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Edwin Thiele

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Edwin Thiele (1895–1986)

Edwin R. Thiele (Born::1895Died::1986) was a missionary, church periodical editor, educator, and Biblical chronologist. He is best known for his influential book on the chronology of the Hebrew kingdom period, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. Thiele's approach to chronology was based on his putting first priority on determining the historical methods and conventions of the ancient authors who gave us the texts of the Old Testament historical books. Coupled with this was his belief that these texts should be considered as primary and authentic historical records unless clear evidence pointed to the contrary. Thiele's resultant chronology has won a place in the scholarly world that has never been achieved by writers who regard the Scriptural historical texts as uninspired and prone to error.


Thiele was born in 1895 in Chicago. He received a B.A. degree from Emmanuel Missionary College in 1918, majoring in ancient languages. In 1920 he and his wife left for a twelve-year missionary tour in China, during which two of their children died. After returning to the United States, he pursued an academic career, receiving his PhD degree in Biblical archeology in 1943. His doctoral dissertation was later modified and published as the book for which he is best known, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, which went through three editions. He was Professor of Antiquity at Andrews University from 1963 to 1965. He died in St. Helena, California in 1986 and is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Thiele's chronology

Considerations when constructing a chronology for the kingdom period

Any attempt to deal with the extensive chronological data in Kings and Chronicles must take into consideration the following questions:

  1. When did the regnal year begin? Jewish history shows two possible candidates. The first is the spring month of Nisan, approximately April in our modern calendar. Moses was commanded to start reckoning the year then (Exodus 12:2), and when months are designated by number instead of name, Nisan is always the "first month." The other candidate is the month of Tishri, roughly October. This started the agricultural year, and the Gezer Calendar, 10th Century BC, lists the months with Tishri as the start of the year. Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) is celebrated in Tishri down to the present day.
  2. Usually the new king did not start on a new year's day, whether that day was in Nisan or in Tishri, but at some other time in the year. Was this first partial year to be considered as year one of the monarch (called non-accession reckoning), or as year zero (accession reckoning)? Both ways of reckoning were done in the ancient Near East, and determining this matter correctly would solve many of the apparent one-year discrepancies in the Bible's numbers.
  3. Several Scriptural references[1] indicate that the reigning king, especially in Judah, established his son as coregent during his lifetime. This was a custom practiced by various Egyptian pharaohs. It was seen as a wise policy in Judah, especially after the disaster that occurred when Solomon did not follow the wise example of his own father in this regard. The same problem that confronts Egyptologists in examining this practice also confronts the Biblical chronologist: were the years of reign given for any monarch in Scripture measured from the start of his coregency, or from the start of his sole reign?
  4. An additional complication is that anyone studying carefully the Scripture's abundant chronological data will find that the two Hebrew kingdoms were using different means of reckoning the years of their kings. When a Judean chronicler gave a synchronism saying that his Judean king began in year X of an Israelite king, would this year X be measured according to the system used at that time in Israel, or would the Judean recorder have imposed his own calendar and way of measuring years onto the Israelite king? The same question applies when a record from the northern kingdom states that their king began in year Y of a Judean king.

The necessity of addressing these four issues

Any system of chronology that does not take into consideration all these questions, and provide a satisfactory answer for them, does not give the Biblical texts a chance to speak for themselves and show which system the ancient scribes were using. These principles are derived from ancient inscriptions that were, in many cases, contemporaneous with the writings of the Scriptural authors. Early interpreters and chronologists, ignorant of these facts from the ancient world, can be excused for making various assumptions in order to explain what did not fit their scheme. But it is not sound scholarship when modern writers still carry on the prejudices of anti-supernaturalist writers like Wellhausen and ignore these findings. Wellhausen decided, a priori, that the involved chronological texts of Scripture could not be trustworthy, and so he imposed on them his own presuppositions, one of which was that there were no coregencies. That would seem to make the construction of a Biblical chronology much easier, but recent authors[2] who follow Wellhausen in this unwarranted assumption have found it necessary to postulate a long series of additional assumptions in order to explain the disagreement of their system with the Scriptural texts and even with secular history.

How Thiele addressed the issues

To Thiele's credit, he did not assume that he knew beforehand how the ancient authors "should have" answered the four questions of the previous section. Instead, he was willing to investigate if the Scripture itself would supply the necessary answers. Further, he assumed that the Scriptural texts should be assumed to be accurate and trustworthy unless the opposite could be clearly demonstrated. His comparison of Scripture's various chronological texts led him to these conclusions:

  1. The texts related to the building of Solomon's Temple, and also concerning Josiah's celebrating the Passover (in Nisan) in his eighteenth year, but several weeks or even months after that eighteenth year began, indicated that Judah was using Tishri years for its monarchs. Comparison of various other texts showed that Israel was not using the same system as Judah. When Nisan years were assigned to Israel, it was found possible to reconcile various texts that previously had not been reconciled.[3]
  2. For the time from the division of the kingdom until the death of Ahab, there were six kings in the northern kingdom, ignoring Zimri's seven-day rule. The reign lengths of these kings sum to 78 years, which is six years short of the 84 year sum for the kings of Judah down to the time of Ahab's death. The implication is that the six kings of Israel were using non-accession years while their counterparts in Judah were using accession years. This is also shown by noting that Nadab of Israel began in year two of Asa of Judah and reigned two years, ending in year three (not year four) of Asa. Nadab's successor, Baasha, began to reign in Asa's third year and ended his 24 years in Asa's 26th (not 27th) year. By similar comparisons, Thiele concluded that although Judah began by using accession years and Israel using non-accession years, during the rapprochement between the kingdoms in the mid-ninth century BC, Judah adopted Israel's non-accession method. Later both kingdoms turned to accession reckoning. That a kingdom could change its way of reckoning a king's years is demonstrated by the case of Tiglathpileser III of Assyria, who counted his years by the non-accession method, contrary to the usual Assyrian accession-year custom.[4]
  3. Many Scriptures that previous chronologists could reconcile only by assuming interregna were found to have a natural explanation once the principles of coregencies were understood. Judean kings for which the chronological data (in addition to occasional explicit references mentioned above) mandate a coregency with his son are Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It is widely acknowledged that the single greatest mistake in Thiele's chronology was his inability to recognize a coregency between Ahaz and Hezekiah, causing him to declare that the synchronisms of 2 Kings 18 between Hoshea of Israel and Hezekiah of Judah represented an error in the Scriptural text. But it was Thiele who was in error here, not the Scripture; his mistake was corrected by later scholars[5] and based on the same principles that Thiele had used elsewhere in constructing his chronology.
  4. The last item mentioned above for consideration was whether a kingdom used its own method of counting regnal years when specifying a synchronism to a reign in the rival kingdom. Here Thiele gave a mixed answer: although each kingdom recognized that the other kingdom's regnal year started at a six-month offset from its own, he assumed that during the time they differed on the accession/non-accession question, each kingdom imposed its own (accession or non-accession) method on the years of the rival king.

Thiele's assumptions regarding this last point has been almost universally followed by those who have accepted his scholarship as offering the best solution to the chronological puzzle of the divided monarchies. Among these were Leslie McFall, whose 1991 Bibliotheca Sacra article established him as the chief living authority in developing further the Thiele tradition. However, in August 2008, McFall stated on his Web site that he was adopting a refinement to the regnal years of Solomon that showed that each kingdom fully used the system of the other kingdom when referring to their kings, instead of the half-measure assumed by Thiele.[6] A necessary consequence of this adjustment is that when Temple construction began in the spring of the fourth year of Solomon (1 Kings 6:1), the BC year was 967 instead of the 966 that is usually given by those who follow Thiele's chronology. The Exodus, 479 years earlier according to the Hebrew text of this same verse, would have been in Nisan of 1446 BC.

Successes of Thiele's Biblical chronology in correcting secular chronology

Occasionally it is stated that Thiele derived his Biblical chronology from that of the surrounding kingdoms and then imposed that chronology on the Biblical texts. This is contradicted by what Thiele himself wrote: "Let it be repeated that the pattern of reign lengths set forth in the present book is not the product of certain arbitrary adjustments to secure a series of predetermined results. Rather, it resulted from a quest to ascertain whether or not the numbers now found in Kings could be brought together into some harmonious arrangement of reigns, and whether or not such an arrangement once produced was in harmony with the established dates of Near Eastern history."[7] In order to refute the idea that Thiele just adjusted numbers until he could match Assyrian or Babylonian dates, Thiele's colleague Kenneth Strand published a whole article that was meant to dispel this misconception. Regarding Thiele, Strand wrote, "His only 'trial and error' procedure was in seeing how the variable factors used by the Hebrew scribes were involved in producing the numbers given in the MT for the lengths of reign and synchronisms of the monarchs of the two Hebrew kingdoms. No dates whatever—either biblical or extrabiblical—were placed in his charts until he had established a pattern of internal consistency based solely on the biblical data."[8]

In each instance listed below, new data came to light after Thiele published his basic chronology, and these new data verified his chronology. This could never have happened unless Thiele's chronology was basically a correct description of when the Biblical events actually happened. In each of these instances, Thiele's Biblical chronology has proved correct whereas secular historians were wrong. Among other things, this demonstrates that Thiele's first source for his chronology was the Bible, not the varying opinions of secular historians. It is also a strong argument for the integrity of the Bible's historical statements.

