Toward a Heirarchical Hermeneutic

Barton Paul Levenson

Note added 9/14/2011: I wrote this essay a couple of decades ago, when I was a new Christian. It's a little savage towards folks with different Biblical interpretations than mine, much more than I now feel was justified. I apologize to anyone I've offended over the years with this. I do think the essay makes some valid points, but please imagine the aggression toned down considerably, and the politeness and respect for others greatly increased. I want to be honest about this, so I'm not changing the text.

"Sola scriptura!"
-Slogan of the Reformation
"My uncle, Dr. Duncanson," said MacPhee, "whose name may be familiar to you -- he was Moderator of the General Assembly over the water, in Scotland -- used to say, 'Show it to me in the word of God.' And then he'd slap the big Bible on the table. It was a way he had of shutting up people that came to him blathering about religious experiences."
-C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

Revelation and the Bible

Revelation is the sensory channel to the supernatural as evidence is the sensory channel to the natural. Unlike evidence, revelation is individual-directed and therefore hard to duplicate. It cannot be repeated under controlled conditions the way experiment can, and it is therefore not helpful in building up a scientific world-view. But like evidence, it can be recorded. Also like evidence, it carries noise as well as signal.

I am a born-again Christian because of a single supernatural experience that happened to me in November, 1984. The signal content (as opposed to the emotional content) was a message that the supernatural really existed and that the Christians had the best description of it. Early Christians were convinced of this through experiencing the events of Christ's life, or through a willingness to believe those who had been there. Later Christians relied on teaching and records. The major Christian record is the Bible (Holy Scripture, the word of God). The Bible consists of:

1. The Old Testament. The record of revelation given to the Hebrew people of the middle east, including creation mythology and other myths, history, law and ethical discussion, literature and books of prophecy.

2. The New Testament. The records of the life and teachings of Christ as recorded by four of his students, plus a supplemental history (Acts) written by one of them, plus open letters to early churches and books of theological discussion, plus one private letter and one book of prophecy.

The Canon

The accepted canon of Protestantism is 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament, determined by church and government councils. The most popular English translation is the flawed but beautiful King James translation. The Roman Catholic Bible adds several books of history and prophecy between the testaments; these are called Deuterocanonical books or Apocrypha. The eastern Orthodox Bible adds more apocrypha and places the Revelation of Saint John in its own category.

(Jews accept the Old Testament but not the New, and work from a standard encyclopaedia of interpretation called the Talmud, divided into the Mishna and the Gemara. Islam adds a third Testament, the Holy Qu'ran. The Mormons or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints adds a different third Testament, the Book of Mormon. Occult schismatics add various apocryphal books. Some apocrypha are no longer used; e.g. the Gospel of Thomas written by Gnostics.)

I concern myself here only with the Protestant canon.

Original manuscripts of Old and New Testament books are lost without exception. Modern translations are based on manuscripts written in Hebrew and first century Greek ("Koine"); both may have been partly composed in Aramaic.

Two hermeneutics are in widespread use in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. which I find myself unable to accept. Others are also in use but are not discussed here.


Literalism has been a popular hermeneutic through most of church history. It was mandated by the Five Fundamentals published by evangelical churches in the U.S. in 1912. The purpose of this document was to define Christian ideology so as to exclude some denominations from Christianity if they did not accept all of it.

Literalism maintains that the Bible is literally true in all passages, with a few possible exceptions for metaphorical usage in Psalms or the Song of Solomon. It also allows the possibility of minor errors in translation from one language to another.

I reject literalism on two grounds.

1. Intellectual dishonesty.

There is a long list of obvious contradictions in the Bible. Literalists explain these away with ad hoc arguments as needed. It is neither convincing nor honest to call black white in the name of theology, and it brings Christ's church into disrepute. It also retards evangelism by showing the world that Christians use mental gymnastics to reconcile contradictory beliefs. Remember the child's definition of faith as "believing something you know isn't true."

Many popular works on evangelism state that there aren't really contradictions in the Bible, that this idea is a myth, and that the thing to do when confronted with this argument is to challenge the arguer to name such a contradiction. I include a list as an appendix to this work in which I attempt to duplicate Bishop Ussher's Creation chronology. I will cite just one example here.

Genesis 5:32. "And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham and Japheth."
Gen. 7:6. "And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth."
Gen. 11:10. "These are the generations of Shem: Shem was a hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood."

These statements cannot all be true. If Shem was born when Noah was 500, then he was 100 when Noah was 600 and the Flood took place. He was 102 years old two years after the Flood, not 100. When ages are given in Genesis they are always given to the year; they are never rounded off to the nearest hundred. If you say I am being literal here where literal exactness was not meant, you're right -- but then literalism can't be true, can it?

2. Literalism attributes evil to God.

There is passage after passage in the Bible, especially (but not exclusively) in the Old Testament, where God is cited as the author of evil commands and tyrannical statutes. A list is included as an appendix to this work. I will cite two examples here.

Exodus 8:1. "And the LORD spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharoah, and say unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Let my people go, that they may serve me."
Ex. 10:27. "But the LORD hardened Pharoah's heart, and he would not let them go."
Ex. 11:4-5. "And Moses said, Thus saith the LORD, About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt: And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharoah that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts."

Here we have a picture of the Lord ordering Pharoah to let the Hebrew slaves go, but deliberately affecting his mind so he won't, and then punishing a huge number of innocent people for it.

Deuteronomy 20:16-18. "But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD thy God."

