Spiral galaxy in Coma Cluster [Courtesy NASA] Palau de la Musica Catalana, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Can biblical chronology be used to date creation?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

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. Muslims also read portions of the Old Testament, although these are secondary to the Qur'an. Even among those who believe the Bible to be the 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 -- see Bible-science and Bible-inerrant. But others disagree, insisting on viewing the Bible as a perfect, complete and "inerrant" repository of God's word. Many such persons view the findings of modern science to be an affront to religion in general and the authority of the Bible in particular.

One key issue that frequently arises here is the biblical chronology, which, in traditional interpretations, has placed the creation in Genesis at roughly 4000 BCE, so that the earth, or even the entire universe, is a mere 6,000 years old. This reckoning is assumed by many in the creationist community [Hodge2007]. Obviously this reckoning 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). The radiometric methods used to measure the age of the earth and its fossil layers are regarded by scientists as highly reliable (see Reliability), as is the methodology for dating the big bang (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 BCE 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-documented archaeological findings in 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, Reverend James Ussher proposed a detailed chronology that pegged the epoch of creation in Genesis to be 4004 BCE. Isaac Newton devoted even more effort to biblical chronology than he did to mathematics and physics. In 1913, Martin Anstey published The Romance of Bible Chronology, which successfully resolved some earlier gaps and difficulties, although other scholars questioned his methodology and assumptions. Attempts to establish or refine biblical chronologies continue to the present day, with results that place the epoch of creation anywhere between 3836 BCE to 5426 BCE [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. 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 claims regarding the creation as described in Genesis based on biblical chronology.

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 produced by some Jewish scholars between 600 and 1000 CE, and followed by most Christian Bibles today), and the Septuagint Text (an early Greek translation favored by the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity) [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 (almost double). The Samaritan Text (another 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 statistical 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 to some extent. And the discrepancies between different manuscripts raise the possibility that none of the above genealogies is complete, perhaps skipping many generations.

Abraham to David

The biblical account from Abraham to David provides substantially more detail to work with and, unlike the earlier period, also provides opportunities for corroboration with the history of other peoples in the region. 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 in Iraq) to head to the Palestine area. 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 after Joseph's family migrated to Egypt, and 1 Kings 6:1, which says that the work began on Solomon's temple 480 years after the Exodus. The commencement of construction of Solomon's temple is dated by most present-day biblical scholars to approximately 970 BCE, although some suggest a few decades earlier. This reckoning places Joseph's family's migration to Egypt at 1880 BCE, and the Exodus at 1450 BCE.

However, there are serious problems with this chronology. There is no mention in Egyptian records of the revolt and exodus of a large group of slaves in the 15th or 16th century BCE, and the pharaoh in the 1450 BCE time frame (Thutmose III) was a very strong ruler, having defeated the Canaanites in a battle at Megiddo (Armageddon in the Bible) in 1479 BCE. 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, did not exist until the 13th century BCE, according to 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.

But even within the biblical text itself, the 430-year sojourn in Egypt is inconsistent with 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), since Moses is 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 the foundation of Solomon's temple appears inconsistent, on the high side, with the genealogical record in 1 Chron. 2:1-15, which gives only ten generations from Judah (the brother of Joseph and Levi) to David (Solomon's father, born roughly 1040 BCE). It is also inconsistent, on the low side, with the figure (at least 559 years) obtained by adding up all the years given for the reigns of various judges in Joshua and Judges [Literalist2014].

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 incomplete -- the actual lineages include many more unknown persons (i.e., the "begats" should be read "was the ancestor of"). But this solution is unsatisfactory to conservative scholars, who are reluctant to accept that the Bible's account here is significantly inaccurate and/or incomplete. This theory also fails to address the fact that the Exodus in 1450 BCE or earlier conflicts with well-established Egyptian history, in particular with the construction of the cities Pithom and Rameses, which did not exist until much later (13th century BCE). Some scholars have argued that the 430-year span includes not just Israel's sojourn in Egypt but also Abraham's time in Canaan (see, for example, [Jones2005b]), but this only partially solves the discrepancy, and in any event is considered by other scholars to be a dubious extrapolation of the biblical text. Another solution is simply to conclude that the Israelites did not settle, build or reside in the cities Pithom and Rameses (they lived elsewhere instead), but this again is unacceptable to most scholars.

Many biblical scholars today favor a 13th century BCE setting for the Exodus (see, for instance, [Cline2007]), 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 BCE), which fits with the Exodus in 1250 BCE, although Merneptah (reigned 1213-1203 BCE) is also a possibility. This general reckoning also fits nicely with the Merneptah stele, an artifact found in Egypt, dated to 1207 BCE, 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, so perhaps this is not surprising [Cline2007].

Along this line, it is worth noting that the genealogy of the Judean kings from David (reigned beginning 1010 BCE) to Jehoahaz and his brothers Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin (who was carried off to Babylon in 586 BCE), 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) gives 42 generations from David to Jesus, a period of 1040 years, or 24.0 years per generation. Assuming 24 years per generation, the Judah-to-David period (ten generations, according to 1 Chron. 2:1-15) spans only 240 years or so, not 800+ years as claimed elsewhere in the Old Testament, and the Exodus occurred in roughly 1250 BCE, entirely in agreement with the what many scholars agree is the most plausible date.

In any event, there is no clear consensus among biblical scholars on how to resolve these and other chronological difficulties of this period. Perhaps future archaeological finds will help resolve these issues.

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. Most biblical scholars agree that such a huge proceeding should have left a significant 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, there are indications from other passages within the Old Testament itself that the actual number was much smaller. 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 about 5,000 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 walk strictly on the king's highway (a narrow one-lane 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 numbered in the millions, this procession would have taken weeks or even months to complete, and Moses' offer would have made no sense.

If there were only a few hundred or a few thousand Hebrews in the Exodus, then the lack of mention in Egyptian records and archaeology is not 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 some.

David to Captivity

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

Name Reigned (BCE)
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

Note that three of the kings in the above list (Ahaziah, Jehoash, and Amaziah), and also the Queen Athaliah, were skipped in the genealogy given in the opening verses of the New Testament (Matt. 1:6-11).

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

The Babylonian captivity lasted from 586 BCE until 536 BCE, 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 (thought by some to be the greatest scientist in history), have attempted to develop a comprehensive chronology for the Old Testament, this has never been achieved to the satisfaction of most present-day biblical scholars. Some success has been obtained for the period from the reign of King David in 1010 BCE to the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE. But earlier than 1000 BCE or so is quite problematic, leading most biblical scholars today to conclude that 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 and religion in general, and creationism in particular, 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 BCE, 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, as some have argued, 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 BCE or in the 13th century BCE, 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.

In any event, 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-inerrant and Bible-science.

References

[See Bibliography].