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Introduction

It is almost universally recognized by historians and other scholars that recorded human history began in Sumer, a place in ancient southern Mesopotamia (i.e., modern Iraq) just north of what is now called the Persian Gulf. However, the dates given for Sumer's origin vary widely among scholars, although the recent trend has been toward later, rather than earlier, dates—typically ranging from about 3500 B.C. to about 2900 B.C., with some scholars even earlier than 3500 B.C. and a few even later than 2900 B.C.

The Biblical chronology adopted by this ministry places Creation at 3958 B.C. and the global Genesis Flood at 2302 B.C. Because Sumer is the first civilization in recorded history, and it Biblically is consistent only with a post-Flood civilization, then our view is that Sumer cannot have originated much before 2200 B.C. (assuming it takes at least two or three generations to develop a civilization with the kinds of artifacts associated with Sumer).

The natural question is whether or not there is sound reason, apart from Scripture, to date Sumer's origin that late in history. Before we address this question, some background in handling B.C. and A.D. dates is needed.

The Christian Era—B.C./A.D.

The way Western civilization—and indeed the entire world today, because of Western influence (by early 20th century nearly the entire world accepted the Gregorian calendar of the late 16th century)—assigns dates of years in history (and, of course, in the present also) is based on the idea of the Christian Era. The computation of that era began with a 6th century Christian monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who, in ca. A.D. 532 (some authorities say 525), said that Jesus Christ was born in the year 754 from the building of the city of Rome. His A.D. dates, however, were not used in any known historical writings until sometime early in the 8th century, and not widely used all over Europe for about another century.

The idea of assigning years within a specific era is not new. The Jews numbered their years according to their date for Creation (3761 B.C.). And the Muslims date their calendar from A.D. 622, when Mohammed fled for his life from Mecca and went to Yathrib (now called Medina).

The abbreviation "A.D." is Latin (Anno Domini) for "the year of our Lord." The abbreviation "B.C." means "before Christ" (English), indicating its use did not begin until the 17th century. By the way, the abbreviation "B.C.E." is the more secular version of B.C., meaning "before the common era." Although not all writers do this, the technically correct way of expressing A.D. time is to place the "A.D." before the year—as in A.D. 2002, because it literally means "the year of our Lord 2002." The proper way to express B.C. time (which nearly all do) is to place the "B.C." after the year—as in 457 B.C., because it literally means "457 years before Christ [the common era]."

It was later discovered that the birth of Christ most probably occurred 4 or 5 years earlier, somewhere near the year 750 from the building of the city of Rome (instead of 754). This new date was calculated on better historical information concerning (1) the death of Herod the Great; and (2) the enrollment of the population (i.e., census), which Luke's gospel mentions. However, by the time a consensus had been attained for the new date, too much ancient history had been written with the wrong birth-date of Christ as the anchor for B.C. and A.D. time. That is why most Christians today believe the birth of Jesus really occurred in 4 or 5 B.C. NOTE: Our view is no later than 5 B.C.

Computations of B.C./A.D. Dates and Numbers of Years

To Compute an A.D. Date from a B.C. Starting Point—First, note that there is no "0" year because the B.C./A.D. dates are expressions of ordinal numbers (e.g., 1st , 2nd, 3rd, etc.), not cardinal numbers (e.g., 1, 2, 3, etc.). Second, to compute this, take the total number of years and subtract the B.C. date. Then add 1 year to the answer in order to express the date accurately as an ordinal number in A.D. time. The number line below illustrates that there was no "0" year:

B.C. | A.D.

5 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 5

For example, to determine the A.D. date for a year 2,300 years after 457 B.C., subtract 457 from 2,300 and add 1 year to the answer, as illustrated below:

2,300 - 457 = 1843 + 1 = A.D. 1844

To Compute a B.C. Date from an A.D. Starting Point—Take the total number of years and subtract the A.D. date. Then add 1 year to the answer in order to express the date accurately as an ordinal number in B.C. time. For example, to determine the B.C. date 2,300 years before A.D. 1844, subtract 1,844 from 2,300 and add 1 year to the answer, as illustrated below:

2,300 - 1844 = 456 + 1 = 457 B.C.

