Does the Bible Encourage Us or Warn Us Against Researching Chronology?

Those supporting the study of chronology may point to the fact that, without it, Charles Taze Russell would not have learned about the significance of 1914. (Of course, some might also take that as the best reason not to support chronology studies.) It seems to be true that chronology takes up perhaps less space than ever in the total amount of Watch Tower material published each year. But this year has been an exception to that trend.

So does the Bible give any indication about whether studying chronology is encouraged? Or does the Bible itself warn against it?

PRO-CHRONOLOGY

The Bible speaks of chronology and even gives us a way to resolve a chronology from Adam all the way down to Ezra’s time. Genesis 11:14-19 provides a portion of this type of chronology, built into a genealogy:

She′lah lived for 30 years and then became father to E′ber. After becoming father to E′ber, She′lah continued to live 403 years. And he became father to sons and daughters.

E′ber lived for 34 years and then became father to Pe′leg. After becoming father to Pe′leg, E′ber continued to live 430 years. And he became father to sons and daughters.

Pe′leg lived for 30 years and then became father to Re′u. After becoming father to Re′u, Pe′leg continued to live 209 years. And he became father to sons and daughters.

Etc, etc.

There are also specific numbers given in time-sensitive prophecies in the Bible, including Exodus, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. The primary implicit argument for saying that the study of chronology is supported in the Bible contains two key parts:

  1. The genealogies, primarily, provide a chronology from Adam through Nehemiah.
  2. The time of Nehemiah is considered the start of Daniel’s prophecy of 70 weeks of years or 490 years that would lead to the time of Jesus.

Those two facts, one might notice, do not indicate any further, future use of chronology that would lead to any time past the time of Jesus.

There are two items of prophecy that do go beyond the point of Jesus’ lifetime, and one of them is the “Olivet Sermon” about the “parousia” which Witnesses consider to be in our day, and which everyone would admit reaches at least beyond Jesus day, to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.

There are no other time-sensitive prophecies in the Greek Scriptures except for the book of Revelation. Of course, Revelation’s style lends itself to any number of interpretations. Jehovah’s Witnesses are well aware of this based on the fact the Watch Tower’s first major book on Revelation (The Finished Mystery, 1917) hardly contains one single page which can currently be fully believed without running the risk of being disfellowshipped. None of Revelation’s prophecies are thought (by Jehovah’s Witnesses) to indicate any specific chronological date. Only Daniel 4 can do that for JWs.

The idea that Daniel 4 might indicate a chronological date is well covered under that subject heading. Not only that, but it is even possible to provide a reasonable interpretation of what Revelation would have most likely meant to its first readers where all the numerical indicators are not referring to future events but to events that occurred in the first century C.E.

There is So, in addition to providing a chronology, at least in the Hebrew-Aramaic scriptures, what does the Bible says on the subject?

Often we hear the following verse pointed to:

For the Sovereign Lord Jehovah will not do a thing
Unless he has revealed his confidential matter to his servants the prophets. — Amos 3:7 (NWT)

The problem with using the above, is that it implies that anyone claiming that they therefore have knowledge or information about the timing of the “times and seasons” is therefore claiming to be a prophet or getting this information from someone who can be identified as a prophet. Being identified as a prophet is a risky proposition for any person or organization that deals with expectations (i.e., predictions) based on chronology.

But this may in fact be part of the appeal among JWs, and it has often been highlighted in Watch Tower publications. It has evidently been considered “worth the risk.” The WT has pointed to their track record, not about the actual correctly predicted dates, but about how their own understanding of chronology is a positive indicator of their own approval as God’s people. It’s an indicator that God is using them as his “channel of communication.” This gives an indication of just how important and clear they believe the Bible’s commendation of chronology study must be.

In the 1970’s, according to the Watchtower Library CD-ROM, this verse was discussed more often than in any other decade. And it was, of course, just before 1975 that the Watchtower most boldly proclaimed that the nucleus of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the anointed, most assuredly were “a prophet.” (see, The Watchtower, April 1, 1972, “They Shall Know that a Prophet Was Among Them.”)

The publication released at the 1975 summer assemblies said the following:

“So, the time is approaching when Babylon the Great is no more! This means that the time must come when Christendom and Judaism are no more! But what about the proclaimers of the established Messianic kingdom of God, namely, Jehovah’s Christian witnesses? What about the spiritual paradise in which they are now residing? The inspired prophetic Scriptures reveal to them what to expect.—Amos 3:7.”   — Man’s Salvation Out of World Distress At Hand, p.239.

It’s fairly clear that the Watchtower applied this not just to “what” God was going to do, but also “when” he would do something.

The following is from 1980:

*** hp chap. 15 pp. 141-142 pars. 5-6 Is “the End of the World” Near? ***
5 Naturally, we want to know when that destructive end of the present system of things will come. Jesus said that only the Father knows “that day and hour.” (Matthew 24:36) But does that leave us completely in the dark? No, for God kindly put in his Word information so that his worshipers could know when the time was close.—Compare Amos 3:7.
6 The Bible gives us reason for confidence in God’s ability to forecast future developments.

