Babylonian Chronology—How Reliable?
SOME of the writings of historians and archaeologists in this twentieth century leave the impression that there is a Babylonian chronology that seriously challenges the count of time recorded in the Bible. How serious is this challenge? Is there really a sound Babylonian chronology? Is it supported on solid foundations? Does it include data that command higher respect than the facts related in the Bible?
Babylon enters the scene, insofar as the Jewish people are concerned, principally from the time of Nebuchadnezzar. The reign of that monarch’s father, Nabopolassar, is termed “the beginning of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.” That era ended with the reigns of Nabonidus and his son, Belshazzar, when Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus the Persian. This is a period of special interest to Bible scholars, since it embraces the time of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians and the greater part of the seventy-year desolation of the land of the defeated Jews.
The Bible record is quite detailed in its account of the first punitive expedition against the kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar (or Nebuchadrezzar) in his seventh regnal year (or eighth year from his accession to the throne). (Jer. 52:28; 2 Ki. 24:12) In harmony with this a cuneiform inscription of the Babylonian Chronicle states: “In the seventh year, the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad [Nebuchadnezzar] mustered his troops, marched to Hatti-land [Syria-Palestine], and encamped against the city of Judah and on the second day of the month of Adar he seized the city and captured the king [Jehoiachin]. He appointed there a king of his own choice [Zedekiah], received its heavy tribute and sent (them) to Babylon.”—Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings (626-556 B.C.), D. J. Wiseman, pages 67, 73.
SOLID HISTORY OR QUESTIONABLE SYNTHESIS?
Despite such a bright beginning for the synchronization of the Bible account with Babylonian records, one is thereafter faced with a blank as to further information from actual Babylonian sources. For the final thirty-three years of Nebuchadnezzar, for example, no historical records have yet been unearthed aside from a fragmentary inscription relating to a campaign against Egypt in the king’s thirty-seventh year. So we have no Babylonian account of Jerusalem’s destruction in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth regnal year (nineteenth from his accession). (Jer. 52:29; 2 Ki. 25:8-10) The Bible is the sole source of authentic information on this event.
As to Nebuchadnezzar’s son Amel-Marduk (Evil-merodach, 2 Ki. 25:27, 28), tablets dating to his second year of rule have been found. However, they contain little information about his reign and give no indication as to its length. So, too, for Neriglissar, said to be the successor of Evil-merodach, only one strictly historical tablet has come to light, and it is dated in his third year as king.
What is thought to be a memorial tablet written either for the mother or the grandmother of Nabonidus, gives some chronological data for this period, but many portions of the text have been damaged, leaving much to the ingenuity and conjecture of historians. The reader can appreciate how fragmentary the text is by ignoring the bracketed material in the following translation of one section of this memorial—material that represents modern attempts at restoring the missing, damaged or illegible portions:.
“[During the time from Ashurbanipal], the king of Assyria, [in] whose [rule] I was born—(to wit): [21 years] under Ashurbanipal, [4 years under Ashur]etillu-ilani, his son, [21 years under Nabopola]ssar, 43 years under Nebuchadnezzar, [2 years under Ewil-Merodach], 4 years under Neriglissar, [in summa 95 yea]rs, [the god was away] till Sin, the king of the gods, [remembered the temple] . . . of his [great] godhead, his clouded face [shone up], [and he listened] to my prayers, [forgot] the angry command [which he had given, and decided to return t]o the temple é-hul-hul, the temple, [the mansion,] his heart’s delight. [With regard to his impending return to] the [temp]le, Sin, the king of [the gods, said (to me)]: ‘Nabonidus, the king of Babylon, the son [of my womb] [shall] make [me] en[ter/sit down (again)] in (to) the temple é-hul-hul!’ I care[fully] obeyed the orders which [Sin], the king of the gods, had pronounced (and therefore) I did see myself (how) Nabonidus, the king of Babylon, the offspring of my womb, reinstalled completely the forgotten rites of Sin, . . . ”
Farther along in the text Nabonidus’ mother (or grandmother) is represented as crediting Sin with granting her long life “from the time of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, to the 6th year of Nabonidus, king of Babylon, the son of my womb, (that is) for 104 happy years, . . . ”—Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pages 311, 312.
