Notes on the Gentile Times and 1914 – Part 1


The Watchtower Society says it is “God’s channel of communication” and the principal dispenser of “the Truth” during “the last days of this old system of things.” Its claims hang largely on the assertion that in 1914, Christ came into Kingdom power in the heavens, and in 1919 appointed certain governing members of the Society as a “faithful and discreet slave” to impart spiritual food to the body of believers. This essay examines the basis of the Society’s claims about 1914, but is by no means a complete discussion.

The Society’s base chronological calculation is as follows: The “Gentile Times” of Luke 21:24 was a period of 2520 years starting in 607 B.C. and ending in 1914 A.D. The Society says the Bible definitely shows Jerusalem fell in 607 B.C. and that any other date for Jerusalem’s fall is inconsistent with the Bible. However, multiple, independent secular historical sources, in conjunction with the Bible, show that Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C. The Society uses the 539 B.C. date for the fall of Babylon as an anchor for its chronology. See Appendix B for a discussion of the history of the Society’s attempts to establish 539 B.C. as an anchor date. However, the same evidence the Society says fixes the 539 B.C. date also fixes 587, not 607 B.C., for the fall of Jerusalem.

It is possible that the views expressed in this essay are incorrect. However, they reflect the best scholarship available today on the subject of Neo-Babylonian chronology. The Watchtower Society discounts all evidence that conflicts with its view, preferring to rely on the chronology Charles Taze Russell borrowed from the Second Adventists in 1876, but most of which the Society abandoned by 1930.

The evidence presented in this essay is presented in a spirit of open communication. This openness is well described in the magazine Technology Review, February/March 1992, published at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The article “Looking for a Few Hungry Samurai” gave general advice to moonlighting authors who want to write for the magazine, and offered suggestions on how an author could succeed in writing:

Don’t preach to the converted. Readers want to know your opinions, even those with strong political implications. But it’s important to assume that readers are intelligent skeptics who don’t already agree with you — otherwise, why bother to write? — yet who are willing to be convinced. The key is to present enough material, including a fair rendering of opposing viewpoints, so that readers can decide for themselves. “The best way I know of persuading you of anything,” says MIT physicist Philip Morrison, “is not to plead with you to trust me, not to invoke authority in general, not even to call upon some expert, but to show you just what it is that persuaded me.” [p. 5]

1914 Is A Pivotal Date Jehovah’s Witnesses Must Adhere To

The Watchtower of August 1, 1980, page 14, lists a belief that Christ’s presence began in 1914 as fundamental. Similarly, the January 1, 1983 Watchtower said on page 11:

The ending of the Gentile Times in the latter half of 1914 still stands on a historical basis as one of the fundamental Kingdom truths to which we must hold today.

If the Watchtower Society’s suppositions regarding Bible chronology are wrong, in particular with respect to 1914, then all doctrines based on such dates are wrong. If the Gentile times did not end in 1914, then Christ did not return in that year, the Governing Body was not appointed “over all his belongings” as “the faithful and discreet slave” in 1919, and the Society has no monopoly on publishing spiritual truth.

As a general principle, faith must be based on facts, historical or otherwise. A study of history is fundamental to faith in the fulfillment of prophecy, because such cannot be demonstrated aside from history. If an interpretation of the Bible conflicts with demonstrated facts the interpretation must be wrong. This has been demonstrated time and time again by those who predicted the end of the world based on a faulty interpretation of scripture, which they had claimed was “scripturally, scientifically, and historically… correct beyond a doubt.” (The Watchtower, June 15, 1922)

In print, the Society is adamant that 1914 is a correct prophetic date. Although it presents a firm front in its publications, not everyone in the organization believes that 1914 is so well established. With reference to the uncertainty of time prophecies the Society’s late third president Nathan Knorr once said:

There are some things I know — I know that Jehovah is God, that Christ Jesus is his Son, that he gave his life as a ransom for us, that there is a resurrection. Other things I’m not so certain about. 1914 — I don’t know. We have talked about 1914 for a long time. We may be right and I hope we are.

