Many of the arguments for a young Earth and universe rely on Bishop Ussher’s biblical chronology. However, we assert that there are good reasons to doubt the reliability of Ussher’s work because of his treatment of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.
Seventeenth century scholar Bishop James Ussher remains known for his biblical chronology, which calculates that creation began at nightfall preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Ussher’s chronology has become a cornerstone for young-earth creationism (YEC). However, Ussher’s treatment of the Israelites’ “sojourn” in Egypt could call into question his methodology, and this in turn might undermine the validity of young-earth arguments.
The “sojourn” began when the family of Jacob “descended” into Egypt under the sponsorship of Joseph and ended with the Exodus led by Moses. How long did it extend? The Hebrew text (which is used for modern English Bibles) and the Greek Septuagint (LXX) disagree; note the differences in modern translations of Exodus 12:40:
- New American Standard Bible, updated edition (Hebrew based): “Now the time that the sons of Israel lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.”
- Greek Septuagint: “And the sojourning of the children of Israel, while they sojourned in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, [was] four hundred and thirty years.”
The Hebrew text says the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt. The LXX, on the other hand, counts 430 years from the time Abraham entered Canaan. Therefore, since Abraham left Haran 215 years before the descent into Egypt,1 the LXX allows only 215 years for the actual sojourn in the land of the pharaohs.
The LXX is a translation of the Pentateuch into Greek, made in the third century BC by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt.2 Today the LXX is often valuable in interpreting finer points of biblical Hebrew, because the choice of Greek words reflects third century Jewish tradition regarding the meaning of Hebrew words. However, the LXX consistently modifies dates recorded in the Hebrew text.3
In building his chronology, Bishop Ussher followed the Hebrew text from creation to the descent into Egypt—but he switched to the LXX for the time of the sojourn. This raises the question: which version has the correct sojourn period? For young-earth creationists, the answer is foundational in defending their views on the age of the Earth and on biblical inerrancy.
Those who support biblical inerrancy almost universally believe that inerrancy applies to the Hebrew text, not the LXX. So, can YEC supporters who subscribe to Ussher’s chronology profess to believe in biblical inerrancy when they subscribe to Ussher’s claim that the Hebrew text is wrong and the LXX is right with regard to the Israelites’ sojourn?
The question is: why did Ussher choose to use the 215 years of the LXX when up until the descent into Egypt he had followed the Hebrew text?4 Unfortunately, Ussher does not explain this, but a clue may be found in his description of Moses’ genealogy. Ussher sets the date of the descent at 1706 BC, the death of Levi 87 years later5 (1619 BC), the birth of Moses to Amram and Jochebed 135 years after the descent (1571 BC), the Exodus 215 years after the descent (1491 BC), and the death of Amram shortly before the Exodus.6
As we have discussed earlier, it is impossible for Amram and Jochebed to have been Moses’ parents if the Israelite sojourn in Egypt was 430 years (and it is unlikely even with a 215-year sojourn). We believe the tradition conveyed in modern Bible translations that Amram and Jochebed are Moses’ parents is caused by a misunderstanding of the Hebrew. If we are correct and Amram and Jochebed are not Moses’ parents, then there is a gap in Moses’ recorded genealogy.
Such a gap would cause Ussher’s chronological hermeneutic to fall apart—along with the chronological hermeneutic of his intellectual heirs in the YEC movement. We believe Ussher chose the LXX in this instance because he recognized the problem the Hebrew text presents for Moses’ genealogy, and the LXX provided the only way he could claim to calculate the date of creation with any plausibility. Unfortunately, it inadvertently requires renouncing biblical inerrancy or denying the reliability of the Jewish scribes who copied the Hebrew text over the centuries.
But is Ussher correct? Is the LXX accurate in Exodus 12:40? According to Old Testament scholar Leon Wood, “a well-known rule in textual criticism is that the Masoretic Hebrew text should be favored unless the evidence from other testimony is strong.”7
William Henry Green, a preeminent Old Testament scholar of the nineteenth century, questions the reliability of LXX dates which, as noted above, are consistently modified from those recorded in the Hebrew text. Green states: “A simple glance at these numbers [in Genesis 5] is sufficient to show that the Hebrew is the original, from which the [LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch] diverge.”8 This opinion is confirmed by one glaring discrepancy in the LXX chronology: according to the methodology followed by Ussher and young-earth creationists, the Hebrew text indicates Methuselah died in the year of Noah’s flood, but the LXX suggests he lived 14 years after the flood.
How Long Was the Sojourn?
Wood details the arguments for both a sojourn of 430 and of 215 years in his book A Survey of Israel’s History.9 He concludes in favor of 430 years, but observes that the strongest argument for 215 years is in Galatians 3:17:
The Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. (Galatians 3:17 NASB)
Some claim Paul followed the LXX in this verse, but Wood suggests Paul carefully chose his words to be deliberately ambiguous. As a biblical scholar, Paul was intimately familiar with both the Hebrew text and the LXX; he knew their differences and the debate about them. Wood believes Paul did not wish his readers to get embroiled in a discussion about the length of time the Israelites were in Egypt and, therefore, he used a date that “made any chronological conclusion by Paul’s readers necessarily indefinite and allowed him to use a figure that would at the same time not be distracting yet historically accurate.”10
Paul’s statement is ambiguous because God’s promise was given to Abraham in Haran (Genesis 12:1–3), but the covenant took years to develop. The covenant process was initiated with a sacrifice (Genesis 15:8–21) after Abraham left Haran, went to Egypt, rescued Lot, and gave a tithe to Melchizedek; it was finally signed and sealed 24 years after Abraham left Haran (Genesis 17:1–14). Furthermore, God’s promise was repeated multiple times, and the final repetition was given to Jacob just before he entered Egypt (Genesis 46:1–4). Galatians 3:17 is actually the conclusion of a discussion of God’s “promises [which] were spoken to Abraham and his seed” (Galatians 3:16 NASB). Hence, Paul allows his readers to choose to accept either a sojourn of 215 or of 430 years. Such an ambiguity draws the reader’s attention away from a secondary issue of chronology and concentrates on the primary issue: that God’s promise/covenant has primacy over the Law. Chronology has value, but Paul sacrifices a discussion about chronology so as to focus on a more important issue.
In part 2 of this series, we will show that there are strong arguments—arguably compelling arguments—in favor of the 430-year sojourn in the Hebrew text.
Dr. Hugh Henry, PhD
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.
Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.