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Victorian Secrets: How Conservative Christians Messed Up Ancient Chronology

Yesterday I subjected a classroom full of unsuspecting guinea pigs to a thought experiment I’ll continue to play out over the next several weeks. In a nutshell, my thesis is that several key touchstones in our understanding of the chronology of the ancient world were put in place by Christians of the Victorian era in a well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfying attempt to buttress faith in the historical accuracy of the Old Testament.

Overall, there have been two recent trends that would suggest the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of ancient chronology. First is a tendency toward revised, lower chronologies. Mainstream Egyptologists have collectively come up with about 100 years that could be trimmed by shortening the reign of a pharaoh here and there, doubling up years in co-regencies or concurrent dynasties, and what have you. Of course, no mainstream Egyptologist advocates all of these adjustments—if they did, they would no longer be “mainstream”—but all of them believe there is sufficient warrant for the shortenings that they propose.

Second is the quiet abandonment of “scientific” dating methods. The Great Sothic Cycle, once considered a mainstay of Egyptian chronology, lies silently in the grave. In fact, Egyptologists have pretty much abandoned all of the various methods of astronomical dating for the past 20 years. Furthermore, they largely want nothing to do with radiocarbon (14C) dating, since this form of dating consistently yields results much higher than their textual evidence can support.

Even so, there has been no real effort to revisit questions of Egyptian chronology. In effect, the only real constraints assigning absolute (i.e., BC/BCE) dates to events in ancient Egyptian history is the way the Bible was interpreted by certain Victorian-era Englishmen!

The Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Egypt Exploration Fund (1891) states that the organization’s work was “for the purpose of elucidating or illustrating the Old Testament narrative.” Other agendas were at work beyond simply uncovering Egypt’s past. Representing some of the earliest work in the new field of Egyptology, the Egypt Exploration Fund came about in an era when skepticism about the historicity of the biblical narratives was growing. It is therefore perhaps to be expected that these conservative Victorian Englishment would be especially keen to rescue the Bible from the hands of the skeptics. Therefore, their earliest work was in the Nile Delta region, looking for Moses and the Hebrew slaves of the early chapters of Exodus.

In this intellectual environment, people jumped on possible biblical synchronisms that seemed to shed light on the stories they found written in their Bibles. One important piece of the puzzle was the story in 2 Kings 14 and 1 Chronicles 12 of an invasion of Judah by a king of Egypt named “Shishak” during the 5th regnal year of King Rehoboam. As early as Champollion himself” (1828), this biblical figure became identified with Shoshenq I, founder of Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty, who is known from Egyptian inscriptions to have invaded the Levant in his 20th regnal year. The identification has scarcely been challenged since, and today lies at the heart of modern understandings of Egyptian chronology. Shoshenq’s year 20 is synchronized with Rehoboam’s year 5 (around 920 BC, give or take), and, for the most part, the rest of Egyptian history follows from that.

But what if that synchronism were challenged? It seems to me there is at least justification in asking the question.

1. Shishak invaded in the fifth year of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:25; 2 Ch 12:2).

Year 5 Rehoboam is c.  925 (Thiele) or c. 917 (Albright) BC. New evidence, however, seems to date Shoshenq’s campaign to the middle of the 9th century BC.

In Jezreel, pottery found in Shoshenq destruction levels appears to indicate a mid-9th century BC date. Furthermore, 14C dating of seeds from the Tel Rehov city IV Shoshenq destruction level yields a result of c. 871 BC.

2. Shishak’s army included Libyans (2 Chr 12:3).

Shoshenq was the founder of the Libyan 22nd Dynasty, so I’ll give this one to the mainstream chronology.

3. Shishak’s army included “Sukiim” 2 Chr 12:3).

“Sukiim” are identified with Egyptian Tjukten, a tribe known only from the 19th–20th Dynasty.

4. Shishak’s army included Nubians (“Ethiopians,” 2 Chr 12:3).

Nubian troops were very important in the 19th–20th Dynasties, but not again until the 25th Dynasty (c. 715–664 BC).

5. Shishak was an ally of Jeroboam of Israel (1 Kgs 11:40).

Shoshenq inflicted virtually total destruction upon Israel, Transjordan, and Edom. Reputable historians agree:

It is clear from the Egyptian text that the main objectives of the expedition were not the towns of Judah and Jerusalem but rather the kingdom of Israel on the one hand and the Negeb of Judah on the other. (Yohanan Aharoni, Land of the Bible, 2nd ed. [Burns & Oates, 1979] 323-25)

Shoshenq reached the plain of Megiddo in the north, even sent troops into the region east of the Jordan, and so must have caused severe distress to the kingdom of Israel. (Herbert Donner, cited in J. H. Hayes and J. M. Miller, eds, Israelite and Judaean History [SCM, 1977] 389)

6. Shishak captured the fortified cities of Judah (2 Chr 2:4; see 2 Chr 11:5-12).

Of the 15 fortified cities listed in 2 Chronicles 11:5-12, only one (Aijalon) appears on Shoshenq’s victory relief on the Bubastite Portal at Karnak.

