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Chronology is defined as 'the determination of the proper sequence of past events', in other words, the arrangement of dates, events, etc, in order of occurrence.

The Bible is filled with detailed chronological information, but scholars seem to have difficulty dating important events. Apparently, the Bibles 'relative' chronology is not the problem; it's the 'absolute' chronology.

So, can the Bible's relative chronology be translated into absolute dates? What I am looking for are key biblical events that are verified by independent, extra-biblical sources. From such 'anchors', are we able to extrapolate an 'absolute' chronology forwards and backwards, using the Bible's internal (relative) chronology?

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    even absolute dates are relative to some moment agreed upon by consensus... – fumanchu May 19 '15 at 14:49
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    Christian - (A.) This is a great question, but perhaps apply it in context to a specific text, to get better understanding of a text? (B.) An example of this would be to infer Jesus' birth, from his cousin's birth, (John the Baptist), to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus was probably born on .. (C.) Any such inferences, though, rely on Inductive logic, and assert "probabilities", which rely on a whole lot of controversial topics, like what the "Actual" Jewish calendar was, what traditions to rely on, when the order of Abijah actually served, normal pregnancy expectations, etc. – elika kohen May 20 '15 at 18:44
  • Are you asking for reasonably sure dates for reasonably sure events, or reasonably sure dates for events that may or may not be historical? For example, the Book of Esther is set during the reign of Xerxes I, which we can date, though the story itself is likely fictitious. Or do you only want dates for details in the Hebrew Bible that most scholars think historical? – Schuh Jun 4 '15 at 1:53
  • I am mainly interested in the reigns of kings as written in the Hebrew historical records from 1 Kings onwards. – Christian Gedge Jun 5 '15 at 20:36
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OP: So, can the Bible's relative chronology be translated into absolute dates?

In a word, no. The converse, however, is possible, and I take it this is what is intended from the way the question proceeds:

OP: What I am looking for are key biblical events that are verified by independent, extra-biblical sources. From such 'anchors', are we able to extrapolate an 'absolute' chronology forwards and backwards, using the Bible's internal (relative) chronology?

This is possible, although I find OP's terms somewhat confusing. From certain anchor points ("absolute" chronology) a "relative" chronology can be constructed/extrapolated, but this remains relative, not absolute.

This more circumspect exercise has been pursued by scholars for a very long time, using certain "external synchronisms" in order to get to grips with the complexities of the internal and relative chronology of the Bible (Hebrew Bible as well as New Testament, although the time scales in the latter make it a much less perilous exercise than for the former).

One excellent example is described by W.G. Lambert (doyen of 20th C. Assyriologists) in his "Mesopotamian Sources and Pre-exilic Israel", in John Day, ed., In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel (T & T Clark, 2004), pp. 355-6. Lambert notes the list of Assyrian officers of state, compiled over many decades, which records from time to time some additional information:

One of these events is a solar eclipse, datable to 763 BCE, which ties down the whole sequence to modern time-reckoning. ... The lists of officers' names ('Eponym Lists') are preserved for the years 910-649 BCE... The years to the fall of Assyria in 612 BCE are precisely known from an abundance of other evidence.

Plotting this kind of evidence against other evidence, biblical and extra-biblical means -- for example -- that Ahab's involvement in the Battle of Qarqar in 853 can be quite precisely chronologically located with a high degree of confidence. Ironically, although this achievement of Ahab's is not recorded in the Bible, it is found in extra-biblical sources, and locates Ahab's reign with some accuracy. And from this point, as OP suggests, the relative chronology of adjacent events can be plotted.

There are vagaries and anomalies, however, so the relative chronology retains some degree of uncertainty. But we are not left helpless.

N.b. This answer should be considered an alpha-release. If it proves helpful, it would be possible to extend it.

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  • (+1) Definitely useful. Any chance of expanding? :) – ThaddeusB Nov 2 '15 at 1:41
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I would like to suggest that there are more absolute dates linked to the Bible’s chronology than what has been realised. The following examples are summaries, but worth considering:

  1. Completion of the Temple: Josephus, quoting the record of the Phoenicians, says,

    “Therein it was recorded, that the temple was built by King Solomon at Jerusalem, one hundred forty-three years, before the Tyrians built Carthage: and in their annals the building of our temple is related. For Hirom the King of Tyre was the friend of Solomon our King.”

