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Vol. II • 1979

The Biblical Chronology Question:  An Analysis
   by James B. Jordan

  In evangelical circles the question of the chronology of the Bible is generally assumed to have been laid to rest by William H. Green's 1890 essay "Primeval Chronology," which indeed has seen recent republication as a "classic evangelical essay." 1  Despite Green's attempted refutation of the notion that the Bible contains a chronology from Creation forwards. Opponents of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy have continued to refer to the chronology of Scripture as if it were undeniably present in the text as it stands, though erroneous, 2  If this actually be the case - that the Bible teaches a chronology and that chronology is erroneous - then advocates of comprehensive and specific Biblical inerrancy will be obliged to alter their theological position. It is the purpose of this essay to re-open the question of Biblical chronology, and in so doing to ascertain whether indeed the Bible intends for us to have a chronologically accurate picture of the world from Creation forwards, and whether such a chronology need be an embarrassment for evangelical defenders of inerrancy.

  Our procedure will be to make a prima fade case for chronology based upon Scripture evidence and upon the history of interpretation, and then to examine recent evangelical caveats to see if they withstand rigorous scrutiny. We shall close with some observations regarding the significance of our findings.  Anyone who opens the Bible to Genesis chapters 5 and 11 will notice that the age of each father is given for the time of his son's birth. Adam was 130 years old at the birth of Seth, who was 105 years old at the birth of Enosh, and so forth, Thus we appear to have an unbroken chronology from Creation to Abraham. There are no gaps in the sequence: son follows father in strict succession, it seems.  The link between Genesis  5 and  Genesis 11 is established by Gen.6:7 and Gen.11:10 - Arphaxad was born in Noah's 602nd year. Thus at first glance there appears to be good reason to accept the chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11 at face value. 3

  The history of the Christian church corroborates this assessment. Theophilus of Antioch, founder of the Antiochene school of exegetical theology, set Creation at 5509 B.C., using the Septuagint. 4  Augustine accepted the chronology and labored to construct it systematically, seeking to clear up problems created by his Septuagint version. 5  Luther's positive view is seen in his remarks on Gen.1 1:

  But Noah saw his descendents up to the tenth generation. He died when Abraham was about 58 years old. Shem lived about 35 years after Abraham. Shem therefore lived with Isaac about 110 years and with Esau and Jacob about 50 years. It must have been a very blessed Church that was directed for so long a time by so many (pious) patriarchs who lived together for so many years. 6

  John Calvin's view is important in that he was the first modern exegete. eschewing allegorical and procrustean interpretations and allowing the sense of the text to come through clearly and fully in his expositions. In the Inzhtutes (1:14:1) he notes that "the world, now declining to its ultimate end, has not yet attained six thousand years." 7  In another amazing passage Calvin likens the truth of chronology to the truths of the Trinity and of Predestination (3:21:4):   Profane men, I admit in the matter of predestination abruptly seize upon something to carp, rail, bark or scoff at. But if their shamelessness deters us, we shall have to keep secret the chief doctrines of the faith, almost none of which they or their like leave untouched by blasphemy. An obstinate person would be no less insolently puffed up on hearing that within the essence of God there are three Persons than if he were told that God foresaw what would happen to man when he created him. And they will not refrain from guffaws when they are informed that but little more than five thousand years have passed since the creation of the universe, for they ask why God's power was idle or asleep for so long.

  Later affirmations of chronology, drawing at random can be found in John Owen,9  Matthew Henry,10  Keil and  Delitzsch, 11  and Geerhardus Vos. 12 The well-nigh universal acceptance of James Ussher's chronology found in the margins of many Bibles is also confirmation of the prima facie evidence in Scripture for chronology.

