Can an Accurate Chronology of Scripture Be Constructed?

Question from a Site Viewer

Creating an accurate chronology of Scripture . . . Is it a worthwhile endeavor?

I have spent countless hours constructing what I feel is an accurate chronology of Scripture. Please review it for me. Biblical experts disagree with me but I have taken all information straight from the Bible. The Bible is my authority. The experts can say what they will.

Tim’s Answer

We share the same high view of Scripture that the truths of Scripture are true whether or not other scholars accept them as true. But from that shared belief, I do not necessarily agree that God intended for us to construct a comprehensive chronology of Scripture from the scattered chronological references in Scripture. I note that Jesus does not look to the Old Testament for such a chronology. In fact, I suspect that He may find it a little puzzling about the matters that tend to be our focus. His focus was clearly on teaching people to live with one another as ambassadors of the kingdom through loving one another, encouraging one another, focusing on the things above, and being a blessing in practical ways to this world. I find that the epistles share the focus of Christ as well.

Thus, I do not think on judgment day that we want to be known for having worked out the best systematic chronology of Scripture or even the best systematic theology of Scripture. What we want to be known for are the things Jesus taught and the things His disciples taught as we find recorded in the pages of sacred Scripture. These things are living in loving relationships with others, helping the poor, ministering to the needy and the oppressed, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and teaching “all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” as Jesus says in the Great Commission. Pure religion is to minister to the widows and orphans and keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27). Thus, while working out detailed systems may appeal to the analytical side of some of us (and I admit that these things can quickly draw me in), I have not found such to be very profitable to enhancing spiritual life or the intimacy of my walk with Christ.

Even if I were to engage in trying to develop a systematic chronology of Scripture, there are many problems that I would face that would require me to make assumptions, assumptions that I could not prove. For instance, if I follow the Orthodox Bible which uses the Septuagint for the Old Testament, I would have completely different dates for the times from Adam to Abraham than what I have in the standard Biblical texts we find in most of our English versions which are based on the Masoretic Hebrew text developed around 1000 A.D. I would have to decide which of these to follow.

I would need to decide whether God’s message to Abraham about his offspring being slaves in another land for 400 years meant that Israel was in Egypt 400 years or that Israel was in Canaan and Egypt 400 years. From the time God told Abraham this 400 year period (Abraham was 85 or less at the time (Genesis 12:4 and 16:3)), until the children of Israel went down to Egypt, there is a period of time equal to the sum of the following:

  • From the message to the birth of Isaac – 15 years (Genesis 12:4; 16:3; 21:5)
  • From the birth of Isaac to the birth of Jacob – 60 years (Genesis 25:26)
  • From the birth of Jacob until the sojourn to Egypt – 130 years (Genesis 47:9)
  • Total time – 205 years

Thus, if one follows most English versions, the time between God’s message to Abraham and the time Israel came out of Egypt would be these 205 years plus 430 years in Egypt (Exodus 12:40-41), or a total of 635 years. Again, if we follow the Septuagint reading, we would have only 430 years total since the Septuagint adds the words “and Canaan” in the Exodus text. And Paul speaks of the period between the promise and the law as being 430 years (Galatians 3:17), apparently following the Septuagint chronology. But again, once must make an assumption as to the actual time period that may or may not be correct. And is there a reason why we accept the Septuagint for the time from Abraham to the Exodus but reject the Septuagint for the time from Adam to Abraham. These are all assumptions we must make.

Then there is Paul’s reference to 450 years in Acts 13:19. One must make an assumption as to the time period this references, as Paul does not clearly state when this time begins or ends.

From the time of the Exodus to the time of the Jephthah is 300 years (Judges 11:26) and to the time of Solomon is 480 years (1 Kings 6:1). But if one adds up the years of the judges, one gets over 400 years besides the years unaccounted for in relation to some of the named judges and the times between the end of one judge and the beginning of the next oppression. Add to this the time of Eli (unknown) and the time of Samuel (he is an old man before Saul is anointed), as well as the reign of Saul and the reign of David, and we have at least another 140 years (60 for Samuel and 40 each for Saul and David). So, to the time of Solomon, we have at least 540 years without even counting the time between the elders who outlived Joshua back to the time of the Exodus, which we know is more than 50 years (Caleb was 38 when they came out of Egypt and he was 89 at the end of the conquest). In total, from the time of the Exodus until Solomon, if we add up the years that are recorded and ignore those that are not, we have almost 600 years. Yet, Solomon says that there were only 480 years. So there must be some overlaps in dates. Thus, any pinpointing of dates between the the Conquest and Solomon again requires us to make assumptions. And we may or may not be right.

The same problem arises with respect to the chronologies of the kings of Israel and Judah. If we simply add up the years, we end up with more years than are possible. So we again must make assumptions as to the co-regency of some of the rulers.

We also must make assumptions about when Daniel’s chronology begins. Does it begin with Cyrus’ decree or does it begin with Nehemiah? There are nearly 100 years difference between these. And, as I pointed out earlier, we must make assumptions about when Esther lived.

There are many other assumptions that must be made before one can form a complete chronology of Scripture. There may be reasons why a person may think their assumptions are correct in each particular instance, but the bottom line is that the assumptions are just that — assumptions. They are not necessarily Biblical truth. What we develop may or may not be true, but simply because we make certain assumptions and develop a particular chronology does not mean that Scripture itself is at odds with archaeological dating. We should avoid creating that false dichotomy.

All of this is to say, I think it is possible to reach different conclusions from the dating information Scripture gives to us. I am sorry that I do not have the time to do a thorough review of the assumptions you have made in reaching your dates or to provide a critique of the same. Ultimately, however, I return to the focus of Christ. I do not believe that the timelines were given to allow us to develop a systematic dating chronology, but rather they are given in each particular passage to give us background necessary to understand the truth being communicated in that particular passage. And those truths deal with the kingdom of God, as revealed to us through Jesus Christ. May He always be your focus.

a pilgrim,
chronology of scripture

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