What’s Wrong with the B.C. Dating System?

Most Christians do not appreciate the importance of chronology (or, by the way, geography) to the proper understanding of Scripture. They tend to read the Scriptural record as a collection of isolated episodes, rather than a continuous history. Only an acquaintance with biblical chronology can correct this tendency.

It does not help that an artificial system is being used to date the events of Old Testament history. This system is no improvement – but rather a detriment – to the understanding of the Bible. I refer to the system of B.C. dating. This is the system used in nearly all the Bible dictionaries and other sources used for studying and teaching the Bible.

There are several problems with B.C. dating. To start with, it is inaccurate. Our Lord was not born in the first year A.D., but probably in what is now called 5 B.C. (The inventor of the system made a mistake at the outset.) Besides, B. C. dating is backwards, counter-intuitive and difficult to keep straight. Moreover, as Anstey has shown, many of the accepted B.C. dates are contradicted by Scripture.

But the basic problem is that it is a system that no one has ever used in real life. It is completely unnatural. No one has ever been able to date an event he has witnessed from an event yet future. Every dating system known to man has measured the passing of time from some defined point in the past. This odd feature of B.C. dating passes unnoticed; but it is highly significant. Because of this, all the B.C. dates are artificial, and must be derived indirectly, from calculations that make assumptions about the validity of the dates that are the basis of those calculations.

By contrast, the Bible dates events naturally, by eyewitnesses and other authorities, in their relation to the dates of past events; and connects them to a continuous chronology that is ultimately anchored at the creation of the world. These dates are called “Anno Mundi” (A.M.) which means “Year of the World”.

If the Bible gave us the exact count of years from the creation to the beginning of the A.D. era, then we might easily date the creation in terms of that many years B.C., and other biblical dates could then be converted to B.C. dates by subtraction from that number. So, for example, if Christ was born 4041 years after the world began, but five years before A.D. 1, creation would be correctly dated at 4046 B.C., and other dated biblical events could likewise be dated in B.C. terms. So, the Exodus, which is dated 2513 A.M., might be said to have occurred in 1533 B.C.

But Scripture does not give us the exact count of years from the creation to the birth of Christ. Rather, it gives the count of years from the creation to the baptism of Christ, when he was anointed with the holy spirit and was formally revealed as the “Messiah”, or “anointed one”. Daniel predicted that Messiah would appear at the end of 69 “weeks” from the year of Israel’s deliverance from the Babylon captivity in the first year of Cyrus. (Daniel 9:25) Actually, the word “weeks” in our English Bibles is misleading. The Hebrew text uses the word, “sevens”. The prophecy specifies the time using the unit of a hebdad. It is obvious from the time of fulfillment that these were sevens of years.

The Old Testament chronology is linked at the point of the decree of Cyrus to a sixty-nine week (four hundred and eighty-three years) span. This is arrived at by adding the “seven weeks” to the “threescore and two weeks” of Daniel’s “seventy weeks” prophecy. That span of years terminates at the public appearance and anointing of Messiahhis baptism, not his birth – in the beginning of the seventieth week.

His exact age at that time may have been thirty years, depending on how one understands Luke 3:23, translated in the A.V. as “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age”. A. T. Robertson however, approves of William Tyndale’s translation: “Jesus was about thirty yere of age when he beganne” [that is, to teach]. Robertson claims that the AV translation is grammatically “impossible”. But whether Jesus’ baptism was as early as 25 A.D., or as late as 28 A.D. is uncertain. Hence we cannot be as precise with B.C. (or A.D.) dates as we can with A.M. dates, which are accurate to the year, and are anchored at the creation of the world. So that we can say with certainty that Christ was baptized in the year 4072 A.M., according to the inspired and infallible Word of God.

True, the use of the B.C. method suggested above yields results close enough for most purposes. Even allowing for the inherent range of error, it shows how far off most of the chronologists are in dating the Exodus, which occurred in 2513 A.M. or @1533 B.C. One runs into dates as wide of the mark as 1652 B.C. (Fausset), and 1490 B.C. (Ussher, Barnes, Smith, Easton). Ussher is an interesting example, because he gives the correct A.M. date for the Exodus; but because of errors in the latter part of his chronology, his B.C date for it is way off.

One reason for these discrepancies is that there is not enough solid data from secular or biblical sources to construct a history of the period from the close of the canon of Scripture, during the Persian period, to the era of Alexander the Great, that succeeded it. There is nothing that can be called a true history apart from the Hebrew Scriptures before Alexander. And as to the Jews, this was the period in which Israel had no prophet, the centuries of God’s silence that ran from Malachi to John the baptist. The chronology of this period was, of course, recorded by the Jews, in their “Seder Olam”; but that is not inspired Scripture.

For these reasons, I conclude that unless one accepts and correctly uses the prophecy of Daniel’s seventy weeks, he cannot know, even approximately, how long this period was. But it must be known for any B.C. date earlier than this period to be correctly reckoned. The “canon of Ptolemy” is supposed to be reliable, and it is the only apparent “bridge” between Cyrus and Alexander. But it is really useless because, despite the genius and learning of Ptolemy, his chronology must be rejected as conjectural. Ptolemy was not himself a witness to the length of the Persian period, living, as he did about 700 years after the reign of Cyrus; and he also failed to cite any ancient sources for his chronology. But most important, the acceptance of his dates runs into conflict with the dates given in the biblical chronology. (For further discussion of the problems with Ptolemy’s chronology, see The Wonders Of Biblical Chronology, by Philip Mauro, page 8.)

The ancient Romans dated everything from the supposed date of the founding of their city, which was, according to the Julian calendar, in 754 B.C. This would be approximately 3292 Anno Mundi, the 14th year of Amaziah, King of Judah. However, there is no synchronism — no dated event specified in both Roman and biblical records — by which we can directly connect the biblical chronology and the Roman without using B.C. dates.

We should not be surprised, therefore, to find that the dates given in, or deduced from, the chronological statements of Scripture do not agree with the accepted dates for events in ancient history. But what do we do when discrepancies occur? Which is more certain, the dates derived from holy Scripture, or those assigned by the uncertain traditions of men?

The unprejudiced student of chronology will soon discover that secular B.C. dates often rest on a combination of facts and conjecture that is by no means rock-solid. Whatever problems may exist in systematizing the Bible’s chronological statements; at least Scripture contains a continuous record of successive events that were given their dates by contemporaries, working within a common framework, counting from the creation of the world. There is no other such record in all the annals of the ancients – nothing that even makes a pretense of it. (Admittedly, if there had been any such record besides the one handed down in the fifth chapter of Genesis, it would have perished in the Great Flood.) Moreover, an orthodox doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture requires us to believe that all the chronological statements of Scripture are infallible.

I submit that Christians would be a lot more conversant with the Bible’s history, and much less confused about its chronology, if Anno Mundi dates were used as the ordinary way of referring to the times of biblical events. Let the scholars use their B.C. dates while they debate about the reconciliation of this or that pagan nation’s historical records with the Bible’s. A Christian chiefly needs to know the chronological information that the Omniscient Author of holy Scripture has seen fit to reveal in the Bible itself. The Christian thus equipped will find his understanding of the Bible clarified and enriched thereby.

Howard Douglas King

May 6, 2015

Revised July 4, 2015

Last revised May 26, 2020

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