Acts of the Apostles

Chapter 7

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 16 December 2017; Revised 26 January 2018

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Additional Note:
The Chronology of Terah and Abraham

7:4 Then having gone out from the land of the Chaldeans he dwelled in Haran, and from there ─ afterward his father was to die ─ He removed him into this land in which you now dwell.

Historically Bible commentators have noted a supposed conflict between Stephen's narrative and the Genesis record regarding when Abraham moved from Haran to Canaan. The Genesis narrative clearly says that Terah died when he was 205 (Gen 11:32) and Abraham left Haran when he was 75 years of age (Gen 12:4). David Stern, a Messianic Jewish scholar affirms that the Genesis narrative seems to say that Terah died sixty years after Abraham departed Haran, but in declaring that Abraham departed after Terah died, Stephen may have erred under pressure. If so, his inaccuracy would be what is known in Judaism as ta'uyot b'tom-lev, an honest mistake (244). However, I maintain that there are no mistakes or contradictions in Scripture. To resolve the dilemma, we need to consider first when Abraham was born.

The Birth of Abraham

The MT and LXX text of Genesis 11:26 says "And Terah lived seventy years, and fathered Abram and Nahor and Haran." The genealogical formula found in Genesis 11, states that a man lived "x" number of years and begat a named son, and then lived "x" more years during which he had more sons and daughters (11:11-24). For each name in the genealogical report the LXX ends the verse "and he died." If Abraham was supposedly born when Terah was 70, then the same logic holds true for Nahor and Haran. Lightfoot comments, "it is against reason to suppose they were all begot in one year, so there is no necessity to think they were begot in the order they are placed in the story" (4:72). True to the formula Moses says that Terah lived seventy years and then began fathering sons. He might have fathered daughters previously.

Gill in his commentary on Genesis 11:26 suggests that the verse only intends to say Terah was seventy at the birth of his first child. Abraham may be mentioned first, but only because he was the most distinguished, not the oldest. Haran was actually the oldest followed by Nahor. Thus, Abraham was the youngest son of Terah, born when he was 130 years old. There is biblical precedent. In the list of the sons of Noah, Shem is first in the catalogue (Gen 5:32), even though he was younger than Japheth (Gen 10:21). Ussher (19), Clarke (33) and Gloag (234) share this interpretation. However, the eminent Christian scholar C.F. Keil differed in viewpoint:

"Terah died at the age of 205, or sixty years after the departure of Abram for Canaan; for, according to v. 26, Terah was seventy years old when Abram was born, and Abram was seventy-five years old when he arrived in Canaan." (116)

Jewish tradition affirms that that Abraham was the firstborn son of Terah when he was seventy years of age (Josephus, Ant. I, 6:5). The Dead Sea Scrolls agree with Josephus:

"1:8 He gave the land to Abraham His beloved. Terah was one hundred and forty years old when he left 9 Ur of the Chaldees and went to Haran and Abram was seventy years old." (Commentaries on Genesis, 4Q252; TDSS 354).

The Jewish Sages affirm that Abraham was the oldest son born to Terah: "Now Abraham must have been [at least] one year older than Nahor, and Nahor one year older than Haran; hence Abraham was two years older that Haran" (Sanhedrin 69b). Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator, said in regarding to Genesis 11:32,

"This happened after Abram had left Haran and had come to the land of Canaan, and had been there for over sixty years, for it is written (below 12:4): "And Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran," and Terah was seventy years old when Abram was born, making Terah one hundred and forty-five years old when Abram left Haran. Accordingly, many of his [Terah's] years were left."

The Death of Terah

The MT and LXX text of Genesis 11:32 says "And the days of Terah [LXX inserts "in Haran"] were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran." The LXX contains a mistake, since Terah obviously was not born in Haran nor did he live in Haran for 205 years. Josephus also says that Terah died at the age of 205 years of age (Ant. I, 6:5). However, the text of Genesis 11:32 in the Samaritan Pentateuch reads 145 years for the death of Terah rather than 205.

Bruce suggests that perhaps there was a Greek text that agreed with the Samaritan text, but is no longer extant (146). While the oldest extant MSS of the MT date from the 9th century A.D., there is not a single MS of the Septuagint that has preserved in Genesis 11:32 a reading other than 205 years (fn 31, Bruce 147). The DSS also agrees with the MT and LXX (4Q252, 1:8-10). The reading of the Samaritan Pentateuch was an apparent attempt to reconcile a supposed conflict in the Genesis chronology that didn't exist.

Genesis Chronology

Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham of Troki, a 16th century Jewish Karaite scholar, criticized Stephen's chronology as a mistake, insisting that Terah was alive when Abraham left Haran. According to Isaac, "Terah having died at the age of 205, must, therefore, have been still living for sixty years after his son's departure. The order in which the history of Terah and Abraham is given in Genesis 11 and 12 has most probably led to the inaccuracies we have pointed out" (1:45). Isaac goes on to say, "It is true that the death of Terah, though happening after the departure of Abraham, is mentioned before it; but that is the frequent mode of Scripture narrative. In the same way we find the death of Isaac recorded before the selling of Joseph, although a brief calculation would show that he survived thirteen years after the selling of his grandson" (2:61). Morris concurs with the observation about the death of Isaac (524).

