Prophecy Article
Expanded Internet Edition - September 1, 1990 

Chronology: The Key to
Prophetic Understanding - Part 2

By Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1990

 

 

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With prophetic events speeding up in the Middle East, people are once again beginning to set dates for the various events associated with the time of the end. What is appalling is the fact that the vast majority of prophetic interpreters are setting their dates on a faulty Babylonian chronological scheme. It seems that people, for the most part, are not even interested in checking to see if the Babylonian dating system that they have adopted is correct. They assume that it is completely infallible. In this research study, it will be shown that the Babylonian chronology on which prophetic interpreters are solely relying is based on a very shaky foundation and that its superstructure is about as sound as a house of cards. Its is time to get back to the Bible (and true astronomical data) if we hope to understand the period we are now entering.

In Part One of this research study on chronology, it was shown that the Bible has a consistent chronological apparatus of its own that gives a perfect number of years that elapsed from the creation of the first Adam to the advent of the last Adam (Jesus Christ). The number of years in this biblical chronology is exactly 4000 years. This is arrived at by staying completely within the biblical revelation for all our chronological information and not to journey outside the scriptural parameters to link up with Gentile (or secular) chronological schemes. Most people today, however, and this includes preachers, priests and theologians of the Christian denominations, want to abandon biblical chronology at the time of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods (sixth and fifth centuries B.C.) and rely solely on Gentile chronological indications from that time onward.

This is a remarkable maneuver on their part because at the very time the Bible tells us to come out of Babylon," that is when many preachers and theologians turn their backs on the Holy Scriptures and become totally dependent upon Babylonian, Persian and Egyptian historical sources (along with later Greek and Roman ones) for what they believe to be an "infallible" chronology. The normal excuse they use to justify this procedure is their belief that astronomical records connected with historical events for the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. assure the reliability of the Gentile records. It is primarily this belief that prompts most people to adopt secular chronology at this time.

Indeed, virtually every prophetic interpreter of the last 400 years who has set dates for the occurrence of end-time events (including Archbishop Usshur in the King James Version of the Bible) has attached the prophetic time periods indicated in the Bible to this Babylonian chronological scheme. Most scholars today accept it because they assume that it has astronomical facts to justify it. The truth is, those astronomical indications within the historical records do not corroborate the Gentile chronological accounts in the way that most people imagine. It is no wonder that prophetic interpreters have made the mistakes they have. Actually, scholars ought to look at the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods again to see just what the records do in fact state. They relate something far different than what most people imagine today.

Now there is nothing wrong with using secular chronology if it is backed up with true astronomical and historical data. But up to now many discrepancies are found within the Gentile chronologies, and they don't jibe with many astronomical facts or historical statements in the Bible. It is my belief that the Bible provides the veritable key that can help historians and astronomers to straighten out the problems of this important period in the history of the world. The prime problem is the fact that the majority of scholars use Gentile (or secular) chronology as a means for straightening out what they consider to be historical difficulties (and, to them, even errors) in the Bible. They adopt "Babylon and Persia" as the standard for their chronological understanding of the period, rather than let the Bible guide them in standardizing Gentile history and chronology. They are prone to do this because there are some astronomical data that seem to make some Gentile records "certain," while they have no astronomical indications from the Bible (for this period of time) which illustrate the biblical dates.

Certainly, astronomical material should be used to explain the chronology of both the secular and biblical records, but we ought to be assured that the astronomical data are being interpreted correctly. This is where some major problems have emerged. The Gentile chronologies are not as "infallible" as some people feel them to be because some astronomical indications are being misinterpreted today.

What truly needs to be realized by all of us who are doing research in this field is to recognize the practical difficulties that beset all chronological studies of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. Scholars need to investigate again (and with extreme caution) the astronomical and historical texts that the early records provide for us in this crucial period.