And from 1981:

*** kc chap. 7 p. 56 par. 1 Identifying Messiah, the King ***
Therefore, it was appropriate that the great Time-Keeper, Jehovah God, use Daniel as his prophet in connection with his timetable for the ‘coming’ of the Kingdom.—Daniel 12:4, 6, 13; 11:27, 35; compare Amos 3:7;

And from 1988:

*** it-1 pp. 637-638 Divination ***
Man’s natural desire to know the future is satisfied …, for through God’s channel of communication He lovingly reveals ahead of time what it is good for man to know. (Am 3:7)

Of course, anyone who was around in 1974, knows that JWs studied the book of Habakkuk quite a bit that year, along with a year text for 1974 from Habakkuk 3:17,18.  It always led back to the discussion of this verse:

For the vision is yet for its appointed time,
And it is rushing toward its end, and it will not lie.
Even if it should delay, keep in expectation of it!
For it will without fail come true.
It will not be late! –Hab 2:3 (NWT)

This was discussed especially around 1975 along with the idea noted above that Jehovah’s Witnesses were acting with (and, “as”) Jehovah’s “prophet” class, the anointed “nucleus” of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Prophets are supposed to know about future events and the only way we can know about future events is to study chronology. The idea of claiming to be representing a modern-day  prophet class can be almost as problematic as claiming to be a prophet, and it’s worth looking at this teaching more closely. It actually has a longer history among Witnesses (and even among the “Bible Students) than most of us ever realized.

Matthew 13:11 In reply he said: “To you it is granted to understand the sacred secrets of the Kingdom of the heavens, but to them it is not granted.” But this idea of what secrets belong to Christians was tempered with Acts 1:7: “It does not belong to you to know the times or seasons that the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction. Russell alluded to the former verse in his first published article about 1914, but not the latter, of course.

 

THE BIBLE’S ANTI-CHRONOLOGY STATEMENTS

The Anti-Chronology position comes from several ideas that are repeated here without much comment:

(1 Thessalonians 5:1) 5 Now as for the times and the seasons, brothers, you need nothing to be written to you.

(Acts 1:7) . . .“It does not belong to you to know the times or seasons that the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction.

(Matthew 24:36) 36 “Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father.

(1 Timothy 1:4) nor to pay attention to false stories and to genealogies. Such things end up in nothing useful but merely give rise to speculations rather than providing anything from God in connection with faith.

(Titus 3:9) 9 But have nothing to do with foolish arguments and genealogies and disputes and fights over the Law, for they are unprofitable and futile.

The last two scriptures mentioned above rarely make it into discussions of “Chronology. ”  The JWs teach, generally, that arguments about “genaologies” were mentioned for the reason that Christians were arguing about Jewish heritage, from what tribe they had come. But there may have been another reason, and it’s found right there in the discussion of Genealogy and Chronology in the Watch Tower’s own Bible dictionary,  Insight on the Scriptures.

“Genealogies in some Biblical contexts, can actually be a synonym for “chronology.” That’s precisely what genealogies in the Bible are primarily used for in the Watch Tower publications –and it’s those chronologies derived from genealogies that have created questions, foolish arguments, disputes, and speculations.

Note these comments about GENEALOGY from the Watch Tower’s book “Insight on the Scriptures:” (emphasis ours)

GENEALOGY … As to chronology, in most instances genealogical lists are by no means intended to supply full data. Nevertheless, they are often an aid to chronology in that they provide a check on certain points of chronology or fill in important details. ..From the Flood to Abraham. The line of Noah’s son Shem, who received Noah’s blessing, brought forth Abram (Abraham), “Jehovah’s friend.” (Jas 2:23) This genealogy, along with the above-mentioned pre-Flood one, constitutes the sole means for establishing the chronology of man’s history down to Abraham. In the pre-Flood list the record runs through the line of Seth, and in the post-Flood list, through Shem. It consistently states the time from a man’s birth to the birth of his son. (Ge 11:10-24, 32; 12:4) There are no other extensive genealogical lists covering this historical period—an indication that these lists serve the double purpose of genealogy and chronology. In a few other instances the placing of specific events in the stream of time is accomplished by the use of genealogical information.—See CHRONOLOGY (From 2370 B.C.E. to covenant with Abraham).

Although it may be that Paul had something other than “chronology” in mind when he spoke of genealogies, the counsel about speculations and foolish questionings would still apply to chronology. Just as Paul’s more generic counsel appeared in 2Timothy:

(2 Timothy 2:14) 14 Keep reminding them of these things, instructing them before God not to fight about words, something of no usefulness at all because it harms those listening.

