Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Biblical chronology"

I'm posting my side of some recent correspondence with a friend:

Sorry, but it seems to me that you're repeating the same conflation.

i) The Bible gives us an aggregate interval. The Bible itself doesn't tell us where to place that interval on a universal timeline. You yourself are tacitly taking 2011 as your terminus ad quem, then working back from that frame of reference.

But you didn't get that timeline from Scripture.

ii) Moreover, we're using a range of standard dating techniques to sequence historical events and map them onto a calendar. To say something happened in 4000 BC takes our dating techniques for granted to establish an absolute chronology, which, in turn, anchors a relative chronology.

So why assume standard dating techniques are sufficiently reliable to date creation or the flood (if we plug biblical data into the methodology), but too unreliable in mainstream cosmology or geology? Would it not be more consistent to be consistently agnostic about our dating techniques?


1. I am not tacitly using 2011. I am just saying that the Bible gives an interval of roughly 4000 years between Adam and Christ, taking BC in the literal sense of "Before Christ". I presume nothing about how many years have transpired from Christ to the present.

i) In standard usage, "4000 BC" is a calendar date which presupposes a standard calendar extending from the present into the past.

ii) In God and Cosmos, you say God made the physical universe about 6000 years ago (p167).  That involves taking the present as your indexical terminus ad quem, then counting back from the present through the past to an absolute terminus ad quo.

iii) A 4000-year interval only gives you an internal chronology, whereas you are seeking an absolute chronology, viz. how old is the world?

2. The dating techniques used to get from Christ (or Nebuchadnezzar) to us rely primarily on human, historical records--not geological or astronomical methods.

If all you want is a raw interval. But that’s insufficient to give you either a relative chronology or an absolute chronology. If you wish to synchronize that interval with world history, then you must utilize the dating methods of biblical archeology, viz. regnal years, astronomical calendars (i.e. Egyptian Sothic calendar), Mesopotamian astronomical notices (e.g. the phases of Venus, lunar/solar eclipses), dendrochronology, thermoluminescence, radiocarbon, fluorine, potassium-argon, archaeomagnetism, collagen content, lithic/ceramic typology, stratigraphy, palynology, varve dating, &c.

The question is where does the interval occur in relation to a universal timeline.

3. I have no problem tentatively accepting any dating method as long as it is not contradicted by Scripture.

Well, that seems makeshift. Is a dating technique reliable except when it happens to contradict Scripture? Wouldn't it be more logical to conclude that if a dating technique is unreliable when we can test it against some external check (e.g. Scripture), then the method is generally unreliable rather than generally reliable? Is it just a happy coincidence that it's unreliable when we can check it against Scripture, but reliable the rest of the time?

4. It seems to me that Scripture clearly places an interval of about 4000 years between the first man and Christ, rather than the 40,000 years (or 2 million years) obtained from geological dating methods. Hence the assumptions inherent in such dating methods must be flawed.

i) Actually, I’m not convinced that Biblical genealogies are meant to be exhaustive. Genealogies serve many different potential purposes. However, I think that’s something of a side issue, so I won’t press the point.

As you know, Green’s argument was intended to be a solution to the perceived problem which 19C scientific time scales posed for Christian theology. But his solution is obsolete inasmuch as the problem has changed, since contemporary mainstream cosmology and genealogy now demands vastly longer intervals. A solution adapted to a defunct situation.

ii) Apropos (i), I’m not claiming that gaps in genealogies can make room for millions and billions of years. I’m just discussing your hybrid methodology, which must tacitly make use of modern calendars and selective appeal to ANE chronology to synchronize OT history with world history.  


There’s a cluster of issues:

i) To begin with, you’ve already conceded the primary contention of my post. Genesis doesn’t tell you that God made Adam and Eve c. 4000 BC. Even if we grant all of your operating assumptions, you must rely on extrabiblical as well as biblical information to arrive at that date.

ii) Suppose I know Shakespeare died at the age of 52. That gives me an interval, but that interval doesn’t tell me when he lived, when he was born, or when he died. The interval doesn’t tell me if he’s earlier or later than Thomas Aquinas.

So an interval isn’t even sufficient for a relative chronology, much less an absolute chronology. Where does the interval lie on a universal timeline?

iii) How do I know what year I’m living in? That depends.

a) At one level, that’s a calendrical convention. It’s simply a case of where the calendar assigns me at any given time.

