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An essay donated by Andrew Graham

Did Jerusalem fall in 586 or 607 BCE?

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The 586 BCE date is based primarily on what is known as "Ptolemy’s Canon," which assigns a total of 87 years to the Babylonian dynasty beginning with Nabopolassar and ending with Nabonidus at the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE. According to this Canon, the five kings that ruled during this period were Nabopolassar (21 years), Nebuchadnezzar (43 years), Evil-merodach (2 years), Neriglissar (4 years) and Nabonidus (17 years). In line with the number of years thus assigned to each ruler, Jerusalem’s desolation in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth year (nineteenth year if counting from his "accession year") would fall in 586 BCE. (2 Kings 25:8; Jeremiah. 52:29.)

But how dependable is Ptolemy’s Canon? In his book The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, Professor E. R. Thiele writes:

"Ptolemy’s canon was prepared primarily for astronomical, not historical, purposes. It did not pretend to give a complete list of all the rulers of either Babylon or Persia, nor the exact month or day of the beginning of their reigns, but it was a device which made possible the correct allocation into a broad chronological scheme of certain astronomical data which were then available. Kings whose reigns were less than a year and which did not embrace the New Year's Day were not mentioned."

So the very purpose of the Canon makes absolute dating by means of it impossible. There is no way to be sure that Ptolemy was correct in assigning a certain number of years to various kings. For example, while Ptolemy credits Evil-merodach with only two years of rule, Polyhistor assigns him twelve years. Then, too, one cannot be certain that just five kings ruled during this period. At Borsippa, for instance, were found names of a number of Babylonian kings that do not appear elsewhere.

Nevertheless, someone may ask, Is there not an ancient astronomical tablet, "VAT 4956," that places the thirty-seventh year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign exactly in the same year as does Ptolemy’s Canon?
It should not be overlooked that the source of corroborative evidence should bear the earmarks of dependability. Can this be said about "VAT 4956"? Not really. The text is not an original and it contains numerous gaps. Certain terms found therein cannot even be understood now. Twice in the text the notation hi-bi (meaning "broken off, obliterated") appears. Thereby the scribe acknowledged that he was working from a defective copy.

Even if, despite these problems, the astronomical information presents a true picture of the original, this would not establish the correctness of the historical data. As Ptolemy used the reigns of ancient kings (as he understood them) simply as a framework in which to place astronomical data, so the copyist of "VAT 4956" may, in line with the chronology accepted in his time, have inserted the 'thirty-seventh year of Nebuchadnezzar.' As admitted by the German scholars Neugebauer and Weidner (the translators of this text), the scribe evidently changed words to conform to the abbreviated terminology common in his day. But he was both inconsistent and inaccurate. So he could just as easily have inserted other information to suit his purposes. Hence both Ptolemy’s Canon and "VAT 4956" might even have been derived from the same basic source. They could share mutual errors.

Opposed to Ptolemy’s Canon and "VAT 4956" stands the unanimous testimony of Jeremiah, Zechariah, Daniel and the writer of 2 Chronicles, that Judah and Jerusalem lay desolate for seventy years. Thousands of ancient manuscripts of these writings contain the identical testimony.

So, because of the problems inherent in Ptolemy’s Canon and "VAT 4956," it takes more faith to accept them than it does to accept the Bible’s testimony, which would place the desolation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 607 BCE.

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A more probable date:

Simple arithmetic also solves this problem of 586 or 607. Babylon fell in 539 BCE, the Jews were to be in bondage for 70 years, they were given 2 years grace and left in 537 BCE for Jerusalem. It is not rocket science to know that 537 BCE added to 70 gives one 607 BCE.

However, this calculation relies on the interval of Jewish captivity being seventy literal years. That is the way the prophet Daniel, toward the close of the period of Jerusalem’s desolation, understood it when he is recorded as writing:

I myself, Daniel, discerned by the books the number of the years concerning which the word of Jehovah had occurred to Jeremiah the prophet, for fulfilling the devastations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years." (Dan. 9:2)

Note that here Daniel speaks of the "number of the years" of devastation as seventy. Surely he could not have done so if the seventy years were symbolic or an inflated round number.

Additional evidence is also provided in the book of Zechariah. We read:

"When you fasted and there was a wailing in the fifth month and in the seventh month, and this for seventy years, did you really fast to me, even me?" (Zech. 7:5; 1:12)

The way this question is framed, with reference to specific months, certainly indicates that a period of seventy literal years was involved.

That the Jews in ancient times understood the seventy years as being literal and involving a total devastation of the land is apparent from the works of Josephus, a Jewish historian. In his Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, chap. 9, par. 7, he tells that "all Judea and Jerusalem, and the temple, continued to be a desert for seventy years."

When the Israelites were able to return to Judah and Jerusalem, that desolation ended. There is general agreement that Babylon fell to Cyrus on October 5/6, 539 BCE. From the Scriptural record at 2 Chronicles 36:21-23 and Ezra 3:1-3, which tells of Cyrus’ decree liberating the Jews and their return to their homeland, the indications are that the Jews arrived back in their homeland around the early part of October of 537 BCE, ending the seventy years of desolation. Jerusalem must, therefore, have been destroyed seventy years earlier, in 607 BCE.

Various attempts to harmonize the date 586 BCE with what the Bible says are therefore unsatisfactory. None of such attempts fit the Bible’s testimony that Jerusalem and Judah lay desolate for seventy years.

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Doug Mason has written a rebuttal to this essay.

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Originally posted: 2006-DEC-08
Latest update: 2006-DEC-08
Author: Andrew Graham

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