The Biblical Chronology Question: An Analysis
By James B. Jordan
(This is the conclusion of an article begun in the last issue of the CSSHS Quarterly.)
B. BENJAMIN B. WARFIELD
Warfield commences his essay "On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race" 20 with the statement that the question of chronology "became acute" with the rise of the Darwinian hypotheses. Warfield's arguments, insofar as they differ from what has been discussed already, can be summarized under three heads.
First, Warfield argues that it is not the purpose of the genealogies (N.B.) of Gen. 5 and 11 to give chronological information:
These genealogies must be esteemed trustworthy for the purposes for which they are recorded: but they cannot safely be pressed into use for other purposes for which they were not intended, and for which they are not adapted. In particular, it is clear that the genealogical purposes for which the genealogies were given, did not require a complete record of all the generations through which the descent of the persons to whom they are assigned runs: but only an adequate indication of the particular line through which the descent in question comes. Accordingly it is found on examination that the genealogies of Scripture are freely compressed for all sorts of purposes: and that it can seldom be confidently affirmed that they contain a complete record of the whole series of generations, while it is often obvious that a very large number are omitted,21
There are a number of errors in this assertion. First, it simply is not the case that large numbers of generations are omitted from the genealogies. Known gaps are in fact few, and the gaps are not large. Second, it is not true that upon a pn'ma fade inspection these genealogies are not for chronology. In fact, the reverse is the case. Finally, we must ask, and here is the heart of the issue, how the purpose of a given text can be ascertained unless the text in all of its specific details be examined. The fact that it is not the purpose of I Chronicles to provide a chronology does not prove that it is not the design of Genesis 5 to provide one. It would seem to the simple reader that it most certainly is the design of Genesis 5 to provide, among other things. chronological data.
But second, Warfield does not simply wish to argue the purpose of the text but he wants to argue that the text can have only one purpose. This reductionism is apparent in his discussion of the fact that the father's age is given for the time of the birth of his son:
There is, in a word, much more information furnished with respect to each link in the chain than merely the age to which each father had attained when his son was begotten; and all this information is of the same order and obviously belongs together. It is clear that a single motive has determined the insertion of it all; and we must seek a reason for its insertion which will account for all of it. This reason cannot have been a chronological one: for all the items of information furnished do not serve a chronological purpose. Only the first item in each case can be made to yield a chronological result; and therefore not even it was intended to yield a chronological result, since all these items of information are too closely bound together in their common character to be separated in their intention. . . . When we are told of any man that he was a hundred and thirty years old when he begat his heir, and lived after that eight hundred years begetting sons and daughters, dying only at the age of nine hundred and thirty years, all these items cooperate to make a vivid impression on us of the vigor and grandeur of humanity in those old days of the world's prime. . . - This is the impression which the items of information inevitably make on us; and it is the impression they were intended to make on us, as is proved by the simple fact that they are adapted in all their items to make this impression, while only a small portion of them can be utilized for the purpose of chronological calculation. 22
Against this reductionistic argument we have five contraries. First, if the sole purpose of the passage were to make an impression on our minds of the vigor of the patriarchs' humanity, why was the age of the father at the birth of his son even included at all? Ex. 6:16-19 communicates the same impression, without the superfluous information. Does Scripture give us useless information?
Second, these passages also contain other information which cannot be subsumed under the sole purpose of giving an impression of vigor, such as that concerning Enoch (5:24). Other genealogies are replete with such interjections of information. Warfield recognizes this and refers to these as parenthetical insertions. But notice carefully what he has done. First, he arrives at a sole purpose for the text on the basis of ignoring these "parentheses", and then he takes them up again and tells us they are parentheses. This is an informal logical fallacy: he is assuming what he wishes to prove. The presence of these parentheses can just as easily prove that there is not just one sole purpose for these texts.
Third, even if we grant, which we cannot that there can only be one purpose for the text, the truth status of the parentheses must still be assessed. Warfield states:
It is quite true that when brought together in sequence, name after name, these notes assume the appearance of a concatenated chronological scheme. But this is pure illusion, due wholly to the nature of the parenthetical insertions which are made. When placed one after the other they seem to play into one another, whereas they are set down here for an entirely different purpose and cannot without violence be read with reference to one another. 23
This is an extraordinary statement. If it were true that a chronology cannot be worked up without doing violence to the passage. how did expositors throughout all the ages of the Jewish and Christian church before Warfield make so ill a mistake? Calvin, quoted above, intimates that the matter is so obvious that anyone denying the chronology would have to be perverse.
