Thinking about chronology
Archaeologists will periodically announce findings of ancient civilizations which they ‘date’ to many thousands of years old. But with a few ‘rules of thumb’ outlined below, you can have a good idea where to fit any ancient civilizations into a biblical time frame of Earth history.
The Bible’s chronological ‘scaffolding’
When we talk about the age of things, we’re talking primarily about history. So we have to look at historical records. And the most reliable historical record is Scripture, because it is infallible and inerrant, as it was God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:15–17). And the plain reading of Scripture tells us that the earth is 6,000 years old.1
But it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find any human artifact older than about 4,500 years. The global Flood may well have wiped out any traces of pre-Flood human civilization (Genesis 6:7 might be taken to imply this). Certainly any idea that something like the pyramids would have survived such an extensive cataclysm seems untenable. So when we are contemplating the age of some artifact or monument from an ancient civilization, it must fit sometime in the past 4,500 years or so.
So when anyone claims that a civilization or human artifact is older than this biblically-derived date, we should question how they know the age. All ‘scientific’ age/dating methods that ignore reliable historical records are based on dubious assumptions about the past.2,3 This is the key point. But what about civilizations dated as old by other means, such as other purported historical records? Let’s look at a few.
Egyptian and ancient near eastern chronology
When we talk about the Ancient Near East, a lot of the archaeology has no independent chronology of its own; instead, it’s measured against the Egyptian chronology. But the standard Egyptian chronology would put Noah’s Flood during the Old Kingdom, and the archaeological evidence using that chronology conflicts with the Bible.
The traditional chronology relies (to a large extent) on a list of pharaohs compiled by the Egyptian priest Manetho in the 3rd century BC, and carbon-14 dating, especially for the Middle and Old Kingdoms, and the alleged pre-dynastic period. A shortened chronology, which many scholars agree is necessary, would harmonize Egypt with the Bible.4
Biblical creationists aren’t the only ones who suggest the standard Egyptian chronology is flawed; as we reported in 2007, “An emerging pool of scholars, representing diverse backgrounds, has been openly calling for a drastic reduction in the Egyptian chronology.”5 For example, they recognize that some of Manetho’s 31 dynasties were not consecutive but overlapping—one ruling Upper and one ruling Lower Egypt.
Civilizations like Sumer and Egypt could have sprung up fairly quickly after the dispersion from the Tower of Babel (which was in the place that would later be called Babylon); we can assume some of the individuals in those groups had the skills to build architecture and governmental infrastructure, which helps explain why we see them springing into existence almost fully-formed.6
Other ancient cultures
The Egyptian chronology can only be used to date cultures close to them and that they would have come into contact with. When we try to date people groups like the first two ancient (pre-Shang-dynasty) Chinese and Aborigines in Australia, things get more complicated. This is because neither group left behind ancient written records. Chinese civilization is said to be older than 6,000 years. But the first dynasty for which there is definite historical material is the Shang, also called the Yin, dynasty, which is dated 18th–12th century BC, well within the biblical timeframe. Furthermore, ancient Chinese characters affirm the same history taught in Genesis.7
Australian Aborigines are said to have first come to Australia up to 50,000 years ago. But their culture was entirely oral, so again, these dates are arrived at through assumptions about history.8 Evolutionary thinking has, until very recently, been used as an excuse to mistreat groups like the Australian Aborigines, who were thought to represent a ‘less evolved’ species of human.9 Thankfully, such ideas have become as politically incorrect as they are wrongheaded. It is also interesting to note that some traditional Aboriginal beliefs about God and Creation are similar to Genesis.10
There are a few structures that have been uncovered that seem to bear witness to a very ancient culture. One very notable example is Göbekli Tepe (ruins of a hilltop worship sanctuary in Turkey), for which we have no cultural context. It is said to be 11,000 years old—by far the oldest date proposed for a human monument uncovered. The ‘date’ resulted from carbon dating of artifacts at the site, but we know that the older the object, the more inaccurate carbon dating gets. All indications fit well with the site being from soon after the Flood, but without more information about the site data, certainty is impossible. More site excavation will hopefully increase our understanding of its purpose.11
The old-earth problem of chronology
It is commonly claimed that modern humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. But human civilization developed only recently, even according to the secular timeline, with farming beginning about 10,000 years ago, and our most ancient cities thousands of years after that. Writing systems then appear seemingly out of nowhere. If modern humans, with all the potential for architecture, literature, government, and agriculture, existed for hundreds of thousands of years, why did it take so long for all that to develop?
