Edwin R. Thiele
Edwin R. Thiele (1895–1986) was a missionary, Biblical historian, and a professor of Old Testament studies. He is best known for his book The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, in which he shows how he determined the basic methods of the Biblical historians of the Hebrew Northern and Southern kingdoms.
- 1918: Bachelor of Arts degree from Emmanuel Missionary College (since renamed to Andrews University), Chicago, Illinois, United States
- 1918–20: Home missionary secretary, East Michigan Conference
- 1920–32: missionary in China
- 1937: Master of Arts in Archaeology, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.
- 1943: Doctor of Philosophy in Archaeology, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.
- 1963–65: Professor of Antiquity, Andrews University, Chicago, Illinois.
- The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Kregel Academic, 1994) 256 pages, paperback. ISBN 082543825X. Based on his 1943 doctoral dissertation.
Dr. Thiele’s major thesis
Dr. Thiele’s approach to the chronological figures of the Hebrew kingdom period was to establish the methods used by the Biblical authors of the books of Kings and Chronicles. To that end, he first approached the numerous Biblical texts for this period to see if they were internally consistent. This is known from his own writing, and from that of his colleagues who knew him and those who have studied his work, in contradiction to various critics who said that he started with Assyrian and Babylonian dates and “force-fit” the Biblical data to those dates. This is established, first, in Thiele’s own words:
[N]o dates were used in the early pattern that I produced. In this way I eliminated the inclination, as certain fairly well established dates in Hebrew history were being approached, to endeavor to modify the pattern one way or another to cause it to conform to preconceived ideas of what it ought to be at those points. . . . The aim was to produce a system, if possible, in which the reigns of the kings were arranged in harmony with the data on both the synchronisms and the lengths of reign. Then, on the completion of such a pattern, I meant to test the results by a comparison with the established dates of contemporary history. 
Unknown to Thiele when he first published his results in 1944, the basic patterns that Thiele discovered in the Biblical data were found earlier by a Belgian scholar, Valerius Coucke. These were
- At the beginning of the divided monarchy, the northern kingdom (Israel) used non-accession reckoning for their kings, while the southern kingdom (Judah) used accession reckoning.
- In the ninth century BC, during the rapprochement and intermarriage between the two kingdoms, Judah switched to Israel’s non-accession reckoning for a time.
- Israel reckoned its regnal year to start in the spring month of Nisan, whereas Judah started its regnal year in the fall month of Tishri.
- Throughout the kingdom period, consideration must be given to the possibility that a synchronism between the two kingdoms, or a reign length, might be measured from the start of a coregency or rivalry rather than the start of the sole reign, unless such a possibility was ruled out because of assassination by a usurper.
When a colleague pointed out the previous research of Coucke to Thiele, he was pleasantly surprised. Thiele, however, applied the principles in a more thoroughgoing way than Coucke, and so modern researchers generally build on the work of Thiele, not Coucke.
Having established a basic pattern in the Biblical data, Thiele then went on to attach the pattern, which as yet had no BC dates assigned, to some date fixed from ancient history so as to assign BC dates to his pattern. This is a necessary step that all chronologists must do. Ussher had used a secular date taken from Ptolemy’s Canon for the Babylonian Empire; Thiele chose instead an earlier date derived from Assyrian records. Assyrian chronology anchors on the solar eclipse in the eponym of Bar-Sagale, determined by archaeoastronomy to be 763 BC. From this absolute date, Assyriologists had determined the years of reigns of earlier and later Assyrian kings. Thiele took the Assyrian record of Jehu's tribute explicitly dated to Shalmaneser III's 18th year and his campaign against Ahab in his 6th year as biblical synchronisms. When Thiele first published (1944), the majority of Assyriologists dated these two events as occurring in 842 and 854 BC, respectively. When Thiele plugged in his Biblically-derived reign lengths so as to match these dates, he found that the Biblical data, when extended down to the time of Hezekiah and Sennacherib, were one year too short for Sennacherib’s well-documented invasion of Judah in 701 BC. Which was wrong: Thiele’s Bible-based chronology, or the commonly-accepted Assyrian dates? Thiele was so confident in the Bible’s numbers that he investigated how Assyriologists had determined 854 BC and 842 BC for the sixth and 18th years of Shalmaneser III. He found some European scholars, a minority, who put these dates one year later, which was consistent with his Biblically-derived dates. Thiele investigated further, using the recently published Khorsabad King List to show that 853 and 841 were the correct dates. He found where Assyriologists had made their error, and published the revised Assyrian Eponym Canon, which is the backbone of Assyrian chronology (and of that of much of the Ancient Near East) in all three editions of Mysterious Numbers. Thiele’s revision of the Assyrian Eponym Canon that he was led to from his Biblical study is now accepted by virtually all Assyriologists.
