What’s in a Date?

In the light of all the celebrations and expenditure surrounding the start of the year we call 2000, it is easy to forget just how arbitrary our system of numbering is, and how artificial the so-called millennium really was.

Because we count in tens, years that end in a zero tend to acquire a significance in our lives. If they end in two or even three zeros they appear even more significant. On my 50th birthday last year, we had a party. No such party marked the 49th and I doubt that one will mark the 51st. Yet whilst such years provide a good excuse for a party, their significance is a direct result of our having evolved with ten fingers. It is interesting to consider which birthdays we would have celebrated had we evolved with four digits on each hand. Assuming that we had adopted a counting system using a base of 8, perhaps the big party would be on reaching 100, which would equal 64 in our system of counting.

Not only are these events an arbitrary effect of our counting system, they also lead us to celebrate a year too early. As most of the pedants in the world have pointed out at some time in past few months, the century, and the millennium, end on 31st December 2000, when 2000 years will have passed since the point which marks the start of the Christian calendar. However, such protestations of mathematical accuracy have been drowned out by the sound of the celebrations!

This point in time, which supposedly marked the birth of Christ, is itself the subject of considerable inaccuracy. It was calculated originally in about 535 A.D, when a scholar called Dionysius Exiguus (500-560) calculated that Christ had been born 535 years previously. At this time, dates were expressed in terms of the time since the founding of Rome, which they placed in the year we call 753 B.C. They called that year 1 A.U.C., which stands for Anno Urbis Conditae, meaning “the year of the founding of the city”. This system was used in Europe generally, and had it remained in use, would have led us to celebrate the year 2000 in what we call 1247 A.D.

About two and a half centuries after Dionysius made his calculations, Charlemagne, who ruled much of western Europe, decided that it would be much more pious to count the years from the birth of Christ, rather than the founding of the heathen city of Rome. This system spread through Europe, and from there was imposed on most of the rest of the world as European countries discovered and colonised other continents. Although other calendars are retained as part of various religious ceremonies, the Christian calendar remains the standard to this day for all international trade and navigation.

When Dionysius Exiguus made his calculations, however, he used the only material available to him, in the form of the biblical texts. The Bible does not give a clear indication of the chronology anywhere in the accepted books which it includes, and Dionysius can therefore be excused for the error which he made. The Bible does state that Jesus was born while Herod I ruled over Judea, and it is now known that he ruled from about 20 B.C to 4 B.C (749 A.U.C.) when he is known to have died. The millennium celebrations, on that basis, should therefore have taken place between 1980 and 1996!

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