  1. When Thiele began his studies, most Assyriologists placed the Battle of Qarqar, at which Ahab fought, in 854 BC, the sixth year of Shalmaneser V of Assyria. They dated Jehu's tribute in the Assyrian king's 18th year to 842 BC. Thiele could not fit these dates to the Biblical data. But he found a minority opinion, held by a few European Assyriologists, that placed Shalmaneser's regnal years one year later, and that fit the Biblical texts. Thiele, by a study of Assyrian records, was able to show that the minority opinion was correct. He published his revised edition of the Assyrian Eponym Canon in all three editions of Mysterious Numbers. Thiele's revision of Assyrian chronology in this regard is now accepted by virtually all Assyriologists.
  2. Thiele's chronology based on the Biblical texts was not compatible with Samaria falling to Sargon II in 722 BC or later, as held by most Assyriologists when Thiele first published his research. Thiele maintained, based on Scriptural texts, that Samaria must have fallen in 723, and therefore to Shalmaneser V rather than to Sargon II, despite the fact that Sargon II, at a later time in his reign, boasted of conquering Samaria. That Thiele was correct was demonstrated in 1958, when Hayim Tadmor showed, from Assyrian records, that Sargon had no campaigns in the west (i.e., toward Israel) in 722 or 721 BC.[9]
  3. In 1956, Donald Wiseman[10] published the Babylonian tablets which showed that Nebuchadnezzar's first attack on Jerusalem occurred in 605 BC. This is in agreement with the date for the event that Thiele had derived from the Biblical texts. Before then, Albright and other scholars placed the event in 603 BC or later.
  4. More recently, Tadmor published the full extant text of the monument that Tiglath-Pileser III had left in Iran (the "Iran Stele"). This showed that Thiele's assignment of 743 or 742 BC for Menahem's tribute to Tiglath-Pileser (2 Kings 15:19, where Pul = Tiglath-Pileser) was consistent with the new text, whereas the date of 738 BC held by Assyriologists was not consistent with all the data. Once again the chronology derived from the Biblical texts provided a corrective for the erroneous conclusions of secular historians. Although Thiele predicted that his chronology would be shown to be right when the full text of the Iran Stele was published, he died in 1986 and Tadmor did not publish the full text until eight years later.
  5. A separate development has verified Thiele's date for the beginning of the divided kingdom. This was the publication of studies of the Tyrian king list. The list of these kings was recorded in the official archives of the city of Tyre, and also in the writings of Menander of Ephesus (2nd century BC). Both these sources were available in Josephus's day, and both were cited by Josephus as saying that there were 143 years from the time that Dido left Tyre to found the city of Carthage in 825 BC to the 12th year of Hiram of Tyre, and which time Hiram assisted Solomon in the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem. This would place the beginning of Temple construction in 825 + 143 = 968 BC. This date for the beginning of Temple construction is in harmony with Thiele's date of 931 BC for the beginning of the divided monarchy, and especially with the recent revision to Thiele's chronology for Solomon by Leslie McFall[11] that shows that Temple construction began in the spring of 967 BC, in Solomon's fourth year (1 Kings 6:1). Notice that this calculation of the start of Temple construction from the Tyrian king lists is not derived from Thiele's chronology, nor is it derived from Assyrian records.[12]

These various demonstrations show that Thiele did not derive his chronology from secular records, whether Assyrian or Babylonian. Instead, his chronology, based on the Scriptures, has been used to correct the errors of secular historians. In addition, his chronology of the northern kingdom has been verified by later findings that were unknown when Thiele first published his Biblical chronology. In the scientific method, this latter consideration is the final step in the verification that a theory or hypothesis is in accord with physical (or, in this case, historical) reality. Thiele's chronology of the southern kingdom, however, has needed the later corrections applied by Leslie McFall and other historians.

Curriculum Vitae

Major Publications

  • The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, Chicago, IL, 1943 (his doctoral dissertation). Reprinted in 1983, 283 pages, unknown format. ISBN 0310360102.
  • "The Chronology of the Kings of Judah and Israel," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3 (1944), pp. 137-186.
  • The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings went through three editions: 1st ed. New York, McMillan, 1951; 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965; 3rd ed., Grand Rapids, Zondervan/Kregel, 1983.
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  1. 1 Kings 1:34, 1 Kings 1:17 compared to 2 Kings 3:1, 2 Kings 15:5, 1 Chronicles 23:1, 2 Chronicles 11:22.
  2. Jeremy Hughes, Secrets of the Times (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990); M. Christine Tetley, The Reconstructed Chronology of the Divided Kingdom (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005).
  3. Mysterious Numbers (1983 edition) pp. 51-54.
  4. Hayim Tadmor, The Inscriptions of Tiglath-Pileser III, King of Assyria (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994), 232 n. 3.
  5. Siegfried Horn, "The Chronology of King Hezekiah’s Reign," Andrews University Seminary Studies 2 (1964), pp. 48-49; T. C. Mitchell and Kenneth Kitchen, New Bible Dictionary (J. D. Douglas, ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 217; Leslie McFall, "A Translation Guide to the Chronological Data in Kings and Chronicles," Bibliotheca Sacra 148 (1991), p. 33-34.
  7. Mysterious Numbers, p. 18.
  8. Kenneth A. Strand, "Thiele's Biblical Chronology as a Corrective for Extrabiblical Dates," Andrews University Seminary Studies 34 (1996) pp. 297.
  9. Hayim Tadmor, "The campaigns of Sargon II of Assur: A Chronological-Historical Study," Journal of Cuneiform Studies 12, pp. 22-42.
  10. Donald Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings (626-556 B.C.) in the British Museum, London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1956.
  12. For more information on the Tyrian king list, see William Barnes, Studies in the Chronology of the Divided Monarchy of Israel, (Atlanta, GA: Scholar's Press, 1991), pp. 29-55.

External links

See Also