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Whether it is a simple story or a complex history, a key element is time. It establishes cause and effect, act and consequence. The books of Kings are not exempt from the need to relate one event to another in time. The author traces the action of kings and rulers throughout time by recording the beginning, end, and duration of one reign after another. Modern readers naturally want to relate the chronology of the books of Kings to the dating systems we use today so we can relate the events narrated there to each other and to contemporaneous events in the lands surrounding ancient Israel and Judah in order to recover the original context of those events.
The books of Kings synchronize the reigns of the northern and southern kingdoms of the divided monarchy as well as proving the number of years a king reigned. But there is a very significant problem. These numbers and the synchronomies appear to be in constant contradiction with one another. It appears difficult, if not impossible, to create a chronology that accounts for all these numbers and agrees with established chronologies of the ancient Near East. These conflicts of numbers have led many to conclude that the books of Kings cannot be faithful witnesses to the history of Israel. If the writer got the numbers wrong, what else did he get wrong?
Here is an example of one problem: Often the synchronomy given for the beginning of a reign does not correlate with the total number of years given for that reign. First Kings 15:25 says the reign of Nadab of Israel begins in the second year of Asa of Judah. First Kings 15:28 says Nadab died in the third year of Asa; that is, he reigned for one year. But 1 Kings 15:25 says he reigned for two years. This is one category of conflict. A second category of conflict is concerning the year a king is supposed to have begun his reign. Second Kings 3:1 says Joram began to reign in Israel in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat of Judah. But 2 Kings 1:17 says he began to reign in the second year of Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat. The sum of regnal years for Israel and Judah is a third source of discrepancy. The total number of years for the kings of Israel from Jehu through Pekahiah is 114 years and 7 months. For the same period of time in Judah (from Athaliah through Azariah) the total comes to 128 years, a 14-year discrepancy. When we compare the sum of the regnal years for Israel as compared to the same period for Assyria, we find Israel’s kings reigned 12 years longer than the Assyrian kings. And Judah’s kings reigned longer by 25 years! Since the numbers do not match up, we must conclude that either someone made an error or the numbers mean something different than we suppose.
In 1951 Edwin Thiele published The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings in which he presented solutions to the problems outlined above. His discoveries and principles used to harmonize the regnal years of Israel and Judah with an absolute chronology are summarized here.
In the northern kingdom, Israel, the regnal year was calculated from the month of Nisan in the spring, but in Judah, the regnal year began in the month of Tishri in the autumn. Both of these systems overlap the January new year of modern calendars. It must also be kept in mind that both calendar systems are lunar rather than the solar calendar used today; that is, each month consisted of exactly 30 days following the phases of the moon. An important consequence of all this is that a regnal year in Israel begins in the spring and will overlap parts of two regnal years in Judah which begin in the autumn. If a king of Judah came to the throne just before January, his accession year would synchronize with, for example, the third regnal year of a king in Israel. However, if the Judean king came to the throne six months later in the following summer, his accession year would synchronize with the fourth year of the Israelite king.
A second principle used to resolve numeric conflicts is to understand that the method of calculating the regnal years was different in the two kingdoms. Is the first year of a king to include a partial year up to the next new year, or is the first year of a king’s reign to be calculated from the following new year’s beginning? In the ancient Near East, some countries followed the former method and others the latter. The former method is called “accession year” dating, and the partial year is not counted; it could be called “Year Zero.” The latter method is called “non-accession year” dating and counts any partial year as “Year One.” This means that nations using the non-accession year dating system are always one year ahead of those that use accession year dating. And for every new king, the years increase by one in absolute time. For non-accession year dating, one must subtract one year for every king, in order to keep in sync with absolute chronology.
Judah used the accession-year system for Rehoboam through Jehoshaphat; then the non-accession-year system was employed from Jehoram to Joash. Beginning with the next ruler, Amaziah, Judah returned to the accession-year system until the destruction of Jerusalem. In Israel, the non-accession-year system only was used throughout its history; that is, from Jeroboam to Jehoahaz. For example, the total number of official years of reign for the Judean kings Rehoboam through Jehoshaphat are 79; the total number of regnal years for the same period in Israel (Jeroboam through Ahaziah) is 86. But when we subtract one year for each of the seven kings of Israel because of Israel’s use of the non-accession-year system, the final sum is 79 years, which agrees with the Judean record.
A further source of confusion is how the regnal years are reported. Since each nation had its own method of reporting (accession year or non-accession-year), it reported the numbers of the other kingdom according to its own method. Thus, Rehoboam had a 17-year reign according to Judah’s accession-year recording system, but Israel’s non-accession-year system reckoned 18 years for Rehoboam. First Kings 15:25 says Nadab’s rule over Israel began in the second year of Asa of Judah. Since Israel used a non-accession-year system, the second year of Asa would be the first year according to Judean accession-year dating. Depending upon which source the author was using, the Historical Record of Israel’s Kings (1 Kg 14:19) or the Historical Record of Judah’s Kings (1 Kg 14:29), the calculation of the regnal years and the synchronization between two kings must take these differences into account.
A fourth principle used to resolve regnal year numeric conflicts is to recognize that some reigns overlap (especially in Israel) and some kings were coregents (especially in Judah). Sometimes these overlappings and coregencies are mentioned explicitly in the text (e.g., 1 Kg 16:21–23) in a form called “dual dating.” More often, the overlapping reigns must be deduced and reconstructed. In all, nine overlapping reigns have been identified, six for Judah and three for Israel.
How is the relative chronology of the Hebrew kings correlated with contemporary historical events? Lists of Assyrian kings record an eclipse which astronomical calculations determine to have occurred on June 15, 763 b.c. This allows us to fix the absolute date of most of the Assyrian kings and hence the various events of their reigns from their court records. In the sixth year of Shalmaneser III, the Assyrians fought a coalition of Aramean kings (now modern Syria) called “the Battle of Qarqar” in 853 b.c., and among the names of the kings listed is Ahab of Israel. (This event is not recorded in the Bible.) In the eighteenth year of Shalmaneser III, in 841 b.c., Assyrian records show that Shalmaneser received tribute from Jehu, king of Israel. There are 12 years between the Battle of Qarqar and the receipt of Jehu’s tribute and also 12 years between the death of Ahab and the ascension of Jehu (1 Kg 22:51). Thus, Ahab died in 853 b.c. and Jehu ascended the throne in 841 b.c. This allows for further calculations of absolute dates for many other kings of Israel and Judah. Another synchronization from Assyrian records is the year 701 b.c. when Sennacherib of Assyria besieged Jerusalem during the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign (2 Kg 18:13). From the Battle of Qarqar in 853 b.c. to Sennacherib’s campaign against Hezekiah in 701 b.c. is a span of 152 years, according to Assyrian chronology. According to the properly calculated years of Israelite and Judean kings from the death of Ahab to the fourteenth year of Hezekiah is also 152 years, proving the synchronization and method of reckoning regnal years is correct.
The history of biblical studies in the twentieth century has shown again and again that major “problems” of the biblical record have been the result of modern ignorance of the ancient world. The resolution of the apparent conflicts of the chronology of the books of Kings shows the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical record to the history of the ancient Near East.
See the chart of kings in the section of charts and maps at the back of the Bible. This chart is an absolute chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah, taking into account the beginning of regnal years, overlapping reigns, coregencies, dual datings, and accession- and non-accession-year dating systems.
The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), xxxvi–xxxviii.