Just as an Arms Race raged between the super-powers in the 1960s, so an Age Race raged among the ancient civilizations in the centuries before Christ’s birth. Each claimed to have the oldest history. While some writers seemed interested in the truth, others were playing a game to see who could spin the biggest and most convincing yarn about the antiquity of their nation.
Greece’s history supposedly went back eighteen hundred years; Egypt’s, eleven thousand years; and Babylon’s, a whopping 730,000 years (par. 193–194).1
In the first centuries after Christ, Christians like Eusebius (the “father of church history”) tried to reconstruct an accurate world chronology, reconciling the Bible with pagan chronologies, but with little success. The ancient king lists had been so doctored that it proved impossible to sort out the truth. Ever since, Christians and non-Christians have been trying to make sense of ancient chronologies, with equal frustration.
Isaac Newton to the Rescue
No less a person than Isaac Newton, sometimes called “the greatest mind of all time,” dabbled in this topic throughout his life. He eventually collected his thoughts into a book, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728), published a year after he died.
Though he did not have the advantage of modern archaeology, Newton was so well read in the classical Greek and Latin writers that he was able to detect serious problems in the dating of ancient records before 700 BC.
His basic claims are solid:
- God’s Word is correct in every detail, including its history, so it must be our starting point (par. 410–415).
- Except for the Bible itself, the other histories of early nations were not recorded until well after the events had passed (par. 483–484). For example, the first historian to write about ancient Egypt (apart from Moses) was Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC).
- Most records of early history were lost or distorted as a result of repeated foreign invasions (par. 517).
- Ancient peoples were not averse to making big assumptions to fill in the gaps (par. 193).
Newton alludes to the Persian invasion of Egypt as an example. In 525–523 BC the Persians under Cambyses invaded Egypt and destroyed most of the historical records that the Assyrians and other previous nations had missed. The Egyptian priests were left to reconstruct most of their history from memory, and their efforts were not without guile.
Newton explains, “After Cambyses had carried away the records of Egypt, the priests were daily feigning new kings, to make their gods and nation look more ancient” (par. 517). When Herodotus visited Egypt in the mid-fifth century BC, the priests had constructed a list of 341 Egyptian kings reigning some 11,340 years! Even Herodotus was dubious.
Newton points out that except for biblical history, early historians did not use absolute dates until around 250 BC. Before that time, they usually marked time by the reign of kings. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians assumed that an average of three kings reigned for every century, and they pigeonholed dates accordingly (par. 204).
Newton asked himself, “Is this reasonable?” He then analyzed the dynasties of a dozen other known kingdoms, such as the English monarchs. To his surprise the average reign was only eighteen to twenty years, about half of what ancient pagan historians had claimed. Even in biblical times, the kings of the Southern Kingdom ruled an average of a little over twenty-one years each, while those of the Northern Kingdom reigned about seventeen years each.
Newton was particularly interested in Greek history because the Greeks were the first to record their history, and they connected many events to the Olympiads, which were held every four years. By pinning down important dates in Greece’s history, such as Jason’s expedition with the Argonauts, Newton believed he could easily connect this fixed date to events in other countries.
Applying what he learned about the average length of a king’s reign, half of Greece’s recorded history before 700 BC evaporated! For example, the Trojan War and Argonaut expedition were much more recent than is usually assumed, Newton argued. He also found that other king lists, such as the list of Roman kings, had exaggerated the length of their reigns, and so the lists should be cut in half.
Newton then proceeded to look at the histories of other nations, such as Egypt, rejecting any fictitious names or mythological eras. By his reckoning, based on the information available in his day, he calculated that only twenty-two names reflected real kings in ancient Egypt (par. 486).
Putting Together the Pieces
As Alexander’s empire splintered into warring kingdoms, each had a vested interest in promoting its own history. A veritable “cottage industry” of fabricated histories flourished, as each competed to spin the biggest yarn.
Few historical accounts have survived from authors who lived before Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) led his Greek army across the “known world,” conquering the former domains of Babylonia/Assyria/Persia, Egypt, and India. Older histories are sometimes quoted by later authors, but the works themselves do not survive. So we must rely on the later authors.
The problem is that, as Alexander’s empire splintered into warring factions ruled by his generals, each kingdom had a vested interest in promoting its own history.
Manetho’s History of Egypt—
A veritable “cottage industry” of fabricated histories flourished after Alexander’s death. Possibly most famous of these new historians was Manetho (third century BC), who lived in Egypt. He recorded a long series of Egyptian dynasties that the priests told him about. But his history shared little in common with what Herodotus had recorded two hundred years earlier.
Two centuries after Manetho, a Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus wrote a new version of Egyptian history. He ignored the dynasties of Manetho and reduced the number of Egyptian kings back down to only a handful of men, as Herodotus had done. But he also rejected Herodotus and other older writers “who deliberately preferred to the truth the telling of marvelous tales and the invention of myths for the delectation [delight] of their readers.”2
What a mess! Newton rejected the work of Manetho and tried instead to reconcile the histories of Diodorus and Herodotus. While he acknowledged that other kings’ names in Manetho’s list might be confirmed, he believed the final list would be nowhere near as long as Manetho’s (par. 515).
Berossus’s History of Babylonia—
Over the centuries, the priests in Babylon had produced their own fabulous lists of kings, along with many myths. Using these sources, a Babylonian astronomer named Berossus wrote a three-book History of Babylonia (c. 290–278 BC). His version of Babylonian history includes legendary kings from creation to the mythical Babylonian flood, spanning hundreds of thousands of years.
Greek Histories of Various City-States—
The jealous city-states of Greece also got into the war of histories. Since Greece did not have historical records of its ancient kings, as Egypt and Babylon did, they began to make them up. For example, the “historian” Castor of Rhodes (first century BC) invented early dates for the Greek gods and made up a long list of kings, beginning with Aegialeus, the supposed founder of Sicyon. Argos invented its own king Inachus, and Athens got a king named Ogyges.3
The Lesson for Today
This confusion about ancient chronology has profound implications for us today. The ultimate goal in studying ancient dates, obviously, is accuracy; and accuracy demands that the dates coincide perfectly with Scripture.4
Yet today almost all dating of ancient history is based on a foundation of sand, not the rock of Scripture. Modern secular historians have a deep bias against Scripture, and they interpret history with a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” as Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier writes.5 Even theologians sometimes try to expand the chronologies in Genesis 5 and 11 to accommodate the supposed history of other ancient cultures. The biblical text is assumed to be inaccurate right out of the gate.
Isaac Newton had the right approach. Nothing in ancient history (when properly understood) can possibly conflict with biblical history. As archaeologists continue to make exciting new discoveries, we have nothing to worry about. God’s eyewitness record is 100% true and reliable, the only sure starting point for studying the timeline of human history.