Moreover, note that this argument stands or falls based on the concept of parenthesis, which concept we have shown to be illusory. (What. by the way, is a "parenthesis" anyway? All parenthetical assertions have some relation to the text.) The main point we wish to establish here, however, is that even if these remarks are parenthetical, they are still either true or false. The simplest and most helpful definition of a proposition is that a proposition is a statement which is either true or false."Seth begat Enoch when he was 105 years old" is a proposition. It is either true or false. Warfield seems to be arguing that because the general purpose of this passage is to give an impression of vigor, therefore the specific statements of the passage, especially the "parenthetical" ones, may not be true. He does not state this, but what else are we to make of his remarks? If these "parenthetical remarks" are true, and as a defender of inerrancy Warfield is committed to the idea that they are, then the concatenation of them makes chronology unavoidable.
Fourth, Warfield knows, as a good systematician, that no passage of Scripture has as its broader contextual purpose to leach the full doctrine of the personality of the Holy Spirit. We do not hesitate, however, to draw from passages referring 10 the Holy Spirit those inferences which demonstrate His personhood. and systematize these into a whole doctrine. Thus, even if Warfield were right regarding the overall contextual purpose of Genesis 5, it would not invalidate the chronological use of the material contained in that passage. If we may systematize "random" materials pertaining to the Holy Spirit, why may we not do likewise with materials pertaining to chronology, especially as the materials were not actually scattered at all?
Fifth and finally, contrary to Warfield, the purpose of any Scripture passage is to say what it says. There is no reason to assume that the authors of Gen. Sand 11 were unconcerned about chronology. They may have had numerous concerns, and given the information they set down, they did. If their sole concern had been genealogy, even in a general sense of indicating important personages in the Messianic line, they would not have needed to include any information regarding the lifespans of the patriarchs at all. Lf their dual purposes were genealogy and an impression of vigor, the inclusion of the age of the father at the birth of the son would be superfluous. The fact that the Bible does contain genealogies of these two types demonstrates that they were not literary impossibilities. It remains the case that the text does contain this chronological information, which cannot safely be suppressed in the interest of some supposed overarching purpose.
Warfield's third argument is from the symmetry of the texts: "Their symmetrical arrangement in groups often is indicative of their compression." 24 What Warfield has noted is that each genealogical list begins with an "Adam" (Adam himself and the second Adam, Noah), proceeds through nine other fathers, and issues in three sons from the last named father. It is argued that this symmetry is literary and not historical. Against this we simply note that there is no reason to accept this assertion. There is no reason why Gen. 5 and 11 cannot reflect the actual historical state of affairs; indeed, the inclusion of the father's age at the birth of his son militates against any gaps, as we have seen, and thus favors historical accuracy. Moreover, there is a question of hermeneutics here.
True it is that the number ten (and the number seven, and others) is used symbolically in Scripture to indicate fullness or totality. What, however, is the origin of this usage? Warfield might want to assert that it was simply a literary convention in use already at the time Genesis was set down, but if Wiseman's thesis be correct, and there is much evidence that it basically is, then the tables found in Gen. 5 and 11 are very early indeed. In fact, what seems more plausible is that they are the source of the literary convention, under what is sometimes called in hermeneutics the Law of First Mention. Genesis 1 would then be the origin of the use of seven for fullness, and thus Genesis 1 would involve a literal use of seven, while some subsequent usages would be reflecting symbolically the meaning of Genesis 1. For instance, Matthew's chronology, arranged in three groups of fourteen, would be using the number seven symbolically to point to Christ as a new creation. Similarly, the use of the number ten in later Scriptures would be based upon Gen. 5 and 11. In short, Warfield's procedure is overly systematic and does not do justice to Biblical-theological hermeneutical considerations.
C. WILLlAM H. GREEN
The classic essay attempting to show that the Bible does not commit the evangelical to a chronological scheme dating from Creation forwards was written by William H. Green in 1890. Most of Green's arguments have been surveyed earlier in this paper as they have been reiterated by Schaeffer and Warfield. At the risk of becom1ng tedious, however, it will be well for us to examine closely his account of the crucial matter: the fact that the age of the father is given for the birth of his apparent sun.
Our method will be to cite Green consecutively and intersperse our own observations on his argument. Basically it is the same as Schaeffer's sixth argument examined previously,
Why should the author be so particular to state, in every case, with unfailing regularity, the age of each patriarch at the birth of his son, unless it was his design thus to construct a chronology of this entire period, and to afford his readers the necessary elements for a computation of the interval from the creation to the deluge and from the deluge to Abraham? And if this was his design, he must, of course, have aimed to make his list complete. The omission of even a single name would create an error.
