The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings
Edwin R. Thiele's The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (1951) is a reconstruction of the chronology of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The book was originally his doctoral dissertation and is widely regarded as the definitive work on the chronology of Hebrew Kings. The book is considered the classic and comprehensive work in reckoning the accession of kings, calendars, and co-regencies, based on biblical and extra-biblical sources.
The chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah rests primarily on a series of reign lengths and cross references within the books of Kings and Chronicles, in which the accession of each king is dated in terms of the reign of his contemporary in either the southern Kingdom of Judah or the northern Kingdom of Israel, and fitting them into the chronology of other ancient civilizations.
However, some of the biblical cross references did not seem to match, so that a reign which is said to have lasted for 20 years results in a cross reference that would give a result of either 19 or 21 years. Thiele noticed that the cross references given during the long reign of King Asa of Judah had a cumulative error of 1 year for each succeeding reign of the kings of Israel: the first cross-reference resulted in an error of 1 year, the second gave an error of 2 years, the third of 3 years and so on. He explained this pattern as a result of two different methods of reckoning regnal years: the accession year method in one and the non-accession year method in the other. Under the accession year method, if a king died in the middle of a year, the period to the end of that year would be called the "accession year" of the new king, whose Year 1 would begin at the new year. Under the non-accession year method the period to the end of the year would be Year 1 of the new king and Year 2 would begin at the start of the new year. Israel appears to have used the non-accession method, while Judah used the accession method until Athaliah seized power in Judah, when Israel's non-accession method appears to have been adopted in Judah.
In addition, Thiele also concluded that Israel counted years starting in the spring month of Nisan, while Judah counted years starting in the autumn month of Tishri. The cumulative impact of differing new years and different methods of calculating reigns explained, to Thiele, most of the apparent inconsistencies in the cross references.
Unknown to Thiele when he first published his findings, these same conclusions that the northern kingdom used non-accession years and a spring New Year while the southern kingdom used accession years and a fall New Year had been discovered by Valerius Coucke of Belgium some years previously, a fact which Thiele acknowledges in his Mysterious Numbers.
Based on his conclusions, Thiele showed that the 14 years between Ahab and Jehu were really 12 years. This enabled him to date their reigns precisely, for Ahab is mentioned in the Kurk Stele which records the Assyrian advance into Syria/Israel at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC, and Jehu is mentioned on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III paying tribute in 841 BC. As these two events are dated by Assyrian chronology as being 12 years apart, Ahab must have fought the Assyrians in his last year and Jehu paid tribute in his first year.
Thiele was able to reconcile the Biblical chronological data from the books of Kings and Chronicles with the exception of synchronisms between Hoshea of Israel and Hezekiah of Judah towards the end of the kingdom of Israel and reluctantly concluded that at that point the ancient authors had made a mistake. Oddly, it is at that precise point that he himself makes a mistake, by failing to realize that Hezekiah had a coregency with his father Ahaz, which explains the Hoshea/Hezekiah synchronisms. This correction has been supplied by subsequent writers who built on Thiele’s work, including Thiele’s colleague Siegfried Horn, TC Mitchell and Kenneth Kitchen, and Leslie McFall.
Thiele's method in arriving at his chronology has been contrasted with the analytical method employed by Julius Wellhausen and other scholars who follow some form of the documentary hypothesis. Wellhausen taught that the chronological data of the books of Kings and Chronicles were artificially put together at a date much later than the events they were ostensibly describing and were basically not historical. This was a necessary consequence of his a priori assumption that the biblical books as we have them today were the work of late-date editors who could not possibly have known the correct history of the times they were writing about. Theodore Robinson summarized this position as follows: "Wellhausen is surely right in believing that the synchronisms in Kings are worthless, being merely a late compilation from the actual figures given."