    Greek historians date the building of Carthage in 814 BC, and subtracting 143 years from then; we locate the completion of Solomon’s temple in his 11th year, 958 BC. The Hebrew king records agree, providing us with an absolute date at the beginning of the monarchy.

  2. Last years of Omride dynasty: A tight twelve years has been confirmed between Ahab’s last year (853 BC) and Jehu’s first year (841 BC) in ground breaking research done by Dr. Edwin Thiele. Both kings are included in Assyrian inscriptions naming Ahab as one of the kings present at the battle of Qarqar, and Jehu depicted on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III bringing tribute. The twelve years in-between Ahab and Jehu were occupied by the sons of Ahab, fitting perfectly into Assyrian as well as Samaritan chronology.

  3. The Assyrian Eponym List: For centuries the Assyrians had a practice of honouring a high ranking person with the title of ‘Limmu,’ holding the office for one year. Historical events were dated in terms of these men’s names, and extensive limmu lists have now been discovered, enabling Assyriologists to construct a timeline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It is considered reliable from 911 BC to 648 BC.

    Moreover, this list is linked to a solar eclipse during the year of Bar-Sagale who was limmu in the tenth year of the reign of King Ashur-Dan III. Such a linkage is very useful, because astronomical calculations identify the eclipse as having occurred on the 15 June 763 BCE. Consequently, this date becomes an ‘absolute’ from which all ‘relative’ events can be plotted on our solar calendar.

    Since the Hebrew records intersect with Assyrian records, they also may be deemed ‘absolute.’ Ahab and Jehu have been mentioned, and the other example which I think should be considered, is the fall of Samaria in 720 BC.

  4. The Siege of Jehoiachin: Until relatively recently, the Babylonian Chronicles had lain undeciphered in the British museum. After they were translated, the following section was realised to be speaking of the first invasion of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC.

    "... the king of Babylon assembled his army, and after he had invaded the land of Hatti (Syria/Palestine) he laid siege to the city of Judah. On the second day of the month of Adara (16 March 597 BC) he conquered the city and took the king (Jehoiachin) prisoner. He installed in his place a king (Zedekiah) of his own choice, and after he had received rich tribute, he sent them forth to Babylon."

    With this discovery, we have been given absolute dates at each end of the Hebrew monarchy in addition to the ones in the middle.

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    Interesting list -- but on my understanding, only the eclipse in #3 in this list is an "absolute" date (which I already provided). All the rest are "relative" and subject to adjustment at least, or challenge. Even there, you give the fall of Samaria as 720. Jeremy Hughes, Secrets of the Times, pp. 206-9 discusses proposals for 724, 723, and 722. Cogan gives 724 in the Anchor Bible Dictionary "Chronology" article; Hoppe gives 721 in the ABD "Israel, History of" article. This is not an "absolute" date! There are more "absolute" synchonisms; these aren't them. – Dɑvïd May 22 '15 at 6:45
  • My post is a broad overview. I hope to zero in to more specific chronological questions later. (if I feel there is interest) – Christian Gedge May 22 '15 at 8:23
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    It's fine to give an overview (of course!) but you need to use the terms correctly. In your list, there is one "absolute" date, yet (if I am reading you correctly!), you present all of these as "absolute" dates. Perhaps this accounts for some of the confusion in the Question as originally posed (and sensed at the top of my "answer"). Do, please, clarify what you understand an "absolute" date to be! I'm sure that would help this Q&A. – Dɑvïd May 22 '15 at 8:48
  • I meant to present them as 'should be' considered absolute dates. I realise however that the fall of Samaria has usually been placed earlier. As for definitions, I have understood a date to be 'absolute' when it is confirmed by 2 or more independent sources. – Christian Gedge May 22 '15 at 16:19
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Question Restatment: Can absolute, specific dates, be deductively, concretely, certainly, inferred from relative chronologies in Biblical Texts?

Answer: Any, and all calculations, import way too many "Unknowns" and "Presuppositions" into the text, (premises that are "Eisegetically" imported into the text), to allows us to arrive at "Certain Dates," but rather we can only arrive at "Probable Dates."

There are quite a bit of "controversies" regarding the Jewish Calendar. For example, the debate around Jewish Leap Years/Months, (i.e. Hillel II), alone, makes certainty impossible.

On top of this, there are textual criticism questions that are raised about which manuscript is more reliable, or some considerable theological gymnastics necessary for resolving age discrepancies of kings, (i.e. Ahaziah).

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The issue with using the Bible's relative chronology for absolute dating is that it contains a mixture of symbolism, hyperbole, and different year lengths. In addition, numbers are often rounded.