  There can be little question but that the reason for evangelical reassessments of the chronology was the rise of evolutionary geology and archeology. In order to protect the Bible from the charge of error in its detailing of the creation, evangelicals frequently turned to the "gap theory," to the "day-age theory," or to the "framework hypothesis" in order to reconcile Gen.1 with the assured results of modern scientific inquiry. The chronology of the Bible also proved an embarrassment, in that scholars were confident that archeological remains from civilizations dating from before 4000 B.C. had been unearthed. Evangelicals were forced either to reconcile the Bible to these hypotheses or else to eschew scnolarly respectability while advocating their own peculiar interpretative schema for geology and archeology. A few "creationist' scholars maintained the traditional Christian view of geology, but until very recently there has been no similar movement in the realm of archeology. For the most part the chronological data of Gen. 5 and 11   have been put aside. Beegle's summary serves to highlight the embarrassing aspect of the matter:  Until geological information disproved the 4004 date, most Jews and Christians (including many alert, even brilliant, persons) thought the genealogy in Gen.5 was intended to show the consecutive history of man. Inasmuch as some evangelicals in the nineteenth century felt the force of the new geological information. they were inclined to stretch the genealogy enough to provide gaps for the scientific data. But how did this relate to the intent of the author? If the geological and other scientific data known today had not been made available to us, would we have doubted that Gen.5 was intended to be chronological? Not likely. The Biblical evidence is too explicit at this point. It is our scientific knowledge that causes us to ignore the clear meaning of the passage. Obviously, then, the intent of the Biblical writer can hardly be accommodated to the scientific facts made available from generation to generation. 13

  Is Beegle correct in what he implies? Have evangelical scholars simply drummed up some artificial and nugatory arguments against Biblical chronology in order to retain academic respectability, or are there in fact aspects of the problem which did not come to light until recent years. aspects of which earlier expositors were unaware? Our procedure will be to examine the arguments against chronology presented by three eminent evangelical theologians, distinguished for their advocacy of the inerrancy of Scripture: Francis A. Schaeffer, Benjamin B. Warfield, and William H. Green. We shall be looking to see if their arguments succeed in refuting the prima fade case for Biblical chronology.  


Francis Schaeffer devotes a full chapter in his booklet No Final Conflict to the matter of "Genealogy and Chronology," in which he attempts to demonstrate that ultimately there is no final conflict between Scripture and scientific truth at this point of apparent contradiction. His first paragraph prejudices his entire discussion:  The question of whether the genealogies should be taken as chronologies is important and must be dealt with at some length. 14 By this opening statement Schaeffer subsumes the question of chronology underthe question of genealogy. This is a common error, but one which can and must be refuted. First of all, there are many chronological statements in Scripture which are in no way tied to genealogies, for instance Ex.12:40. Second, as will be demonstrated, even if there were gaps in the genealogies of Gen.5 and 11, there would still not necessarily be gaps in the chronologies therein recorded. Thus, the question of chronology is not the same as that of genealogy. Schaeffer gives three numbered arguments, but in reality he presents six distinguishable lines of argument First, he notes that "the relationship between the sequence of names and chronology is not always a straight line." 15 Thus, in Gen.5:32 the names of Noah's sons are not given in chronological order. This argument, however, is not relevant to the discussion. The fact that not all Biblical statements are chronologically precise says nothing about those that apparently are. The chronology is not broken with Noah. as noted above, since Gen.6:7 and 11:10 establish the necessary link. We may agree with Schaeffer that in Gen.5:32 and Ex.7:7 "chronology was not "`that the authors had in mind," `` but this says nothing about passages where chronology seems definitely to have been in the authors' (and Author's) minds.

  Second, he notes that some genealogies in the Bible have gaps in them, as compare I Chr.6:3-14 with Ezra 7:2. Gaps in genealogies, however, do not prove gaps in chronologies. The known gaps all occur in non-chronological genealogies. Moreover, even if there were gaps in the genealogies of Gen.5 and 11, this would not affect the chronological information therein recorded, for even if Enosh were the great-grandson of Seth, it would still be the case that Seth was 105 years old when Enosh was born, according to the simple reading of the text. Thus, genealogy and chronology are distinct problems with distinct characteristics. They ought not to be confused.

  Schaeffer's third argument while superficially nugatory, has real relevance for the question of chronology. He notes that if the chronology be correct, Adam, Enoch, and Methuselah would have for a short time been contemporaries. He then notes that this is curious and that we might expect the Bible to say something about it. The situation, however, is only curious to those who approach the Bible with the notion that Adam. Enoch, and Methuselah could not have been contemporaries. But we may ask, why could they not have been? What actually is unusual or strange about it? To ask these questions is to answer them: obviously there is nothing objectively strange or unusual about it at all. After all, the Bible was not written to satisfy our curiosity. Personally, we should like to know more about Melchizedek, but the Bible says little about him. Shall we for this reason say that he never existed? The fact that a given datum of Scripture seems curious or strange to us is no argument for or against it at all. More telling psychologically is the fact that Noah and most of his descendents would have been contemporaries of Abraham. In fact, Shem died only shortly before Abraham died, while Eber outlived him. "Eber" is cognate to "Hebrew" (Gen.1 4:13). For most 20th century evangelicals this does sound strange, but we may note that Luther's statement, given above, demonstrates that it was not always regarded as odd. The strangeness comes to us because we are not used to thinking in terms of it, Why could these men not have been contemporaries?

