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Assyrian chronology

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Assyrian chronology represents the current state of understanding of the events of the ancient civilization of Assyria and the order of those events.

Ever since the rediscovery of the ancient civilization of Assyria, the attempt to synchronize its history with that of Babylonia and especially Israel have been fraught with dispute. Evangelicals have known this since at least the publication of The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, the doctoral dissertation of Edwin R. Thiele, by the University of Chicago Press (and the subsequent reprints of that work). The common assumption has been that the chronology of Assyria is settled. But, as the discussion below will show, it is anything but settled.

Secular Sources and Debate

The five primary sources, or sets of sources, that secular archaeologists use for assigning dates to ancient Near Eastern kings, battles, et cetera, are:

  1. Ptolemy's Canons of the Kings of Babylonia (747 BC to 539 BC) and Persia (538 BC to 332 BC), starting with Nabonassar and ending with Alexander the Great.
  2. An alleged unbroken series of eponym lists from the Neo-Assyrian Empire, from Adad-Nirari II to Assur-bani-pal. Eponyms are the names of senior magistrates who each gave his name to a particular year. The Encyclopedia Britannica alleges that eponym lists are known back to the first year-of-reign of Tiglath-Pileser I, which they place at 1115 BC. (The list of the consuls of ancient Rome would constitute an eponym list, because the Romans typically called each year "the year of the consulship of such-a-one and such-another-one.")
  3. Two king lists from Babylonia, and the complete list of Rulers of Assyria.
  4. The First Dynasty of Babylon, beginning with Hammurabi--but with no less than three different proposed chronologies.
  5. The list of rulers of Sumer.

The anchor date of the eponym list is supposed to be the Eclipse of Bur-Sagale. Most Assyriologists insist that this took place on June 15, 763 BC (Julian calendar). However, Wikipedians have recently asserted that this date leads to an irreconcilable conflict with the Babylonian calendar.

Secular authorities have attempted to date the Assyrian Empire from as early as 2400 BC. This would be consistent with this founding post-dating the Global Flood, but only if:

  1. These dates are correct, and
  2. One assumes a "long sojourn in Egypt." See Biblical chronology dispute#The Sojourn in Egypt.

The fourth named source above should have provided sufficient evidence to construct a chronology, because it is supposed to have included astronomical records. The Babylonians, by most accounts, were the finest astronomers of the ancient world, and kept meticulous records. Yet reviewers consistently describe these sources as ambiguous and/or difficult to translate with authority.

Significantly, the Bible does not figure in any of the attempts to build an Assyrian chronology. Neither do a large number of ancient writings, from authors like Berosus, Polyhistor, Ctesias, Herodotus, Abydenus, Apollodorus, Alexander of Miletus, Josephus, Georgius Syncellus, Diodorus Siculus, and Eusebius.

James Ussher's Sources

James Ussher's primary source was the Bible. But the Bible does not mention any ruler of Assyria by name from Asshur forward, until the mention of a ruler named "Pul," who attacked the Northern Kingdom during the reign of King Menahem and from him demanded tribute. Ussher identifies this "Pul" as the second-to-last ruler before Tiglath-Pileser III. This ruler probably appears in secular records as Ashur-Dan III. The Bible goes on to mention Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sennacherib.

In addition to the Bible, Ussher used many sources, among them:

  1. Ptolemy's Canon of the Kings of Babylonia and Persia
  2. Simplicius' calculations from the 1903 years of astronomical observations, which Alexander the Great captured during his Babylonian-Persian campaign
  3. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities
  4. Herodotus' Inquiries

The Problem

Secular Assyriologists have at best a fragmentary history of Assyria. From this they have translated a number of inscriptions that seem to indicate three points of possible synchrony between the Neo-Assyrian Empire and the Divided Kingdoms Northern and Southern. They are:

  1. Shalmaneser III "received tribute of the men of Tyre, Sidon and of Jehu, the son of Omri" in the eighteenth year of his reign. So Shalmaneser boasted, in any event, in the Black Obelisk from his time. But Pierce reveals that Shalmaneser III boasted of many deeds that his predecessors had done, and that this sort of historical revisionism is found in many ancient monuments. More to the point, Scripture has no warrant for King Jehu paying any tribute to anyone.
  2. A king whose name reads "A-ha-ab-bu Sir’-i-la-a-a" is supposed to have provided 2,000 chariots and 10,000 infantrymen to Shalmaneser III for the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. This is supposed to be King Ahab. Again, we have only Shalmaneser's word on this. Nor do we know exactly who "A-ha-ab-bu Sir’-i-la-a-a" really is.
  3. Sennacherib attacked the Southern Kingdom in 701 BC, not 710 BC as Ussher reckoned it.

Thiele uses all three points to construct a revised chronology of the Divided Kingdoms. As has been shown elsewhere, this necessitates considerable violence to a straight read of I and II Kings, from the reign of Jehu forward to the Fall of Samaria and the invasion of the Southern Kingdom.

Thiele's argument assumes, however, that the Assyrian chronology is true, complete and correct as stated. Pierce challenges all three assumptions. That challenge has considerable merit for this reason: the secular authorities are not in agreement as regards Assyrian or Babylonian chronology. The disputed Eclipse of Bur-Sagale is a case in point, and so, too, are the three different chronologies of the earliest Babylonian kings.

Donovan Courville, in 1978, proposed yet another chronology attempting to reconcile some Northern and Southern Kingdom synchronies that Thiele totally ignored. His chronology does not fit the strict read of I and II Kings either. Significantly, Thiele challenged Courville shortly after Courville published his article, but in the process committed a number of logical fallacies, chief among which was a proof-by-assertion (that Thiele's numbers were correct and Courville's wrong). Very likely, both men's numbers are wrong, but Thiele's math is especially wrong. He asserts that the I and II Kings lists call for 152 years elapsing between the death of Ahab and the fourteenth year of Hezekiah. In fact such a timespan is not in accord with a straight read of those Scriptures, as the synoptic table of the two king lists shows.

A key point of dispute between those two men concerns the age of Ahaz when his son Hezekiah was born. A strict read of II Kings shows that Ahaz was nine years old at that time. Courville tries to establish that Ahaz was fourteen years old, while pointing out that Thiele's chronology would have Ahaz being a mere two years old. Now Ahaz does not have to be fourteen years old, because precocious puberty is well-known to modern medicine, and that Ahaz should have lived such a wicked childhood is entirely of a piece with his having "done evil in the sight of the LORD" during his reign. (In fact, the police and court records of a major United States city mention a disgusting case of a female schoolteacher who seduced a boy who was twelve years old at the time.) But no record exists of a two-year old boy siring a child.

Conclusion

The chief problem with the Assyrian (and the Babylonian) chronology is that modern researchers have been too quick to discard ancient sources in favor of their own, often inconsistent and discordant, interpretations. These interpretations, coupled with the known tendency of ancient kings to ascribe falsely the deeds of their predecessors to themselves, make any secular chronology a poor authority indeed with which to question a straight and simple read of Scripture. This is the stated position of Larry Pierce and other staunch defenders of James Ussher, all of whom maintain that one could solve many problems with ancient chronology by holding the Bible to be primary and not supposing a translation of a fragmentary and possibly propagandistic historical "record" to be in any way inspired.

Related References

See Also