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Home > Weekly Columns > Aramaic Thoughts > Archives >
Article for November 7, 2008

Aramaic Thoughts Archives
First available on November 7, 2008

The Peshitta of the Old Testament - Part 8


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Author Bio
Dr. Shaw was born and raised in New Mexico. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1977, the M. Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1980, and the Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981, with an emphasis in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and Targumic Aramaic, as well as Ugaritic).

He did two year of doctoral-level course work in Semitic languages (Akkadian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Middle Egyptian, and Syriac) at Duke University. He received the Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University in 2005.

Since 1991, he has taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a school which serves primarily the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he holds the rank of Associate Professor.


Until the nineteenth century, most interpreters assumed that the patriarchal ages in Genesis 5 (and 11) could be used for the construction of a chronology from creation. With the rise of old-earth geology in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then later with the rise of Darwinian evolution, this assumption was laid aside. One approach was to argue that the ages should be added end to end. This added some time to the chronology, but not enough for the view ever to really catch hold. A second approach, still commonly held among evangelicals, was to argue by comparing the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 with other genealogies in the Bible. Some of those other genealogies have gaps, as in Matthew 1. Hence, it was argued, the genealogies in Genesis must also have gaps. Since we have no other listing of genealogies that shows us gaps in the Genesis listings, it is assumed that any number of gaps may exist in the genealogies. Hence these genealogies cannot be used for chronological purposes, and the age of the earth is a moot point. This was first argued by William Henry Green of Princeton in 1890, and the argument was repeated by B. B. Warfield in the 1920's.

Other scholars, however, took the view that the extraordinarily large ages given to these patriarchs signaled some significance other than age and the passing of time. One of the best-known approaches is that of the twentieth-century Jewish interpreter Umberto Cassuto. He argued for five principles that should guide the scholar in looking for a true solution to the problem. The first principle is that the solution must not depend on complicated calculations, but should rather be simple. The second principle is that the solution should be based on a system used by the Torah and known to its readers. The third principle is that all the necessary information should be found in the text of the Bible itself. Fourth, the solution should explain not only the interval between the creation and the flood, but should also explain the life-span of the patriarchs. Finally, the solution should be able to shed light on the chronologies found in the Babylonian material.

It must be said at this point that not only Cassuto's proposal, but all others along the same lines fail to uphold the very first principle. They all require complicated calculations. In addition, they fail with regard to the third principle, in that they all need the importation of data from outside the Bible itself in order to arrive at a solution. They also fail with regard to the fourth principle, in that they offer no explanation as to why the "ages" of the particular patriarchs are such as they are. It is due to this failure with regard to basic principles that none of the proposed figurative treatments of the numbers in Genesis 5 and 11 have received any general acceptance among scholars. This leaves the reader with the conclusion that the Bible itself seems to have taken the figures literally, and to thus have held to a young earth, and a date for creation not earlier than 4000-5000 BC.

Next week we will move on to textual matters of a more mundane nature, hence easier to solve.

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