Friday, March 23, 2007

Biblical chronology

The other day when I was working in ancient history, specifically the 2nd Millennium BC, trying to identify some key events, was a bit unhappy with all the approximate dates I was finding in the reference I was using, and went hunting online for a few others. I ran across the Wikipedia article on ancient chronology, and found that it claims ancient history is pretty solid and well known back to about 750 BC, but before that, the fuzziness gets worse and worse, due to multiple uncertainties in the primary sources that are used for dating. This led down a side track of biblical history. I'm already aware that archaeologists have had difficulty identifying the time and place of key events in biblical history, even those that ought to have left some traces. The Bible itself isn't much help, because there are too many uncertainties in the various time periods such as reigns of kings that it gives, and there are few clear synchronizations to non-Israelite history, especially in the pre-exile period. I'm not a strict biblical literalist...although I do believe that God spoke to prophets, I don't believe that makes the record free of error, and as something of an amateur scholar, I like to have as much independent verification as possible before I trust in something as a fact.
I see that many non-believing and atheistic scholars seem to want to seize on any apparent contradiction between the biblical account and archaeological finds as positive proof that the whole Bible is a piece of fiction, while Christian apologetics is full of amateurs who grasp at straws and spin elaborate theories to supplement missing facts and cannot agree among themselves. This has been a minor irritant for some time, but when I saw again how thin the evidence is for some of the "accepted wisdom", and how it leads otherwise competent people to draw absurd conclusions (for instance that Joshua arrived several hundred years after the destruction of Jericho), or on the other hand, that that 300 years of Egyptian history is missing, it fired up my determination to do something to clarify the situation.
First, with my scientific education, I'm reasonably content with radio-carbon dating as a valid method of getting the approximate date of remains, although I believe that this should be combined with other evidence.
So, I went hunting late last night for more information. I'd encountered a couple of sources before that broadened my mind to other hypotheses for the dating of the Israelite Exodus than the one given. I'm not sure what reasons people give for the dating of it between the 12th and 14th Century BC, or the association of Ramses II with the Pharaoh of the Exodus, (besides the names of the treasure cities the Israelites were supposed to have built) but I was generally aware that evidence for the exodus hadn't been located, at least in that period.
Recently I read a comment that the line in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" "They're digging in the wrong place!" drew chuckles among a group of archaeologists, because it's something of an occupational hazard. Likewise, looking at the wrong time has to be similarly hazardous, when one is dealing with uncertainties of chronology as great as 300 years. But that's a side note. What drew my attention were the various web pages constructed by those who have added up the dates in the Bible and concluded that the Exodus took place around 1400 BC. That's about 200 years back from a traditional date equating the Pharaoh of the Exodus with Ramses. Also, I was having a problem with the conclusions drawn from the excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon. Some were citing her research claiming that there was no evidence for Joshua's conquest of Canaan, others were saying it dovetailed nicely with other evidence. What I finally decided was that her date for the destruction of a strongly-fortified Canaanite City had been verified at in 1995 at about 1562 BC +/- 38 years, and to take that as evidence that best fits the biblical account. That's a a century and a half earlier or so than traditionally described, but I don't think the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or living in tents were all that meticulous about chronology, and some attempts to reconstruct biblical chronology push the exodus back to about this far.
Next I decided to look for an appropriate Pharaoh for the Exodus. I'd seen a work that claims the "Pharaoh's daughter" who rescued Moses was Hatshepsut, and in various places I'd seen suggestions that the "Pharaoh who knew not Joseph" came from one of the dynasties that succeeded the Hyksos. I didn't find one that seemed to satisfy what I remember, so I decided to review Egyptian chronology, and look up some of the unsolved problems in Egyptology, and found a clue. One of the various speculations on the nature of the Exodus and the plagues associates it with with the major eruption of Thera, at some date that I hadn't been able to find exactly. Apparently this has been pinned at 1613 BC +/- 13 years. Reconciling this date with traditional chronology for Egypt has produced about a 100 year discrepancy, but this is within the approximate range of error for Egyptian chronology at this period. What grabbed my attention, though, was that this is about 50 years before the date given for the destruction of Jericho, which fits reasonably well with an approximate 40 year wandering in the wilderness described in the Pentateuch.
I had long ago set the possible correlation of Thera and the biblical plagues as an interesting possibility to be re-examined if and when other evidence came along, and this fits the category of additional evidence I was looking for. So now I have this as a working hypothesis for the correlation of events in ancient history. Since I'm hardly even an amateur in the field, there could be a lot wrong with this theory. But it seems there are worse ones in print. The debate about Biblical chronology lies somewhere near the heart of the conflict between scientific atheist and devout believer, between Christian or Jew and Muslim, and at the intersection of the Greek World, Assyriology, Egyptology, and other specialized disciplines. I would like to see a better resolution than anything I have seen yet.
PS. The reason I have added this was because it ocurred to me, before I put myself down for the night, I did a Wiki search on "Independent Scholar", which led me quickly to an on-line copy of the Independent Scholar's handbook, a work which helped put me on the path to Independent Learning, and was rereading it. This blog is probably the closest I'm going to come to an intellectual journal, and so I decided to start recording intellectual diversions as well as the work I'm doing on my web site. This counts as a diversion...not something that's part of my main effort, but something to set aside for now and come back to some day.

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