Resource: Hard Sayings of the Bible

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Walter C. Kaiser Jr., et al. Excerpt from chapter 6 discussing the untangle of the Gordian knot by Edwin R. Thiele of the tangle of dates and systems of the Old Testament concerning chronology. Back to Bibliography List

DO THE DATES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT KINGS FIT SECULAR HISTORY?

IF CHRONOLOGY, AS THEY SAY, is the backbone of history, it would seem that a major attempt ought to be made to reconcile the plethora of chronological notations about the kings of Israel and Judah in the Bible. The astonishing fact is that the book of Kings is filled with chronological material concerning the Hebrew kings: when their reigns began, when a king came to the throne in the parallel kingdom of Israel or Judah, the total number of years that each king reigned and an occasional correlation of events in biblical history with those in the other nations of the ancient Near East.

But the tangle of dates and systems is so complex that the remark attributed to Jerome in the fourth century appears correct:

Read all the books of the Old Testament, and you will find such discord as to the number of the years of the kings of Judah and Israel, that to attempt to clear up this question will appear rather the occupation of a man of leisure than of a scholar. Modern scholars are even more vehement in their denunciations of unwieldy material. But one such scholar who gave most of his life to untangle this Gordian knot was Edwin R. Thiele. He was finally able to make sense out of all the data and to show it all was accurate, as a part of his doctoral program at the University of Chicago. Despite the fact that neither Thiele's system nor anyone else's has achieved anything approaching universal acceptance, the evidence Thiele has amassed has never been completely refuted. The main complaint is only that he has taken the biblical data too seriously and has harmonized it perfectly. However, the word harmonized is not seen as a positive concept, but a negative one. Nevertheless, I think his case has stood now for well over forty years and will follow here, though there are numerous other efforts to supply other solutions that do not take all the biblical data as seriously as did Thiele.

Thiele began by first establishing some basic dates. Most important in accomplishing this first step was the archaeological find of the Assyrian eponym list that covered every year in order from 892 to 648 B.C. These lists named a "man of the year" as the eponym, but they often noted principle events that took place as well.

For the year of Bur-Sagale, governor of Guzana, it noted that there was a "revolt in the city of Assur." In the month of Simanu an eclipse of the sun took place. Now this event we can locate on our Julian calendar as June 15, 763 B.C. by astronomical computation. Since we can establish every year with an absolute date on either side of this solar eclipse on June 15, 763 B.C., in the eponym list, it is significant that in the eponymy of Daian-Assur, 853 B.C., the sixth year of Shalmaneser II, the battle of Qarqar was fought, in which the Israelite king Ahab opposed him. Twelve years later, in the eponymy of Adad-rimani, 841 B.C., Shalmaneser received tribute from a king "Ia-a-u," a ruler of Israel. This could be none other than King Jehu. Now it so happens that there were twelve years between the death of King Ahab and the accession of King Jehu (two official years, but one actual for King Ahaziah, 1 Kings 22:51) and twelve official, but eleven actual, years for Joram, 2 Kings 3:1). Thus 853 is the year of Ahab's death and 841 is the year for Jehu's accession. This gives us a toehold on linking Israel's and Judah's history with absolute time and world events. Another such linkage is to be found in the Assyrian chronology that puts the third campaign of Sennacherib in 701 B.C., when he came against Hezekiah. The Assyrian sources put 152 years from the sixth year of Shalmaneser III's battle against Ahab at Qarqar in 853 B.C. But according to the reconstructed history of the Hebrews, it was also 152 years from the death of Ahab to the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, 701 B.C. Thus there is a second main tie-in with world history and chronology.

As Thiele worked with these two main linkages with world history, he noted three important chronological procedures in ancient Israel and Judah. The first involved the distinctions in the calendar years of Judah and Israel: Israel began its year from the month of Nisan in the spring, while Judah reckoned its year as beginning in Tishri in the fall. This meant that in terms of an absolute January calendar year, a Nisan year began in the spring and extended into the next spring, thus bridging parts of two of our calendar years. The same would be true of a Tishri year lapsing over into two falls. But even more complicated is the fact that a regnal year in Israel would also overlap two regnal years in Judah.

A second feature was the use of accession year and nonaccession year reckoning. Ever since the division of the country after Solomon's day, the northern and southern kingdoms mostly used the opposite method of counting up regnal years that their neighbor was using. Thus, on the nonaccession year principle, the first year counted as year number one, while the accession year principle did not count regnal year one until the month starting the calendar (Nisan or Tishri) was passed and one year after that was completed. Judah used the accession year principle from Rehoboam until Jehoshaphat, while Israel used the nonaccession year principle from Jeroboam to Ahab. However, the relations between the two nations thawed during the days of Ahab and Jehoshaphat, as it was sealed with the marriage of Athaliah, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, to prince Jehoram, son of Jehoshaphat. Clearly, as 2 Kings 8:18 notices, Jehoram "walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for he married a daughter of Ahab." Jehoram and Athaliah introduced the nonaccession year system into Judah, which remained until the snub of King Jehoash of Israel to King Amaziah of Judah over the proposal of marriage of the royal daughter to Amaziah's son (2 Kings 14:8-10). However, prior to this rupture in diplomatic relations, both nations had already resorted to the accession year principle, which for some reason they continued to maintain to the end of their respective histories.

