Edwin R. Thiele (10 September 1895 – 15 April 1986) was an American Seventh-day Adventist missionary in China, an editor, archaeologist, writer, and Old Testament professor. He is best known for his chronological studies of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
A native of Chicago, Thiele graduated from Emmanuel Missionary College (which became Andrews University in 1960) in 1918 with a BA degree in ancient languages. After two years of work as home missionary secretary for the East Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, he left in 1920 for mission service in China. During his 12-year work in China, he was an editor and manager for the Signs of the Times Publishing House in Shanghai.
After returning to the United States, Thiele received an MA degree in archaeology from the University of Chicago in 1937. He then joined the religion faculty of Emmanuel Missionary College, while continuing his doctoral work at the University of Chicago. He obtained a PhD degree in biblical archaeology in 1943. His doctoral dissertation, The Chronology of the Kings of Judah and Israel, was later expanded and published as The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings which is widely regarded as an important work on the chronology of Hebrew kings. He traveled extensively throughout the Middle East in the course of his research.
In addition, Thiele also authored a popular book on Christianity, Knowing God. After his death, his widow, Margaret, completed his study of the Book of Job entitled Job and the Devil. In this work, Thiele argues that Leviathan (and Behemoth) are linked to Near Eastern myths for chaos or evil. Hence, Thiele suggests, Job pictures God struggling with Evil as lying behind Job's suffering.
From 1963 to 1965, he served as Professor of Antiquity at Andrews University. After retiring from teaching in 1965, he moved to California where he continued to write. He died in St. Helena, California in 1986. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
The following is based on Thiele's book The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings.
The chronology of the Hebrew kings rests primarily on a series of reign lengths and cross references within the books of Kings and Chronicles, in which the accession of each king is dated in terms of the reign of his contemporary in either the southern kingdom of Judah or the northern kingdom of Israel. Unfortunately some of these cross references did not seem to match, so that a reign which is said to have lasted for 20 years results in a cross reference that would give a result of either 19 or 21 years.
Thiele noticed that the cross references given during the long reign of King Asa of Judah had a cumulative error of 1 year for each succeeding reign of the kings of Israel: the first cross-reference resulted in an error of 1 year, the second gave an error of 2 years, the third of 3 years and so on. He was able to demonstrate that this was due to two different methods of reckoning regnal years: the accession year method and the non-accession year method.
If we think in terms of our own calendar, if the old king died on December 31 and the new king started to reign on January 1, there was no problem. However, if the old king died on December 1, what did you do with the remaining 30 days of the old year? Under the accession year method, those 30 days were called the "Accession year" and Year 1 of the new king's reign began on January 1. Under the non-accession year method the 30 days were Year 1 of the new king and Year 2 began on January 1.
If this were not complicated enough, Thiele was able to demonstrate that the northern kingdom (Israel) celebrated a spring New Year while the southern kingdom (Judah) held to an autumn New Year. Differing new years and different methods of calculating reigns were responsible for much of the confusion in the cross references, with the additional problem that the southern kingdom appears to have adopted its neighbour's non-accession method during the time when Athaliah seized power. Unknown to Thiele when he first published his findings, these same conclusions that the northern kingdom used non-accession years and a spring New Year while the southern kingdom used accession years and a fall New Year had been discovered by V. Coucke of Belgium some years previously, a fact which Thiele acknowledges in his Mysterious Numbers.
With this understanding of chronology, Thiele showed that the 14 years between Ahab and Jehu were really 12 years, which meant that he could date their reigns precisely, for Ahab is mentioned in the Kurk Stele which records the Assyrian advance into Syria/Palestine at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC, and Jehu is mentioned on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III paying tribute in 841 BC. As these two events are securely dated by Assyrian chronology at 12 years apart, Ahab must have fought the Assyrians in his last year and Jehu paid tribute in his first year.
Thiele was able to reconcile the Biblical chronological data from the books of Kings and Chronicles with the exception of synchronisms between Hoshea of Israel and Hezekiah of Judah towards the end of the kingdom of Israel and reluctantly concluded that at that point the ancient authors had made a mistake. Subsequent writers have proposed an unattested coregency between Hezekiah and his father Ahaz to explain the Hoshea/Hezekiah synchronisms. Among these writers are Thiele’s colleague Siegfried Horn, T. C. Mitchell and Kenneth Kitchen, and Leslie McFall.
Thiele's chronological reconstruction has not been accepted by all of the scholarly consensus. Yet the work of Thiele and those who followed in his steps has achieved acceptance across a wider spectrum than that of any comparable chronology, so that Assyriologist D. J. Wiseman (1993) wrote “The chronology most widely accepted today is one based on the meticulous study by Thiele”. More recently, in 2010, Leslie McFall asserted, “Thiele’s chronology is fast becoming the consensus view among Old Testament scholars, if it has not already reached that point.”
Although criticism has been leveled at numerous specific points in his chronology, his work has won considerable praise even from those who disagree with his final conclusions. Nevertheless, even scholars sharing Thiele's religious convictions have maintained that there are weaknesses in his argument such as unfounded assumptions and assumed circular reasoning.
In his desire to resolve the discrepancies between the data in the Book of Kings, Thiele was forced to make improbable suppositions ... There is no basis for Thiele's statement that his conjectures are correct because he succeeded in reconciling most of the data in the Book of Kings, since his assumptions ... are derived from the chronological data themselves..."
In response to the “circular reasoning” argument, Kenneth Strand has pointed out several archaeological finds that were published after Thiele produced his chronology, and which verified Thiele’s assumptions or conclusions vs. the chronological systems of other scholars such as Albright that were posited before Thiele’s work. In scientific methodology, the ability to predict new results that were not known when a theory was formulated is regarded as support for the provisional acceptance of a theory until a better theory can be produced.
Despite the various criticisms Thiele's methodological treatment remains the typical starting point of scholarly treatments of the subject, and his work is considered to have established the date of the division of the Israelite kingdom.