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Dating the patriarchs

What is the task being tackled?

There are several main ways in which the time-frame of the patriarchs can be estimated. One way is to simply use the various indications of lifespan, ages when children were born, and summary figures scattered through the Old Testament narratives, and count backwards from a date which is held to be confidently known. Since there are numerous interconnections between the divided monarchy period and Assyrian rulers, it is generally held that the era of the United Monarchy can be placed around 1000 BCE, and so this can supply a suitable baseline. This method of approach may well commend itself from a theological viewpoint, or to people already persuaded that the Bible offers reliable information. However, it is evidently unsatisfying from a purely historical/chronological perspective, or to people for whom the Old Testament does not carry authoratitive weight. Thus it is important to find alternative ways of estimating the dates of the patriarchs, which do not presuppose that the Biblical dates are necessarily correct.

Therefore two quite different ways of approaching the issue of dating the patriarchs are presented here. The first assumes that internal Biblical dates are a reasonably accurate reflection of the intervals of time involved, and builds a chronology on this basis. The second starts from the opposite viewpoint, that the information in the early books of the OT is most reliable at describing the social conditions prevalent at the time, and that explicit time markers are not to be used for model-building. In this second approach, the time indicators are only studied after a model has been proposed, to see to what extent they in fact agree.

Assuming Biblical time indicators are the primary source

As discussed above, the baseline for this study is taken to be the time of the United Kingdom. Estimates of the reign of David, on the basis of synchronisms with Assyrian dates and counting backward through the divided kingdom rulers, typically yield a reign of c. 1010-970 BCE. From here we have the following blocks of time to span:
  1. The length of Saul's reign
  2. The time of Judges
  3. The Exodus, wilderness experience, and conquest
  4. The Sojourn in Egypt
  5. Patriarchal times
  6. Before this are what I have called protohistorical times. These are of course not involved in the present line of investigation.
Some of these are addressed more thoroughly on other pages (some in preparation), in which case the issues involved are only briefly mentioned here. Since at this stage we are only seeking approximate values for the patriarchs, exactness is not called for.

The Judges era presents difficulties, as discussed elsewhere. However, there are two summary figures indicating an overall duration for these periods. The first, found in 1 Kings 6:1, specifies that the Exodus occurred 480 years before the Solomon's 4th year. This, of course spans the Judges period, and finds broad support in the 300 year period mention in Judges 11:26. For more details see the discussion on the Judges era. Assuming then that Solomon took the throne around 975 (with a brief co-regency in the last year's of David's life, this takes us back to an Exodus around 1450.

To span the period of Sojourn in Egypt, we can use the prophetic part of God's covenant with Abraham, related in Genesis 15:13. Interpretation of this is tackled in the discussion of the Sojourn period. As explained there, this indicates a 400 (or possibly 430) year period between the covenant and the Exodus. Thus, with a c. 1450 Exodus we are led to the covenant with Abraham in about 1900-1850 BCE. From here the various indicators of lifetime, age when children were born, and so forth, allow a reconstruction of the patriarchal era. In summary, we have Abraham in the range 1950-1775, Isaac around 1850-1675, Jacob around 1790-1660, and Joseph around 1700-1600.

Assuming Biblical social indicators are the primary source

As explained before, in this view the various numbers of years are not viewed as primary data. We are simply asking, in what era do Abraham and the other patriarchs find a good 'fit'? This fitness is based on information gleaned from external tablet archives found in recent years and archaeological data. Hence, there is no attempt here to progress backwards from a starting date such as David's reign. Similar ways of estimating some of the other periods may be found on the relevant pages. Some key objections to this interpretation are discussed in a separate page.

One of the key issues in question here is to demonstrate that the content of the Genesis account is consistent with social customs and practices of the time. It can be considered unlikely that a late author would have accurately invented such details. A substantial body of evidence now exists concerning the customs and practices of this period of history, mainly from a series of tablet archives discovered in various locations in Middle Eastern countries. These collections typically date from the first half of the second millennium BCE, or earlier, and form a stream of information about life in these times which is entirely independent from the Bible. Indeed, few of them are explicitly religious in content, but concern themselves with details of law or commerce.

There are three main kinds of supporting evidence:

  1. Confirmation that personal and place names are attested in this era
  2. Confirmation that social customs described in Genesis were also practiced elsewhere
  3. Archaeological confirmation that the lifestyle described is credible for the era.
Examples of the first are found in the tablet archives from Ebla, Mari, and Cappadocia, and in the Egyptian Execration texts. Examples of the second are partly found in these tablet collections, and also from a study of the multiple power alliances similar to the one described in Genesis 14. Archaeological evidence from the Negev region between Canaan and the Sinai peninsula confirms that seasonal occupation of the region, as both Abraham and Isaac are described as doing, though not Jacob or Joseph, took place during the Middle Bronze I era, but not during the previous millennium or later until after 1000 BCE. The Nuzi archive, sometimes quoted as providing supporting evidence, is really a little too late compared with the other items to supply much information, unless the themes within it can also be attested from earlier material.

There are fewer details from Jacob's life that are amenable to this kind of analysis. With Joseph, more information is available again by examining the 12th dynasty of Egypt. More details may be found on the page discussing the sojourn in Egypt. So, the general conclusions from this kind of study are that Abraham best fits in the early second millennium, with Isaac a little later. Joseph fits well alongside the Egyptian 12th dynasty, in other words around 1700 BCE. Using conventional chronological dating would push these values earlier by between 100 and 150 years.


It should be noted that the second kind of analysis, not making use of the internal Biblical dates at all, has arrived at remarkably similar dates. This gives confidence that the Biblical time indicators are in fact reasonably reliable. One potential difficulty concerns the large lifetimes attributed to the patriarchs. Although in the later Babylonian period we have numerous individuals known to have lived until their 70s, 80s and 90s, the lifetimes well in excess of a century appear incredible to many people. In the final analysis, of course, it is impossible to say whether these are correct or not - Genesis does not in any way claim that these lifetimes are typical of their era. In the interest of exploring possibilities, the following explanations might be offered:
  1. The lifetimes are as stated, and are indeed remarkable.
  2. The father-son relationships indicated are not strict, and in fact there were several intervening generations which are omitted as beign of no real significance. This certianly happens with other family tree sections in the Old Testament, though not in situations where so much family detail is supplied.
  3. The alleged family connections are not in fact real, but were inserted by the Biblical authors on the grounds that the people showed a logical likeness, not a strict family one. Conceivably the exploits of a group of people from approximately the same era were grouped under representative names.
Ultimately a person must determine for themselves which explanation they believe to be most in keeping with the tenor of the account, since absolute historical confirmation of any of these views must be considered unlikely to appear. However, the temporal location of the events described in the text is much less negotiable. Whoever Abraham and the other patriarchs were, and however they were related, they can with reasonable confidence be placed in the time frame traditionally allocated them.