Chronology is the sequential order in which past events occur. Historical chronology thus arranges events in their order of occurrence in time, and is often used in to determine the dates of historical events and people.
For instance, one might ask what year Jesus was born or in what year John the Baptist began his preaching. The way the historian might come to an answer is to consider other data, for example, the years in which Augustus or Tiberius was Roman emperor, in which year Herod was king of Judaea, and in which year Quirinius conducted a census in Syria. Using this data the historian can try to pinpoint the relevant gospel narratives in history. Historians have used this data to end up dating Jesus’ birth to 4 BC, since it was the year in which Herod the Great died. However, historical chronology is not always certain and in recent estimates some have argued for a date some years earlier (1).
Another biblical example concerns the destruction of Solomon’s temple. For instance, what was the year in which Solomon’s temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar? On the basis of non-biblical historical data the historian might come to the date of 586 BC. Here the science of archaeology also proves helpful since examining artifacts, rather than only written sources, might be able to provide a more precise range of dates. This enables the historian to date historical written sources and objects (monuments, statues, buildings etc.) with some more ease and confidence. This is what is known as the scientific or historical approach to chronology.
Biblical Myth and Historical Chronology.
Historians have persuasively shown that biblical chronology is a sort of myth or legend. For example, James Barr explains that “It is a kind of ancient storytelling form, popular in the ancient world, through which people conveyed some sort of picture of their relation to the beginnings of the world, or some sort of divine plan that was working through history, or some sort of religious picture of the place of humanity within the universe” (2).
Though clearly legendary the stories still hold information that historians would call “chronological.” These are dates and periods between events, ages of persons when something happens. However, the historian wouldn’t call this legendary material historical or scientific, instead it is “legendary chronology.” For example, the Sumerian King List tells how the first king, in Eridu, ruled 28 800 years and the next ruled 36 000 years (3). When we add the dates of different rulers we produce a total of some 241 000 years. And after the flood engulfed the Earth the lifespans become shorter, a thousand years per person or less. This material the historian does not consider to be historical or scientific, instead it belongs to legend. This proves that in ancient times there seemed to be a way of thinking interested in the ancientness of the human race. It is clear that this was important to them.
Bringing the Bible into the equation we see that it contains material that appears to be chronological. The Bible houses many dates, periods of years, ages of people, etc. Knowing this there are two main ways that the historian looks at the biblical chronology. Firstly, the first chapters of Genesis are very similar to what we have in the Sumerian King List. For example, both texts provide generations of people who lived enormously long lives. Adam lived 930 years and Methuselah 969. It is also apparent that these lifespans are not quite as long as those found on the Sumerian list. However, they are still clearly too long to be historically or scientifically probable.
On the other hand we find that parts of the Bible contains chronological material that does appear to be more historical. For instance, 1 Kings 15:1 says that “in the eighteen the year of King Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijam became king over Judah; he reigned for three years in Jerusalem.” This verse gives the appearance of being accurate history although historians do entertain the possibility of it being inaccurate. But there is nothing about it that makes it wholly unhistorical or scientifically impossible. Barr thus explains that “as we look at the chronological material of the Bible, we may often find ourselves asking the question: is this particular portion historical and scientific, or is it legendary and mythological in nature?” (4)
Questions also remain over the apparent historical dates. 1 Kings tells us that Solomon began building the temple in the 480th year after the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. That would seem like a reasonable date, however, some legitimate questions still remain. Does this belong to the category of real historical fact? Or is it a theoretical construction? These are the questions that incite much debate and discussion.
1. Ogg, G. in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (1962). p. 728.
2. Barr, J. 1987. Biblical Chronology: Legend or Science? (Presentation)
3. Pritchard, J. 1950. Ancient Near Eastern Texts. p. 265.
4. Barr, J. 1987. Ibid.