There seems to be no end to discussions that one could immediately locate online, whenever JWs and non-JWs discuss the chronology issues from Watchtower’s past. It often turns into arguments about specific words. I think the following discussion also brings up ways in which this very type of discussion can also “harm the listeners,” who often feel obligated to promote some kind of deception in order to protect the reputation of the Watch Tower, for example.

We’ll end with the following as found on the discussion forums of jw-archive.com. It concerns a JW, evidently, trying to say that nothing wrong was ever said about 1975, and the evidence is a picture of a page of a bound volume highlighting a selective quote from an Awake! about ’75. A person called TTATT made a response to that article below.

  • Yes. But we should not be dishonest. We have nothing to worry about by telling the whole truth of what happened. And it might even keep us from bringing reproach upon Jehovah’s organization.when similar issues come up in the future. What happened in 1975 brought a lot of reproach upon the organization because hundreds of thousands of interested persons came into the organization for wrong reasons and then left within the next few years. But they left with a bad taste for the brotherhood. But it brings even more reproach when we look for one-sided evidence and present it as if it is the whole truth and exonerates what was written.

    Just because you found an article that mentions “hope” instead of using the word “prediction” does not mean that predictions were not made.

    Here’s an example where we predicted that young persons in 1969 will never grow old in this system of things. This was a false prediction.
    :
    *** Awake! 1969 May 22 p.15 ***
    If you are a young person, you also need to face the fact that you will never grow old in this present system of things. Why not? Because all the evidence in fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicates that this corrupt system is due to end in a few years. Of the generation that observed the beginning of the ‘last days’ in 1914, Jesus foretold:’This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.’ Therefore, as a young person, you will never fulfill any career that this system offers.

    Our organization was begun with predictions about 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1915, 1925. None of them came true, not even any of the predictions about 1914. Our primary campaign in 1919 was: “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” This is another prediction that will be impossible to come true no matter what after the end of this year. There won’t be enough people alive to make it come true.

    I attended Circuit Assemblies where we put huge billboard-size calendars up on the platform to show the limited number of months left until 1975. I was pioneering in 1975 because I had quit school in 1973 (age 15), and I soon began to be concerned that too many of my Bible Studies were overly interested in getting baptized before 1975 for what might have been wrong reasons. I asked my father about it, and he had a discussion with our District Overseer at the 1974 Circuit Assembly. We were told that we should not downplay what was written in the publications. If the publications were making statements like the one I quoted above, then who were we to try to de-emphasize the excitement about dates? We knew brothers, even elders, who were putting off dental work, doctors bills, etc. There was some counsel against that sort of thing, but it was kind of laughed at because the more influential and “spiritual” brothers like the Circuit and District overseers would kind of wink at it and promote that kind of thinking in their own way.,But the general excitement about the date was definitely accompanied by “predictions” made at most of the circuit assemblies from 1969 through 1973.

    I personally don’t like to see these kinds of “defenses” because they just make us look like we are more interested in covering up our past mistakes instead of owning up to them honestly and moving forward. It became common for many of us to just start kind of denying that we ever said anything in the publications and that this was our own fault for getting too excited. So most JWs who lived through it, due to embarrassment or the feeling that they are protecting the Society’s reputation, are happy to deny that very much was ever said. But it’s too easy to find out the truth, especially with the Internet, and the Watchtower Library CD, so we look dishonest with this kind of defensiveness..

  • Avatar
    Bruce Quimby

    Jehovah’s Witnesses have had wrong expectations about when the end would come. Like Jesus’ first-century disciples, we have sometimes looked forward to the fulfillment of prophecy ahead of God’s timetable. (Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2) We agree with the sentiment of longtime Witness A. H. Macmillan, who said: “I learned that we should admit our mistakes and continue searching God’s Word for more enlightenment.”

    Why, then, do we continue to highlight the nearness of the end? Because we take seriously Jesus’ words: “Keep looking, keep awake.” The alternative, to be found “sleeping” by Jesus, would prevent us from gaining his favor. (Mark 13:33, 36) Why?

    Consider this example: A lookout in a fire tower might see what he thinks is a wisp of smoke on the horizon and sound what proves to be a false alarm. Later, though, his alertness could save lives.

    Likewise, we have had some wrong expectations about the end. But we are more concerned with obeying Jesus and saving lives than with avoiding criticism. Jesus’ command to “give a thorough witness” compels us to warn others about the end.—Acts 10:42.

    We believe that even more important than focusing on when the end will come, we must be confident that it will come, and we must act accordingly. We take seriously the words of Habakkuk 2:3, which says: “Even if [the end] should delay [compared to what you thought], keep in expectation of it; for it will without fail come true. It will not be late.”

  • Avatar
    Randy Baack

    Very good and honest answer. I attended the District Convention two years ago in Long Beach….and the representative of the Governing Body actually apologised to the brothers and sisters “for 1975.” It was refreshing and honest to hear. When we try to hide or change history, it makes us look much worse than just admitting that we were wrong.

    Avatar
    TJ Curioso

    Great answear TTATT!

 

 

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