When it comes to dating events in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) there are two different systems used in the Jewish community: One of them is objectively incorrect.
A) The Seder Olam chronology is used by Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and is seen in ArtScroll/Mesorah books and Haredi yeshivahs. This chronology is based on a second century CE midrash, Seder Olam. The midrash takes an idea from the book of Daniel as a reliable prophecy about how long a certain era of history would last. It then assigns dates of all Biblical events to match the assumed prophecy. This unfortunately erases some 155 years of world history. Every historical event that occurred during those years thus has the wrong date assigned to it. This dating system is commonly used by rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud.
Among the right wing Orthodox, it is believed that Jews must use the Seder Olam chronology, and that all historical and archaeological records must either be wrong, or grossly misinterpreted.
(B) The conventional historical chronology, used by historians, based on all historical evidence. This is the system used by Modern Orthodoxy, Dati Leumi, and all non-Orthodox denominations. This is the chronology used by all historians and scientists.
Many Orthodox works use the conventional chronology such as the Soncino edition of the Bible, the J. H. Hertz Pentateuch, the Da’at Mikra edition of the Bible (Mossad ha Rav Kook in Jerusalem), and Adin Steinsaltz’s edition of the Talmud.
How did this discrepancy come about? Mitchell First writes:
“..the chronology of the Sages can be completely explained. What happened is that the Sages saw [what they thought was] a prediction in the book of Daniel [9:24-27) that a certain time period would span 490 years. The beginning and end points of the 490 year period referred to are ambiguous.
For various reasons, the Sages interpreted the beginning and endpoints to be the destruction of the First Temple and the Destruction of the Second Temple. Once they adopted this interpretation…and believed that the prediction must have come true, they were constrained by other data known to them regarding the length of period from the destruction to the rebuilding (70 years), and the total length of the Greek, Hasmonean and Roman periods (386 years). This forced them to state a length for the period from the rebuilding under Darius until the beginning of Greek rule that was shorter than they otherwise should have..”
Here is a comparison of the Seder Olam (rabbinic) chronology with the conventional (archaeological and historical) chronology.
|Event||Seder Olam chronology||Conventional historical chronology|
|King David captures Jerusalem and makes it his capital||867 BCE||1000 BCE (+/- 5 years)|
|Building of the First Temple||831 BCE||965 BCE|
|Josiah repairs First Temple||458 BCE||622 BCE|
|First Temple destroyed||421 BCE||586 BCE|
|Beginning of Persian rule in Israel||368 BCE||539 BCE|
|Reign of King Ahasverosh , according to Book of Esther. Compared to the historical King Xerxes.||366-362 BCE||486-465 BCE|
|Commencement of the rebuilding of the Second Temple||351 BCE||520 BCE|
|End of Persian rule. Beginning of Greek rule in Israel.||317 BCE||332 BCE|
|Destruction of the Second Temple||70 CE||70 CE|
All dates after this point are identical in both systems.
The best book on this subject is Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology by Mitchell First.
“According to Seder Olam Rabbah, the work that forms the basis for almost all rabbinic chronology, the period from the defeat of the Babylonians by the Medeo-Persians until the beginning of Greek rule, encompassed 52 years and spanned the reigns of three Persian kings.
According to the chronology that is universally accepted by historians today (conventional chronology), this period of Persian rule over the land of Israel encompassed 207 years (539 to 332 BCE) and during this period more than ten Persian kings reigned.
This discrepancy between the traditional Jewish chronology and conventional chronology has not gone unnoticed. The purpose of this study is to collect and categorize the variety of Jewish responses to this discrepancy, both by Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities.
Part I provides an introduction to the discrepancy. Part II contains the earliest Jewish responses to the discrepancy. In the major part of the study, Part III, the responses to the discrepancy from the time of Azariah de Rossi (16th century) to the present time are collected and categorized. “
A debate between a supporter of the Seder Olam timeline and a historian
This debate took place on a Usenet newsgroup – for younger readers, Usenet was a worldwide, massive bulletin board system, the first major set of discussion forums on the internet. The historian is Professor David Levene, Department of Classics, University of Durham.
