The following material is adapted from the discussion on pages 44-48 of the first and second editions of my book, The Gentile Times Reconsidered (published in 1983 and 1986), with some updates and additions.
PROFESSOR ROBERT R. NEWTON (who died in 1991) was a noted physicist who has published a series of outstanding works on the secular accelerations of the moon and the earth. He examined in detail hundreds of astronomical observations dating all the way from the present back to about 700 BC, in order to determine the rate of the slowly changing of the length of the day during this period. The best information on his research in this area is found in his book, The Moon’s Acceleration and Its Physical Origins, vol. 1, published in 1979. His results have more recently been further refined by other scholars, in particular by F. Richard Stephenson. (Historical Eclipses and Earth’s Rotation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
The claim that Claudius Ptolemy ”deliberately fabricated” many of his observations is not new. Astronomers have questioned Ptolemy’s observations for centuries. As early as 1008 AD ibn Yunis concluded that they contained serious errors, and by about 1800 astronomers had recognized that almost all of Ptolemy’s observations were in error. In 1817, Delambre asked: ”Did Ptolemy do any observing? Are not the observations that he claims to have made merely computations from his tables, and examples to help in explaining his theories?” – J.B.J. Delambre, Histoire de l’Astronomie Ancienne, Paris 1817, Vol. II, p. XXV; as quoted by Robert R. Newton in The Moon’s Acceleration and Its Physical Origins [MAPO], Vol. I, (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 43.
Two years later (in 1819) Delambre also concluded that Ptolemy fabricated some of his solar observations and demonstrated how the fabrication was made. (Newton, MAPO I, p. 44) More recently, other astronomers have re-examined Ptolemy’s observations and arrived at similar results. One of them is Professor Robert R. Newton. In his book, The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), Newton claims that Ptolemy fudged, not only a large body of the observations he says he had made himself, but also a number of the observations Ptolemy attributes to other astronomers, including some he quotes from Babylonian sources. These include the three oldest observations recorded in Ptolemy’s Almagest dating from the first and second years of the Babylonian king Merodach-baladan (called Mardokempados in Almagest), corresponding to 721 and 720 BC.
In the ensuing debate a number of scholars
Most of these critics, though, are
historians without particular expertise in the field of Greek astronomy. Some
reviews written by well-informed astronomers have been favorable to
B.L. van der Waerden, Professor of Mathematics and an expert on Greek astronomy, discusses Newton’s claims in his book, Die Astronomie der Griechen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1988). Although he would not go as far as Newton in his attack on Ptolemy, he agrees that Ptolemy falsified his observations, stating: ”That Ptolemy systematically and intentionally has falsified his observations in order to bring his observational results in agreement with his theory have been convincingly demonstrated by Delambre and Newton.” (p. 253)
G.J. Toomer, the well-known translator of Ptolemy’s
Almagest (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1984), discusses
In 1990, Dr. Gerd Grasshoff included a
lengthy section on the accusations against Claudius Ptolemy in his work, The
History of Ptolemy’s Star Catalogue (London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong: Springer-Verlag,
1990, pp. 79-91). He concludes that
More recently, Oscar Sheynin has discussed
In summary, there seems to be at least some evidence in support of the claims that Claudius Ptolemy was ”fraudulent” in the way he handled his observations, either by ”trimming” the values or by selecting those who best fitted his theory. However, few scholars would go as far as R. R. Newton, who dismisses Ptolemy altogether as a fraud. As Dr. James Evans notes, ”very few historians of astronomy have accepted Newton’s conclusions in their entirety.” – Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 24, Parts ½, February/May, 1993, pp. 145-146.
review of Newton’s book, The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy, published in Scientific
American of October 1977, pp. 79-81, it was stated that ”Ptolemy’s forgery may
have extended to inventing the length of reigns of Babylonian kings.” This was
a reference to the so-called ”Ptolemy’s Canon”, which
What Newton probably did not know was that Mr. Couture was and still is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that some of the chronological arguments he passed on to Newton were taken from the Watch Tower Society’s Bible dictionary, Aid to Bible Understanding. These arguments were not only aimed at supporting the chronology of the Watch Tower Society, but they are also demonstrably untenable!
