Dating and the Genealogies of Genesis
Notes regarding a timeline of Biblical and Christian history

Many have undertaken the task of trying to date the genealogies of Genesis and to provide correlation with the events of our calendar, B.C. of course.1 Bishop James Ussher's timeline is perhaps the most famous to our generation in the Western Church. This highly educated Anglican Archbishop (1625-1656 A.D.) developed a chronology drawing upon the recorded births and ages of reproduction shown in Scriptures, working back to the creation of Adam and Eve, with a date of 4004 B.C.3 Ussher was aware of the numeric discrepancies between the Masoretic (often called Hebrew) manuscripts, the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint, yet chose to utilize the text traditional to the Western Church. For the purposes of his chronology he chose to follow exclusively the Masoretic, which were the basis of a majority of Latin and English manuscripts of his day.

I have not followed exclusively the Masoretic (Hebrew) dating. Before castigating me as a liberal, heretic, or a disputer of Scriptures, please take a moment to understand why. Up front I will reaffirm my belief that Scriptures are infallible and inerrant as written down. This being said, God knew that His word would be transmitted by fallible humans, out of necessity being translated into diverse languages.  For this reason, He safeguarded His word throughout. Though the words are changed in spelling and phraseology they still clearly communicate His meaning and intent and His eternal message of salvation. A few errors have crept in accidentally, some by omission, others by repetition, more by an incorrect character changing the spelling of a word into another. Yet in all known occurrences most may be corrected by examining the multitudes of manuscripts available. A few, especially those listing Hebrew numbers, have equally viable alternative possibilities making such a correction difficult. Again, it must be emphasized that not one of these variants affects any doctrine of Scriptures - God's word can and has been proclaimed from them all. Many Bibles of the Eastern Church still utilize a manuscript foundation based in the Septuagint, whereas much of the western church derives from the Masoretic.

When Jerome began to revise the Old Latin text, which had been a translation of the Septuagint, he checked the Septuagint against the Hebrew that was then available. He unilaterally decided that the Hebrew text was, in his view, better in testifying to Christ. Therefore he broke with hundreds of years of common use and translated the Old Testament of his new Latin text (later called the Vulgate) from Hebrew rather than Greek (circa 390-405 A.D.). His choice was severely criticized by other contemporaries including the notable church leader, Augustine. In Jerome's defence, it is common practice for translators to work from the original languages, wherever possible, as a translation of a translation may introduce phrasing problems not found in the original.

Centuries later, by the time that English translations first came into existence, most were based on the Latin Vulgate manuscripts then available, and later, the original language manuscripts underlying some of them. It is only in the last century that many translations have worked to incorporate the best of all manuscript branches into their translations. Of course, we now have far more manuscripts available for comparison than anytime in history.

It should be noted that many verses found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly those written in Aramaic the common language of Jesus' day, correspond more closely with the Septuagint than the Masoretic (but, again, remember than the vast majority of these variants are extremely minor grammatical changes, spelling differences or missing words that do not affect the overall meaning of the sentences or paragraphs). This also corresponds to the Old Testament quotations incorporated in our New Testament. A majority of these citations follow the Septuagint phraseology.

All this has been said to show that the Septuagint should not be lightly dismissed, even as the Masoretic text should likewise be consulted. Both represent valid manuscript families that have been used throughout the church in history - God's Word!

So why would I even consider the Samaritan text? Mostly as a tie breaker. It's true that the Samaritans intentionally altered their text for sectarian reasons, hundreds of years B.C., and only embraced their Pentateuch as being the totality of Scriptures. Yet the only aspect which appears willfully altered are texts necessary to make their Mount Gerizim the place to worship God and not Jerusalem (something that was well known in Jesus' day; John 4:20-21). They had no reason or incentive to modify the remainder of the text and actually worked to preserve it through generations of copying.

For reference, this is the approximate dating of the oldest Old Testament manuscript families we have available...

Masoretic - The oldest known substantial portions of this text date to the 9th century A.D. and the oldest complete copy, the Aleppo Codex, to the 10th century A.D. Smaller fragments testify that this document was carefully transmitted by the Jews from a standardized text dating to around 135 A.D. Additionally a number of Dead Sea Scroll fragments (circa 100 B.C. to 70 A.D.) testify to identical phraseology, showing that the later standardized text had ancient roots.