Thus, archaeologists tend to use ranges. The Bible's Buried Secrets gives the example of backdating Solomon and David's time using dated evidence of their descendants and going backward using Biblical years. There were some issues, but generally, yes, a good range can be established.

See also:

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  • The linked page on "The Biblical Year" is complete rubbish fabricated by some bigot who believes that "the fourth beast" is "the Roman Catholic Church". – fdb May 20 '15 at 21:48
  • Solar and lunar cycles have not changed for most of the Old Testament, so we should be able to find reasonable accuracy using the Julian calendar. I cannot accept that a 360-day year (without intercalation) existed at any time since the flood. – Christian Gedge May 20 '15 at 23:34
  • Christian, it's not about the length of a revolution around the sun. It's about different systems of what constitutes a year. The fact that you even bring up the Julian calendar when the vast majority of the Bible was written hundreds of years before it was invented is killing me. – Plumbing for Ankit May 21 '15 at 17:11
  • @fdb : I have replaced it with a better site. Still, the exact lengths are up for grabs. – Plumbing for Ankit May 21 '15 at 17:14
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OP: "The Bible is filled with detailed chronological information"

I think this may be where you may be getting off track. The Bible is not filled with detailed chronological information, but instead detailed genealogical information. This distinction is important, because The Bible is not a newspaper which is concerned with journalistic accuracy and integrity. Likewise, it is not a science textbook concerned with accuracy of certain facts and formulas. The authorial intent of any text should be kept in mind when reading any work and evaluating it's accuracy in a given context.

This then means that as readers, we need to ask ourselves the intent of the author in including genealogies. Genealogies simply do not mean the same thing to western audiences as they did to their original audience. We therefore often miss that the point of the genealogies is to provide credibility and lend importance and credibility to an individual, such as the patriarchs and Jesus himself. In much the same way that Kings and Kights were only important because of their Royal blood, so too was it in the ancient Middle East.

The genealogies are also used to provide a structure, framework or outline to the book of Genesis using the Toledot which divides Genesis into 12 sections.

Because the Genealogies of Genesis do not agree from manuscript to manuscript, the lifespans given in the text are comically long and unsupported by archaeology and the young earth timeline just doesn't match up with archaeological evidence, it is doubtful that the chronological information in Genesis is accurate.

This is not a problem for the informed reader however, because as Richard Rohrbaugh makes abundantly clear in his presentation to the Biblical Archeological society, this is not the purpose of the text, and to the extent ages are provided it is only provided in order to bolster the honor claim being made. We should not be asking ourselves if the years and days are accurate, but instead if the Genealogical information is accurate and Jesus truely is the Son of God and descendant of the Patriarchs.

In this regard, the genealogies are undoubtedly true and accurate in their ultimate claim and goal - even if there is some fudging and shortcutting going on.

So in short,

OP: So, can the Bible's relative chronology be translated into absolute dates?

The answer is no because this is not the purpose of the genealogies, nor the reason they were provided and it is doubtful that these relative dates are accurate.

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    I think you're right to highlight the literary purpose of the genealogies, not their details, and so their very limited value in establishing anchor dates. But that said, in what way are the genealogies "undoubtedly true and accurate"? Are you saying all the names in all the lists are historically correct? Is that their purpose? – Schuh Jun 4 '15 at 1:08
  • They are undoubtedly true in the credibility, valor and honor they grant to their descendants. These descendants are worthy of that position. – James Shewey Jun 4 '15 at 4:08
  • (a) The purpose someone had in mind when relating a fact does not constrain the uses that others make of that fact. If, say, a store publishes an ad listing their sale prices with the intention of attracting customers, the fact that that was their intention would not prevent a competitor from using the information to identify products where they are being undersold. – Jay Jun 4 '15 at 5:52
  • (b) Someone might publish information with the intent that it could be used for a variety of purposes. Information might well be used for purposes that the original author never even considered. If an economist uses government statistics as evidence for his controversial theory about, say, the effect of energy prices on employment, there might be many possible rebuttals, but saying that this analysis is flawed because the government wasn't considering his theory when it assembled these statistics and therefore he is not "allowed" to use them for this would not be a valid argument. – Jay Jun 4 '15 at 5:58
  • (c) Saying that the ages in the genealogies are "comically long" is by its very wording clearly a statement filled with presuppositions and bias against a belief in the authority of scripture. – Jay Jun 4 '15 at 6:00

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