Edwin Thiele


Probably the most important work in objectively dating Old Testament Hebrew kings was done by Edwin Thiele.1  The Hebrew kings have always been difficult and frustrating to date because Hebrew history is not tied to astronomical events.  However, other ancient peoples' histories have been much easier to chronicle because they report astronomical events such as eclipses of the sun in their histories.  This is especially true with the Assyrian kingdom.  Therefore, Thiele sought for a opportunity to link the astronomically dated history of the Assyrians, with whom Israel had definite encounters, to the history of the Hebrew kings in order to have accurate links in time for the history of the Hebrew Kings.  An eclipse of the sun occurred on June 15, 763 BC, and this allowed Thiele to fix every other name in the complete Assyrian lists of rulers from 891 to 648 B.C.2

In addition to the Assyrian records, Thiele was able to double check his accuracy with the canon of Ptolemy (70-161 A.D.).  This canon, called Almagest, recorded astronomically dated history from Nabonassar era in 747 B.C. up through all the Babylonian, Persian kingdoms as well as and up to Alexander the Great.  Ptolemy provided a large number of solar, lunar and planetary positions with their dates, and over 80 of these have been verified by modern astronomers.  Thiele was again able to confirm the eclipse date of 763 B.C. from Ptolemy's canon, and found many other cross references between Assyrian records and Ptolemy's canon.3 

Thiele sought the earliest point of positive synchronism between Israel and Assyria, and he found this during the reigns of Ahab, Jehu and Shalmaneser III.  Thiele found in the records of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III that in the Assyrian's sixth year of reign, Ahab joined forces with the western allies in resisting Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar.4,5  Thiele dated Qarqar at 853 B.C., and he also dated Ahab's death in the same year.  Thiele also pointed out from the records of  Shalmaneser III that this Assyrian king received tribute from King Jehu in the Assyrian's 18th year, and this would fit with Jehu's first year of reign.  Therefore, there are these two early points of positive synchronism between Israel and Assyria which fix the date of Ahab's death and provide a solid point of reckoning chronology for all the Hebrew kings.

The careful Bible student will realize that these two points of synchronism are not found in the Bible.  In fact, chronology is difficult in the account of Ahab in 1 Kings 16:29 through 22:40.  Miller gives the following solution:

Second, there is the problem of chronology. A comparison of the Assyrian and Biblical records would suggest the following. The events recorded in 1 Kings 20 occurred before the battle of Qarqar (853 B.C.), and those preserved in 1 Kings 22 immediately following. Syria, with her vassals, attempts complete defeat of Israel, but fails (1 Kings 20). Israel throws off the Syrian yoke. The advancing Assyrian armies cause Israel and Syria to form an alliance against the greater common foe. Having won a measure of freedom from the Assyrian yoke, Ahab boldly, but unwisely, seeks, but fails, to conquer Syria (1 Kings 22). In this futile effort he loses his life. Since it is generally recognized that the Assyrian sources often exaggerate her victories and minimize her defeats, there is every reason to believe that this is the case in the situation with the battle of Qarqar. Since the scriptures record the activities of Israel's kings in keeping with their standing with God, it is understandable that Ahab's atrocities would receive greater emphasis than his accomplishments.6

Thiele was able to identify 9 solar eclipses that established the chronology of the ancient near east:

ECLIPSES ESTABLISHING THE CHRONLOLGY OF THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST7

Date Eponymy Year of King Year of the
Nabonassar Era
June 15 763 Bur-Sagale 10th year of Assur-dan III  
March 19 721   1st year of Mardokempados 27
March 8 720   2d year of Mardokempados 28
Sept. 1 720   2d year of Mardokempados 28
April 22 621   5th year of Nebopolassar 127
July 4 568   37th year of Nebuchadnezzar 180
July 16 523   7th year of Cambyses 225
Nov 19 502   20th year of Darius 246
April 25 491 31st year of Darius 257

In addition to Thiele's methodology for establishing an absolute date of reference for the history of the Hebrew kings, he also established a methodology for dating the reigns of these Hebrew kings in reference to each other.  The Cambridge Ancient History, which adopted Thiele's chronology for their own use, explains this element of Thiele's methodology as follows:

Thiele has been able to work out a self-consistent structure of dates by presuming first, that there were sometimes co-regencies between kings and their successors; second, that the given figures reflect two different systems of notation--(A) the accession-year system, where the first full year of reign is counted as the king's first year, and (B) the non-accession-year system, where the king's accession is counted as his first year; and third, that throughout the period concerned, the year in Judah was counted as beginning in Tishri (in the autumn) and in Israel in Nisan (in the spring).  According to his system, after the division of the kingdom in 931 B.C., Judah recorded the kings' reigns by system A, and Israel by system B, but Judah changed to system B during the reign of Jehoram in 848, and then at the beginning of the eighth century, both states changed to system A, Israel with the accession of Joash in 798 and Judah with the accession of Amaziah in 796.8

In summary then, Thiele tried to find the most objective framework in which to date the history of the Hebrew Kings.  The most critical part of his methodology was finding some way to relate the Hebrew history to the astronomically dated Assyrian history.  Thiele found an absolute reference point from which all Hebrew kings before and after Ahab could be reliably dated.  It should be noted that Thiele treated the numbers given in the Scriptures with the greatest respect, and instead of rejecting them, he sought to find their meaning without dishonoring God's Word.

The significance of Thiele's work is very great.  It stands in stark contrast to the approach of liberal theologians who deny any meaningful inspiration of Scripture.  They hold that these Old Testament history books were written very long after the events they picture for us, and the unknown writers had no real factual basis for writing about that period.  In effect, they say the Bible is fiction.  However, this is simply not a credible stance.  The kind of objectivity manifest in Thiele is much preferred over the subjective presumptions of the liberals.

Peter J. Huber


There exists a greater problem in establishing an astronomical based chronology for the times before the Hebrew kings with a view toward objectively confirming the biblical chronology for Genesis from extra-biblical sources.  This is desirable not only for the Egyptian intersect with the Hebrews, but also for perspective regarding the patriarchal period.  Here we should consider Huber's work.  Peter J. Huber has many talents and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from ETH Zurich in 1961.  He did post-doctoral work in the statistics department at Berkeley.  He became a full professor at ETH Zurich, and was a visiting professor at Cornell, Yale, Princeton and Harvard.  He became a professor at Harvard University for many years and then MIT.  He then worked at the University of Bayreuth until his retirement in 1999.  His interests have been not only in math and statistics, but also in Babylonian mathematics, astronomy and history.  He has made important contributions in multiple areas of study.9

Peter J. Huber has done previous work confirming eclipse information for Babylonian history from 750 B.C. to 1 B.C. using modern computers.10  He also examined the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa11 using the same technology12.  This tablet records the month and dates of the first and last visibility of Venus as a morning or evening star, and the length in days of its period of invisibility for 21 consecutive years.  Huber's analysis of this tablet showed that the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa strongly favors 1702 B.C. as Ammisadqua's first year of reign.  This would fix Hammurabi's first year of reign at 1848 B.C..  The impact of Huber's research did not escape the notice of The Cambridge Ancient History.  In their 1975 edition, they had favored Hammurabi's ascension date as 1792 B.C.,13 but changed this to 1848 B.C. in the 1991 edition, as can be seen in the following statement:

In 1982 Peter Huber published the results of a long and deep investigation of these matters. He had at his disposal the new edition of the Venus Tablet by Reiner and Pingree, a fuller record of Old Babylonian full and hollow months provided by several Assyriologists, as well as some eclipse records and a few data from the Ur III period. He subjected this material to a highly sophisticated statistical analysis (made possible, not only by his great expertise, but also by the availability of modern computers) and reached the firm conclusion that the 'Long Chronology' made eminent sense, while the others made no sense at all. Thus we have Ammisaduqa i = —1701 (1702 B. C.), so Hammurabi began his reign in 1848 B. C. There seems, then, to remain but two reasonable choices: one must either reject the Venus Tablet as chronological evidence, or accept the 'Long Chronology'.14

This is very interesting as it suggests the possibility that Abraham and Hammurabi were contemporaries.15  This is explored further in http://www.wayhome.org/PatriarchalPeriod.html .