The Basis for Gentile Chronology in this Period

It has been said with a great deal of justification that Ptolemy was the one who settled the chronological problems of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods for many people from the second century onward -- and that his beliefs have persisted to this very day as being the basis for all chronological recognition in the period. What he did was to catalogue the occurrence of seven lunar eclipses within the historical records of Babylonian and Persian kings from 747 to 330 B.C. He said there were eclipses of the moon in the 1st and 2nd years of Merodach-baladin of Babylon (March 19, 720 B.C.; March 8, 719 and September 1, 719). He said another eclipse happened in the 5th year of Nabopolassar (April 22, 600 B.C.), another in the 7th of Cambyses (July 16, 522 B.C.), and two more in the 20th and 31st years of Darius Hystapses (November 19, 501 B.C. and April 25, 490).

These seven eclipses scattered throughout the 400 odd years from 747 to 330 B.C. all agree with the modern tables for lunar eclipses and are thus accepted by historians as proof positive that Ptolemy's chronology of the Babylonian and Persian periods is correct -- even infallible!

The great historian Prideaux said:

"Ptolemy's canon being fixed by eclipses, the truth of it may at any time be demonstrated by astronomical calculations, and no one has ever calculated those eclipses but has found them fall in the times where placed; and, therefore, this being the surest guide which we have in chronology, and it being also verified by its agreement everywhere with the Holy Scripture [this was Prideaux's beliefi, it is not for the authority of any other human writer whatsoever to be receded from."

In the middle of the second century of our era a man appeared on the scene who can only be called a genius in understanding the astronomical knowledge of his time. His name was Claudius Ptolemy. Though he was unable to recognize that the earth was not the center of our solar system (this was not discovered until the time of Copernicus in the early sixteenth century), yet Ptolemy was a master at his craft of being an astrologer and astronomer (the terms were practically synonymous in the second century) and he has to rank as one of the greatest scientific scholars of all time.

These are strong words. He hedges in Ptolemy's canon of kings with an aura of authority that all other chronological systems must be judged by Ptolemy, and to Prideaux that included the chronology of the Bible itself. Ptolemy has been looked on as the final judge. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.) says that Ptolemy's canon is "the only authentic source of history of Assyria and Babylonia before the recent discoveries at Nineveh" (article on Chronology). Lloyd and Marshall, two of the world's greatest chronologists, regarded Ptolemy's canon as "the most precious monument of antiquity."

Why is so much authority given to this second century A.D. document preserved by an Egyptian astrologer? It is because of Ptolemy's reference to those seven eclipses of the moon. And, those eclipses, at first glance, do seem to be a powerful set of facts that even the biblical chronological indications must bow to them.

But, is Ptolemy's canon all it's made out to be? Let us see. The first thing that must be asked is why Ptolemy gave only seven eclipses embracing a 400 year period. Any scientific encyclopaedia will inform a person that in any ten year period there are on the average 15 lunar eclipses observable from earth. Out of a 400 year period (the time of the Babylonian and Persian Empires) there were over 600 lunar eclipses visible on earth. It is true that not all of these could be observed from the region of Babylon (the only area Ptolemy was concerned with in his astronomical canon), yet it was possible for the Chaldeans to witness over 300 of them. But of these 300 + eclipses, Ptolemy was able to muster only seven to support his chronological system.

Astronomers (other than historians) have long complained that Ptolemy gave us only a pittance of eclipses when hundreds occurred. In fact, the lunar eclipses mentioned by the ancients have had many problems associated with them. In the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, March, 1968; Professor Heather speaking about the eclipses of ancient times:

"There is no mention of important eclipses which one would have expected to be recorded such as that of 462 B.C. and there are those which are recorded that have no counterpart theoretically" (p.549).

There were indeed many lunar eclipses that occurred where the Babylonians could see them -- very prominent ones -- that are passed over by Ptolemy and other ancient writers as though they never occurred. And, as Professor Heather shows, there are many eclipses mentioned by the classical writers as having occurred which do not fit Ptolemy's eclipse chronology.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.) has this to say about the main eclipses referred to by the ancients:

"F. K Ginzel has collected a great number of passages from classical authors supposed to refer to eclipses of the sun or moon, but the difficulty of identifying the phenomenon is frequently such as to justify great doubt as to the conclusions. In a few cases no eclipses corresponding to the inscription can be found by our modern tables to have occurred [all the tables are based on Ptolemy -- my comment], and in others the latitude of interpretation and the uncertainty of the date are so wide that the eclipse cannot be identified" (vol.8, p.892).

