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“But we think it proper to hear from you what your thoughts are, for truly as regards this sect it is known to us that everywhere it is spoken against.”—Acts 28:22

 

Josephus: Seventy or Fifty Years?

Some critics claim that Josephus' uses of "seventy years" are quoted unfairly, because in one place Josephus appears to refer to the same period as being fifty years long. Thus, if one is going to use Josephus to support a seventy-year desolation, they assert, this must be balanced by quoting his reference to fifty years too. Is this true? Indeed, why is the "fifty years" not quoted? This is the issue that will now be addressed.

In five places in his historical corpus, Josephus stated that the desolation of Judah lasted seventy years. The first four being in Antiquities of the Jews: Book X, Chapter VII, Verse 3,ftn1 Book X, Chapter IX, Verse 7,ftn2 Book XI, Chapter I, Verse 1,ftn3 and Book XX, Chapter X, Verse 1.ftn4 In Against Apion however, Josephus first wrote "seventy" in Book I, Chapter 19 §132,ftn5 but just two chapters later in the same book he wrote "fifty" (Book I, Chapter 21 §154ftn6)! Why is that? Is the last reference to "fifty" as reliable as the previous usage of "seventy"? What is the context of the "fifty"? As to why, first it must be known that Against Apion was written to the Greeks after Antiquities of the Jews to defend it. Perhaps he was aware of secular chronology leaving only fifty years for the desolation, and was pandering to both biblical and secular chronology. As to the reliability of this "fifty years" anomaly, on page 71 of Rolf Furuli's book Persian Chronology and the Length of the Babylonian Exile of the Jewsftn7 we find: "Some manuscripts of Josephus give a different number than 50 years here [in Against Apion I, 21 §154], but both Eusebius and Syncellus in their quotes from Josephus use 50." Thus it should be apparent why Josephus' use of "fifty years" is not quoted like his use of "seventy years" are, the "fifty years" reference is simply not as secure as the "seventy years," as the "seventy years" is better attested, enjoying a five to one ratio, and does not suffer from variations in manuscripts.

As to the context of the "fifty," first note that the "seventy years" in Against Apion is directly tied to the city and land being desolate, with the mention of the temple being burned (see footnote 5). The "fifty years" though is specifically tied to the obscurity of the temple (see footnote 6): first it is laid desolate, and then it lays in obscurity for fifty years. This may leave open the possibility that the temple was burned but not completely destroyed, with some prominent feature(s) still standing.ftn8 If so, then for the first twenty years the temple's burned ruins were visible to travelers, then after collapsing completely, its exact location lay in obscurity for the remainder of the seventy-year desolation, the "fifty years." This explanation answers why Josephus would use two figures in the same apologetic book just two chapters apart, the "seventy years" referring to the entire period and the "fifty years" referring to the time when the remnants of the temple collapsed and it passed out of view from the viewpoint of passersby. Supporting this theory of standing remains is that King Josiah repaired the temple in his eighteenth year, about thirty five years before 607 B.C.E. In this repair work, cracks were filled in and timbers and hewn stones were installed. (2 Kings 22:3, 5-6) Also, it may be significant that while the Bible mentions the temple being burned, the only thing recorded as actually being demolished was the city wall.—2 Kings 25:9, 10; 2 Chronicles 36:19; Jeremiah 52:13, 4.

Given the reasons above, there simply is no reason to quote the "fifty years" as if it had the same authority as the "seventy years," especially since it may not even refer to the entire period of desolation!


Footnotes

1. "But Jeremiah came among them, and prophesied what contradicted those predictions, and what proved to be true, that they did ill, and deluded the king; that the Egyptians would be of no advantage to them, but that the king of Babylon would renew the war against Jerusalem, and besiege it again, and would destroy the people by famine, and carry away those that remained into captivity, and would take away what they had as spoils, and would carry off those riches that were in the temple; nay, that, besides this, he would burn it, and utterly overthrow the city, and that they should serve him and his posterity seventy years." (emphasis added) (back)

2. "All Judea and Jerusalem, and the temple, continued to be a desert for
seventy years." (emphasis added) (back)

3. "God commiserated the captivity and calamity of these poor people, according as he had foretold to them by Jeremiah the prophet, before the destruction of the city, that after they had served Nebuchadnezzar and his posterity, and after they had undergone that servitude
seventy years, he would restore them again to the land of their fathers, and they should build their temple, and enjoy their ancient prosperity." (emphasis added) (back)

4. "But after the term of
seventy years' captivity under the Babylonians, Cyrus, king of Persia, sent the Jews from Babylon to their own land again, and gave them leave to rebuild their temple." (emphasis added) (back)

5. "[The Babylonians] set our temple that was at Jerusalem on fire; nay, and removed our people entirely out of their own country, and transferred them to Babylon; when it so happened that
our city was desolate during the interval of seventy years, until the days of Cyrus king of Persia." (underscore and emphasis added) Compare with 2 Kings 25:9, 2 Chronicles 36:19, and Jeremiah 52:13. (back)

6. "These accounts agree with the true histories in our books; for in them it is written that Nebuchadnezzar, in the eighteenth year of his reign,
laid our temple desolate, and so it lay in that state of obscurity for fifty years; but that in the second year of the reign of Cyrus its foundations were laid, and it was finished again in the second year of Darius." (underscore and emphasis added) The Greek word for "desolate" is erêmoô and the Greek word for "obscurity" is aphanês. (back)

7.
Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Persian Chronology Compared with the Chronology of the Bible, Volume I. Awatu Publishers. Oslo, 2006. (back)

8. One prominent feature that may have initially survived was the towering 120 cubit-high porch. (2 Chronicles 3:4) While 2 Chronicles 3:4 states the length of the porch was 20
cubits, its height is left as 120, with cubits being implied. Since "hundred" and "cubit" are spelled similarly in Hebrew as m-a-h and a-m-h respectively, it may be possible the height was also 20 cubits if "hundred" was a scribal error for "cubit." However, two facts indicate the height was 120 cubits: (1) The two pillars in front of the porch totaled 23 cubits high (2 Kings 7:15-16; Jeremiah 52:21-22), which would appear inappropriately high if the porch was only 20 cubits high. (2) A porch 120 cubits high would be an impressive sight, and its towering smooth surface would be illuminated by the rising sun. (back)


Back to 2 Chronicles 36:21 article

  1. Josephus: Seventy or Fifty Years?

  2. The Babylonian Exile of the Jews – The Bible Versus the Traditional Chronology by Rolf Furuli

  3. Does The Watchtower Unwittingly Support 587 B.C.E. for Jerusalem's Destruction?


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