The uncertainties of chronology
Many historical events recorded in the Bible are difficult to date with any certainty. This is not because they did not happen but because we do not have the chronological data needed. However, we can still place these characters and events in the correct sequence. For example, the Creation comes before the Fall and the Fall before the Flood. Or, looking at individuals, Adam and Eve come before Noah.
The events of Genesis 1-11 are sometimes referred to as “Primeval History”. Then comes the “Patriarchal History”. Again, sequence is no problem: Abraham and Sarah come before Isaac and Rebecca (with some overlap, of course). Then comes Jacob-Israel followed by his twelve sons who become the fathers of the twelve tribes. Within the Patriarchal History it is possible to give some dates although certainty is less possible. We need to use the Latin abbreviation c. for circa, “about”.
The closer we get to the end of BC and the beginning of AD the more reliable our dates become although there are still some gaps in our knowledge. We can, for example, construct a near-perfect chronology for the Roman Empire but still struggle to place historical figures such as the Apostle Paul within this timeframe. Tradition has Paul martyred in the Neronian persecution following the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 but it is next to impossible to find Paul’s date of birth. A good guess would be some time in the first decade AD but this remains no more than an educated guess. We know that Paul was active from the mid-thirties to the mid-sixties AD but absolute certainty is beyond us.
The benefit of timelines
A timeline will show this kind of information visually. Like maps, timelines have their own conventions and once you get the hang of how to use them they convey information quickly and easily. There are many examples to be found. Your own reference library will almost certainly contain examples so look in your Study Bible, your Bible handbook or dictionary or even in your Bible atlas and we are confident that you will find some examples. If not, search on line. You will quickly see that timelines work at different levels. A simple Sunday School approach will concentrate on putting key Bible characters in their correct sequence (Adam & Eve . . . Cain and Abel . . . Noah & The Flood . . . Tower of Babel . . . and so on).
As with all tools, using the right one for the job is vital. We do not want to overload our Sunday School children with too much information too soon. However we hope BBS students are ready to move up a level.
Challenges and decisions
One of the challenges in designing a Bible timeline is deciding what to leave out. The old adage of achieving more by attempting less is true: if we included every name and event in our Bible timeline we would be swamped, so we have to make judicious choices as to what to omit.
Another challenge is scale. A timeline that runs from Genesis to Revelation will be lopsided. The Old Testament story from Creation to the last prophet (Malachi?) covers thousands of years but the entire New Testament from the birth of John the Baptiser to the Revelation of John the Divine is under a century. If your timeline has a scale of 1 cm = 10 years the Old Testament will be measured in metres but the entire New Testament will have to be squeezed into less than 10 cms. This is an important point to make: the Old Testament covers centuries and the New Testament decades which does not make a sensible timeline, as we can see here:
You will thus find that scholarly timelines tend to concentrate on specific periods such as The Life of Abraham or Moses or any significant character or a specific period of history such as Judah from King Saul to the Destruction of the Temple. Less is often more: two or three clear and simple timelines will usually convey far more information much more clearly than one large and cluttered example. Well presented timelines will make good use of colour and perhaps include useful symbols and may even require a Key to follow them. Watch out for good examples in your own studies and where you find a bad example make sure you understand what has gone wrong. You might want to have a look at “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: a chronology” in BiBloS Issue 2 – you can find it here.
The AD – BC divide
You will have noticed that we use the now old-fashioned abbreviations BC and AD of Before Christ and Anno Domini or “The year of our Lord” meaning the birth year of Jesus. Recently there has been a trend followed by some – but by no means all – to replace BC and AD with BCE and CE for Before the Common (or Christian) Era and Christian (or Common) Era. We at the BBS will continue to honour our Lord by using BC and AD but be aware that some timelines and other resources will use BCE and CE. Remember when working BC that we count down towards the Year Zero and then start counting up when we reach AD 1 and that there is no Year Zero as we move from 1 BC straight to AD 1.
If you have not yet watched the third DVD presentation, The Right Time, them this might be a good time to set aside some time to do that.