This section, and many others like it, show God commanding the Hebrews to invade other peoples' cities and murder all their inhabitants. Furthermore, this is not done out of some misguided sense of justice, but purely for the benefit of the murderers, killing person A because they would otherwise have a bad effect on person B. This is a consequentialist ethic of the worst sort; it justifies any action, however evil, to achieve a good result.


This hermeneutic differs from literalism only in having a more intelligent approach to textual criticism. It allows metaphorical interpretation of Genesis, for example, while literalism denies it and thus places Christianity in conflict with clear evidence from geology, astronomy and biology. But, like literalism, it is an ethical horror.

Jean Calvin, of course, founded the Calvinist school of the Reformation, which resulted in the Presbyterian Church. His theology is explained in the massive Institutes of the Christian Religion and a number of recorded open letters and sermons. It emphasizes a determinist view of predestination, buttressed by a mystical idea of God's "secret will" which differs from his public expressions -- the reprobate may be justly condemned because they violated God's secret will, even though they never heard of it. (From Sermon 51, on the Book of Job: "...there is a higher justice in God by which he could condemn the angels.")

The ethical problems of Literalism are rigidly codified and defended in Calvinism. Starting from the premise that "It is impossible for him [God] to do anything that is not good and just" (Serm. 30, on Job), Calvin winds up defining good simply as "what God does." In his Commentary on Joshua 6:21, he lauds Joshua's slaughter of the inhabitants of Jericho. In Sermon 27 on II Samuel, he lauds David's killing of the Moabite captives. In Sermon 13 on II Samuel, he calls David's slaughter of the Jebusites "not at all cruel, however severe it might appear." On the slaugher of Achan's family: "It seems harsh, indeed inhuman and barbarous for tender children who had nothing to do with the crime to be hurried off to a cruel execution, to be stoned and burned for the crime of their father... [but] ...although our reason dissents from the judgments of God, our presumption must be restrained from a pious modesty and sobriety, lest we blame what does not please us." Finally, the doctrine is stated more or less explicitly in the commentary on Joshua 7:24, where the subject is the slaughter of the Amorites: It would have been "a barbarous atrocity and a piece of inhuman arrogance to trample on the necks of kings and to hang their dead bodies on gibbets," but "That at which everyone would otherwise be horrified, they should reverently embrace as done by God." See also the Commentary on Joshua 10:18, 10:40; the Commentary on Exodus 11:2, and Sermon 17 on II Samuel.

At this point the fallacy of equivocation is clear. Good is redefined simply as "whatever God does;" it has nothing to do with common-sense notions of good or logical definitions of good. It has been charged that Calvinists, to be true to their beliefs, would be as ready to follow an omnipotent Devil as an omnipotent God; that Calvinism is in effect a kind of power-worship. The charge is usually hotly denied by Calvinists, but Calvin himself seemed to have had no problem with it, especially when musing on government. It would be better, he thought, "for the Devil to rule mankind under any sort of government than that they should live idly, without any law, without any rule." (Commentary on Jeremiah 30:9).

I have been attending Presbyterian Bible studies for 14 years now, and I have repeatedly heard professed Calvinists justify the slaughter of the Canaanites because it was in some manner all right for that time -- a frightening ethical relativism which they rightly deplore when secular liberals practise it. One tactic often used is to say that since we are all evil and worthy of condemnation, we cannot object to anything God does to punish anyone, since we all merit the same, and they redirect the question to one of why God spares anyone at all.

But this makes a hash out of any consistent idea of good and evil. If God can do any arbitrarily horrible act to anyone, what do we mean by calling God "good?"

A Heirarchical Hermeneutic

To begin to construct a new hermeneutic, I begin with the very obvious and simple idea, which no one would think twice about applying to any text other than the Bible, that some parts of scripture may be more reliable than others. For the most part, I believe there is a consistent worldview in the Bible. Contradictions exist, but they do not apply to more than 90% of the material. When different passages do conflict, however, I suggest the following heirarchy of reliability:

  1. The recorded words of Our Lord, which occur in the Gospels, Acts, some of Paul's epistles, and Revelation.
  2. Other data from the Gospels and Acts.
  3. The rest of the New Testament.
  4. The Old Testament.

Given this heirarchy, one should read for context, not isolating single passages to support a given point of view (a favorite pastime of every school and a constant temptation to all of us, myself included). Try to determine, if necessary with aid from sources outside Scripture, who the audience is and who the writer or writers are.

Some attempts to interpret difficult passages using this approach are given below.

The Meaning of Genesis

The Creation story (or stories) in Genesis is a myth. The literalist reaction to such a statement is usually to think it accuses the Bible of lying. This is false. "Myth" does not mean "Lie." A myth is a truth expressed in a story because the story gets the meaning across better than just stating the principle would. Thus Jesus taught in parables.

The principle in question here is that God created the Universe and everything in it, and that one should not worship creations instead of the Creator. At the time Genesis was written, most people believed the Sun, the Moon, light, the seas, plants, animals, etc. were gods, and they worshipped them as gods. Genesis lists each of these as creations of God, and thus not to be worshipped. The Creation story conveys this much better than simply saying, "Don't worship these things, because God is responsible for their Creation; they have no power in themselves." This statement is true but boring. Genesis is true and packs the emotional punch of a well-told story.

Here's an example of the same method applied to a pagan myth. Eurydice, the wife of the musician Orpheus, died. Orpheus was so lonely and miserable without her that he went to the land of the dead to plead with Dis to release her. The god let him take her back so long as he led her out without once looking back at her. But Orpheus wondered whether it was really his wife's hand he was holding, looked back before they were out, and lost her forever.