If Ptolemy were correct -- that is, infallible, as suggested by so many historians -- then some of these eclipses observed by the ancients should have found a place on his table of eclipses. However, more often than not, these early records do not agree with Ptolemy's dates. And even the ones that do, they have astronomical data on them which do not match with Ptolemy's dating system. For example, the famous eclipse tablet (mentioned by Ptolemy himself) dated to the 7th year of Cambyses is so filled with astronomical material that make not the slightest sense to modern astronomers that the late Professor Sachs of Brown University (in a personal conversation with me) said he had dismissed the tablet as having no historical value in a chronological sense.

It is true that a few eclipse texts have been found on the cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia which seemingly fit the Ptolemalc scheme (as far as lunar eclipses go). But there are other astronomical data (such as the position of planets within certain constellations or near certain stars) where much uncertainty exists. Some of the Babylonian technical names for stars and constellations are debatable (indeed some names have been "identified" by checking the modern charts for the positions of fixed stars in a particular year which the text is supposed to be referring in order to "discover" what the Babylonian technical names might mean -yet the year being selected could be wrong). This is circular reasoning and can lead one into error.

Let's face it, scholars are not sure what some names of the constellations even in the Bible are supposed to mean (Job 38:32 e.g. "Mazzaroth"), so how can historians be dogmatic that their identification of some of the technical Babylonian names for the various star groups are accurate? Much research still needs to be done in this field before certainty can be claimed.

But what has been the result of putting faith in the few eclipse indications that agree with Ptolemy's canon of kings? Professor Mitchell has this to say:

"As a result of the Babylonian eclipses, it has been necessary to alter the chronology of the Bible by lowering the dates to the extent of twenty-five years" (Eclipses of the Sun, p.19).

But maybe the Bible shouldn't have to be adjusted in the first place. Perhaps it is Ptolemy and his canon that is in error. What is a possible answer to Ptolemy's seven lunar eclipses? Notice this point. The study of eclipses shows that eclipses occur in cycles. For example, if there is an eclipse of the moon at a given time, in 18 years 11 and 1/3 days the same type of eclipse will happen again. This eclipse cycle was known by the Babylonians and its was called the saros.

Understanding the saros, here is what you have. If you find an eclipse record from ancient times (with all its celestial parameters not clearly revealed), you will have several eclipses that may approximate it and all of them separated from one another by a saros period. Suppose you select the wrong saros? You could be 18 years out of phase with real chronology -either too many years or too few. If you are two or three saros cycles out -and especially three saros periods (you would still find a similar eclipse on your tables), but you could be 36 to 54 years out of phase with real history. This could very well be the case with Ptolemy. His seven eclipses do in fact agree with the modern tables, but they do not tally with the simple dates given by the scriptures for the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. Ptolemy could have selected wrong eclipses in different saros periods. There are also a score of other astronomical problems that could have led Ptolemy astray. Now, who is right? Ptolemy or the Bible?

What are the Credentials of Ptolemy?

The long and the short of it is this. The historical world is now relying (basically) on a chronological document prepared in the second century A.D. by an Egyptian who didn't even claim to be an historian. His chief occupation was that of an astrologer. He considered himself as a successor of the ancient Chaldean priests and his profession was devoted to maintaining his priesthood beliefs and customs (Cumont, "Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans," p.82). And though Ptolemy was certainly a very learned man and even a genius, should he be considered as giving us an infallible chronological basis for the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods when many ancient records do not agree with him? He can be a witness, but should he be the judge?

What we should first do is to listen to one of Ptolemy's contemporaries who also was a very learned man. Indeed, this person could be considered as the most respected historian of the time. His name was Plutarch. We ought to hear what he had to say about the chronology of the Neo-Babylonian period. Plutarch's views will give us a great deal of insight into what other professional men were saying near the time Ptolemy was publishing his astronomical canon of kings.

