What could be more certain than the changing and numbering of the years? We have just entered a new year, a new decade. They come around just like, well. clockwork! Our dating system is so commonly used and taken for granted that we just assume everything is just as it should be. And from that, we take many things for granted.
All is not as it appears. Our calendars are both incorrect and inaccurate. Here, we’ll take a look at how our accounting of years came into being and then why this has any importance to us as Christians.
The determination of our year is based on the time it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun; our day on the time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis. OK, we all know that, so what’s the big deal? The number of rotations does not divide evenly into the time it takes for one revolution. So our year is not 365 days, but 365.25 days actually a little less. So we have a complicated system for determining leap years, adding a day to the year every year where the number assigned to the year is evenly divided by 4 except when it is evenly divisible by 400! Whew!
Well, we fix that by making artificial adjustments to our clocks and calendars periodically.
Many civilizations have devised calendars that are much more accurate than the one we widely use today. An example is the Mayan calendar of 2012 fame. (See picture above)
The Counting of the Years
This is 2010 Anno Domini, The Year of Our Lord. This counting of years is based on calculations of a Vatican Monk, Dionysius Exiguus in the early 6th century. He had been asked by Pope John I to calculate the days of Easter between 527 and 626. Using some complicated math and history (some of it legend), Dionysius calculated the year of Jesus’ birth, Year 1 A.D. All was good except he was wrong by 4-6 years! So, if we really want to be accurate in the counting of our years based on Jesus’ birth (A.D.), we need to add 4-6 years to our numbering system but is it 4, 5 or 6? Houston, we have a problem!
When Dionysius calculated his calendar, the concept of naught had not yet come into usage in Europe. So, instead of the first year being 0, it became 1. To explain this difference in counting years, think about how we count the ages of our kids. Our kids don’t become 1 until their first birthday. What this means is that years ending in 0 mark the end, not the beginning of a decade, century or millennium. The first year of the new one begins with 1. So we aren’t in a new decade in 2010, we still have a year to go.
Now, let’s get to the complicated parts.
To confound things further, Dionysius’ calculations were simply imprecise.
On February 24, 1582 Pope Gregory XIII implemented a new calendar, replacing the Julian Calendar with the now commonly used Gregorian Calendar. Dionysius didn’t account for leap years. To correct some of Dionysius’ errors, eleven days were simply deleted from the year! I guess a Pope can do those sorts of things.
Still with me? There’s more!
In early 17th century, a Bishop Ussher calculated the date of creation to March 25, 4004 B.C. He was aware of the miscalculated date of Jesus’ birth, but still used Dionysius’ erroneous calculation of years to determine the precise date of creation. This assumed date for creation is still in common usage today. Hummmm
Now, let’s drop one more little tidbit into the mix. Using several factors I’ll not go into here, Dionysius formally designated December 25 as the day of the Nativity and March 25 as the date of the Resurrection. Christmas, as we all recognize, falls on a fixed date each year. Recall, Dionysius’ assignment was to determine a century of dates for Easter. Easter is set by the Lunar, not the Solar Calendar. So, Easter falls on a different day of each solar year. As a result, perhaps unwittingly, Dionysius helped to shift the emphasis of Christian celebrations from Easter to Christmas!
Borrowing from Laurel and Hardy, This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Dio!
1. Our system for counting the year, this being 2010 A.D. is simply wrong. Based on the actual birth date of Jesus it should be 2014, 2015 or 2016. No one is really sure. Remember all those predictions of the “End of the Earth” at the last millennium? Well, if the birth of Jesus is the basis for counting the years, 2000 (or 2001) were actually several years too late!
2. We often base big debates within our faith on shaky ground. As an example, I’d be willing to bet a wooden nickel that most of the folks in an uproar over designating years with BC/AD or BCE/CE have little understanding or concern about the information above. As Christians, we have important work to do. Are these type of great debates really doing God’s will?
3. Finally, and this is by far the most important, we must not impose our human perspective on God’s plan or mind.
I have no doubt that the men mentioned above were brilliant and of good intent. Still, they got many things wrong and have led all of us astray as a result. Just think about something as straight forward as the numbering of years wrong.
Our planet Earth is just a dot in a Solar System that is just a speck in the universe. What made sense in a flat-Earth, Earth-centered universe makes much less sense given what we know today. Learning and God’s revelation of Himself and His plan is progressive.
We humans cannot begin to comprehend, much less define and fully understand our all-knowing, all-powerful and timeless God. This example of how we measure and account for time demonstrates the dangerous ground we tread when we attempt to do so.
Was Dionysius attempting to impose his need for order on God’s plan? Where else have we been led or gone astray because of the human need to know and control what belongs to God?
Alive in The Word