Carl Olof Jonsson 1993

The role of chronology in the teaching of the Watch Tower Society

Few people are fully cognizant of the very central role played by chronology in the claims and teachings of the Watch Tower Society. Even many Jehovah's Witnesses are not always fully aware of the indissoluble connection between the Society's chronology and the message they preach from door to door. Confronted by the many evidences against their chronology, some Jehovah's Witnesses tend to belittle it as something they somehow can do without. "Chronology is not so important, after all," they say. Many Witnesses would prefer not to discuss the subject at all. How important, then, is the chronology for the Watch Tower organization?

As a matter of fact, it constitutes the very foundation for the claims and message of this movement .

The Watch Tower Society claims to be God's "sole channel" and "mouthpiece" on earth. In short, its message implies that the kingdom of God was established in heaven in 1914, that the "time of the end" began that year, that Christ returned invisibly at that time to "inspect" the Christian denominations, and that he finally rejected all of them except for the Watch Tower Society and its associates, which he in 1919 appointed as his sole "instrument" on earth. The Society teaches that the generation of 1914 will not pass away until the final end comes at the "battle of Armageddon," when all who have not joined the Watch Tower organization at that time will be destroyed forever. Jehovah's Witnesses expect to survive this doomsday to live forever in paradise on earth.

The year 1914, then, plays a crucial role in the teaching of the Watch Tower Society. The date is a product of a chronological calculation, according to which the so-called "times of the Gentiles " referred to by Jesus at Luke 21:24 is a period of 2,520 years, that began in 607 B.C. and ended in 1914. This calculation is the real basis of the message of the movement. Even the Christian gospel, the "good news" of the kingdom (Matthew 24:14), is claimed to be closely associated with this chronology. The gospel preached by other professed Christians, therefore, has never been the true gospel. Said The Watchtower of May 1, 1981, on page 17:

"Let the honest-hearted person compare the kind of preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom done by the religious systems of Christendom during all the centuries with that done by Jehovah's Witnesses since the end of World War I in 1918. They are not one and the same kind. That of Jehovah's Witnesses is really gospel, or good news, as of God's heavenly kingdom that was established by the enthronement of his Son Jesus Christ at the end of the Gentile Times in 1914. " [Italics mine] In agreement with this The Watchtower of May 1, 1982 stated that, "of all religions on earth, Jehovah's Witnesses are the only ones today that are telling the people of earth this 'good news'." (Page 10) A Jehovah's Witness who attempts to tone down the role of chronology in the Society's teaching does not realize that he or she thereby undermines the message of the movement. Such a "toning down" is not something that the Watch Tower leadership approves. On the contrary, The Watchtower of January 1, 1983, emphasized that "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 ." (Page 12; emphasis added.)1

The truth is that the Watch Tower Society regards it a deadly sin to reject the chronology pointing to 1914. That God's kingdom was established at the end of the "Gentile times" in 1914 is stated to be "the most important event of our time," beside which "all other things pale into insignificance."2Those who reject the calculation are said to incur the wrath of God. Among them are "the clergy of Christendom" and its members, who thus are said to have rejected the kingdom of God and therefore will be "destroyed in the 'great tribulation' just ahead."3Members of Jehovah's Witnesses who openly discard the calculation run the risk of being punished very severely. If they do not repent and change their minds, they will be disfellowshiped and classified as evil "apostates," who will "go, at death, ... to Gehenna," with no hope of a future resurrection.4 It makes no difference if they still believe in God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ. When one of the readers of The Watchtower wrote and asked, "Why have Jehovah's Witnesses disfellowshipped (excommunicated) for apostasy some who still profess belief in God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ?" the Society answered, among other things:

"Approved association with Jehovah's Witnesses requires accepting the entire range of the true teachings of the Bible, including those Scriptural beliefs that are unique to Jehovah's Witnesses. What do such beliefs include? ... That 1914 marked the end of the Gentile times and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the heavens, as well as the time for Christ's foretold presence." [Italics mine]5Nobody, therefore, who repudiates the calculation that the "Gentile times" expired in 1914, is approved by the Society as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. In fact, even one who secretly abandons the Society's chronology and thus may still formally be regarded as one of Jehovah's Witnesses, has, in reality, rejected the message of the Watch Tower Society and, according to the organization's own criterion, is in reality no longer a part of the movement.