Jewish tradition agrees with Rabbi Isaac that Terah was still alive when Abraham left Haran for Canaan (Ginzberg, Chap. V). Lightfoot quotes a Rabbi Solomon who said, "And Terah died in Charran, that is more than threescore years after Abraham had left Charran and had settled in the land of Canaan. Behold Terah was one hundred and forty-five years of age when Abraham left Charran, and he had a great many years yet behind" (4:71). The Dead Sea Scrolls makes this declaration in line with Jewish tradition:

"He gave the land to Abraham His beloved. Terah was one hundred and forty years old when he left Ur of the Chaldees and went to Haran and Abram was seventy years old. And Abram dwelt five years in Haran. Then Terah died sixty years after Abram went out to the land of Canaan." (Commentaries on Genesis, 4Q252, 1:8-10, TDSS, 354).

Lightfoot also quotes a maxim of the Sages that "the order of the story does not necessarily determine the time of it." (4:72). In other words, the end of Chapter 11 and the beginning of Chapter 12 simply report separate events and there is no intention that Genesis 12:4 follows Genesis 11:32 as an exact time sequence. C.F. Keil offers this helpful analysis in his commentary on Genesis 11:27-32:

"When Stephen, therefore, placed the removal of Abram from Haran to Canaan after the death of his father, he merely inferred this from the fact, that the call of Abram (Gen. 12) was not mentioned till after the death of Terah had been noticed, taking the order of the narrative as the order of events; whereas, according to the plan of Genesis, the death of Terah is introduced here, because Abram never met with his father again after leaving Haran, and there was consequently nothing more to be related concerning him." (116)

The Evidence of Philo

A few scholars, as Gill and Stern, cite Philo, the first century Jewish philosopher, as supporting the interpretation of Acts 7:4 that Abraham departed Haran after his father died.

"(176) And "Abraham," says Moses, "was seventy-five years of age, when he departed out of Charren." Now concerning the number of seventy-five years (for this contains a calculation corresponding to what has been previously advanced,) we will enter into an accurate examination hereafter. But first of all we will examine what Charran is, and what is meant by the departure from this country to go and live in another. (177) Now it is not probable that any one of those persons who are acquainted with the law are ignorant that Abraham had previously migrated from Chaldaea when he came to live in Charran. But after his father died he then departed from this land of Chaldaea, so that he has now migrated from two different places." (On the Migration of Abraham, XXXII.177).

Philo actually applies an allegorical interpretation of the Genesis narrative, as evidenced by his saying that the country from which Abraham was to depart was his body, "and by his kindred the outward senses, and by his father's house uttered speech" (II.7). Philo regards Terah's death as typical of the condition of Haran, and implies that those who seek Canaan must first leave the place of death. Gill translates the relevant clause in Philo thus: "but his father dying there, he removed from thence." Thus, Philo refers to the spiritual death of Terah, and in fact his spiritual death occurred in Ur of the Chaldees where he was an idolater (Josh 24:2).

The Grammatical Construction of Acts 7:4

I am inclined to accept Jewish tradition regarding the Genesis account of Terah and Abraham, as did C.F. Keil. The insistence of some Christian interpreters that Abraham migrated to Canaan after his father died is based, I believe, on faulty translation of Stephen's words. However, by translating the Greek clause as "afterward his father was to die," the supposed conflict with the Genesis chronology is resolved.

Works Cited

Ant.: Flavius Josephus (c. 37100 A.D.), Antiquities of the Jews (Latin Antiquitates Judaicae). trans. William Whiston (1737). Online.

Bruce: F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1954.

Clarke: Adam Clarke (17621832), Commentary on the Holy Bible (1826). ed. Ralph Earle. Baker Book House, 1967. Online.

Gill: John Gill (1697-1771), Exposition of the Entire Bible. Online.

Ginzberg: Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews. Public Domain, 1909.

Gloag: Paton James Gloag (1823-1906), A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Acts of the Apostles, T&T Clark, 1870. Online.

Isaac: Isaac ben Abraham of Troki (1533-1594), Chizuk Emunah ("Faith Strengthened"). 2 vols. Trans. Moses Mocatta, 1851. Online.

Morris: Henry Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings. Baker Book House, 1976.

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi (1040-1105), Commentary on the Tanakh. Online.

Ussher: James Ussher (1581-1656), The Annals of the World. London: 1650. Online. Reprinted by Master Books, 2007.

TDSS: The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. Rev. ed. Trans. Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr. and Edward Cook. HarperOne, 2005.

Copyright 2017-2018 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.