Edwin R. Thiele

The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings

Edwin R. Thiele working at his desk
In 1943 a missionary in China who had returned to America because of the war in that land graduated from the University of Chicago with a doctorate in Biblical Archaeology. His thesis, later popularised and published as The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, is regarded as the definitive study of the chronology of ancient Israel during the period of the monarchy. I have read the book four times - twice going through every calculation to be sure that I understood the work correctly - and what follows is a precis of Dr Thiele's conclusions.

According to the Biblical account, when Solomon died his son Rehoboam, the heir apparent, succeeded peacefully to the throne. At that time Jerusalem was still not perceived as the national capital and so Jeroboam travelled north to Shechem for his formal coronation and there he was met by a delegation which politely requested that he ameliorate the heavy burden of taxation and forced labour imposed by his father.

Jeroboam famously - and foolishly - preferred the advice of his contemporaries to that given by the greybeards of his father's council and returned an arrogant answer. The result was instant revolt and though the tribe of Judah remained with him out of clan loyalty (and Benjamin as well, probably because it was afraid of its larger neighbour), the remaining ten tribes quickly elected their own candidate, a man called Jeroboam.

Thus, within days of each other, two kings began to reign, Rehoboam in the southern kingdom of Judah and Jeroboam over the northern kingdom of Israel.

A little less than a century later the rulers of these two kingdom had established friendly relations and Ahaziah, king of Judah, was actually visiting his northern colleague Joram when revolt broke out. Jehu, an army commander famous for his "furious" driving - the word may also mean "well ordered" - assassinated both kings within minutes of each other.

We therefore have two dynasties which came to power at almost the same time and perished at exactly the same time. It is interesting to see how the records of those dynasties compare.

Scholars agree that the two books of Kings are based largely on the records of the northern kingdom of Israel, while the two books of Chronicles are based on the records of the southern kingdom of Judah. However it is the books of Kings which give us the detailed chronological information we need, so in the table below we have relied upon them for detailed information about the length of reign attributed to each king.

Reference Synchronism Israel Reign Judah Reign Synchronism
1 K 14:20,21   Jeroboam 22 Rehoboam 17  
1 K 15:1       Abijah 3 18th
1 K 15:9       Asa 41 20th
1 K 15:25 2nd Nadab 2      
1 K 15:33 3rd Baasha 24      
1 K 16:8 26th Elah 2      
1 K 16:15 27th Zimri        
1 K 16:23 31st Omri 12      
1 K 16:29 38th Ahab 22      
1 K 22:41       Jehoshaphat 25 4th
1 K 22:51 17th Ahaziah 2      
2 K 3:1 18th Joram 12      
2 K 8:16       Jehoram 8 5th
2 K 8:25       Ahaziah 1 12th

(Notice that although Omri is said to have begun his reign in the 31st year of Asa, that must refer to his sole and undisputed reign. He himself, however, counted the 12 years of his reign from the death of Zimri, as is obvious from the fact that Ahab began to reign in the 38th year of Asa.)

If we just add up the lengths of reigns we find that the kings of Israel reigned for 98 years and the kings of Judah for 95. In other words, the exact same period (exact to within a couple of days at most) is counted by the one set of chroniclers as 98 years and by the other set of chroniclers as 95 years.

Notice, however, that not only are we given the length of each king's reign, we are also told the year of the other king's reign in which each king came to the throne. Thus Abijah came to the throne in the 18th year of Jeroboam's reign and Nadab came to the throne in the 2nd year of Asa's reign. These cross-references are known as "synchronisms".

Let us repeat our table, this time calculating the elapsed years according to each kingdom's chronlogy. The right-hand column contains the discrepancy between the elapsed years as calculated by Israel and the elapsed years as calculated by Judah.

