Zeitgeist

The Chronological Dimension of Cultural History, Conflicts, and Interdependency of Biblical Chronology, Geology, and Near Eastern Studies/Egyptology

Dr. Thomas L. Gertzen, FU Berlin

Until the nineteenth century, Biblical chronology constituted the authoritative source for both natural as well as human history. Depending on the ecclesiastical reference, our world was calculated to be either 4,000 or 6,000 years old. With the rise of natural sciences such as geology and palaeontology the concepts underlying these estimates came under scrutiny: ‘deep time’ was discovered.


Textual criticism, but particularly immediate access to new texts along with archaeological evidence from the ‘Lands of the Bible’ seemed at first to offer the opportunity to solidify beliefs in the Holy Scripture, shaken in an age of scientific research. With the decipherment of the Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian scripts of cuneiform and hieroglyphs, scholars hoped to prove biblical accounts from the Land of Goshen or the banks of the Rivers of Babylon. However, that was not to be. Despite intensive efforts by numerous scholars and clergymen (many qualified as both), Ancient Near Eastern sources revealed evidence of far longer dimensions for the history of human civilisation, directly contradicting biblical accounts. Some of them now appeared to have been merely ‘inspired’ by ‘Babylonian’ precursors. This certainly challenged the Christian establishment in many European countries; however, classical sources such as Herodotus’s Histories had already attributed ‘old age’ to pharaonic Egypt while the Arabic proverb “Man fears time; time fears the pyramids” hinted at Muslim scholars’ awareness of the great antiquity of our world.


But there was more to come. Babylonian like Egyptian astronomy had previously been considered sophisticated, but after the discovery of, for example, the Dendera zodiac (see Fig. below), or records of Sothis observations, Ancient Near Eastern science seemed to constitute an even larger threat to Biblical chronology, not only providing new astronomic evidence for ‘deep time’ but also linking historic accounts of Egyptian pharaohs and Near Eastern rulers with definite astronomic dates.


The project will address three areas:


1. The interrelationship of Biblical chronology, geology, and archaeology (i.e., antiquarian studies). The findings of the natural sciences which questioned the Bible very often provided the incentive for archaeological endeavours, which in turn adopted methods from geology, such as stratigraphy. A particular interesting case study in this context will be the so called ‘flood-level’, as postulated by Leonard Wooley, excavator of the Mesopotamian city of Ur.


2. Hieroglyphic and cuneiform sources and their influence on various levels of chronological debates: religious, historical, astronomical (see supra) and philological, also concerning the question of authenticity, originality, and veracity of textual evidence, as epitomized, e.g., in the ‘Babel-Bible-Controversy’.


3. Non-textual evidence and the struggle for an independent archaeological chronology, based in particular on mathematical analysis, horizontal stratigraphy, and the study of abundant ceramic finds at the sites of excavations in the Near East.


Time, chronology, and zeitgeist, the interdependency of research on cultural history, and the impact of contemporary beliefs and world views form the focus of the project. A number of individual case studies, based on archival research and analysis of earlier publications, will be presented against the background of current chronological discussions in the fields of Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern studies. The results are expected to represent a significant contribution to the fields of disciplinary and intellectual history with specific relevance for the cultures of the ancient ‘Orient’.

Fig. Reproduction of the Dendera zodiac on the ceiling of the Mythological Hall in the Egyptian section of the Neues Museum in Berlin; Wikimedia Commons: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.