Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Biblical chronology

James Barr is a learned liberal. But, ironically, he's so liberal that he feels free to defend
conservative positions.

Here are some excerpts of a lecture he gave on Biblical chronology:


For the history of ideas, then, we may begin from this point: most people know only one fact about biblical chronology, namely, that James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, living in the mid- seventeenth century, calculated that the creation of the world took place in the year 4004 BC and, to be precise, on Sunday 23 October in that year. And so he did. But this fact, in so far as it is known, is generally very ill understood. If people mention it at all, they mention it as if it made Ussher into a crank, in the modern vulgar expression a crackpot, and as if Ussher in doing this was doing something peculiar or exceptional, something quite extraordinary which only a totally misguided person would undertake.

If people so think, it only shows how little they appreciate the older religious and humanistic culture, and indeed, as I shall show, the older scientific culture, and how far removed the modern world is from that culture. For Ussher was in no way exceptional in believing that he knew the year in which the world was created: such knowledge was entirely normal in his time and for a considerable period after him. Ussher was only one in a long series of scholars who concerned themselves with biblical chronology, and many of them were very great scholars, indeed they included some of the greatest
minds of all time.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but it is not so: let me give you three names: Martin Luther, a religious genius of enormous importance; Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), by far the greatest classical scholar of his time and among the greatest there has ever been; and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), certainly the dominant scientific genius over a long period of the world’s history. None of these men had the slightest doubt that the date of creation was knowable and was known. It was there in the Bible for anyone to read. Everyone knew this.

That understanding of the universe, based upon biblical figures coupled with certain other data, was nothing unusual, but was part of the traditional culture inherited over two thousand years and more. The world was created by God, quite suddenly and completely, in a span of seven days as narrated in Genesis, and all this was by our standards of today not so very long ago.

It is true that scholars could not agree on the exact figure; but that did not prevent them from agreeing that the exact figure could be known. Even if people disagreed about the precise date, a precise date could be known, and there was no doubt that the world had been created somewhere in the period from 6000 BC down to 3500 BC.

There were in fact two main groups of dates. One, the earlier, had the origin of the world round about 5500 BC; the other, the later, had it just before 4000 BC or, more commonly, just after, around 3900 plus. The higher date was the eastern figure, and it was so because the eastern current of Christianity followed the figures of the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament, which had higher figures in Genesis 5 and 11; the lower was widespread in the west, especially after the. Vulgate of St Jerome familiarized western Christianity with the figures derived from the standard Hebrew text itself. Judaism, we may note, had the same tradition, though again with different (and lower) figures: this year, 1986-87, is the
Jewish year 5747, i.e. 5747 from creation, which implies that creation took place in the year that by Christian dating is 3761 BC.

This was an argument that went back a long way in time. Some ancient nations were sensitive to claims of antiquity. The Egyptians, Herodotus tells us, thought before the time of Psammetichus that they were the earliest of mankind. For the Jews the matter was a central concern, not least because Egypt was by far the greatest centre of Jewish population within the Greek-speaking world. It was exactly this problem that interested Josephus in his tract against Apion: people said that the Jews were newcomers on the scene of world history; they were without status on the cultural level of civilisation, quite unlike the Greeks.

Not at all, said Josephus, the Jews have been here all the time, and, unlike the Greeks, who have a lot of different and contradictory books, the Jews have one precise and unified history, one single narrative which goes back to the creation of the world about 5000 years before. Moses himself (Jos. Antiquities 1.16) was born 2000 years back, at a time when the Greeks did not suppose that even their gods had been born, much less that the actions of mortals had been recorded. And so Josephus goes on to survey all this in detail, how for example the flood began on the 27th day of the second month in the year 2262 after the birth of Adam. The detail of biblical chronology was a matter of normal knowledge and conversation, and this continued so up to a few centuries ago.

One other note about Josephus: his time from creation to flood is on the high side at 2262 years, for the Hebrew text as we now have it adds up to 1656 years for the same period. Josephus used the Greek text (or conceivably, but less probably, a Hebrew text which in this respect corresponded with the Greek), and we have already mentioned that the Greek text displayed a higher set of figures. And it is possible, though this cannot be certainly proved, that the higher figures derived from just the motive that we have mentioned: the desire to show that the Bible went back to an earlier date than the records or legends of other nations were supposed to do. In other words, the figures in the Greek Genesis were adjusted upwards, in comparison with the Hebrew (and, still more, in comparison with the Samaritan text of the Hebrew, which will be mentioned shortly), in order to make it clearer, especially in Egypt where this conflict was at its highest, that the Jewish Bible went back farther than any other comparable source.

And this leads us on to our next major point: namely that this powerful and durable tradition, under which the biblical figures were understood to be chronologically precise and to furnish a basis for calculation from creation down to later events, was quite correct. It interpreted the Bible’s intention rightly. This is what these biblical figures were intended to do, or some of them at any rate.

From the genealogies of Genesis the reader could reckon the time down to the flood; from the flood he could reckon on to the exodus, and from there to the building of Solomon’s temple. The figures were meant to be exact and to be taken literally. They do not mean anything at all unless they mean actual numbers of years. Thus to say that Abraham was 75 years old when he migrated from Haran into Canaan (Gen. 12.4) means exactly that, namely that he was 75 years old at that point, and to say that Israel’s stay in Egypt lasted 430 years (Exodus 12.40) means exactly that, that there were 430 years from the time they went in until the time when they came out again.

