Thursday, July 7, 2016

About Time, Part Two: Bible history versus secular history

A hundred years ago, the Bible was viewed as authoritative history – even by people who were skeptical of its spiritual merits. That view has changed. 
As we noted in the previous column, any archaeologist or other scholar who says anything positive about the Bible is immediately branded an unsophisticated religious nut.
Should that be the case? How does the historical record in the Bible stack up against other histories? What exactly are these other historical records that scholars rely on?
The alternatives to the Bible for the history of the Middle East are the records of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and others. But those records are only crumbs, fragments. It is not as if those countries left libraries full of accurate, concise historical records. For example, regarding Assyrian history, one scholar noted:
“Their main purpose was not to give a connected history of the reign, but simply to list the various conquests for the greater glory of the monarch…they rarely have a chronological order.”
Unlike Generally Accepted Dates, there is no “Generally Accepted History” despite many scholars acting as if there were.

For example: if you google “ancient Egyptian history” you’ll find almost as many different timelines for Egypt’s pharaohs as you’ll find websites on the subject. According to one, Egypt was first settled about 3,500 B.C.E. But according to another, farmers were plowing the Nile valley by about 5,000 B.C.E. – a disagreement of 1,500 years. And still others claim Egypt was populated 40,000 years ago.

Since there are no reliable records from any of these countries, what is 'known' about them is in actuality simply the ‘best guess’ based on hieroglyphics and stories written long after the fact. There are huge gaps in the records – in some cases, multiple centuries. The royal scribes were not so much historians as ego-strokers for their mentors. They grossly exaggerated victories and minimized or completely ignored defeats and failures. In many cases they skipped right over unpopular kings. Many of the stone-carved ‘histories’ are literally carved right over the histories of their predecessors.

And nearly all these timelines include gods, demigods, and myths treated with the same validity as historical figures – somewhat like saying the early presidents of the United States included Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and Santa Claus.

For example, the ‘history’ of Sumer starts out:
“When kingship was lowered from heaven… Alulim became king and ruled 28,800 years…”
That list includes three other kings who, collectively, ruled for 108,000 years! Such a “history” is of little use to any serious student.

While the Bible was not written primarily to be a history book, its message requires a historical presentation of the early nation of Israel. In the process, because of recording Israel’s interactions with Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, it also gives some useful insights into those countries. While some scholars are busy sneering at the Bible, they are nevertheless using it to fill in details that are recorded nowhere else.

It also lists all the kings and key figures in the history of biblical Israel, from its beginning, a promise made to Abraham, to its end, when Jesus said, “Your house is now left desolate.” (Matthew 23:38) And it lists them ‘warts and all.’

Instead of painting glowing, exaggerated puff pieces or Paul Bunyan stories, it frankly recounts King Saul’s whining (1 Samuel 15:20, 21), King David’s adultery (2 Samuel 11:4), and King Solomon’s idolatry (1 Kings 11:4)… and those were just the first three kings of Israel! While there are accounts in the Bible that clearly are stories (2 Samuel 12:1-4), there are no mythological figures.

One example of the conflict between biblical history and secular history is the first destruction of the Jewish temple by the Babylonians. The Generally Accepted Date is 587 or 586 B.C.E. If you ask a scholar why that date, you are most likely to get a statement along the order of ‘so-and-so says so.’ 
Trace it back to its origin yourself, however, and you’ll find that about a century ago scholars began giving this date based on a timeline of Babylonian kings written by a Babylonian priest named Berossus who lived centuries after the fact, at the time of Alexander the Great
As with the other ‘historical’ records we’ve already referred to, Berossus’ record:
  1. No longer exists. We have a “Latin translation of an Armenian translation of a lost Greek copy of Eusebius who quotes from Polyhistor who cites Berossus.”
  2. Starts with Babylon (of course) as the birthplace of mankind.
  3. Includes an account of a fish that came out of the water by day and stood on two feet like a man, and talked out of a man’s head below its fish-head. Berossus' story also includes minotaurs, centaurs, horses with dogs' heads, and other weird tales.
  4. Omits several Babylonian kings, some of whom had significant reigns;
  5. Differs significantly from other records, such as Ptolemy’s canon, as to the length of reign of those kings.
Yet historians treat Berossus' record like it’s the Constitution.
Here’s the problem with the 587/586 date. The date when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon – 539 B.C.E. – is set in stone. There is no scholarly disagreement about it. It is based not only on Ptolemy’s canon, but on the histories recorded by DiodorusAfricanus, and Eusebius.

Cyrus freed the Jews within two years after conquering Babylon. If Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 586, that means the Jews were in captivity for only about 48 years. 
But the Bible says:
  • Jeremiah 25:11, 12 “This whole land shall be a desolation, an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it will come about, after seventy years are ended, that I will send punishment on the king of Babylon…and I will make it a waste forever.”
  • Daniel 9:2 “In the first year of his rule, I, Daniel, saw clearly from the books the number of years given by the word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah, in which the making waste of Jerusalem was to be complete, that is, seventy years.”
  • 2 Chronicles 36:21 “To fulfill the word of the LORD in the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of the desolation it kept the sabbath, to the full measure of seventy years.”
  • Zechariah 1:12 "O Yahweh of Armies, how long will you not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah, against which you have had indignation these seventy years?"
So: on the one hand, you have scholars leaning on Berossus the dog-headed-horse storyteller-priest, saying the exile lasted 48 years. On the other hand, you have four different Bible writers saying the exile lasted 70 years.

If we go with 70 years instead of 48, then Jerusalem was destroyed about 607 B.C.E., not 586. Add in the math we did in the previous article, and you push the Exodus back to 1513 and the conquest of Jericho to 1473.

As we said, the Bible is a magnet for Time/Date arguments. According to the Bible:
  • The entire human race came into existence less than 6,100 years ago;
  • There was an earth-wide flood about 4,400 years ago, survived by only elderly Noah and his wife, their three sons - Shem, Ham and Japheth – and their wives;
  • Mankind had one language until a miraculous multiplication of languages about 4,200 years ago;
  • Noah’s sons had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, from whom descended those Egyptians, Babylonians, Israelites and, well, everybody else.
We’ll look at some of these other chronological issues as this series continues.

  Feel free to leave a comment.
  Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this site by purchasing a book.

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