Another place that Thiele found that the Biblical data were not consistent with the chronology accepted by most Assyriologists was the date of the fall of Samaria. In the words of his colleague Kenneth Strand,
When Thiele entered into his chronological chart the date for the fall of Samaria and the dethronement of Hoshea, the Hebrew Northern Kingdom’s last monarch, he was surprised to find that in his sequential pattern of biblical dates the year turned out to be 723 B.C., not 722 or 721. Virtually every important scholar who dealt with the history of the ancient Near East believed, on the basis of Assyrian records, that Sargon II, who acceded to the Assyrian throne toward the end of December 722, was the monarch who defeated Hoshea and brought the northern Hebrew nation to its end. . . . And once more he [Thiele] turned his attention to the pertinent Assyrian data, noting also that at least one prominent Assyriologist, Albert T. Olmstead, had already adopted 723 as the correct date.
Thiele’s Bible-based correction of 723 BC for the date for Samaria’s fall, which Assyriologists said happened under Sargon II in 722 or 721 BC, was vindicated fourteen years after Thiele’s initial publication when Hayim Tadmor published a study of Sargon’s annalistic records that showed that Sargon did not engage in any military activity in the west (i.e., toward Israel) until 720 BC.
A third instance in which Thiele’s Bible-based chronology differed with the prevailing opinions of Assyriologists was with regard to the tribute of Menahem of Israel to Tiglath-Pileser III, described in 2 Kings 15:9. Assyriologists were sure, based on their reading of one of Tiglath-Pileser’s inscriptions, that this tribute was given in 738 BC, which was after Thiele’s date of death for Menahem, 742/41 BC. Eight years after Thiele’s death in 1986, another inscription of Tiglath-Pileser was published that vindicated Thiele’s contention that Assyriologists had not understood properly the former inscription, and again Thiele’s Bible-derived date corrected the Assyriologists.
Thiele’s Bible-based scholarship, then, has been used to correct dates that were commonly accepted by the Assyrian academy. This needs to be made clear because there have been those who, mistakenly thinking they are supporting the Bible, accuse Thiele of somehow distorting the Biblical data to match secular history. For example, Floyd Nolen Jones writes, “Thiele’s chronology tortures and contorts the Hebrew record in order to make it fit the Assyrian framework.” Other writers have made similar charges against Thiele that cannot be substantiated by the facts, documented above, of Thiele’s actual method. The chronology for the Biblical kingdom period, based on Thiele’s research (and to some extent on that of his predecessor, Valerius Coucke) has established the Bible as a reliable source for the four-century period of Israel’s divided kingdom, and stands as a testimony to the accuracy of the abundant chronological data that the Bible gives for that time.
Thiele’s reception in the scholarly community
The noted Assyriologist D. J. Wiseman wrote “The chronology most widely accepted today is one based on the meticulous study by Thiele.” Biblical chronologist Leslie McFall, who corrected Thiele’s error for the reign of Hezekiah, asserted, “Thiele’s chronology is fast becoming the consensus view among Old Testament scholars, if it has not already reached that point.” Among the many scholars who have accepted Thiele’s date of 931 BC for the beginning of the divided monarchies are T. C. Mitchell in the Cambridge Ancient History series, Walvoord and Zuck in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Leslie McFall, Gershon Galil, Jack Finegan in his influential handbook on ancient chronological systems and the Bible, and Andrew E. Steinmann.