To Compute the Total Number of Years between a B.C. and an A.D. Date—Add the absolute numbers representing both dates (disregard + or - for A.D. or B.C., respectively). Then subtract 1 year from the answer in order to take the "0" year (which is a cardinal number) out of the picture. For example, to determine the total number of years from 457 B.C. and A.D. 1844, add those two numbers and subtract 1 from the answer, as illustrated below:

457 + 1844 = 2301 - 1 = 2,300 years

Firm Historical Dates

A firm historical date is one in which there are sufficient links with other historically known dates that it is accurate to a scientific certainty (or at least within a handful of years, as opposed to decades, centuries, and millennia). The oldest such firm historical date is of the Egyptian Pharaoh Sesostris III (ca. 1878 B.C.). Earlier than about 2000 B.C., then, archaeologists must make an inordinate number of assumptions (which are largely subjective in nature). Therefore, historical dates older than 2000 B.C. cannot be as trustworthy as earlier dates.

Although there are not sufficient links with historically known dates to be able to assign a reasonably certain date to the origin of the Sumerian civilization, there are enough links to know to a degree of scientific certainty that it was the very first human civilization in recorded history—that is, with writing and a known culture.

Carbon-14 Dating

What about ancient dates alleged to reach back in time to 10,000 B.C., 20,000 B.C., etc.? Where do they come from? And can they be trusted? Many such dates usually come from a scientific dating method invented by Dr. Willard F. Libby soon after the end of World War II called Carbon-14 (or C-14) dating. In fact, he won the Nobel Prize for his research on this dating technique.

Carbon is the basic element in all living things—plants, animals, and humans. Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope. It is created by cosmic rays bombarding the air in the earth's atmosphere, where it is evenly distributed around the planet. From the atmosphere, Carbon-14 is absorbed into the life cycles of all living things, in which it composes about the same proportion. As long as a life-form is living, it is continuously being replenished with Carbon-14. But when the organism dies, it no longer receives an on-going supply of Carbon-14. Instead, the remaining radioactive Carbon-14 within it begins to decay. The rate of decay means that in 5,730 years, half of the C-14 will be gone. This is what is called its half-life. In another 5,730 years, half of that half (or 1/4 of the original amount) will be gone. This half-life of C-14 has been extrapolated from laboratory experiments. By measuring the amount of C-14 in the remains of an organism (e.g., mummy, bones, dead vegetation, fossil, coal, etc.), scientists should theoretically be able to determine its age. There are recognized limits, however, because when the amount of C-14 in a dead organism is infitestimally small, it cannot be accurately measured. By today's precise instruments, anything registering older than approximately 50,000 years or so is assigned an age of infinity by the C-14 method. By the way, this includes all fossils, which fall into this category.

When C-14 dating is compared to firm historical dates, it is generally accurate to within 150 years + or -, although some comparisons show a 250-year difference. These differences are generally accounted for by the known fact that planet temperature and magnetic field changes cause some variation in readings. But within these variations, the C-14 dating technique is sufficiently accurate to be reliable within a "ballpark" estimate. However, even the developer of C-14 dating later admitted his great disappointment in finding that it was not reliable beyond about 4,000-5,000 years, or about 2000-3000 B.C. Others have also found that it did not significantly help confirm archaeology's assumptions about the date for the origin of Sumer. In any case, since about 2000 B.C. is the oldest firm historical date available, before that year there is no independent means of checking its accuracy. So it is theoretically possible that it is unreliable beyond that date.

The key assumption of those scholars who still rely on C-14 dating beyond 2000 B.C. is that the amount of Carbon-14 in the atmosphere was, and has always remained, at the same level it has been since 2000 B.C. But since there is no scientific way to check that hypothesis, it cannot be said to be scientifically certain. What if at some ancient time there was no measurable Carbon-14 in the atmosphere? What would C-14 dating show for organisms that had died during that period? They would show an age of infinity, even if they had died just a few years before other organisms, when Carbon-14 began to be measurable in the atmosphere.

But is that possible? What if the dozens of global Flood legends were true? And what if the Genesis Flood story were true? Assuming for the moment that Genesis is accurate, literal history, consider the following evidence:

  • Genesis 1:6-7—At Creation, God divided the waters between the earth and the sky.

  • Genesis 2:5-6—In the beginning, it never rained, but mist from the ground was the water source.

  • Genesis 7:11-12—At the Flood time, it rained 40 days and 40 nights, consecutively.

