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Setting the Record Straight on the Primeval Chronology of the Septuagint: A Response to Cosner and Carter

By: Henry B. Smith Jr., MA, MAR

Editorial note: This article has been published in the Fall 2018 issue of Bible and Spade in electronic form only, and not in print. Download the complete PDF.


In September of 2018, Lita Cosner and Dr. Robert Carter of Creation Ministries International wrote a critique of two articles I published under the auspices of the Genesis 5 and 11 Research Project.1 Their article, Is the Septuagint a superior text for the Genesis genealogies?”, can be found on the CMI website. I recommend that the reader simultaneously read my exposition and interaction below, along with their online posting.

I. Ephraem of Syria

In my article published in the Answers Research Journal in August 2017,“Methuselah’s Begetting Age in Genesis 5:25 and the Primeval Chronology of the Septuagint: A Closer Look at the Textual and Historical Evidence,” I cited numerous sources from antiquity and the Middle Ages which claimed that the Jewish rabbis deflated the original primeval chronology in the Hebrew proto-Masoretic text2 shortly after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.3 For those in the ancient and medieval world who viewed the Septuagint’s (LXX) longer primeval chronology as original, this was probably the most consistent explanation offered for the origin of the shorter chronology deposited in the Masoretic Text (MT). Among those sources, I included Ephraem of Syria, a 4th century AD Syriac theologian and prolific author. C&C critique my use of this reference, arguing that the evidence indicates Ephraem followed the MT’s shorter chronology. I believe that C&C are correct on this specific point, and that the use of Ephraem as a reference is, in fact, an error on my part. For the sake of transparency, I would like to provide a full accounting of how the mistake transpired.

I found several sources that referenced Ephraem in this manner. I first discovered a citation in Jeremy Sexton’s article, “Who was Born When Enosh was 90?,” pointing to Martin Anstey’s The Romance of Biblical Chronology. Anstey was a staunch proponent of the MT’s primeval chronology. He stated that Ephraem accused the Jews of deflating the Hebrew chronology and concluded, “In this, Ephraem was wrong…”4 I considered Anstey’s reference to Ephraem to be that of a “hostile witness” as it were. After all, Anstey was not trying to advance the LXX, but the MT instead. However, this was not enough to substantiate the claim since Anstey provided no reference.

Then I came across an explicit quote from William Hales, which he attributed to Ephraem: “The Jews have subtracted 600 years [in Genesis 5] from the generations of Adam, Seth, etc., in order that their own books might not convict them concerning the coming of CHRIST...”5 It seemed that Anstey was either closely paraphrasing Hales’ quotation, or Anstey was quoting Ephraem from the same source that Hales had used 83 years prior. At this stage, I still was collecting information and drew no conclusions.

Later, when doing research on the 2nd century BC Jewish historian Eupolemus, I came across an in-depth study by Ben Zion Wacholder,6 an expert on ancient Judaism who wrote numerous articles on chronology and was a well respected scholar.7 Wacholder writes:

The significant divergence of 1,396 years between the Hebrew and Greek texts did not escape the notice of the ancients… Clement of Alexandria, Judas, Julius Africanus, Hippolytus, and Eusebius, accepted the Septuagint version as authentic. The problem of explaining the lower numbers of the Hebrew version moved the Syrian classical author Ephraem of Nisibis (c. 307–373) and the Monophysite Bishop of Edessa Jacob (died 708) to charge that the Jews had altered the Hebrew text to discredit the Christian belief in the imminent second coming of Jesus.8

Anstey and Hales were coming at the question of the primeval chronology in the context of conservative Christian debate, so there was the possibility that Anstey was following Hales instead of citing Ephraem directly. Even though Hales provides an explicit quote, there is no citation in his work. Wacholder provided a completely independent reference to Ephraem’s claim, and an added resource from 250 years earlier: Joseph Assemani’s Bibliotheca Orientalis.9 In particular, footnote 9 of Wacholder (p. 99) indicates that the citation could be found in “I, 65 f” of that work. Like Hales’ quote, this could hardly be construed as a fabrication on the part of Wacholder. Because of Wacholder’s independence from Hales and Anstey, his extensive knowledge of chronology/Judaism, and his reputation as a good scholar, I had no reason to doubt his citation.

