11 and 12:37, were not built until the 13th century BC, according to very well-established Egyptian records [Cline2007]. This is 200 years after the above reckoning for the Exodus, and 600 years after the above reckoning for Joseph's family's migration to Egypt.

On the other hand, the traditional 430-year sojourn in Egypt is inconsistent other passages within the Old Testament itself. For example, the genealogy of Moses, as given in several places (Exod. 6:16-20, Num. 26:59, 1 Chron. 6:1-3 and 1 Chron 23:6), states that he was the great-grandson of Levi (Levi-Kohath-Amram-Moses) via his paternal line, and the grandson of Levi via his maternal line (Levi-Jochebed-Moses). Needless to say, two or three generations do not span 430 years, even if one takes at face value the advanced ages stated for these persons and presumes, very implausibly, that each generation was not sired until the last year of life of the previous generation.

Similarly, the 480-year period given in 1 Kings 6:1 for the Exodus to King David and/or Solomon appears inconsistent, on the high side, with several genealogical lines given in the Bible: (a) 1 Chr. 2:1-15 and Rut. 4:18-20 give ten generations from Judah (the brother of Joseph and Levi) to David (Solomon's father, born roughly 1040 BC); (b) 1 Chr. 6:1-8, 50-53 gives 13 generations (14 generations in Ezra 7:2-5) from Levi to Zadok, a contemporary of David, via Levi's son Kohath; and (c) 1 Chr. 6:39-43 gives 14 generations from Levi to Asaph, a contemporary of David, via Levi's son Gershon.

In this regard, note that the genealogy of the Judean kings from David (reigned beginning 1010 BC) to Jehoahaz and his brothers Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, who was carried off to Babylon in 586 BC, which is a period of 414 years, spans 17 father-to-son generations (see below for details), giving 24.3 years per generation [Kings2014]. Similarly, Luke's genealogy of Jesus, which is considered more reliable than Matthew's version, gives 42 generations from David to Jesus, a period of 1040 years, or 24.0 years per generation. Other ancient chronologies give similar figures -- keep in mind that this was in a time when most people married, had children and died much younger than today, and long before any form of contraception.

Assuming an average of 24 years per generation, 10 generations, as given in (a) above, span roughly 240 years, 13 generations (as given in (b) above) span roughly 312 years, and 14 generations (as given in (c) above) span roughly 336 years. Each of these figures is substantially less than the 480 + 430 = 910 years of the traditional chronology. They suggest a sojourn in Egypt of roughly 1400-1300 BC (not 1880-1450 BC), and an Exodus at roughly 1200-1300 BC (not 1450 BC).

Scholars through the ages have proposed a number of solutions to these discrepancies. One is to propose that the 430-year and 480-year periods are correct, but that the genealogies given in Exodus, 1 Chronicles and elsewhere are substantially incomplete, omitting numerous generations. Some of these writers identify the Israelites with the Hyksos ("foreign kings"), who ruled Egypt during the period 1674-1535 BC. But the identification of Hyksos with the Israelites is problematic on several grounds: they conquered Egypt (rather than were slaves in Egypt); they were finally expelled (instead of pleading to leave on their own accord); and they were driven out via Gaza (whereas Exo. 13:17-18 explicitly states that the Israelites did not depart Egypt via "the land of the Philistines," i.e., Gaza). Even more importantly, as mentioned above, the cities Pithom and Rameses were not built until much later (13th century BC) [Cline2007]. Other traditional writers hold to an older date for the Exodus, but suggest that the Israelites did not really settle, build or reside in the cities Pithom and Rameses, as stated in Exodus. Neither of these solutions is satisfactory to many traditional writers, who are reluctant to accept that the Bible's account here is inaccurate on such key details, or that its record is substantially incomplete.

In any event, many biblical scholars today favor a 13th century BC setting for the Exodus (see, for instance, [Cline2007]). This makes some sense, since indeed it was Seti I (reigned 1291-1278) who directed the construction of the cities Pithom and Rameses, as described in Exod. 1:11. Seti's son was Ramses II (reigned 1279-1212 BC), which fits with the Exodus in 1250 BC, although Merneptah (reigned 1213-1203 BC) is also a possibility. This reckoning also fits nicely with the Merneptah stele, an artifact found in Egypt, dated to 1207 BC, which indicates that the nation of Israel was established in the Palestine area by this date. There is still no clear archaeological evidence for Moses or the Exodus in Egyptian records, but on the other hand the Egyptians seldom mentioned setbacks or defeats in their records [Cline2007]. See also the comments about numbers in the Exodus, below.

But whatever chronology one believes to be the most realistic, it is abundantly clear that the biblical text in the Abraham to David era is highly problematic: gaps and inconsistencies spoil any attempt to compose a consistent chronology. Indeed, such efforts boil down to deciding which passages are presumed to be reliable and which are not.

Numbers in the Exodus

With regards to the Exodus, Exod. 12:37 says that "about 600,000" Hebrew men (i.e., 2-3 million persons, including women and children) left Egypt in the Exodus. Exodus 38:26 and Num. 1:46 are more specific: 603,550 men. Such an enormous proceeding should have left a huge body of evidence, both in written records of neighboring kingdoms and in the archaeology of the region, yet no such convincing evidence has been found.