In addition, I need access to information to tell me what year it is. In 2011, with the electronic and print media, that’s easy to determine the date.

iv) Suppose I walked through a time portal which took me back to my hometown during the Sixties. Even if, for some odd reason, I didn’t have access to a newspaper or the nightly news broadcast, I’d still have a rough idea, within a few years, of when it was–based on cars, haircuts, style of clothing, the presence or absence of certain buildings, what my parents looked like at that age, and so on.

v) Suppose I walked through a time portal which took me back 500 years to the future site of my hometown. In that event I’d have no idea the year, decade, century, or even millennium.

If I had access to astronomical equipment I might be able to calculate the year based on the position of the stars.

vi) If we have a chain of dated events, or sequential events, then any event within that interlocking series of events will have a specific location along the timeline. It will be bounded on either side by earlier and later events.

But a calendar is just an abstract series of days, weeks, months, and years. The calendar doesn’t generally correlate a particular event with a particular day or date, unless it’s something like a holiday which always takes place on the same date.

And in the course of history, there are many days for which we have no recorded events to fill that slot. In that case, it isn’t always easy or even possible to correlate an isolated event with a specific day or year–for we don’t know what went before or after. It isn’t surrounded by other events which help us to position it in time.

vii) Likewise, there’s a distinction between days and dates. In a sense, Christmas has the same date every year. But suppose we were using the Sothic calendar. Because that loses a day every four years, Christmas wouldn’t always be on the same day even though it was always on the same date. Eventually it would move through the seasons.

viii) Likewise, years are composed of days and hours. But there are different ways of calculating days and hours. Does a day begin and end from dawn to dawn or dusk to dusk? The Bible alternates between both systems.

Likewise, is the calendar a lunar calendar or solar calendar? The Bible uses both. However, lunar, solar, or lunisolar calendars only give you a relative chronology, not an absolute chronology.

ix) A day may have the same number of hours, but in ancient times, up through the middle ages, you had variable hours. A day was subdivided into equal fractions. Each hour had the same relative duration (in relation to the others). Yet their absolute duration varied with seasonable oscillations in the annular declination of the sun. The longer the day–the longer the hours; the shorter the day –the shorter the hours.

If you were measuring time by a sundial, that wouldn’t be the same as modern units of time. It’s not just the technology that’s different, but the temporal metric. Only in modern times do hours have a set duration.

x) You don’t have “biblical data to Christ.” For there’s a sizable gap between the OT and the NT–the intertestamental period. How does archeology date that period?

Moreover, I don’t see where you have specific chronological data in the OT to calculate the timespan of the entire OT.

xi) How historians come up with a universal timeline is an interesting question. When available, I assume they rely on things like letters, diaries, and the work of other historians who preceded them. But it wouldn’t be feasible to go back and independently double-check the entire timeline they’ve inherited from previous scholars.

xii) We see the difficulty in dating things when we observe conservative scholars attempting to date the books of the Bible, or the life of Christ, or the life of Paul. To be able to correlate a recorded event in Scripture with a universal timeline requires a certain amount of extrabiblical information. That information can be reliable, unreliable, or nonexistent. It’s pretty hit-and-miss. Sometimes we have it, sometimes we don’t.

Take Amos 1:1. That time marker (i.e. the earthquake) would be recognizable to the original audience, but it’s much harder for us to pin down. It may possibly correspond to destruction levels at stratum VI of Hazor, which one field archeologist dates to c. 760 BC. But even if that correlation is sound, how to date that stratum only pushes the question back a step. And that, in turn, relies on the standard dating methods of modern archeology, such as the law of superposition (i.e. lower strata are earlier than higher strata).

xiii) I don’t know quite what you mean by “historical records” for the last 2000 years. Unless historical records come with dates, the historical records must, themselves, be dated. So that pushes the question back a step.

xiv) If you mean Usher didn’t need to use biblical archeology to tote up the genealogies, that’s true. But his overall chronology does make use of extrabiblical information.

xv) Keep in mind, once again, that I don’t concede your assumption about gapless genealogies. I granted that for the sake of argument, in part because it doesn’t affect my primary objection regarding extrabiblical supplementation, and in part because the perceived apologetic value of Green’s analysis has been mooted by subsequence scientific developments. (Not that I think those developments can’t be challenged in their own right, but that was Green’s operating assumption.)

xvi) You say, “Such dating is quite distinct from cosmological and geological methods (including varves, radio-carbon, etc.). These rely on theoretical extrapolation beyond the observational data to eras well beyond recorded history.”