Subject: Re: 3761 B.C.E.? March 3, 1996
Subject: Re: Historicity of Aggadah June 4, 1996
From: D S Levene (D.S.Levene@durham.ac.uk)
Lisa Aaronson wrote:
: Well, the Babylonian destruction was 490 years before the Roman
: one (70 years of exile and 420 years for the Second Temple), and
: since the latter was in 70 CE and there’s no year 0, the former
: was in -420, or 421 BCE. The difference is in the duration of the
: Persian period (and the very beginning of the Greek period).
: Jewish sources have Alexander conquering Persia 52 years after the
: Persians conquered Babylon. And a total of 4 Medean and Persian
: kings during this period. The Greeks gave the same period a total
: of 208 years and 10 kings.
: A lot comes down to who you consider more reliable. The Greek
: stories were collected folklore, basically. Lots of hearsay from
: people in foreign lands. Herodotus actually admits that he heard 4
: different and conflicting stories of the coming to power of Cyrus
: the Great, only bothering to tell the one he thought most likely.
: Greek stories that didn’t fit the consensus synthesis are
: considered, a priori, to be unreliable. For example, Xenophon
: records the rise of Cyrus in a way almost identical to the Jewish
: version, but since this contradicts Herodotus, it is dismissed as
: “an early historical novel”.
This is, I’m afraid, almost total nonsense. We do not get the standard Persian chronology from “Greek stories”: it is the one overwhelmingly supported by *all* sources – Persian, Babylonian and Greek alike. The rabbinic chronology, by contrast, is attested only centuries later, and is utterly unsustainable against the Babylonian and Persian documentation.
(1) Let’s start by setting out the basic picture from the king-lists. The most comprehensive one is the so-called Royal Canon, which gives astronomically tabulated dates for all the Persian kings. The fullest version of this that we have is very late; but it derives from earlier material, and its dates are confirmed by cuneiform lists of earlier periods. See, for example, the so-called Saros Tablet (in ZA 7 (1892)), which lists the whole period by eighteen-year intervals.
Lists like these enable us to construct our basic chronology for the period, as follows (all dates B.C.E.; for the sake of familiarity I use the Greek names of all these kings):
Nabonidus 556-539 (he was the last king of Babylon before the Persian conquest)
Cyrus 539-530 (he had reigned in Persia for 20 years before capturing Babylon)
Darius I 522-486
Xerxes (Ahasuerus) 486-465
Artaxerxes I 465-424 (*) See note below
Darius II 424-404
Artaxerxes II 404-359
Artaxerxes III 359-338
Darius III 336-331
In 331 Alexander the Great captured Babylon and overthrew the Persian empire.
(*) Note: There were a few months of conflict following the death of Artaxerxes I; two of his sons, Xerxes II and Sogdianos, briefly tried to seize the throne before being killed, and a third son, Darius II, took over. This had an interesting consequence which I discuss below.
(2) That is the basic picture: Can we confirm it? Indeed we can, comprehensively and overwhelmingly: there is a mass of supporting documentation. Astronomical data is especially important. We have a large number of Babylonian astronomical records for the Persian period.
For example, we have a record of virtually every lunar eclipse in the period, dated by the king’s reign; we have dated records of solar eclipses and planetary conjunctions and observations; we even have “astronomical diaries” – dated diaries in which astronomers recorded their day-by-day observations. The dates of these can be checked astronomically – and comprehensively confirm the total correctness of the standard chronology. There are numerous Babylonian astronomical records, for example – I’ll just mention a few briefly:
Astronomical texts for the period are assembled and described in T.G. Pinches & J.N. Strassmaier, “Late Babylonian Astronomical and Related Texts” (Providence, 1955).
BM 36910+36998+37036 records by date lunar eclipses from Darius I to Artaxerxes II.
The so-called Saros Canon (in ZA 10 (1895)) lists every year from Artaxerxes II onwards, recording every lunar eclipse in the period.
BM 36754 records solar eclipses in the reigns of Artaxerxes III and Darius III.
LBAT 1411-1412 records conjunctions of Saturn and Mars with the Moon for the reign of Darius II and the start of the reign of ArtaxerxesII.
LBAT 1387-1388 records observations of Venus for the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II.
BM 36823 records observations of Jupiter for the reign of Darius I.
LBAT 1394-1395 records observations of Jupiter for the reigns of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III.
Strassmaier, “Cambyses” No. 400 is a record of various astronomical data for the last year of Cambyses’ reign.
The dates of all these can be checked astronomically (and there are many other such documents also). They all demonstrate the absolute correctness of the standard chronology.
