If you're familiar with the Bible, you've probably seen Bishop James Ussher's famous chronology of the Bible. Doing a careful calculation of the years which the biblical narrative comprised, he concluded that Creation took place on the night before October 23, 4004 BC. In these supposedly more enlightened days, we tend to dismiss Ussher's most famous work as eccentric. This is unfair: it doesn't take Ussher's rigorous literary, biblical, and historical scholarship into account. The Irish bishop's considerable intellect was regarded as one of the finest of his day.
This chart represents Ussher's chronology. Reading Genesis 5 in its plainest sense, and assuming Ussher's date of 4004 BC for Creation, the time from Adam's creation to Noah's death is about 2006 years (4004-1998 BC), and the Flood occurred at about 2348 BC:
Fast forward to 2009. Harold Camping, the president of Family Radio and its primary Bible teacher, has also calculated a biblical chronology, which can be found in his book The Biblical Calendar of Creation.1 This chronology is the linchpin of Camping's suborthodox eschatology, claiming that the church age ended in AD 1988 and that the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011.
Due to Camping's unusual reading of the text, his own timeline bears no resemblance to Ussher's. He dates creation to 11,013 BC, the time from Adam's creation to Noah's life as 6373 years (11,013-4640 BC), and the Flood to 4990 BC. Other significant events in his chronology include the day of the Crucifixion, April 1, AD 33; the end of the church age in 1988, precisely 13,000 years after creation; and the Rapture on May 21, 2011, precisely 722,500 days after the Crucifixion. This is significant to Camping, who notes the coincidence of 722,500 factoring "into exactly two pairs of enormously significant spiritual numbers"2 [i.e. (5 × 10 × 17) × (5 × 10 × 17) = 722,500]. No, I'm serious.
How does Camping manage to stretch out the first ten generations of the human race more than three times as far as Ussher did? For most of the generations between Adam and Noah, instead of overlapping the lifespans of the patriarchs (as you would expect in normal father-son relationships), he simply stacks them end-to-end, like this:
The justification for this arrangement, argues Camping, is the "clue phrase," "called his name" (Heb. qara), which he claims "invariably . . . is indicative of parent and child."3 This phrase occurs in Gen. 4:26, 5:3, and 5:28, and therefore it indicates that the relationships of Adam and Seth, Seth and Enosh, and Lamech and Noah are all father-son. As for the rest of the patriarchs, since the Bible does not use the term qara with respect to the relationships between them, they are not immediate father-son pairs, but merely ancestors or descendants. Their lifespans are actually successive generations of history named after the significant figure of each period, and the terms "father" or "son" used in reference to them are figurative of an undetermined ancestor-descendant relationship.
This system makes no sense.
Take the following passage as typical of the generations of Genesis 5:
When Enosh had lived 90 years, he became the father of Kenan. And after he became the father of Kenan, Enosh lived 815 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enosh lived 905 years, and then he died. (Gen. 5:9-11)
The plainest sense of this passage is that Enosh was the father of Kenan, born to him when he was 90 years old, and then he lived 815 more years and died at the age of 905. However, Camping is arguing that it actually means something like this:
When Enosh had lived 90 years, he became the ancestor of Kenan. And after he became the ancestor of Kenan, Enosh lived 815 years and had other descendants. Altogether, Enosh lived 905 years, and then he died.
What does it even mean? If Enosh is the ancestor of Kenan, was he not always the ancestor of Kenan? Of what relevance is the fact that he "became" such at 90 years of age - unless the point is to state that Kenan was born when Enosh was 90? In that case, it doesn't matter whether Enosh is Kenan's father, grandfather, or father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate: Kenan is still 90 years younger than Enosh.
Camping's novel reading of the text either argues for the traditional chronology in spite of himself, regardless of the significance of qara, or it turns the biblical text into gibberish. Either way, he is wrong, and if his chronology fails, so do his predictions of the end of the world.
During James White and Harold Camping's radio debate last week, and in various places on the Net since, I have seen Campingites attempt to validate the chronology by claiming that they worked the figures out for themselves, independent of Camping, and reached exactly the same conclusion. I don't buy it. To reach the same dates, you have to buy into too many of Camping's faulty assumptions about the Bible. I call shenanigans. Rather, I think what has happened is that Camping's false air of authority has wowed a bunch of listeners who now ascribe mathematical super-powers to him. In my mind, I've started calling him "Captain Camping" for his superhuman number-crunching and listener-boring abilities.
Shortly after the Iron Sharpens Iron series wrapped up, blogger TurretinFan posted his own observations about the fatal flaws in Captain Camping's chronology, focusing on the time Israel spent in Egypt, and the genealogy of Moses. TurretinFan notes, for example, that Camping is flatly wrong when he asserts that Amram was merely the ancestor of Aaron and Moses rather than their father, and he points out that qara often does not indicate a direct parent-child relationship: it is also used, for example, with respec to a wife, a foster child, and a rock.
Camping's oddball biblical history simply cannot withstand close scrutiny. As much as I would like to think that Camping will realize the irreparable errors in his system and abandon the whole thing, I seriously doubt that is going to happen. In the past whenever his predictions have failed, he has simply "discovered" some previously unaccounted-for "new evidence" and recalculated. So when May 21, 2011 comes and goes with nary a Second Coming in sight, not long afterward we'll surely hear that it was really supposed to be sometime in 2014, because that is 25 years after 1988, and 25 is 5 × 5, and that's very significant. I wonder how many times Captain Camping has to be proven wrong before he clues in that it's the scheme, not the details, that is a complete failure.
1 Harold Camping, The Biblical Calendar of Creation (Family Radio, 1985, accessed 5 August 2009); available from http://www.familyradio.com/graphical/literature/calendar/calendar.pdf; Internet.
2 Harold Camping, We Are Almost There! (Family Radio, 2008, accessed 5 August 2009), 61; available from http://www.familyradio.com/graphical/literature/waat/waat.pdf; Internet.
3 Camping, Biblical Calendar of Creation, 1.