Well, that’s true for any reconstructive science, be it archeology, forensic anthropology, etc. That leaves us with possibilities or probabilities rather than certainties.

It also depends on the specific assumptions or methods of the guild. Are they assuming the uniformity of nature? Methodological naturalism? 


i) Years are composed of days and hours. Since you're trying to operate with a "biblical chronology," that involves the question of how the Bible defines a day or hour. How the Bible measures the passage of time. What type of calendar a Bible writer was using.

ii) Likewise, when you ask a very general question such as how I know I'm living in 2011, then the answer can take us in many different directions. While that might be tangential to your primary concern, I'm just following you where you chose to take the conversation.

iii) Seems to me that you've been moving the goal post in the course of our exchange. You originally said Genesis dates the creation of Adam and Eve to 4000 BC, invoking the genealogies (Gen 5 and 11) to substantiate your claim.

After that you shifted to other chronological notices in the rest of the OT as well as the NT.

After that you made allowance for the use of extrabiblical chronological sources to bring us up to 2011.

You originally said "All I am claiming is that Genesis (or, better, the Bible as a whole), places the creation of Adam roughly 4000 years before the birth of Christ. "

But when you also say the world is about 6,000 years old, that's not all your claiming.

Likewise, you said "I presume nothing about how many years have transpired from Christ to the present."

But then you keep insisting that about 2000 years transpired from Christ to the present. So you do presume how many years transpired from Christ to the present.

You said you're "not tacitly using 2011," yet you gave a calendar date of c. 4000 AD as your terminus ad quo, which presupposes a continuous calendar. And since you say about 6000 years have elapsed in toto, that means you're tacitly using 2011 as your terminus ad quem.

I'm trying to adapt my responses to the moving target you present. You seem to be improvising your position as we go along.

I also don't see you distinguishing between relative and absolute chronology, although I've drawn attention to the relevance of that distinction on more than one occasion now.

iv) A basic problem is that you and I are talking at cross-purposes. I raised a narrow objection to your initial claim. Your "biblical chronology" is not a simon-pure biblical chronology. It implicitly includes extrabiblical sources to fill in the blanks. That's not something you can derive from the genealogical information in Gen 5 and 11, or the OT generally, or the NT. 

It's important for us to distinguish what the Bible actually teaches about chronology from an eclectic theoretical construct or hypothetical reconstruction that makes use of Biblical and extrabiblical information alike.

We need to distinguish belief in Scripture from belief in something above and beyond Scripture.

By contrast, you seem to be focussed on debating the merits of conventional dating methods and assumptions in mainstream cosmology and geology. That's a worthwhile debate, and Christians who affirm a young-earth chronology have intellectually respectable strategies available to them to challenge establishment science on that front.  


  1. Have you read over Rodger C. Young's materials on OT chronology? He may offer some unique perspectives for you.

  2. The one prominent statement in that exchange, one sided, is this one:

    "But you didn't get that timeline from Scripture."

    It always comes back to that, "from Scripture", now doesn't it? :)

  3. Here are links to two articles that allow for gaps in the genealogies of Genesis. Both are dated works. I think the 2nd one might be the one Steve mentioned in the blog as being obsolete.

    The Genesis Genealogies by John Millam


    Primeval Chronology: Are There Gaps in the Biblical Genealogies? by William Henry Green


  4. I read those articles a long time ago. I would even agree with them at points. I grant there may be gaps with in places in the genealogies, but not gaps that allow for thousands of years in between, which is what Ross and his minions have to believe in order for their apologetic to be synchronized with modern, secular chronologies.

  5. If you want to read a quite different approach to the Bible's chronology you can go to EzekielMasterKey.com and on the right side under Research Materials click on "Ezekiel 4. The Master Key to unlock the Bible’s chronology". The book describe how it is possible to reconstruct (step by step)the chronology using Ezekiel 4. Yves P.

  6. Very interesting post. Is the person you are corresponding with here John Byl?