Bible Chronology

The Date of Creation

The Bible is the inspired word of God and it is the means by which God reveals to us what we need to know for our salvation. However God Himself did not write the words of the Bible: they were spoken and written by human beings.

Prophecy did not come in the olden days by human plans, but holy men of God spoke as they were impelled by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:21

In a few places in the Bible we are given God's actual words, usually introduced by a formula such as "the Lord spoke to me saying". In all other places we have the prophet's words by which he communicated the message - the vision or the impression - that God had given to him. We sometimes get the feeling that human language is not adequate to convey the deep truths that God wants to give us, so to that extent the Bible is an imperfect message.

In addition, although the human writers of the Bible were honest and godly men, they were writing and speaking from the background of their own culture, knowledge and experience. The Bible is remarkably true and accurate and perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is how free it is from error. For example, I am positive that most of the Old Testament writers believed that the earth is flat and that the heavens were like a bowl upside down over the earth. It is one of the signs of the Bible's inspiration that although this false belief is hinted at in some of the language, the explicit statements are all compatible with what we now know to be true: "He hangs the earth upon nothing" or "God sits above the circle (sphere) of the earth".

The situation is further complicated by the fact that we do not have available to us the original documents that the Bible authors wrote. We only have copies - indeed, copies of copies - and we know that copyists made mistakes, some of which are easy to detect, others may be impossible to detect.

The result is that we cannot simply say that God kept all error out of the Bible as we have it today. In a few unimportant places God has permitted contradictions or even errors to creep in and it is impossible to say whether they are the fault of careless copyists or whether the original author made an honest mistake based upon the knowledge and the sources that he had available to him. The clearest example of this is in Luke's genealogy of Jesus.

Genesis 11:10-15 Luke 3:35-37
Noah Noah
Shem Sem
Arphaxad Arphaxad
  Cainan
Salah Sala
Eber Heber

As you can see, Luke puts in an extra person - Cainan - into the genealogy. Most people assume that the reason why he did this is very simple: Luke was quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, and the Septuagint (usually abbreviated to LXX) has the extra Cainan. In other words, the mistake is not Luke's but the authors of the LXX. Luke was being just as accurate as he could be, but he was let down by his source document! A recent study, however, has suggested that neither made a mistake but a careless copyist inserted the extra Cainan into Luke and this error was then picked up by other copyists who inserted it into the LXX!

Frankly, I don't know which explanation is correct, but the point is that the Bible, as we have it, contains an extra Cainan and whether the fault lies with Luke or the LXX or a careless copyist, we are left with a defective text.

Unfortunately there is a lot of uncertainty in the area of Bible chronology, and errors like this only add to our perplexities. In the remainder of this lesson I would like to consider the fascinating subject of Bible chronology so that we can see what is certain and what is uncertain. As you know, the Bible was written long before a common era such as our BC and AD were invented, so everything is recorded in terms of people's ages or king's reigns. This makes calculating the date of creation as interesting as hunting for one's family tree.

The first part of our chronology is found in Genesis chapter five.

NameBirth (AM)Age when son bornLength of lifeDeath (AM)
Adam0130930930
Seth1301059121042
Enosh235909051140
Kenan325709101235
Mahalalel395658951290
Jared4601629621422
Enoch62265365987*
Methuselah6871879691656
Lamech8741827771651
Noah1056500

"AM" stands for "Anno Mundi" which means "Year of the World" in the same way that "AD" stands for "Anno Domini", "Year of our Lord". Instead of dating events from the birth of Jesus Christ, AM dating starts in the year of Creation. The Jews still use this method of dating and it can be quite a shock to receive a letter from Israel dated "23 July 5496"!

Adam was created in the year 0 AM and we presume that his son Seth was born in the year 130 AM. I say "presume" because for all we know Adam did not start counting his age until after he was expelled from Eden. This presumption is the first of many which make it impossible to be absolute in our chronology.

In any case this sort of list of births has an in-built source of uncertainty, which I can best explain by taking an example. Let us suppose that a certain person was born in January and, when he was 35, he had a son who was born in December. When that son was also 35 he too had a son, born in July. If we add the two ages together we conclude that 70 years have elapsed since the birth of the first person, but in actual fact the elapsed time has been 70 years and 6 months! If we are then told that a certain event happened when the baby was one year old, it could be anything up to 71 years and 6 months since the birth of the first person. As we are not told the month and day of each birth, there is the potential for an error of up to 364 days in our calculations every time a new birth is mentioned!

Another presumption is that the Masoretic text, on which our English Bibles are based, is the correct one. Not many people know that other versions give different figures for the length of lives and dates of birth. For example, the Masoretic figures given above assign 1656 years from Creation to the Flood. The LXX adds up to 2242 years for the same period while the figures in the Samaritan Pentateuch give a mere 1307 years!

There are reasons, however, for preferring the Masoretic text. For example, the figures given in the LXX would have Methuselah surviving the Flood by 14 years - and as Methuselah was not in the ark we would have to conclude that for a 900 year old man he was a remarkably good swimmer!