The character of the chronology of the Bible

Most Jehovah's Witnesses, however, realize that the Watch Tower Society's calculation of the Gentile times is an indispensible element in the present doctrinal structure of the organization. On being confronted with the enormous burden of evidence against the 607 B.C. date for the desolation of Jerusalem many Jehovah's Witnesses therefore just whisk away the evidence, claiming that they rely only on the Bible for this date, while those who date the desolation of Jerusalem to 587 or 586 B.C. are said to rely on secular, historical, sources rather than the Bible.

This presentation of the issue is not only unfair. It is completely false. It reveals that such Witnesses have not really understood the true nature of Biblical chronology.

There are no absolute dates in the Bible. It is nowhere stated, for instance, that Jesus was baptized in 29 A.D., that Cyrus captured Babylon in 539 B.C., or that Jerusalem was desolated in 607 B.C. as the Witnesses claim. The Bible gives relative datings only.

Thus, when we read about the desolation of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 25:1-12, we find only the information that this event took place in the "eleventh year of King Zedekiah" (verse 2), which corresponded to the "nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon" (verse 8). But when was that? How far from our own time was it? How many years before the Christian Era did it happen? The fact is that the Bible itself gives no information whatsoever that links up this dating with our Christian era.

The books of Kings and Chronicles tell about the kings who ruled in Israel and Judah from Saul, the first king, to Zedekiah, the last one. We are told who succeeded whom and for how many years they ruled. By summing up the lengths of reign from Saul to Zedekiah we can measure the approximate space of time (there are many uncertain points) between these two kings. In this way we find that the period of the Hebrew monarchies covered roughly about 500 years. But still we have found no answer to the question, When on the stream of time did this period start and end?

If the Bible had gone on to give a continous and unbroken series of regnal years from Zedekiah all the way up to the beginning of the Christian Era, the question would have been answered. But Zedekiah was the last king. Nor does the Bible give any other information that helps us calculate the length of the period from Zedekiah's "eleventh year" to the beginning of the Christian Era. Thus we have a period of roughly 500 years, the period of the Hebrew monarchies, but we are not told how far from our time this period was and how it can be fixed to our Christian Era.

If the Bible had preserved dated and detailed descriptions of astronomical events, such as solar and lunar eclipses, or the positions of the planets in relation to different stars and constellations, this would have helped us. Modern astronomers, with their knowledge of the regular movements of the moon and the planets, are able to calculate the positions these heavenly bodies held on the starry sky thousands of years ago. But unfortunately, the Bible provides no information of this kind.

The Bible itself, then, does not show how its chronological datings may be connected with our own era. A chronology that in this manner is "hanging in the air" is only a relative chronology. Only if the Bible had given us the exact distance from the time of Zedekiah up to our own era, either by the aid of a complete and coherent line of lengths of reign, or by detailed and dated astronomical observations, we would have had an absolute chronology, that is, a chronology that gives us the exact distance from the last year of Zedekiah to our own time.

Is there a "Bible chronology" without secular sources?

The relative nature of the Biblical dates does not make it impossible to date events mentioned in the Bible. If it were possible to synchronize the chronology of the Bible with the chronology of another country, which in turn can be fixed to our Christian era, then it would be possible to change the relative chronology of the Bible into an absolute chronology. This means, however, that we would have to rely on extra Biblical, that is, secular historical sources, in order to date events in the Bible.

And we have no other choice. If we want to know when an event mentioned in the Bible took place, be it the date for the fall of Babylon, the date for the desolation of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the date for the rebuilding of the temple in the reign of Darius I, or any other date whatever, then we have to go to the secular historical sources. This is the grim fact every Bible believer has to accept, whether he or she likes it or not. The simple truth is that without secular sources there is no Bible chronology, no datings of Biblical events.