Shoshenq “avoided attacking the kingdom of Judah, concentrating his operations against the kingdom of Israel and the non-Judean Negevite areas.” (Nadav Na’aman, Tel Aviv 19 [1992] 71-72)

7. Shishak pressed as far as Jerusalem (1 Kgs 14:26; 2 Chr 12:9)

He took away the treasure of Jerusalem (1 Kgs 14:26; 2 Chr 12:9) and made King Rehoboam his vassal (2 Chr 12:8). And yet, Jerusalem does not appear on Shoshenq’s victory relief.

All of this suggests Shoshenq I may not be the best fit for the biblical “Shishak.” Even so, Jakob Politeyan can claim, “There is complete harmony between Shishak’s [sic] inscription and the Bible record” (Biblical Discoveries in Egypt, Paletine, and Mesopotamia [London, 1915] 135) and Kenneth Kitchen can aver that problems with the Shishak-Shoshenq identification are “frivolous and exaggerated” (Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1:239). Well, maybe, but it still looks to me like somebody jumped the gun and made this identification before all the fact were in. In fact, that is exactly what happened: Champollion suggested the connection in 1828 on the basis of a misreading of a portion of Shoshenq’s victory relief, which he interpreted to be a reference to the kingdom of Judah as one of the regions Shoshenq conquered. This reading was first contested in 1888 and is not accepted today.

Despite the venerable pedigree of this association, it may be worth it to wonder…

  1. What if Shoshenq I invaded Israel—not Judah (as his victory relief states)?
  2. What if he did so in the ninth century BC—not the tenth (in harmony with 14C dating and pottery stratigraphy)?
  3. What if someone else was the “Shishak” of the Bible?

All the King’s Horses: Conclusion?

Having examined the evidence—what little there is—for military tactics in the Old Testament and comparing it to Robert Drews’ thesis in The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton University Press, 1995) that the shift from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age was marked in a radical transformation from chariotry to infantry as the basic offensive unit of ancient armies, we are ready to take stock of what we have found.

Remember, my point in this exercise has been to see whether the depictions of armed conflict in the Bible might serve either to verify or falsify certain revisionist theories about ancient chronology. According to the conventional chronology, the transition from Late Bronze to Iron Age tactics occurred circa 1200 BC, but there are several challenges to this chronology. Most famously, David Rohl has proposed a circa 300-year downdating which would place this transition some time shortly after 900 BC. Most recently, Pierce Furlong’s dissertation (“Aspects of Ancient Near Eastern Chronology [c. 1600-700 BC],” University of Melbourne, 2007) has argued for a downdating of nearly 200 years. Other theories gravitate between relatively modest adjustments to the standard chronology and sweeping revisions of the magnitude proposed by Rohl and Furlong.

So, where does the biblical evidence leave us? It seems clear that the campaigns against Judah launched by “Shishak” of Egypt (2 Chr 12:3-4) and “Zerah the Ethiopian” (2 Chr 14:10) take place in an Iron Age milieu. Since these expeditions are dated to the closing years of the 10th century BC (ca. 927 and 901 respectively by my estimation), Rohl’s 300-plus-year revision is ruled out as untenable. Ramesses III, representing the end of the era of Late Bronze Age chariotry, cannot have invaded Judah fifty or more years after the Iron Age transition!

Furthermore, the army the (frustratingly) unnamed Pharaoh sent against Israel during the Exodus (Exod 14–15) seems clearly to be a Late Bronze Age chariot force. Whether one prefers a thirteenth-century Exodus or a fifteenth-century one, this establishes a date after which the Iron Age transition occurred. A Late Bronze Exodus is to be expected in anyone’s chronology.

Between these two points, however, the evidence seems far more ambiguous than it should be on standard chronological assumptions.

Early in the period of the Judges, Deborah and Barak’s confrontation with Sisera’s chariot force in Judges 4–5 is described in ways that strongly suggest a Late Bronze Age milieu. When did this battle take place? Biblical chronology offers two possible answers, depending on whether one is calculating from an early Exodus (15th century) or a late one (13th century). On an early Exodus model, a date some time in the 1200’s BC is not out of the question, and once again is perfectly in line with conventional assumptions about the chronology of the ancient world, as this would still be prior to the Iron Age transition. On a late Exodus model, however, circa 1200 BC is probably the earliest possible date. “Twelfth century” is usually as accurate a claim as scholars are willing to make, although I’ve seen specific dates as low as 1120 BC for the judgeship of Deborah. Did those who passed on the oral tradition of this conflict preserve genuine memories of a Bronze-Age battle, or did they insert anachronistic details that would be alien to their own Iron-Age setting? On the theory of a thirteenth-century Exodus, the story of Deborah and Barak at least raises the possibility of downdating the end of the Bronze Age by perhaps 50-100 years.

