Before Abraham

The timeline from creation to Abraham should be the easiest to establish.  We have in Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 the generations from Adam to Abraham including the years from the birth of each to the birth of the next generation – exactly what we need to construct a timeline.  But something doesn’t add up.

Most Bibles that we have today use the Masoretic Text for the old testament.  This is the ‘official’ Hebrew text and we have manuscripts dating back to around 1000 AD. However, there are three other versions of the text that we can use:

  • Septuagint or LXX.  In the third century BC, the king of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309-246 BC), gathered 70 (or 72) Jewish scholars to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek.  This became the authoritative Greek translation (similar to the King James in English) and was widely used in both Jewish and Christian circles until at least the 4th century AD.
  • Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samaritans maintained their own version of the five books of Moses going back to the second temple period. It is generally believed to date from before 100 BC.
  • Ethiopic.  The Bible also exists in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopia.  Ge’ez is a dead language that, much like Latin, continues in religious use.  The Ethiopic is generally believed to be derived from the Septuagint (see Acts 8:27-40) in the 4th century AD, and as we will see closely matches that version.  However, Ethiopia also had a significant Jewish population and with it a Hebrew tradition, and we should consider that this may have influenced the Ge’ez.

We also have some other ancient extra-biblical sources:

  • Demetrius the Chronographer wrote in Alexandria circa 220 BC, or less than 50 years after the translation of the Septuagint.  Fragments of his work are preserved in Eusebius (see below) and Clement.
  • Epolemus, a Jewish historian, wrote circa 160 BC and is preserved only in fragments, notably in Clement.
  • Pseudo-Philo (so called because the work was originally attributed incorrectly to Philo of Alexandria) wrote the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, or LAB in the first century AD which includes a genealogy from Adam through Noah
  • Flavius Josephus recorded the genealogies in his Antiquities of the Jews written shortly after the destruction of the second temple in 69 AD.  In this work he provides a parallel account that largely matches the Septuagint.  Some believe that this is because Josephus used the Greek Septuagint as a basis for his work.  However, Josephus claims that he worked directly from Hebrew texts (Ant. 1:5, 9:208, 10:218; Against Apion 1:1, 54).  This suggests that the Hebrew texts of his time matched the Septuagint.
  • Eusebius recorded the Hebrew, Samaritan, and Septuagint as they were available to him in approximately 325 AD in his Chronicle. He is an important witness as to the condition of the texts at that time.

Henry B Smith, Jr. provides a nice scholarly summary of these sources and their relevance in his article The Case for the Septuagint’s Chronology in Genesis 5 and 11

What about the Dead Sea Scrolls?  Unfortunately, Genesis 5 and 11 are almost entirely absent from the available fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Only one scroll (Genesis 4Q2) contains even a fragment of these two chapters.  That scroll has a single word from Genesis 5:12 or 13 which reads “Kenan (Cainan)”. Unfortunately, this provides zero information in our quest to establish the correct timeline. Note that some online versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, (For example) complete this verse with the Masoretic text, but they are just guessing. 

The table below shows the number of years between generations according to each version of each major text.  For example, the intersection of Adam and the Masoretic text shows 130 years, indicating that Adam lived 130 years before his son Seth was born.  White cells indicate agreement with the Masoretic text.  Red cells indicate a disagreement with the Masoretic text that is unique to a particular version.  Yellow cells indicate a disagreement with the Masoretic that is supported by one other source.  Green cells indicate a disagreement with the Masoretic that is supported by at least two other sources.  The rows for the flood and Abraham provide totals up to that point.

Table 1: Years Between Generations in the Various Biblical and Extra-Biblical Texts

  Hebrew   Samaritan   Greek     Ethiopic Latin
Person/Event Masoretic Eusebius* SP Eusebius* LXX Josephus Eusebius* Ge’ez LAB
Adam 130 130 130 130 230 230 230 230 [230]
Seth 105 105 105 105 205 205 205 205 205
Enosh 90 90 90 90 190 190 190 190 190
Cainan 70 70 70 70 170 170 170 170 170
Mahalalel 65 65 65 65 165 165 165 165 165
Jared 162 162 162 62 162 162 162 162 162
Enoch 65 65 65 65 165 165 165 165 165
Methuselah 187 187 67 67 167 187 167 187 187
Lamech 182 182 53 53 188 182 188 182 182
Noah 502 502 502 502 502 502/512 502 502 502
Shem 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
Flood (Total) 1,656 1,656 1,407 1,307 2,242 2,256 2,242 2,256 2,256
Arphaxad 35 35 135 135 135 135 135 135  
Kainan Missing Missing Missing Missing 130** Missing Missing 130**  
Salah 30 30 130 130 130 130 130 130  
Eber 34 34 134 134 134 134 134 134  
Peleg 30 30 130 130 130 130 130 130  
Reu 32 32 132 132 132 130 135 132  
Serug 30 30 130 130 130 132 130 130  
Nahor 29 29 79 79 79 120 79 79  
Terah 70 70 70 70 70 70 70 70  
Abraham (Total) 1,948 1,948 2,349 2,249 3,312 3,249 3,187 3,326  