At this point, I decided to cite the relevant sources and utilize the quote from Hales. Wacholder’s reference and citation that Ephraem held this view gave me a reasonable comfort, although I still had not yet been able to drill all the way to the bottom of the matter. Nonetheless, with some hesitation, I made the decision to include the reference to Ephraem.

Shortly after the ARJ article went to press in August of 2017, Steve Rudd, staff member on the Shiloh Excavations, wrote to me and expressed his concerns that I may have made an error. He informed me that he had done a full search of Ephraem’s works in Logos, and Hales’ quote came up empty. He also advised me that Ephraem had equated Shem with Melchizedek, a scenario only compatible with the MT’s post-Flood chronology, an important point also made by C&C. Ephraem used the MT’s numbers in his commentary on Genesis, also correctly noted and cited by C&C. I had procured a copy through my local library, but inexplicably overlooked/missed Ephraem’s discussion. This oversight was a major blunder on my part, and I am at a loss to explain it. Had I fully realized there was a conflict between sources, I would have pulled the Ephraem reference until I could sort it out.

Naturally I wondered how both Hales and Wacholder would both independently get this matter wrong. I concluded there were three possible explanations: 1. The quote from Hales and Wacholder’s statement and citation of Assemani were cases of mistaken identity. Ephraem was a prolific author, and other works have been incorrectly attributed to him as well.10 2. The citations referred to a work by Ephraem that had not yet been translated into English. 3. Ephraem changed his views on the subject over time, and the quote was legitimately his.

It turns out that that the statement taken from Assemani was a case of mistaken identity. I subsequently discovered that the reasons for this are quite complicated. Bibliotheca Orientalis is a 4000-page encyclopedia of early Syriac Christian literature. Joseph and his brother Stephen Assemani (or Assemanus) also catalogued hundreds of Syriac manuscripts archived in the Vatican. Two Syriac manuscripts transcribed and translated into Latin by the Assemani brothers have a bearing on our discussion. Romeny explains:

Whoever wishes to study Ephrem’s exegesis of Genesis is confronted with the fact that two different commentaries have been attributed to him: those of Vat. sir. 103 and 110. And these texts are not only different in style, they sometimes also say completely different  things. As early as in the eighteenth century, Assemani remarked that Vat. sir. 110 identified Melchizedek with S[h]em, whereas 103 called him a Canaanite. It is clear that in recent research, the text of the sixth-century manuscript Vat. sir. 110 has been considered to have better credentials.11

As it turns out, portions of manuscript 103 were written by the Syriac monk, Severus. He wrote a selective commentary (ca. AD 861), drawing on and quoting both Ephraem and another Syriac theologian, Jacob of Edessa. Jacob’s complete Commentary on the Octateuch is included in the manuscript. However, when one looks at the top of pages 65 and 66 of Bibliotheca Orientalis, the heading reads: “S. Ephraem Syrus.” Apparently both Hales and Wacholder incorrectly attributed sections of the Syriac text from Jacob’s writings to Ephraem. As Romeny notes above, the superiority of MSS 110 has only been recently affirmed by scholars. Dirk Kruisheer discusses the complex problems in more detail, including other instances where other statements were incorrectly attributed to Ephraem.12 Thus, the relevant Syriac text and Latin translations on pages 65 and 66 of Bibliotheca Orientalis are the words of Jacob of Edessa, not Ephraem. (I will discuss Jacob further below, and we will see how my error turned out to be a blessing in disguise).

Obviously, I have not referenced Ephraem since the ARJ article. My goal was to write a “retraction” of the Ephraem reference in one of my online updates once I was able to get to the bottom of the problem. This article provides me an opportunity to do so now. So, that is the full story on my use of Ephraem, and I apologize to the present reader and to those following the Genesis 5 and 11 Research Project for my mistake.