Summary of evidence against 607 B.C. for the destruction of Jerusalem

The November 1, 1986 Watchtower stated on page 6 that “in 1981 Jehovah’s Witnesses published convincing evidence in support of the 607 B.C.E. date. (‘Let Your Kingdom Come,‘ pages 127-40, 186-9)” This book, which we will refer to as KC, used secular historical evidence to establish the key date of the Society’s chronology: “Historians calculate that Babylon fell in early October of the year 539 B.C.E.” (p. 136). Nevertheless, the book set up a dichotomy between “secular records” and the Bible:

Thankful, indeed, we can be that Jehovah preserved in his inspired Word an accurate picture of the needed details involving the Jews, the Babylonians and the Medo-Persians in the sixth century B.C.E. Otherwise it would be difficult to piece together the exact timing of events back there, for secular records of that period are certainly incomplete. However, based primarily on such secular records, some persons figure that Jerusalem was destroyed in 587/6 B.C.E and that the Jews came under Babylonian domination in Nebuchadnezzar’s accession year, which they calculate as being 605 B.C.E. [p. 138]

A footnote referred the reader to an appendix on pages 186-9. We will spend some time on the arguments presented in this “Appendix,” and we will show that the evidence the Society presents is biased, incomplete and misrepresentative of the facts. The following list of evidences is an outline of what is available to prove that Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C. The symbol (KC) means the line of evidence is mentioned in the Appendix.

1. Chronicles, historical records, and royal inscriptions from the Neo-Babylonian period, beginning with the reign of Nabopolassar and ending with the reigns of Nabonidus and Belshazzar, show it ran from 626 to 539 B.C., not from 645 to 539 B.C. as the Society claims.

a. (KC) Berossus
b. (KC) Ptolemy
c. Various Babylonian chronicles (incomplete) such as the Nabonidus Chronicle
d. Nabonidus No. 18
e. The Hillah stele, Nabonidus No. 8
f. (KC) The Adda-Guppi stele, Nabonidus H1,B

2. Business and administrative documents.

a. (KC) Tablets exist that are dated from each year of the Neo-Babylonian period as established by Berossus, Ptolemy and contemporary stele; no tablets are inconsistently dated. About 5000 have been published out of a total of about 50,000. These are contemporary documents from the Neo-Babylonian period.

3. Astronomical diaries.

a. (KC) VAT 4956 fixes the 37th year of Nebuchadnezzar to 568 B.C. by a unique set of astronomical observations, establishing his accession year in 605 B.C.
b. BM 32312 plus the Akitu Chronicle pin the 16th year of Shamashshumukin (a Babylonian king before the Neo-Babylonian period) to 652/1 B.C. This, combined with business documents, Ptolemy’s canon, the Akitu Chronicle and the Uruk King List combine to date Nebuchadnezzar’s reign to 605/4-562/1, with his 18th (destruction of Jerusalem, Jer. 52:28-30) year in 587/6 B.C.

4. Saros (lunar eclipse) texts.

a. Four independent texts provide absolute dates within the Neo-Babylonian period. Nebuchadnezzar’s 18th year is fixed at 587/6 B.C.

5. Synchronisms with contemporary Egyptian chronology show Watchtower chronology consistently off by 20 years.

a. Josiah died during Pharaoh Nechoh’s reign, which began in 610 B.C. The Society dates Josiah’s death to 629 B.C.
b. Some Jews fled to Egypt under Pharaoh Hophra (Apries) immediately after Jerusalem’s destruction. Since he began to reign in 589 B.C., Jerusalem could not have been destroyed in 607 B.C.
c. A fragmentary cuneiform text mentions a battle by Nebuchadnezzar in his 37th year against Pharaoh Amasis, who began to rule in 570 B.C. The Society claims Nebuchadnezzar died in 582 B.C.

Some Of The Society’s Arguments

Let Your Kingdom Come discounts all the above evidence, saying on p. 187:

…. even if the discovered evidence is accurate, it might be misinterpreted by modern scholars or be incomplete so that yet undiscovered material could drastically alter the chronology of the period.

This shows that the Society recognizes there is almost no historical evidence supporting the 607 date — otherwise they would present it and not resort to the lame argument that “people make mistakes, so we’re not convinced.” A chronology that has to be based on “yet undiscovered material,” because it is demolished by the discovered material, is resting on a weak foundation. If an idea, refuted by an overwhelming mass of discovered evidence, is to be retained based on “yet undiscovered material” that might support it, all ideas, however false, could be retained on the same principle. But it should be remembered that such a faith is not founded upon “the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld”; it is founded upon wishful thinking. Let Your Kingdom Come says that its arguments rest on solid Biblical evidence, so that secular chronology must be rejected. We will examine this claim at length.

Under the subjects “Chronology,” “Nebuchadnezzar,” “Jehoiakim,” “Jehoiachin” and “Captivity,” in both the Insight book, and the Aid book upon which it is based, no historical evidence from the Neo-Babylonian period is presented showing that the 607 B.C. date for Jerusalem’s destruction is valid. Instead, much space is devoted to trying to weaken the credibility of the historical and archeological evidence.

