Assyria’s Historical Records and the Bible
DURING the many centuries the names of prominent Assyrian rulers such as Sargon, Tiglath-pileser, Shalmaneser and Sennacherib have been passed on to generation after generation of Bible readers. With a sense of reality unmatched by any secular record, the Bible related their dealings with the people of Judah and Israel. In the case of Sargon, modern secular historians for long were not even sure of his identity.
Then, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came the era of the archaeologist. Diggings in mounds or tells of Mesopotamia produced startling finds. Specifically referring to work undertaken by archaeologist Paul-Emile Botta, author C. W. Ceram, in Gods, Graves and Scholars, writes on page 225: “Hitherto only the Bible had had anything pertinent to say about the land between the two rivers, and for nineteenth-century science the Bible was a collection of legends.”
But now those warrior-kings of Assyria lived again, as their own annals, their palaces, their “display” inscriptions and their “king lists” came to light. Assyriology became an accepted science, and its students delved into the mass of unearthed data to build up a history of a little known empire. The facts related in the Bible about Assyria and her rulers were now recognized to be authentic, but modern students began to challenge the chronology or dating of events in Assyrian history as found in the Bible.
So the question now arises, Do the specialists in Assyriology have reliable material on which to base their supposed corrections of the Book that for so many centuries kept alive knowledge of those ancient names and the events connected with them? Have the records and monuments wrested from the dusty mounds of the Near East provided such a solid basis that Bible chronology may now be relegated to a position of inferiority? If so, then we should expect to find in those records a high degree of accuracy and credibility. What are the facts?
THE ASSYRIAN RECORDS
The records left by the Assyrians themselves, and unearthed in comparatively recent times, are made up of “display” inscriptions, such as are found ornamenting the walls of palaces; royal annals, written by royal or priestly scribes for the glory of the ruling king; “king lists” such as those dug up at Khorsabad, and the limmu or eponym lists—lists of prominent officials, presumably one for each year, with the outstanding event of the year shown alongside. All these, together with certain ancient astronomical data, constitute the raw materials out of which Assyriologists have woven their history.
But what of those “display” inscriptions and annals? Are they accurate enough to accept as a basis for chronology? Here is what Professor Olmstead, until his death in 1945 one of the foremost authorities on the ancient Near East, had to say: “We may . . . use the Display inscription to fill gaps in the Annals [royal chronicles listing events annually], but it has not the slightest authority when it disagrees with its original.” “Equally serious,” says the professor, “is it that they [“display” inscriptions] rarely have a chronological order. . . . That they are to be used with caution is obvious.”
Of the annals, Professor Olmstead writes: “We have here a regular chronology, and if errors, intentional or otherwise, can sometimes be found, the relative chronology at least is generally correct. . . . But it would be a great mistake to assume that the annals are always trustworthy. Earlier historians have too generally accepted their statements unless they had definite proof of inaccuracy. In the past few years, there has been discovered a mass of new material which we may use for the criticism of the Sargonide documents. . . . Add to this the references in foreign sources such as Hebrew and Babylonian, and we hardly need internal study to convince us that the annals are far from reliable.”—Assyrian Historiography, University of Missouri Studies, Social Science Series, Vol. H, pages 5, 6.
Note, too, the testimony of Professor D. D. Luckenbill: “One soon discovers that the accurate portrayal of events as they took place, year by year, during the king’s reign, was not the guiding motive of the royal scribes. At times the different campaigns seem to have been shifted about without any apparent reason, but more often it is clear that royal vanity demanded playing fast and loose with historical accuracy.”—Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, Vol. I, page 7.
As a king’s reign progressed the royal annals often underwent drastic revision. Later editions apparently managed to juggle earlier facts and figures to suit the king’s fancy. For example, Professor Olmstead makes reference to the “cool taking by [Ashurbanipal] of bit after bit of the last two Egyptian campaigns of his father until in the final edition there is nothing that he has not claimed for himself.”—Assyrian Historiography, pages 7, 8.
It is quite apparent that the ancient annalists were far from being impartial recorders of the facts and times as they really occurred. Historians say they were not above listing a vassal king as paying tribute, even though other records showed such king to be dead at the time. There is thus strong evidence of carelessness, dishonesty and simple confusion in their compilations. But, are matters different with the eponym lists?
ASSYRIA’S EPONYM LISTS
Modern chronologers generally hold that the limmu or eponym lists have somehow escaped the corruption of annals and inscriptions, and that they are virtually impeccable as to accuracy. They claim those lists provide the soundest basis for the chronology of those times. To aid in our appraisal of these lists, here is a sample section from one of them:
Bel-harran-bel-usur (governor) of against Damascus
Shalmaneser took his seat on
Marduk-bel-usur (governor) of in the land
Mahde (governor) of against [Samaria]
Assur-ishmeani (governor) of against [Samaria]
Shalmaneser king of against [Samaria]
As can be seen from this example, no actual dates are given, though it is assumed that each name on the list represents a year, thereby allowing for a year-by-year count. It is as though, in modern parlance, the “man of the year” was listed against some outstanding event of the same year. Since the names of Assyrian kings appear on these eponym lists, historians count from one king to the next in order, so as to determine the length of any one king’s reign. Then they compare this count with whatever figures are obtainable from Assyrian “king lists.”
