Biblical literalist chronology

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Biblical literalist chronology is the attempt to correlate the theological dates used in the Bible with the real chronology of actual events.[1] The Bible measures time from the date of Creation (years are measured as anno mundi, or AM, meaning Year of the World), but there is no agreement on when this was, some of the better-known alternatives including Archbishop James Ussher, who placed it in 4004 BC, Isaac Newton in 4000 BC, Martin Luther in 3691, the traditional Jewish date of 3760 BC, and the traditional Greek Orthodox date, based on the Septuagint, of 5009 BC.[2] To the foundation of the Temple of Solomon the passage of time is measured by simple addition of from the Creation; for later periods it measures time by the reigns of kings, but the data is conflicting and there is no agreement on how to resolve the problems.[1][3]


The Jewish Bible (the Christian Old Testament) dates events either by simple arithmetic taking the creation of the world, as the starting point, or, in the later books, by correlations between the reigns of kings in Israel and Judah.[1] The data it provides falls into three periods:[4]

  1. From the Creation to Abraham's migration to Canaan, during which events are dated by adding the ages of the patriarchs;
  2. From Abraham's migration to the foundation of Solomon's temple, in which the chronology in Genesis continues to be arrived at by adding ages, but from Exodus on is usually given in statements;
  3. From the foundation of the temple onward, which gives the reigns in years (sometimes shorter periods) of kings in Israel and Judah.

For the biblical authors the chronology was theological in intent, functioning as prophecy and not as history.[5][6] Biblical literalism, however, does not treat it this way, because literalists have a profound respect for the Bible as the word of God.[7] This way of thinking had its origins in Christian fundamentalism, an early 20th century movement which opposed then-current non-supernatural interpretations of the life of Jesus by stressing, among other things, the verbal inspiration of scripture.[8] The underlying concept, or fear, was that if everything in the Bible were not true, everything would collapse.[8]

Literalist chronologies[edit]

The creation of a literalist chronology of the Bible faces several hurdles, of which the following are the most significant:

  • There are different texts of the Jewish Bible, the major text-families being: the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the original Hebrew scriptures made in the last few centuries before Christ; the Masoretic text, a version of the Hebrew text curated by the Jewish rabbis but the earliest manuscripts of which date from the early years of the 2nd millennium CE; and the Samaritan text, restricted to the five books of the Torah plus the Book of Joshua. The three differ quite markedly from each other.[9]
  • Literalists prefer the Masoretic text, on which Protestant Bibles are based, but the Masoretic text sometimes contains absurdities, as when it states that Saul came to the throne at the age of one and reigned for two years. Such obvious errors can be corrected by reference to other versions of the Bible (in this case the Septuagint, which gives more realistic numbers), but their existence calls into question the fundamentalist idea that the MT text is the inspired word of God.[10] Most fundamentalists, with the notable exception of the King James Only movement, avoid this by holding that only the authors of the original autographs (the very first copies written by Moses and others) were inspired by God.[11]
  • The Bible is not always consistent.[12] For example, Exodus 12:30 states that the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt, while Paul in the New Testament says the 430 years covers the period from Abraham to Moses.[13]
  • The earlier part of the Bible's history contradicts science and known history (the world is not 6,000 years old as the Biblical chronology suggests, the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis are far longer than is reasonable, and serious historians of Israel's history no longer regard the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, or the entire period prior to David as real history).
  • Very few events in the Bible are mentioned in outside sources, making it difficult to move from a relative chronology (X happened before Y happened) to an absolute one (X happened in a known year).


The Bible measures events from the year of God's creation of the world, a type of calendar called Anno Mundi ("Year of the World"), shortened as AM. The task of a literal biblical chronology is to convert this to dates in the modern chronology expressed as years before or after Christ, BC and AD. There have been many attempts to do this, none of them universally accepted. The following tables (derived from Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past; notes within the table as cited) divide the Bible's AM dates by the three periods into which they most naturally fall.[14]

Creation to Abraham's migration to Canaan[edit]

Date (AM)
AM 1
AM 1656
AM 1946
AM 2021
Birth of Abraham
Entry into Canaan
From Creation to the birth of Abraham time is calculated by adding the ages of the Patriarchs when their first child is born.[15] It seems possible that the period of the Flood is not meant to be included in the count – Shem, born 100 years before the Flood, "begot" his first son two years after it, which should make him 102, but Genesis 11:10-11 specifies that he is only 100, suggesting that time has been suspended.[16]

A literal chronology would put the creation of the world about 4000 BC and the Flood about 2300 BC.[17] The best-known attempt to provide a date for Creation is probably that of Archbishop James Ussher, who placed it 4004 BC, but there are many alternatives, including Isaac Newton in 4000 BC, Martin Luther in 3691, the traditional Jewish date of 3760 BC, and the traditional Greek Orthodox date, based on the Septuagint, of 5009 BC.[2] The dates given to subsequent events such as the Flood will depend on this initial date.