In the Babylon book, the historical evidence is even blatantly misrepresented. On page 134 the book says:

Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem the second time, to punish the rebel king [Jehoiakim]. That was in 618 B.C. — See Harper’s Bible Dictionary, by M. S. and J. L. Miller, edition of 1952, page 306, under “Jehoiakim.”

However, Harper’s Bible Dictionary actually says that Jehoiakim reigned for 11 years, from 609-598 B.C., and that

Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled with the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar (II Kings 24:1), whom Jehoiakim served three years, but against whom he at length rebelled. The might of Chaldea, pressed heavily against the capital and the king died or possibly was assassinated (II Kings 24:6). He was succeeded (598 B.C.) by his young son Jehoiachin, who in his father’s stead was carried captive to Babylon (597 B.C., II Kings 24:15), while Zedekiah, brother of Jehoiakim, became Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet ruler.

The only evidence Let Your Kingdom Come presents are two excerpts from Josephus and one from the 2nd century writer Theophilus, both of which can be demonstrated to have presented, not valid historical information based an contemporary Neo-Babylonian documents, but their own interpretations of the Bible. One of Josephus’s statements is even contradicted later in his works by one that directly supports 587 B.C. as the date of Jerusalem’s destruction.

The Society’s chronology rests on 539 B.C., the date of Babylon’s fall (see Appendix B). If all the objections raised by Let Your Kingdom Come are valid, what reason do we have for accepting any date at all from the Neo-Babylonian era established by historians — in particular 539 B.C.? If 587 is rejected then 539 must be rejected too. The August 15, 1968 Watchtower said (p. 490-1) concerning Cyrus’s overthrow of Babylon:

The fixing of 539 B.C.E. as the year when this historical event occurred is based on a stone document known as the Nabonidus (Nabunaid) Chronicle…. Please note, the Nabonidus Chronicle gives precise details as to the time when these events took place. This, in turn, enables modern scholars, with their knowledge of astronomy, to translate these dates into terms of the Julian or Gregorian calendars…. Recognized authorities of today accept 539 B.C.E. without any question as the year Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus the Great.

Then are listed many other authorities that confirm the 539 date. All these references also list 587/6 B.C. for the destruction of Jerusalem, but the article makes no mention of this. Further, pp. 493-4 says of the date 537 B.C., when Cyrus issued his decree permitting the Jews to return to their homeland:

This date…. according to the best astronomical tables available, [footnote: Brown University Studies, Vol. XIX, Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C. — A.D. 75, (1956) Parker and Dubberstein, p.29] is calculated to be October 5 (Julian) or September 29 (Gregorian) 537 B.C.E. — Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-6.

Similarly, Insight, Vol. 1, p. 453, says:

A Babylonian clay tablet is helpful for connecting Babylonian chronology with Biblical chronology. This tablet contains the following astronomical information for the seventh year of Cambyses II son of Cyrus II:…. [lunar eclipses are described]…. These two lunar eclipses can be identified with the lunar eclipses that were visible at Babylon on July 16, 523 B.C.E., and on January 10, 522 B.C.E….. Thus, this tablet establishes the seventh year of Cambyses II as beginning in the spring of 523 B.C.E. This is an astronomically confirmed date.

Since the seventh year of Cambyses II began in spring of 523 B.C.E., his first year of rule was 529 B.C.E. and his accession year, and the last year of Cyrus II as king of Babylon, was 530 B.C.E. The latest tablet dated in the reign of Cyrus II is from the 5th month, 23rd day of his 9th year. (Babylonian Chronology, 626 B.C. — A.D. 75, by R. Parker and W. Dubberstein, 1971, p. 14) As the ninth year of Cyrus II as king of Babylon was 530 B.C.E., his first year according to that reckoning was 538 B.C.E. and his accession year was 539 B.C.E.

Similarly, Let Your Kingdom Come states on p. 186: “Historians hold that Babylon fell to Cyrus’s army in October 539 B.C.E.”

See Appendix B for an extended discussion. Note that the above calculations rely on:

1. Information in a clay tablet, the Nabonidus Chronicle.
2. Astronomical calculations.
3. Business tablets dated to Cyrus’s 9th year.
4. The information in various secular historical books.

But both Let Your Kingdom Come and Insight (pp. 448-50, 454-6) reject all these methods of calculating historical dates when they point to the conclusion that Jerusalem fell in 587 B.C., not 607 B.C. What manner of scholarship and reasoning is this?

(For a more thorough examination of these issues, see The Gentile Times Reconsidered by Carl Olof Jonsson.)

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