We’re looking at Jack Finegan’s HANDBOOK OF BIBLICAL CHRONOLOGY today. Half the book describes the problems with and the details of dating things in the Bible. We will be studying a few of those things.
First, let’s look at Abraham:
“…In the Bible record the entry of Abraham into Canaan appears to be put by the figures in the Hebrew text at about 1921 B.C. (Ussher), by the figures of the Septuagint at around 1700 B.C. Historically it is at least possible that the Amraphel of Gen 14:1 is to be identified with King Hammurabi of Babylon, and the latter is now probably to be dated about 1728-1686 B.C. [in 1964]”
And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Eliasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations; (Genesis 14:1; KJV)
“Archeologically, conditions in the Negev in general and at Gerar in particular appear to be such as are presupposed in the biblical narrative concerning Abraham either in the period known as Middle Bronze I (21st to 19th centuries B.C.) or in Middle Bronze II (19th to 16th centuries B.C.), perhaps the latter.”
A lot of ‘probables.’ It looks like a ballpark has been established, but it’s not definitive at all. It’s very hard to pinpoint events in such a remote age, even the dates for Hammurabi’s rule have changed since 1964 to 1792—1750 B.C. And Wikipedia, that all-knowing website, puts Abraham’s dates as ~2150 B.C. to ~1975 B.C.
Let’s look at Exodus next:
“The statement in I K 6:1 that it was in the four hundred and eightieth year after the people came out of Egypt that Solomon began, in the fourth year of his reign, to build the Temple, appears to provide a relatively precise date for the exodus.“
And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD. (1 Kings 6:1; KJV)
“Computation on this basis leads to dates for the exodus from 1491 (Ussher) to 1446 B.C. The statement of Ex 1:11 that the Israelites built for Pharaoh the store cities of Pithom and Raamses seems to require, however, that the enslavement immediately prior to the exodus be placed under the famous Pharaoh Ramses II.”
Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses. (Exodus 1:11; KJV)
“According to the best information presently available  the reign of Ramses II is probably to be dated 1304-1237 B.C., and a date of the exodus not too long after 1300 B.C. seems more probable.”
A couple things stick out to me in these excerpts. First of all, who came up with the 1446 B.C. date? Secondly, the author states that the Exodus was probably under Ramses II, which I’ve read in multiple other places. I’m not sure though, why he thinks that the Exodus was early in Ramses’ reign.
But now let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s look at the reign of Ramses II. The author’s best information was 1304-1237 B.C. On www.worldhistory.org the dates for his reign are currently listed as 1279 to 1213 B.C., and www.britannica.com agrees. Not a big difference, but still a difference. And as more time and archaeology goes by, it may change again.
Modern archaeology has more to say on the subject. The city of Pithom, or Per-Atum, or Per Tum, was identified with the modern city of Tall al-Maskhutah in the 19th century. It was thought to be from the period of Ramses II due to statues of him found there. But, excavations have shown that the earliest habitation layers do not predate the 7th century A.D., and it’s been guessed that the statuary was transported there around the 4th century (from britannica.com).
In an article from the Journal of Near Eastern Studies in 1968 by E.P. Uphill called PITHOM AND RAAMSES: THEIR LOCATION AND SIGNIFICANCE, there are many other reasons cited for the unlikeliness of Tall al-Maskhutah being Pithom, providing several plausible alternatives, and then concluding that Heliopolis was the most likely. As for Raamses, the article gave a number of possibilities, but without being able to recommend any of them. On the other hand, an article in the journal Vestus Testamentum called RAAMSES, PITHOM, AND THE EXODUS: A CRITICAL EVALUATION OF EX 1:11 by Bernd Ulrich Schipper from 2015 seems to accept the 19th century point of view as the “classical” point of view, and then goes on to push the idea that ‘Raamses’ mentioned in Exodus 1:11 was not referring to a town, but to the Pharaoh himself! So you can see, this is far from cut and dried.
Let’s move on to the New Testament. I’m going to give you an abbreviated version of Mr. Finegan’s look at the date of Christ’s birth. He goes into excruciating detail figuring out the reign of Augustus in Rome, starting with the death of Julius Ceasar, and the reign of Augustus in Egypt, starting with the death of Cleopatra. He makes multiple tables. Please look at this if you are interested. And for shear scholarship, all of that would be necessary. But I decided to skip to the part where he looks at the statements made by the early Church Fathers, which he backs up with information about Augustus’ reign. Again, this is a rabbit hole, and I just want to give you a flavor of how the dating is done. And remember, this was written in 1964. I know that they are still arguing about the date of Christ’s birth even today, so it’s still not settled.
