Telling Time in Scripture (part 2/2)

By Fred Zaspel–

Last time we introduced our subject with a survey of ancient calendars and the methods we use to fixing dates of events in the ancient past. We turn now to the study of biblical chronology and genealogies specifically.

Biblical Chronology

Example. Let’s begin with an example of “dead reckoning” in Biblical chronology. 1 Kings 6:1 is a key date in Biblical Chronology. It identifies Solomon’s fourth year of reign as the 480th year after the exodus from Egypt. With more evidence than we need to go into here, it is well established and universally agreed that Solomon’s accession year was 970 B.C. His “fourth” year, then, was 966 B.C. Subtract 480 years, and we come up with 1446 B.C. as the date of the exodus.

We can take this further. Ex. 12:40 informs us that Jacob went to Egypt 430 years before the exodus. This yields a date of 1876 B.C. (1446 + 430). Still further, Gen. 47:9 informs us that Jacob was 130 years old when he went to Egypt. Therefore, Jacob was born in 2006 B.C. (1876 + 130). Moreover, Jacob was born in his father’s (Isaac’s) 60th year. Isaac’s birth, then, was in the year 2066 B.C. (2006 + 60). Again, we know from Gen. 21:5 that Isaac was born when his father, Abraham, was 100 years old. This fixes Abraham’s birth in the year 2166 B.C. (2066 + 100). Gen. 12:4 mentions that Abram was 75 when he left Haran for Egypt. This means that Abram was in Egypt in the year 2091 B.C. (2166 – 75). (This would also indicate, by the way, that the Pharaoh of this incident was Wahkareketi [2120-2070 B.C.] ─ but we’ll not get into that right now!) This is how Biblical dating works. We first find an established date, and we must work from there with whatever information we have.

Further Developments. The Anglican Bishop Ussher of 17th century Ireland did more work in this field than anyone previously. He calculated all the way back to the date of the creation, which he placed at 4004 B.C. (4 p.m., October 23, to be exact!). His dates first appeared in the KJV margin about 1701, when the “B.C.” method was developed. Ussher did not then have the information we have today (eg., the fixed 970 date above), but he accomplished a phenomenal task.

Ussher’s calculations / dates were based on a two-fold premise. First, the numbers and genealogies in the Biblical record. This was a good place to start, but there were problems with the method of which he was not aware. For one, he misunderstood the purpose of ancient genealogies. He assumed that they were for the purpose of providing a strict chronology. This is just not so, as we will see. Next, he was not aware of co-regencies of kings and the overlapping of reigns, as we mentioned above. Third, He did not take into account the overlapping time frame in the records of the Judges. And finally, he failed to give sufficient cross-referencing or checking of his dates by other means. He did not confirm his findings with ancient history, although admittedly there was not much available to him. Nor did he conduct other Scriptural checks, as the example above calculating from Solomon back to Abraham (2166 B.C.). According to Ussher Abraham lived somewhat later, about 2058 B.C.

The Second of Ussher’s assumptions was that God works in 2000 year cycles. This was pure conjecture, an unwarranted assumption ─ but one which survives to our own day. He fixed the birth of Christ at year zero. Back 2000 years to Abraham, another 2000 years to creation, or forward from Christ 2000 years to His second coming.

After Ussher and before real modern times, all conservatives were in agreement his dates, until the 1890s when William Henry Green wrote in Bibliotheca Sacra his article entitled, “Primeval Chronology,” and took Ussher to task. B. B. Warfield later did the same in the Princeton Theological Review (1911). He discredited Ussher’s method by proving the existence of gaps in the genealogical records of Genesis (which we will see shortly). Then until about the 1950s virtually no one in the evangelical world took Ussher seriously — that is, until the creation-evolution debate brought a renewed interest in Ussher with some.

The debate today largely ignores the problems of the dates of the Kings and Judges; the differences here are a little more than a hundred years. The debate still centers on the Genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. Can they be regarded as strict chronologies? Contrary to Ussher, Green’s position was that the genealogies back to Abraham are complete; genealogies before Abraham are not complete. Who was right?

Biblical Genealogies

Before we can decide the issue we must be reminded that we cannot read into the Biblical records our Western contemporary way of thinking. This would miss the important principle of historical interpretation. We must try to put our minds into the frame of reference of the original writers and readers of Scripture. This is only reasonable.