This also means, of course, that it is impossible to use the "chronology of the Bible" as an impartial, independent timemeasurer, by which the correctness of a certain date can be appraised. When, for instance, some Witnesses point to the fact that modern historians date the fall of Babylon to 539 B.C. and then claim that "the chronology of the Bible is in agreement with this date", they have not made it clear to themselves what the relative nature of the Biblical chronology really implies. As the Bible does not give the calendar year for the fall of Babylon (or for any other event), the statement that the Bible agrees with the secular dating of this event to 539 B.C. is completely meaningless. And it is just as meaningless and misleading to state that the secular date for the desolation of Jerusalem, 587 B.C., disagrees with the chronology of the Bible, as the calendar year for that event is not given in the Bible, either.

Now these Witnesses, quite naturally, hold to the Watch Tower Society's claim that the 70 years of Jeremiah 25:11,12 and 29:10 refer to the period of the desolation of Jerusalem from the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar to the return of the Jewish exiles in the 1st year of Cyrus. As a result of this view, the time interval between the dates historians have established for these two events (587/86 and 538/37 B.C.) appears too short. The Witnesses, therefore, reject one of the two dates, i. e. 587/86 B.C.. For what reason do they reject this date and not the other?

There is no Biblical reason for this choice. As was pointed out above, the Bible does not agree or disagree with any of these two dates. The Bible, therefore, cannot decide which of the two dates is the better one. On what grounds, then, should the choice be made, provided that the Society's interpretation of the 70 years is correct?

The most logical, scholarly and sound method would be to accept the date that is best established by the extra, Biblical, historical sources. And these sources show very definitely that the chronology of Nebuchadnezzar's reign is much better established by astronomical and other documents than the chronology of Cyrus' reign. The natural choice for a Bible believing Christian, then, should be to retain the 587/86 B.C. date and reject the 538/37 BC date if there really were a choice between them.

Yet the Witnesses have made the opposite choice. As the reason for this is neither the Bible, nor the historical evidence, what is the real reason for their choice?

Loyalty to the Bible or to a prophetic speculation?

If the Witnesses insist that the 70 year period began in the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar and ended in the 1st year of Cyrus, they should have started by accepting 587/86 B.C. as the most reliable of the two dates. Counting 70 years forward from that date would bring them to 518/17 B.C. as the first year of Cyrus instead of 538/37. This would be as Biblical and more scholarly than to retain 538/37 B.C. and reject 587/86.

Some Witnesses might perhaps protest that the moving of Cyrus' 1st year forward to 518/17 B.C. is prevented by the 70 "weeks of years" of Daniel 9:24-27, which bridge over most of the remaining time period up to the time of Christ. According to the Watch Tower Society these 70 "weeks of years", interpreted as 490 years, began in the 20th year of the Persian king Artaxerxes, which is dated to 455 B.C. The Witnesses, therefore, might argue that the interval between the end of the reign of Cyrus and the beginning of the reign of Artaxerxes was so brief (embracing only the reigns of Cambyses, Darius I, and Xerxes I), that they can trust the secular dates for this period.

It should be noted, however, that the Society's date for the 20th year of Artaxerxes is in conflict with all historical sources. The whole reign of Artaxerxes I (464/63-424/23 B.C.) is absolutely fixed by numerous astronomical observations preserved on cuneiform tablets, such as astronomical "diaries", lunar eclipse texts and texts with planetary observations! All these sources agree in showing Artaxerxes' 20th year to have been 445/44 B.C., not 455/54. As the date preferred by the Watch Tower Socety implies a prolongation of Artaxerxes' reign from 41 to 51 years, the reign of his predecessor, Xerxes I, has had to be abbreviated, from 21 to 11 years,  again in direct conflict with all historical sources! Otherwise the reigns of all the preceding kings would have had to be moved backwards 10 years. Cyrus' 1st year, for example, would have had to be moved from 538/37 B.C. back to 548/47. Such a change, of course, would make complete havoc of the Watch Tower Society's "Bible chronology".

Thus the 70 weeks of Daniel are of no help to the Witnesses. Those who are able to add 10 years to the reign of Artaxerxes I, subtract 10 years from the reign of Xerxes I, and add 20 years to the Neo-Babylonian era, all the time with supreme contempt for all historical sources, should have no difficulty in moving the 1st year of Cyrus from 538/37 B.C. to 518/17, or the fall of Babylon from 539 B.C. to 519! 6

Why, then, do the Watch Tower Society and its defenders reject 587/86 B.C. instead of 538/37? As has been pointed out, the reason is neither Biblical nor historical.