Also, if we have been around for that long, where are all the people? We should see massive numbers of human graves, and our population today should be much larger, even accounting for the occasional plague to wipe out a good percentage of our population.12
History vs science
History isn’t repeatable, and we can’t go back and observe it. As N.T. Wright points out:
“Science studies the repeatable; history studies the unrepeatable. Caesar only crossed the Rubicon once, and if he’d crossed it again it would have meant something different the second time. There was, and could be, only one first landing on the moon. The fall of the second Jerusalem Temple took place in AD 70 and never happened again. Historians don’t see this as a problem and are usually not shy about declaring that these events certainly took place, even though we can’t repeat them in a laboratory.
“But when people say, ‘But that can’t have happened because we know that that sort of thing doesn’t actually happen,’ they are appealing to a would-be scientific principle of history, namely, the principle of analogy. The problem with analogy is that it never quite gets you far enough. History is full of unlikely things that happened once and once only, with the result that the analogies are often at best partial. In any case, if someone declares that certain kinds of events ‘don’t normally happen’ that merely invites the retort, ‘Who says?’
“So how does the historian work when the evidence points toward things that we do not normally expect? … Sooner or later questions of worldview begin to loom in the background, and the question of what kinds of material the historian will allow onstage is inevitably affected by the worldview in which he or she lives.”13
So when we study historical events, we have to rely on written records and artifacts. As we go further back in history, fewer and fewer things are preserved for us. But we believe that the Bible is a supremely reliable record of human history, so we rely on it to give us a framework for interpreting other ancient records. There is no problem with this, because everyone is operating from assumptions about which sources are authoritative, whether it is an interpretation of a carbon-14 ratio or a text.
Why it matters
False ages for humans even affect the Gospel. Some of those false ‘dates’, such as for the Australian Aborigines, place people before the biblical Adam, the true ancestor of all people. But then they couldn’t have descended from Adam, whose sin brought death into the world.14 Therefore they could not be saved by the Last Adam, Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:45), the Kinsman-Redeemer (Isaiah 59:20) who must be a fellow descendant of Adam.
The Bible’s chronological ‘scaffolding’ of Creation, the Flood, and the dispersal at Babel gives us a useful and authoritative starting point for thinking about human history. This is the case even for the ancient civilizations that at first glance may seem to pose a challenge for the biblical chronology, until interpreted correctly.
Timeline of world history
Underderstanding how the biblical and secular chronologies fit together is a difficult task—hard enough to accomplish for an intelligent adult. How much more difficult must it be for a child.
One Brisbane (Australia) grandfather has found an excellent way of simplifying this. One by one, as his grandchildren mature sufficiently to be interested in the subject, he makes a special time with them and works through a biblical worldview project. You can read all about Winston’s concept at creation.com/timeline-project. It would make an excellent project for home schoolers but, of course, any child would benefit from this exercise. As too would any parent or grandparent. It is fascinating to follow the rise and fall of many civilisations from the dawn of creation, and especially to be able to see everything in a linear perspective.
Winston also employs in his project CMI’sTimeline of World Historywhich can be purchased at creation.com/timeline-poster.
References and notes
- Cosner, L., How does the Bible teach 6,000 years? Creation 35(1):54–55, 2013; creation.com/6000-years; creaton.om/timeline. Return to text.
- Walker, T., How dating methods work, Creation 30(3):28–29, 2008; creation.com/dating-flaws. Return to text.
- Walker, T., The dating game, Creation 26(1):36–39, 2003; creation.com/dating-game. Return to text.
- Clarke, P., Joseph’s Zaphenath Paaneah—a chronological key, J. Creation 27(3):58–63, 2013. Return to text.
- Anderson, D., Egyptian history and the biblical record: a perfect match? creation.com/egypt, 23 January 2007. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., All at once (civilization comes suddenly), Creation 31(1):16, 2008; creation.com/civ. Note though that the earliest settler groups in the Nile Valley do not seem to have had the sophistication to erect the later temples and pyramids, which were likely from a subsequent wave of post-Babel arrivals. Return to text.
- Nelson, E., The original ‘unknown’ god of China, Creation 20(3):50–53, 1998; creation.com/china. Return to text.
- How long have Aborigines been in Australia? Creation 15(3):48–50, 1993; creation.com/aborig. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Evolutionary racism, Creation 20(4):14–16, 1998;creation.com/evolracism; see also the same author’s One Human Family, Creation Book Publishers, 2011. Return to text.
- Reece, L., What the Warlpiri Aborigines believe about the origin of everything, Creation 8(2):34–36, 1986. See also creation.com/nationalscars. Return to text.
- Cosner, L. and Carter, R., How does Göbekli Tepe fit with biblical history? creation.com/gobekli-tepe, 26 July 2011;. Return to text.
- Batten, D., Where are all the people? Creation 23(3):52–55, 2001, creation.com/people. Return to text.
- Wright, N.T., Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, pp. 64–65, HarperOne, NY, 2008. Return to text.
- Cosner, L. and Bates, G., Did God create over billions of years? creation.com/billions, 6 October 2011. Return to text.