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Opinion:The Ussher and Thiele Chronologies Compared

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Opinion
This is an original work by Temlakos. Please comment only on the talk page.

The Ussher and Thiele Chronologies Compared

The Biblical chronology dispute shows little sign of being settled. The issues in that dispute are three:

  1. The birth year of Abraham, vis-à-vis the birth year of Terah
  2. The length of the Sojourn of the children of Jacob in Egypt
  3. The synchrony of the kings of the Divided Kingdoms Northern and Southern.

With regard to this last, the two scholars most emblematic of the two opposing sides are James Ussher and Edwin Thiele. This is not to say that either man has had the "last word" on his side. On Ussher's side, that credit belongs to Floyd Nolen Jones; on Thiele's side, it belongs to Leslie McFall. Nevertheless, Ussher and Thiele each laid his respective foundation, and "Ussher chronology" and "Thiele chronology" are the preferred names for the two competing chronological systems.

Acknowledgement and review of literature

I thank one of our most recently joined users, Latent, for his patience, diligence, research into the life and works of Edwin Thiele, and his defense of the Thiele chronology.

The following articles would be useful for review:

Basis of the dispute

The common terminus ad quem for the Ussher and Thiele chronologies appears to be the death of Nebuchadnezzar II in 562 BC. The termini a quo for the two systems differ by forty-five years. Ussher calculates the date of the division of the two kingdoms at 975 BC; Thiele calculates it at 930 BC. On every point before that event, Ussher and Thiele are in full agreement.

Grounds for judgment

Both men, and their defenders, profess to place the Bible as primary. Of late, certain commentators on the Ussher side, most notably Larry Pierce, have charged that Thiele, and McFall after him, have deviated from this standard in an effort to synchronize Biblical chronology with Assyrian chronology. That Thiele in fact is credited with influencing the understanding of Assyrian chronology to bring it into greater harmony with his understanding of Scripture seems to have escaped Pierce.

To impugn the scholarship of either side on the basis of motive is not sound scholarship in and of itself. Neither should we, being creationists, fall into the logical traps into which our evolutionistic colleagues often fall, especially of criticizing the one theory for its failure to conform to the other.

Rather, we must judge each system by its success or failure to satisfy three prime requirements:

  1. That it be self-consistent; in other words, that the internal mathematics of each system be sound.
  2. That it not conflict directly with Scripture at any point.
  3. That at all points it rely on the authority of Scripture. Martin Luther said it best: Sola scriptura.

While a synchrony between these king lists and the king lists and war chronicles of other ancient civilizations is desirable, any extrabiblical evidence must yield to Scripture. The reason for this is simple: Scripture has never been found lacking in recording historical events, nor even in predicting events in the future at the time of its writing. In fact, Scripture has been shown to be an effective predictor of sound science and medicine, often far ahead of the time of its writing.

Problems with the Ussher chronology

To be fair, the Ussher chronology is not entirely without problem. Its consistency with Scripture appears impeccable, and for the most part it is self-consistent. One minor problem with the Ussher chronology concerns the age at siring of King Jehoahaz I, or Ahaz, of the Southern Kingdom. The Bible says:

In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of Jotham king of Judah began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. 2_Kings 16:1-2

And then:

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. 2_Kings 18:1-2

This implies that Ahaz was thirty-six years old when he died, and at that time a son of his, age 25, ascended the throne. This would make Ahaz not more than ten or eleven years old in the year that he sired his son.

The recent criminological history of the United States does contain a case involving a twelve-year-old boy who sired a son on an adult woman. Such a birth is, therefore, physiologically possible. It becomes legally possible when one considers that royal families often arranged the marriages of their children at an early age. The Bible does not tell us why King Jotham brought his son together with his bride when the son was ten or eleven. One must also remember that Ahaz' reign was marred with exceeding wickedness; perhaps Ahaz' history of wickedness—or simple arrogance—dates back to his earliest years.

The current accepted chronology of Thiele and McFall does not have any king or prince siring a son at such a young age. Specifically, Ahaz was fourteen years old, not ten or eleven, according to the Thiele system.