Elapsed Israel Judah Elapsed Difference
  Jeroboam Rehoboam    
18   Abijah 17 1
20   Asa 20 0
22 Nadab  22 0
24 Baasha   23 1
48 Elah   46 2
50 Zimri   47 3
50 Omri   47 3
62 Ahab   58 4
66   Jehoshaphat 61 5
84 Ahaziah   78 6
86 Joram   79 7
91   Jehoram 865
98  Ahaziah 94 4

The first thing to note is the discrepancy in the very first change of king. Rehoboam reigned for 17 years, yet his son came to the throne in the 18th year of Jeroboam! This apparent discrepancy is easily explained if we assume that the two kingdoms were using different calendars: thus if - as appears to have been the case - Judah began its year in the autumn and Israel began its year in the spring, we can see how what was the 17th year by one calendar could be the 18th year by the other.

This appears confirmed by the details for the next two kings, for the elapsed years of 20 and 22 for Asa and Nadab respectively are exactly what we would expect, for after all, both calendars will coincide for six months of every year.

Look at it this way: I was born on 23/04/1949. My wife was born on 28/04/1948, which means that she is nearly a year older than I am. However there are five days in every year when we are the same chronological age: between 23/04/1950 and 27/04/1951 we were both one year old, between 23/04/1951 and 27/04/1950 we were both two years old and so on.

It is with the following reigns that we notice something interesting. During the long reign of King Asa in Judah there were a number of kings in Israel, beginning with Nadab - and every time there is a new king in Israel the count slips by one year, a pattern which carries on during Jehoshaphat's long reign as well.

If the discrepancy rested solely on a different calendar, we would expect a random difference of 0 or 1 years. This progressive discrepancy points to a more fundamental difference - a different way of calculating reigns.

If we assume that Judah used the accession year method for counting the reigns of its kings but Israel used the non-accession year method, then a progressive difference of one additional year for each reign is exactly what we would expect - and there is further evidence that that is what the kings of Israel did.

In the British Museum there are two inscriptions by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser. The first is known as the Kurk Stele and is the record of Shalmaneser's first invasion of Syria in the 6th year of his reign. It is notable because the Assyrians were defeated in the Battle of Qarqar by a great coalition of local kings and among those mentioned are two who are known to us from the Bible: Benhadad of Syria and Ahab of Israel!

The second inscription is on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser which is famous as the only picture we have of an Israelite king. One of the panels shows Jehu of Israel bowing down before Shalmaneser and offering him tribute. It is dated to the 18th year of Shalmaneser.

Obviously there are 12 years between the 6th and the 18th years, but when we look at the Biblical record we find that between Ahab and Jehu - assuming that the Battle of Qarqar took place in Ahab's last year and Jehu paid tribute in his first year - there are 14 years, for we have 2 years for Ahaziah and 12 for Joram. However if we assume that both these kings used the non-accession year method of calculating their reigns, then in reality they only ruled for 1 and 11 years respectively, which adds up to the 12 we need.

This oddity of calculation is very useful here, because it enables us to give a date to the reigns of these two kings. Notice that we cannot place the Battle of Qarqar earlier than the last year of Ahab, otherwise the twelve years will not stretch forward to the reign of Jehu; for the same reason we cannot put the Black Obelisk later than the first year of Jehu because otherwise the twelve years will not stretch back to the reign of Ahab.

Assuming that the Assyrian records are correct - and the limu lists are strong evidence that they can be trusted - we have to say that the Battle of Qarqar took place in Ahab's last year and that Jehu paid tribute in his first year. As the Assyrian kings can be precisely dated through astronomical data, we are able to say that Ahab's last year was 853 BC.

If we now look at the list of the kings of Israel and add the actual lengths of their reigns (as opposed to the lengths given by their non-accession year method of counting), we reach the following sum:

Jeroboam 21
Nadab 1
Baasha 23
Elah 1
Omri 11
Ahab 21
Total 78

We get the same result if we use the chronology for the kings of Judah.

Rehoboam 17
Abijah 3
Asa 41
Jehoshaphat 17
Total 78

This harmony between the figures, reached on the simple basis of recognising that one nation used the accession year method and the other used the non-accession year method, is very gratifying. It also allows us to reach a firm date for the reign of Solomon: as Ahab died in 853 BC, this enables us to date the start of Jeroboam's reign to 931 BC and the start of Solomon's reign, 40 years earlier, to 971 BC.