In the seventeenth century, Bishop James Ussher used biblical genealogies to calculate that the universe was approximately 6,000 years old. Critics have observed that Ussher’s timeline between Noah’s flood and Abraham seems too short,1 yet his calculations became a standard of orthodoxy for many Christians. Hence, two centuries later when emerging science began questioning Ussher’s age for the universe,2 preeminent Old Testament scholar William Henry Green of Princeton Theological Seminary expressed concern that scientists “have been led to distrust the divine authority of the Scriptures; and. . .believers in the divine word have been led to look upon the investigations of science. . .as though they were antagonistic to religious faith.”3
Green’s 1890 article in Bibliotheca Sacra gives numerous examples of apparent discrepancies in Scripture’s genealogical lists, not to claim that the listings were inaccurate, but to demonstrate that the genealogies in the Bible “are frequently abbreviated by the omission of unimportant names.” He concluded that “a select and partial register of ante-Abrahamic names has been mistaken for a complete one,” and “the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 were not intended to be used, and cannot properly be used, for the construction of a chronology.”4
The situation in the twenty-first century may even have worsened since Green’s time. Although Green’s article was republished in 1972,5 Bishop Ussher’s chronology remains a standard of orthodoxy in many evangelical circles, thus erecting an artificial bulwark between the Bible and science. A 2011 study found that “millions of young Christians perceive Christianity to be in opposition to modern science,” causing many of them to leave the church.6 In order to demonstrate compatibility between the Bible and science, it seems that more effort must be put toward proving that an accurate creation timeline cannot be calculated using the Bible’s genealogies.
In this five-part Today’s New Reason to Believe series, we hope to add to Green’s work by providing further conclusive evidence of genealogical gaps in Mosaic literature. Our thesis is that the flexibility and ambiguity of biblical Hebrew implies genealogical lists are inherently imprecise, even though these lists have the appearance of precision to the Western mind due to inadequate translation of certain key words. (By “inadequate” we mean that the translation does not reflect the original word’s full range of meaning.)
The Search for a Creation Timeline
All those who have attempted to calculate an exact creation date—from Rabbi Jose ben Halafta (second century) to Bishop Ussher—have relied on the genealogical records in the Pentateuch (particularly Genesis 5, 10, and 11). The assumption is that these records precisely and explicitly catalog parent/child relationships in sequential order with no gaps. But is that really the case? Western cultures usually avoid gaps in our family trees—but it’s possible that the concept of an unbroken genealogy was unimportant to Moses (credited as the author of Genesis).
If God, through the biblical authors, wished to detail a precise timeline from the creation event to the Flood or to Abraham, why didn’t He simply provide this information—just as He did with the descent into Egypt to the Exodus (430 years, Exodus 12:40–41) and with the Exodus to Solomon’s temple (480 years, 1 Kings 6:1)? Is it rational to conclude that God chose not to reveal this in Scripture, but intended later scholars to sort through sketchy information about the earliest patriarchs to calculate dates for creation and the Flood?
To the contrary, we suggest that it’s possible God never intended man to know the exact times of creation and the Flood. There is ample evidence that Moses knew how to draw a precise chronological timeline with day, month, and year accuracy,7 and the Bible includes solid chronological information after the descent into Egypt. Yet no such information is provided to describe the timelines between creation and Abraham.
Ancient Hebrew and Modern Western Thought Patterns Are Different
It should be emphasized that just because the biblical Hebrew contains ambiguities or generalizations does not mean it is in error. We believe the Bible is inerrant, and only our belief in the literal truth of the Bible allows us to make the calculations that follow.
Before delving into the calculations, it’s important to note that the Bible was written in the context of ancient Near Eastern thought, which focuses on function rather than form. Biblical Hebrew is a flexible, contextual language that tends to be more subjective than determinative. The mathematical precision characteristic of Western thinking was not innate to the biblical authors; they were more interested in telling a story. Still, the problem isn’t the Bible but rather modern translations and uninformed interpretations of the Bible, which attempt to infer precision from something that is inherently and intentionally imprecise.
Consider, as an example, the inquisition of Galileo in 1616. The Catholic Church claimed based on misinterpretation of biblical Hebrew that the Sun circled the Earth; but Galileo (like Copernicus before him) argued that astronomical data suggested the Earth circled the Sun. Today heliocentricity is accepted both scientifically and biblically; it does not undermine the literal truth of the Bible—and neither do genealogical gaps. In both cases later generations attempted to wring a major theological point out of a generalized biblical narrative, but in reality the text covers the point hurriedly because it was not central to the narrative.
Yālad Is the Key
Biblical timeline calculations are based in large part on early patriarchal genealogies. However, passages such as Genesis 5, 10, and 11 contain sketchy information, typically listing only a “father,” “son,” the age of the “father” when he began reproducing, his total lifespan, and that he had other progeny (unnamed and unnumbered). By contrast, stories of the most important patriarchs—including Noah, Abraham, and Moses—contain much more detail; and this detail is helpful in understanding the finer points of the biblical Hebrew.
If significant ambiguities are found in Hebrew words as they are used in these detailed stories, it seems fair to assume these ambiguities apply to other, less detailed passages. In this way we can demonstrate fundamental imprecision in the genealogical narratives and provide linguistic justification for the gaps identified by Green and others through list comparisons. We believe this imprecision provides definitive proof that genealogical gaps are inherent in Mosaic literature. This means that efforts to calculate timelines are doomed to failure and irrelevancy, and, sadly, even undermine the veracity of Scripture.
The key to timeline calculations is the meaning of the Hebrew word yālad, commonly translated “begat” (KJV) or “became the father of” (NIV, NASB). Scholars who attempt to calculate a timeline assume yālad implies a parent/child relationship, and this assumption is reflected in English translations of genealogical passages. However, analysis of yālad’s full range of meaning demonstrates that this assumption is a significant oversimplification of the word’s meaning.
In the following four parts of this series, we will review the stories of Moses, Noah, Abraham, and the Exodus to prove that yālad does not literally mean “begat” or “became the father of.” With this evidence, it will become clear that all efforts to calculate a precise creation timeline are futile.
Hugh Henry, PhD
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as a lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.
Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.