*While Eusebius agrees almost universally with the begetting ages in each text, there are a number of differences on the remaining years and ages at death but I don’t have the space to show them here.
**See discussion of Kainan below

The first thing that strikes me in the above is that when a text differs from the Masoretic, that difference is most often exactly 100 years higher. This pattern indicates intentional editing vs. some of the unique differences which are more likely scribal errors.  However, it leaves open the question of which is the original and which is the edited text. The period after the Flood has essentially all of the other sources in alignment with each other but in disagreement with the Masoretic text.  Before the Flood, however, the Masoretic and Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) tend to agree with each other while the various versions of the Septuagint (LXX) and Josephus are in agreement with each other but disagree with the Masoretic text until the time of Methuselah.

Below are some thoughts on the table above:

Adam to Mahalalel: For the first five generations, the Masoretic and Samaritan texts match exactly, as do all versions of the Septuagint, including the Ge’ez.  However, each generation in the LXX is exactly 100 years longer, adding 500 years to the time interval between Creation and the Flood in that version. As noted above, the exact 100 year difference is curious and likely the result of a deliberate edit.  Which version is the original is however not clear.

Jared: Jared shows almost complete agreement across all versions with the exception of the Samaritan as quoted by Eusebius.  I think we can be confident that 162 years is correct for Jared to Enoch. Though perhaps we should ask why Jared is not 100 years less in the Masoretic?

Enoch: For Enoch we see the same pattern that we had for Adam through Mahalalel, a 100 year difference. The name that Enoch gave to his son was likely prophetic (see below).

Methuselah: Now things get interesting! We have four different numbers given for the generation from Methuselah to Lamech.  In the Masoretic text, when we combine this with the generations given for Lamech and Noah and Noah’s age at the time of the flood, we see that Methuselah died in the year of the flood.  This is particularly interesting when you consider that one possible translation of his name is “his death will send”.  We can reject the shorter timelines given in the Samaritan and some versions of the LXX as they would then place his death after the flood – an impossibility. It’s also interesting to me that in this particular place, Josephus, the Ge’ez, and LAB match the Masoretic.  Given this, I think we can be comfortable that 187 years is the correct generation from Methuselah to Lamech.

Lamech: For the same reason we accepted 187 years for Methuselah to Lamech, we should accept 182 years for Lamech to Noah.  As with Methuselah it is interesting that Josephus, LAB, and the Ge’ez match the Masoretic here and not the LXX.

Noah and Shem: Here the texts are in complete agreement with the exception of Josephus who for some unknown reason adds 10 years to Noah’s age at the birth of Shem (probably a scribal error).  Now Genesis 5:32 states that, “Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth”. Genesis 7:11 states that the flood was, “in the six hundredth year of Noah’s life”, which would make Shem 100 at the time of the flood.  However, Genesis 11:10 gives Shem’s age as, “”one hundred years old, and he begot Arphaxad two years after the flood”.  The reconciliation between these passages is simple: Noah began to have his sons at the age of 500, but Shem was not the first born and was born two years later.  Genesis 10 may give the true birth order in listing the following generations in the order of Japheth, Ham, and then Shem, but this is just speculation. Note however that Genesis 10:21 calls Japheth, “the elder”, likely indicating that he was the first born.

The Flood: If we consider that we must accept 187 years from Methuselah to Lamech and 182 years from Lamech to Noah, then we have two possible choices for the time from Creation to the Flood.  Following the Masoretic text gives us 1,656 years and following Josephus or the Ge’ez which have the correct numbers for both gives us 2,256 years – exactly 600 years longer with those years coming from adding 100 years each to Adam through Mahalalel and to Enoch.

Arphaxad: With Arphaxad we continue the pattern of the Septuagint being 100 years higher than the Masoretic, but interestingly from this point onward the Samaritan matches the Septuagint and not the Masoretic and so we have the preponderance of sources supporting the longer timeline.