(3) Moreover, a large number of other contemporary Babylonian and Persian documents together confirm this chronology (mostly various sorts of business records). Once again, I give just a very few examples here (many hundreds more could be adduced).
Cyrus’ capture of Babylon from Nabonidus is confirmed by the Cyrus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle.
The Behistun Inscription confirms the Cyrus-Cambyses-Bardiya-Darius I sequence of kings.
A text of Darius II (in JAOS 72 (1952)) confirms the Darius I-Xerxes-Artaxerxes I-Darius II sequence.
The length of reign of Darius I is confirmed by VAS V 110, dating itself to the 36th year of Darius’ reign.
The length of reign of Xerxes is confirmed by one of the Persepolis Treasury texts (in JNES 24 (1965)), dating itself to the 20th year of his reign.
The length of the reign of Artaxerxes I is confirmed by BM 33342; also BE X 4. These documents, unusually, are double-dated by both the 41st year of Artaxerxes I and the accession year of Darius II, a result of the uncertainty surrounding the opening of Darius II’s reign (see above).
The length of reign of Artaxerxes II is confirmed by VAS VI 186, dating itself to the 46th year of his reign.
[By the way, I should just point out in passing that all these kings are attested in Babylonian sources as kings *in Babylon*, thus reconfirming that their reigns post-dated the Persian conquest of Babylon.]
Even more data:
(i) There are documents from Persian kings, describing their own relationships to their predecessors. Thus in the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus describes his capture of Babylon from Nabonidus (we also have an independent description of the same events in the Nabonidus Chronicle). The Behistun Inscription of Darius I recounts how Darius seized the throne from Bardiya, who illegitimately (or so Darius claims!) took it from Cambyses, who inherited it from his father Cyrus.
A letter of Darius II (first published in “Journal of the American Oriental Society” 72 (1952)) describes Darius’ inheritance of the throne from his father Artaxerxes I, who inherited it from his father Xerxes, who inherited it from his father Darius I.
(ii) Especially revealing are archives which provide us with sequences of documents. Two of the most famous are the Persepolis Tablets and the Murashu Archive. The former gives us several thousand palace administrative documents, mostly dated; most come from the reign of Darius I, but some carry on through the reign of Xerxes and into the reign of Artaxerxes I.
The latter is the complete – and dated – records of a large Babylonian business in the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II. The dates in these confirm the lengths of the reigns and (when we can sequence them) their order.
(iii) There are other sorts of documents that confirm the order and length of reign of various of the Persian kings. With the start of the reign of Darius II, one finds documents which are, unusually, double dated by the 41st year of Artaxerxes I *and* the accession year of Darius II: this is the result of a brief period of uncertainty surrounding the accession of Darius, who was one of three claimants to the throne. This confirms both the length of Artaxerxes’ reign and the identity of his successor.
There are also various other examples of business and private documents from the reign of one king that refer back to previous events or documents in the reign of an earlier king. Finally, of course, there are thousands of other dated contemporary documents that, by their dates, guarantee that the king ruled at least that length of time (if a document is dated “the 19th year of Xerxes”, it shows that Xerxes ruled at least 19 years).
All of this material simply provides additional confirmation for what was already known from the king-lists and astronomical texts. Moreover, there are simply no gaps into which “unknown” kings like those in Daniel could be slotted. The material described above, that directly provides sequences for the reigns of kings, proves this point.
For much of the Persian period our evidence is so full that we can date reigns not merely year by year, but month by month, and sometimes even day by day – to the point that even with kings who were not recognised by their successors (as is the case with Bardiya, and the claimants calling themselves “Nebuchadnezzar III” and “Nebuchadnezzar IV” in the first years of the reign of Darius I), documents nevertheless survive that are dated by their brief “reigns”.
A (small) selection of the documents that are relevant for dating in the period are discussed by R.A. Parker & W.H. Dubberstein, “Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.-A.D. 75” (Providence, 1956).
(4) Please note that these are not “Greek sources”, but Persian and Babylonian – and often contemporary ones at that. All are independent of one another; many provide astronomically checkable dates. This is, as I say, only a tiny proportion of the evidence that I can introduce, but no more should be necessary. This alone is enough to demonstrate conclusively and overwhelmingly the correctness of our standard chronology, and the utter impossibility of the rabbinic one.