From this very incomplete inscription it can be seen that the only figures actually given are the 43 years of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and 4 years of Neriglissar’s reign. As to this latter monarch, the text does not necessarily limit his reign to four years; rather it tells of something that happened in his fourth year. How far within the reign of Ashurbanipal the life of Nabonidus’ mother (or grandmother) began is not stated, so that we are left in the dark as to the commencement and the close of the “104 happy years.” Nor is there any information as to the lengths of the reigns of Ashur-etillu-ilani, Nabopolassar and Evil-merodach. And there is no mention of Labashi-Marduk, now generally acknowledged by historians as reigning between Neriglissar and Nabonidus.
It will be noted, too, that the conjectured numbers of years, inserted by modern historians on the basis of Ptolemy’s canon, when added to the “6th year of Nabonidus,” give a total of 100 or 101 years, and not the 104 years mentioned in the text itself. So this fragmentary record provides scant information for the chronology of the Neo-Babylonian period.
THE CANON OF PTOLEMY
And this canon of Ptolemy, what is it? We are particularly interested, seeing that historians find it necessary to lean so heavily upon it in connection with their chronology for the Neo-Babylonian period. Claudius Ptolemy lived in Egypt during the second century C.E., or over 600 years after the close of the Neo-Babylonian period. He was not a historian, and is known primarily for his works on astronomy and geography. As E. R. Thiele states: “Ptolemy’s canon was prepared primarily for astronomical, not historical purposes. It did not pretend to give a complete list of all the rulers of either Babylon or Persia, nor the exact month or day of the beginning of their reigns, but it was a device which made possible the correct allocation into a broad chronological scheme of certain astronomical data which were then available.”—The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, page 293, ftn.
Ptolemy assigned 21 years to the reign of Nabopolassar, 43 to Nebuchadnezzar, 2 to Evil-merodach, 4 to Neriglissar, and 17 to Nabonidus, for a total of 87 years. Counting back from the first year of Cyrus, following the fall of Babylon, therefore, historians date Nabopolassar’s first year as commencing in 625 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar’s first year as 604, and the destruction of Jerusalem as in 586 or 587. These dates are some 20 years later than those indicated by Bible chronology, yet modern historians favor the system of dating based on Ptolemy.
Even though the length of the reigns of the kings of Babylon and Persia, as set forth in Ptolemy’s canon, may be basically correct, there seems to be no reason for holding that the canon is necessarily accurate in every respect for all periods. As already noted, we lack Babylonian historical records that could either substantiate or undermine Ptolemy’s figures for the reigns of certain kings.
Critics of the Bible claim that the date for the destruction of Jerusalem (607 B.C.E.), founded on Bible chronology, leaves a gap in the Babylonian chronology. On the other hand, those who hold to a strict Ptolemaic reckoning are obliged to explain a sizable gap of their own. This gap develops when they attempt to harmonize Babylonian and Assyrian history so as to arrive at 625 B.C.E. for the start of the Neo-Babylonian period.
The Babylonian Chronicle states that Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, fell to the Babylonian forces in Nabopolassar’s fourteenth year. Following Ptolemy, the secular historians date that event in 612 B.C.E. At the same time, on the basis of astronomical calculations, they also hold to the year 763 B.C.E. as an absolute date representing the ninth year of Assyrian king Assur-dan III. So, they should be able to count forward from that year and show that Assyrian rule at Nineveh did extend as far as 612 B.C.E. But can they? Well, with the help of eponym and king lists and other source material, they manage to set up a chronology that reaches as far as 668 B.C.E., the year they assign for the start of Ashurbanipal’s reign. But from that point forward there is considerable confusion.
Especially with regard to Ashurbanipal’s reign there is much confusion. For example, the Encyclopædia Britannica (1959 edition, Vol. 2, page 569) gives Ashurbanipal’s reign as 668-625 B.C.E. Then, on page 851 of the same volume, the reign is given as 669-630 B.C.E. In volume 5 of the same edition, page 655, it lists this same reign as “668-638(?).” The 1965 edition of the same work says ‘669-630 or 626.’ (Vol. 2, page 573) Other suggested dates for the close of Ashurbanipal’s reign are:
633 A History of Israel, John Bright, 1964.
631 Ancient Iraq, Georges Roux, 1964.
629 The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,
c.631-627 The New Bible Dictionary, 1962.