But we have to be aware of the difference between intention and historical truth. All discussion of this matter has been bedeviled by the assertion that the chronological data of the Bible, and especially those of the earlier chapters of Genesis, are ‘not to be taken literally.’ According to this argument, when we read that Methuselah lived to the high age of 969 years, we are to suppose that the writer did not mean 969 years but something different. Now I submit that this is obviously false. The biblical writers worked seriously on these figures, and they meant 969 years for Methuselah: that was what was special about him, he was not anything else of note: they meant 969 years for him, just as they meant 120 years for the life of Moses (Deut. 34.7) and just as they meant two years after the earthquake in Amos 1.1.

When, in modern times, people began to say that these passages were ‘not to be taken literally’, this was really a cowardly expedient which enabled them to avoid saying that, though they were literally intended, they were not literally true. They were literally intended: they were chronological statements of numbers of years and made no sense otherwise.

Or, to put it in another way, we often say that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, and from our point of view that is of course the case; but from the point of view of the biblical writers and their public, as far as concerns the chronological data, it was intended as scientifically true, and the dates and figures do not have any use or any meaning if they were not so intended. There is just no point in saying that the children of Israel lived for 430 years in Egypt if you really mean that they lived there for 185 years or for 209.

To say this is not to deny that the figures may be also symbolic: some of them certainly are. But this is not a symbolism that departs from the literal sense, it is the symbolism of the literal sense to take the most obvious case, that of Enoch, who lived 365 years and then, instead of dying, was taken away by God, it is just obvious that 365 years, the number of full days in a solar year, and a period quite different in length from the lifespan of others in the same list, is ‘symbolic’ in some way, but the symbolism is the symbolism of the fact that Enoch lived that number of years, or, more correctly, the symbolism of the fact that the biblical writer thought that he lived that number of years, of actual years.

The clarity of the chronology at the beginning is well symbolised by the reckoning in AM years. The Old Testament does not really reckon back to creation, it sees the chronology as God sees it, as it were: it begins with creation as if creation is known. AM years work thus in the opposite way from our BC/AD years: with BC/AD years the datum point is, as it were, somewhere in the middle. As one goes farther back, away from 1 BC or 1 AD, back to 1000 BC or 2000 BC, one accepts that one is moving farther away into the mists of prehistory; but with AM years the early times, those close to creation itself, appear as the firmest ground.

This fits in with another factor, namely, that the Bible, taken alone, does not give us a chronology, not one by which one can reckon back from post-biblical times. From the Bible, taken in itself, you cannot tell how long ago Solomon lived. Once you get back to Solomon, the biblical chronology will count back to creation; but from Solomon to Alexander the Great, or from Solomon to Christ, the Bible simply does not tell you. The New Testament itself gives at most only a very vague idea of the temporal distance that separated it from key events of the Old. To make any sort of precise entry into the biblical chronology, one has to have a synchronism from ‘profane’ history, a point known from Greek or Roman history or from Mesopotamian sources that is also dated in the Bible in a mode connectable with the chronological chain that goes back to creation. There is thus, since the Hebrew kingdoms, no possibility of a totally biblical or totally sacred chronology: the essential link depends, and was always known to depend, on going outside the Bible for information.

Thus Ussher’s chronology was never a purely biblical calculation, as he himself well knew; and the use of links with secular history was nothing new, for the gospels themselves, in so far as they furnish chronological indications for the birth and life of Jesus, do so by reference to the years of the Roman emperors and other such data. For James Ussher the essential synchronism was the year of the death of Nebuchadnezzar and his succession by his son Amel-Marduk.

The details of this, however, can be left aside: our only point is this, the general hermeneutical one, that all biblical chronology, when practised from after biblical times, necessarily depended on non-biblical data for an entry into the biblical. There could never be any purely biblical chronology, or if there was one it would hang in the air, having no point of contact with the ground of known historical sequence. Chronology therefore worked only where there was some knowledge of Greek and Roman history and this, of course, all traditional Christian chronologists had in some measure.

The loss of sense for biblical chronology, which we have just sketched, fell most heavily on the earliest portions of the data, especially on those in Genesis. One needed to believe the Bible in general, but not the details of Genesis. The epoch-making volume Lux Mundi (1889), which is usually held to mark a stage in the acceptance of a more critical approach to scripture, made exactly this difference: the gospels could be relied on as completely historical, but the earlier chapters of Genesis should not be taken too literally.

The picture of the biblical chronology, under which the world had only a short and finite timespan back into the past, was implicitly abandoned. The chronological materials of Genesis were no longer taken seriously, and even most biblical scholars failed to perceive that they were a very important vehicle of theological ideas and a highly pervasive element in the entire thought- structure of the Bible. By the mid-twentieth century things had gone even farther, and biblical theologians like John Marsh and J.A.T. Robinson, insisting on what they regarded as the ‘biblical view’ of time and of the world, were arguing that the Bible had no interest at all in ‘chronological time’ and sweeping aside any importance that might still be attached to the chronological passages. Thus even the mentality of biblical chronology was to be abandoned.

But if the Bible is infallible, these figures must be a central part of biblical truth: for they are not just isolated and occasional phenomena, but recur again and again and are a central structural feature in the totality of scripture.


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