The Purpose of Ancient Genealogies. What was the purpose of ancient genealogies? Biblical genealogies do not appear to be any different from other genealogies in the ancient world ─ Hammurabi, etc. The purpose of these genealogies was two-fold. First, they wanted to trace the basic outline of their history, establish their history of descent. With this purpose in mind it was not necessary to include every link in the family tree, only enough to establish the fact. Hammurabi, for example, gives only two or three links back to some great somebody way back when. This is why Ryrie notes, in Genesis 11, “This selective list of ten generations is recorded for the purpose of tracing the ancestry of Abraham” (Ryrie Study Bible on Gen. 11:10-26; italics added).

The second purpose of ancient genealogies was religious and theological. They wanted to make the point that God (or the gods) has protected this line as promised, and they wanted to show the connection with these past godly people. This is evidently Moses’ purpose in Gen. 5 and 11. Moses did not write this so that we could sit down with our calculators and figure the date of creation. His purpose is not strictly chronological. And if his purpose is not strictly chronological, there is no need for a complete list of all the people in the family tree.

The famous “Abydos King List” from the Temple of Osirus in southern Egypt provides a good example. Here the king who built it put up a list of previous kings on the wall ─ all of them, or so it would seem. Actually, an entire three dynasties are deleted (the Hyksos, who temporarily ruled over Egypt). But the king’s purpose in the list is to show that the gods had preserved the line of kings. The incomplete list accomplishes that very well.

Now there are occasions in ancient documents when the purpose is strictly chronological. This is why in 1 Kings 6:1 there is a year total given. But this is obviously not the case in the genealogies of Gen. 5 and 11.

The Meaning of “Begat.” The meaning of the Biblical term “begat” occasions an interpretive stumble for many. In our terminology “to beget” someone is “to become his father.” It speaks of immediately fathering a son. But in the ancient world “begat” simply indicated “became the ancestor of,” however far removed that ancestor was.

This is easily demonstrated in the Bible. In Mat. 1:8, for example, “Joram begat Ozias.” But a comparison of this with 2 Kings 8:25; 11:2; 14:1, 21; and 1 Chron. 3:11-12 reveals that Matthew skipped over at least 3 generations. Now either Matthew made a mistake ─ a concession we are not at all willing to make ─ or Matthew wrote in keeping with the custom of his day, and “begat” was understandable and understood as “became the ancestor of.” So also in Gen. 11:10-12, “Arphaxad begat Salah.” Luke 3:36 adds another link, “Arphaxad – Cainan – Salah.” Again, neither Moses nor Luke was in error; this is simply the allowed meaning of words.

Take my son’s family tree, for a modern example. Properly, to our way of speaking, it would read like this: “Johann begat Rudolph who begat Albert who begat Fred who begat James who begat Fred who begat James.” The final James, here, is my son whom I “begat.” But in ancient parlance, we could establish my son’s place in the family simply by saying “Johann begat James.” Now in point of fact Johann is Jim’s great-great- great- great- grandfather, but the meaning is clear.

Now if these gaps can be shown in the Genesis record, then the theory that the lists are complete cannot be sustained. In fact, the presence of even one provable gap leaves the whole question wide open.

The Meaning of “Father.” The significance of the word “father” is often overlooked here also. We generally use the word to speak of one’s immediate father. But in the ancient world, with some remnants in the modern world, the term is used with a wider significance. It could mean “father” as we generally understand the term. But it could also indicate, grandfather or ancestor. This is evident in Gen. 10:21, where we read “Shem, the father of all the children of Eber.” We see this also in the Pharisees who were accustomed to speaking of “our fathers,” “the fathers,” “our father Abraham,” etc.

The word “father” can also indicate “predecessor.” King Taharka of Egypt, for example, about 680 B.C. speaks of King Sesostris II as his “father.” But Sesostris II lived around 1880 B.C. Now either this is the longest pregnancy in the annuls of medicine, or the word “father” has a wide range of meaning. In this case, “father” is not even a familial term, for Taharka was a black man of the 25th dynasty, and Sesostris II was a pure Egyptian of the 12th dynasty.

Another Biblical example of this is found in 1 Chron. 1:50-51, where Salma is called the father of Bethlehem. “Washington, the father of our country” is an expression Americans are familiar with and reflects this long-standing usage of the term.

