WHO WAS BORN WHEN ENOSH WAS 90?
A SEMANTIC REEVALUATION OF WILLIAM HENRY GREEN’S CHRONOLOGICAL GAPS
by Jeremy Sexton
Originally published in The Westminster Theological Journal 77 (2015): 193–218
In 1890, Professor William Henry Green of Princeton Theological Seminary published his highly influential essay “Primeval Chronology,” in which he argued that we cannot know how many years elapsed between the creation of Adam and the birth of Abraham, because the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 may contain chronological gaps. Though Green’s proposal challenged an interpretation of Scripture that predates the birth of Christ and that went unchallenged until the nineteenth century, it nevertheless became the dominant view among conservative biblical scholars during the twentieth century. Chronological gaps appeal especially to evangelicals interested in reconciling the Bible to modern claims about mankind’s antiquity. But Green’s thesis has been accepted too uncritically. A careful look shows that while Green may have proved the possibility of genealogical gaps in Genesis 5 and 11, he failed to demonstrate the possibility of chronological gaps. He assumed without argument that genealogical gaps would entail chronological gaps, but this is a non sequitur. In fact, even if genealogical gaps exist in Genesis 5 and 11, chronological gaps are semantically impossible. The genealogies specify the year in which each patriarch “had” (ילד hiphil) the descendant named in the text, whether the named descendant was an immediate son or not. Several lexicogrammatical realities defy Green’s crucial ad hoc assertion that the Hebrew verb ילד (which occurs 53 times throughout Genesis 5 and 11:10-26, each time in the hiphil) can mean “had a son whose line culminated in [the named descendant].” It simply means “had [the named descendant].” So when Enosh was 90, he had Kenan (Gen 5:9), that is, Kenan was born when Enosh was 90, whether Kenan was Enosh’s son, grandson, great-grandson, or whatever. Hence the chronology remains intact and unchanged whether or not the named descendants were first-generation sons. A gapless primeval chronology is semantically and syntactically inescapable; it in no way depends on gapless genealogies. One can sum the ages of the fathers at the births of their named descendants to determine the interval between Adam and Abraham.
Appendix A critically examines the first published attempt (by Frederic Gardiner in 1873) to provide a non-chronological interpretation of Genesis 5 and 11. It also critiques Gordon Wenham’s suggestion that we interpret the numbers in the genealogies non-literally.
Appendix B discusses the text-critical problems with the begetting ages in the Masoretic Text and presents a case for the authenticity of the Septuagint’s longer primeval chronology, which is attested in the oldest Jewish witnesses and in the Samaritan Pentateuch of Genesis 11 (the MT dates the creation of Adam to ca. 4000 BC and the LXX to ca. 5500 BC).
On page 216, “unlike the SP, the LXX in Gen 11 closes each generation with ‘and he died’ (as does Gen 5)” should read “unlike the SP, the LXX in Gen 11 does not provide the total years of each patriarch’s life.”