Speaking of an historical event in the Babylonian period (the very time of which we are interested), Plutarch relates about the meeting of the philosopher Solon and King Croesus of Lydia. This was a well documented meeting of these two men, but some people of Plutarch's time were disputing whether it occurred because its dating showed some chronological discrepancies with the canons then becoming accepted. The historians were dealing with something like twenty-five years disparity in the chronological canons. Notice Plutarch (emphasis mine).

"As for his [Solon's] interview with Croesus, some think by chronology that it is fiction. But when a story is so famous and so well attested. I do not propose to reject it out of deference to any chronological canons, so-called: which THOUSANDS are to this day REVISING, without being able to bring their CONTRADICTIONS into any general agreement" (Plutarch, Solon, XXVII, Loeb edition).

Ptolemy was one of the very persons who had to deal with those obvious contradictions. The trouble is, we have accepted his opinion at the expense of all the other historians and chronologists of the time, including the testimony of Plutarch. Frankly, I am willing to throw overboard all those thousands of men trying to resolve the chronological problems of the NeoBabylonian period if true chronology demands it.

But I don't see why we have to jettison the chronology of the Bible for this period if it does not appear to be in harmony with Ptolemy.

This doesn't end the matter with Plutarch. He gave another statement which shows real chronological difficulties in the Persian period, not relating the true history of what was happening in Babylon and Persia a mere 100 years before their time (p.77).

The Key Link-Year To Properly Merge Secular With Biblical Chronology

"Thucydides and Charon relate that Xerxes was then dead, and that it was his son Artaxerxes that Themistocles addressed himself. But Ephorus, Dinon, Clitarchus, Heraclides, and several others, write that Xerxes was then upon the throne. The opinion of Thucydides seems most agreeable to chronology, though this is not perfectly well settled" (Themistocles, XXVII, Langhorne's trans.).

It is interesting that chronologers of the ancient world have not seriously disputed the year that Alexander invaded the Persian Empire, but in the chronology of the Neo-Babylonian and early Persian periods (a mere 200 to 300 years before Alexander), we find that thousands disagreed.

In actual fact, the early priests normally kept the counting of time to themselves and the general public were often kept unaware of past events which happened even a generation or so before. This lack of knowledge of the previous generation is reflected in what Thucydides said (Thucydides was one of the finest of early historians -- c.430 B.C.). He wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War. In his first paragraph he said that history was in such a corrupt state that he could not with certainty tell of events in the very generation that preceded his own.

Then there was Ctesias (c.400 B.C.). He was a Greek physician who lived at the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes Mnemon as the king's private doctor. "During his stay in Persia, Ctesias gathered all the information that was attainable on that country" (Smith, Classical Dictionary). But he was also called the greatest of liars. For example, he faithfully stated that Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes in what we call 877 B.C., yet according to our modern reckoning he was 265 years off the mark. That is just one absurdity out of the many that he fabricated and yet he supposedly got his information directly from the Persian records. Sir John Forsdyke, in his valuable book, "Greece Before Homer," said that Ctesias' Persian informants must have had very short memories.

The most important year in the whole Bible to establish a proper world chronology for all past time (from Adam to the present) is the year in which Jerusalem and Temple were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. This is the only key date that gives a "link-year" from biblical chronology to a precise Gentile time reckoning. The Bible tells us that this crucial "link-year" is the 11th year of Zedekiah (the last Davidic king of Jerusalem) which dovetails with the 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar (II Kings 25:2,8; Jeremiah 52:5,12).

What makes this year crucial (and vitally important for chronological purposes) is the fact that from this year onward the Bible gives only prophetical time indications until the advent of the Messiah (that is, the Seventy Years and Seventy Weeks prophecies of Daniel Nine). All other dates in the Bible (from this time forward) are the years of Gentile rulers -- and this practice continues into the New Testament with the mention of the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1). It is because of this feature that some chronologists insist on going to "Babylon" and Gentile chronology from Nebuchadnezzar 19 onward. But this is wrong! What the Gentiles need to do is to go to the Bible for the correct date of Zedekiah 11 (which equals Nebuchadnezzar 19). It is the Bible that has the proper date (and the Bible has a perfect chronology of 4000 years from the first Adam to the spiritual Adam -- Christ Jesus). It is NOT the Babylonian chronological scheme sanctioned by Ptolemy that should determine (wrongly) when Zedekiah 11 occurred in world history and thereby adjusting all biblical dates to accord with the Gentile scheme. This is where the modern error begins.