First we’ll hear about Clement of Alexandria:
“In the STROMATA, written about A.D. 194, Clement of Alexandria says: ‘And our Lord was born in the twenty-eighth year…in the reign of Augustus.’ In the same passage he also says very precisely: ‘From the birth of Christ…to the death of Commodius are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days.’ The emperor Commodius was murdered Dec 31, A.D. 192. From Jan 1, 2 B.C., to Dec 31, A.D. 192, are one hundred and ninety-four years. One month before Jan 1, 2 B.C., is Dec 1, 3 B.C. Thirteen days before that is Nov 18, 3 B.C. This is Clement’s date for the birth of Christ. This date was in the twenty-eighth year of the Egyptian reign of Augustus…”
Next we’ll get Tertullian’s take on it:
“In AN ANSWER TO THE JEWS, written about A.D. 198, Tertullian makes these statements: ‘After Cleopatra, Augustus reigned forty-three years. All the years of the empire of Augustus were fifty-six years. In the forty-first year of the empire of Augustus, when he has been reigning for twenty-eight years after the death of Cleopatra, the Christ is born. And the same Augustus survived, after Christ is born, fifteen years.’ After the death of Cleopatra Augustus reigned almost exactly forty-three factual years in Egypt…In Rome, after the part year in which Julius Ceasar died and before the part year in which he himself died, Augustus reigned fifty-six full calendar years…By the reckoning just indicated…the forty-first year of Augustus was the year 3 B.C.; the twenty-eighth Egyptian year…was 3/2 B.C. After the year 3 B.C…there were fifteen full years of reign remaining, namely…2 B.C. — A.D. 13 inclusive…”
Now, Julius Africanus, who we haven’t heard from previously, and Hippolytus who we have:
“In his CHRONOGRAPHIES Julius Africanus (A.D. c.170 — c.240) placed the birth of Christ in…3/2 B.C., as established above. His contemporary, Hippolytus of Rome ( A.D. c.170—236) also indicates in his CHRONICLE the same date of 3/2 B.C.” [Mr. Finegan points out here that Julius Africanus had Christ’s birth as 5500 years from Adam, and Hippolytus had it as 5502 years from Adam.]
Origen is next, but only to say that he has the same figures as Tertullian. As an aside, I have talked to people who just can’t understand that people in ancient times got around and talked to each other, or that those hand-copied books got around for people to read….they did, and they did.
The next Church Father is Eusebius:
“Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. c.325) says in the CHURCH HISTORY: ‘It was, then, the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, and the twenty-eighth year after the submission of Egypt and the death of Anthony and Cleopatra…when our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ…was born.’ By both factual…and accession-year calendar…reckonings, the twenty-eighth Egyptian year of Augustus extends from August of 3 B.C. to August of 2 B.C….Likewise in the Macedonian calendar in Syria according to the accession-year system the forty-second year of Augustus extends from Oct 1, 3 B.C. to Sep 30, 2 B.C…In the CHRONICLE as translated by Jerome Eusebius says that Augustus reigned fifty-six years and six months, and places the birth of Jesus in the forty-second year. It has already been established…that this probably indicates the same year, 3/2 B.C.”
Epiphanius of Salamis is next:
“Epiphanius (A.D. c.315-403) was born in Palestine and became bishop of Salamis or Constantia on the island of Cyprus in A.D. 357. In his PANARION or ‘medicine chest’ for the healing of all heresies, he states, like Eusebius…that Augustus reigned fifty-six years and six months, and that Jesus was born in his forty-second year. He also says, however, that this was the year when the consuls were Octavian for the thirteenth time and Silvanus. This indicates, therefore, the year 2 B.C., when the consul listing is: Augusto XIII et Silvano…Epiphanius also mentions a different date for the birth of Christ which he says was given by the Algoi. The Alogi, as he calls them, were a group in Asia Minor around A.D. 180 who were opposed to the Montanists. Because the Montanists used the Johannine writings to support their doctrines of the Spirit, this group also opposed the books of John. Epiphanius explains the name he gives them: ‘They reject the books of John. Accordingly since they do not receive the Logos proclaimed by John they shall be called Alogi” According to the Alogi, Christ was born around the fortieth year of Augustus. Assuming the equation by Epiphanius of the forty-second year of Augustus with the year 2 B.C., the fortieth year must have been the year 4 B.C. In the same passage, however, he says that the Alogi put the birth of Christ under the consuls S. Camerinus and B. Pompeianus. Assuming that the latter name means Poppaeus Sabinus, these were the consuls of A.D. 9…Camerino et Sabino.”
It’s interesting that the Alogi are way off of everyone else’s dates. We don’t know who the Alogi were really, but we do know that some of the Church Fathers were only 3 or 4 generations away from the Apostles, and in a direct line of teaching. To me, that makes their information more believable.
Mr. Finegan concludes:
“…Even the earliest preserved dates which we interpret to indicate 4 and 4/3 B.C., however, seem hardly early enough to be acceptable. In the CHRONICLE Eusebius equates the forty-second year of Augustus, in which he places the birth of Jesus, with the thirty-second year of Herod the Great. In the PANARION Epiphanius equates the forty-second year of Augustus, in which he also puts the birth of Jesus, with the thirty-third year of Herod. Both equations seem impossible… [when considering] the dates of the reign of Herod the Great, but both show a recognition of the fact that the birth of Jesus must be placed within the reign of Herod…and it appears that it can be satisfied only by a date of 4 B.C. or probably earlier.”
Confused yet? I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: working out chronology from so long ago, Biblical or not, is very difficult and fraught with problems.
Next time we’ll be back on track with one or two more commentators from the Middle Ages. Take care and I’ll be praying for the light of the Lord in your lives. k