But are we really justified in supposing that the author of these genealogies entertained such a purpose? It is a noticeable fact that he never puts them to such a use himself. He nowhere sums these numbers, nor suggests their summation. No chronological statement is deduced from these genealogies, either by him or by any inspired writer. 26
We must ask whether there is any need for such a summation. It is a simple matter for any person to total up the numbers and figure out the time period for himself. Moreover, the mere fact that these numbers are not explicitly put to a summary chronological use by the text does not make them untrue and thus unfitted for our use to that end.
There is no computation anywhere in Scripture of the time that elapsed from the creation or from the deluge, as there is from the descent into Egypt to the Exodus (Exod. 12:40), or from the Exodus to the building of the temple (I Kings 6:1).
These facts we readily grant, with some reservations respecting Green's interpretation of Ex. 12:40 to which we shall return later. Note, however, that the two periods he mentions are not accompanied by "genealogies" of the sorts found in Gen. 5 and 11 The Scripture clearly does intend to give chronological information at these points, and this should not be overlooked. Chronology is of concern to the writers of the Bible. From this perspective we should be surprised if the Bible did not include chronological data regarding the period from Creation to Abraham, especially since such data can now be obtained from no other source. That chronology is of concern to the Bible (and to its Author) can also be seen from the often difficult and confusing chronology of the Kings of Israel. Thus, we find that it is the intention of the Bible to provide us with chronology from Abraham to the Exile. Some of that chronology is given in summary statements, such as the two Green alludes to, but some is also given interspersed in the histories of the Kings. Is it therefore surprising or unreasonable that some should be given along with genealogies as well? We conclude that the fact that the numbers are not totaled or summarized is no argument against their intended chronological use.
And if the numbers in these genealogies are for the sake of constructing a chronology, why are numbers introduced which have no possible relation to such a purpose? Why are we told how long each patriarch lived after the birth of his son, and what was the entire length of his life? These numbers are given with the same regularity as the age of each at the birth of his son' and they are of no use in making up a chronology of the period
There is an implicit reductionism in this line of reasoning, for it is assumed that the passage can have only one purpose and that all information must dovetail fully to that end. This line of thought we reject for the reason that it is indefensible in the light of basic linguistic considerations. The purpose of the book of I John is to provide Christian assurance, but in arguing to that end a number of factors are brought into play and a good deal of information is given out which in and of itself would not lend necessarily toward assurance of salvation. To encapsulate this argument, there are various sizes of Scriptural periscopes which have varying purposes. The Bible itself may be taken as a literary unity with a purpose. The Torah may be taken as a literary unit with a specific emphasis or message. And soil goes. The specific purpose of the book of Genesis may be different from, though not inconsonant with, the specific purpose of the Bible as a whole. The same thing is true within a periscope of smaller size. The purpose of Gen. 11:18 is to tell us two things: a. that Peleg begat Reu, and b. that Peleg was 30 years old at the time. The overall purpose of Gen. 11:10-26 may simply be to establish a genealogical link between Shem and Abraham, and the specific information given in verse 18 is not altogether essential to that end. The information is, however, given. What do we make of it?
We need to take up the specific details of these two passages to answer Green fully. Genesis 11 gives these pieces of information:
a. the name of the important son. b. the age of the father at this son's birth. c. the age to which the father lived after this son's birth. d. the fact that there were other children.
Note that the total number of years is not given. It is not needed, since we may figure it out for ourselves. The possible meanings and purposes of this passage are: a. to prove that Abraham descended from Shem. b. to show the longevity of the patriarchs (from the totals). c. to show the declining lifespan of humanity (also from the totals). d. to show the fertility of the post deluvial world. e. to provide a chronology.
Are any of these purposes consonant with one another? The answer is obvious. As regards Genesis 5, we note these items of information: a. the name of the important son. b. the age of the father at this son's birth. c. the age to which the father lived after this son's birth. d. the fact that there were other children. e. the total number of years the father lived. f. the fact that the father died or did not die.
Here the total number of years is given. Although we could deduce it for ourselves, our attention is called to it by its specific inclusion in the text. Why?
We believe that the answer is that the text wants us to note that despite the fact that these men lived extraordinarily long lives, and may have seemed immortal, they did in fact eventually die. Then, by contrast, Enoch did not die. Thus the purposes of the passage are: a. to show the longevity of the patriarchs. b. to show the fertility of the patriarchs. c. to call attention to the fulfillment of the curse of death. d. to show that Noah, the second Adam, was descended from the first Adam. e. to provide a chronology.