(4) All of this is sufficient to prove the absolute correctness of the standard chronology, and the absolute impossibility of the rabbinic one. But if we need an entirely independent check, one is easily forthcoming from Greece – or more specifically Athens.
Athenian chronology is extremely well attested, on grounds totally independent of Babylonian and Persian chronology. We have complete lists from the early 5th-century BCE until far into the Roman period of Athenian archons – the annual magistrates at Athens whose names provided the year’s official date. We can confirm the accuracy of this by cross-checking against our substantial (though less complete) lists of other Athenian officials, and documentary material of other sorts – annual tribute lists, for example.
From the early 5th-century BCE onwards, Athens had considerable involvement in Persia, and there are numerous references in Athenian writers to contemporary Persian events – well-known examples include Aeschylus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. Needless to say, these contemporary references are exactly what would be expected from the evidence above: they confirm comprehensively the total correctness of the standard chronology derived from our Persian and Babylonian sources.
(5) But I cannot resist a little bit of Greek material as well, not least because Lisa has been so scathing about it.
Thucydides, who was a general in the Peloponnesian War, records at 2.28 a solar eclipse at Athens in the first year of that war; the eclipse can be dated astronomically to August 3, 431. Later (8.58), he quotes a treaty between Darius II and the Spartans at the end of the 20th year of the war – i.e. (dating from the eclipse) spring 411 (Thucydides’ years run summer to spring). He quotes the date on the treaty as the 13th year of Darius II – and, sure enough, if we cross-check the data from our Babylonian sources, we find that the 13th year of Darius indeed began Nisanu 411.
The total correctness of the standard chronology (and, incidentally, of Thucydides’ chronology) is, as always, confirmed by an independent contemporary source.
Lisa Aronson wrote:
: The Jewish version was transmitted generation after generation by
: Sages living in the place where the events actually unfolded.
In other words, it is an oral tradition. Oral traditions are notoriously unstable at the best of times, and they are *especially* poor at preserving chronology – see the study by D.P. Henige, “The Chronology of Oral Tradition”. You could hardly have a weaker basis on which to found a chronology; it cannot stand for a second against the innumerable documents that demonstrate the contrary.
: Probably the most amusing thing about this whole issue is that the
: documentary hypothesis, which claims that the Bible was composed of
: several disparate and conflicting sources which were eventually
: redacted into the Bible we have today, has no basis in fact.
: No “source” has ever been discovered or is mentioned in the Bible.
: Whereas all of the arguments for this silly theory actually *are*
: true about the Greek accounts of the Classical period. The various
: “historians” (they were actually entertainers who chose the most
: exciting stories so that their patrons would keep patronizing them)
: *do* mention the various conflicting sources, etc.
Oh come now, this is ridiculous. Who was Thucydides’ patron? Who was Xenophon’s? Who indeed was Herodotus’? There is not the slightest evidence for the “patron” theory, and a fair bit against it (what we know of the backgrounds of these writers suggests that they were independently wealthy). The fact that you say this (I suspect retrojecting anachronistically from other genres and later periods) speaks volumes for your ignorance of ancient history.
As for your account of their methodology, all I can say is that it doesn’t work even for an instant for Thucydides, who was mostly writing contemporary history, and is notorious for not citing variants. As for the rest, what Herodotus (say) is doing when he gives an
alternative version is far removed from the “redacting disparate sources” that is alleged by the Documentary Hypothesis for the Torah: it is much closer to a modern historian citing variant sources in a footnote, and trying openly and critically to assess their value.
The point is that (a) in the one case (allegedly) one has actual pre-existing documents which are stitched into something new with only minimal alterations in the originals’ wording; while (b) in the other case you have someone collecting source data – but not necessarily in document form, and not simply taking it over as it stands, but using it actively and critically to create a work that is entirely one’s own.
All good modern historians do (b); but as for (a), while one finds a few examples of it in Greece and Rome at later periods, I cannot think off-hand of a 5th- or 4th-century Greek historian (and certainly not Herodotus, Thucydides or Xenophon) who has written this way – they are much closer to (b).
: A scholar in Jerusalem came up with a theory about 13-14 years ago which
: successfully fits the Greek tales into the Jewish chronological framework.
: The resulting reconstruction adds tremendous depth to our picture of the
: history of this period. I’m working on turning his paper into a book (in English;
: the paper is in Hebrew). God willing, it’ll be available by next year.
Heaven preserve us.
Department of Classics
University of Durham