I do not think Orpheus and Eurydice were real people, and I certainly don't believe in Dis. But the point the story makes is true, not false, and therefore the myth is true -- If you try to analyze something important to you, it will slip out of your grasp and seem to be nothing. Love your wife (or husband), don't analyze why you love her (him).

I should emphasize, of course, that Genesis has elements of literal truth that this myth does not. God really did create the Universe, and it is possible to believe in Creation, the Fall, and even a literal Adam and Eve without contradicting anything proved by science (analysis on request to anyone who is interested). But to say, as the Institute for Creation Research says, that anyone who does not believe in a six-day special creation cannot be a Christian, is heresy and blasphemy. "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Mark 7:7; Matthew 15:9).

The Genocide Episodes in the O.T.

I take these as more or less straight history -- Biblical archaeology confirms more and more scriptural history every year. The statements to the effect that God commanded the massacres I am much less sure of. No doubt the writers believed it at the time, but having experienced divine revelation myself, I know what a fragile flower it is and how easy it is to substitute your own beliefs for God's.

By my precedence heirarchy, any O.T. statement in conflict with one of Our Lord's is not valid, and must be considered to represent a misinterpretation. On this issue, Our Lord was clearly of the belief that, despite our fallenness, humanity understood something of good and evil:

Matthew 7:9-11. "Or what man is there of you, whom if his son asks bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?"

Thus God's view of good and evil is essentially similar to our own. Obviously, since we are fallen, our view cannot be as clear as God's, but Calvin's idea that we must simply reverse our judgment and accept evil things as good when God does them is unscriptural. There are things we think of as evil that God knows are good, and there are things we like that God hates, but the view that God's ethics and ours have no common ground makes no sense. The idea that it is right to invade a country, kill everyone in it, and steal their land is not supported by any ethic I know of but the philosophy of power, and power philosophy is pagan, not Christian.

Literalists will maintain that there is no real conflict between the Old Testament and the New, citing, for example, Matthew 5:18 ("...Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled"). And yet Jesus himself healed on the Sabbath, failed to wash hands before eating, broke bread with prostitutes and tax collectors, and forbade the divorces Moses had allowed. Indeed, much of Matthew 5 is simply a list of Old Testament laws that Jesus contradicts (cf Matt. 5:38-39).

Abraham's Near-Sacrifice of Isaac

Genesis 22:1. "And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
2. "And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
3. "And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
4. "Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
5. "And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
6. "And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
7. "And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
8. "And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
9. "And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
10. "And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
11. "And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
12. "And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
13. "And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son."

My first reaction on reading this story as a child was one of revulsion: both Abraham and God seemed to be evil, stupid people. As an adult I have changed my mind about God, but not about Abraham.

In my view, every modern interpretation of this story I have heard, whether from Brian Ruud for the Fundamentalists or Douglas A. Dunderdale for the Calvinists, misses the point. They all see it as a touching example of Abraham's great and dramatic faith.

In my view, this error comes about because they are considering the Bible in a vacuum, ignoring the social context in which it was written. The order given by God was not unusual for religions of the time. Child sacrifice was part of almost every religion. When Abraham heard the order from God, he may have been disappointed that the son of his old age God had promised him earlier had been selected for sacrifice. But he would not have found it unethical or even strange. What was unusual and dramatic was that at the last moment God said NOT to sacrifice Isaac.

Was Abraham virtuous for being willing to sacrifice his son? Priests of the time would have said so, but surely ethics have made some progress since then? How can virtue encompass the murder of an innocent person for the benefit of a third party? Abraham was faithful, but he was a moral idiot. Remember what Paul said in Romans 4:3 -- "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." He was saved because he was faithful, not because he was righteous. He wasn't righteous. "For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

The story must be seen in context. To appreciate the context, consider another incident that happened to the northwest not long afterward. When the Greek fleet was unable to sail to Troy, the prophet of Artemis said the fleet's leader would have to sacrifice his daughter to obtain good winds. And he did. Agamemnon cut his daugher Iphigenia's throat on the altar of Artemis and gave her for a burnt offering to that false goddess. The winds came up and the Greek fleet sailed to Troy and defeated it.

The Iliad, someone may object, is mythology. But if I had to guess I'd say the history in it was fairly reliable. Schliemann, after all, discovered the site of Troy by matching 19th century surroundings to the description in that 7th century B.C. document.

Of course Aeschylus and Euripides condemned the sacrifice in their plays as morally evil, but that was because the ethical quality of Greek religion had improved by then. Their Mycenean ancestors had practised child sacrifice. The religious reality of the time can be summed up in Agamemnon slicing his little girl's throat open; in babies given sweets to quiet them and then tossed into the fire in the bronze statue of Moloch. That was how far human theology and human ethics had gone wrong. God wanted to set us right again, and that was why he told Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac.

(We Christians have another explanation for the incident not available to our Jewish forebears. The sacrifice of our children is not demanded by God. He sacrifices his own child instead. This is not a case of A sacrificing B for the benefit of C, because A and B are the same God and B volunteers: "...not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:42).)


There is no question that homosexual conduct is roundly condemned in Old and New Testament alike. Attempts by interpreters sympathetic to gay causes to explain away these passages are obvious bits of special pleading; especially where homosexual interpretations are forced on texts that do not support them (e.g. the alleged sexual relationships of David with Jonathan and Ruth with Naomi, as if Christians, like Robert A. Heinlein, had to sexualize all relationships). The question is, what relevance do the scriptural comments on sexuality have?