The answer is quite obvious. The 587/86 B.C. date is in direct conflict with the Watch Tower Society's chronology of the "times of the Gentiles". In this chronology the 607 B.C. date for the desolation of Jerusalem is the indispensible starting point. Without the year 607 B.C. the Society would not arrive at 1914 A.D. And as this date is the very cornerstone of the prophetic claims and message of the Watch Tower organization, nothing is allowed to upset it, neither the Bible nor historical facts. At heart, therefore, it is neither a question of loyalty to the Bible nor loyalty to historical facts. The choice of date has quite another motive: Loyalty to a chronological speculation that has become a vital condition for the divine claims of the Watch Tower organization.

NOTE: For a full discussion of the Watch Tower Society's Gentile Times chronology, see my book, The Gentile Times Reconsidered, originally published in 1983. A new, completely revised and expanded edition will be published in 1997 by Commentary Press.


1 The Society's former president, Frederick W. Franz, in the morning Bible discussion for the headquarters family on November 17, 1979, stressed even stronger the importance of the 1914 date by saying: "The sole purpose of our existence as a Society is to announce the Kingdom established in 1914 and to sound the warning of the fall of Babylon the Great. We have a special message to deliver." (Raymond Franz, In Search of Christian Freedom, Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1991, pp. 32, 33)

2 The Watchtower, January 1, 1988, pp. 10, 11.

3 The Watchtower, September 1, 1985, p. 25.

4 The Watchtower, April 1, 1982, p. 27. In The Watchtower of July 15, 1992, the Witnesses are even urged to "hate" such "apostates ... with a complete hatred." (Page 12) This was not just an accidental "slip of the pen". The exhortation was repeated in The Watchtower of October 1, 1993. Former members, who have broken the ties with the Watch Tower organization because they can no longer endorse all its claims and teachings, are not only classified as evil "apostates" but also as "enemies of God", who are "intensely hating Jehovah". They are stated to be so "rooted in evil" that "wickedness has become an inseparable part of their nature". Christians, therefore, "must hate" them and ask God to kill them. (Page 19) As such rancorous attacks on former members of the movement reflect an attitude that is exactly the reverse to that recommended by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:43-48), it may be asked why the Watch Tower Society finds it necessary to resort to such malignant language. The answer is obvious to every informed and attentive observer. The leaders of the movement know very well that if the facts about their "Bible chronology", for instance, that have caused thousands of members to turn their back on the Watch Tower organization in recent years, find their way to the Witnesses in general, great numbers would lose confidence in the organization and its leadership. In order to safe-guard the elevated position they claim for themselves, the leaders of the organization are forced to prevent the Witnesses from learning these facts. The method resorted to is an old and well-tried one in authoritarian organizations throughout the centuries. Dissident members are excommunicated ("disfellowshiped") as heretics ("apostates"), slandered, defamed and isolated. The Witnesses are taught that it is a "deadly sin" to talk to them and read their books and that hatred is the true Christian attitude toward them. In this way it is hoped that embarrasing information can be withheld from the Witnesses. Thus truth has become a dangerous threat to the Watch Tower Society these days. Although this organization uses the word "Truth" more often than most other organizations on earth, truth has, in fact, become the worst enemy of the movement.

5 The Watchtower, April 1, 1986, pp. 30, 31.

6 The 587/86 and 538/37 B.C. dates are both correct. None of them is in conflict with the Bible. Jeremiah did not say that the 70 years were "for Jerusalem" but "for Babylon" (Jer. 29:10; the "at Babylon" of NW and KJV is a mistranslation). As Assyria definitely lost its empire to Babylon in 609 B.C., the 70 years "for Babylon" lasted from 609 to 539 B.C. For a detailed presentation of the many lines of evidence against the 607 B.C. date, see my book, The Gentile Times Reconsidered, Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1986. Also available in Italian, German, and Swedish.