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Telling Time in Scripture (part 1/2)

By Fred Zaspel–

(part 2 here)

I was privileged to have as part of my seminary training a time of study with Dr. Charles Aling, now of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He more than anyone else helped me understand the “doing” of ancient chronology and biblical dating methods, and I have always been very appreciative of him for this and so much else that he taught me in those days. What follows here is largely what I learned from him nearly 30 years ago.

 Introduction: Calendars & Dating Systems

 How Calendars Work. Systems of dating are many and can be devised from virtually any starting point. This year of A.D. 2013 on the Christian calendar is according to the Muslim calendar the year 1391. Their beginning year is our year A.D. 622, dating from Mohammed, the founder of that religion. According to the ancient Roman system of dating, beginning at 753 B.C. and the founding of Rome, this is the year 2749. The first Olympics were held in 776 B.C., and that calendar dates every four years (“olympiads”); accordingly this would be the year 693.2. Again, possible systems of dating are innumerable. They can be devised from virtually any beginning point and can be valuable for the keeping of time records.

The History and Development of our Calendar. A lunar month is 29 days and 12+ hours, from the waxing to the waning of the moon. The problem this leaves us with is that it does not exactly correlate with a solar year, which is 365¼ days (actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 47.8 seconds). This is not quite equal to 12 lunar months. To deal with this mathematical inaccuracy, around 2500 B.C. the Sumerians and Babylonians inserted an intercalary month every four years. This brought the seasons pretty well back to normal.

By the “modern” era, however, something more technical and precise was needed. In 45 B.C. Julius Caesar decreed that henceforth be observed 365 days each year and 366 days each fourth year (leap year), continuing in perpetual cycle. This is called the “Julian Calendar” which began the custom we keep today.

But still there was a problem. Years are not exactly 365¼ days. They are actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 47.8 seconds. That difference of 11 minutes and 12+ seconds is appreciable in the course of several centuries; that is, it is “off” one day every 128 years. Although this system was used in Europe for 16 centuries, in the bigger picture there are just too many leap years.

So in 1582 another correction was made by Pope Gregory XIII. This is the inception of the “Gregorian calendar” (not officially adopted in England until 1751), which we use still today. First, to make up for all the accumulated minutes, he decreed the elimination of 10 days from the year 1582. So in many countries in 1582, the day following October 4 was October 15.

But still the calendar was off 11 minutes every 100 years (which means that by the year 4905 we will again be one day off!). To solve this problem, it was decided that every year with a year date divisible by four would be a leap year. Actually, this was still too many leap years, so it was provided that a day be dropped by every centesimal year (ending in 00) whose number cannot be divided by 400. Accordingly, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years (i.e., there still were only 28 days to February).

Well, the margin of error with this Gregorian calendar is still one day in every 3,000 years. But all seem to agree that this will do us for a while.

The American colonies made the switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, when the entire British empire changed. So in that year September 2 was followed by September 14, an 11 day adjustment. Dates preceding the change are sometimes designated OS (old style). Thus, for example, George Washington’s birthday is really February 11, 1732 (OS), and only after the change to the Gregorian calendar was it established as February 22, 1732. Most dates in American History have been converted to New Style, or Gregorian dates. Other countries have been slower in changing: Japan, 1873; China, 1912; Greece, 1924; Turkey, 1927.

To make the conversion from Julian dates to Gregorian dates 10 days must be added to the Julian dates from October 5, 1582, through February 28, 1700; 11 days must be added to Julian dates from March 1, 1700, through February 28, 1800; and 13 days must be added to Julian dates from March 1, 1900 through February 28, 2100, and so on.

Calendar Details

Days. The days of our week are of pagan origin. Sunday is the day dedicated to the sun, Monday to the moon, Tuesday to Tiw (Mars), Wednesday to Woden (Mercury), Thursday to Thor (Jove), Friday to Frig (venus), and Saturday to Saturn.

Weeks. The seven-day week is of Hebrew (and then Babylonian) origin. Other cultures used a six-day (Assyria), eight-day (Roman), or 10-day (Egypt) week. The Romans spoke of the “ides” (middle of the month) and the “calends” (first of the month).

Months. Our 12 months are Roman in origin and are named after things such as numbers, gods, and emperors.

January = Janus

February = februa, ancient Roman purification festivals

March = Mars

June = Juno

July = Julius Caesar

August = Augustus Caesar

September = seven

October = eight

November = nine

December = ten

Ironically, September – December are months 9-12. But originally they were months 7-10, as their names imply. Later January and February were added to the calendar.

Years. As mentioned at the beginning, there are many ways of keeping records. We can date years by “eras” (the Greek and Roman method), which is simply dating by “birthdays” of events, people, Olympics, founding of great cities, birth of Christ, etc.