Notice the asterisk beside the date for Enoch's death. This is to draw your attention to the fact that Enoch did not die but "was no more, because God took him away."

Some may wonder at the length of life recorded for these antediluvians. After all, these days anyone who makes it to a mere one hundred years old merits a telegram from the Queen. There are two reasons for giving these figures credence.

The first is the belief that the world before the Flood was a near perfect environment. There was plenty of good quality food, so no problems with malnutrition of either the deficiency or the over-eating variety. Society was, on the whole, rural, so there were no problems with stress. The climate was equable, there was no pollution and disease organisms had not yet developed to present levels. All these factors combined to produce exceptional longevity.

The second reason is that Egyptian and Sumerian King Lists provide independant testimony to the fact that pre-Flood people lived much longer than normal today. Cuneiform tablets record the ages of the Sumerian kings, but whereas the post-Flood kings lived for normal lengths of time, the kings before the Flood are recorded as living for thousands of years and similar ages are assigned to the pre-dynastic Egyptian rulers.

This brings us to the interesting question of the relationship between the Bible and the myths and legends of the Middle East. Modern scholarship teaches that the Bible is based on these myths. Some Bible students would prefer to believe that the myths are based on the Bible. Personally I think that neither is based on the other. Rather, both are based on a common memory. Certainly, when it comes to Flood legends, it would be difficult to explain the world-wide distribution of similar legends by saying that they all descend from the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic. It is surely much more likely that all are based on folk memories of a real event that happened to our common ancestors.

Although the Sumerian King Lists record totally incredible ages for the antediluvian monarchs, I believe that they preserve a core of fact, namely, that before the Flood men lived considerably longer than people after the Flood.

Genesis chapter 5 ends with the statement that "after Noah was 500 years old he became the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth," which makes it sound as though the three were triplets. To find the true situation, however, we must do our first bit of detective work. Genesis 9:24 tells us that Ham was Noah's youngest son. (Notice that the total length of Noah's life is given in 9:29) Genesis 11:10 tells us that Shem was 100 years old two years after the Flood, which means that he must have been born when Noah was 502 years old. We conclude that Japheth was the son born when Noah was 500 years old, Shem two years later and Ham an unspecified period after that.

NameBirth (AM)Age when son bornLength of lifeDeath (AM)
Noah10565029502006
Shem15581006002158
Arphaxad1658354382096
Shelah1693304332126
Eber1723344642187
Peleg1757302391996
Reu1787322392026
Serug1819302302049
Nahor1849291481997
Terah187870

Terah was born a mere 222 years after the flood, but into those two centuries we can fit eight generations. There are two things to notice about this table: the first is the rapid but random decrease in longevity. Had someone been inventing these figures you would, I suspect, have seen a regular decrease in ages at death, perhaps by a hundred years per generation. Instead we have a curve that is quite credible.

The reasons for this decrease are as many as the reasons for the pre-Flood longevity. The climate was now harsher, with less protection from harmful cosmic rays; there was less food readily available, so that man now ate meat; disease organisms had multiplied and man had less resistance to them; increasing urbanisation led to increased stress; perhaps even the mere fact that man's sex life began earlier had an impact on longevity. These factors would combine and increase with each generation.

The second point of interest is the date of Shem's death. With the single exception of Eber, none of Shem's descendants for ten generations until Isaac outlived him. To his progeny it must have seemed as if Shem would never die, a point that will be of particular significance when we consider the Gilgamesh epic, which we do in the Digging Deeper course.

Now let us consider the Hebrew patriarchs.

NameBirth (AM)Age when son bornLength of lifeDeath (AM)Reference
Terah187870205208311:32
Abraham1948100175212321:5; 25:7
Isaac204860180222825:26; 35:28
Jacob21081472255

With Jacob the tidy progression of fathers and sons breaks down. We are not told how old he was when he fled to Haran. We are not given his age when any of his children are born. It is possible, however, to work out when Joseph was born. The argument runs like this.

Joseph was 17 when the trouble between himself and his brothers flared up, (Genesis 37:2) and presumably he was not much older when he was sold into Egypt. He was 30 when he was appointed over the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:46). There followed seven years of plenty and in the second year of the famine Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, (Genesis 45:6) which would make him 39. His father came down to Egypt and told Pharaoh that he was 130 years old (Genesis 47:9) which means that Joseph was born when Jacob was 91. (2199 AM)

As Jacob's family seems to have been born during the twenty years that he was in Haran this gives us the interesting information that Jacob and Esau were about 70 years old when the deception over the birthright occurred, not smooth-cheeked teenagers indulging in juvenile bickering. You would have thought that Jacob would have had more sense!

Furthermore, if Joseph was born about 2199 AM, his older brother Levi must have been born about 2189 AM. We assume that Jacob was 71 when he fled to Haran. He served Laban for seven years before marrying and Levi was the third son to be born to Leah. If we assume that Leah was pregnant once a year then Jacob was 81 when Levi was born. Obviously we cannot base anything on this chain of assumptions, but it will give us guidance when considering the next step in the chronology.