Finally, the period of the United Monarchy seems to be a tangle of conflicting data. Both Saul and David operated militarily in a setting that seems at one point Iron Age and at another Bronze Age. At the dawn of this period, the prophet Samuel makes reference to (Late Bronze Age) chariot runners and implies that these are standard issue for the prosperous, “civilized” kingdoms Israel wishes to imitate. The presence of large infantry units and armored infantry, seeming hallmarks of the Iron Age, actually made their debut a century or so beforehand, leaving much of the evidence for Saul’s reign subject to varied interpretations. Likewise with David, a case can be made for either an Iron Age or a Late Bronze Age setting. Finally, Solomon—the last king of the United Monarchy period—seems to have a thoroughly Late Bronze chariot force!

The simplest explanation for this ambiguity is that the United Monarchy in fact overlaps with the time of the Iron Age transition in the Ancient Near East. If this transition took place in the decades around 1000 BC rather than 1200 BC, the descriptions of Saul and David’s battles would count as evidence of the contemporary state of flux in military tactics and technology. Samuel can envision his chariot runners, Ammonites can hire mercenary chariot soldiers from Mesopotamia, and Solomon can build his “chariot cities” at the same time the Philistines can field their armored infantry and mounted cavalry can appear on the battlefield for the first time in history.

By this hypothesis, Solomon’s (unused!) chariot force is at worst only slightly behind the geopolitical learning curve. Furthermore, the depiction of Sisera’s chariotry can fit comfortably even on a thirteenth-century Exodus model, since with a circa 200-year downdating of ancient chronology, the entire judges period is within the scope of the Late Bronze Age from beginning to end.

This conclusion enhances my estimation of the work of Jeremy Goldberg and Pierce Furlong, who have independently argued for chronological revisions of similar magnitude, and whose theories—insofar as they intersect with biblical history—I have summarized in the posts linked below.


All the King’s Horses: What an Iron Age Military Expedition Might Look Like

Now that we have gotten a glimpse of how the biblical writers might have described Late Bronze Age chariot warfare, we must see how an Iron Age confrontation is depicted. Once again, I’m relying on Robert Drews’ The End of the Bronze Age as a guide. Drews argues that a momentous shift in military tactics marks the transition from the Bronze Age, when chariotry predominated, to the Iron Age, when infantry took center stage.

I’m attempting to flesh out this thesis with respect to Old Testament history in general and various schemes of revising the chronology of the ancient world in particular. For my purposes, I therefore want to find a biblical era where military operations are undoubtedly depicted in terms of an Iron-Age milieu. The beginning of the period of the Divided Monarchy, circa 900, is just such an era.

Assyria’s Infantry

Drews accepts the conventional chronology which proposes a lengthy Dark Age falling upon the entire Mediterranean world from around 1200 BC—the beginning of the Iron Age—until about 900 BC. (This 300-year lacuna is in fact one of the embarrassments of the conventional chronology which has led some scholars to propose alternative chronologies.) At any rate, by the early ninth century, infantry has become a central feature in the militaries of the ancient world:

The centrality of an offensive infantry is clear when our documentation resumes in the ninth century, with the inscriptions and reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II [884-859 BC] and Shalmaneser III [859-824 BC]. Although Shalmaneser’s horse troops were impressive, they were evidently secondary to his infantry, which in a major campaign numbered more than 100,000 men. Another inscription of the early ninth century describes an Assyrian army of 1,351 chariots and 50,000 footsoldiers. These enormous infantries were of course levied from the general population of Assyria, where the tradition of militia service seems to have been still flourishing in the ninth century. Although neither reliefs nor inscriptions and literary accounts give us a clear picture of a ninth-century battle, what can be pieced together indicates that in the armies of Assyria, Israel, and Judah an advancing infantry formed the center of the battle line, and horse troops operated on the wings “for pincer movements and efforts to overwhelm and turn the enemy flank.” In the ninth century, in other words, infantry units no longer served merely to escort chariotries on the march and, in battle, to provide a haven for chariots in trouble but were now at the center of the offensive action. The Assyrian infantry included companies of archers … and of spearmen, and all carried a straight sword as a secondary weapon. (Drews, 167)

Fifty thousand foot soldiers to only 1,351 chariots gives a ratio of approximately 37:1. This is a good deal more than the 10:1 (Egyptian) or 15:1 (Hittite) ratios at the Battle of Kadesh. Infantry had indeed become central by this time.