“Regnal years” are also common. Frequently in the Bible and in ancient literature reference is made to “the 24th year of King ____’s reign,” “the second year of Ahab,” the 15th year of Tiberius,” and so on. As we will see, linking these kinds of dates to our modern calendar (B.C. / A.D.) can sometimes be a difficult exercise indeed. Usually this is done with the help of astronomy or other confirmatory data. For instance, the Assyrians mention a solar eclipse which we can confirm to have been in 763 B.C. When kings or events are linked to this event, “dead reckoning” is accomplished very simply.

Eponymous dating was also known among the ancients, dating from an Eponym. An Eponymous official was sometimes the emperor, but often he was a man elected to do nothing but have a year named after him. No other privileges or duties are known to have been associated with this honor ─ sort of like being the Grand Marshall at a parade.

Our “A.D.” (anno domini, year of [our] Lord) was devised in the third century and popularized by Eusebius, the famous church historian. There were some miscalculations, however: the year of Jesus’ birth is known now to have been (on this calendar) about 6 B.C. So our calendar is a few years off.

The familiar “B.C.,” which dates events “before Christ,” was devised by Bishop Ussher in the 17th century. This is extremely helpful and very accurate back to Abraham; before Abraham, however, the system fails to take into consideration too much data and is faulty.

Fixing Dates

Dead Reckoning. Here, then, is how it all works. To fix a date in the ancient past, we first get a fixed date from astronomy, as already mentioned, and then work from there. If we find in ancient records a mention of “King _____, in the third year after the eclipse…,” the calculation to that date becomes very easy.

Dated Documents. We also can work from dated documents ─ inscriptions of a pharaoh, etc. Information may be scant, but whatever is discovered may be of immense help. If, for example, an inscription is found mentioning a pharaoh in the “17th year of his reign,” we know his reign lasted at least 17 years.

Pottery. Styles, colors, and shapes of pottery provide approximate help also. Say in a given archaeological dig is found first blue and white pottery, then (lower down) red pottery, and finally (still lower) black pottery. Then again there is first blue and white, then green, then red. We can surmise that green pottery was used between the times when blue and red were used. If, then we have King X mentioned on green pottery, we have another clue in the overall puzzle.

Synchronisms. Then there are synchronisms, both explicit and implicit. An example of this is when one nation writes about its king and puts it in terms of a contemporary king of another country. Some are stated this clearly (explicit), but many are more subtle (implicit).

Some Biblical examples may help here. Shalmaneser III of Assyria is a foreign king associated with some of Israel’s kings. Some Assyrian inscriptions mention Shalmaneser fighting a coalition of kings in a date we can calculate to be 853 B.C. In this list of enemy kings he mentions King Ahab of Israel. This little detail we would not know from Scripture; we would not otherwise know that Ahab and Shalmaneser III were contemporaries. An Assyrian inscription also mentions that in the 18th year of Shalmaneser’s rule ( = 841 B.C.) he collected tribute from King Jehu of Israel.

By the same token, the Bible also mentions foreign kings in association with Israelite kings (e.g., 2 Kings 19 speaks of Sennecharib of Assyria attacking Hezekiah of Judah.) Links such as this are valuable in establishing dates.

Further, it is nowhere stated that Shalmaneser I (Assyria) was a contemporary of Ramses II (Egypt), but this is easily established by implicit synchronism. Ramses fought against two Hittite kings, Muwatalis and Hattusilis III (explicit synchronism). Between these two Kings, we know, was another King Urhi-Teshub. Uri-Teshub wrote letters to Shalmaneser. Therefore Shalmaneser and Ramses are contemporary (implicit synchronism).

Some Difficulties

But not all is that easy. Various kinds of difficulties arise in establishing ancient dates. There is first the problem of “dual dating.” Sometimes events are dated from the king’s accession year (the year his reign began), but sometimes from his birth year. Which is in view is sometimes difficult to ascertain.

Sometimes there were co-regencies, overlaps in reign ─ for example, when a father would later share the reign with his son. In fact, there is one Biblical example where (it would seem) two kings began to rule, each before the other! In 2 Kings 1:17, Joram of Israel is said to have begun in the 2nd year of Jehoram of Judah. But in 2 Kings 8:16, Jehoram of Judah is said to have begun in the 5th year of Joram of Israel. These kinds of seeming contradictions cause confusion in year totals. The book of Judges is infamous for this kind of difficulty ─ overlapping in judgeships is evident, but how to work it all out is not.

Another complicating factor which must be taken in consideration is that the year the rule of King A ends is the same year the rule of King B begins. They are not separate years. If we would simply total up the years mentioned, we would end up with too many.

One final complication should be mentioned. Ancient Israel had two New Years ─ one in the Spring (religious), and one in the Autumn (civil). Later in their history (Babylonian captivity) only the Spring New Year was observed.

This simplified overview of things better positions us to look into the subject of Biblical Chronology and Genealogies.

In our next post we’ll come to our specific area of interest: biblical chronology and genealogies.

Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).

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