God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for 400 years or four generations. (Genesis 15:13). This seems to be confirmed by the statement in Exodus 12:40, 41 that the children of Israel were in Egypt for 430 years exactly. If Jacob went to Egypt in the year 2238 AM that would place the Exodus in the year 2668 AM. There is, however, a problem, and that is the genealogy of Moses.

As given in Exodus chapter 6, Levi, who lived 137 years, had a son called Kohath, who lived 133 years, and a daughter, Jochebed. Amram, son of Kohath, married his aunt Jochebed, and lived for 137 years. Their son was Moses. This comes to a total of 407 years and when we add in Moses' age of 80 at the time of the Exodus we seem to have plenty of time to fit in the 430 years of the oppression.

The trouble is, of course, that we can't just add the years up like that. The average age of the preceeding four generations when their first son was born was 75. If Levi, Kohath and Amram were also 75 when their sons were born - and Moses was 80 at the time of the Exodus - that makes a span of 305 years for the oppression, minus Levi's age when he went down into Egypt, which was 49. The oppression can only have lasted 256 years.

Let's look at it another way. If Jochebed was born in the last year of her father's life and gave birth to Moses when she was 30, then we have 88 years of Levi's life (147-49=88), 30 years for Jochebed and 80 years for Moses' age, making an oppression of 198 years.

It should be obvious by now that things are not as simple as they seem. The usual solution adopted by most commentators is to conclude that the 430 years refer not to the oppression but to the time that Abraham and his descendants would have to wait until the land of Palestine belonged to them and they were no longer strangers. The 430 years is the time from Abraham's visit to Egypt until the Exodus. This works out suspiciously symmetrically as 215 years of wandering in Palestine and 215 years of oppression in Egypt. Nevertheless, it will do as an approximation.

There is evidence that this is how the Jews themselves understood this passage. The LXX renders Exodus 12:40 like this:

"And the sojourning of the children of Israel while they sojourned in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan was four hundred and thirty years."

Josephus, the 1st century AD Jewish historian, in his history of the Jewish people declares:

"They left Egypt in the month Xanthicus, on the fifteenth day of the lunar month; four hundred and thirty years after our forefather Abraham came into Canaan, but two hundred and fifteen years only after Jacob removed into Egypt." Antiquities of the Jews II:xv:2

A recently published scroll fragment from the Dead Sea (4Q559) confirms this short chronology, though its final conclusion might have caused Archbishop Ussher some gray hairs!

. . . and Terah was seventy years old when he fathered Abraham; and Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he fathered Isaac; and Isaac was sixty years old when he fathered Jacob; and Jacob was sixty-five years old when he fathered Levi; and Levi was thirty-five years old when he fathered Kohath; and Kohath was twenty-nine years old when he fathered Amram; Amram was one hundred and ten years old when he fathered Aaron, and Aaron went out from Egypt. The total of all these years: eleven thousand, five hundred and thirty-six. . . Eisenmann & Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1992, p. 93

Jacob went down into Egypt in the year 2238 AM and for our purposes we will place the Exodus 215 years later in the year 2453 AM. In view of the above uncertainties, however, this has to be regarded as an approximation, not as a fixed and certain date. Those who defend a long chronology point out that in Hebrew "son" can mean "grandson" or even "great-grandson" and the same with "daughter". Jochabed might be the granddaughter or even great-granddaughter of Levi instead of his daughter.

Our final piece of evidence comes from 1 Kings 6:1 where we are told that the fourth year of Solomon's reign was the 480th year after the Exodus. Here again the versions differ, with the LXX making it 440 years after the Exodus. Taking the Masoretic figure, however, we get a date of 2933 AM for the commencement of work on the temple.

Dr Edwin R. Thiele, in his book The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings establishes the year 931 BC as the date when Rehoboam began to reign. His arguments for this date, which I will consider in a later lesson are cogent and sound and I will take it as the basis for my chronology. 1 Kings 11:42 tells us that Solomon reigned for 40 years, so his reign began in the year 971 BC, which means that his fourth year must have been the year 967 BC.

In actual fact, for reasons that will be explained when we come to consider the chronology of the Hebrew kings, Solomon's fourth year was 966 BC but 3900 is much easier to remember than 3898 and 4000 easier than both. In view of the uncertainties, let's not quibble over a year this early in the course.

If Solomon's fourth year, the year 967 BC, came 2933 years after creation, then we can say that this world was created in the year 3900 BC. Unlike Archbishop Ussher, I am not prepared to state that it was on October 23 at 4 o'clock in the morning.

It should be obvious from the preceeding discussion that this can only be an approximate date, but equally it should be obvious that there are limits to the amount one can stretch the chronology. If we make the oppression 430 years, if we add in an extra Kenan, if we accept the LXX figures and so on, the most we can add in is another thousand years or so. Certainly there is no room in the Biblical figures for pushing creation back to 10,000 BC or anything like it. For the purposes of these lessons, therefore, we will assume that creation occurred around about the year 4000 BC, which is a nice round number, easy for me to type and for you to remember.