With very few exceptions, even the strictest fundamentalists do not follow all Old Testament laws. No one (except for some political crackpots) wants to revive the Old Testament slave code, for example (Exodus 21:2-11, Leviticus 25:44-46), or wants to execute people for witchcraft (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:27), cursing one's parents (Leviticus 20:9) or prostitution if the prostitute's father is a priest (Leviticus 21:9). The question is, are the prohibitions of homosexuality in the same category -- irrelevant cultural documents from another time and place?

With my accent on "cultural context" and a precedence heirarchy for scriptural conflicts, some may gain the impression that I am an ethical relativist. I am not. Right conduct is very simply and clearly defined by Our Lord's words, those being at the top of the precedence heirarchy in my hermeneutic:

Matthew 7:12. "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets."
Matthew 22:35. "Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
36. "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37. "Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38. "This is the first and great commandment.
39. "And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40. "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Again I must cite my own supernatural experience. When one makes the discovery that God is good, one is immediately tempted -- and I mean that word in all its theological rigor -- to regard everything one thinks good as endorsed by God. I think this attitude is shown all through scripture, and all through scripture we have records of God's reaction:

Amos 5:21. "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies.
22. "Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.
23. "Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
24. "But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream."
Mark 7:7. "Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."
Matthew 15:9. "But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."

In short, unless it can be shown that a practise conflicts with the Golden Rule, Christians have no right to call it a sin or to condemn it. Since I cannot understand how homosexuality per se violates this, homosexuality does not strike me as being in and of itself a sin.

The Ordainment of Dr. Jane Spahr

Having said this, it of course does not follow that I endorse all homosexual conduct at all times, any more than I endorse all heterosexual conduct at all times. Homosexuality, like anything else, is sinful when it exploits others or draws the practitioner away from God. Like all human activities it can be made into a false idol and lead the practitioner into damnation. So can heterosexuality.

It was recently an item of controversy whether Dr. Jane Spahr should be ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church. It was controversial because Dr. Spahr was a professed lesbian, living with her female lover.

The facts of the case are that, on discovering her homosexuality, Dr. Spahr left her husband (with his consent) in order to move in with her girlfriend. This is, of course, divorce for a reason other than adultery, a practice explicitly condemned by Our Lord:

Luke 16:18. "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery."

Matthew 5:32. "But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."

I take it the conduct denounced for a man would be equally wrong for a woman. Therefore I would oppose Dr. Spahr's ordination. Her leaving her husband was a denial of good faith. To my mind, the acceptable options open to her would have included:

  1. Staying with her husband, and accepting her unhappiness at unfulfilled sexuality as a cross to be borne.
  2. Bringing her girlfriend into the marriage, assuming her husband consented. There is ample precedent in scripture and as far as I can tell from analyzing the subject polygamy would not violate the Golden Rule.

If Dr. Spahr should remarry her husband, and her lover move into the same household -- assuming the husband's consent -- I would have no objection to her ordination.

The last two paragraphs may again lead the reader to suspect that I am an ethical relativist. As I stated, I am not -- the school of ethics which makes the most sense to me is an ethic of natural rights grounded in a belief in a supernatural source of those rights. But let me be very explicit about what I am endorsing. I mean to be quite consistent about the doctrine I am expounding, and I am prepared to allow any or all of the following acts provided they can be demonstrated not to conflict with the Golden Rule:

Understand, there may be very good arguments against any or all of the above. But the mere fact that a type of conduct is condemned in scripture is not sufficient reason for banning it. In my view, an act or practise must be shown to violate a person's rights or draw one further away from God to be considered sinful.

Appendix A. Chronology of the Old Testament

Reference       Event                   Notes                   Date

Gen. 1:1        Creation                                           0
5:3             Seth b.                 Adam 130                 130
5:6             Enos b.                 Seth 105                 235
5:9             Cainan b.               Enos 90                  325
5:12            Mahalaleel b.           Cainan 70                395
5:15            Jared b.                Mahalaleel 65            460
5:18            Enoch b.                Jared 162                622
5:21            Methusaleh b.           Enoch 65                 687
5:25            Lamech b.               Methusaleh 187           874
5:28-29         Noah b.                 Lamech 182              1056
5:32            Shem b.                 Noah 500                1556
7:6             Flood                   Noah 600                1656
11:10           Arphaxad b.             Shem 100                1656

Gen. 11:10. "Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the Flood." This would mean 1658 if verse 7:6 is correct. The conflict is resolved here by taking 7:6 as approximate. No resolution is possible if all statements are literally true.

11:12           Salah b.                Arphaxad 403            2059
11:14           Eber b.                 Salah 30                2089
11:16           Peleg b.                Eber 34                 2123
11:18           Reu b.                  Peleg 30                2153
11:20           Serug b.                Reu 32                  2185
11:22           Nahor b.                Serug 30                2215
11:24           Terah b.                Nahor 29                2244
11:26           Abram b.                Terah 70                2314
21:5            Isaac b.                Abram (Abraham) 100     2414
25:26           Jacob b.                Isaac 60                2474

41:46-47        7 years plenty          Joseph 30
45:6            2 years famine          Joseph 39

47:9            Jacob meets Pharoah     Jacob 130               2604
50:26           Joseph d.               Joseph 110              2675

Gen. 47:9 "And Jacob said unto Pharaoh, The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years..." From the preceding verses cited, Joseph would have been 39 that year, and thus 91 years younger than Jacob and born in 2565.