Note that Warfield only admitted the first two. The emphasis on death is not noticed by him. If his reductionism were correct, all but one of these emphases would have to be rejected. As it is, we feel free to allow the specifics of the text to point us to its comprehensive meanings.
We believe we have answered Green's question as to why all the information provided was actually given. It is true that not all of it tends toward chronology, but it is also true that not all of it tends toward an impression of vigor(longevity and fertility), and not all of it tends toward an emphasis on the fulfillment of the curse. In fact, the information contained in these passages cannot (and need not) all be subsumed under any one satisfactory heading. Green gives as his one purpose:
They merely afford us a conspectus of individual lives, and for this reason doubtless they are recorded. They exhibit in these selected examples the original term of human life. They show what it was in the ages before the Flood. They show how it was afterwards gradually narrowed down. But in order to do this it was not necessary that every individual should be named in the line from Adam to Noah and from Noah to Abraham, nor anything approaching it A series of specimen lives, with the appropriate numbers attached, this is all that has been furnished us.
Green is correct that for the purpose as he gives it, not every individual would have to have been listed. The point is that his one purpose also renders unnecessary the following items of information included in the text: a. the age of the father at the birth of the son. b. the fact that the father died. c. the fact that there were other children.
If the texts only gave the number of years lived by the patriarch, together with the name of his son, Green would be correct in his assessment of the intention of the passage. This is the case in Ex.6:16-18, as we have noted. The fact that Sen. 5 and 11 include additional data destroys Green's thesis.
Green concludes by arguing in the same way as Schaeffer's sixth argument that the text may be paraphrased "X begat someone who led to Y." This hypothesis has been dealt with above.
The only other argument of Green that is not repeated in the later writers we have discussed is that the genealogies of Gen. 5 and 11 bear a similarity with the time of the Egyptian Sojourn in that events are delineated at the beginning and end of the periods, little is said about the middle, and the genealogical tables for the middle are incomplete. 27 There is no need to argue this out, since the comparison is far-fetched, and proves nothing at all either way. We shall, however, make the following points for those who have Green's essay in hand.
1. Careful chronologers agree that the Jews only sojourned in Egypt 215 years. Gal. 3:17 is used to correct Ex. 12:40 for several reasons. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while in Palestine were under Egyptian domination. On this consult Anstey. 26 Mauro, 29 and especially Courville. 30
2. There is no reason. thus, to hold to gaps in Ex. 6:16-22. Considering the comparative ages of Bezaleel and Moses, the fact that he was seven generations from Jacob while Moses was only four is not strange. Moses was already 80 years old when the Exodus occurred.
3. There is not good reason to think that eleven generations passed between Jacob and Joshua. The list in I Chron. 7:23-27 is in the same literary form as I Chr. 6:22-24, which Green himself proves to include brothers as well as sons. No other genealogy is anywhere near that long for the time considered.
4. The confusion created by the view that Israel was in Egypt 430 years is amply illustrated by the tortuous exegesis forced upon Green and Keil (see Green p.1 Sf.) to explain the genealogy of Ex. 6. Taking the genealogy at face value, and the Sojourn in Egypt as 215 years. there is no problem.
5. Contrary to Green, there is nothing strange in the fact that the four sons of Kohath could give rise to 8600 male descendents by the lime of the Exodus. What Green has forgotten is that far more than 70 persons went down into Egypt If Abram had 318 men servants (Gen. 14:14), how many would these have been by the time of the Descent? Jacobs many servants are seen in Gen. 32:16-20: 35:6; 36:6-7. Moreover, the Jews were so numerous that they were given the whole land of Goshen (Gen. 47). The enumeration in Numbers included all the men of the tribe. not just the literal descendents of Jacob, which were also very numerous by this time (cf. Gen. 47:27; Ex. 1:7. 10, 12).
6. Finally, though not much is said about it, the Bible actually does give some indications of what the Jews did in Egypt before they were reduced to bondage. I Chron. 7:21 and 24 doubtless transpired during the Goshen period.
Thus, there is really no reason to impose the kind of confusion on Ex. 6:16-22 that Green attempts. The argument from analogywith the Sojourn breaks down not only because analogical arguments prove nothing, but also because the analogy is false.
We have seen that the only possible argument against the chronology of Scripture is that the text should read ~X lived n years and begat (someone who led to) Y.~ We saw that this ~5 exceedingly far-fetched and replete with difficulties. The two most weighty arguments against this reconstruction are that it would never be thought of by anyone approaching the passage with unjaundiced eye, and that it reduces the data regarding the age of the father at the birth of his descendant to a meaningless triviality. An interpretation which trivializes Scripture may safely be discarded.
