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Edwin R. Thiele (1895–1986) was an Americanmarker missionary in Chinamarker, an editor, archaeologist, writer, and Old Testament professor. He is best known for his chronological studies of the Hebrew kingdom period.


A native of Chicagomarker, he graduated from Emmanuel Missionary College (which was renamed Andrews University in 1960) in 1918 with a BA degree in ancient languages. After two years of work as home missionary secretary for the East Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, he left in 1920 for mission service in China. During his 12-year work in China, he was an editor and manager for the Signs of the Times Publishing House in Shanghai.

After returning to the United States, Thiele received an MA degree in archaeology from the University of Chicagomarker in 1937. He then joined the religion faculty of Emmanuel Missionary College, while continuing his doctoral work at the University of Chicago. He obtained a PhD degree in biblical archaeology in 1943. His doctoral dissertation, later published as The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings is widely regarded as the definitive work on the chronology of Hebrew kings. He traveled extensively throughout the Middle East in the course of his research.

In addition, Thiele also authored a popular book on Christianity, Knowing God. After his death, his widow, Margaret, completed his study of the Book of Job entitled Job and the Devil. In this work, Thiele argues that Leviathan (and Behemoth) are linked to Near Eastern myths for chaos or evil. Hence, Thiele suggests, Job pictures God struggling with Evil as lying behind Job's suffering.

From 1963 to 1965, he served as Professor of Antiquity at Andrews University. After retiring from teaching in 1965, he moved to California where he continued to write. He died in St. Helena, California in 1986. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Biblical chronology

The following is based on Thiele's book The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings.

The chronology of the Hebrew kings rests primarily on a series of reign lengths and cross references within the books of Kings and Chronicles, in which the accession of each king is dated in terms of the reign of his contemporary in either the southern kingdom of Judah or the northern kingdom of Israel. Unfortunately some of these cross references did not seem to match, so that a reign which is said to have lasted for 20 years results in a cross reference that would give a result of either 19 or 21 years.

Thiele noticed that the cross references given during the long reign of King Asa of Judah had a cumulative error of 1 year for each succeeding reign of the kings of Israel: the first cross-reference resulted in an error of 1 year, the second gave an error of 2 years, the third of 3 years and so on. He was able to demonstrate that this was due to two different methods of reckoning regnal years - the accession year method and the non-accession year method.

If we think in terms of our own calendar, if the old king died on December 31 and the new king started to reign on January 1, there was no problem. However if the old king died on December 1, what did you do with the remaining 30 days of the old year? Under the accession year method, those 30 days were called the "Accession year" and Year 1 of the new king's reign began on January 1. Under the non-accession year method the 30 days were Year 1 of the new king and Year 2 began on January 1.

If this were not complicated enough, Thiele was able to demonstrate that the northern kingdom (Israel) celebrated a spring New Year while the southern kingdom (Judah) held to an autumn New Year. Differing new years and different methods of calculating reigns were responsible for much of the confusion in the cross references, with the additional problem that the southern kingdom appears to have adopted its neighbour's non-accession method during the time when Athaliah seized power. Unknown to Thiele when he first published his findings, these same conclusions that the northern kingdom used non-accession years and a spring New Year while the southern kingdom used accession years and a fall New Year had been discovered by V. Coucke of Belgium some years previously, a fact which Thiele acknowledges in his Mysterious Numbers.

With this understanding of chronology, Thiele showed that the 14 years between Ahab and Jehu were really 12 years, which meant that he could date their reigns precisely, for Ahab is mentioned in the Kurk Stele which records the Assyrian advance into Syria/Palestine at the Battle of Qarqarmarker in 853 BC, and Jehu is mentioned on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III paying tribute in 841 BC. As these two events are securely dated by Assyrian chronology at 12 years apart, Ahab must have fought the Assyrians in his last year and Jehu paid tribute in his first year.