Wellhausen's methodology in interpreting the Scriptures and the history of Israel has therefore been classed by RK Harrison as a deductive approach; that is, one that starts with presuppositions and derives a historical reconstruction from those presuppositions. A necessary consequence of this approach has been that no general agreement has been reached on the chronology of the Hebrew kingdom period as calculated by authors who adopted this method. "The disadvantage of the deductive approach is that nothing is settled for certain; the results obtained are as diverse as the presuppositions of the scholars, since diverse presuppositions produce diverse results." In contrast, Thiele's method of determining the chronology of the Hebrew kings was based on induction, that is, making it a matter of first priority to determine the actual methods used by ancient scribes and court recorders in recording the years of kings, as described above. Thiele's inductive method, then, was based on inscriptional evidence from the ancient Near East, and not on the presuppositions followed by liberal scholarship. It is Thiele's method that has produced the determinative studies for the chronology of the kingdom period, not the presupposition-based method, so that even those interpreters who continue in late-date theories for the authorship of Scripture have recognized the credibility of Thiele's scholarship in determining the date for the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon, as cited above. The work of Thiele and other textual scholars who have followed an inductive (evidence-based) approach is therefore significant in providing an alternative to the methods of the documentary hypothesis, and the success of that approach has been seen as theologically significant in supporting a high view of the inspiration of Scripture, particularly regarding its integrity in the abundant and complex historical data related to the kingdom period.
If the chronological data of the MT [ Masoretic text ] were not authentic—the actual dates and synchronisms for these various kings—then neither Thiele nor McFall nor anyone else could have constructed a chronology from them that in every case is faithful to the original texts and in every proven instance is consistent with Assyrian and Babylonian chronology. This mathematical demonstration should sit in judgment over the various theories of text formation: If a theory of text formation cannot explain how the chronological data of the MT has produced a chronology that in every respect seems authentic for the four centuries of the monarchic period, then that theory must be rejected as another example of a presupposition-based approach that cannot meet the rational criteria for credibility.
Chronology of the Hebrew kings according to Thiele's work
|Reign as||Length||Age at|
son of Solomon
son of Rehoboam
son of Abijah
son of Asa
son of Jehoshaphat
son of Jehoram
daughter of Ahab
son of Ahaziah
son of Joash
son of Amaziah
son of Azariah
son of Jotham
son of Ahaz
son of Hezekiah
son of Manasseh
son of Amon
son of Josiah
son of Josiah
son of Jehoiakim
son of Josiah
Thiele's chronological reconstruction has not been accepted by all scholars, nor has any other scholar’s work in this field. Yet the work of Thiele and those who followed in his steps has achieved acceptance across a wider spectrum than that of any comparable chronology, so that Assyriologist DJ Wiseman wrote “The chronology most widely accepted today is one based on the meticulous study by Thiele,” and, more recently, Leslie McFall: “Thiele’s chronology is fast becoming the consensus view among Old Testament scholars, if it has not already reached that point.” Although criticism has been leveled at numerous specific points in his chronology, his work has won considerable praise even from those who disagree with his final conclusions. Nevertheless, even scholars sharing Thiele's religious convictions have maintained that there are weaknesses in his argument such as unfounded assumptions and assumed circular reasoning.
In his desire to resolve the discrepancies between the data in the Book of Kings, Thiele was forced to make improbable suppositions… 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… are derived from the chronological data themselves…"
This citation, from a critic of Thiele's system, demonstrates the difference mentioned above between the deductive approach based on presuppositions and an inductive approach based on data, not a priori assumptions. Thiele is criticized here for basing his theories on data or evidence, not on presuppositions.
Despite these criticisms Thiele's methodological treatment remains the typical starting point of scholarly treatments of the subject, and his work is considered to have established the date of the division of the Israelite kingdom. This has found independent support in the work of J. Liver, Frank M. Cross, and others studying the chronology of the kings of Tyre. Thiele's work has found widespread recognition and use across various related scholarly disciplines. His date of 931 BCE, in conjunction with the synchronism between Rehoboam and Pharaoh Shishak in 1 Kings 14:25, is used by Egyptologists to give absolute dates to Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty, and his work has also been used by scholars in other disciplines to establish Assyrian and Babylonian dates. Criticism of Thiele's reconstruction led to further research which has refined or even departed from his synthesis. Notable studies of this type include work by Tadmor and McFall.