A third principle Thiele sets forth was that each nation used its own system in reckoning the years of a ruler in the other nation. Thus Rehoboam of Judah had a seventeen-year reign according to Judah's accession year system, but according to Israel's nonaccession year principle it was eighteen years. These three basic principles of chronological reckoning in the two nations of Israel and Judah are foundational to grasping the meaning of the numbers used to describe the reigns of the kings. The date Thiele projected for the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon was 931/930 B.C. This date, however, is generally rejected by the larger academic community. The fashion had been (until just a decade or two ago) to accept William Foxwell Albright's date of 922 B.C., but his date involved an almost outright rejection of some of the biblical data. Albright argued that in view of the data found in 2 Chronicles 15:19 and 2 Chronicles 16:1, it was necessary to "reduce the reign of Rehoboam by at least eight, probably nine years" from that required by the biblical text. Such a reduction is not necessary when the details are correctly understood, as Thiele sorted them out. More recently, the figure of 927/926 B.C. has been proposed as the first regnal year of Rehoboam in Judah and Jeroboam I in the northern ten tribes of Israel by John Hayes and Paul Hooker. This date is arrived at by denying all three principles of Thiele and readjusting the biblical dates when they are not felt to be accurate for one reason or another. But Thiele's date of 931/930 B.C. can be demonstrated to be accurate. One need only consult the following diagram to demonstrate this claim.

Judah Israel Official Years Official Years Actual Years Rehoboam 17 Jeroboam 22 21 Abijam 3 Nadab 2 1 Asa 41 Baasha 24 23 Jehoshaphat 18 Elah 2 1 79 Omri 12 11 Ahab 22 21 Ahaziah 2 1 86 79

This chart from Thiele demonstrates two important points: (1) the eighty-six years of Israel on the nonaccession year reckoning is only seventy-nine actual calendar years, fully in accord with Judah's accession year system; and (2) from Ahab's death in 853 B.C., as established from the astronomical observations in the eponym lists and the twelve years separating Jehu from Ahab, to the beginning of the divided monarchy was 78 years. Therefore, 78 plus 853 equals 931/930 B.C. for the division of the kingdom.

During the time of the Hebrew kingdoms there were nine overlapping reigns or coregencies. This fact makes the fourth important principle that must be recognized and factored in when using the numbers of the reigns and coregencies of the kings of Israel and Judah. The first overlapping reign was that of Tibni and Omri in Israel. First Kings 16:21 reads, "Then the people of Israel were split into two factions [or, parts]; half supported Tibni son of Ginath for [or, to make him] king, and the other half supported Omri." Accordingly, there were three kingdoms at this time: two in the north under Tibni and Omri and one in the south, Judah.

The same three-kingdom phenomenon happened later on, for Menahem ruled one kingdom in the north and Pekah ruled the other, probably from Gilead. Hosea 5:5 witnessed to this fact as it warned, "Therefore Israel and Ephraim [they] will stumble [or, fall] in their iniquity, Judah also will stumble [or, fall] with them" (my own translation, emphasis added). Note the three Hebrew plurals, for again there were two kingdoms in the north. A third overlapping involved a coregency of twelve years between Jehoash and Jeroboam II in Israel according to 2 Kings 13:10 and 2 Kings 14:23. Thus the sixteen years of Jehoash and the forty-one years of Jeroboam II would add up to fifty-seven, but with the coregency, it was actually only forty-five years. In another coregency, twenty-four years of Azariah's fifty-two years overlapped with the twenty-nine years of Amaziah. Again, this reduced the total from eighty-one years to fifty-seven actual years.

A fifth overlapping reign came in the coregency of Jotham and Azariah, as mentioned in 2 Kings 15:5. Azariah became a leper, so his son governed the land in his stead. Likewise a sixth overlap took place between Ahaz and Jotham in Judah, for the attack of Pekah and Rezin were not solely against Ahaz (2 Kings 16:5-9), but it is also against Jotham as well (2 Kings 15:37). King Jehoram was coregent with his father Jehoshaphat, as alluded to in 2 Kings 8:16: "In the fifth year of Joram son of Ahab king of Israel, when Jehoshaphat was king of Judah, Jehoram son of Jehoshaphat began his reign as king of Judah." Further confirmation comes from the synchronism given in 2 Kings 3:1, where Joram began in "the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah," but according to 2 Kings 1:17, he began "in the second year of Jehoram son of Jehoshaphat." Thus, the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat was the second year of Jehoram's coregency. That would mean that Jehoram became coregent with his father in the seventeenth year of his father's reign, the year in which, it turns out, Judah joined forces with Israel against Syria. Prudence dictated that Jehoshaphat place Jehoram on the throne prior to his undertaking this joint venture - a venture in which Ahab of Israel lost his life (1 Kings 22:29-37), and Jehoshaphat narrowly escaped losing his own life.

The eighth coregency was between Jehoshaphat and his elderly father Asa. In the thirty-ninth year of Asa's reign, he became seriously ill with a disease in his feet. This led him, at the close of his forty-one-year reign, to make Jehoshaphat regent with him to help govern the people (2 Chron 16:12). The final coregency was between Manasseh and Hezekiah. Here again illness was the factor (2 Kings 20:1, 6). Knowing that he, Hezekiah, had only fifteen years to live, it is only to be expected that he would place his son Manasseh on the throne early enough to train him in the ways of government. Such is the nature of dual dating in reckoning the reigns, coregencies and synchronisms of the kings of Israel and Judah.