  • Genesis 6:5-7, 11-13—God sent the Flood because of the earth's wickedness. (So the rain wasn't a gentle one, but a torrential rain!)

The Genesis evidence is that a huge canopy of water vapor enveloped the atmosphere of the earth before the Flood. Such a volume of water at the Flood itself implies that the pre-Flood canopy would have been sufficient to keep out most cosmic radiation from interacting with the molecules in our atmosphere. Thus, if this evidence is true, then there was a time when Carbon-14 was probably barely measurable.

Inorganic Dating Techniques

Geologists assign ages to inorganic material (e.g., rock, minerals, etc.) on the basis of various radioisotope techniques, measuring the decay of radioactive inorganic material into other, less complex matter until the chain reaction ends. Consistency in such readings suggests a relative accuracy, which itself is consistent with the interpretation that God had already created the basic substance of the planet long before He created life during Creation week. However, when fossils are found with minerals dated to be millions of years old, various assumptions must be made. For non-marine fossils, it must be assumed that the radioactive minerals came into contact with them without any decayed products, called daughter-products. But this seems highly unlikely if life were not created until millions of years after inorganic matter was. For marine fossils, it must be assumed that we know the radioisotope content of ancient sea water, among other variables. Therefore, the very old ages often assigned to fossils on the basis of radioisotope techniques on associated inorganic material are also based on scientifically unverifiable assumptions, and thus cannot be said to be scientifically accurate.

Possible Dates for Sumerian Civilization

Because (1) there are no firm historical dates before about 2000 B.C.; (2) archaeologists differ on some of their assumptions; and (3) Carbon-14 is known to be unreliable in dating Sumerian civilization, estimates range from 3500 B.C. down to 2900 B.C. for its origin. At least one reputable source, Encyclopedia Britannica, Book of Knowledge, under "History," dates it as late as ca. 2350 B.C.

There is one other major factor to consider: Both ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations have lists of 10 kings (Babylonia) or 10 gods (Egypt); many, although not all, of the Babylonian names have a linguistic relationship to many of the names of the 10 patriarchs given in Genesis. Noah is #10 in Genesis and Xisuthros is #10 on the Babylonian list. Xisuthros is the name of the hero who saved mankind from complete extinction in the Flood. In the Sumerian royal list, his name is Utnapishtim. Following his name in the list is the statement, "After this, the Flood overwhelmed the land."

Those scholars who reject the Bible or a literal, conservative reading of it, with its claims of Divine creation and a worldwide Flood, assume that the reference to a Flood is to some great, but local Flood which only seemed global in its devastation. Therefore, they assume that the list of 10 kings is a reference to the earliest origins of Sumer instead of to the Genesis pre-Flood patriarchs. Because of this assumption, taking 50-60 years per life of each king, these scholars would be adding about 500-600 years onto the history of the Mesopotamian peoples. But the linguistic connections between the Babylonian and Genesis lists may suggest that the historical memory of the Sumerians was reflected in their names of 10 great patriarchs before the global Flood. In this case, the Flood occurred sometime shortly before the Sumerian civilization began since it was the first known one in history. And then its list of 10 kings would not be part of the history of Babylonia or Sumer at all. It should be noted that the objection that the Hebrew author of Genesis borrowed from the Mesopotamian story is extremely unlikely because the Hebrews' culture was so foreign in religion and total outlook on life, to say nothing of the separation from other peoples that the Hebrews generally practiced.Bible scholars who take Genesis in a literal, conservative sense generally date the worldwide Flood sometime between ca. 3000 B.C. and ca. 2300 B.C. If the more modest conservative date for Sumeria is taken (ca. 2900 B.C.—see 1st paragraph in this section), and the assumption about the 500-600 years deleted because of acceptance of the literal, conservative interpretation of the Flood and Biblical chronology, then that provides a possible date for the origin of Sumer as early as about 2400-2300 B.C. Therefore, it is possible to accept the Genesis Flood and conservative Bible chronology and easily be within a reasonable range for the origin of the first human civilization. At the same time, of course, any date much earlier than about 2000 B.C. for Sumer's origin could be too early. Assuming at least two or three generations to develop a civilization, it is certainly possible to date the global Flood about 2300 B.C. and still have time for Sumer to develop before 2000 B.C. In this way, Biblical chronology and secular history can indeed be reconciled as consistent with each other.