Another problem with the Ussher system is one apparent inconsistency of method of the handling of viceroyships. Jeroboam II, as a matter of clear Biblical record, served as viceroy of the Northern Kingdom in the last twelve years of the reign of his father, Joash of Israel, while Joash was off fighting a war against the proud and arrogant Amaziah. Subsequent to this, Jeroboam II reigns alone for forty years. In the one other documented instance of a viceroyship, King Jehoram begins as viceroy under his father Jehoshaphat five years before the latter's death, and the regnal time given for Jehoram is for his combined reign, not his sole reign. Yet the clear statements of regnal times given in Scripture, and the need to synchronize the two king lists, outweigh this problem.

Problems with the Thiele chronology

The Thiele chronology does, however, have many more problems. Most of these have to do with inconsistency with Scripture. But some have to do with internal inconsistency, in that the maintainers of that system appear to have applied their calculations of lengths of reign, or synchrony between king lists, in an inconsistent manner.

Minor

Concerning Ahaziah of Israel, son of King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom, the Bible says:

Ahaziah son of Ahab became king of Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned over Israel two years. 1_Kings 22:51

The Thiele system seems to imply that the "seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat" was the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat's sole reign. But if Jehoshaphat became viceroy, or coregent, with Asa, then shouldn't Ahaziah synchronize with the viceroyship, and not the sole kingship? In other cases involving assumed viceroyships, the synchrony is with the viceroyship. Such inconsistency of method is in fact one of Larry Pierce's most fierce criticisms of the Thiele system.

Perhaps, however, the Thiele camp wants to identify the Battle of Ramoth-gilead, in which Ahab died and Jehoshaphat was seriously wounded, with the Battle of Qarqar, in which Assyrian records allegedly list Ahab (A-ha-a-bu Si-ri-la-a-a?) as a participant. Conventional chronology states that this battle took place in 853 BC.

Concerning King Jehoram of the Southern Kingdom, the Bible says:

In the fifth year of Joram son of Ahab king of Israel, when Jehoshaphat was king of Judah, Jehoram son of Jehoshaphat began his reign as king of Judah. He was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. 2_Kings 8:16-17

In the Thiele system, those eight years start when Jehoram actually acceded to the throne upon the death of his father Jehoshaphat. But if he became a viceroy before Jehoshaphat went off to fight at Ramoth-gilead (Qarqar?), then that implies that he reigned thirteen years, not eight. And yet Uzziah's reign is given as fifty-two years, including the years of his viceroyalty.

In contrast, the Ussher system shows that Jehoram did begin his reign while Jehoshaphat was still king. Jehoshaphat would die a few years later. The Thiele system assumes a five-year viceroyship; the Ussher system, approximately two. That is not at issue. What is at issue is the inconsistency of method of determining regnal times.

Major

Concerning Kings Amaziah and his son Uzziah, the Bible tells this tragic story of Amaziah's death:

They conspired against him in Jerusalem, and he fled to Lachish, but they sent men after him to Lachish and killed him there. He was brought back by horse and was buried in Jerusalem with his fathers, in the City of David. Then all the people of Judah took Azariah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king in place of his father Amaziah. 2_Kings 14:19-21

The Bible shortly thereafter says:

In the twenty-seventh year of Jeroboam king of Israel, Azariah son of Amaziah king of Judah began to reign. He was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-two years. His mother's name was Jecoliah; she was from Jerusalem. 2_Kings 15:1-2

These two verses clearly show that Uzziah was sixteen when his father died, at which time he became king. Not viceroy under a father who would live on another twenty-four-odd years, but sole ruler.

Pierce assumed that Thiele had totally missed the significance of these verses, and thus had suggested that Uzziah had been named viceroy eight years before he was born. Obviously Leslie McFall had to correct this, and he did. But McFall forgot the juxtaposition of these two verses, that clearly show that Amaziah died when Uzziah was sixteen. Pierce caught the error, but perhaps Pierce's mocking tone might cause his readers to dismiss his complaint. But mockery (and, sadly, argumentum ad hominem) aside, the complaint remains valid: the statement that Uzziah was sixteen years old when he began to reign, repeated not once but twice, still begs explanation.