Ex. 7:7         "Let my people go"      Moses 80                3034
12:40-41        Exodus                  Hebrews in Egypt 430 y  3034

If, as seems likely, these two events happened the same year.

Ex. 33:11       Joshua "a young man"                               ?
Deut. 34:7      Moses d.                Moses 120               3074
Josh. 24:29     Joshua d.               Joshua 110                 ?

Joshua must have been at least 13 before the Hebrews left the desert, or he could not have been a soldier. He must have been born no later than 3061, and to have died after Moses, he must have been born in 2965 or later. But this is a 96-year uncertainty.

Judg. 3:8       Under Mesopotamia 8 y                           a + 8
3:11            Free 40 y                                       a + 48
3:14            Moab 18 y                                       a + 66
3:30            Free 80 y                                       a + 146
4:3             Canaan 20 y                                     a + 166
5:31            Free 40 y                                       a + 206
6:1             Midian 7 y                                      a + 213
8:28            Free 40 y                                       a + 253
10:2            Tola Judge 23 y                                 a + 276
10:3            Jair Judge 22 y                                 a + 298
10:8            Philistines/Ammon 18 y                          a + 316
12:7            Jephthah Judge 6 y                              a + 322
12:8-9          Ibzan Judge 7 y                                 a + 329
12:11           Elon Judge 10 y                                 a + 339
12:13-14        Abdon Judge 8 y                                 a + 347
13:1            Philistines 40 y                                a + 387
15:20           Samson Judge 20 y                               a + 367?

" the days of the Philistines" (15:20). The uncertainty is 20 years. Samson could have judged Israel from a + 347 to a + 366, from a + 368 to a + 387, or anywhere in between.

1Sam. 11:15     Saul King                                       b

(Presumably at age 13 or older.)

2Sam. 5:4       David King              David 30                c + 30
"               David King 40 y         David 70                c + 70
1Kg. 2:12       Solomon King            David 70                c + 70
6:1             Temple started          Exodus + 480            3514

1Kg. 6:1. " the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign ...he began to build the house of the LORD." If the Exodus was in 3034 (see above), then the Temple was begun in 3514, Solomon's reign started in 3510, David's started in 3470 and David was born in 3440. The constant c above must therefore equal 3440.

The book of Judges describes 387 years of alternating foreign rule and freedom for Israel. Joshua's leadership after the death of Moses must be squeezed in before this, and the reign of Saul afterward. There is a 93-year leeway. If we assume Joshua's leadership lasted 60 years, then he was born in 3014 and was in the desert under Moses from age 20 to 60. The "young man" of Ex. 33:11 seems past middle age to us, but this is young for a patriarch of Israel! This interpretation leaves 33 years for Saul's reign, which is also plausible. Still, the events of the books from Joshua through II Samuel must be dated with a 93-year uncertainty.

1Kg. 12:1       Rehoboam King           Judah, Solomon 40       3550
12:20           Jeroboam I King         Israel                  3550

Several verses conflict for the next four books. Lengths of kings' reigns frequently do not match years of accession of new kings, which are dated by the year of reign of a cross- reference king. For example, I Kings 14:21 says that Rehoboam ruled Judah for 17 years, but verse 15:1 puts the accession of his son Abijam in the 18th year of King Jeroboam of Israel. Chapter 12 implies that Jeroboam became King in Israel after Rehoboam became King of Judah, so the 17th year of Rehoboam cannot be the 18th year of Jeroboam! Years of accession are arbitrarily preferred here. A notation such as "Pekah (i) 2" will mean "in the second year of the reign of Pekah, King of Israel." (j) stands for Judah, (b) Babylon, (p) Persia.

1Kg. 15:1       Abijam King             Judah, Jeroboam (i) 18  3568
15:9            Asa King                Judah, Jeroboam (i) 20  3570
15:25           Nadab King              Israel, Asa (j) 2       3572
15:28           Baasha King             Israel, Asa (j) 3       3573
16:8            Elah King               Israel, Asa (j) 26      3596
16:23           Omri King               Israel, Asa (j) 31      3601
16:29           Ahab King               Israel, Asa (j) 38      3608
22:41           Jehoshaphat King        Judah, Ahab (i) 4       3612
22:51           Ahaziah I King          Israel, Jehosh. (j) 17  3629
2Kg. 3:1        Joram King              Israel, Jehosh. (j) 18  3630
1Kg. 22:51      Ahaziah I King 2y       Israel                  3631
2Kg. 1:17       Joram King              Israel, Jehoram (i) 2   3632

Since Joram began to reign in the 18th year of Jehoshaphat, and in the 2nd year of Jehoram, these must be the same year. Consequently Jehoram must have begun to reign in the 17th year of the rule of his father, Jehoshaphat. Either Jehoram took over before Jehoshaphat was dead, or someone was confused.

Joram son of Ahaziah, King of Israel, and Jehoram son of Jehoshaphat, King of Judah are both called "Jehoram" in some passages and can be told apart only from context.

To further confuse matters, there were two kings named Ahaziah, but one was the son of Ahab and King of Israel, the other the son of Jehoshaphat and King of Judah. Here I call the first Ahaziah I and the second Ahaziah II, but they were only remotely related.

2Kg. 8:16       Jehoram King            Judah, Joram (i) 5      3635?

In other words, Joram began to reign in the 2nd year of Jehoram (II Kings 1:17), and Jehoram began to reign in the 5th year of Joram (II Kings 8:16). Each one became King when the other was already in power.