  Second, the regions of Ur, Padanaram, Egypt, and Canaan are sufficiently far removed from Ararat so that no contact among these men would necessarily have transpired.  Third, even if such contact had taken place, there is no reason for Scripture to satisfy our curiosity with respect to it. It may be, however, that the Gilgamesh Epic could help satisfy our curiosity. Gilgamesh takes a long trip to visit Utnapishtfm, the man who survived the Flood.  When he finally meets Utnapishtim, this man tells him about the Flood in detail. 17  Though the account is greatly garbled, as compared with Scriptural clarity, it is not at all inconceivable that there might be an historical basis for this "legend." Who is to say whether or not, perhaps 300 years after the Flood, some local chieftain decided to search for the legendary old man who survived the Flood?

  Additionally we may note that Melchizedek possessed a full knowledge of God from some source, apparently not from Abram, If the long period of time often assumed between the Flood and Abram were actually the case, we may wonder how knowledge of God survived. What actually is needed is a comparison of scenarios. It is often assumed that knowledge of the true God had disappeared by the time of the call of Abram, and that the family of Abram came to be the only bearers of the knowledge of the true God in the earth. For this to have been the case, a long period of time is needed between the Flood and the call of Abram. Is this scenario correct? Against it stands the knowledge of God on the part of both Melchizedek and Balaam. Also we may note that Job and his friends, though possibly related to Abraham, 18 also had a very clear and acute knowledge of God, even though Job's friends did not properly apply their orthodoxy, as Balaam also did not. Thus, this scenario (that knowledge of God disappeared) does not stand up very well. There were many who knew God during the patriarchal era. The fact that Abraham was from a pagan city does not indicate that all cities were pagan, as the Salem ruled by Melchizedek certainly would not have been. The fact that Abraham was called to service does not imply that he alone was called to salvation during his age. The seed people were not the only saved people.  Schaeffer's fourth argument is that in Gen.1 0:4 a man (Javan) is said to bring forth not individual sons but peoples (Kittim. Dodanim). In 10:7, Cush. Seba. and Havilah are place names, he says, not the names of individuals. The point is that some genealogies are concerned only to give general relationships among peoples. not exact father-son delineations. We grant this point with no difficulty. That Genesis lOis a `Table of Nations" is nowhere questioned. That Gen.5 and 11 are "Tables of Nations" is nowhere asserted, however Schaeffer knows that peoples are intended by 10:4 because of the Hebrew plural (im). This plural does not occur in chapters 5 and 11. The place names in 10:7 are not necessarily place names at all, since places are often named for famous people, especially for patriarchs (cf. Gen.4:1 7). The names in 10:7 may just as easily be those of individual men. Finally, even if we granted that the names in Gen. 5 and 11 are peoples instead of individuals, it would still be the case that Enosh came from Seth when Seth was 105 years old. If these are two groups rather than two individuals, the chronology still stands.  Fifth, Schaeffer notes that the Septuagint adds a name to this list: Cainan. This, however, need be no more problematic than any other Septuagintal deviations from the Hebrew text. More serious, though Schaeffer does not mention it, is the fact that Cainan is included in Luke's genealogy of Christ (3:36). Here again. however. is not a problem for the principle and concept of Biblical chronology, but only an exegetical and hermeneutical problem relating to the nature of New Testament Septuagintal citations.  Sixth, Schaeffer comes to grips with the fact that each father's age is given for the time of the birth of his son in this manner   1.  Some genealogies contain gaps.  2.  Gen. 5 and 11 are genealogies.  3.  Therefore, Gen.5:6 may contain a gap.  4.  Gaps may be paraphrased: "X begat someone who led to Y."  5.  Therefore, Gen.5:6 may be paraphrased: "And Seth lived 105 years and begat someone who led to Enosh."