Abraham's entry into Canaan to the foundation of Solomon's temple[edit]

Date (AM)
AM 2236
AM 2666
AM 3146
Entrance into Egypt
Foundation of Solomon's Temple
The 215 years between Abraham's call to enter Canaan (AM 2021) and Jacob's entry into Egypt (AM 2236) are calculated from the ages of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob provided in Genesis; the 430 year period in Egypt is stated in Exodus 12:40, although St. Paul in the New Testament says that the 430 years covers the entire period from Abraham to the exodus.[13] The Exodus (AM 2666) occurs exactly two-thirds of the way through the 4,000 years from the Creation to the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE, marking it as the pivotal event of the chronology.[18] It is also two-thirds of the way through the 40 notional "generations" of 100 years each making up the 4,000 years, with Aaron, the first High Priest, being the 26th generation from Adam.[19]

A literal reading of the Biblical chronology would place the Exodus about 1446 BC, on the basis of the statement in 1 Kings 6:1 that the Temple was founded 480 years after the Exodus.[20] From this a literal chronology can deduce dates for the entry into Canaan 40 years later and the birth of Moses 80 years earlier. It seems impossible, however, to reconcile the 430 years in Egypt with the Bible's information (Exodus 12:40}} that this involved only four generations.[21]

After Solomon's temple[edit]

Date (AM)
AM 3146
AM 3576
AM 3626
AM 4000
Foundation of the Temple
(The Hebrew kings)
Destruction of the Temple
Re-foundation of the Temple
Re-dedication of the Temple
The period from the foundation of the Temple to its destruction, 430 years, is found by adding the reigns of the kings of Judah from the fourth year of Solomon (the year of the Temple's foundation).[13] The fourth year of Solomon came exactly 1,200 years after the birth of Abraham (Abraham was born in AM 1946 if the two years of the Flood are excluded),[22] and there were exactly 20 kings in both Judah and Israel following Solomon, despite Judah lasting more than a century longer than Israel.[23] The complete chronology seems to point towards the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees in 164 BCE bringing the chronology to AM 4000, from which the entire cycle is calculated backwards.[18][24]

The chronology of the monarchy, unlike that of earlier periods, can be checked against non-Biblical sources and seems to be correct in general terms.[25] This raises the prospect that the Books of Kings can be used to reconstruct a chronology for the monarchy, but the task has in fact proven intractably difficult.[26] The problem is that the books contain numerous contradictions: to take just one example, since Rehoboam of Judah and Jeroboam of Israel began to rule at the same time (1 Kings 12), and since Ahaziah of Judah and Joram of Israel were killed at the same time (1 Kings 9:24, 27), the same amount of time should have elapsed in both kingdoms, but the count shows 95 years passing in Judah and 98 in Israel.[27] In short, "[t]he data concerning the synchronisms appeared in hopeless contradiction with the data as to the lengths of reigns."[28] Possibly the most widely followed attempt to resolve the problems is Edwin R. Thiele's The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (three editions between 1951 and 1983), but his work has been widely criticised for, among other things, introducing "innumerable" co-regencies, constructing a "complex system of calendars", and using "unique" patterns of calculation; as a result his following is largely among scholars "committed ... to a doctrine of scripture's absolute harmony" (the criticism is to be found in Brevard Childs' Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture).[29] Subsequent scholars continue to propose alternative chronologies, but, in the words of a recent commentary on Kings, there is "little consensus on acceptable methods of dealing with conflicting data."[3]

See also[edit]




  1. ^ a b c Barr 2001, p. 96.
  2. ^ a b Day 2014, p. 3-4.
  3. ^ a b Konkel 2010, p. 673.
  4. ^ Barr 2001, p. 96-97.
  5. ^ Christensen 1990, p. 148.
  6. ^ Thompson 2007, p. 73-74.
  7. ^ Olson 2011, p. 22.
  8. ^ a b Wood 2005, p. 28.
  9. ^ Northcote 2004, p. 1.
  10. ^ Vriezen & van der Woude 2005, p. 98.
  11. ^ Whelan 2012, p. unpaginated.
  12. ^ Greenspahn 2016, p. 380.
  13. ^ a b c Barr 2001, p. 97.
  14. ^ Thompson 2007, p. 75.
  15. ^ Ruiten 2000, p. 124.
  16. ^ Guillaume 2007, p. 6,252-253.
  17. ^ Matthews 1996, p. 302fn18.
  18. ^ a b Thompson 2007, p. 74.
  19. ^ Johnson 2002, p. 32.
  20. ^ Reed 2011, p. 107.
  21. ^ Davies 2008, p. 28.
  22. ^ Davies 2008, p. 30.
  23. ^ Davies 2008, p. 26-27.
  24. ^ Blenkinsopp 2006, p. 87.
  25. ^ Lemche 2010, p. 95-96.
  26. ^ Tetley 2005, p. 2.
  27. ^ Galil 1996, p. 12.
  28. ^ Thiele 1983, p. 15.
  29. ^ Tetley 2005, p. 4 and fn.6.