Not only Assyriologists, but also Egyptologists, have profited from the work of Christian scholars who have followed in this line of research. Kenneth Kitchen is recognized by other Egyptologists as one of, if not the, world’s main authority on ancient Egyptian chronology. Kitchen used Thiele’s dates for the division of the kingdom, along with the synchronism between Rehoboam and Shishaq/Shoshenq of Egypt in 2 Chronicles 12:2, to refine the dates of Egypt’s 21st and 22nd Dynasties. Subsequent studies by Egyptologists have accepted Kitchen’s use of Thiele’s date for the invasion of Shishak/Shoshenq, differing only on which year it was in the pharaoh’s reign his invasion took place. Both Assyriologists and Egyptologists have recognized the Bible gives very reliable historical data, data that they can use to advance their own studies.
It is rather difficult to post such successes in showing the historical accuracy of the Bible in places like Wikipedia, where any moderator who does not hold to the basic tenets of the outdated and thoroughly disproven Documentary Hypothesis would be stripped of his position. Since the demonstrated accuracy of the Bible’s historical data contradicts their outdated presuppositions, they remain blind to the importance of what has happened in the realm of Biblical chronology. But conservative Christian scholars such as Leslie McFall and Andrew Steinmann have recognized the importance of this research to Christian apologetics, building on Thiele’s work, but modifying it for the reign of Hezekiah and making some other minor adjustments. Those who hold the Bible in high esteem, and are interested in its historical aspects, should be encouraged by the success this line of research has had in strengthening our faith in the credibility of God’s Word in places where its truth can be put to the test.
- Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, rev. edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Kregel, 1983), pp. 16, 17.
- Edwin R. Thiele, “The Chronology of the Kings of Judah and Israel,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3 (1944), pp. 137–86.
- Valerius Coucke, “Chronologie biblique,” in Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible, ed. Louis Pirot, vol. 1 (Paris: Librarie Letouze et Ané. 1928), cols. 1245–79. English translation at http://www.rcyoung.org/articles/coucke.pdf.
- Thiele, Mysterious Numbers, p. 59, n. 17. Thiele wrote, “Not until the author had worked out the details of his chronological scheme and the resultant dates for the kings of Judah and Israel, did he become aware of the earlier work of Professor Coucke. It is a matter of gratification to know that these two independent studies have produced essentially the same results on a number of important points, such as Tishri-to-Tishri regnal years in Judah and Nisan-to-Nisan years in Israel (although Professor Coucke suggests that in the latter instance this might have been 1 Thoth instead of Nisan), and accession-year reckoning in Judah except for a period except for a period when a shift was made to the nonaccession-year system, and nonaccession-year reckoning in Israel with a later shift to the accession-year system.
- The eponyms of the Assyrian empire 910-612 BC. by A. R. Millard, Robert M. Whiting. State Archives of Assyria, Vol. 2. Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1994.
- Kenneth A. Strand, “Thiele’s Biblical Chronology as a Corrective for Extrabiblical Dates,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 34:2 (1996), pp. 304–05.
- Hayim Tadmor, “The Campaigns of Sargon II of Assur: A Chronological-Historical Study” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 12 (1958), pp. 22–42.
- Rodger C. Young, “Inductive and Deductive Methods as Applied to OT Chronology,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 18:1 (2007), pp. 113–15.
- Floyd Nolen Jones, The Chronology of the Old Testament, rev. edition (Green Forest AR: Master Books, 2005, 2009), p. 147b.
- Donald J. Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Intervarsity, 1993), p. 27.
- Leslie McFall, “The Chronology of Saul and David,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53 (2010) 215, n. 101.
- “Israel and Judah until the Revolt of Jehu (931–841 B.C.),” Cambridge Ancient History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982) III, Part 1, 445–46;
- John H. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, editors, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1983), p. 632.
- Leslie McFall, “A Translation Guide to the Chronological Data in Kings and Chronicles,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 (1991), p. 12.
- Gershon Galil, The Chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah (Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. 14.
- Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, rev. ed. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 1998)pp. 246, 249;
- Andrew Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011), pp. 39,40.
- Kenneth A. Kitchen, The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100 – 650 B.C.) (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1973), p. 72.