626 Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia,
D. D. Luckenbill, 1926.
As might be expected, the above sources also give varied dates for the reign of Ashurbanipal’s probable successor, Ashur-etillu-ilani. And so, too, for the reign of Sin-shar-ishkun, apparently the king at the time of Nineveh’s fall. Some historians extend this last king’s reign for as long as eighteen years, though dated tablets have been found only up to his seventh year.
Thus historians are willing to exhibit much flexibility in order to hold to both the Ptolemaic chronology and their pivotal date of 763 B.C.E., even to the point of conjecturing longer reigns for these final rulers of the Assyrian empire than the evidence at hand will support. They have an awkward gap on their hands—one that is not easy to fill. The Bible, however, offers stronger evidence for the 607 B.C.E. date for the destruction of Jerusalem.—See The Watchtower, August 15, 1968, pages 490-494.
Ptolemy, in preparing his canon, is believed by some to have followed Berossus, a third-century B.C.E. Babylonian priest. Of his writings Professor Olmstead remarks: “ . . . only the merest fragments, abstracts or traces have come down to us. And the most important of these fragments have come down through a tradition almost without parallel. Today we must consult a modern Latin translation of an Armenian translation of the lost Greek original of the Chronicle of Eusebius, who borrowed in part from Alexander Polyhistor who borrowed from Berossus direct, and in part from Abydenus who apparently borrowed from Juba who borrowed from Alexander Polyhistor and so from Berossus. To make a worse confusion, Eusebius has in some cases not recognized the fact that Abydenus is only a feeble echo of Polyhistor, and has quoted the accounts of each side by side!”
He continues: “And this is not the worst. Although his Polyhistor account is in general to be preferred, Eusebius seems to have used a poor manuscript of that author.” (Assyrian Historiography, pages 62, 63) Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century C.E., also claims to make quotations from Berossus, but the figures he uses are not consistent, so they can hardly be considered conclusive. And, remembering that at least three hundred years intervened between Berossus and Ptolemy, we can see that there is no certainty that Ptolemy’s supposed references from Berossus were accurate.
And what about the cuneiform tablets themselves? How accurate are they? Can they always be depended upon? The casual student may tend to think those tablets were always written close to the time of the events recorded. However, the Babylonian historical texts, and even many astronomical texts, give evidence of being of a much later period. Specifically, one portion of the so-called Babylonian Chronicle, covering the period modern historians would date as 747-648 B.C.E., is “a copy made in the twenty-second year of Darius from an older and damaged text.”—Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings, page 1.
So this writing was not only separated from the events recorded by anywhere from 150 to 250 years, but it was also a copy of a defective earlier writing. And from this same publication we have the following, relating to the Babylonian Chronicle texts covering the period from Nabopolassar to Nabonidus: “The Neo-Babylonian Chronicle texts are written in a small script of a type which does not of itself allow any precise dating but which can mean that they were written from any time almost contemporary with the events themselves to the end of the Achaemenid rule”—or 331 B.C.E. So even if Ptolemy had what he quite likely did not have, namely, authentic copies of Berossus’ writings, there would still remain some serious question as to the age and authenticity of Berossus’ cuneiform sources.
NO SERIOUS CHALLENGE
The reader can judge for himself whether the reckonings and conjectures of modern historians have produced a dependable Babylonian chronology. Probably it can be said that they have a system that brings some semblance of order out of the relative chaos of ancient secular records. However, when they place so much confidence in Ptolemy’s dating one may well question the wisdom of their doing so. We have noted that neither Ptolemy’s purpose in setting down his record nor the nature of his source material were such as might inspire confidence in its historical accuracy. Further, if any of his information came from Berossus, it doubtless came through many hands, and offers, at best, very fragile testimony. The cuneiform sources, too, were subject to damage and restoration that may well have involved much conjecture.
Both the lack of contemporary historical records from Babylon and the ease with which secular data could be altered definitely allow for the possibility that one or more of the Neo-Babylonian rulers had a longer reign than the Ptolemaic canon shows. In view of all these factors, is it wise to accept without reserve the reconstruction of Babylonian history by modern historians? Surely one is justified in concluding that there is here no real challenge to the credibility of the Bible record!