There are four lines of argument against this logically correct argument. First of all, the question of gaps in the genealogies needs more careful consideration. Custance is of help here:

  We are told again and again that some of these genealogies contain gaps: but what is never pointed out by those who lay the emphasis on these gaps, is that they only know of the existence of these gaps because the Bible elsewhere fills them in. How otherwise could one know of them? But if they are filled in, they are not gaps at all! Thus, in the final analysis the argument is completely without foundation. 19

We may strengthen Custance's argument by pointing out that gaps invariably occur in derivative genealogies, not in the original or foundational ones. Matthew thus is at liberty to arrange his genealogy of Christ in three groups of 14, making some theologically significant omissions, because his genealogy is derived from the complete lists found in the Old Testament and elsewhere. Genesis 5 and 11 are, of course, not derivative but foundational genealogies. Thus, the level of expectation for an omission is likely lower in their case. The omissions in the genealogies of I Chronicles are to be explained in the same manner they are derivative from earlier, probably complete sources. Thus. the argument from gaps is weak, and does not take into account the Biblical-historical context of the various genealogical records.

  Second, a full paraphrase of Genesis 5:6-7 according to Schaeffer's principles makes clear the exegetical gymnastics his position involves: "And Seth lived 105 years and begat someone who led to Enosh. Then Seth lived 807 years after he begat someone who led to Enosh, and he begat sons and daughters." Note that in the simple reading, the sons and daughters are brothers and sisters of Enosh. Schaeffer's forced reading makes them brothers and sisters of some unknown person who led to Enosh. We must ask whether anyone approaching the text with unjaundiced eye would ever imagine it to mean this. The parallelism of meaning in the text is forcefully against Schaeffer's procrustean interpretation.

Thirdly, there is additional internal evidence against Schaeffer's explanation. Gen.5:32 and 11:26 have the same form as every other statement in their series, and employ the same Hiphil imperfect of yalad, yet must be taken, and are taken by all expositors, as detailing a father-son relationship. No one denies that Noah was the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. or that Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Schaeffer's gaps could still exist conceivably, but they are rendered even more forceably unlikely by these counter examples.   Fourth, there is strong external evidence against this interpretation. Schaeffer is ignoring the fact that the various genealogical lists are arranged in a variety of literary forms. The very fact that chronological information is included in Gen. 5 and 11 sets them off from other lists. Moreover, Ex.6:1 6-19 gives a clear illustration of another form of genealogy which gives the age of the patriarchs at the time of their deaths, but not at the time of their sons' births. The fact that a variety of literary options were available to the writer makes it unlikely that the form chosen for Gen.5 and 11  was accidental or irrelevant. The inclusion of the father's age at the time of his son's birth is wholly without meaning or use unless chronology is intended. Are we to assume that the inspiring Spirit has here given us useless and irrelevant information?

  We must conclude then that Schaeffer's alternative, while logically a possibility, is devoid of a solid exegetical base. His arguments can only be sustained by ignoring the established commonsense rules of exegesis and hermeneutics. There is strong internal and strong external evidence against it as well. Thus we conclude that Schaeffer has not defeated the prima facie case for Biblical chronology.

(The conclusion of this article will be contained in the next issue of the CSSH Quarterly.)

 1 Walter C. Kaiser, ed., Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament
    Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972); and also R.C. Newman and H.J. Eckelmann, Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977).
 2 Dewey M. Beegle, Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), pp 186ff.; StephenT. Davis, The Debate About the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), p. 108; James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978).
 3  See Stephen T. Davis, p.47
 4  Martin Anstay, Chronology of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1973), p.24. Originally titled The Romance of Bible Chronology (7913j, p. 44.
 5 City of God, XV: 10ff
 6  Martin Luther, Commentary on Genesis, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand
    Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), p.199.
 7 trans. Ford L Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).
 8  Works, III: 254.
10  Preface to comments on Genesis 5.
11 Introduction to comments on the book of Genesis.
12 Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948). p.58.
13  Beegle, ibid., pp. 187f.
14 (Downers Grove, III.: Inter-varsity Press, 1975), p.37.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., p.38
17 James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: University Press, 1969), pp. 92f.
18  Uz and Buz were sons of Nahor. Abraham's brother(Gen.22:21 (Job was an
    Uzite, Elihu a Buzite. Tema was a son of Ishmael, and Teman a grandson of
    Esau (Gen.25:1 5 and 36:11). Eliphaz was a Temanite. Bildad the Shuhite
    would be a descendant of Abraham by Keturah (Gen.25:2). Zophar the
    Naamathite remains a  problem.  A city in  Canaan called Naamah  is
    mentioned in Josh. 15:41. If Zophar were from there, this would indicate a
    continuing knowledge of God among those not related to Abraham by
    blood. At any rate, the point is established by Meichizedek and Balaam.
19 Arthur C. Custance, The Genealogies of the Bible, Doorway Papers No.24
    (Ottawa: n.p.. 1967), p.3.

"The Biblical Chronology Question:  An Analysis"
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