Timeline, B.C.E., the years before Christ
Summary of the period
Thousands of years of interactions between God and men saw the foundations laid for the Hebrew Bible, with its unique record of divine judgements and prophetic expectations. 19th and early 20th century scholarship tended to dismiss many of the details recorded in the Hebrew Bible as dating from a period long after that in which they are set. Modern scholarship and the ongoing development of archaeology have forced scholars to re-think those early ideas.
A selection of events
Stone Age through Bronze Age
To judge from durations mentioned in the text, references to stone implements and the gradual appearance in the text of bronze as a commonplace metal, this period gave rise to the earliest Genesis accounts, some of which are alluded to in the Sermon.
About 2000-1800 B.C.E.
Period in which the Biblical chronology places Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the founding patriarchs of Israel (Kaiser 1998, 54-55). Archaeological finds have helped to track the gradually inflating price of slaves and the evolving format of covenants, both of which confirm the Bible’s dating of the lives of these patriarchs, together with the later exodus and the Sinai narrative that followed it (Kaiser 1998, 63-64).
About 1447 B.C.E.
This is the traditional dating for the receipt of the Ten Commandments(Kaiser 1998, 113). The Bible narrates how Israel, having made a dramatic exit from Egypt, travelled to Mount Sinai, where it entered into a covenant with ‘God Most High’, after which Moses received the Ten Commandments as the primary legislation governing that covenant.
Around 1200 B.C.E.
Scholars once believed that the seven-fold design used for the lamp-stand in the temple was a later addition to Judaism, dating from around 600 B.C.E., and thereby forcing a late date upon the composition of the Exodus account. Evidence from Dothan, however, has proved that seven-fold lamp-stands were in use at least as early as 1200 B.C.E. (Dever 1992, 227).
Around the tenth century B.C.E.
The era in which Saul, followed by David and his son Solomon, established sovereignty in Israel, bringing to an end the period when God raised up judges to oversee Israel. Solomon’s reign was seen as one of the spiritual high points of Israel’s history, with his proverbial finery finding a place in the Sermon. Although David was once thought to be fictitious, archaeological evidence, dating from the ninth century B.C.E. and suggesting the significance of a house of David, has now begun to emerge (Kaiser 1998, 225-6).
Seventh to sixth centuries B.C.E.
Heyday of the great biblical prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Between them such prophets did much to clarify the concept of the way of righteousness, which features prominently in the Sermon. Isaiah served as an adviser to several kings of Judah, amongst them Hezekiah, whose impressive project to divert water into Jerusalem is recorded in the biblical histories. The very existence of Hezekiah queried up until the tunnel was re-discovered, together with an inscription crediting it to that king.
Between 196 and 176 B.C.E.
A period of religious revival within Judah gave rise to the Zadokite party within the priesthood . The Zadokites initially based themselves in Damascus, where, under a leader known as “The Star,” they established a new covenant, calling it The Covenant of Repentance. They stressed obedience to the biblical law, whilst rejecting most of the growing body of oral law. They placed greater emphasis on the teaching of the biblical prophets than either the Sadducees or the Pharisees, and anticipated the coming of a Teacher of Righteousness in the end of days. The party persisted until at least the end of the first century B.C.E., but beyond that they became obscure (Charles 2004, 784). The early ministry of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount, would have been of considerable interest to priests still clinging to the Zadokite persuasion. The early chapters of Matthew address a variety of issues of significance for the Zadokites, including: stress on the fulfillment of prophecy (Matt 2:5-6, 17-18); inferences concerning the identity of The Star (Matt 2:9-10); emphasis on repentance (Matt 4:17); sites connected with the priesthood (Matt 2:1, cf. Judg 17:7, 19:1; Matt 2:23, cf. Luke 2:4).
Herod the Great executed his wife Mariamne on a false charge. Mariamne and her sons by Herod (Alexander and Aristobulus) were the sole heirs of the royal Maccabean house, from whom some expected the Messiah to come (Charles 2004, 788).
About 19-23 B.C.E.
Construction of Herod the Great’s temple began, providing a date which, when combined with the 46 years since that date mentioned in John 2:20, is useful for pinning down the likely period when Jesus began his ministry (Donfried 1996,1014). Josephus mentions differing start dates in different places, the fifteenth year of Herod’s reign in Ant 15.11.1 and the eighteenth year of Herod’s reign in JW 1.21.1, with the latter generally considered to be nearer the truth (Donfried 1996, 1014). Allowing for the Jewish practice of counting part years as whole ones, this points to a date in the period 23-26 C.E. (though Donfried (1996, 1014) suggests 28 C.E.).
Herod the Great put to death his own sons Alexander and Aristobulus because their Maccabean ancestry made them a threat to his security. Their deaths may have proved a sever blow to Zadokite hopes for a Messiah descended from Israel and Aaron (Charles 2004, 788).
About 6 B.C.E.
Likely period for the birth of Jesus, but various estimates range between 7 and 4 B.C.E. (Stein 1996, 52-6).
The death of Herod the Great can be accurately fixed, thanks to an eclipse of the moon mentioned by Josephus (Donfried 1996, 1012). His death left his son Archelaus (23 B.C.E – ca. 18 C.E.) with oversight of Jerusalem.
Charles, Robert Henry. “Fragments of a Zadokite Work.” Pages 784-796 in Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Vol 2 of The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Edited by Robert Henry Charles. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems. 2004. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.Donfried, Karl P. 1996. “Chronology.” Pages 1002-1022 in Vol. 1 of ABD.