Secrets of the Times: Myth and History in Biblical Chronology (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament)
Chapter 14 of the second book of Esdras (also known as 4 Ezra) describes how the Jewish scriptures, which had (supposedly) been lost in the destruction of the first temple, were subsequently rewritten under Ezra’s inspired dictation. This produced a total of ninety-four books of sacred scripture, comprising twenty-four books that were to be published openly—and which presumably correspond to the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible—and seventy books that were intended for restricted circulation among the wise. This distinction between esoteric and non-esoteric scripture is said to go back to Moses, who had received the original copies of the scriptures on Mount Sinai. God describes his revelation to Moses as follows: ‘I kept him with me many days. And I told him many wondrous things, and showed him the secrets of the times and declared to him the end of the times. Then I commanded him, saying, “These words you shall publish openly, and these you shall keep secret”‘ (2 Esd 14.3-6).
The secrets of eschatological chronology (‘the end of the times’) evidently held some fascination for the author of 2 Esdras, but they were presumably one of the subjects which Moses was prohibited from publishing openly, since eschatological revelations are notably absent from the canonical books of Moses (the Pentateuch), and the only Biblical book which shows much interest in eschatological chronology is the book of Daniel. But the Pentateuch and other Biblical books do contain a significant amount of chronological information which is historically orientated rather than eschatological in that it is concerned with the past rather than the future. So also does the book of Jubilees, which presents a rewritten account of events from creation to the exodus, and claims to contain revelations which Moses received during the forty days which he spent on Mount Sinai. The book of Jubilees is characterized by a distinctive jubilee chronology, in which the ‘secrets of the times’ are revealed as a chronological scheme of fifty 49-year jubilees from creation to the settlement in Canaan. It is clear from the schematic nature of this figure that the chronology of Jubilees is mythical rather than historical in purpose: it was not primarily conceived as a historical framework for the events which it describes, but is an essentially mythical expression of the belief that history is ordered according to a divine plan. The central thesis of this book is that this is equally true of Biblical chronology, except that I shall qualify this by arguing that parts of the chronology of the Bible originated as a historical chronology which was later ‘mythicized’ by Biblical writers.
The schematic nature of Biblical chronology has been recognized by previous scholars, though it has been largely ignored by twentieth-century scholarship. Julius Wellhausen noted a century ago that Judean regnal years stated in Kings add up to a round total of 430 years for the period from the foundation of the temple in Solomon’s fourth year to its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, and that a 5o-year period of exile (from 587 BC to c. 538 BC) makes a overall total of 480 years which mirrors the 480 years assigned to the period from the exodus to the foundation of the temple (iK6.1). Or again: according to the Masoretic text of the Bible (which underlies almost all English translations) there are exactly 290 years from the birth of Abraham to the entry into Egypt (Gn 21.5; 25.26; 47.9). If we add this to the figure of 430 years for Israel’s stay in Egypt which is given in Exodus 12.40, plus 480 years from the exodus to the foundation of the temple, it is apparent that Biblical chronology (as preserved by the Masoretic text) assigns a round duration of 1200 years to the period from Abraham to the foundation of the temple. It is interesting to note that Archbishop Ussher contrived a similar round duration of 1000 years for the period between the completion of the temple and the birth of Christ. Ussher’s chronology (which was widely printed in the margins of English Bibles until recent times) also incorporated a 4OOO-year interval from creation to the birth of Christ, which is why—in Ussher’s scheme—the world was created in 4004 BC (the birth of Christ is commonly dated to 4 BC, which was the year in which Herod the Great died).
One reason why modern Biblical scholarship has been inclined to overlook the schematic nature of Biblical chronology may be that it is, in a way, rather embarrassing. Modern Biblical scholarship is largely historical in outlook, and considerable effort has been devoted to establishing a reliable chronological framework for the history of the Israelite and Judean kingdoms.
If the chronological data on which this framework is based should turn out to be mythical rather than historical this might be regarded as undermining part of the basis of modern Biblical scholarship. It could be worse than this: if the chronology is mythical rather than historical, the same might also be true of the narrative which contains this chronology. In which case Biblical scholarship may be seriously misguided in its preoccupation with historical fact rather than mythical meaning.
There is, I think, a sense in which the last statement is true. But in the case of Biblical chronology there is also evidence which suggests that it is wrong to draw a sharp antithesis between history and myth. The two chapters which follow are mainly concerned with the mythical character of Biblical chronology from Genesis through to Kings, but chapters four and five contain a reconstruction of the historical chronology of the Israelite and Judean kingdoms which is based on chronological data from the book of Kings. I am not trying to build castles out of sand. The basis for my historical reconstruction of Israelite and Judean chronology is to be found in the fact that certain features of the chronology of Kings—including internal discrepancies between reign lengths and synchronisms—provide evidence to suggest that the chronology of Kings was adapted from an earlier non-schematic chronology. This part of Biblical chronology is outwardly mythical, but it is also based on an originally historical chronology.
Many Biblical scholars avoid using this term in relation to the Bible because they argue that myths are stories about the gods, and that Biblical religion, by recognizing only one God, is therefore inherently non-mythical. This is, in my view, a simplistic definition of myth. A more adequate description would be to say that myth is fiction which is used to express truth. In arguing that Biblical chronology is essentially mythical, I am saying that it uses historical fiction to express ideological beliefs. The most fundamental of these beliefs, which motivated Ussher just as it motivated the original Biblical chronologers, is the belief that there is a divine plan behind human history.
This book is concerned primarily with the chronology of the Hebrew Bible in its various textual forms. The central thesis is that these chronologies are essentially schematic and may be seen as mythical expressions of a belief that human history is ordered according to a divine plan.
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