Concerning the twenty-seventh year of Jeroboam (actually, Jeroboam II: by this is meant the twenty-seventh year after Jeroboam II became viceroy under his father, Joash of Israel. Both the Ussher system and the Thiele system state that Jeroboam II did serve as viceroy in the Northern Kingdom. But whereas Thiele assumes that the forty regnal years ascribed to Jeroboam II included his twelve-year viceroyship, Ussher assumed that viceroyship and forty-year sole reign ran consecutively, the only such instance among all the kings of Israel and Judah.

Concerning the reigns of the Regicides of the Northern Kingdom, specifically of Menahem, Pekahiah, and Pekah, the Bible says this:

In the thirty-ninth year of Azariah king of Judah, Menahem son of Gadi became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria ten years. 2_Kings 15:17

And:

In the fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekahiah son of Menahem became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned two years. 2_Kings 15:23

And finally:

In the fifty-second year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekah son of Remaliah became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned twenty years. 2_Kings 15:27

For "Azariah" read Uzziah. These synchronies show, on their face, that Menahem, Pekahiah, and Pekah succeeded one another and that their reigns were consecutive. The Thiele camp states that Menahem and Pekah had rival reigns that began in the same year, namely in Uzziah's 39th regnal year. Perhaps the twenty years given for Pekah's reign could be said to include the rivalry between him and Menahem and Pekahiah.

But what, then, are we to make of this:

Then Hoshea son of Elah conspired against Pekah son of Remaliah. He attacked and assassinated him, and then succeeded him as king in the twentieth year of Jotham son of Uzziah. 2_Kings 15:30

In the Thiele system, Jotham had begun his viceroyship (when Uzziah was stricken with leprosy) eighteen years before Pekah's assassination, not twenty.

The Ussher system assumes here that the Northern Kingdom fell into disarray, the second time this happened. (The first time was after Jeroboam II died.) This actually has more authority than one might suppose:

Then they will say, "We have no king because we did not revere the LORD. But even if we had a king, what could he do for us?"...Samaria and its king will float away like a twig on the surface of the waters....Thus will it happen to you, O Bethel, because your wickedness is great. When that day dawns, the king of Israel will be completely destroyed. Hosea 10:3,7,15

Concerning Hoshea's eventual ascendancy, during the reign of Jehoahaz I or Ahaz:

In the twelfth year of Ahaz king of Judah, Hoshea son of Elah became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned nine years. 2_Kings 17:1

In fact, the Thiele system has Hoshea ascending his throne immediately after Pekah's death. But Ahaz had only become a viceroy three years earlier, and in fact ascended his throne in the same year as Pekah's assassination according to the Thiele system. Therefore the phrase "twelfth year of Ahaz" begs explanation.

Concerning the accession of Hezekiah:

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. 2_Kings 18:1-2

This, according to the Thiele system, is flatly impossible. Thiele lists Hezekiah ascending his throne in 716 BC, seven years after Hoshea was already dead at the hands of Shalmaneser V, and with no opportunity to be viceroy before then.

Attempted extra-Scriptural warrants

Extra-Biblical statements, most notably from Assyrian chronology, attempt to show that King Ahab took part in the Battle of Qarqar (853 BC), and that King Jehu paid tribute to one of the Shalmanesers about ten years later. There is no Scriptural warrant for either event.

The Bible mentions a king named "Pul" who demanded tribute from Menahem. The Thiele system identifies this "Pul" with the later explicitly identified Tiglath-pileser III. However, Pul is more likely to be King Ashur-Dan III. Ussher himself gives documentary evidence for this identification in The Annals of the World.

Conclusion

Thus the Thiele system still fails the key test of consistency with Scripture, and also suffers from an inconsistency of method. The clear inconsistencies with Scripture, including the reflection of a situation that appears historically impossible, cause the Thiele system to fail. Scholars attempting to synchronize the history of the Northern Kingdom with that of Assyria are encouraged to attempt to do so with the Ussher system, not the Thiele.