Claim has been made for a great degree of regularity in the eponym arrangement as a whole, with a set order being followed in listing the eponyms or officials, starting with the king and, in succeeding years, listing such officials as “field marshal,” “chief cupbearer,” “high chamberlain,” and so on. Investigation, however, shows that this order is not consistently followed, and that in later periods the high officials no longer appear under these titles. And after Sennacherib’s time, even the names of new kings fail to appear on the lists.
Nor do historians of our day hold consistently to the view that the length of a king’s reign can be determined by counting the number of eponyms from his name up to that of the next king. They state that Shalmaneser V ruled for only five years, yet according to the actual count down to the name of his successor on the eponym list his reign should be eight years in length. In explaining away some of the apparent inconsistencies, some historians suggest that Sargon (Shalmaneser’s successor) made a change in the arrangement, having himself declared eponym in his third regnal year instead of in his first. And, though Sargon would seem to have reigned for thirty-two years according to the eponym list, they credit him with only seventeen!
Due to the brevity of the information provided in these lists, it is obvious that the means for detecting error is considerably diminished. Yet, despite this and the evident weaknesses they manifest, modern historians prefer to charge error to the royal annals whenever these fail to agree with the eponym lists. Certainly there is a great deal of vagueness about these lists.
THE BIBLE THOROUGHLY CREDIBLE
That the chronology developed by modern Assyriologists is at odds with that found in the Scriptures may be noted from the following: According to the Bible count of time, King Menahem of Israel ruled from about 791 to 780 B.C.E. and King Ahaz of Judah reigned from 761 to 745 B.C.E. Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III, called also Pul in the Bible, exacted tribute from Menahem and was bribed by Ahaz. (2 Ki. 15:19, 20; 16:7, 8) But Assyriologists place Tiglath-pileser III’s reign about 744-727 B.C.E., and therefore after the deaths of Menahem and Ahaz. Similarly, their dates for the fall of Samaria and Sennacherib’s attack on Judah in Hezekiah’s fourteenth year differ by twenty to thirty years from the Bible’s placement of these events.—2 Ki. 17:3-6; 18:9, 10, 13.
So what are we to think of the discrepancies? Do Assyrian historical records show up as being so accurate and consistent with themselves as to inspire confidence? Understandably, the Assyriologists today are proud of their achievements in piecing together the puzzle of Assyrian history. Yet the picture that has resulted has many gaps and inconsistencies, so that allowance has to be made for a wide margin of conjecture on the part of the modern historians.
True, some of the apparent contradictions in the pagan records may be due to the inability of the modern researchers to understand correctly the ancient methods employed, even as there are points in the Bible chronology that are at times misunderstood. But the unbiased reader who makes an honest comparison cannot but note the contrast between the one-sided, obviously exaggerated, and generally disconnected history of the Assyrian cuneiform tablets and the remarkably clear, factual, and coherent record of events the Bible gives.
Read, for example, the record of the kings of Judah and Israel as related in the Bible books of Kings and Chronicles. The Bible writers set down with notable consistency the length of each Judean king’s reign, giving his age on taking the throne and again at death, the name of the contemporaneous king or kings in the rival northern kingdom of Israel, the major events of the king’s reign, his faithfulness or unfaithfulness, his good deeds and his bad ones, the name of each king’s successor and the successor’s relationship (if any) to the deceased king. That some minor problems must be resolved in the chronology is acknowledged; yet this record definitely has no equal in any of the pagan histories.
The candor of the Bible writers gives genuine cause for accepting with confidence the chronological data these same writers provide, even though pagan records may not appear to coincide. Where, for example, do we ever find among the boastful Assyrian records any admission of the defeats sustained in battle by those self-styled invincible kings? Yet the recorders of Biblical history honestly set down the humiliating experiences and defeats the Israelite kings met at the hands of other nations, including the Assyrians. We can read about Israelite king Menahem’s paying tribute equivalent to over $1,000,000 to avoid conflict with Assyrian emperor Tiglath-pileser (III) and of fearful King Ahaz of Judah bribing the same emperor to attack Syria and Israel so as to lift their pressure from Judah. (2 Ki. 15:19, 20; 16:5-9) Shortly thereafter we learn of the northern kingdom’s complete ruination after a three-year siege of Samaria by the Assyrian army and of Israelite king Hoshea’s imprisonment. (2 Ki. 17:1-6; 18:9-11) No effort is made to gloss over the facts or paint them other than as they really were.
Engraved in stone or inscribed in clay, the ancient Assyrian documents may seem very impressive. But does this ensure their correctness and freedom from falsehood? Which would you say are the important factors that give sound basis for confidence in historical matters: the material used for writing? or the writer, his purpose, his respect for truth, and his devotion to righteous principles? Obviously it is the latter.
Because the Bible records were evidently written on perishable papyrus or vellum, their continued use and the deteriorating effect of weather conditions in much of Palestine doubtless explains why we have no original copies of those manuscripts today. Yet, because it is Jehovah’s inspired Book, the Bible has been carefully copied and preserved in full form until now. (1 Pet. 1:24, 25) Divine inspiration, by which the Bible historians were able to set down their records, assures the reliability of Bible chronology.—2 Pet. 1:19-21.