In 1978, the year after The Crime of
Claudius Ptolemy had been published, I had some
correspondence with Professor Newton. In a letter dated
In his answer, dated
Thus Ptolemy’s ”adjustments” of the eclipse observations were too small to affect the year, the month, and the day of an eclipse. Only the hour and the magnitude were affected. Ptolemy’s supposed ”adjustments” of the records of the ancient Babylonian eclipses, then, didn’t change the BCE dates that had been established for these observations. They did not change the chronology! Further, Professor Newton was convinced that the king list was accurate from Nabopolassar and onwards. In other words, he was convinced that the whole Neo-Babylonian chronology from Nabopolassar through Nabonidus (625-539 BC) was accurate! Why?
The reason was that Newton had made a very thorough study of some of the ancient Babylonian astronomical records that were independent of ”Ptolemy’s Canon”, including the two astronomical cuneiform texts designated VAT 4956 and Strm. Kambys. 400. From his examination of these two records, he had established that the first text referred to the year 568/67 BC and the second one to 523 BC. He concluded: ”Thus we have quite strong confirmation that Ptolemy’s list is correct for Nebuchadrezzar, and reasonable confirmation for Kambyses.” (The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy, 1977, p. 375) These findings were further emphasized in his next work, The Moon’s Acceleration and Its Physical Origins, vol. 1, published in 1979, where he concludes on page 49: ”Nebuchadrezzar’s first year therefore began in –603 [= 604 BC], and this agrees with Ptolemy’s list.”
Therefore, to quote some statements by R.
R. Newton in an attempt to undermine the chronology established for the
Neo-Babylonian era would be to quote him out of context. It would be to
misrepresent his views and conceal his conclusions. It would be fraudulent.
Yet, this has been repeatedly done by the Watch Tower Society and some
defenders of its chronology. But
Whether Ptolemy falsified his observations, perhaps also some of those of earlier astronomers, is irrelevant for the study of the Neo-Babylonian chronology. Today, this chronology is not based upon the observations recorded by Ptolemy in his Almagest.
Further, the claim that Ptolemy may have ”invented” the lengths of reign in ”Ptolemy’s Canon” is based upon the erroneous view that this king list was composed by Claudius Ptolemy. As is demonstrated on pages 94-96 of the third edition of The Gentile Times Reconsidered (and also briefly in the second edition), the designation ”Ptolemy’s Canon” is ”a misnomer” (Otto Neugebauer), as this king list according to Eduard Meyer, Franz X. Kugler and others had been in use among Alexandrian astronomers for centuries before the time of Claudius Ptolemy, and had been inherited and brought up-to-date from one generation of scholars to next.
Finally, the claim that this king list today is the basis of or principal source for the Neo-Babylonian chronology, is false. Those who make such a claim are either ignorant or dishonest. The plain truth is that the king list is not needed today for fixing the chronology of this era, although its figures for the reigns of the Neo-Babylonian kings are upheld by at least 14 lines of independent evidence based on cuneiform documents, as is demonstrated in The Gentile Times Reconsided.
Addition in 2003:
Modern scholars who have examined the so-called Ptolemy’s Canon (more correctly called the ”Royal Canon”) in detail agree that the kinglist has proved to be reliable from beginning to end. This is emphasized, for example, by Dr Leo Depuydt in his article, ”More Valuable than all Gold: Ptolemy’s Royal Canon and Babylonian Chronology,” published in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 47, 1995, pp. 97 -117. Quite recently, Leo Depuydt has written another article in which he discusses the reliability of Ptolemy’s Canon, "The Shifting Foundation of Ancient Chronology," soon to be published in Acts of European Association of Archaeologists, Meeting VIII.