Scholarly attitudes towards the Biblical record of the Israelite monarchies from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century were largely disparaging, treating the records as essentially fictional and dismissing the value of the regnal synchronisms. In contrast, modern scholarly attitudes to the monarchical chronology and synchronisms in 1 and 2 Kings has been far more positive subsequent to the work of Thiele and those who have developed his thesis further, a change in attitude to which recent archaeology has contributed.
- Edwin Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, (1st ed.; New York: Macmillan, 1951; 2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965; 3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Kregel, 1983). ISBN 0-8254-3825-X, 9780825438257
- Thiele's chronology is accepted in several recent study Bibles, and is the chronology used for the Hebrew monarchs in the Cambridge Ancient History (T. C. Mitchell, "Israel and Judah until the Revolt of Jehu (931-841 B.C.)" CAH 3, Part 1, p. 445). Thiele's chronology with the slight modifications of Leslie McFall, ("A Translation Guide to the Chronological Data in Kings and Chronicles," Bibliotheca Sacra 148 , pp. 3-45) is accepted in Jack Finegan's influential Handbook of Biblical Chronology, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), p. 249. See also, in the notes below, the list of scholars who accept his date for the beginning of the divided kingdom.
- Mysterious Numbers, 3rd ed., p. 59, n. 17, citing V. Coucke, "Chronique biblique," in Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible, ed. Louis Pirot, vol. 1, 1928.
- Siegfried H. Horn, "The Chronology of King Hezekiah’s Reign," Andrews University Seminary Studies 2 (1964) pp. 48–49.
- New Bible Dictionary, 1st ed., JD Douglas, editor; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, p. 217.
- McFall, Leslie, Translation Guide (PDF), p. 12, archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-07-19.[dead link]
- Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (New York: Meridian Books, 1957) p. 151, originally published as Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Berlin: Reimer, 1878).
- Theodore H. Robinson, A History of Israel (Oxford, 1932) I, p. 454.
- R. K. Harrison, "The Critical Use of the OT," Bibliotheca Sacra (Jan–Mar 1989) pp. 12–20.
- Young, Rodger C (2007), "Inductive and Deductive Methods as Applied to OT Chronology" (PDF), The Master's Seminary Journal (PDF), 18 (1), p. 102.
- Rodger C. Young, review of Christine Tetley's The Reconstructed Chronology of the Divided Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), in Andrews University Seminary Studies 45:2 (2007), pp. 282-283 (Link)
- 'Not all scholars are convinced by this solution, and commentators on the prophetic books often accept that dates can only be approximate.', McConville, G (2002). Exploring the Old Testament, Volume 4: The Prophets (viii). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
- '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, WC (1998). A history of Israel: From the bronze age through the Jewish Wars (293). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
- Donald J Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Intervarsity, 1993), 27.
- Leslie McFall, “The Chronology of Saul and David,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53 (2010) 215, n. 101.
- '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.', Freedman, DN (1996). Vol. 1: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (1006). New York: Doubleday.
- 'Driver described Thiele’s system as an “important work, which comes very near to, if it does not actually reach, a final solution of the problem of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah.” Even a critic of Thiele’s system who accused him of manipulating variable factors to achieve his goal of fitting the biblical evidence into Near Eastern history and who described his work as “more a study in numerical ingenuity than in scholarly research” had to admit that “Thiele’s assumption is validated by the results achieved: inner consistency and harmony and conformity with the fixed dates of ancient Near Eastern history.”', McFall, Leslie, 'A Translation Guide to the Chronological Data in Kings and Chronicles', Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 148. 1991 (589) (4). Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary.
- Galil, Gershon (1996), The Chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah, Brill, p. 4, ISBN 9004106111.
- '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)', Freedman, DN (1996). Vol. 1: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (1006). New York: Doubleday.
- 'Thiele’s work has become a cornerstone of much recent chronological discussion (cf. De Vries IDB 1: 580–99; IDBSup: 161–66);', Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 1: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (1006). New York: Doubleday.