This is a flat contradiction, and there is no way to resolve it except to say that one verse or the other is false. I will here assume the later date for Jehoram's accession is true. Note that there is a 7-year uncertainty here.

2Kg. 9:29       Ahaziah II King         Judah, Joram (i) 11     3641?
8:25            Ahaziah II King         Judah, Joram (i) 12     3642?

Two distinct dates for the same event are given here. Ahaziah can't have begun his reign in both the 11th and the 12th years of Joram's reign -- unless it was a very slow inauguration.

2Kg. 10:36      Jehu King               Israel                  3642

No starting date is given for Jehu's reign, but Joram ("Jehoram") reigned 12 years in Israel (II Kings 3:1), so this date is assumed. Athaliah's reign is assumed to have started the same year ("...when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead" -- II Kings 11:1).

2Kg. 11:1-4     Athaliah Queen          Judah                   3642
11:4, 21        Joash King              Judah, Athaliah (i) 12  3649

Two Kings are called both Joash and Jehoash; the first was son of Ahaziah and ruled Judah; the second son of Jehoahaz and ruled Israel.

2Kg. 13:1       Jehoahaz King           Israel, Joash (j) 23    3672
13:10           Jehoash King            Israel, Joash (j) 37    3686

According to II Kings 13:1, Jehoahaz ruled for 17 years beginning in the 23rd year of Joash, or 3672. This would mean he ruled until 3689. But II Kings 13:10 places his son's accession in the 37th year of Joash, or 3686 -- explicitly after his father's death. Thus either 13:1 or 13:10 must be in error. I assume that the 17-year figure is a mistake. Add three more years to the overall uncertainty.

2Kg. 14:1       Amaziah King            Judah, Jehoash (i) 2    3688

"Joash," but he is called King of Israel in this verse and therefore is the same person as the King of Israel earlier called "Jehoash."

2Kg. 14:23      Jeroboam II King        Israel, Amaziah (j) 15  3703

Jehoash was King of Israel for 16 years (II Kings 13:10). If Jeroboam II took over in the year of his father Jehoash's death, that would be in 3702. But verse 14:23 puts his accession in Amaziah (j) 15, or 3703, and that is assumed here.

2Kg. 15:1       Azariah King            Judah, Jeroboam (i) 27  3730
15:8            Zachariah King 6 mo.    Israel, Azariah (j) 38  3768

Jeroboam ruled Israel 41 years (II Kings 14:23), which would put his death in 3744. But verse 15:8 puts the brief reign of his son Zachariah in Azariah (j) 38, or 3768. This is used here. Discrepancy: 24 years. There is a serious error in dating here somewhere.

2Kg. 15:13      Shallum King 1 mo.      Israel, Azariah (j) 39  3769

Azariah is here called "Uzziah." I don't know why.

2Kg. 15:17      Menahem King            Israel, Azariah (j) 39  3769
15:23           Pekahiah King           Israel, Azariah (j) 50  3780
15:27           Pekah King              Israel, Azariah (j) 52  3782
15:32           Jotham King             Judah, Pekah (i) 2      3784
15:30           Hoshea King             Israel, Jotham (j) 20   3804

Azariah ruled Judah for 52 years (II Kings 15:2), which would mean he died in 3782. Verse 15:32 says his successor took over in the second year of Pekah, which would be 3784. Either one of these verses is in error, or Judah went kingless for two years. Throwing logic to the winds, I take the year of Hoshea's accession as 3804.

2Kg. 16:1       Ahaz King               Judah, Pekah (i) 17     3799

Jotham ruled Judah 16 years (II Kings 15:32), implying he died in 3800. Verse 16:1 says Ahaz succeeded him in Pekah (i) 17, or 3799. The length of rule is here assumed to be approximate.

2Kg. 17:1       Hoshea King             Israel, Ahaz (j) 12     3811
18:1            Hezekiah King           Judah, Hoshea (i) 3     3814

Ahaz ruled Judah 16 years (II Kings 16:2), or to 3815. Hezekiah took over in Hosea (i) 3 (verse 18:1), or 3814. The length of reign is assumed to be approximate.

2Kg. 18:9       Assyria attacks Israel  Hezekiah (j) 4          3815
18:10           Assyria conquers Israel Hezekiah (j) 6          3820

Verse 17:6 gives the year the Assyrians took Samaria (a province of Israel) as the 9th year of Hoshea -- exactly what it should be by my chronology so far. Sometimes things work out by sheer luck.

2Kg. 18:13      Assyria attacks Judah   Hezekiah (j) 14         3828
18:2, 21:1      Manasseh King           Judah, Hezekiah (j) 29  3843

From here on in, since Assyria has conquered Israel, there are no Israeli Kings to cross-reference dates by. Kings of Judah are assumed to succeed in the years of their fathers' deaths.