Shishak’s Campaign

Let us now look for evidence of Iron Age military operations in the Old Testament. First, there is the campaign of the Egyptian Pharaoh “Shishak” in the 5th year of King Rehoboam of Judah, circa 927/6 BC. I have already blogged on the possibility that “Shishak” is someone other than Shoshenq I, founder of Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty. Whoever he was, he brought a massive infantry contingent with him:

In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, because they had been unfaithful to the LORD, King Shishak of Egypt came up against Jerusalem with twelve hundred chariots and sixty thousand cavalry. A countless army came with him from Egypt—Libyans, Sukkiim, and Ethiopians. (2 Chr 12:3-4)

Once again, I will follow Kevin Edgecomb’s lead in emending the text to refer to 1,200 chariots and 6,000 cavalry. That cavalry outnumbers chariotry is itself a strong indication that we have moved into the Iron Age, as the evidence for cavalry at all in the Late Bronze Age is scanty at best. We will return to this point in a later post. The most tantalizing clue, however, is the “countless army” of foreigners he brought with him. These foreigners, whether hired mercenaries or subjects of vassal states, seem to be what most captured the attention of the Chronicler.

It might be argued that the presence of foreign “barbarians” in the army of a civilized kingdom like Egypt is in fact more to be expected in the Late Bronze Age. We have already seen Ramesses II’s Shardana body guards at the Battle of Kadesh. At that same battle, the Hittite king Muwatalli assembled his infantry from his various subject districts. The presence of cavalry in much greater numbers than chariotry, however, suggests that this is an Iron-Age army.

The Campaign of Zerah the Ethiopian

The next important biblical benchmark is the campaign of Zerah the Ethiopian (or Nubian) in the 10th year of Asa of Judah, circa 901/0 BC:

Zerah the Ethiopian came out against [Judah] with an army of a million men and three hundred chariots, and came as far as Mareshah. (2 Chr 14:10)

Even accepting Edgecomb’s proposed emendation of the infantry figure from 1,000,000 to merely 10,000, we are left with infantry outnumbering chariotry by about 33:1: reasonably close to the 37:1 ratio in the Assyrian inscription Drews cites. There is no question we are in an Iron-Age milieu at this point.

Chronological Options

We have now established a broad time frame in which to locate the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age military tactics. This transition must have come after the exodus and at least the beginning of the period of the judges—eras with their own chronological conundrums—and before the reign of Asa (and most likely before that of Rehoboam). In absolute terms, we’re looking at the period between around 1200 BC (the traditional date of the end of the Bronze Age) and around 900 BC.

To put this in perspective, let me quickly run through some of the revised chronological models I’m hoping to test by this exercise. I’ll take the “Sea Peoples” invasion in Ramesses III’s 8th regnal year as a watershed date for the transition from the centrality of chariot forces (Bronze Age) to that of infantry (Iron Age). The older tactics may well have persisted after that, but probably not for more than another generation or so. So what date on our calendar corresponds to year 8 of Ramesses III?

  • In the conventional chronology, it is circa 1176 BC.
  • Graham Hagens proposes a (relatively) modest 100-year down-dating, or circa 1076 BC.
  • Pierce Furlong argues for a nearly 200-year down-dating, resulting in a date of circa 1001 BC.
  • Jeremy Goldberg‘s revision is slightly lower than Furlong’s, with a resultant date of circa 980 BC.
  • Peter James et al. propose a roughly 250-year down-dating (and believe that Ramesses III was in fact the biblical Shishak). I don’t know the “official” date for Ramesses III’s accession in this model, but the equation with Shishak would suggest his 8th year would not be too far off from circa 927 BC.
  • David Rohl et al. propose a 324-year down-dating at this point in their model, in which Ramesses III’s 8th year is circa 855 BC.

Now, take a look at that last date: 855 BC for the “Sea Peoples” invasion. Zerah the Ethiopian marched his Iron-Age army into Judah about 45 years earlier. Can it really be the case that Zerah had raised and deployed such a force not only before Ramesses III’s repulsion of the “Sea Peoples” but even more than a dozen years before Merneptah’s victory over the Libyans and their northern allies? This seems impressively unlikely. Furthermore, Rohl argues that the biblical Shishak (927/6 BC) was in fact Ramesses II—the epitome of Late Bronze Age chariot combat! Yet, as I have argued, the evidence favors interpreting Shishak’s campaign as an Iron-Age-style engagement as well. In other words, if Drews research is remotely credible, it scores a telling blow against the Rohl “New Chronology.”

James’ “Centuries of Darkness” model remains a possibility, but only by the slightest of margins. Depending on what we find in the prior biblical era, that of the United Monarchy, it will be the next revisionist model to fall (hint: it will). The remaining chronologies are untouched so far. In my next installment I’ll delve into the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon in an attempt to fine-tune the date of the “catastrophe” that precipitated the end of the Bronze Age and its distinctive style of warfighting.