Huber later put his observations into perspective while being interviewed by Buja and Künsch in Novermber, 2005:

Venus phenomena are fairly periodic; they repeat themselves almost exactly after 8 years except that there is a shift in the lunar calendar by 4 days.  After 7 or 8 such periods, 56 or 64 years later, they are shifted about a month, so they are again in step with the moon, plus/minus two days.  For example, the Venus data fit well with a beginning of Hammurabi's reign in 1846 BC (the so-called "long" chronology), but also with 1792, 1784, and 1728 BC (the two "middle" and the "short" chronologies).  These are the four most popular chronologies among historians.  Around 1980, I came back to the problem and showed that the astronomical evidence overwhelmingly favored the long chronology, and that the middle and short ones in all likelihood were incorrect.  This was based on a relatively delicate statistical argument, combining robust, frequentist and Bayesian methods.  Among Assyriologists, some were convinced and some were not.  Some distrusted the corrupt data, and some rejected the long chronology because it leaves a dark period in the middle of the second millennium, a hole without historical information.  There is still a big discussion which chronology is correct.16

We owe a debt of gratitude to Huber who is so multi-talented, and even reads cuneiform, Akkadian, Hittite, and Sumerian.  He has been in a unique position to translate and analyze scientifically such documents as Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa.  That such a great mind would choose the long chronology for dating Hammurabi should give us pause, as it did the authors of The Cambridge Ancient History.

However, we must understand that there remains significant uncertainty regarding the dating of the ancient kingdoms of the Near East prior to the first millennium B.C..  Until we have discovered complete histories of those kings and their regnal years as well as multiple astronomical events recorded in those kingdoms, it is unlikely that we will have certainty about those early dates.


ENDNOTES:
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_R._Thiele
  2. Thiele, ER. The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings: A Reconstruction of the Chronology of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Willam B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, ©1951 by the University of Chicago, pp 41-42.
  3. Thiele, ibid., pp 43-45.
  4. Thiele, ibid., pp 26, 50.
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Carcar_(Qarqar)
  6. Miller, CM. The Living Word Commentary: 1 Kings and 2 Kings. Electronic edition, © 1991 by Abilene Christian University Press, comments on 1 Kings 21.
  7. Thiele, ibid., p 218
  8. The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol III, Part I, 2nd edition. The Prehistory of the Balkans; and the Middle East and the Aegean World, tenth to eighth centuries B.C.. Edited by J Boardman, IES Edwards, NGL Hammond, and E Sollberger. ©1982, Cambridge University Press, p 446.
  9. Buja A & Künsch HR. "A Conversation with Peter Huber," Statistical Science, Vol 23, No. 1, p 120, Institute of Mathematical Statistics, ©2008, p 120. (A PDF copy of this article can be found at the following web address:  http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0808/0808.0777v1.pdf.)
  10. Huber PJ & DeMeis S. Babylonian Eclipse Observations from 750 BC to 1 BC. Milan: IsIAO-Mimesis, ©2004.
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_tablet_of_Ammisaduqa
  12. Huber PJ, with collaboration of A. Sachs, M. Stol, R. M. Whiting, E. Leichty, C. B. F. Walker, G. van Driel. Astronomical dating of Babylon I and Ur III..  Occasional Papers on the Near East, I, Issue 4, Undena Publications, Malibu, Calif., USA. 93 pp. (1982).  (This publication is now very difficult to find, but possibly can be purchased from Undena Publications at www.undena.com .)
  13. The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol II, Part I, 3rd edition. History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region c. 1800-1380 B.C..Edited by IES Edwards, CJ Gadd, NGL Hammond, and S Sollberger, © Cambridge University Press 1975, p 820.
  14. The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. III, Part 2, 2nd edition. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C.. Edited by John Broadman, IES Edwards, and E Sollberger. ©1991, Cambridge University Press, p 280.
  15. Stewart, Ted. Apologetics II: New Discoveries that Confirm the Bible© 2001 Sunset International Bible Institute, Lubbock, TX, p 107.
  16. Buja & Künsch, ibid., in section on "Babylonian Astronomy and Assyriology."