The Meaning of “Son of.” To us “son of” would naturally indicate an immediate male descendent, but not so in the ancient world. For example, in 1 Kings 19:16 and 2 Kings 9:20 Jehu is called “the son of Nimshi,” but in reality he is Nimshi’s grandson. In 1 Chron. 26:24 400 years are skipped when the writer speaks of “Shebuel the son of Gershom, the son of Moses.” And in 2 Kings 16:7 Ahaz writes to Tiglath-Pilesar and speaks of himself as “your son.”

The Symmetrical Structure of Genesis 5 & 11. It is curious that Gen. 5 and 11 are perfectly symmetrical in structure. In Gen. 5 we have Adam to Noah, 10 generations, and the 10th with three children. In Gen. 11 we have Shem to Abram, 10 generations, and the 10th with three children. The closest parallel to this is Mat. 1, where Matthew provides three groups of 14 generations and skips 3 generations to achieve it.

This may provide a hint to the purpose of genealogies. They were not to provide an exhaustive list of everyone in the family tree but to show the line of descent. In days before computers and elaborate charts of family trees, the symmetry may well have been for the purpose of memorization. At any rate, the fact that both Gen. 5 and 11 share identical symmetry makes Ussher’s theory that they were exhaustive lists very suspect.

Implied Inconsistencies. If we were to believe that the genealogies of Gen. 5 and 11 were complete, we would be forced to believe a few other things which appear to be impossible.

Noah & Terah. For example, according to Ussher’s reading, Gen. 5:32 would indicate that Noah’s three sons (Shem, Ham, Japheth) were triplets, and Shem was the firstborn. Moreover, Gen. 11:26 would indicate that Terah had triplets also (Abram, Nahor, and Haran), and presumably Abraham was the eldest. So, now, God is not only working in periods of 2000 years (cf. Ussher), but he is also working according to good poetical structure: 10 generations, and the 10th with triplets.

And there are more of these kind of problems. According to Gen. 5:32, if we would adhere to Ussher’s reading, Shem was born to Noah when Noah was age 500. But according to Gen.7:6 Noah enters the ark at age 600 (100 years later?), and according to Gen. 11:10 Shem “begets” Arphaxad at age 100, “two years after the flood.” And according to Gen. 8:13 the flood lasted over a year. So are three years missing? Is there a contradiction? No. These details are easily reconciled when we understand that 5:32 indicates only Noah’s age when he had his first child, Japheth. Seth, not the firstborn, was born about 3 years later.

The same type of problem arises if we think Terah had triplets at age 70, which, according to our way of thinking, is implied in Gen. 11:26, Abram being the firstborn. But when you study other references to the subject, Abram was not the firstborn of the three, and Terah was not 70 but rather 130 years old when Abram was born. Gen. 11:32 reads “The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.” But Gen. 12:4 tells us that “Abram was 75 years old when he departed out of Haran.” Thus, if Abram left Haran for Canaan after Terah’s death (which Stephen confirms in Acts 7:4), Abram must have been born when Terah was no less than 130. So, to paraphrase Gen. 11:26: “And Terah lived seventy years and begat the first of his three sons, the most important of whom (not because of age but because of Messianic line) was Abram.” The solution fits perfectly, but if we hold to a strict chronology (Ussher), then we end up with contradictions, not solutions.

Noah & Seth? If we would read according to Ussher’s interpretation we would be forced to believe that most of the antediluvian patriarchs were contemporaries of Noah. (In fact the manuscript of the Samaritan Pentateuch would have Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech all living beyond the flood!) Adding up the years as Ussher suggested, Adam died only 126 years before Noah, Seth only 14 years before Noah, and Enoch only 69 years before Noah. All the other patriarchs mentioned in Gen. 5 would have been contemporaries of Noah. Methuselah would have died the year Noah entered the ark. Yet Noah was the only preacher of righteousness? This is impossible.

Eber & Abraham? This line of interpretation would also force us to believe that all of the postdiluvian patriarchs were contemporaries of Abraham. Eber would have lived until Jacob’s 2nd year with Laban. Sound right to you?

Babel and Peleg. Gen. 10:25 places Babel in the time of Peleg. The question is, why, if all these men were contemporaries, is only Peleg mentioned? It would seem that they were not, in fact, contemporaries.