Septuagint - The Sinaiticus (circa 330-350 A.D.) and Vaticanus (circa 310-350 A.D.) are the most complete manuscripts available. Numerous early fragments and citations are known, including in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Septuagint was translated between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. by the Jews for use in the Greek speaking world. It was widely used by the Jews until after the destruction of the temple, when renewed impetus to utilize a Hebrew only text was mandated to unify the Jews and to be in contrast to widespread usage of the Greek by early Christians.

Samaritan - In 1616 A.D. a copy was purchased from a Samaritan community in Damascus and taken to Europe. This document resurrected this manuscript family from virtual oblivion. The oldest copy now in possession of the sect appears to date to about 1200 A.D. Their text has been carefully copied by the sect since at least the 5th century B.C. It was known and cited by early church fathers from Eusebius of Caesarea to Jerome.

With all of the above in mind, this became my rule for assessing dating.

1) If all three manuscript families are in agreement, use it.

2) If any two manuscript families are in agreement, use it.

3) If all three manuscript families don't agree, use the Masoretic (Hebrew).

My only exception to rule #3 came with one occurrence. Here the Masoretic and Samaritan both omit the entire person. Only the Septuagint references that individual, yet because the New Testament refers to this person (obviously referencing a Septuagint genealogy), my assumption is that the Septuagint has to be correct in this place, even though it is alone in its witness.2

The result becomes a workable timeline. It provides enough time for known civilizations that existed before Abraham's time and yet after the worldwide flood. People that should be dead before the global flood are shown to be so (... incorrect dating leading up to the flood could have a Biblical person, other than Noah and his family, living past the flood). Is this timeline perfect and something to be dogmatic over? Not likely. My rule number 3 is quite arbitrary and could have gone toward another manuscript family in a few occurrences. If I had chosen the Septuagint as the default, it would have expanded the timeline even further, though not by more than a few hundred years.

One final note on dating: there is a possibility that the pre-Abraham timeline should otherwise be expanded, beyond what can be exactly determined from Scriptures. Such an expansion would not, in the extreme, add more than a few hundred years, and certainly not thousands of years. The Bible sometimes uses father (the Hebrew word "yalad", or the KJV "begat") in a general sense, casually referring to a descendant that is not necessarily the immediate next generation. Unquestionably, due to other references and interaction of specific individuals, the majority of references in Scriptures do pertain to the next generation. I merely hold that such a possibility does exist in some circumstances, but I am not willing to speculate further or to have such a possibility influence my timeline. An example of a casual usage of the word "father" (Greek "gennao", a corresponding word to the Hebrew "yalad") in a genealogy comes from Matthew 1:8 where we are told that Joram (i.e. Jehoram), of the line of Judah, was the father of Uzziah (also called Azariah). The book of 2nd Kings shows that Uzziah was indeed a "father" in a general sense, but was in fact separated by three generations (See 2 Kings 8:16, 25; 11:1-3; 12:1; 14:1, 21; 15:1-2). The pre-Abraham genealogies of Genesis do not have any total time given, as occurs in the text regarding many later circumstances (i.e. time in Egypt, time of the exodus, time to the exile of the northern kingdom, etc.). Without such, and with the usage of a non-specific word such as "father", God did not intend that we could know with absolute precision how many years were spanned from Adam until Abraham.


End Notes

1. This chart contrasts the calculated time differences that arise from using a specific manuscript family or methodology. The method I have employed, as described in this article, is designated by my initials "BJM".

Creation to the Flood

Flood to the birth of Abraham

Total - Creation to Abraham

Masoretic

1656 years

352 years

2008 years

Septuagint

2262 years

1232 years

3494 years

Samaritan

1307 years

1002 years

2309 years

BJM

1656 years

1072 years

2728 years

Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea, written and revised circa 303-326 A.D.

2242 years

942 years

3184 years

Other Evidences and Scholars

One very early writer in the church, Julius Africanus (circa 170-240 A.D.) also weighed in on this issue. He had compared all the texts available to him and wrote that he preferred the dates based on the Septuagint.

