I Have a Question

“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Oct. 1998, 64–65

When was Judah’s 70-year Babylonian captivity?

John P. Pratt, an astronomer specializing in ancient calendars, who also works as a computer programmer. He serves as Sunday School president in the Orem Utah Fifth Ward.

Jeremiah prophesied that Judah’s captivity in Babylon would last 70 years, and the scriptures testify that his prophecy was fulfilled. Many people have wondered just exactly how those years were to be counted because an oft-used method yields less than 60 years. A careful calculation, however, using Jewish reckoning from the taking of the first captives, does indeed show that it lasted 70 years.

Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah), king of Judah, was captured by King Nebuchadnezzar and taken to Babylon, along with some 10,000 of Jerusalem’s principal citizens (see 2 Kgs. 24:12–16). After they arrived in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote them a letter telling them to build houses and plant gardens. He prophesied, “For thus saith the Lord, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place” (Jer. 29:10).

The exact day on which Jehoiachin was taken captive is given in the Babylonian Chronicles, which is a short synopsis on clay tablets of what occurred in each year of the Babylonian kings. Speaking of Nebuchadnezzar in his seventh year,1 the chronicles state, “He encamped against the city of Judah and on the second day of the month Adar he captured the city (and) seized (its) king. A king of his own choice he appointed in the city (and) taking the vast tribute he brought it to Babylon.”2 The king of his choice was Zedekiah (see 2 Kgs. 24:17). The date mentioned corresponds to Saturday, 10 March 597 B.C., on our calendar.3 The years of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign are firmly established by Babylonian astronomical observations giving absolute anchor dates, which confirm the years already accepted from historical sources. In this case, the Bible is also a witness to the exact day because it records that he was taken as the year was changing (see 2 Chr. 36:10). On the Judean calendar, that same day would be called 1 Nisan, the first day of the year usually used for reckoning the reigns of kings. Thus, the witnesses of two calendars from two nations agree to the very day.

The Bible makes it clear that the 70 years were fulfilled when the Jews returned to Jerusalem in the first year of Cyrus of Persia (see 2 Chr. 36:22–23, Ezra 1:1–4). Cyrus conquered Babylon, and then, in the very first year of his reign, he decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. This fulfilled not only Jeremiah’s prophecy, but also Isaiah’s: “Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid” (Isa. 44:28). On page 640 of the LDS Bible Dictionary under “Chronology,” we find 537 B.C. listed for the year of the decree. This appears to be correct.4 The problem arises when we notice that there are only 60, rather than the prophesied 70, years between 597 B.C., when Jehoiachin was taken, and 537 B.C. So how is this apparent discrepancy resolved?

The solution to the problem is given to us by Daniel. He tells us that he and others were taken captive some years before Jehoiachin. He states that Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem in the third year of Jehoiakim (father of Jehoiachin), and that he, Daniel, was taken captive at that time (Dan. 1:1–3, 6). This account means that Nebuchadnezzar had taken captives even before he was crowned king. Further, Daniel’s account is verified in the history of Nebuchadnezzar by Berossus of Babylon. This Babylonian history, no longer extant, is quoted by Josephus as stating that after Nebuchadnezzar defeated Egypt at Carchemish in Syria (in the spring of 605 B.C.), he immediately “settled the affairs of Egypt, and the other countries” and sent captives from the Jews, Phoenicians, Syrians, and Egyptians to Babylon before he returned there himself (in August) to be crowned king after his father’s death.5

But the difference between 605 and 537 B.C. is only 68 years. Why, then, does the biblical account speak of 70? The answer lies in the calendar systems used and in the way ancient Israelites calculated their years.

The Israelites used two calendar systems, one beginning in the fall and one beginning in the spring. Their calendar originally began in the fall; however, after the Lord took the children of Israel out of Egypt, a change was made in their reckoning of years so that the first month was in the spring (see Ex. 12:2, Ex. 13:3–4). The reigns of kings were usually calculated with years beginning in the spring, as in the case of Jehoiachin mentioned above. According to the spring reckoning,the battle of Carchemish occurred in the beginning of the fourth year of Jehoiakim (see Jer. 46:2).

The first key to discovering the answer to our question is this: in Daniel’s history, he uses the calendar system whose years start in the fall, not the spring. As Daniel implies, the battle of Carchemish was in the end of the third year of Jehoiakim according to the fall reckoning (see Dan. 1:1). Daniel’s procedure of starting the year’s count in the fall was the same procedure used in counting the sabbatical years for the land, a principle that was decreed in the law of Moses (see Lev. 25:3–4; see also Bible Dictionary, s.v. “calendar,” “sabbatical year”). As the scriptures declare, the 70-year period of captivity was related to sabbath-year counts (see 2 Chr. 36:21); it made up for sabbath years on the land that Israel had not observed. This being the case, we see why Daniel started to count the 70-year period from a fall reckoning. Daniel’s use of fall reckoning for years of captivity makes sense because sabbath years for the land were reckoned beginning in the fall.

The second key is to understand that in Jewish reckoning any part of a year can count as a full year. By this reckoning, then, the year beginning in the fall of the year we designate as 606 B.C. on our calendar system would be counted as the first year of the captivity—even though the Jews were captive only a short period of the year—because Daniel was taken before that year had ended on the Jewish calendar in September of 605 B.C.

In this light, the 70th, or ending year, began 69 years later in the fall of the year we now designate as 537 B.C., during the first year of the reign of Cyrus. The ending point for the 70 years seems to be at the Feast of Tabernacles (see Ezra 3:4), which was celebrated in Jerusalem in the fall only two weeks after the year had begun. That two-week period, however, was enough to extend the captivity into its 70th year, which would end for the Jews in the fall of the year we now designate as 536 B.C.

Counting a small part of the year as a year, then, is the way the Jews would have reckoned the captivity from 605 B.C. to 537 B.C. as 70 years.

606 B.C.

Beginning of Jewish civil year (used in Daniel’s reckoning).

Jewish year 1 of captivity

605 B.C.

Battle of Charchemish, May–June of 605 B.C. Daniel taken captive after this battle.

End of Jewish year that began in 606 B.C. By this time Daniel has been carried away to Babylon.

537 B.C.

Cyrus decrees return of Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

Beginning of Jewish civil year (used in reckoning length of captivity).
End of captivity celebrated at Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem.

70th year of captivity

536 B.C.

Paintings by Greg K. Olsen