For a number of years, the ABR staff has been endeavoring to conduct research on the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. As we worked towards the launching of this important project, Pastor Jeremy Sexton published this article in the Westminster Theological Journal. Since it was very much in accord with the direction of our research, we invited Pastor Sexton to republish his article here, and he graciously agreed. We expect this to be the first of many articles (re)published by ABR that deal with this important, ancient, and complex subject. For more about the project, please visit: https://biblearchaeology.org/abrprojects/4293-the-genesis-5-and-11-genealogy-and-chronology-research-project
I. The Genesis of the Primeval Chronology Debate
In 1890, William Henry Green, professor of Oriental and Old Testament Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, published his seminal essay 'Primeval Chronology.'1 He argued that 'the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 were not intended to be used, and cannot properly be used, for the construction of a chronology.'2 He concluded that 'the Scriptures furnish no chronological computation prior to the life of Abraham.'3
Green's proposal challenged the long-established approach to Gen 5 and 11. Biblical interpreters had been reading the genealogies as chronologies since before Christ. Jewish historians Demetrius (ca. 200 BC), Eupolemus (ca. 160 BC), and Josephus (ca. AD 93), as well as the authors of Jubilees (ca. 150 BC) and Seder Olam Rabbah (ca. AD 150), used the genealogies for chronological computation.4 Several early and medieval churchmen-for example, Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 168), Julius Africanus (ca. 218), Origen (ca. 230), Eusebius (ca. 315), Augustine (ca. 354), Bede (ca. 723), and Cedrenus (ca. 1060)-did likewise.5 Luther dated creation to 3960 BC, Melanchthon to 3963 BC, and 'Geneva' to 3943 BC.6 During the interval between the Reformation and the publication of Green's essay, Ussher dated creation to 4004 BC, Vossius to 5590 BC, Playfair to 4007 BC, Jackson to 5426 BC, Hales to 5411 BC, and Russell to 5441 BC.7 This is merely a small sampling of those who used Gen 5 and 11 for the construction of a chronology. By 1890 the chronological interpretation had deep roots.
Chronological computation has always been so inviting because Gen 5 and 11 specify the age of each patriarch at the birth of his descendant, unlike any other genealogies in Scripture or in extant ancient Near Eastern writings.8 The text says that when Adam was 130, he begat Seth (Gen 5:3); when Seth was 105, he begat Enosh (5:6); when Enosh was 90, he begat Kenan (5:9); and so forth. It appears that one can construct a chronology from Adam to Abraham by adding up the patriarchs' begetting ages. Green conceded that Gen 5 and 11 give 'the prima facie impression' of a chronology, but he attempted to refute the chronological interpretation by arguing for the possibility of genealogical gaps created by the biblical author's 'omission of unimportant names.'9
During the twentieth century, Green's proposal became the consensus view among evangelical OT scholars. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. included Green's landmark paper in his compilation of Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, considering it one of 'the finest moments in Old Testament scholarship.'10
Green's hypothesis is attractive because it reconciles Scripture with the academically accepted antiquity of mankind. According to the chronological interpretation of Gen 5 and 11 in the Masoretic Text (MT), God created Adam c. 4000 BC. The Septuagint (LXX), with its higher begetting ages, puts the creation of Adam c. 5500 BC. Few anthropologists accept such recent dates for the origin of the human race. Green's theory also removes any discrepancy between the conventional chronology of ancient Egypt and the date of the flood. A deluge that destroyed all of mankind must have happened before Egypt's first dynasty, whose accepted date of commencement is c. 3000 BC.11 The problem is that Noah's flood, according to the chronology in the MT, dates to c. 2500 BC at the earliest (Ussher dated it to 2348 BC). The longer chronology in the LXX puts the flood before Egyptian history, but Green insisted on the accuracy of the MT's begetting ages. He proposed an appealing solution: gaps in Gen 5 and 11 that do not impose a timeline on the interpreter.12
Read the rest of this article by downloading or opening this PDF: Sexton-WTJ-Article.pdf
About the Author: Jeremy Sexton is pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd in North Augusta, SC, and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Religion (with an emphasis in biblical languages) from Missouri Baptist University and a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary. He and his wife Brandy have five boys and one girl, and another boy coming in August!
*Corrigendum on p. 216: 'unlike the SP, the LXX in Gen 11 closes each generation with 'and he died' (as does Gen 5)' should read 'unlike the SP, the LXX in Gen 11 does not provide the total years of each patriarch's life.'
1. William Henry Green, 'Primeval Chronology,' BSac 47 (1890): 285-303.
2. Ibid., 286.
3. Ibid., 303.
4. Ε. H. Merrill, 'Chronology,' in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David w. Baker (Downers Grove, IE: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 117-18.
5. William Hales, A New Analysis of Chronology and Geography, History and Prophecy, 2nd ed. (London: C.J.G. & E Rivington, 1830), 1:211-12; Hugh Magennis, The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 100-101.
6. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard, 2nd ed. (Columbus, OH: Scott & Bascom, 1852), 145.
7. Michael Russell, A Connection of Sacred and Profane History, rev. J. Talboys Wheeler, 2nd ed. (London: William Tegg, 1865), 1:31-32, 88-90. The earlier dates for creation (ca. 5500 BC) are based on the Septuagint's longer primeval chronology, to which most Christian interpreters before the Reformation, and many afterward, subscribed (see Appendix B below).
8. Gerhard F. Hasel, 'The Meaning of the Chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11,' Origins 7 (1980): 53, 62; see also Gerhard F. Hasel, 'The Genealogies of Gen 5 and 11 and Their Alleged Babylonian Background,' AUSS 16 (1978): 361-74.
9. Green, 'Primeval Chronology,' 285-86.
10. Walter C. Kaiser Jr., ed., Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), 7.
11. See, e.g., Anthony J. Spalinger, 'Chronology and Periodization,' The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, ed. Donald B. Redford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1:267.
12. Green, 'Primeval Chronology,' 300.