Kainan: The Septuagint and the Ethiopic include Kainan, an additional generation that is not attested elsewhere. However, Kainan is attested in Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:36) and appears in Genesis 10:24 in the Septuagint.   Kainan’s age at the birth of his son and his total lifespan are identical to that given for the next generation, Salah.  Given this and the absence of Kainan in other versions of the Septuagint, notably Josephus and Eusebius, Kainan is generally believed to be a scribal error.  However, Henry B Smith of the Associates for Biblical Research makes arguments for Kainan’s inclusion here: New Evidence for Kainan in New Testament and LXX Papyri and also here:  Associates for Biblical Research.  I have gone back and forth on including the years associated with Kainan in my timeline, but for now have chosen to include him for consistency with the Septuagint.

Salah to Nahor: For the period from Salah through Serug, we have a consistent pattern with the Septuagint and Samaritan texts providing a period between generations that is 100 years longer than the Masoretic.  Including the 100 year difference for Arphaxad, this adds a total of 600 years.  For Nahor, the Septuagint and Samaritan add 50 years.  There are only minor differences in the various Septuagint texts with Eusebius adding three years for Reu and Josephus apparently reversing the numbers for Reu and Serug.  Josephus inexplicably gives a number of 120 for Nahor. 

Terah: With Terah, we finally reach a point where all of the texts agree.  Note that Terah lived an additional 135 years (to the age of 205) and Abraham departed Haran for Canaan at the age of 75, or when Terah was 145 years old.  Thus Abraham departed Canaan while his father was still alive.

Abraham: The bottom line in our table above is that, depending on the source used, the time from creation until the birth of Abraham is likely 1,950 years, following the Masoretic, or approximately 3,300 years following the Septuagint.  Comparing the various Septuagint texts, I believe that the Ethiopic is likely the best record of the original text with a total of 3,326 year from creation to the birth of Abraham.

An interesting point that is only noticed when trying to graph each person on a timeline is that, following the Masoretic text, Shem outlives Abraham.  This is not the case in the other translations, and in my mind lends credibility to the Septuagint.  Consequently, The Biblical Timeline uses the ages and lifespans from the Septuagint for the period after the flood. An academic discussion of the different texts and why the Septuagint may have the correct set of numbers can be found here: MT, SP, or LXX? Deciphering a Chronological and Textual Conundrum in Genesis 5

The graph above shows the generations from Shem to Joseph according to the three primary manuscripts.  As you can see, there is less agreement between the Samaritan and the Septuagint on the life spans in this period than there is on the age at the birth of the next generation.  One of the things that I like about the Septuagint here is that the life spans seem to follow an exponential decay curve which is what I would expect.

For those of you that ascribe significance to the numbers, I place the birth of Abraham in 1,951 BC (Exodus in 1,446 + 430 years from Abraham’s entry into Canaan until the Exodus + Abraham’s age of 75 at entry into Canaan).  Thus following the Masoretic text, the years from creation to the birth of Abraham are approximately the same as the years from the birth of Abraham to the birth of Christ, and again approximately the same as the number of years from the birth of Christ to the restoration of the state of Israel.  Using the date of 1,951 BC for the birth of Abraham gives use the following dates for creation and the flood:

Event Masoretic (MT) Samaritan (SP) Septuagint (LXX) Ge’ez
Birth of Abraham 1,951 BC 1,951 BC 1,951 BC 1,951 BC
Flood 2,241 BC 2,891 BC 3,021 BC 3,021 BC
Creation 3,899 BC* 4,300 BC 5,263 BC 5,277 BC

*Note that Usher’s chronology has a date of 4,004 BC.  Usher had Solomon about 50 years earlier than modern chronologies, among other errors that altogether pushed his date for creation 105 years earlier

At this point we should come back to our early extra-biblical sources.  Josephus, states that the history of the Jewish people covers 5,000 years, a number consistent with only the longer chronology of the Septuagint and Ge’ez.  Demetrius the Chronographer places creation in 5,307 BC and the flood in 3,043 BC, again consistent only with the higher numbers.  Epolomus agrees with Demetrius in giving a date for creation of 5,307 BC.  While many will insist on holding to the traditional, Masoretic text, the evidence indicates that both ancient Hebrew authors and the early church fathers consistently placed creation before 5,000 BC. Finally, our current understanding of Egyptian history cannot support a later date for the flood in 2,200 BC, but could support an earlier date of about 3,000 BC.  Thus, the earlier dates in the Septuagint and Ge’ez are also a better fit with what we know from archaeology.