With all of this being said, this particular error has no significant bearing on the overall argument I have made in multiple publications. The argument for the superiority of the LXX’s numbers is based on a large matrix of evidence: textual, historical, external, and internal. The fact that numerous authors in the ancient and medieval world argued that the Jewish rabbis in Israel deflated the proto–MT’s primeval chronology after the destruction of the Temple still stands.

Continue reading >>

Quick link: Setting the Record Straight on the Primeval Chronology of the Septuagint: Part 1 > Part 2 > Part 3 > Part 4

     1Anyone who may be new to this research and debate should first carefully read all of the previously published articles, and: Lita Cosner and Robert Carter, “Textual Traditions and Biblical Chronology,” Journal of Creation 29, no. 2 (2015): 99–105.
     2The proto–Masoretic text refers to the Hebrew text of the OT from antiquity that closely resembles the consonantal Masoretic Hebrew text from the later medieval period. For more, see: Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible: Revised and Expanded, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 24–74.
     3Henry B. Smith Jr., “Methuselah’s Begetting Age in Genesis 5:25 and the Primeval Chronology of the Septuagint: A Closer Look at the Textual and Historical Evidence,” Answers Research Journal 10 (August 2017): 169, n. 3. Most argued that the motive for the changes involved messianic chronology, and that by deflating the numbers, the rabbis sought to place Jesus outside of the “period of the Messiah.” Eusebius attributed the textual changes to the Jews as well, but his explanation for their motivation was obscure and inadequate. For more on the messianic chronology motivation, see: Jeremy Sexton, “Who Was Born When Enosh Was 90?: A Semantic Reevaluation of William Henry Green’s Chronological Gaps,” The Westminster Theological Journal 77, no. 2 (September 2015): 215–16; Jeremy Sexton and Henry B. Smith Jr., “Primeval Chronology Restored: Revisiting the Genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11,” Bible and Spade 29, no. 2–3 (Spring/Summer 2016): 47–48; Henry B. Smith Jr., “MT, SP, or LXX? Deciphering a Chronological and Textual Conundrum in Genesis 5,” Bible and Spade 31, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 24–27, n. 49–51.
     4Martin Anstey, The Romance of Bible Chronology (London: Marshall Bros, 1913), 46.
     5William Hales, A New Analysis of Chronology and Geography, History and Prophecy, vol. 1: Chronology and Geography (London: C. J. G. and F. Rivington, 1830), 278.
     6Ben Zion Wacholder, Eupolemus: A Study of Judaeo-Greek Literature (Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College Press, 1974).
     7Ben Zion Wacholder, “Biblical Chronology in the Hellenistic World Chronicles,” Harvard Theological Review 61, no. 3 (July 1968): 451–81; Idem., “Chrono-Messianism: The Timing of Messianic Movements and the Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles,” Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975): 201–18; Idem., “The Date of the Eschaton in the Book of Jubilees: A Commentary on Jub. 49:22-50:5, CD 1:1-10, and 16:2-3,” Hebrew Union College Annual 56 (1985): 87–101.
     8Wacholder, Eupolemus, 98–99.
     9Joseph Simonius Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino Vaticana (Rome: Typic Sacrae Congregationis de Propaganda Fide, 1719).
     10For example: Edward G. Mathews, The Armenian Commentary on Genesis Attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, trans. Edward G. Mathews, vol. 573 (Leuven: Peeters, 1998).
     11Bas ter Haar Romeny, “Ephrem and Jacob of Edessa in the Commentary of the Monk Severus,” in Malphono w-Rabo d-Malphone. Studies in Honour of Sebastian P. Brock, ed. George Anton Kiraz (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2008), 537. The reference to Melchizedek as a Canaanite instead of as Shem can be easily found on page 66.
     12Ibid., 540–43. For more details, see: Dirk Kruisheer, “Ephrem, Jacob of Edessa, and the Monk Severus. An Analysis of Ms. Vat. Syr. 103, ff. 1–72,” in Symposium Syriacum VII, ed. R. Lavenant, vol. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 256 (Rome: Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 1998), 599–605.


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