Thus we conclude that the Bible unquestionably teaches a chronology from Creation to Abraham. Any evangelical holding to the specific and comprehensive inerrancy of Scripture will be forced, if he looks into it, into accepting this chronology.
E. THEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS
1. Biblical chronology makes a very good test case for the question of inerrancy because a. it seems completely unrelated to the question of personal redemption, and b. it is very embarrassing to maintain. Thus, it has everything going against it and nothing going for it, except that the Bible teaches it. At stake is the specific intellectual authority of the Bible and our willingness to bow poetically before its every datum. At stake also is the comprehensive intellectual authority of the Bible and our willingness to bow noetically to whatever the Bible states as it bears on all areas of life.
2. It is often remarked that chronology is the backbone of history. Christianity is the only truly historical religion in the world. It is intimately and indissolubly bound to history. This being the case, we should expect chronology rather than be surprised at it. The chronology of the Bible only serves to highlight the radical historicity of the Christian faith, and provides an even starker contrast with the cyclical and philosophical faiths of fallen man.
3. The chronology also serves to highlight the Biblical concept of salvation. Biblical salvation is not only individual, it is corporate. It is not only human, it is cosmic. It is not only ethical, it is poetic. The basic meaning of the Biblical word for salvation, yasha, is "to put into a wide, open space." Basically, then, Biblical salvation is a restoration to man's original Edenic position.
Man's tasks in Eden were scientific and esthetic. Among the scientific aspects of his task would be to know and understand the past, and for that purpose chronology would be integral. When we mark that the chronology of the Bible is most specific at the beginning, where there is no corroboration possible from alien sources, and least simple to follow toward the end, where there is ample possible corroboration, then we can appreciate that the chronology is given as part of our salvation in the broad sense. It helps restore us to a portion of our human calling which sin has perverted.
F. SCIENTIFIC IMPLICATIONS
1. The chronology of Scripture establishes the limits for all historical-scientific disciplines at two points: Creation and the world-wide Deluge. With the specific limits established, many disciplines, such as radiometric dating methods and historical genetics, are in a position to reverse their methodology. This should tell us much more about the world that has gone before us.
2. In Archeology, the chronology of the Bible further corrects the erroneous Egyptian chronology of Manetho which is currently the basis of archeological dating. Courville has shown in detail the potential value of Biblical chronology for archeology. 31
G. ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS
1. It is exceedingly difficult for a Christian scholar to achieve respectability while adhering to six-day creationism. To go further and subscribe to "Ussher's Chronology" - in principle if not in fact - is to take upon oneself the mantle of a Yahoo,* Hebrews 13:13,
*Editors Note: I particularly love this line in Mr. Jordan's article. 0 that God would teach us how to be "Yahoos" for Christ. Not petty. rigid, defensive because weak-faithed "Yahoos" but gently confident, good humored because strong-faithed "Yahoos."
2. The author must in closing exhort the reader not to reserve judgment on this matter. On many matters one may be most wise to reserve judgment, but not on a matterwhere God has spoken. We have seen that Biblical chronology is only very tendentiously related 10 the central issues of doctrine and ethics, and has everything going against it and little going for it save that God has spoken. May God grant that the fact He has spoken it be reason enough for our believing it Amen.
20 In Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and
Reformed, 1968). Originally in The Princeton Theological Review IX (1911)
21 Ibid., p. 240f. Emphasis added.
22 Ibid., p. 243f. Emphasis added.
23 Ibid.. p.246. Emphasis added.
24 Ibid, p.247
25 Another example of the use of the Law of First Mention in numerology can be
seen from the use of the number43O in Dan. 12:11. Israel was literally under
Egyptian domination 430 years. but Dan. 12:11 states that the difficult
period of oppression to come will be three times 430 days, which we may
interpret to be thrice as intense but far shorter than the Egyptian period.
Those who endure 45 more days will be blessed(Dan. 12:12). It took Israel
45 years after the deliverance from Egypt to occupy Canaan (Josh. 14:6-10).
In Ezk 4 the number 430 is divided into two unequal pants of 390 and 40 to
express a period of punishment for iniquity which the Israelites would
experience in their Babylonian captivity, here likened numerologically to the
earlier Egyptian period. The later usages build symbolically upon the first
26 William H. Green, in Kaiser, W.C.. ed., Classical Evangelical Essays in Old
Testament Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972) p.23.
27 Ibid., p.24.
28 Martin Anstay, Chronology of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel,
29 Philip Mauro, The Wonders of Bible Chronology (Swengel. PA: Reiner,
30 Donovan Counville, The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications (Loma Linda,
CA: Crest Challenge Books, 1972).