2Kg. 21:1,19    Amon King               Judah, Manasseh (j) 55  3898
21:19, 26       Josiah King             Judah, Amon (j) 2       3900
22:1, 23:30-31  Jehoahaz King 3 mo.     Judah, Josiah (j) 31    3931
23:34           Jehioakim King          Judah, Josiah (j) 31    3931
23:36, 24:6     Jehoiachin King 3 mo.   Judah, Jehoiakim (j) 11 3942
24:10-12        Babylon conquers Judah  Jehoiakim (j) 11        3942
24:17-18        Zedekiah puppet King    Judah, Jehoiakim (j) 11 3942
24:18, 25:19    Jerusalem burned        Zedekiah (j) 11         3953
25:27           Jehoiachin released     Jehoiachin (j) 37       3979

II Kings 24:12 says the conquest of Judah took place in Nebuchadnezzar (b) 8, 25:1 says it began in Nebuchadnezzar (b) 9 and continued through Zedekiah (J) 11. Verse 25:3 says the siege under Zedekiah broke in the fourth month. Verse 25:8 says the city was burnt in Nebuchadnezzar (b) 19. Apparently two different events are described here. One attack captured Judah under Jehoiachin, in Nebuchadnezzar (b) 8 or 9. The second recaptured it under Zedekiah, who, according to verse 24:20, rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. With this interpretation, the dates are fairly consistent, except for some uncertainty over when it all started. Verse 24:18 says that Zedekiah reigned for 11 years.

1Ch. 29:27      David King 40 y                                 d + 40
2Ch. 3:2        Temple started          Solomon 4               d + 44
8:1-2           Cities built            Temple 20?              d + 64?

II Chron. 8:1. "And it came to pass at the end of twenty years, wherein Solomon had built the house of the LORD, and his own house," 8:2. "That the cities which Huram had restored to Solomon, Solomon built them, and caused the children of Israel to dwell there." I assume this means twenty years after construction started on the Temple, but it could conceivably mean in the 20th year of Solomon's reign. Unclear from context.

2Ch. 9:30-31    Rehoboam King           Judah, Solomon 40       d + 80
12:16, 13:1     Abijah King             Judah, Jeroboam (i) 18  d + 98?

The same difficulties exist here as in I Kings. Furthermore, II Chronicles gives no cross-reference dates after this, but merely lists the kings of Judah in a block, giving their lengths of reign only.

2Ch. 13:2, 14:1 Asa King                Judah, Abijah (j) 3     d + 101
16:13, 17:1     Jehoshaphat King        Judah, Asa (j) 41       d + 142
20:31, 21:1     Jehoram King            Judah, Jehosh. (j) 25   d + 167
21:20, 22:1     Ahaziah King            Judah, Jehoram (j) 8    d + 175
22:2-12         Athaliah Queen          Judah, Ahaziah (j) 1    d + 176
23:1, 24:1      Joash King              Judah, Athaliah (j) 7   d + 183
24:1, 25:1      Amaziah King            Judah, Joash (j) 40     d + 223
25:1, 26:1      "Uzziah" King           Judah, Amaziah (j) 29   d + 252

Uzziah = Azariah in II Kings.

2Ch. 26:3, 27:1 Jotham King             Judah, Uzziah (j) 52    d + 304
27:1, 28:1      Ahaz King               Judah, Jotham (j) 16    d + 320
28:1, 29:1      Hezekiah King           Judah, Ahaz (j) 16      d + 336
29:1, 33:1      Manasseh King           Judah, Hezekiah (j) 29  d + 365
33:1-21         Amon King               Judah, Manasseh (j) 55  d + 420
33:21, 34:1     Josiah King             Judah, Amon (j) 2       d + 422
34:1, 36:1      Jehoahaz King 3 mo.     Judah, Josiah (j) 31    d + 453
36:2-4          Jehoiakim King          Judah, Josiah (j) 31    d + 453
36:5-9          Jehoiachin King 3 mo.   Judah, Jehoiakim (j) 11 d + 464
36:9-10         Zedekiah King           Judah, Jehoiakim (j) 11 d + 464
36:11           Babylon conquers Judah  Zedekiah (j) 11         d + 475

I assume Zedekiah took over the same year as Jehoiachin's short reign.

II Chronicles illustrates a 475-year history of Judah. The chronology of I and II Kings as reconstructed here gives 432 years for the same period, for a discrepancy of 43 years.

Ezra 1:1        Proclamation of Cyrus   Cyrus (p) 1             e

II Chron. 36:23. "...the LORD God of Heaven ...hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem." The same date is given in II Chron. 36:22 (" the first year of Cyrus king of Persia...").

Ezra 4:6-24     Temple work stopped                             f

An accusation was filed by "the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin" (Ezra 4:1) against "the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem" (4:6). The date is given only as "in the reign of Ahasuerus" (4:6 again). A similar event is put "in the reign of Ataxerxes" in the next verse. Apparently the same king and the same event is meant. The king stopped construction.

Ezra 4:24       Temple work resumed     Darius (p) 2            g + 2
7:8             Ezra in Jerusalem       Darius (p) 7            g + 7
Esther 1:3      Feast held in Persia    Ahasuerus (p) 33        h + 3

If Ahasuerus is Ataxerxes, which I think scholars agree he is.

Esther 2:16     Esther Queen            Persia, Ahasuerus (p) 7 h + 7
3:7             Lots cast for Haman     Ahasuerus (p) 12        h + 12
3:12            Genocide ordered        Ahasuerus (p) 13        h + 13

Esther 3:12. "...on the thirteenth day of the first month." Verse 3:7 states that lots were cast before Haman "in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus... to the twelfth month." Thus the extermination order was probably given the next year.

Neh. 1:1, 2:1   Nehemiah upset          Ataxerxes (p) 20        h + 20
5:14            Nehemiah in Jerus. 12 y Ataxerxes (p) 32        h + 32

Many further dates are given in the books of the prophets, but all take place during the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah. The next dates in a later time are given in the books of Maccabees, or, for Protestants, in the Gospels, but none of these are connected with earlier dates. The series of dates in the Old Testament therefore ends with the Babylonian Captivity. No absolute dating is possible unless cross- references with secular works are permitted.

