Monday, January 01, 2018

Royal chronology

Christian apologist Jonathan McLatchie recently responded to a Muslim critic:

I'd like to make some additional observations. 

i) Two standard treatments:

ii) As Jonathan points out, some numerical discrepancies are due to transcriptional errors. 

iii) Likewise, some nominal discrepancies may be due to scribal errors, viz. transposing letters in the consonantal text.

iv) Some nominal differences may be due to orthographical variations on the same name. Or nicknames.

v) Sometimes Scripture uses round numbers.

vi) Some numbers may be idiomatic rather than literal. In 1 Chron 11:11:

"Thirty" is probably akin to the name of an elite force, a palace guard unit or the like, and is not to be taken too precisely. E. Merrill, A Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles (Kregel 2015), 168. 

vii) Some numbers may be hyperbolic:

viii) Some differences are due to different selection criteria.

ix) We need to define "error". Since the Chronicler was using 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings as a major source, assuming that our MSS preserve the original names and numbers, differences would be intentional rather than due to ignorance or accidental mistakes, since he was working directly from these sources (among others). At this distance we may not be able to reconstruct his editorial rationale, but he knows what he's doing.

It made sense to him, and it presumably made sense to the original audience. The fact that a modern reader finds some of this puzzling just means some of the background information or contextual understanding has been lost to us. That's to be expected when we study an ancient text. Consider commentaries on Dante's Divine Comedy, and how Dante scholars are sometimes at a loss to identify Dante's historical allusions, even though that's much more recent, with more material surviving from that time and place.

x) The objection regarding chronological discrepancies has been around at least since the 19C, when Bishop Colenso made a big deal about that. However, biblical archeology has uncovered the fact that the issue is more complex, and resolvable in principle, although our surviving sources are necessarily spotty. The basic principle to keep in mind is that the divided  kingdoms of Israel and Judah might employ different calendars and regnal-year systems. Moreover, these could alternate in time or place within or between the rival kingdoms. As one scholar explains:

The first thing to realize is that the chronological data in Kings in particular–regnal years, synchronisms, etc.–follow normal Near Eastern usage. They cannot be understood by just totting up figures as if this were some modern, "Western" composition. That way lies confusion, as many have found to their cost. Ancient regnal years were calculated in one or another of two main ways, simply because kings never normally died conveniently at midnight on the last day of the last month of the year, so making their regnal years identical with the ordinary calendar year. So, as in Mesopotamia, one might use accession-year dating. When the throne changed hands during the civil  year, the whole year was (in effect) credited  to the king who had died, the new man treating it simply as his "accession year" (a year zero), and counting his Year 1 from the next New Year's Day. On this system, if a list says a king reigned eight years, then eight years should be credited to him. 

But in Egypt the classical system was the opposite,: i.e., nonaccession-year dating. In this case, when one king died and another ascended the throne, the whole year was credited to the new man (as Year 1, straightaway), and none of it to his recently deceased predecessor. In such cases a king who is known to have reached his eight year can only be credited with seven full years…These phenomena do affect the calculation of regnal years in Israel and Judah.

On the Egyptian method a king reaches his seventh year ("seven years"), but it is credited to his successor; so we subtract one, giving him a true reign of only six years. On the Mesopotamian method a king reaches his sixth year ("six years"), which is credited to him (merely=accession for next man), so he has a true reign of six years, nothing to subtract. These usages apply as much to Hebrew kings as to their neighbors, and cannot be ignored. 

[For instance] Yet within that span our data in Kings give two reigns in Israel, Ahaziah at two years and J(eh)roam at twelve years, which makes fourteen years to our Western minds, On the Mesopotamian accession-year system, this would also be true. But the founder of Israel, Jeroboam I, came not from Mesopotamia but from Egypt to found his kingdom (1 Kgs 11:40; 12:2), and so he may well have brought the Egyptian usage with him. Because, on the nonaccession-year usage, Ahaziah would have only one full year and J(eh)roam eleven full years–total, twelve years, fitting neatly into the twelve years from 853 to 841. Then Ahab and his predecessors would also have used this mode. So six kings with eighty-four stated years had actually one full year each less, giving us eighty-four years - six years = seventy-eight years, back to 931/930, for the accession of Jeroboam I, and by inference that of his rival, Rehoboam of Judah.  

We have in practice to deal with three distinct calendars: (1) the ancient and Hebrew spring-to-spring calendar (months Nisan to next Nisan), (2) the ancient and Hebrew autumn-to-autumn ("fall") calendar (months Tishri to next Tishri), and (3) our modern winter-to-winter calendar (months January to December, next January), which we have to overlay upon the old calendars to "translate" them into our current usage. Any attempt to work out the two lines of Hebrew kings, assuming that they both used the same ancient calendar (whether spring/Nisan or autumn/Tishri), soon falls apart, as neither the regnal years nor the synchronisms given between the two kingdoms make sense on this procedure. It is clear that the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah used different calendars, one Nisan to Nisan, the other Tishri to Tishri). But which used which? 

Again, any attempt to impose the same type of regnal year-count (accession or nonaccession) on both kingdoms overall is doomed to failure, and has to be discarded. Each used either form of year-count under particular circumstances. 

Only very minor miscopying need be assumed in (at most!) barely three instances out of scores of figures, and these may simply be correct figures not yet properly understood. 

A few problems remain that may need further reconsideration…If at some period years were expressed by numerals (e.g. Egyptian hieratic tens, and use of strokes for units), it is quite possible to "lose" an odd unit (29>28; 12>11) in the course of scribal recopying…Here 2 Chron 9:25 retains the best reading, "4,000 stalls" (arba'at alafim), for that of 1 Kings 4:26, reading "40,000 stalls" (arba'im elef), in which m has replaced the feminine singular. Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003), 26-29, 508.

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