However, as with the chronology above, these huge figures (2-3 million people) are inconsistent with the biblical text itself. For example, counting Levi's male descendants through Moses, based on Exod. 6:16-20, gives just 21 men. Multiplying by 12 to estimate for the 12 sons of Jacob gives just 252 men through Moses' generation at the Exodus (even assuming they were all still alive at the Exodus). Also, Exod. 1:15-17 says there were only two midwives for the Israelites; this places an upper limit of 5,000 or so on the size of the Hebrew nation at the time of the birth of Moses. Exodus 18:21 describes the organization of the Hebrew host with rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens; there is no mention of groupings larger than thousands. Exodus 15:27 mentions that after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites camped at Elim, where there were 12 wells and 70 palm trees; this is hardly sufficient to provide water and shelter for 2-3 million persons. Finally, Num. 20:17-19 describes Moses' attempt to negotiate a safe passage for the Israelites through Edom. He proposed to the Edomite king that they would quickly pass through his land, not eating any fruit or crops nor drinking from any wells, and would walk strictly on the king's highway (a narrow one-lane dirt road by today's standards) while traveling through his land: "we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left." If the children of Israel had numbered in the millions, this procession would have tied up the king's highway for months, and Moses' offer would have made no sense, to say the least.

On the other hand, if one concedes that there were only a few hundred or a few thousand Hebrews in the Exodus, then the lack of mention in Egyptian records and archaeology ceases to be a major issue. But, again, such reckoning requires picking and choosing which scriptural passages are thought to be more reliable, and thus this sort of accommodation is not acceptable to those who favor a highly literal interpretation of the biblical text.

David to Captivity

Beginning with the reign of David (1010 BC), Old Testament chronology is much better established, at least through the Babylonian captivity in 586 BC (which is dated quite reliably from Babylonian records). One more recently published reckoning is the following, due to Kenneth Kitchen [Kitchen2003]:

Name Reigned (BC)
David 1010-971
Solomon 971-931
Rehoboam 931-915
Abijah 915-912
Asa 912-871
Jehoshaphat 871-849
Jehoram 849-842
Ahaziah 842-841
Athaliah 841-835
Jehoash 841-796
Amaziah 796-776
Uzziah 776-736
Jotham 750-735
Ahaz 735-715
Hezekiah 715-687
Manasseh 687-642
Amon 642-640
Josiah 640-609
Jehoahaz 609-609
Jehoiakim 609-598
Jehoiachin 598-597
Zedekiah 597-586

Even in this period, though, scholars must grapple with numerous difficulties, such as the following [Literalist2014]:

The Babylonian captivity lasted from 586 BC until 536 BC, when, according to Ezra 4:1-6, Cyrus issued a decree liberating the Jews and permitting them to return to Jerusalem. There is no reliable chronology for the Old Testament text after this date.

Summary

In short, while many scholars through the centuries, including such brilliant minds as the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides and the 17th century mathematician/physicist Isaac Newton, have attempted to develop a comprehensive chronology for the Old Testament, this has never been fully achieved. Some success has been obtained for the period from the reign of King David in 1010 BC to the Babylonian captivity in 586 BC. But earlier than 1000 BC or so is very problematic. In short, a comprehensive chronology of the Old Testament that completely adheres to the biblical text, without picking and choosing which passages to accept as more reliable, is simply not possible [Hyatt1964, pg. 33-44].

In any event, the message for modern-day discussions of science, religion and creationism is clear: Any attempt to specify a date for the creation in Genesis, or, for that matter, for any epoch in the Bible prior to roughly the reign of King David, based solely on the biblical text, is an exercise in futility.

Along this line, there is no solid archaeological evidence relating to the Old Testament before the Mnepterah steele, dated to 1207 BC, which contains the first mention anywhere of Israel in ancient archeology (see Bible archaeology). This does not mean that none of these earlier biblical figures existed, or that these earlier events are all fictitious, but only that any attempt to place these persons or events on a precise timeline, consistent either with the Old Testament text itself or with nonbiblical histories and archaeology, is highly problematic.

Many students of the Bible will be disappointed in this conclusion. But surely the Bible was never intended to be read primarily as a historical treatise, any more that it was intended to be read primarily as a scientific treatise. Questions such as whether Adam lived 6,000, 60,000 or 600,000 years ago, or whether 600, 6,000, 60,000 or 600,000 Israelite men left Egypt in the Exodus, or whether the Exodus occurred in the 16th century BC or in the 13th century BC, are all quite irrelevant to the grand themes of religion in general and the Bible in particular: identifying the purpose of human existence, obtaining salvation from sin, developing a code of moral conduct, and serving the poor and downtrodden. And science in general, and biblical scholarship and archaeology in particular, can say nothing one way or the other about specific persons who, like almost all figures in biblical history, were relatively obscure on the world stage during their lifetimes, nor can it say anything one way or the other about miraculous events that are presumed to be beyond the realm of what can be studied by objective scientific experimentation.

From a larger perspective, there is no point in claiming that biblical scholarship or archaeology "proves" some biblical event or figure, when such evidence does not exist or is considered highly questionable in peer-reviewed biblical studies literature. As we read in the New Testament, "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (1 Cor. 14:8).

See also Bible-archaeology, Bible-cosmology, Bible-creation, Bible-inerrant and Bible-science.

References

[See Bibliography].