Now Ptolemy in his astronomical canon placed Nebuchadnezzar's 19th year in what we call 585 B.C. (while most modern scholars have adjusted Ptolemy slightly and consider the year to be 586, 587 or some even 588 B.C.). But is Ptolemy and the "Babylonian chronology" correct at this time in history? There are many reasons to show that the Gentile scheme is wrong, and this was acknowledged by several historians of the past who relied principally on the Bible.

Josephus (first century A.D.), a historian of the first rank, a priest who had access to and referred to the archives in the temple in Jerusalem as well as all the records in the imperial library at Rome including Babylonian, Egyptian, Jewish, Greek and Persian histories, stated quite confidently that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in what we call 639 B.C. In another place, when he acceded to the Babylonian chronology of Berosus, he said it was 619 B.C.

Ctesias (fourth century B.C.), whom we referred to before (even though he did not follow the Bible), showed Jerusalem's destruction was probably 850 B.C. since he placed the fall of Nineveh in 877 B.C., and he said Nineveh fell 27 years before the destruction of Jerusalem.

Demetrius (last of third century B.C.) was a Jewish historian from Alexandria. He worked out a chronology that was supposed to be with great precision and he stated there were 338 years and 3 months from the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar to King Ptolemy of Egypt (that is, in 222 B.C). Thus, according to his chronology, Jerusalem fell in 560 B.C. See Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1,21,141 for this scheme.

Tertullian (third century A.D.) had an odd way of recording years of the past, but his fall of Jerusalem came to 507 B.C. See Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.3, pp. 158, 159,168.

Africanus (third century A.D.), the first Christian chronologer, stated that Jerusalem fell in 629 B.C. (Archer, Jerome's Commentary on Daniel, p.96).

Hippolytus (third century A.D.), one of the most educated men in Italy, stated that Jerusalem fell in 664 B.C. (Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, p. 147).

Jerome (fifth century A.D.), editor of the chronologies of Africanus and Eusebius, said Jerusalem fell in the year 591 B.C. See Finegan, p.185. All these dates are inconsistent!

Conclusion

What we find is the fact that the chronology of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian worlds was not clearly understood by historians (and even astronomers) within a few decades of some major historical events within the periods. Indeed, we have Plutarch telling us just prior to the time that Ptolemy devised his astronomical canon of kings that thousands of chronologists (using historical and astronomical data) were working to correct the errors that people knew to be resident in that crucial time in history. And even today, we find many of the early Gentile historical records not agreeing with known astronomical indications. Our modern dates for the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods are not as infallible as some people may think.

Of course, new discoveries which would give us more astronomical information concerning the times of the various Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian kings would be most welcome, but of the texts that we already have available, there is no real consensus that all the astronomical and chronological problems have been perfectly worked out.

It is essential for us today that we re-examine what the biblical writers have told us about the proper chronology from the first Adam to the last Adam (Jesus Christ). In my Part One of this research paper I have shown the remarkable circumstance that exactly (to the very day) a 4000 year period has elapsed between the two "Adams." When one looks at the evidence carefully, it may well be that it is the biblical revelation that has the "key" to solve the real chronological problems of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. I believe this to be the fact.

Whatever the case, it is most important that prophetic interpreters do not automatically assume that the 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar (the standard "link-year" between biblical and secular chronology) is equal to 585, 586, 587 or 588 B.C. on our modern chronological scheme. It is by attaching the prophetical time periods to faulty Babylonian dates (which almost all prophetic interpreters for the past 400 years have done) that makes it precarious business to start setting precise dates associated with the end-times. We can know the prophetic dates rather closely, but accurate precision in all chronological matters is not yet with us.

Ernest L. Martin

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