A Solar Eclipse and Old Testament Chronology

Here in the United States there is much excitement about the total solar eclipse that will take place on 21 August 2017. But did you know that the solar eclipse of June 15, 763 B.C. holds the key to the chronology of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)?

Have you ever thought about how a Study Bible can, such as, date the rule of Solomon from 970 B.C. to 930 B.C.? Or supply the dates of the rule of any other biblical king? This is a complicated topic because the Bible itself does not give such dates—typically we find “relative” dates such as “in the fourth year of his reign, King Solomon began to build the temple” (1 Kings 6:1). But when exactly is the “fourth year . . .”? Some scholars have suggested 966 B.C. But how do they know that?

It is because scholars, such as Edwin R. Thiele, have been able to link the relative chronology given in the Bible to known dates from Assyrian records (Babylonian and Egyptian sources are used as well). But how do they know the dates of Assyrian rulers and events?

A collection of limmu stelae from Asshur in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul.

Well, I am glad you asked! It is because the Assyrians named their years after various officials, including the king. Such a person was called a limmu (don’t ask, just trust me). The Assyrians would then, in other documents, date an event (such as an invasion, a battle, the building of a temple, etc.) by the name of the limmu in which it occurred. It is fortunate that there are actually lists of limmus that can be joined to give a complete sequence from roughly 891 B.C. to 648 B.C.

But what we end up with is a sequence of limmus—giving us relative dates (“this limmu before that limmu,” etc.). How is it possible to turn this long sequence of relative dates to “absolute” dates? Well, some astronomical phenomena are tied to various limmus!

One item of unusual importance is a notice of an eclipse of the sun that took place in the month of Simanu, in the eponymy (limmu) of Bur-Sagale [name of a person]. Astronomical computation has fixed this as June 15, 763. With the year of the eponymy [limmu] of Bur–Sagale fixed at 763 B.C., the year of every other name of the complete canon can likewise be fixed. The Assyrian lists extant today provide a reliable record of the annual limmu officials from 891 to 648 B.C.; and for this period they provide reliable dates in Assyrian history. (Thiele pp. 41–42)

With this information, correlations with the Biblical text can be made, and Relative Biblical dates can be converted to what we now know as B.C. dates.

Thus, the solar eclipse on June 15, 763 B.C. has played a huge role in helping determine Biblical Chronology!

Disclaimer: this post is intended to express appreciation for all the time that scholars have put into trying to determine an accurate Biblical Chronology—it is far from a complete discussion of the many challenges met in trying to solve such a problem.

Thiele, E. R. The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. Revised edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1965.

3 responses to “A Solar Eclipse and Old Testament Chronology

  1. Eclipses occur in relatively frequent intervals based on the observer’s location & weather, so the one in 763 BC is not an absolute date, but one chosen by modern scholars based on assumptions about other events. I personally believe the modern Jewish calendar is more accurate (being about a century shorter than Thiele’s mainstream chronology during the Neo-Assyrian period).

  2. Very helpful and insightful, Carl. Thank you!

  3. Pingback: The solar eclipse of June 15, 763 B.C. | Ferrell's Travel Blog

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