Babel How Late? According to Ussher’s dating, Babel was around 2300 B.C., the lifetime of Peleg (2358 – 2119 B.C.). Now if that is right, then we have to believe that all of the cultures and nations existing at the time of Abraham had begun and become settled in about 200 years! All the way from Babel to Abram in 200 years? This is clearly impossible. Genesis mentions 26 cities in Canaan alone during the time of Abraham; were they all settled in the previous 200 years? We see Abraham in contact with an overflowing population of Kenites, Kenizzites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites. He goes into Egypt with its long history of Pharaohs and its princes (12:15). We could note here that 2000 B.C. would be Egypt’s dynasty 12. Were the previous 11 dynasties all come and gone in 200 years? One pharaoh of dynasty 6 ruled 94 years himself! But there’s more. Abraham rescues Lot and other captives from the cities of the plain near Damascus, having been deported by kings of Shinar, Ellaser, Elam, and Goiim (Gen. 14). Then he is met by a priest king of Salem, Melchizedek. Later he comes into contact with Philistines, who, Jeremiah (47:4) and Amos (9:7) tell us, are from Crete, which then was settled and civilized even earlier. Moses tells us (Deut. 2:23) that before the Philistines came to Canaan from Crete, the Southwestern section of Canaan had been occupied by the Avvim. Now all of these civilizations we must believe arose in a space of about 200 years from Babel to Abram? Clearly, not enough information was allowed to check the theory


Genesis 5 and 11 were never given for the purpose of totalling the number of years back to creation. This was never the purpose of Ancient Genealogies. Gaps in the lists are evident, which is in keeping with the custom of the day. The genealogies should not be read with modern meanings and inferences attached to the words.

If we can read the lists with the frame of mind of its ancient setting, not only does it make perfect sense, but it avoids the inevitable and unsolvable problems and contradictions associated with Ussher’s scheme.

Dates can be fixed with some degree of certainty only as far back as Abraham. Beyond that, we can only surmise.

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).



  1. Don Elmore
    March 8, 2013

    Dr. Zaspel–I enjoyed this article greatly, though I disagree with portions of it. I do agree that Ussher’s chronology is flawed in various ways. Martin Anstey improves his rendering substantially, though I believe that his timeline is also flawed. Our one point of disagreement is this: while I have no problem admitting that all of the partriarchs may or may not have been listed, I do not believe that one can escape the clear language of Gen 5/11. When we read that Adam was, say, 130 years old when Seth was born, Seth could have been born to him as a great-grandson when he was 130 years old. I never saw you address this clear language.

  2. Chronology Buff
    February 27, 2015

    The Bible’s purpose is not to be a chronology or historical treatise, if I understand you correctly. I agree. Nevertheless, were the Bible to make even a single false assertion, then I would have reason to doubt the Bible as the supernaturally and divinely authoritative message to humankind.
    On the other hand, I do acknowledge difficulties, particularly in chronology. There is so much more to learn than what you presented in your brief, two-part, article. (Yes, you were trying to keep it short.) There are translation issues, unfamiliar idiomatic usages, as well as such widespread callousness about giving the inspired writer fair treatment, that, in sum, foster doubt and misunderstanding of the Bible.
    For example, to impose Matthew’s usage of “begat” into the interpretation of Genesis is patently unfair. To render the Hebrew idiom “a son of forty-two years” as “forty-two years old” betrays a lack of curiosity. To discredit Genesis by juxtaposing it with Luke’s genealogy is to ignore the need to research which manuscripts do or do not contain the extra Cainan, and how that insertion may have happened.
    I admire Martin Anstey (who is mentioned in the previous comment) as a very diligent and intellectually honest Bible scholar and chronologist. He did critique Ussher (and many others) on some points. (And Philip Mauro further critiqued Anstey, though in the same spirit of submission to biblical authority.)
    Anstey calls upon us to reconsider our nearly universal acceptance of Ptolemaic dates (particularly for the period from Cyrus the Great to Alexander the Great) because of what he shows to be flimsy evidence. Consensus, no matter how broad, can never replace meticulous historical proof.
    To me, it’s far more satisfying to calculate the years from Adam forward. With that approach, we have the advantage of explicit biblical statements from Adam to Joshua–a good start. It takes more careful study though, to follow the biblical timeline through the judges and the kings, especially after Solomon. But Anstey demonstrates all of this and more. Using what is explicit in the Bible as a foundation is a much wiser approach than putting one’s faith in Ptolemy’s dates, and extrapolating backward from his assumptions.
    It’s sad to me that Bible chronology is so repugnant among many scholars these days. I applaud you for being willing even to think about, and much more to write about, this topic.


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