Noted Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the late first century, following the destruction of the temple, wrote in his Antiquities of the Jews; "That history (of the Jews) embraces a period of five thousand years, and was written by me in Greek on the basis of our sacred books." Subtracting (from the 5000) the years between A.D. 70 until Abraham's birth (2086 by Eusebius), or (2233 by BJM), leaves Josephus having creation about 2914 years or 2767 years before the birth of Abraham.

An early Spanish monk, Beatus of Liebana, writing circa 786 A.D., reckoned that Creation was around 5227 B.C. or 5227 years before the birth of Christ, assuming that he used the tranditional calendar date for Jesus' birth (cited by John Michael Greer, Apocalypse Not, p. 62).  I have no details as to how he arrived at his number, but his date comes in between that of Eusebius of Caesarea and mine.

All early dating charts and references that I have found tend toward the longer numbers of the Septuagint manuscripts. For the period of the flood to Abraham, I could find no early dating that comes anywhere close to the shorter Masoretic time frames.

I came across another quite late source (cited by Lindsey Hughes, The Romanovs, p.14), in the Eastern Church, that reflects the longer dating of the Septuagint as well. Russian Bible scholars by 1613 A.D. had calculated that creation took place in 5509 B.C. This number would imply usage of purely Septuagint sources in their determination.

2. Notice the difference between manuscript families...

Genesis 10:24 (Masoretic and Samaritan) Arphaxad was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber.

Genesis 10:24 (Septuagint) Arphaxad was the father of Cainan, and Cainan was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber.

Again...

Genesis 11:12-13 (Masoretic and Samaritan) When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah. 13 And after he became the father of Shelah, Arphaxad lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.

Genesis 11:12-13 (Septuagint) When Arphaxad had lived 135 years, he became the father of Cainan. 13 And after he became the father of Cainan, Arphaxad lived 400 years and had other sons and daughters, and then he died. When Cainan had lived 130 years, he became the father of Shelah. And after he became the father of Shelah, Cainan lived 330 years and had other sons and daughters.

Then consider this almost universally attested New Testament passage...

Luke 3:35-36 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, (NIV)

On the authority of the New Testament, I have no choice but to accept the Septuagint in regards to Cainan, as well as the dating pertaining to him.

The alternate viewpoint on Cainan is that his appearance in Luke is a scribal copying error, duplicating his name from a later line ending (Luke 3:37). Evidence in support of this claim is relatively minimal but worth considering:

  1. The other Old Testament Bible passages that mirror this genealogy don't have the name (i.e. 1 Chronicles 1:18, 24; Genesis 10:24).

  2. No Hebrew manuscripts show the name in Genesis 11:12-13.

  3. First century historian Josephus doesn't list the name in his list as found in his Antiquities of the Jews (1.6.4-5). He was likely working from a copy of the Septuagint.

  4. The Samaritan Pentateuch (as noted), along with other early translations (into Aramaic and Syriac), as well as the later Vulgate (into Latin, circa 405 A.D.), all don't have the name in Genesis 11:12-13

  5. The oldest known copy of Luke (circa 175-225 A.D.), the Bodmer Papyrus XIV-XV (P75), do not show the name in Luke.

Early translations of Luke (including into Syriac and Coptic) do have the name and it becomes hard to judge the multitudes of manuscripts having it, in all languages, by a single manuscript (P75) even though it is admittedly very early. The extra biblical work, The Book of Jubilees (8:1-5), written circa 135-105 B.C., does list Cainan, showing a very early understanding that the name was known. Until more evidence is found, I believe the passage in Luke is better attested as being proper. This opinion is shared by multitudes of translators as the Luke passage continues to be included (without footnote) in all major English translations.

Bishop Usshers chronology, as published in his book "The Annals of the World", may be summarized as follows:

4004 B.C.

Creation

2348 B.C.

Worldwide Flood of Noah's Day

1921 B.C.

Abraham leaves for Promised Land

1491 B.C.

Israel's Exodus from Egypt

1012 B.C.

Begin Building Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem

586 B.C.

Begin Babylonian Captivity / Destruction of Solomon's Temple

4 B.C.

Birth of Jesus