- 'Following Thiele’s revolutionary work, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, a consensus has emerged that the kingdom under Solomon divided at his death in 931 BC. This date must be the starting point for any chronological reconstruction of previous events.', Merrill, Eugene H, ‘Fixed Dates in Patriarchal Chronology’, Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 137. 1980 (547) (237). Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary.
- Finegan, Handbook p. 249.
- Gershon Galil, The Chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah (Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. 14.
- McFall, "Translation Guide," p. 33-34.
- T. C. Mitchell in Cambridge Ancient History, "Israel and Judah until the Revolt of Jehu," pp. 445-446.
- Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (New York: Free Press, 2001), p. 131 (Link).
- J. Liver, "The Chronology of Tyre at the Beginning of the First Millennium B.C.," Israel Exploration Journal 3 (1953), p. 113-120
- Frank M. Cross, "An Interpretation of the Nora Stone," Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research 208 (1972) p. 17, n. 11.
- A summary of these studies is found in William H. Barnes, Studies in the Chronology of the Divided Monarchy of Israel (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), pp. 29-55, and also in Rodger C. Young, "Three Verifications of Thiele's Date for the Beginning of the Divided Kingdom," Andrews University Seminary Studies 45 (2007), pp. 179-187.
- '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. As Strand pointed out, this outcome was quite the opposite of what some of Thiele’s critics asserted, namely that Thiele merely juggled the scriptural data until he could match generally accepted dates from the surrounding nations.', Young, Roger, 'Inductive And Deductive Methods As Applied To OT Chronology', Master's Seminary Journal Volume 18. 2007 (1) (112–113). Sun Valley, CA: The Master's Seminary.
- 'H. Tadmor (EncMiqr 4: 245–310) bases his chronology upon considerations similar to those of Begrich and Thiele, but assumes far fewer systemic fluctuations; items which are inexplicable are regarded as late editorial calculations or errors.', Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 1: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (1006). New York: Doubleday.
- 'While also somewhat conservative in his approach to the figures in MT, Tadmor’s pragmatic reconstruction delves into the process by which the redactor(s) of Kings compiled their chronological framework from heterogeneous materials, sometimes leaving traces in textual inconsistencies (Tadmor EncMiqr 4: 45).', Freedman, D. N. (1996). Vol. 1: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (1006). New York: Doubleday.
- '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.', Young, Roger, 'Inductive And Deductive Methods As Applied To OT Chronology', Master's Seminary Journal Volume 18. 2007 (1) (105–106). Sun Valley, CA: The Master's Seminary.
- 'R. Kittel: “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.. . .”5 Theodore H. Robinson: “Wellhausen is surely right in believing that the synchronisms in Kings are worthless, being merely a late compilation from the actual figures given.”6 S. R. and G. R. Driver: “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.”7 Karl Marti: “Almost along the whole line, the discrepancy between synchronisms and years of reign is incurable.”8 TMSJ 18:1 (Spring 2007) p. 102 Cyrus Gordon: “The numerical errors in the Books of Kings have defied every attempt to ungarble them. Those errors are largely the creation of the editors. . . . [T]he editors did not execute the synchronisms skillfully.”9', Young, Roger C, 'Inductive And Deductive Methods As Applied To OT Chronology', Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 48. 2005 (2) (233). Lynchburg, VA: The Evangelical Theological Society.
- ' 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. That was the logical outgrowth of Thiele’s work, and it attained a holy grail that had been sought for twenty-two centuries, namely a rational explanation of the chronological data of the Hebrew monarchies that was consistent with the scriptural texts used to construct the chronology, and also consistent with several fixed dates from Assyrian and Babylonian history.', Young, Roger, 'Inductive And Deductive Methods As Applied To OT Chronology', Master's Seminary Journal Volume 18. 2007 (1) (105–106). Sun Valley, CA: The Master's Seminary.
- '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, L. L. (2007). Reflections on the Discussion. In L. L. Grabbe (Ed.), Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty (L. L. Grabbe, Ed.) (337). London: T&T Clark.