Thiele was able to reconcile the Biblical chronological data from the books of Kings and Chronicles with the exception of synchronisms between Hoshea of Israel and Hezekiah of Judah towards the end of the kingdom of Israel and reluctantly concluded that at that point the ancient authors had made a mistake. Oddly, it is at that precise point that he himself makes a mistake, by failing to realize that Hezekiah had a coregency with his father Ahaz, which explains the Hoshea/Hezekiah synchronisms. This correction has been supplied by subsequent writers who built on Thiele’s work, including Thiele’s colleague Siegfried Horn, T. C. Mitchell and Kenneth Kitchen, and Leslie McFall. Although Thiele’s chronology of the Judean monarchs has thus needed some slight revision, his chronology of the northern kingdom (Israel) has remained basically intact since it was first published in 1944. In particular, his date of 931 BC for the division of the kingdom has been widely accepted among diverse scholars and has found independent support in the work of J. Liver, Frank M. Cross, and others studying the chronology of the kings of Tyre. This date of 931 BC, in conjunction with the synchronism between Rehoboam and Pharaoh Shishak in 1 Kings 14:25, is used by Egyptologists to give absolute dates to Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty, so that Thiele’s work based on the Biblical chronology has been found useful outside the realm of purely Biblical studies.

Theological significance of Thiele's work

Thiele's method in arriving at his chronology has been contrasted with the analytical method employed by Wellhausen and other scholars who follow some form of the Documentary hypothesis. Wellhausen taught that the chronological data of the books of Kings and Chronicles were artificially put together at a date much later than the events they were ostensibly describing and were basically not historical. This was a necessary consequence of his a priori assumption that the Scriptures as we have them today were not given by inspiration in any meaningful sense, but are basically the work of late-date editors who could not possibly have known the correct history of the times they were writing about. Theodore Robinson summarized this position as follows: "Wellhausen is surely right in believing that the synchronisms in Kings are worthless, being merely a late compilation from the actual figures given."

Wellhausen's methodology in interpreting the Scriptures and the history of Israel has therefore been classed as a deductive approach; that is, one that starts with presuppositions and derives a historical reconstruction from those presuppositions. A necessary consequence of this approach has been that no general agreement has been reached on the chronology of the Hebrew kingdom period as calculated by authors who adopted this method. "The disadvantage of the deductive approach is that nothing is settled for certain; the results obtained are as diverse as the presuppositions of the scholars, since diverse presuppositions produce diverse results." In contrast, Thiele's method of determining the chronology of the Hebrew kings was based on induction, that is, making it a matter of first priority to determine the actual methods used by ancient scribes and court recorders in recording the years of kings, as described above. Thiele's inductive method, then, was based on inscriptional evidence from the ancient Near East, and not on the presuppositions followed by liberal scholarship. It is Thiele's method that has produced the determinative studies for the chronology of the kingdom period, not the presupposition-based method, so that even those interpreters who continue in late-date theories for the authorship of Scripture have recognized the credibility of Thiele's scholarship in determining the date for the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon, as cited above. The work of Thiele and other textual scholars who have followed an inductive (evidence-based) approach is therefore significant in providing an alternative to the methods of the Documentary hypothesis, and the success of that approach has been seen as theologically significant in supporting a high view of the inspiration of Scripture, particularly regarding its integrity in the abundant and complex historical data related to the kingdom period.

If the chronological data of the MT [ Masoretic text ] were not authentic—the actual dates and synchronisms for these various kings—then neither Thiele nor McFall nor anyone else could have constructed a chronology from them that in every case is faithful to the original texts and in every proven instance is consistent with Assyrian and Babylonian chronology.
This mathematical demonstration should sit in judgment over the various theories of text formation: If a theory of text formation cannot explain how the chronological data of the MT has produced a chronology that in every respect seems authentic for the four centuries of the monarchic period, then that theory must be rejected as another example of a presupposition-based approach that cannot meet the rational criteria for credibility.

See also

The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings


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