The Temple of Solomon is believed to have been started in 656 B.C. Since the Creation happened 3,514 years earlier (by the estimates used here), the world must have been created in 4170 B.C. This is 166 years earlier than Bishop Ussher's date of 4,004 B.C., but considering the possible errors involved, is a fairly good match. That would make this year (1997 A.D.) 6067 "A.C." (After Creation). The Jewish date is 5757, but this is on a Lunar system and is not directly comparable to Solar years. The Byzantines thought Creation took place about 5,000 B.C. Potassium-Argon, Uranium-Lead and Rubidium-Strontium dating place the age of the Earth at 4.5 billion years, with the Sun created somewhat earlier and the Universe as a whole (Big Bang model) ten billion years earlier still.

Appendix B. Verses Which Attribute Unethical Conduct to God


Exodus 21:2-11 endorses slavery and lays out a specific slave code.

21:15 says to execute children who strike their parents.

21:17 says to execute children who curse their parents. (In context, a curse was probably felt to have magical power in this culture, so this may be meant as protection of the public against witchcraft.)

22:18 says to execute witches. Again, this was a culture that believed in witchcraft and feared it.

22:20 says to execute those who sacrifice to other gods.

23:31 says Israel should invade the land of the Philistines and expel them.

32:27-28 shows Moses ordering the slaughter of 3,000 people for worshipping the wrong god (the golden calf, possibly a symbol of the Egyptian goddess Hathor).


20:9 says to execute children who curse their parents. Again, this may have been meant to protect the public from witchcraft.

20:10-16 say to execute people for a wide variety of sexual sins including adultery, incest, homosexuality and bestiality.

20:27 says to execute witches or wizards.

21:9 says to execute the daughter of a priest if she becomes a prostitute -- by burning her alive.

24:10-23 says to execute blasphemers and murderers and to injure people who injure others. The point is illustrated by stoning a man to death who "blasphemed the name of the Lord." Liberally enough, however, this section does prescribe only a fine for killing an animal.

25:44-46 says that people from surrounding cultures may be bought as slaves and kept as slaves all their lives.


15:32-36 shows the execution by stoning of a man -- at God's direct command -- for the crime of gathering sticks on the sabbath day. Contrast this with the directly contradictory statements made by Jesus in the New Testament: "...Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days" (Matt. 12:12). "And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). See also the repeated conflicts Jesus had with the Pharisees over healing on the sabbath.

21:2-3 shows God endorsing genocidal violence against the Canaanites.

21:34-35 shows more of the same.

31:7, 17-18 show more of the same, with only the virgin girls being saved, as sex-slaves. (Didn't think you'd see that in the Bible? Look again.)


13:5-10 says to execute anyone who suggests worshipping a different God.

17:2-5 says to execute anyone caught worshipping the wrong god.

20:13-17 says to kill all males in some countries and enslave the women and children, but to kill everyone in other countries.

21:10-14, in what must be one of the most horrible passages in scripture, allows enslaving a female P.O.W. as a concubine, then letting her go after a year if she isn't pleasing. I have heard Christians (on a Roman Catholic on-line bulletin board) defend this as a humane measure. Certainly it could be seen as less evil than killing someone, but anyone who thinks this sort of conduct is therefore good is in my view a moral idiot.

21:18-21 says to execute rebellious children.

22:13-21 says to execute women who are not virgins at marriage. No mention is made of executing men for the same offense.

23:1 says to exclude anyone with wounded or missing male genitals from the congregation. Perhaps this was meant to refer to people who became eunuchs for pagan religious reasons, but it doesn't say that.

23:2 says to exclude illegitimate children from the congregation.

23:3 says to exclude Ammonites or Moabites from the congregation because of things their tenth-generation ancestors did wrong. (Contrast the Book of Ruth.)

24:1-2 allows divorce and remarriage, in direct conflict with teaching of Jesus.

25:11-12 says to cut off the hand of a woman who grabs a man's genitals in the course of defending her husband from violence. (Don't believe me? Read it!)


6:17-21 says God commanded the Hebrews to massacre everybody in Jericho, with the exception of one family who hid Hebrew spies.

7:11-25 shows Joshua and company executing a man who stole loot from an area set aside for total destruction. His family is stoned to death along with him.

8:2 and 8:21-26 show Joshua massacring the inhabitants of Ai and killing prisoners of war at God's command.

10:20-26 shows more massacre and atrocity by Joshua and friends.

10:40 more of the same, again attributing it to God's command.

11:10-15 more of the same.

I Samuel:

15:3-9 shows more of the same, this time by King Saul and his merry men.

28:18 shows Saul condemned to death for not killing every one of the Amalekites. Interestingly, he is told this by a dead spirit called up by black magic, and of course believes such an obviously trustworthy source implicitly.

I don't want to blame all this on the Jews and exclude Christians, so it is only right to include some New Testament nastiness as well.


5:1-10. An elderly couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some possession (perhaps land) and turned part of the price over to the church while claiming it was the whole thing. Saint Peter denounced them for it and they immediately dropped dead -- you can take this to be divine punishment or heart attack as you prefer. This always seemed a bit disproportionate to me, and I was glad to see that there are other Christians who agree (e.g. my old Greek tutor, Dr. Orr).

I Timothy:

6:1-4 tells slaves to obey their masters, and condemns those who disagree as "proud" and "knowing nothing." While this might have been good practical advice for life in the Roman Empire, it certainly doesn't show the willingness to condemn evil institutions found in the prophets.

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